The Poitics of Cheng Ho-Related Piety in Post-New Order Indonesia: Theologies of Emancipation


Ivana Prazic

PhD defended at: 

The University of Sydney



This thesis explores the nature of the emancipation of Chinese Indonesians after the fall of Suharto in 1998. In contrast to the dominant scholarship, which has approached this subject in secular terms, the thesis foregrounds the historical role of religion in the process of political recognition of Chinese Indonesians during this period.
This approach is substantiated by an exploration of the sites of Cheng Ho-related piety and Islamic devotion found across the archipelago. The ethnographic research into the Chinese sacred sites and temples where the spirit of the Ming Dynasty admiral, Cheng Ho, is worshipped is presented first. This exploration goes beyond the traditional focus on Javanese sites and uncovers a hitherto unstudied group of Chinese shrines in West Kalimantan. The discussion of the history of the formalisation of polymorphous Cheng Ho-related worshipping modalities is then linked to the history of the Chinese religion in Indonesia and its de-legitimisation. One of the main findings of this thesis is that the struggle for the recognition of Confucian Religion as an Indonesian religion is inextricable from the wider struggle for Chinese Indonesian emancipation. The ethnographies of the mosques devoted to Cheng Ho and—formally or informally—managed by the largest Chinese Muslim organisation in Indonesia offer new insights into the history behind the foundation of these mosques. The erection of the mosques is usually seen to have resulted from the successful outcome of the struggle to acknowledge Chinese as Muslim Indonesians after 2000, but it was, in fact, pioneered by Yunus Yahya in the 1980s and 90s.
In addition to tracing the struggle for emancipation, this thesis also investigates the nature of anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesian history. It establishes an organic connection between Dutch-nurtured anti-Chinese affective dispositions and the Cold War Sinophobia of the Western bloc. In doing so, it provides an insight into the analytical complicity of the Western bloc geopolitics of anti-Communist Area Studies with anti-Confucian politics in Indonesia. The political effect of Sinophobia as an emotional regime is studied here through Critical Race and Queer theory perspectives.
Scholarship critically addressing the secular constraints on the liberal model of democracy, such as Poststructuralist theory, offers a framework for assessing piety in political terms. With the findings presented in this thesis, the study of democratic modalities alternative to those offered by liberalism can be deployed in scholarship on Indonesia.