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The Glyphomancy Factor:
Observations on Chinese Conversion


This essay was originally prepared for a conference on conversion to Christianity. Many of the papers dealt in one way or another with Max Weber's classic distinction between "traditional" and "world" religions, with its link to such crucial issues as globalization. In many respects, my paper was the odd one out, arguing that individual believers have all sorts of reasons for conversion and all sorts of rationales that sustain their belief, and that one must not allow grand schemes, however elegant and however appealing to the international social science intelligentsia, to mask completely the sometimes intellectually implausible world(s) of the individual believers.

The uncomfortably non-conformist reality of individual motivations I termed "the glyphomancy factor," inspired by the case of a Christian convert in Taiwan who argued that Christianity had to be the one true religion because foreshadowings of it were to be found in a careful dissection of Chinese characters, known to be the source of true knowledge because very ancient.

My impression is that most of my fellow conferees found the idea a bit annoying.

Reprinted from:

HEFNER, Robert W.
1993 Conversion to Christianity: historical and anthropological perspectives on a great tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pp. 285-303

Footnotes have been placed adjacent to the paragraphs in which they are cited. Bibliographic references are on a separate page; the bibliography may be called up by clicking on a reference in the main text and may be dismissed by clicking anywhere on the bibliography itself.


The Glyphomancy Factor:
Observations on Chinese Conversion

David K. Jordan


  1. Part I. Conversion and the Nurturance of Faith
  2. Part II: Glyphomancy for Christians
  3. Part III: The Glyphomancy Factor and the Logic of Conversion
    1. Conversion is Conditional
    2. Healing and Conditionality
    3. Conversion Is Additive
    4. Conversion Involves Pantheon Interchangeability
  4. Part IV: Conclusion
  5. Part V: Epilogue

Part I. Conversion and the Nurturance of Faith

Acknowledgments: I am indebted to Kevin Birth, Stanley Tambiah, and especially Robert Hefner for their comments and advice about earlier drafts of this paper. Most of the research on which this paper is based was conducted in Taiwan in 1966-1968 under a grant from the National Institute for Mental Health, in 1976 with the financial assistance of the Chinese Cultural Center of New York, and in 1984-1985, when I was a Language and Research Fellow of the Committee on Scientific and Scholarly Cooperation with the United States, Academia Sinica, Republic of China. I am most grateful for this financial assistance.

This chapter is about voluntary religious conversion as I understand it to occur among Chinese in Taiwan. [Note 1] I doubt that much of what I have to say applies only to Chinese from Taiwan, but they are my data base.

1. Secondary reference is to the much greater cultural tradition of which Taiwan Chinese are only a small part, for, depending upon how "conversion" is defined, it seems to me that one can see it going back to the Neolithic.

The social science literature on voluntary religious conversion —I exclude constrained conversion— impressive as it is in considering the cultural and political context and effects of conversion, seems to me often to make simplistic assumptions about how converts themselves understand the process. My goal here is to introduce a note of caution in this regard by examining what individual converts have told me about how they have come to believe (and to keep believing) what they believe. Typically their stated reasons have little to do with the issues we model in our analyses. I label this badness of fit "the glyphomancy factor," after the specimen case with which I begin.

I conceive of "conversion" here as being a self-conscious change in more or less enduring religious belief and affiliation from one religious system to another. [Note 2] "Religious system" includes both a system of belief and a social structure of believers. Conversion is principally an individual activity, at least analytically, and our ideal type is the conversion of an individual, although of course when large numbers of people are involved we can also speak historically of conversion, as in the conversion of Latin America to Iberian Catholicism.

2. One loose end in this definition is the word "from," because I shall argue that conversion is often additive. I justify leaving in the "from," however, on the assumption that additive conversion precipitates a new integration of religious belief and affiliation for the believer. But I admit to being nervous about it.

The definition in itself says nothing about the motivations for the change —it is a change, no matter how motivated. And it says nothing about the extent of the change; the switch from Baptist to Presbyterian, because both belief and group are involved, constitutes conversion under this definition just as much as switching from Hinduism to Islam. The definition also does not build in any evaluation of the religions to or from which conversion occurs. It is not necessary to become a believer in a "world religion" to be a convert. [Note 3]

3. That difference, if it exists, is to be sought largely in long-term historical developments, I suspect, rather than in the experience of the individual convert.

Because conversion involves beliefs and believers, it is related to the general problem of creating and sustaining religious faith, that is, to creating and sustaining the salience both of religious belief and of membership in a community of believers. Thus our analysis of conversion involves us necessarily in the mechanisms of faith maintenance: emotions, routines, and rhetorics.

In this chapter I examine three characteristic (but not exclusive) features of Chinese conversion: conditionality of belief upon other beliefs, the additive character of conversion, and the tendency to equate new beliefs isomorphically with earlier ones (what I call "pantheon interchangeability"). These admittedly cover only part of the general problem of Chinese faith maintenance and hence of Chinese conversion, but a broader discussion is beyond the scope of this chapter. I begin by illustrating them with the striking if peripheral custom of glyphomancy. I do so not because glyphomancy is at all central to most Chinese faith maintenance or conversion, but rather because it illustrates these features simultaneously and constitutes a vivid example through which we can keep the issue of faith maintenance before us as we think about conversion more generally. .

