The state of religion in China:

Gazing into the future

posted by Mayfair Yang

The efflorescence of religious life in China over the past thirty-some years has been truly amazing. In the rural areas and small towns of Wenzhou, on the country’s southeastern coast, where I have conducted fieldwork for the past twenty years, one can find periodic religious festivals celebrated in the streets and see people hold their annual ancestor sacrificial rituals. New and restored deity temples, ancestor halls, Daoist and Buddhist temples, and Protestant and Catholic churches have sprung up at a similarly frantic pace. Yi Jing (易经, “Book of Changes”) diviners, fortune-tellers, geomantic fengshui masters, and spirit mediums all enjoy a prosperous business. Even in mega-cities like Shanghai, where most of the population is firmly secular, one still finds much religious activity. In 2012, I found the main City God Temple in Shanghai gleaming with new interior décor, funded by wealthy families who spend hundreds of thousands of yuan hiring Daoist priests to conduct rituals to ensure family health and prosperity. Furthermore, the growing field of religious studies in China no longer feels the need to restrict research to the safety of the historical past. A new generation of younger scholars conducts fieldwork on the rich and diverse religious life found in all corners of the country today. However, religious activities remain carefully controlled by the state and local officials continue to influence the selection of religious leaders. Just as China’s strong centralized state tradition was not weakened by the economic conversion to global capitalism over the past three decades, so too this powerful state legacy is not likely to be curtailed by China’s religious revival. Indeed, just as capital’s dependency on and penetration by the Chinese state produced a new kind of strong “state capitalism” that the world had never seen, so too will religious practices and institutions also bear the imprints of the state in the foreseeable future.

Religion and “Ideology”

Now that Chinese Communist Party officials and theoreticians generally agree that religion is not going to disappear in the modern age, and thus are less inclined to adopt the Marxist maxim that religion is the “opiate of the people,” the pressing issue for them is to define a new social role for religion. Many in the Party recognize that religion is central to the survival of the Party (along with tackling official corruption), because it “impinges on the question of ideology” (涉及到意识形态问题, sheji dao yishi xingtai wenti). That is to say, if not managed properly, religion may threaten or even replace “ideology,” the system of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought (M-L-M) that is supposed to unify the nation and give Party members a higher sense of purpose. Back in the Maoist era, despite the rhetoric of “historical materialism” as a “science,” there was clearly much less effort devoted to economic development than to ideology. The many mass mobilization campaigns that galvanized hundreds of millions to march to a common tune constantly interrupted economic production, but served to unify the nation ideologically, against common enemies both domestic and foreign. The sacred texts of Marx, Lenin, and Mao were studied, recited, memorized, and quoted throughout the country by cadres and ordinary people alike. So important was ideological unity as social glue that any threat to ideology was rooted out mercilessly. Thus, all religions were regarded as a threat to M-L-M ideology and seen as dangerous to the security of the nation. Isolated from the world, and suspicious of both the United States and the Soviet Union, the Maoist nation was insecure and paranoid, and hence ideologically shrill.

In the current post-Mao period, ideology is no longer emotionally charged, and the country’s recent prosperity and global economic influence have imparted much national confidence, so that ideological uniformity is no longer so intensely demanded. The Party also seems aware that the growing polarization of extreme wealth and poverty in China makes the old M-L-M ideology hard to accept among the people, and that, pushed too hard, it may well backfire. So long as one indicates a general acquiescence, ideological conformity is no longer insisted upon for non-Party members. Nevertheless, ideological or “political propaganda” work still goes on in public schools, all media outlets, and even in the religious academies that train future clerics and leaders of China’s five officially recognized religions. Now, the new challenge is to reconcile the multiple religious teachings with Party ideology while maintaining the hegemonic status of ideology.

Separation of Religion and the State?

The best way to maintain ideological hegemony is to keep religious institutions on a tight leash, rather than allowing them any separation from the state. One important means of preventing the institutional autonomy of religious organizations are the five religious associations (the Buddhist Association, the Daoist Association, the Islamic Association, the Three-Self Patriotic Protestant Association, and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association) originally set up in the 1950s as a bridge between grassroots religion and state organs in charge of monitoring religious activity. They were revived in the 1980s, and each association now has a national headquarters, as well as branch offices at the provincial, prefectural, and county levels. The leaders of every temple, monastery, church, or mosque must attend periodic meetings at the relevant religious association to hear the latest on state policies and pronouncements on religion. Theoretically, these associations are part of civil society; however, since their leaders are picked by officialdom and their activities are guided by the state, the best term to describe them would be “quasi-state” organizations. Through these intermediary associations, grassroots temples, churches, and mosques cannot go astray, and the state ensures that the multitude of local religious organizations are never truly detached from the state body. Thus, I do not foresee there being much separation between religion and the state in China in the years to come. Instead, there are many examples of the imbrication of the Chinese state and the various religious traditions, one of which is the growing state interest in the revival of Confucian culture, which provide a more likely model for the future of state-religion relations. (In China, there are debates on whether Confucianism is a religion or a secular ethical tradition, but since it has many religious and spiritual dimensions and never denied the existence of gods, ancestors, and ghosts, I will treat it as a religious tradition here.)

