The future of China’s past: An interview with Mayfair Yang

posted by Nathan Schneider

Anthropologist Mayfair Yang teaches in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has done pioneering work discovering, describing, and reflecting on the fate of traditional culture in post-revolutionary China through numerous articles and edited volumes, two documentary films, and her book Gifts, Favors, and Banquets: the Art of Social Relationships in China. Throughout, she brings the insights of post-colonial theory and gender studies to bear on the living remnants of ancient ways of life. She is currently writing a new book, Re-Enchanting Modernity: Sovereignty, Ritual Economy, and Indigenous Civil Order in Coastal China.

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NS: Tell me about the genesis of your studies in China. How did you choose the region where you have spent the last twenty years doing fieldwork?

MY: I received a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to do field research on nongovernmental organizations and the emerging civil society in China. Since my other research had been in urban contexts, I wanted to study a rural environment. A Chinese friend took me to visit his relatives in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, and I was taken aback by both the social dynamism of the economic activities there and the impressive revival of traditional Chinese culture—quite different from the usual dreary, impoverished life in much of the Chinese countryside I have seen. The ethos of families going about their daily business as well as frequent indulgence in festivals and rituals reminded me of growing up in the 1960s in Taiwan. I checked out many NGOs in Wenzhou—a stamp collecting association, a Writer’s League, a local business association, and a privately owned technical middle school—and found that none of them were really independent of the state. But I found that truly nongovernmental and grassroots organizations all had a religious or ritual basis: deity temples, Daoist and Buddhist temples, lineage organizations, and Catholic and Protestant churches. So, I discovered the importance of religion and ritual once I was in the field; I did not set out looking for them.

NS: Has the Chinese government interfered at all? Have they made it difficult to carry out your research?

MY: Yes, I’m afraid I have met with a lot of government interference in my fieldwork, for a variety of reasons. First, this being an area that does not have a major university, I didn’t know any local Chinese academics who could vouch for me to the authorities. Second, on a few occasions, I was hauled into the Public Security office—the police station—because my activities were not in keeping with my visa. I was questioned, made to write a confession, and modestly fined. Third, local officials wanted me to focus on studying the prosperous economy, of which they are rightly proud. They were ashamed of their cultural “backwardness,” ashamed that their people are still so “superstitious” and spend so much of their hard-earned money on their gods, ancestors, and ghosts. The officials discouraged me from studying popular religion because, first of all, they did not want their superiors to find out that so much religious activity is occurring under their watch. But they were also embarrassed about foreigners finding out how “backward” they still are. Religion is still a sensitive topic. Some local officials even warned people not to tell me too much, and sometimes I was not allowed to witness or videotape certain rituals.

NS: But you did manage to shoot enough footage to make a documentary there.

MY: Yes, Public and Private Realms in Wenzhou, China.

NS: Has working in the medium of film affected how you approach your scholarship?

MY: As an academic, filmmaking forces one to express ideas and feelings through means other than just words. Sound and sight become important. Visual description added another dimension to my thinking, and I think that in my writings henceforth I will pay more attention to conveying the context, the mood, the ethos, and the physical backdrop of my subjects. Film is also a much better medium than print for discussing things with movement or detailed visual features, like festivals, rituals, dance, and religious worship. Being a filmmaker has made me fully appreciate that, in today’s world, a religious movement cannot survive for long without disseminating its messages through the electronic media: television, film, websites, Internet discussions, and so forth.

NS: How did the Chinese government and society come to this point where religion has become such an embarrassment?

MY: The Maoist regime was vociferous in its anti-imperialist discourse and many of its political policies and activities were anti-colonial and anti-Western. However, seldom discussed is how much of nineteenth-century Western social evolutionism and Orientalist discourse Maoism absorbed and propagated. This discourse says that all societies in the world follow a single developmental progression through evolutionary stages, and that religion must be eliminated in order for a society to be modern and advanced. It is this social evolutionist thinking that has done so much harm to China’s indigenous religious traditions, such as Confucianism, Daoism, Chinese Buddhism, as well as those of ethnic minorities.

NS: What role did religion play in Chinese society before Mao?

