Teaching about East Asian religions all too often presents them as artifacts of the premodern past. This can encourage students to assume that modernization has rendered the East Asian past, especially religious traditions, obsolete. Teaching with contemporary East Asian films is a way to remedy that oversight, challenge that assumption, and bring students into contact with East Asian religious cultures as living traditions in modern societies. Since contemporary East Asian societies have been shaped by what Chang Kyung-sup calls “compressed modernity” – a process by which “economic, political, social and/or cultural changes occur in an extremely condensed manner in respect to both time and space,” resulting in “the dynamic coexistence of mutually disparate historical and social elements” such as modernity and tradition (Chang 2010: 320) – films that explore the interplay between such “mutually disparate… elements” can be used as highly teachable “texts” in the classroom. Examples of such films include Jia Zhangke’s Tian zhuding (2013) and Shinkai Makoto’s Kimi no na wa (2016), which juxtapose traditions such as Confucianism, Chinese popular religion, and Shintō with critical views of social reality in contemporary China and Japan, respectively. These and other films depict the ways in which religious traditions continue to inform how contemporary East Asians negotiate and construct identity, memory, and power. Moreover, they show how these countries’ contrasting experiences of compressed modernity produced different kinds of interactions between modernity and tradition, which in turn explains why religion can look so different in these countries today.

This paper was part of a panel on “Teaching Asian Religions Through Film” presented at the Association for Asian Studies conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, March 24­–27, 2022. The panel offered concrete examples on how to adopt cinema and TV to discuss Asian religions, culture, and modernity in the classroom and contributed to the developing analysis concerning the use of visual media in Asian studies pedagogy.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.