Research Project


Mixin in Republican China

Prof. Dr. Iwo Amelung

"Superstition" (mixin) certainly belongs to the keywords of Chinese modernity. Like many other of those keywords, it was introduced to China from Japan at the end of the 19th century. Today, as part of the expression "feudal superstition" (fengjian mixin), it has become a powerful weapon for dealing with thinking and practices that are considered undesirable, harmful or dangerous by the Communist Party and the Chinese state. Condemning and fighting against ideas, practices and organizations, considered "heterodox", of course, has a long history in China. The traditional term xiejiao was extended to cover a range of activities deemed undesirable by the state. While xiejiao was still used during the Republican era and occasionally shows up today, quite clearly, mixin is considered the more modern and more powerful term.

While the different efforts of the Republican government to do away with "superstition" have been subjected to some research, most of this research has focussed on political actions, especially the various campaigns against superstition, particularly that initiated by the Guomindang-government in 1928. In contrast, I more narrowly focus on the conceptual problems involved. I will first consider the question of how the concept of superstition spread to China from the late 19th century from Japan. While the word mixin, of course, is the Chinese representation of a global phenomenon, I am of the opinion that a close examination of the process of translation will help us to understand the Chinese specifics of the situation. The second part of the project will focus on the evolution of the semantical field related to the term mixin during the Republican era. I will seek to focus especially on the relationship of the term with other keywords of Chinese modernity, such as "modernity", "religion", "progress", "enlightenment", "science" and "religion". I will put special emphasis on source-material related to the popularisation of science, since this is closely related to the great project of the modernization of China – as understood by the Chinese themselves during this time. I am particularly interested in the question of whether or to what extent the Chinese modernization project during the 1920s and 30s left room for practices which, if adopting a strict definition, would have been viewed as "superstition". Mixin thus is not merely viewed as a translation of "superstition/Aberglaube", but is understood as an evolving and actually quite dynamic Chinese concept, which – although based on Western and Japanese precedences – has acquired its own rather specific meaning, which however may have differed at different times. In passing, we may note here that this observation remains valid even today. Delineating mixin thus will enhance our understanding of certain practices – including divinational practices – are conceptionalized within the larger framework of the intellectual discourse of the time.

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