The teachings of Confucius were taken over by the imperial state in the second century BC, under the Han Dynasty, and remained state orthodoxy through almost all dynasties down to the twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, Confucius was vilified as the central icon of all that was wrong with the old imperial order. In the post-Mao period, local people in Qufu started reviving the traditional commemorative rituals honoring him. The local government, seeing that these rituals would attract more tourist income to the area, then got involved and even allocated funds. The rituals became more elaborate, and started to attract international tourists; eventually, the Shandong provincial government began co-sponsoring the annual event. Academics and specialists on Confucianism were consulted about the rituals, and today the study of Confucius and his disciples through the ages is a major field of academic inquiry, while popular instructions on Confucian ethics are offered on state television. In the past five years, it seemed just a matter of time before the Chinese Communists adopted Chiang Kai-shek’s policy of a modern Chinese state cult of Confucius, with Confucian classics taught in the public school curriculum as they are in Taiwan. Just this year, the state announced that National Teacher’s Day, which used to fall on September 10, would now be celebrated (as in Taiwan) on September 28, Confucius’ birthday. However, the apparent inclination toward re-establishing Confucianism as a new modern state ideology experienced a setback in January 2011. In the middle of the night, workers quietly placed a giant statue of Confucius in front of the Historical Museum in Tiananmen Square, where it faced the giant portrait of Mao that hangs on the Gate of Heavenly Peace. As anything that happens on this sensitive Square is perceived to have a significant political import, many scholars and pundits were understandably excited about what the placement of the statue might portend. However, after a few days of intense speculation, the statue disappeared from the square just as mysteriously as it had arrived. Evidently, some in the top echelons of the Party felt that it was not yet time to jettison M-L-M thought and return to Confucius. Thus, we see that Confucius now enjoys the support of local and provincial governments, but has yet to be accepted as a national icon by the central state.

Another way of keeping religious activity on a leash is to manipulate religious discourse from within, so as to ensure that it stays well within normative parameters. The Party-state must sometimes employ religious discourse in order to control it, but this creates an awkward situation where the state becomes, in effect, a religious actor, adjudicating between competing teachings and traditions to establish religious (and political) orthodoxy. This was a familiar strategy of the imperial state, which, beginning with the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), would officially recognize an influential local or regional god’s cult, endow the god with an honorific title, allocate funds to build a state temple, and incorporate the deity into the state’s pantheon, who enjoyed sacrifices made by state officials. The state would then reinterpret the significance of the god’s contribution to humanity so as to mold the cult into conformity with state-approved values. This state reshaping of imperial-era popular religious discourse has been called “standardization” by James L. Watson (1985) and “superscription” by Prasenjit Duara (1988). Today, however, actively participating in religious activities violates the state’s stated atheist principles.

A clear example of the interpenetration of state and religious discourse is the state involvement in the establishment and running of the religious academies of the five recognized religions. Concerned with the low educational levels of Chinese religious leaders and clerics, the state was anxious to provide better religious education. Due to the interruption of religious education during the Mao years and the rapid aging of religious leaders who were educated before the Communist Revolution, the state was counting on religious academies to produce a new generation of clerics. The state also needed religious leaders whose thinking was in accordance with its religious policies and who would cooperate with their secular officials. In the past, Buddhist and Daoist monks and nuns were educated locally by joining a religious lineage whose teachers trace back to a religious founder. The state wanted to move away from this tradition of local religious transmission, to produce a centralized system of national religions with the uniform teachings and practices. Thus, the religious academies evolved with standardized textbooks and curricula. The state has even helped fund these academies and, since 2006, the United Front Department of the Communist Party, an office that tries to strengthen relations between the Party and non-Party social bodies and overseas Chinese, has sponsored an annual educational program for religious leaders in China, in which religious leaders from across the country take classes in law, management, classical Chinese, modern Chinese history, philosophy, ethics, world religions, and religion and modern society. Such state involvements in the religious academies and the training of religious leaders and clergy are a clear sign that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to separate religion from the state in China.

