Introducing “Anticlericalism in comparative perspective: China and West Europe”

By Junqing Wu (Organiser and Past & Present Junior Research Fellow)

“Anticlericalism in comparative perspective: China and West Europe” will take place at the Institute of Historical Research on 8th October. The Workshop is kindly supported by the Past and Present Society and the Institute of Historical Research.

The workshop seeks to explore the relationship between anticlerical discourse and the role of religion in society by putting anticlericalism in a broader historical and cultural context. It explores the topic of anticlericalism in a comparative manner; situating it as a critical element in social and cultural life of both China and western Europe.

“Clergy” in the Chinese context means ordained Buddhist monks, nuns and Taoist priests, Buddhism and Taoism being the two main state-recognised institutional religions. In Europe, of course, it refers to the Christian priesthood and monastic orders. China and western Europe differed greatly in religious/ritual beliefs and practices, in the role of institutional religions and in the social status of the clergy, but anticlericalism existed in both cultures. Moreover, anticlerical satires in both cultures share certain motifs, including tropes of a lecherous and venal clergy. Is this historical coincidence, or an illustration of similar social forces at work? We need not postulate a single and universal anticlerical tradition, but a comparative approach will uncover some of the key factors that have shaped both civilisations.

The popular literature of mid-late 16th century (late Ming Dynasty) China witnessed an unprecedented increase in negative images of Buddhist monks and (less frequently) nuns and Taoist priests. This tendency lasted to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and was even influential in the post-imperial era. How should we understand the nature of this anticlericalism? Was there anything in late imperial China comparable to the Reformation and Enlightenment, both of which greatly contributed to the development of anticlerical discourse in Western Europe?

The workshop shall be divided into four sessions, each featuring one Chinese and one European specialist. The first session “Clergy and Laity” will compare the general relationship between the clergy and laity of the two cultures. The second session “Anticlerical or Pro-clerical?” will compare pre-Reformation critiques of the Christian clergy and late Ming polemics against Buddhist clerics. It aims to provoke a discussion of whether we can define pre-Reformation European and late Ming Chinese polemics against the clergy as “anticlerical”. The third session “Themes and Motives” will look into a few common themes of anticlerical discourse and compare the social forces behind them. The last session “Anticlericalism and secularisation” will discuss post-Reformation European anticlericalism and early 20th century Chinese polemics against the clergy. It will look at the relationship between “modernity” and “anticlericalism” in both cultures.

Confirmed Participants Include:

Professor John Arnold, Birkbeck College London
Professor Vincent Goossaert, the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes
Doctor Bernard Gowers, University of Oxford
Doctor Ariel Hessayon, Goldsmith College London
Doctor Lars Laamann, SOAS London
Doctor Xiaofan Amy Li, University of Kent
Professor Julia Merritt, University of Nottingham
Professor R. I. Moore, University of Newcastle
Doctor Antonello Palumbo, SOAS London
Professor Robert Swanson, University of Birmingham
Doctor Junqing Wu, Institute of Historical Research

As a whole, the Workshop will focus on the following questions: 1) Can we construct a viable concept of global “anticlericalism”? 2) What was the role of Reformation in the history of anticlericalism? – a question that comparisons with China might help clarify. 3) Did China undergo a process of “secularisation” from the mid-16th century? 4) How did social conditions contribute to the development of anticlerical discourse? 5) What is the contemporary legacy of anticlericalism?


Facade of Senate House ( by Josh Allen, all rights reserved)

Facade of Senate House ( by Josh Allen, all rights reserved)

The workshop is principally aimed at academics and research students, particularly historians of religion, but is open to all. Registration, which is free, has now opened and will close on the 24th September. Informal enquiries can be emailed to

Past & Present is pleased to support this event and others like it. We welcome funding applications from historians of all fields and time periods at any stage in their career. More information can be found here.

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