Headshot of Professor Smith

Professor Stephen Smith

BA (Hons), MSocSc, PhD, FBA, FRHistS
Emeritus Fellow since 2019

I am currently completing two complementary but independent and self-standing books which are contracted to appear with Cambridge University Press.  Both are concerned with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the era of Mao Zedong, both deal with religion, and both combine political with social and cultural history. Both are concerned with what I call ‘supernatural politics’, i.e. those zones where the culture and politics of the CCP interacted, resonated or overlapped with folk religious culture (book 1); or, conversely, where ordinary people used folk belief and ritual to understand and contest the power of the state and, relatedly, sought to expand their power through recourse to non-visible entities (book 2). Both books are based on substantial work in archives in the PRC and on so-called neibu (for internal circulation only) publications -- sources that are now under restricted access. The fundamental aims of the two books, however, are quite distinct. The first, Supernatural Politics: Mao Zedong and the Drive to Eliminate Religion in China, 1949-79, focuses on the ideological and institutional policies of the CCP towards the five religions that it recognized, and towards folk religion, which it did not.  A central concern is to explore what the CCP’s very mixed record in seeking to eliminate religion tells us about the workings of the party-state and the limits of its power. The second volume, Communism in an Enchanted World: Chinese Folk Religion under Mao Zedong, focuses on the many dimensions of folk religion and on the ritual specialists who sustained it, and on the grassroots interventions of the CCP to eliminate what it called ‘feudal superstition’. A central concern is to explore how folk religion survived, despite prolonged ideological and political assault and, relatedly, how it accommodated to, and was shaped by, the prodigious socio-economic and political changes unleashed after 1949, and was poised to make a remarkable comeback after 1980.