Religion and China’s International Relations

The link between certain religious traditions and China’s international relations has been an important factor in the relations between state and religion in China. Back in the 1950s, Holmes Welch, who interviewed Chinese Buddhist monks who had fled from the Communists to Hong Kong, already recognized the importance of international relations for the fate of Buddhism in the Maoist period. While Christianity suffered in the Mao years, due to its association with Western imperialism, Welch found that the Chinese state’s concern for good relations with Japan and with the Buddhist nations of Southeast Asia had a moderating influence on the treatment of Buddhists in China. When I visited the famous Guoqing Temple in the Tiantai Mountains of Zhejiang province, home of the Tiantai Sect of Buddhism, I learned that, during the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards laid waste to the temple and made off with many antiquities. When, in 1973, the Buddhist Tendai Sect in Japan, which traces its origin to this temple, wrote to the Chinese government that they wished to visit it, they inadvertently created a minor crisis. The government wanted to allow the Japanese to visit, but they would have “lost face” had the Japanese seen how the Chinese people had destroyed their own religious tradition. Zhou Enlai stepped in to save the day. He allocated a large sum of government funds to repair and restore the temple, and had 35 large antique statues, brass lions, and urns from different historical sites in Beijing shipped down to the temple by train. When the Japanese delegation came, they saw the best face of Chinese Buddhism that China could manage at that time.

Today, the state actively deploys different religious traditions as a way of reaching out to different nations and to Chinese around the world. The state is also concerned about China’s public image, and has encouraged its scholars and media personnel to enhance the country’s “soft power.” Good treatment of Christians is important—not so much to please the West as to maintain China’s reputation in Latin America, South Korea, and parts of Africa.  After violent confrontations occurred between Chinese police and Uyghur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Province in 2011, the clerical hierarchy in Iran wrote a polite letter of concern to the Chinese government about the use of excessive force in dealing with Muslims in China. Despite the state’s fear of Islamism and terrorism, especially among Uyghur separatists, the Chinese state continues to allow Chinese Muslims to participate in the haj to Mecca and to study at Islamic academies in the Middle East, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It also allows those members of the Dai ethnic minority who are followers of Theravada Buddhism to study in Buddhist academies in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. All five religious associations constantly sponsor visiting religious delegations from other countries and also send out delegations of Chinese religious leaders to visit religious centers abroad. Since 2006 China has hosted four World Buddhist Forums, which have drawn well over a thousand Buddhist monks, nuns, and scholars from as many as 90 countries. While it was, ostensibly, the Chinese Buddhist Association that hosted these events, the Chinese government is, no doubt, intimately involved in all such major international gatherings. All of these things serve to remind the world that China is no longer a nation that persecutes religion, but rather one in which the state sponsors religious revival.

Most importantly, religion is seen as an important way of engaging with the Sinophone world outside of China, and of keeping Chinese abroad oriented to their “Motherland.” China’s post-Mao economic miracle would not have been so rapid and impressive had it not been for the massive economic investments made by Chinese living in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, etc. Today, these overseas Chinese contribute greatly to tourism in China, and they make important donations to Buddhist and Daoist organizations, as well as to their own lineage organizations and hometowns in China. This is why the Party’s United Front Department, in addition to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, is an important player in managing local religion along China’s southeastern seaboard, where most overseas Chinese originated.  By promoting religious ties with people from Hong Kong and Taiwan, the United Front Department contributes to the plan of uniting them more firmly with the Chinese nation.

At the same time, the globalization of Chinese religions also gives the state serious pause. From 1988 to 1990, it witnessed the collapse of the Soviet bloc, fueled in part by religious organizations like the Catholic Church in Poland and the Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union itself. The Chinese state is intent on avoiding the same fate—hence its intolerance of many Chinese “house churches.” It also sees how religions in the modern world easily coalesce with nationalism and add fuel to secessionist movements. In Tibet, it has seen how its own series of “Strike Hard” and “Patriotic Education” campaigns have not worked well, and may only have fanned the flames of Tibetan religious nationalism. With the Jasmine Revolution, it has seen how once-secular governments have been either toppled by Islamic movements or besieged by them, as when the Muslim Brotherhood came out of the shadows in Egypt and won a popular election.  The state even banned the selling of jasmine flowers in China, as well as the use of the word “jasmine” on the internet. In Xinjiang Province, the state sees how some Uyghur separatists have started to come under the influence of radical Islamism flowing into Xinjiang from neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan. All these examples from abroad, and close to home, alert the Chinese state to keep a firm hand on religion.

