Summer School 2014


10.08.14 - 17.08.14

A spirit house in the commercial district of Bangkok. Thailand. Photo: Katarzyna Ancuta

Men pray and sit on the floor of the Istiqlai Mosque in Jakarta. Indonesia. Photo: Alie Poedjakusuma.

Qingming Festival in Singapore. Photo by Eneko Ertz.

The Balance - a man prays at a mosque next to the Bank Nasional Indonesia skyscraper. Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Wawan Wahjudianto.


10.08.14 Tagungszentrum an der Sternwarte (Historic Observatory conference venue).
University of Göttingen


A CETREN project in cooperation with the BMBF-funded research network on “Dynamics of Religion in Southeast Asia” (DORISEA).



*LILY KONG (National University of Singapore)

*DAN SMYER YÜ (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen)

*DAVID A. PALMER (University of Hong Kong)

*JULIUS BAUTISTA (National University of Singapore)


*SANJAY SRIVASTAVA (Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi)

*MICHAEL DICKHARDT (University of Göttingen)



Modernisation was long believed to result in secularism. Yet, Asian modernities refute this thesis as euro-centric. Far from becoming secular, Asian societies see a revival, a reformulation and transformation of religion in modernity, as well as striking religious dynamics. Religion is not an antithesis to modernity but is in complex interaction with it. With modernity implying far-reaching social, political, and economic changes, it results in new aspirations but also in new constraints, fears and moral panics. These are articulated and addressed in religious practices and ways of expression, in new concepts of religion or, in extreme cases, in acts of religiously motivated violence. This Summer School brings the contexts of “religion” and “urbanity” to the centre stage.

Cities are spaces of longing in Asia, promising a modern lifestyles, economic opportunities, global connectedness, education and upward social mobility. At the same time, they stand for the loss of social and economic safety nets, for changing norms and values and the loss of close social relationships. Religious life in the city is an answer to these hopes and fears and to the changing social make-up of communities.

The Summer School will engage with urban spaces and religiosities through case studies especially in India, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines. While paying attention to the specific context and ethnographic details of the case studies, the Summer School will also make visible their transnational and transurban connections, as urban spiritual lives and spirit worlds have been informed by the changing cultural maps of migration, adaptation, and transformation across Asia. Metropolitan centres are particular receptacles and laboratories for such global encounters, as they interweave with middle-class consumer power and diasporic identities.

The Summer School therefore invites participants to engage with, and develop, their own work through an exploration of three key thematic intersections, including (1) transformations of religious sites in contexts like architecture, city planning, heritage, urban place-making and re-habitation; (2) religious communities, in which different classes, castes, generations, ethnicities and genders intersect; and (3) religion and media, exploring how spirituality is visualised, sensed, communicated, staged or experienced across urban landscapes. With this explicitly transurban focus, we also acknowledge the growing imperative for a “global-studies” perspective in postgraduate research, through which new demands are placed on students to manage the disciplinary boundaries of “regional” or “area studies”, while wondering what actual research tools they need to do so effectively and competently within the limited time frame of a thesis.


Keynotes and morning lectures will provide theoretical frames and ethnographic snapshots from diverse Asian cityscapes. The summer school’s main focus, though, will be on small working and reading groups moderated and mentored by each of the invited speakers over two-day units. Participants will have the opportunity to introduce their own work, especially through a poster but we do not expect full presentations. Instead, students will be invited to use the working groups to connect their research to each of the three theme blocs to develop new ideas and learn new approaches for their own work. As a follow-up to the summer school, we will also feature an essay competition for interested participants, with the best paper selected for submission in an edited volume prepared by DORISEA in 2014.


DORISEA and CETREN are two key platforms building research, network and outreach capacities in the study of religions at the University of Göttingen. Bringing together scholars in the humanities and social sciences for inter-disciplinary dialogue, the networks in particular foster an appreciation of regional diversity and intra- and cross-regional entanglements in Asia. With DORISEA’s expertise on Southeast Asia and CETREN’s core competence in China and India, both networks will join creative forces and pool their academic networks to organise this summer school.




Lily Kong, National University of Singapore

Death and its rituals in urban Asia

In many Asian cities, particularly those that confront increasing land scarcity, the conversion from burial to cremation has been encouraged by state agencies in the last several decades. From Hong Kong to Taipei to Singapore, planning agencies have sought to reduce the use of space for the dead, in order to release land for the use of the living. The more secular guiding principles regarding efficient land use in these cities had originally come up against the symbolic values invested in burial spaces, resulting in conflicts between different value systems. In more recent years, however, the shift to cremation and columbaria has been marked, and even voluntary, for example, in Hong Kong, where private providers offer creative and expressive options in new columbaria. In still more recent years, even columbaria have become overcrowded, and sea burials (the scattering of ashes in the seas) are being encouraged, as are woodland burials (the scattering of ashes in woodlands or around trees) in places like Hong Kong and Taipei. Indeed, the latter has been promoted as the “new eco-friendly burial method”. As burial methods change, so too do commemorative rituals, and the annual Qing Ming Festival (tomb sweeping) has seen the rise of new online and mobile phone rituals in China. This paper traces the ways in which physical spaces for the dead in several Asian cities have diminished and changed over time, the growth of virtual space for them, the accompanying discourses that influence these dynamics, and the new rituals that emerge concomitantly with the contraction of land space.

About Lily Kong

Lily Kong is a Provost’s Chair Professor in the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore. She is also the Vice Provost (Academic Personnel). A graduate of the National University of Singapore and University College London,Prof Kong's main research foci are religion, cultural policy and creative economy, and national identity. She has also written about globalisation and migration, and the social construction of nature and the environment. She has 13 books and monographs to her name, as well as over 100 papers in international refereed journals and chapters in books. Prof Kong has won research awards at NUS and internationally, as well as teaching awards at NUS.Prof Kong is an editor of the international journal Dialogues in Human Geography. She is also a series editor of "Pacific Rim Geographies: Studies on Contemporary Culture, Environment, Cities and Development" (Routledge) and Co-Chief Editor of the ARI-Springer Asia Series. Additionally, she is Book Series Advisor for "The Politics of Popular Culture in Asia Pacific" (University of Illinois Press and Hong Kong University Press). She is also a member of 15 editorial boards, and international editorial advisory boards of international journals.In her role as Vice Provost, she works with the Provost in academic personnel matters including recruitment, development, promotion and tenure, benchmarking and resource allocation.


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