ML: The dispersed aristocratic states of ancient times were unified in 221 BCE, and thereafter the centralized empire held sway down to modern times, interrupted only occasionally by periods of disunity. China experienced a commercial revolution in the tenth and eleventh centuries, almost a thousand years before European capitalism, and religious life flourished alongside commercialism. When it stifled religious life in the twentieth century, China lost a key arena for the promotion of local autonomy and self-government, grassroots culture and local initiative, leaving unchecked the centralized, authoritarian state. In Chinese popular religion, tutelary deities are icons of local communities, protectors of local solidarities. Such local institutions as lineage organizations, temple societies, Confucian private schools, and Buddhist and Daoist temples and monasteries used to provide key sites for local voluntary organizations, charities, and self-government. In its attacks on traditional religiosity, Maoist China was inspired by the French Revolution. But China’s institutional religions, Buddhism and Daoism, were never as strong as Christianity in Europe and could never stand against the state as had Christianity. Ironically, it was Maoism that continued what the Western missionaries could only dream of: the destruction of “heathenism,” “idolatry,” and “superstition.”

NS: How do we need to think about secularization as it’s come about in China, as opposed to in the West?

MY: I agree with Talal Asad when he suggests that we should be studying the varieties of secularism. We must remind ourselves that the Western path to secularism is not the only path, and that other historical experiences may give rise to different sorts of secularism. China’s case is distinct from the Western path to secularism in three ways. First, there is a long premodern tradition of secular agnosticism in Confucian thought. Second, modern Chinese secularism was propelled by the colonial situation, a threat to nationhood posed by both Western and Japanese imperialisms. Third, there was Marxist discourse and the Soviet influence.

NS: To what extent can Confucianism—with its emphasis on worldly responsibilities and the social order—be thought of as a premodern form of secularism?

MY: There is much debate both in China and among Western scholars as to whether Confucianism is a religion or a philosophy. This whole issue comes about because twentieth-century China adopted the new term “religion” from the West, with Protestantism as its normative example. Confucianism obviously does not fit into the Western definition of religion, since it didn’t possess its own separate institutional or clerical organization, embedded as it was in the imperial state and grassroots culture alike. Yes, one could say that Confucianism was in some ways a form of premodern secularism, because it was much more focused on the ethical and political issues of temporal life than it was on the afterlife. But it didn’t have an elaborate anti-religious discourse like modern Darwinian or Marxist secularism. It could be described as agnostic or indifferent to many forms of the supernatural—such as gods, goddesses, ghosts, and demons—though it did ritually pay homage to other kinds of transcendent powers. And Confucianism’s practices of self-cultivation and self-discipline certainly resemble those of many religious traditions and were thought to merge practitioners with larger cosmic patterns.

NS: Can you say more about the other sources of Chinese secularism: the colonial experience and Marxism?

MY: Colonialism, I believe, was what gave the secular movement an intense urgency, and it explains the turn to the radical and systemic destruction of religious culture rather than more gradual religious reforms. The absorption of Western colonial discourse also led to such things as the adoption of the Reformation’s distinction between “religion”—the more valorized term—and “superstition,” which greatly hurt Daoism and popular religion in China. The urgency and catch-up mentality also explains why Soviet-style, state-led secularization seemed the natural answer. The centralized promotion of scientific atheism was coordinated and uniformly applied across the country, speeding up the process of modernization. Thus, modern Chinese secularism was not a gradual outgrowth of economic development, but a concerted and conscious effort, imposed from above on grassroots society to wrench it out of “backwardness” and to attain “revolution,” or “progress.”

NS: And this process continues today?

MY: Yes, though in different forms. The two primary purveyors of secularism today are the state in its didactic role and the consumer media.

NS: So the new consumerist culture is adopting the secularist mantle of Maoism?