By speaking of "the glyphomancy factor," I mean to stress the significance of the kinds of logics and experiences that believers themselves find compelling, and to suggest that we must incorporate those experiences into our higher-level "explanations" of changes in religious belief and affiliation. The expression "glyphomancy factor," then, is intended to be provocative.

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Part II: Glyphomancy for Christians

Most Chinese characters consist of more than one graphic element, and the segregation of the elements, (a process called fǎnqiè 反切 in Chinese) is sometimes used in school to help students remember them, or in speech to disambiguate homophones. For example, the common surname Lǐ can be described as made up of the two characters and , and accordingly if I ask Mr. Lǐ how to write his name, he may tell me that he is named mùzǐ Lǐ 木子李, by which he means that his name is written with that Lǐ character which can be segregated into elements and . In some, perhaps even most, cases the division in fact corresponds with the etymology of the character. In others, it is merely a matter of convenience. In cases like that of Mr. Lǐ , the division has become entirely conventional, whether originally etymological or not.

If Mr. Lǐ visits a fortune-teller to learn about his destiny, however, the fortune-teller may choose to look more closely at his name and to seek "hidden" characters in it, ones that are not conventionally construed as part of its etymology. The fortune-teller may tell him, for example, that Lǐ actually includes the (overlapping) elements "ten" , "eight" , and "son" , thus meaning "eighteen sons," or (depending upon other parts of the name) that he is destined to have many progeny. (The fortune-teller may then confirm this prediction by pointing out how many Lǐs there are in the world, for example.) The art of segregating the parts of a Chinese character to discover an esoteric meaning in them is referred to by the neogrecism "glyphomancy" (Mandarin: chāizì 拆字), and Chinese glyphomancy has been well described in a fascinating article by Wolfgang Bauer (1979), from whom I have borrowed the example of Mr. Lǐ.

Glyphomancy has long been the stock in trade of the lesser sort of Christian missionary in China or, among foreign missionaries, of the missionary's lesser sort of native assistant. Chinese Christian glyphomancy seeks to demonstrate that Chinese characters contain Christian symbolism and that Christianity is therefore a public manifestation of the same cosmological view esoterically enshrined in Chinese characters by the sages of antiquity. [Note 4]

4. The mythical creator of Chinese script is one Cāngjié 倉頡, commemorated today primarily by the widespread use of a computer coding system for Chinese characters named after him.

A Chinese word that Christians translate as "devil," for example, is guǐ (ghost, demon). Christian glyphomancy sees this as a combination of "field" (tián ) (understood esoterically as the Garden of Eden), "man" (ér ) (that is, the human voice of the Devil in Eden), and "private" ( ) (the clandestine approach to Eve).

The related Chinese word (demon, devil) is etymologically made up of guǐ and the simpler character (hemp), borrowed for its sound. is construed in Christian glyphomancy as placing the devil into the forbidden tree ( ), located next to the tree of life —hence two trees (lín )— the whole being under a cover (yǎn 广), referring, "of course," to secrecy. Thus a Christian interpretation allows us to understand that the ancient Chinese demon is none other than the Christian "tempter," just as a guǐ is. It also asserts that ancient Chinese inventors and users of the written language were perfectly well aware of this equivalence, and built the language in a way that would convey Christian truths to him who would but see. [Note 5]

5. The example comes from Kang and Nelson (1979:3-4). The authors explain: "It is the purpose of this book to propose, therefore, that the ancient Chinese people were quite familiar with the same record which the Hebrew Moses is popularly given credit for writing some 700-1,000 years later" (Kang and Nelson 1979:5). They argue that evidence of this kind demonstrates that ancient Chinese were monotheists, but that their proto-Hebraic religious system was destroyed in the Qín dynasty under the influence of Taoism and, later, Buddhism. I am grateful to Christian Jochim for bringing this book to my attention.

The use of Chinese analogies to Christian traditions (glyphomancy sensū latō) by no means occurred only early in the development of Christian missions in China. Consider the following conversation that I had in Taipei in 1985 with a college-educated Methodist whom I shall call Mr. Wáng: [Note 6] "Jesus' miracle of the five cakes and two fish," Mr. Wáng explained, "was something often done by ancient miracle workers in China, which is how we know that it really happened. It shows the connection between the Bible and Chinese tradition, for the two fish, pressed into a circle, are none other than the Yīn-Yáng 陰陽 symbol, and the five cakes are five because that corresponds with the five elements."

6. Mr. Wáng (a pseudonym) has a bachelor's degree in history from one of Taiwan's best universities and received his Christian education as an adult convert. He has been exposed to the non-Chinese world principally through his study of English, through contact with foreigners in the Methodist church or as a Chinese teacher at various times, and through a stay of a couple of years in Arabia. The "quotations" here are close paraphrases, from notes that I wrote from memory immediately after my conversation with him. Summaries of his logic that do not closely follow his words are not in quotation marks.

"In the West," I objected, "it is the small number of loaves and fishes rather than the numerology that impresses people."

"If you told Chinese that Jesus had performed the miracle with six or four cakes, they would never believe it," he answered, "for everyone knows that is impossible. Because he used five, people believe in his miracles, for everyone knows that great Taoists could multiply fives. They did it all the time."

"Do they still do it?"