The Future of Religion in China

Currently, Buddhism is, by far, the wealthiest religion in China, receiving generous donations from both domestic and emigrant Sinophone Buddhists. Many elites and wealthy people in China are Buddhists, and even many in the Communist Party quietly support Buddhism. Due to state restrictions, Buddhism cannot do much with its money, yet it enjoys an image of high culture, with its complex philosophical traditions and famous, highly-educated monks. Most importantly, the state feels safe with Buddhism, whose monks and lay worshippers tend to acquiesce to government regulations. Certain branches of Buddhism are quite secularized, and this is also to the state’s liking. In 2012, several Buddhist organizations located on famous mountain pilgrimage sites allowed private companies wishing to commercially develop the mountains to use their names to sell company stock on the Chinese market. One famous Buddhist temple, Shaolin Monastery, has become so secularized that it is almost a full-fledged religious business, with its monks holding MBA degrees and jetting around the world in pursuit of business deals. The Monastery gave or rented out its famous brand name to local companies that engaged in lucrative businesses such as tourism, vegetarian restaurants, luxury hotels, and countless martial arts schools. When its controversial abbot was attacked on the internet and accused of everything from selling out Buddhism to amassing private wealth and keeping mistresses, the Communist Party awkwardly defended Master Yong Xin from the “false rumors” circulating on the web. Since a commercialized Buddhism is least threatening to the Party-state, and is something that it understands, the state will likely allow Buddhism to continue developing. However, Buddhism pays a price for state approval, as many Chinese are turned off by its worldliness and loss of spirituality. Disaffection with Buddhism may have caused some to turn to Christianity or Tibetan Buddhism, whose religiosities are thought to be purer. Buddhism faces another growing problem: the declining number of young men who want to become monks. Due to state birth controls, few families are willing to allow their precious one (or two) sons to enter monasteries and forfeit their chance of producing descendants. Mainland China’s Buddhism may become increasingly feminized, as in Taiwan—a trend some in China regard as calamitous. I would say that it may well save Chinese Buddhism.

Daoism is China’s indigenous religion, but its growth may be slow for several reasons. The legacy of the nineteenth-century Western evolutionist hierarchy of the world’s religions still influences the thinking of the Chinese state, which absorbed much evolutionist discourse from the West, and tends to look down upon Chinese popular religion and Daoism— which shares many of Chinese popular religion’s “magical” and “superstitious” elements—as “backwards.” The State also unconsciously absorbed Protestant disapproval of Catholicism’s “excessive” ritualism, polytheistic saints, exorcisms, and the selling of charms, redirecting this attitude towards China’s native religious traditions. This disapproval can be seen in the Chinese state’s opposition between “religion,” which enjoys the constitutional protection of “freedom of religion,” and “superstition,” which is technically illegal and to be dealt with by the police. Genealogically, the term “superstition” came out of the European Reformation, when Protestants used the term to malign Catholics. Now, the state considers Christianity and Buddhism “civilized” religions, while popular religion is not religion at all, but an assortment of magical beliefs.

Since both Protestantism and Catholicism are associated with the imperialist West, the state is especially wary of their rapid growth in China. It is illegal for foreigners in China to engage in religious proselytizing, and this law is targeted especially at Western missionaries. These days, however, most Christian missionaries operating inside China are not Westerners, but Chinese who have lived abroad or South Koreans who can work undetected. Some travelers to Tibet have reported seeing white Christian missionaries operating freely there, which leads one to suspect that the state may be quietly allowing conversions, to decrease the dangers of Tibetan Buddhist religious nationalism. Despite the state’s overall hostility to Christianity, Christianity, and especially Protestantism, is associated with modernity—something deeply ingrained from colonial times—and modernity is what the younger generation yearns for. By denying religious autonomy to Buddhism, Daoism, and popular religion, which prevents them from following the successful and much admired growth patterns found in Taiwan, the state’s own religious policies, ironically, help the rapid growth of Christianity in China. With the increasing numbers of Chinese students studying in universities in North America and Europe, we have seen many convert to Christianity while abroad and bring it back to China when they return. Another reason for the rapid growth of Christianity is the inroads it has made in rural China. In some ways, the diverse rural Protestant religious movements that have sprung up of late are a modern version of the old secret societies of imperial China, complete with rebellious resistance to the state. So, along with Buddhism, Christianity will also grow in China. However, in contrast to Buddhism, which enjoys state support, Christianity’s growth will take place despite state hostility.

[In conjunction with this series of essays on the state of religion in China, we have published a companion piece on the history of religion in China, written by The Immanent Frame's Wei Zhu. Read What is religion in China? A brief history.—eds.]

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version


Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.