As a Fire Beneath the Ashes: The Quest for Chinese Wisdom within Occultism, 1850-1949

Project: Dissertation

Research areas and keywords

UKÄ subject classification

  • Humanities
  • History of Religions

Keywords

  • Western Esotericism, Occultism, Chinese Religion, Construction of Tradition, Theosophy, Aleister Crowley, Albert de Pouvourville

Description

During the 19th century European colonial expansion, increasing trade and developing Christian missions shaped the relationship between China and the West. At the same time European and American scholars, philosophers and cultural theorists cultivated images of China which emphasized the perceived underdevelopment of Chinese society and culture. From Hegel to Weber, China was seen as a stagnant civilization, with little to teach the rest of the world.

Cultural evolutionists, sinologists and missionaries were not the only ones who took an interest in China during this period, however. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, there existed a network of movements, organizations and individuals, who, worried by what they perceived to be the escalating materialism of modern culture, looked for the source of a spiritual revival in what they understood to be the primeval wisdom of humanity. These occultists, as they often called themselves, searched for this wisdom in the pre-Christian cultures of antiquity as well as in the Christian Platonists of the renaissance. They looked for it in the rituals of initiatory societies and in the art of pre-Christian Europe; and they looked for it in the religious writings of India and China. The thesis excavates this occult fascination with China through a large collection of empirical sources, from the popular works of influential occult writers, like Helena Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner, to obscure pamphlets and periodicals. Focusing on textual sources, the thesis explores the occult understanding of Chinese culture as it emerges in articles, ritual instructions, paraphrases of Chinese texts and reviews of the works of influential sinologists. Based on these sources the thesis explores how occult writers incorporated China in complex narratives chartering the flow of historical traditions of ancient wisdom, thought to have survived from pre-history to the present day. Furthermore, it shows how occult writers cultivated a creative ambivalence to academic sinology, simultaneously being shaped by academic theories and interpretative models and launching a critique of the perceived Christian bias and “materialism” of academia. Finally, the thesis suggests that occult writers contributed to a broad cultural change in the image of China occurring in the early decades of the 20th century, prefiguring aspects of the New Age interest in Chinese religion as well as the utopian understanding of Chinese society developing in European Maoism.

Layman's description

As a Fire Beneath the Ashes explores late 19th and early 20th century occultism’s fascination with China through a large collection of empirical sources – from the popular works of influential occult writers, like Helena Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner, to obscure pamphlets and periodicals. Focusing on textual sources, the dissertation explores the occult understanding of Chinese culture as it emerges in articles, ritual instructions, paraphrases of Chinese texts and reviews of books by influential sinologists. Based on these sources the thesis explores how occult writers incorporated China in complex narratives chartering the flow of historical traditions of ancient wisdom, thought to have survived from pre-history to the present day. Finally, the dissertation suggests that occult writers foreshadowed a broad cultural change in the image of China occurring in the early decades of the 20th century, prefiguring aspects of the New Age interest in Chinese religion as well as the utopian understanding of Chinese society developing in European Maoism.
Short titleAs a Fire Beneath the Ashes
StatusNot started

Participants