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Anticlericalism in Comparison: China and West Europe

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Institute Of Historical Research

Malet Street

London, United Kingdom

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The workshop seeks to explore the relationship between anticlerical discourse and the role of religion in societies by putting anticlericalism in a broader historical and cultural context.


Clergy” in the Chinese context means ordained Buddhist monks, nuns and Taoist priests, since Buddhism and Taoism were the two main state-recognised institutional religions in imperial China. In Europe, of course, it means the Christian priesthood and monastic orders. China and Western Europe differed greatly in religious/ritual beliefs and practices, the role of institutional religions and the social status of the clergy. But anticlericalism existed in both cultures. Moreover, anticlerical satires in both cultures share certain motifs, including that of lecherous and money swindling clergy. Is this just a historical coincidence, or an expression of similar social forces? I do not mean to claim that there exists a single and universal anticlerical tradition or that there is any great similarity in the role of religion and clergy in both cultures, but a comparative approach will uncover some of the key factors which have shaped both civilizational experiences.


The workshop is focused around four central questions:

  1. Can we construct a viable concept of global “anticlericalism”?

  2. What was the role of Reformation in the history of anticlericalism? This issue will become clearer when late imperial China and medieval Europe are compared both horizontally and vertically.

  3. Did China undergo a process of “secularisation” from the mid-16th century? This should also shed some light on the much-discussed question of China’s “modernisation” in the absence of movements equivalent to the Enlightenment.

  4. How did social conditions contribute to the development of anticlerical discourse?

Speakers include:

  • Prof. Vincent Goossaert, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes  

  • Dr. Lars Laamann, Lecturer in the History of China, SOAS 

  • Dr. Antonello Palumbo, Senior lecturer in the religion of China, SOAS 

  • Dr. Junqing Wu, Past and Present Fellow, Institute of Historical Research 

  • Dr. Xiaofan Amy Li, Lecturer in comparative literature, University of Kent 

  • Dr. Ariel Hessayon, Senior lecturer, Goldsmith  

  • Dr. Bernard Gowers, Senior lecturer in medieval history, University of Oxford  

  • Prof. Julia Merritt, Associate professor in history, University of Nottingham 

  • Prof. R. I. Moore, Emeritus Professor, University of Newcastle 

  • Prof. Robert Swanson, Professor in History, University of Birmingham 

  • Prof. John Arnold, Professor in Medieval History, Birkbeck 

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Institute Of Historical Research

Malet Street

London, United Kingdom

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