MY: Not entirely. As the Chinese Communist Party turns its attention to trade and economic development, it has relaxed its stranglehold on religiosity and muted its Communist teachings. There has also been a bursting of the Communist ideological bubble, and thus the search for Truth has been taken up elsewhere. Since the state no longer controls all the wealth, and the private sector is able to retain a surplus, ordinary people now have extra personal wealth to give as donations for building or restoring sites of worship, organizing religious festivals, supporting religious clergy or ritual masters, and organizing religious charities. The new stresses and insecurities in a society where the state no longer guarantees jobs, pensions, housing, and medical care might also be favorable conditions for the return of religion. Indeed, a major reason for religious adherence in China is the experience of illness or a close call with death.

NS: Is religion, perhaps in Weberian fashion, actually helping to foster the emergence of capitalism in Chinese culture and economy?

MY: When you say “capitalism,” you need to distinguish between the capitalism that came from the West and the capitalism that derives from China’s own tradition of premodern commercialism and handicraft industries. Both are at work in China’s market economy today. The former introduced Christianity, and it can be seen in the investments of large multinational corporations that operate through the mediation of Chinese state officials. Then there is the small-scale capitalism that derives from China’s own late-imperial history of commercialism, and which I am studying in Wenzhou. This kind of capitalism is inextricably intertwined with Chinese popular religion, Daoism, and Buddhism, so it is hard to distinguish between the religious stimulation of the economy and the economic stimulation of religion. In fact, I am developing an argument that in this kind of capitalism, religion checks the excesses of the profit-driven economy and motivates the redistribution of wealth. It’s a kind of indigenous capitalism that modern Chinese have lost sight of in the rush to believe that everything superior comes from the West.

NS: Has religion actually succeeded in placing restraints on the excesses of emerging markets?

MY: Unfortunately, since government policy has left religious organizations so weak, they haven’t been able to check the greed that capitalism encourages. Instead, they are being deeply penetrated by capitalism. Take the example of the Shaolin Buddhist temple in Henan Province, the one where Jet Li played a kungfu master in the film Shaolin Temple. This temple has stirred much controversy with its MBA-bearing monks who spend more time jetting around promoting tourism, building luxury hotels, and taking in their earnings from foreign kungfu students than meditating or attending to the spiritual needs of their congregation.

NS: Do you approach the work of shedding light on religiosity as a constructive contribution to the development of Chinese society?

MY: Although I am basically a secular person, I have seen the social consequences of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” in China. Beset by colonialism, war, and impoverishment, twentieth-century Chinese were too quick to reject their cultural traditions rather than reform them, and they abandoned a rich repertoire of wisdom and teachings accumulated over centuries and millennia. Modern Chinese did not have the luxury of time to think through and debate what was to become of religion, so precipitous action was taken, which did lasting damage. In rural Wenzhou, I have seen many positive dimensions of religious life, contrary to the way that Communist discourse has painted it. These people are not backward or resistant to modernization; they are at the forefront of creating a different kind of modernity, one with many bridges to connect them to their past.

NS: To what extent are Chinese scholars working in China also studying religion as you are—that is, not only as an artifact of the past, but as something alive and active in contemporary Chinese society?

MY: There is a growing number of Chinese scholars engaged in the study of religious cultures. In the 1980s and ’90s, their work was primarily textual and focused on the historical past of Chinese religious traditions. This was a safe way to deal with a still sensitive topic and to stay out of trouble. Now a new generation of social scientists is looking at the present through fieldwork. Their biggest task is to persuade the government, its many bureaucrats and local officials, and society at large, to think of religion as a promising way to deal with the present and future. They have even started to challenge the Marxist position that religion serves the ruling class and will necessarily disappear.

NS: To what extent do scholars have the freedom to do so publicly?

MY: Actually, there is now almost no constraint on what can be said out loud, but print publication is another matter. Internet discussions, meanwhile, stand in-between what can be said and what can be printed.

NS: So the study of religion in China has become a medium of dissent?