"No, no; they did it in ancient times."

He proceeded with other examples of his analysis of the Christian tradition and rapidly moved into glyphomancy proper.

The Chinese character for "goat" or "sheep" occurs as part of various other characters, all with particularly positive meanings, such as "beauty" , "virtue" , and "devotion to duty" . The reason is that "goat/sheep" when occurring as part of another character actually means "Lamb of God." For example, the character for "loyal devotion to duty" is made up of "sheep" plus "myself" , because a person can acquire this virtue only as a result of his ego acting with the Lamb of God. [Note 7]

7. Of course, "sheep" is also an element in "rank smell" (shān ), "envy" (xiàn ), "itch" (yǎng ), "dried fish" (xiǎng ), and "meat soup" (gēng ).

"Further, the word chuán means 'ship' and is written with the character zhōu , also meaning 'boat', plus various clutter added at the right side. The clutter can be read as the characters meaning 'eight' ( ) and 'mouth' (kǒu )," Mr. Wáng maintained.

Thus it is clear that the ark (zhōu) of Noah, being a kind of chuán , contained eight mouths, namely, Noah's, his wife's, and those of his three sons and their wives. From this we see not only that Gospel truths are embedded in Chinese characters but also that we can't fully understand Christianity without proper attention to the esoteric meanings of Chinese script.

Religious interest in glyphomancy and related logics is not limited to Christians. Chinese sectarians (believers in the Unborn Mother, who dispatched the buddhas to save erring humanity) also make use of glyphomancy (and other linguistic esoterica) to legitimate sectarian views by finding them to be implicit in Chinese characters, the Chinese calendar, the five-elements theory, and the like. [Note 8]

8. An example of glyphomancy in a sectarian context from a Unity Sect post-initiation instructional session may be found in Jordan and Overmyer (1986:229-33).

This excursion into Christian glyphomancy is intrinsically interesting (or perhaps depressing), but it is also an introduction both to a logic of belief and conversion and to a strategy of evangelization. [Note 9] It is improbable that a social scientist would impute the conversion of Chinese to glyphomantic demonstrations or would describe Chinese Christian believing as belief in glyphomancy. This is not the sort of explanation we are used to, and it stands ignobly beside "relative deprivation," "the strains of modernization," "class oppression," and "anomie," or, for that matter, "rationalization," "hegemonism," and "the Protestant Ethic." Yet it is clear that Mr. Wáng finds glyphomancy a compelling demonstration of Christian truth: a reason to become a Christian, and a reason to remain one. And it is clear that he is not alone in following this kind of logic. If, because of glyphomancy, some believers either convert to Christianity (or sectarianism) or sustain a belief in it, then a model of conversion, evangelization, or believing ought to make space for such a logic. In choosing the expression "the glyphomancy factor," I hope to underline the problem of including glyphomancy and other similar phenomena in our understanding of conversion.

9. For present purposes, and somewhat contrary to its etymology, I use "evangelization" to name the process of inspiring someone else to change his religious belief or affiliation, regardless of the belief or affiliation being taken on or abandoned, reserving "conversion" and "converting" for what the new believer does. In this usage, Buddhist, Taoist, or sectarian recruitment is just as "evangelical" as Christian recruitment. I shall use the term "sect" to refer to a religious social group, including Christian churches when they are not explicitly contrasted with sectarian societies. By "sectarian societies" I refer to various Chinese "new religions" of the kind described by, among others, Jordan and Overmyer (1986) or those often tagged with the "genericized" name "White Lotus," originally the name of a famous pseudo-Buddhist sect.

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Part III: The Glyphomancy Factor
and the Logic of Conversion

The glyphomancy factor has three distinct qualities. None of them is found exclusively in glyphomancy; on the contrary, I suspect each has much wider application than just to Taiwan or China. But each of them is present where glyphomancy occurs, and for the Chinese case it is convenient to link them under that rubric.

First, glyphomancy asserts theological, philosophical, and sometimes historical priority of Chinese characters (or Chinese tradition) over what are perceived as "modern," "latter-day," or "foreign" doctrines. Thus sectarian (including Christian) "truth" is demonstrated by the congruence of sectarian teaching with the already established wisdom of Chinese tradition. An important implication of this is that there is a hierarchy of philosophical truth, in which the familiar is prior and superior to the unfamiliar, which is evaluated in its terms. I shall refer to this as the "conditional" quality of conversion.

Note that Mr. Wáng is making Chinese tradition the yardstick against which a foreign religion is evaluated. The distinction is by no means lost on him, and appealing to nativist tradition to justify exotic beliefs by domesticating them may resolve ambivalence about Christian foreignness. (There are other ways, such as joining a Taiwan denomination without foreign contacts.) Robert Hefner (personal communication) has suggested that the strength of the Chinese sense of ethnicity permits a lack of concern with the implications of potential institutional authority in one rather than another religion. This ingenious suggestion would account for cases like Mr. Wáng. Ethnicity probably was not an issue in conversion at all periods of Chinese history, however, whereas the glyphomancy factor seems to have operated continuously. The familiar and already legitimate seem to be used to justify the novel and not universally believed; ethnic identity would have become a factor only later.

