Serai uses a number of taxonomies to organise content. Specifically, the taxonomies for languages, religions, and periodization can be used to tag your work and to index materials of various kinds. These are important ways of organising and sharing your content, so please use them. We recognise that these categories are intellectually fraught and historically contingent; nevertheless, we use them in order to enable scholarly conversations, to aid in searching Serai, and to organise and archive Serai's contents. Even partial and contested taxonomies are more useful than no taxonomies at all. Because these taxonomies are meant to be functional rather than final, we take a self-reflexive attitude towards them, committing to updating and revising them periodically.
For those curious to learn more about our taxonomic design or for more information on periodization, languages, or religion as analytic categories, there is more information under the relevant sub-headings below.
Using Tags and Taxonomies
Most content on Serai can be tagged, either with user-created tags or with those drawn from Serai's taxonomies. Although we construct Serai's taxonomies in anticipation of users' needs, they are flexible and we seek user input to refine and expand them. To keep contents organised, please use an existing tag instead of creating a new one if an existing tag serves your purposes. The aim of this suggestion is to avoid situations where there are multiple tags for a single topic. Please wait a few seconds while inputting tags because the autocomplete is not always responsive, due to server-side limitations.
If you see an area where the taxonomy could be changed or expanded, there are a few options: first, you may use the "suggest a term" box; second, you can create a new tag by typing it in the tag box; or third, you may start a conversation by writing a blog post or by contacting us.
Serai relies on three forms of periodization: centuries (CE), conventional historical distinctions such as medieval and early modern, and the dynasties of empires and kingdoms in Serai's scope. An item can be tagged with all three forms of periodization, meaning that the An Lushan rebellion (755 CE in China) for example could be tagged as "eighth century," "Tang dynasty (618-907)," and "medieval." The dynasty-specific periods are necessarily tied to geography, and as Serai's geographic scope widens, the number of dynasties covered will rapidly expand. We recognise that the geographies of dynasties shifted and that there can sometimes be considerable disagreement about dating the beginnings and endings of dynasties, but we include dynastic periodization because it remains a valid, indeed, necessary, form of periodization for several scholarly traditions. We look forward to updating dynastic periodization schemes as suit site members' needs.
Regarding the use of broader periods, we recognise that "medieval," "modern," "early modern," and so on are academic constructions rooted in specific disciplinary contexts, but are also terms with some utility. Davis (2008) has argued that constructions of the medieval as opposed to the modern work politically to create an image of the modern as rational and as a distinct rupture from the past. Chakrabarty (2000) and other postcolonial thinkers have made the point that these periodization schemes are fundamentally Eurocentric divisions made universal. That said, they are also commonly used and have a role in initiating scholarly conversations, even if they are fraught analytically. They are also useful for scholars wishing to discuss the construction of these periods (e.g. the construction of the medieval as an academic category).
There is a similar problem with regard to languages: the distinction between languages, dialects, idioms, registers, different periods of languages (e.g. "classical," "middle," "modern," etc.), and so forth is socially and historically constructed, and by choosing to represent one of them in the taxonomy we inevitably omit or subsume others. In addition, similar to the issue of dynastic periodization discussed above, expanding the geographic range of Serai leads to a rapid increase in the number of languages to be listed. For the time being, our strategy is to assemble a taxonomy that anticipates likely needs, while also being responsive to site members’ requests for specific new languages to be added to the taxonomy.
Like periodization and linguistic categories, religion is an analytically fraught category, with a history of different definitions and uses. There have been many scholarly attempts to define religion, with Geertz (1973) being one of the last universalizing definitions to see widespread use. More recently, several scholars have critiqued the ahistorical idea of religion as being a Eurocentric construct. Asad (1993) remains one of the most-cited critiques, providing an intellectual genealogy of the idea of religion as a modern European construct. His later work examines the entanglements between Christianity, the concept of religion, and the construction of secularism (see Buckser 2014 for a more detailed overview of Asad's works). Masuzawa's landmark volume, The Invention of World Religions (Masuzawa 2005), extends this genealogical project to the idea of "world religions," tracing the construction of religion to European theological discourses about Islam and Buddhism as possible analogues of, or rivals to, Christianity. The methods of Asad and Masuzawa are taken up in Nongbri (2013), who examines the early modern history of the word "religion" and the historical context of assumed predecessors, such as the Latin religio, in the late Antique Mediterranean. Josephson (2012) draws on Asad and Masuzawa to understand how the word and idea "religion" were translated into Japanese in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a language which previously had no term or concept for religion. In response to those who posit universal definitions for religion, like Geertz, intellectual historians like Asad, Masuzawa, Nongbri, and Josephson show how the idea of religion is constructed in relation to specific historical and discursive contexts.
This move towards genealogical and discursive understandings of the use of religion has also been taken up in the study of specific religious traditions. Regarding Chinese Buddhism, Sharf (2001; see the Prolegomenon and the Appendix) has shown how the modern categories of Chinese Buddhist studies (e.g. Pure Land, Chan, Huayan, Esoteric, etc.) are modern Japanese sectarian divisions that have been anachronistically projected onto medieval China, falsely imposing institutional and practical distinctions that did not exist. The case of Confucianism is still more fraught, with some scholars arguing that it was constructed by Jesuits in early modern China (Jensen 1997), and others showing how it has been over-generalised, with scholars using it to describe almost anything Chinese (Elman et al. 2002; see also the section on defining Confucianism in Goldin 2013). Religion as a concept, various religious traditions, and sects are all contingent and sometimes contested categories that cannot be taken as universal or ahistorical.
On a related note, a considerable body of scholarly literature has explored the use of religion as a disciplinary category. Jonathan Z. Smith remains one of the most cited scholars to discuss the use of religion as an analytic term, and his extensive work on the subject (e.g. Smith 1978, Smith 1982, Smith 2004) generally favours using the term "religion" as a higher-order concept, i.e. one that organises other concepts, rather than defining something in itself. He thus generally supports retaining "religion" as an academic, not descriptive, category suitable for initiating conversations between scholars.
Below is a select bibliography on religion as a historically constructed analytic category. Please note that this list does not include many seminal works that attempted to define religion as a universal category, such as those by Freud, Marx, and so on. The one exception is Geertz (1973), as he is critiqued by Asad. This bibliography is based in part on Buckser's annotated bibliography on religion (Buckser 2014), especially regarding Asad, and Goldin's bibliography on Confucianism (Goldin 2013).
Arnal, William E., and Russell T. McCutcheon. The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of ‘Religion’. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003.
———. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore [Md.]: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Buckser, Andrew. ‘Religion - Anthropology’. Oxford Bibliographies, 30 June 2014.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
Elman, Benjamin A., John B. Duncan, and Herman Ooms. ‘Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam’. In Rethinking ‘Confucianism’ and ‘Neo-Confucianism’ in Modern Chinese History, edited by Benjamin A. Elman, 518–54. UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 2002.
Geertz, Clifford. ‘The Interpretation of Cultures’. In Religion as a Cultural System, edited by Clifford Geertz, 87–125. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
Goldin, Paul. ‘Classical Confucianism’. Oxford Bibliographies, 22 April 2013.
Jensen, Lionel M. Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.
Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions, Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Nongbri, Brent. Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.
Sharf, Robert H. Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism: A Reading of the Treasure Store Treatise. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002.
Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Smith, Jonathan Z. Map Is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions. Leiden: Brill, 1978.
Smith, Jonathan Z. Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2004.