MY: Yes. These scholars are implicitly trying to correct for a century of activist state intervention and prohibition. Intellectuals have been at the forefront of religious revival, and many academic conferences on Buddhism, Daoism, and popular deity cults have laid the groundwork for religious organizations and activities to proceed. Academics serve as advisors or consultants to religious organizations; they are a bridge between religious communities and officialdom. They have called on the state to recognize the vast “underground” Christian communities—about 70 percent of all Christians in China—who refuse to join the state churches. A few are even starting to point out that the decades of hostility towards indigenous religions may be responsible for the dramatic growth of Christianity in the past three decades.  Scholars have also tackled the new problems of the over-commercialization of religion, in which local state tourism and real estate agencies seize upon it to drum up business, riding roughshod over Buddhist or Daoist monks’ ability to run their temples in their own way. Of course, this is still a small segment of the Chinese intelligentsia, and the vast majority still dismiss religion.

NS:  Has the state’s attitude towards religion changed in recent years as well?

MY:  Yes, it has indeed. There is great historical irony in the fact that the Chinese government is now becoming more involved in building up certain religious traditions. The central government funds a program to train religious leaders of all five officially recognized religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam) at People’s University, teaching them their own religious history and doctrines. It supported the First and Second World Buddhist Forums, which were held in 2006 and 2009 in China. Local governments help fund large-scale religious events to bolster tourism, pilgrimage, and local business, and they have recognized that religious charities help provide social welfare and lower crime. The state wants to use religious culture to foster social stability while encouraging a kind of “healthy” religious development that it finds acceptable. The irony is sometimes painful; just the other day while doing fieldwork in Wenzhou, a local Daoist priest told me how his father was hounded by young Communist zealots during the Cultural Revolution and risked his life to conceal precious hand-copied Daoist liturgies from destruction. But now he, the son, has been named a valuable person of Chinese “intangible cultural heritage”—borrowing the language of UNESCO—for his Daoist knowledge.

NS: Are Christian missionary activities from the West affecting how people in Wenzhou think about religion? Does this seem to you a further example of colonialism at work?

MY: My sense is that Christian missionization by Westerners plays a very minor role today. It is illegal for foreign nationals to proselytize in China. And in large cities, Chinese nationals even find it difficult to mingle with foreigners and attend church services presided over by foreign clergy. Of course, there are Western Mormons and Christians who disguise themselves as English teachers, but there may be more South Korean and Chinese Christian missionaries from overseas active in China. The vast majority of Chinese Christians were converted by other Chinese. They have relied on memories of Christian teachings transmitted by Western missionaries before 1949; that’s why some of the Christian iconography sometimes looks so dated, especially in rural areas. This also means that Christianity in China can look and feel quite different from how it does in the West. Since underground churches are targets of sporadic state persecution, many of them in rural areas have come to resemble the secret societies and millenarian movements of the late-imperial past. They may even be more Chinese than Christian.

NS: How are all these changes in the present impacting how Chinese—both scholars and laypeople—think about their past?

MY: The discipline of history has a very long tradition in China, going back to ancient times, perhaps beginning with the very invention of writing in China. Chinese are very skilled in historical thought and research; so, since the travesty of history writing during the Cultural Revolution ended, there has been, in the post-Mao period, much good historical reflection. In the past decade, an old term has been resuscitated from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: “national learning,” or guoxue. This refers to learning from classical writings, from ancient schools of thought such as Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, Legalism, and others. “National learning” has been grabbing the interest of many different kinds of people, from businessmen eager to learn ancient strategies of management, to mothers who wish to teach traditional culture and wisdom to their children, to the nouveau riche who now find that material wealth cannot provide everything they desire and long for spiritual harmony. Historical novels set in a past dynasty have reached such popularity on the Internet that they are then published in print. As Chinese people come into contact with the outside world through travel, migration, or media, they increasingly face the question of identity and how to define a unique Chineseness. This usually propels them back to China’s past.

NS: Do you think history’s lessons will be useful ones for them?

MY: Yes, I do. I know a Chinese economist, for instance, who actively reads and studies Chinese history, including historical novels, as he works to come up with suggestions for economic reform today. He even wants to revive the imperial examination system to avoid the rampant official corruption. This is an extremely valuable and important development, since the Chinese really cannot adapt ideologies and discourses developed elsewhere to their own social and economic development. They need to understand their own history better in order to tailor social innovations to deep habits of Chinese thought and practice. Doing otherwise was a mistake made too often in China throughout the twentieth century, with terrible consequences.

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