Second, religious belief or practice to which an individual is converted is, in China, added to existing belief, without necessarily implying to the believer the subtraction of anything. Believing in the authority of a sectarian scripture does not have to diminish the believer's belief in the authority of another scripture. The assimilation of Christian cosmological understandings need not diminish belief in traditional Chinese understandings. I shall refer to this as the "additive" quality of conversion. It is by no means exclusive to China. [Note 10]

10. See Ranger (1978:487) for a Shona Catholic example.

Third, glyphomantic logic has a tendency to assert the equivalences of religious elements. Thus, the Hebrew god may be equated with the sectarian societies' Unborn Mother, and Gautama Buddha of Buddhism is equated with Mohammed in Islam, Láozǐ 老子 in Taoism, and so forth. In a less institutionalized sphere the patronage of one healing god may be substituted for the patronage of another; participation in one shrine festival is interchangeable with participation in another. I shall refer to this quality of conversion as "pantheon interchangeability," although of course not only the pantheon may be so treated.

It seems to me that conditionality, additivity, and pantheon inter-changeability are all important aspects of Chinese conversion and probably always have been. I concluded the introductory discussion of glyphomancy by suggesting that it was not peculiar to Chinese Christians, but that it has been a logic of Chinese philosophical persuasion for many centuries and in many contexts. The same, I believe, is true of conversion, and it would be shortsighted to build a model that does not cover the many cases in which conversion is not to Christianity or even Buddhism, [Note 11] for the "tradition" of conversion in China is part of the cultural background of the latter-day converts and colors the ways in which they convert and in which they believe.

11. It is my understanding that although there are many Muslims in China, they are, when ethnically Chinese, usually descendants of marriages with Central Asian immigrants, known collectively as the Huí "ethnicity"; they are not the products of evangelization (Dru C. Gladney, personal communication).

Conversion is not a new phenomenon in China, which has always been a country of religious sectarianism. Within different traditions the disciples of different masters have constituted themselves competing sects. The state has always encouraged a ritualistic and supernaturalistic element in all social life. And adherents of one or another cult have always competed with each other in claims of efficacy. [Note 12] Conversion in traditional China was not a matter of moving from belief in a community-based "traditional" religion to a universalistic, rationalized "world" religion. Conversion instead (or in addition) might include moving from seeking to cure one's arthritis by praying to Māzǔ 媽祖 to seeking to cure one's arthritis by buying a charm from a newly arrived "Taoist" worshiping an unknown jinn. It might include largely abandoning the worship of one's village gods and becoming a Buddhist cleric, actively worshiping only a subset of the pantheon one worshiped before. It might include joining a millenarian sect that redefined an otherwise obscure member of the pantheon as a supreme ruler of the universe. It might include becoming a perfervid follower of a spirit medium possessed by a deceased fellow villager, a local divinity, or an unknown supernatural. In some cases it might include joining a sect that included foreigners: Christianity, or in earlier times Buddhism itself, or more recently Baha'i or Tenrikyo. [Note 13]

12. "Cult" here refers not to a social group but to the system of belief and ritual centering upon a particular divinity. This is the same as English usage in such phrases as "the cult of the Virgin" but contrasts with such usage as "she joined a cult and had to be deprogrammed."

13. Tenrikyō 天理教 is a Japanese "new religion," based on a revelation in 1838. It has had missionary activity in Taiwan through much of this century. The present mission headquarters in Taipei was chartered by the Ministry of Interior in 1973. See Chang (1988) for a brief overview of this neglected movement in Taiwan religiosity. Islam, although most sinologists globally include it when speaking of "foreign" religions in China, does not seem to have been a proselytizing religion.

It is a useful simplifying assumption in generating theories of conversion, when applied to the non-Western world, to assume conversion from a unitary "traditional" religion to an intrusive "world" religion, with attendant "abandonment" of old religious beliefs (or with their residual continuation resulting in "syncretism"). But if it is appropriate to speak of someone in Albuquerque or Amsterdam "converting" from being a Catholic to being a Lutheran or from being a Lutheran to being a Unitarian, then I submit that it is equally appropriate to speak of conversion when a Chinese devotee of Guān Gōng 關公 joins a sect devoted to chanting Buddhist scriptures, for the commitment, the belief, the fervor, and the balance of participation in religious activities need not be any less or greater. [Note 14]

14. For exactly this kind of reason Travisano (1970) distinguishes between conversion and what he calls "alternation," a distinction that has, unfortunately, not become general in the literature on conversion.

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1. Conversion is Conditional

Glyphomancy is a logic of persuasion, a rhetoric. It is not the only rhetoric that figures in the establishment and sustenance of Chinese religious belief. For example, one might stress the role of divination and miracle making in this connection (e.g., Jordan 1990) as well as the combination of traditionalism and "goodness of fit" with village life in a rural context (Jordan 1972). But persuasion, like nagging doubt, is a constant and inevitable process for a believer in a society in which there is variation in belief (or in intensity of belief ), and therefore persuasion necessarily proceeds with at least some reference to evaluative criteria external to the religious system being defended. (This is not to say that such criteria are or need to be "fairly" or "objectively" applied, only that they are normally believed to be.) This makes something like conditionality more or less inevitable, at least in China.

