Asian Ethnology 81 1&2 | article Sectarians, Smokers, and Science The Zhenkongjiao in Malaysia and Singapore

Esmond Chuah Meng Soh

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Zhenkongjiao opium Chinese charities Chinese religion in Southeast Asia science sectarian religion

Based on historical research and ethnographic documentation, this article discusses the institutions, beliefs, and rituals of the sectarian religion the Zhenkongjiao in Malaysia and Singapore throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Although the Zhenkongjiao originally rose to prominence as a result of its opium rehabilitation tenets, the organizations described in this article have long abandoned such a premise and have realigned themselves to contemporaneous needs. In this study, I challenge previous scholarship that historicized the Zhenkongjiao within convenient rise-and-fall mythemes by showing how the Zhenkongjiao’s leadership had been proactively situating itself within changing ontologies, epistemologies, and social needs throughout these two centuries. In particular, by comparing and contrasting the Zhenkongjiao’s approach to “science” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I shed light on the agency exercised by the supporters of a Chinese sectarian religion, who demonstrated maneuverability in reigniting and recontextualizing interest in their activities.