The underlying logic of conditional conversion is that a proposed new religious belief or activity is evaluated against a belief that one already holds and that the innovation can be rejected if it is regarded as incompatible. I spent 1976 living in one of Taiwan's oldest Buddhist monasteries. [Note 15] Eventually I was treated to the assistant abbot's account of how he came to be a Buddhist monk. He had been something of a playboy in high school and had failed to gain admission to a university, but he had hoped to defer military service by becoming a student anyway. He was eventually admitted to a Christian theological seminary, where he studied for a couple of years. When he finished there, he did his military service, during which he became disillusioned with Christianity. After his time in the army he entered a Buddhist monastery for brief religious training, then took vows and became a monk. This move involved withdrawal from the social world of his former army buddies, only one of whom would tolerate his presence thereafter, because monks have very little prestige in Taiwan.

15. Residence in the monastery was more or less accidental. It afforded the possibility of incidental observation of monastic routines and informal interaction with resident clerics, but my research program did not focus on monastic Buddhism.

The compelling logic by which he rejected Christianity and embraced Buddhism, he told me, was represented in one inescapable fact: In Christianity there can be but one Christ, but in Buddhism we can all become buddhas. Thus Christianity is inherently inegalitarian (and wrong), whereas Buddhism is inherently egalitarian (and right).

Of course, there are many other differences between Buddhism and Christianity, and one could imagine the committed believer of either faith finding any of them an obstacle to conversion to the other. Yet the assistant abbot had no such compunctions. The overwhelming difference was that of egalitarianism; all else was so much detail in faith and practice. I do not know how the assistant abbot developed such a conviction about the importance of human equality (although it is much stressed in Taiwan's schools), but it was for him the logic by which the would-be ultimate moral authority of Buddhism and Christianity could be weighed against each other. His belief in Buddhism was, in other words, "conditional" in the sense that its ultimacy was subordinate to the ultimacy of his belief in egalitarianism.

Not all conditions need be so cerebral. Max Heirich (1977) has shown the force of one's social milieu in making conversion a viable course of action, and this is surely as true of Chinese populations as of others. Thus college students in Taipei are overrepresented among new converts to Christianity. Although there are a number of possible reasons for this, surely once Christian conversion is an established phenomenon, the world of the college student provides a social structure within which it is more probable than in groups where Christians are less well represented.

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2. Healing and Conditionality

Beyond overarching logics and social pressures, responsiveness to healing may be a condition of conversion. Physical healing is an important aspect of Chinese religion, as of nearly all religion through nearly all of human history. Chinese temples are repositories of oracles and charms relating to health, and the Chinese pantheon is replete with senders of plagues on the one hand and with healers and controllers of plagues on the other. Further, Chinese medicine is informed by cosmological imagery and by vocabulary intimately related to the cosmological elaborations of fortune-telling, "astrology," and Taoist liturgy. (See, for example, Saso 1972.)

The success or failure of a therapeutic method, particularly a medical therapy, is an important logic both for conversion and for sustained loyalty to a particular cult, sect, or system of practice. [Note 16] Because no single therapeutic system could be consistently effective, most Chinese used a variety of kinds of medical and religious treatments. For any given experience of illness, the means of healing available were arranged in a hierarchy of resort determined by the patient's beliefs about available therapies, their costs in time, energy, or social status; and by the patient's understanding of the illness or other disorder requiring attention. Specialists were consulted both because of their known expertise and because of an estimated probability of the kind of diagnosis that they would make. [Note 17]

16. Traditional Chinese illness and healing are not necessarily medical. In the religious sphere of healing, anyway, they include a range of individual and family "inharmonies" that may or may not be medical. Financial reverses are a conspicuous example. Traditional religious healing was often directed toward the correction of both medical and non-medical "inharmonies" simultaneously.

17. The concept of a hierarchy of resort originates with Lola Romanucci Schwartz (1969), using data from the Admiralty Islands. Although Schwartz is particularly concerned with shifts in hierarchies of resort in connection with modernization, the concept is far more widely applicable and provides one of our most effective conceptual tools for describing the hierarchical decision tree governing selection among alternative available therapies.

Traditional Chinese religion always provided a wide variety of means of healing, luck changing, and the like, and individuals moved from one to another as success or rumors of success seemed persuasive. Since few systems of healing were repudiated entirely, "conversion" was often a matter of a shifting hierarchy of resort, placing the therapeutic system of one's new religious affiliation above that of old ones. This attitude probably still holds. In the 1960s, Christian missions were enjoying a success in Taiwan that they have had neither before nor since. I took to asking (non-Christian) informants why people converted to Christianity. The most common reply was that conversion was associated with the use of Christian hospitals. In some cases the hospitals were perceived as more accessible to "insiders." In others the conversion was regarded as the natural result of successful healing at a Christian hospital. (Compare the lifelong devotion of some healed patients to the cult of one or another traditional god credited with the healing.) Conversion, in other words, was "conditional" upon the effectiveness of the therapeutic system associated with the religion. [Note 18]

18. The therapeutic system did not, apparently, need to be regarded as doctrinally or philosophically related to the sponsoring religion. Most of my Taiwan informants were aware that "Western" medicine was not necessarily "Christian" medicine, even when it came from a mission hospital. But, one informant explained, "If you want to use their hospital, it is embarrassing not to be a Christian." Today the association of modern style hospitals with Christian missions is much weaker.

Other benefits of conversion to Christianity were probably also part of a hierarchy of resort, although less directly medical, and therefore perhaps less well described by that term. James A. Collignon (1981) reflects on the stagnation and slight decline of the Catholic church's success in evangelization in Taiwan after it discontinued its postwar program of distributing relief goods. He speaks of "rice Christians," who left the church when it no longer offered any material benefit. [Note 19] Although in retrospect their conversions may be dismissed as somehow not genuine, there was little doubt at the time of the success of missionary efforts. I would submit that what was involved was simply conditional conversion, the condition being the success of the system of solving problems and its elevation in a hierarchy of resort. [Note 20] The conversion may also have been additive (and hence reversible), and the effective mechanism may have been pantheon interchangeability, subjects to which we now turn.

19. Joseph Huang (1988:28-29) writes: "A wave of conversions in the 1950's brought the number [of believers] to approximately 300,000 by 1970. …membership currently stands at 292,000." Gwo (1980:32) provides the following membership figures for major Taiwan Protestant churches: Presbyterian, 210,000; Assembly Hall (a Taiwan-based denomination), 50,000; True Jesus (a Taiwan-based denomination), 25,000; China Baptist Convention, 15,000; Seventh-Day Adventists, 5,500. In 1980 the total number of denominations was 57; the total number of believers, (approximately) 310,000 (or 1.6 percent of the Taiwan population).

20. Today many Protestant missionary denominations in Taiwan offer free or cheap English lessons taught by American volunteers. In view of the high material level that Taiwan has achieved, English lessons (associated with high-paying jobs) are clearly more valuable than relief goods. Were the supply of native English speakers to be cut off or were mission or government policy to prohibit this instruction, a good many "English-class Christians" might be revealed by their defections, and once again religious conversion would be found to be conditional, based on a system of religious —in this case religious-institutional— remedies for the "inharmonies" of life. To the best of my knowledge, this possibility has not been studied, however.

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3. Conversion Is Additive

By conversion being additive, I mean simply that much Chinese conversion has involved the addition of beliefs and practices, not their replacement. To the extent that religion intergrades with other aspects of life and therefore has uncertain boundaries, this is probably true of all religious conversion. And in any case, there is almost certainly a continuum in the extent to which converts do or do not abandon old beliefs, particularly if they are not seen as significantly competing with "equivalent" new ones. It is not unusual for Chinese sectarian societies to encourage members to prefer a society's oracles to outside ones (or actively discourage the use of outside ones) and to claim peculiar importance for the society's cult objects. But at least in Taiwan, a sectarian society rarely prohibits all participation in nonsectarian religious activities.

The Compassion Society (described in Jordan and Overmyer 1986, chs. 6-8) is a case in point. The society centers on the nonexclusive worship of a deity referred to as the "Golden Mother of the Jade Pool" (Yáochí Jīnmǔ 瑤池金母), and members are encouraged to refer to her simply as "Mother." My notes are full of touching tales of her nurturing her followers, and association with her cult has undoubtedly transformed the world-views of at least some of the sect's converts. But this sect celebrates popular Taoist rites and performs Buddhist chants as acts of merit, and the sectarian temples not only include the statues of other popular deities but are also proud to carry their goddess in a palanquin in local community festivals in the same way that other deities are carried. Although membership in the Compassion Society inhibits individual participation in some other religious institutions, the limitation is by no means absolute. And although the society claims that the Golden Mother is prior to other gods, the rest of the pantheon is not displaced by her position, nor is its worship prohibited.

My monastery, being an orthodox Chán ("Zen") establishment, might also have been expected to purge its believers of attachment to competing popular forms of worship. On the contrary, it housed certain venerable local josses that had no connection with Buddhism but who had been deprived of their proper temple during Japanese rule in Taiwan, when one of the statues was also repainted to look like a different god to avoid Japanese persecution. The god, still incognito, occupies a prominent side altar in the monastery, where he entertains yearly visits from emissaries of subordinate temples founded from his original temple. The abbot found it embarrassing to explain to a foreigner why this "un-Buddhist" deity was enshrined in the temple and its "un-Buddhist" devotees were tolerated. At the same time, his presence was clearly not regarded as threatening, but merely deviant. Monastic Buddhism does normally maintain a certain distance from other manifestations of Chinese belief. But it is a rare lay Buddhist, in my experience, who is not also at least in part a believer and participant in non-Buddhist Chinese religious traditions as well. Even becoming a Buddhist nun, while it may commit one enough to Buddhism to make non-Buddhist practice unnecessary or undignified, does not require that one regard non-Buddhist religious belief or practice as invalid.

Despite the intention of foreign missionaries of Christianity, Chinese Christians have always tended to regard it too as additive rather than substitutive and to expect a continuity that purists avoid. Gwo Yun-han, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Taipei, sees this as an evangelical problem:

In the [Protestant] Christian churches no icon is provided for people's eyes to see, nor is there anything similar to what is found in the temples or shrines. Therefore when a Chinese person happens to go into a Christian church, a certain kind of negative reaction automatically occurs. Sometimes the walls of a church building can literally fence the people away from Christianity. [Gwo 1988:34]

The concept of a supreme god has not been problematic, because the pervasive bureaucratic metaphor of Chinese religion easily admits of a top figure (whose names are many). Historically, problems arose instead when Christian practice struck Chinese as orthogonal to highly cathected Chinese rites (hence unable to displace them) and seemed to missionaries to conflict with them. The prime example, of course, is the practice of ancestor worship, and the famous "rites controversy" that ended in the collapse of the Jesuit enterprise in China in the early eighteenth century when Clement XI, having established that Chinese ancestor worship constituted "worship," prohibited it to Chinese Christians. [Note 21]

21. Clement XI also prohibited use of the old Chinese titles Tiān (Heaven) and Shàngtì 上帝 (Supreme Emperor) as translations of Deus to avoid assimilation of the two "different" concepts of ultimate divinity. A Vatican decree in 1939 finally permitted Chinese Christians to take part in ancestral rites and in state rites for Confucius. This was reinforced by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which actively encouraged the nativization of liturgy where possible.

With the new flexibility of Vatican II, Taiwan Catholics by the middle 1960s had churches modeled on temples, incense sticks interchangeable with those of temples, and ancestral tablets both for congregations and for families (albeit worded slightly differently from the non-Christian equivalents). One foreign priest enthusiastically told me in 1968 that he was encouraging people in his parish to refer to the church as the "God temple" (Tiānzhǔ miào 天主廟) rather than by the usual Chinese Christian expression "God hall" (Tiānzhǔ táng 天主堂) because it would grant the local church the legitimacy of being a real temple.

That this may represent a degree of syncretism is trivially true. To the extent that Chinese forms of architecture and liturgy were superficially wedded to Catholic ones, it was syncretic. [Note 22] More subtly, however, the enthusiasm with which Chinese Catholics erected home altars and set up ancestral tablets suggests that official Catholicism had long been overlooking or resisting the additive quality of the Chinese conversion process, by which the logic and appeal of the cult of ancestors had by no means been superseded in pious Catholics, even when it had been successfully suppressed, or by which would-be converts were repelled by the inscrutable need to replace ancestral rites.

22. Advocates of Catholic sinification insisted that no compromise was being made with Catholic dogma, but that only the superficial trappings that represented the Universal Church in its parochially European manifestation were being modified. In contrast, an American Protestant missionary told me that he found the Catholic changes deceptive. "Conversion must be a change in the very core of one's being," he argued. "Outward differences can be a symbol of this. It is not doing anyone any good to pretend that being a Christian does not involve change. Yet these sinified churches suggest exactly that." (Perhaps only inadvertently in concert with this logic, his wife taught converts American English and gave occasional lessons in American cooking.)

Some aspects of traditional religion had been displaced by Catholicism. But I would argue that the process had also been additive and that the resultant syncretism is in fact a realistic recognition of conversion's additive character. I do not know whether Catholics, like our Methodist informant Mr. Wáng, practice glyphomancy. But it is clear that the glyphomancy factor remains relevant.

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4. Conversion Involves Pantheon Interchangeability

Reference has already been made to the substitution of one deity for another. So adherents of the Golden Mother claim a parallelism among Láozǐ in Taoism, Jesus in Christianity, Confucius in Confucianism, and so forth. Similarly, changes can be made in what Roberts, Chiao, and Pandey (1975) have referred to as a believer's "personal pantheon." I isolate this phenomenon for particular discussion because most Chinese conversion probably fits this model most closely.

As a typical case, let us imagine a believer who is a special devotee of a certain god. He petitions the deity for assistance with something and does not receive an obvious response. At the urging of friends or relatives, he takes his petition to a different shrine. (Or he happens to visit another shrine and simply offers a prayer.) This time he receives a response and then shifts his allegiance to the newly discovered shrine or deity. Some of Taiwan's proudest temple buildings were constructed with money contributed by the beneficiaries of such abrupt changes of fortune. We can appropriately describe this as conversion, because the believer has shifted to a new temple such institutional affiliation as Chinese popular religion provides and has changed the name of the god whom he believes to be his benefactor. If the shrine happens to be a sectarian one, he may take on a few sectarian terms, behaviors, or doctrines.

A Methodist probably makes fewer adjustments in converting to Christian Science. Yet in the Euro-American arena we speak of such a change easily enough as conversion, while in Chinese cases of the kind just described we hesitate over our suspicion that the underlying intellectual and emotional system of the believer is too little changed to merit the term. In many cases the doctrinal system (to the extent that it matters to him) is also little changed. This kind of substitution of one deity for another (or one shrine for another or one under-cathected dogma for another) is an everyday occurrence among my Chinese informants, many of whom tell of miraculous changes of luck associated with one or another shrine or divinity, but few of whom speak of transformations in their view of the cosmic order of things.[Note 23]

23. It is unclear to me the extent to which we can regard the followers of the Golden Mother (and similar sectarian developments) as internalizing a cosmological understanding different from that of non-Golden-Mother religious Chinese. The Golden Mother belief certainly entails an apocalyptic vision and a cosmic myth of great distinctiveness. At the same time, the ordinary pantheon remains relatively intact, merely being subordinated to the historically and bureaucratically superior Golden Mother. Priestly Taoism has always taught that the popular pantheon was subordinate to esoteric Taoist figures, so the idea is hardly unfamiliar. And the theme of changes of kalpas is already familiar from popular Buddhism, even though it is not similarly stressed. For some sectarians a distinctive change of cosmology has apparently occurred. For others only pantheon interchange seems to have gone on. Some converts, it would seem, are more converted than others.

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Part IV: Conclusion

Conversion is nothing new in China. Conversion back and forth among competing religious alternatives at all levels has been a constant option through most of Chinese history. Perhaps as a long-term adaptation, conversion has itself become part of the popular religious system, which has expanded to "contain" the notion of alternative standards of faith and practice among which conversion occurs. Traditionally, most Chinese conversion was probably "additive" (it did not require abandonment of old beliefs, merely their subordination to new ones); it was "conditional" (adherence to a religious regimen was conditioned by external standards of evaluation, such that the new religious system was not, at least initially, ultimate but was accepted only if congruent with an outside standard); and it probably normally involved "pantheon interchangeability" (loyalties were shifted from one cult or sect to another with little dramatic change in cosmology or values).

China, said to have domesticated Buddhism and largely to have resisted Christianity, has tamed conversion as well. If this puzzles us, it is because we so rarely allow for the glyphomancy factor. The term "glyphomancy factor" is intended to underline that traditional Chinese conversion (which provides the model for much modern Chinese conversion) rarely involved the exclusivity that seems implicit in the word "conversion" as used in colloquial English. As a result, the constant Chinese shifts of emphasis and balance among religious alternatives are readily ignored by analysts, and "real" conversion is sought only in switch of allegiance to a "world religion" outside the sphere of traditional Chinese belief altogether. Conversion is then seen as a shift from "traditionalism" to "rationalism" or the like. Such a change may be a sign of profound societal alienation and possibly psychopathology, but at least it is "real" conversion.

In Taiwan (and China more broadly), however, conversion to so-called world religions does not always give evidence of being qualitatively different from conversion among traditional alternatives. This is not to say that modern Chinese Christians or Muslims have the minds of Míng dynasty Taoists; they do not. Neither, however, do modern Taoists. China in general and Taiwan in particular are hardly immune from the currents of thought and practice that blow over the modern world, and Taiwan is indeed a major center for the scientific and technological revolution that was once imagined to be "Western science" and is still sometimes so described. But the changes that sweep the Chinese worldview do not seem to be closely associated with Chinese religious conversion so much as with the subtler transformations brought upon us all by technological change on the one hand and political change on the other.

How Chinese is all this? Does the glyphomancy factor turn up elsewhere? Clearly it does. A wide range of papers on contemporary religious conversion, from Indonesia (Geertz 1964, Hefner 1987) to Africa (Horton 1971, Ranger 1978) stress that "traditional" religion in these areas is hardly inflexible, nor are "world" religions more "modern," "rational," or "worldly" than traditional religions would probably have evolved to be in the context of "modern" circumstances.

If the glyphomancy factor can be suspected behind most voluntary religious conversion, is there anything special (besides glyphs) in its Chinese manifestation? I doubt it. Rather, our models of voluntary conversion have been social rather than psycho-cultural, focused on such variables as political power and ethnicity (and hence the "strategies" of conversion) rather than on the converting individual's sense of well-being or of place in the cosmos. Politics and ethnicity have their roles in Taiwan conversion, too, especially in modern non-Chinese sects like Tenrikyo and various non-native Christian denominations. Indeed, a certain social éclat comes with being a Baptist college student. But the glyphomancy factor emerges in the process of coming and continuing to believe rather than in the process of affiliation. As we seek this process elsewhere, the glyphomancy factor will undoubtedly raise its head and peer back at us.

Is the expression "world religion" then useful at all? From the perspective of individual motivation, probably not. Buddhism, a "world religion," is entirely traditional in China, despite widespread historical knowledge that it is not of Chinese origin. Are Taiwan Buddhists more "worldly" than followers of local syncretistic sectarian societies? Is a conversion from Buddhism to Tenrikyo different by definition from a conversion from Golden Mother worship to Tenrikyo or a conversion from Tenrikyo to Buddhism? I think not. The more important issue by far is what is changed in the conversion, how much, for whom, and with what effect. I suspect that for the believer most conversion most of the time is glyphomantic. If so, the faiths to and from which the individual moves are analytically interchangeable. If we are concerned with believing, then our analytical concern needs to be with the character of the conversion experience, not with the beginning or end faiths.

Part V: Epilogue

"Some people think it is curious that Jesus was not Chinese," Mr. Wáng told me.

"That the Christian message was late coming to China is Cain's fault. When Cain, the agriculturalist elder brother, killed Abel, the pastoralist younger brother, he fled to China, where he taught people agriculture. That was good. But he was unable to communicate the true doctrine because he was wicked. (Agriculture was later wrongly credited to [the culture hero] Shénnóng 神農. It remained for missionaries from the lands of pastoralists to sort out the true history.) This left Chinese to wallow in superstition and Satan worship. Most Chinese do not even know that they are worshiping Satan. However, this is clear from the Book of Revelation, which speaks of Satan as an "ancient snake" (gǔshé 古蛇), which is clearly a reference to the dragons that Chinese portray everywhere. Chinese fondness for dragons (inadvertent Satan worship) is responsible for Chinese history being plagued by millennia of war, while the Christian lands of the West have had centuries of peace.

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