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.
Posts Tagged ‘religion and politics’
How will the relationship between the state and religion in China evolve in the next decade, presumably under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping? To make any sensible predictions about the future development of the state-religion relationship in China, we have to go back in time. Two reference points are especially important: 1979 and 1966.
In 1979, after thirteen years of failed attempts to eradicate religion from the entire society, the ban on religion was lifted. A limited number of churches, temples, and mosques began to reopen for religious worship services. It is important to know that this new policy stemmed from pragmatic considerations rather than from doctrinal change: its purpose was to rally people from all walks of life, including religious believers, for the central task of economic development under the new leadership of the CCP.
This short essay sketches out the different views that may be identified within the Chinese Communist Party as we look at the recent actions of the party on religious affairs—actions that seem to end in contradictory directions. On the one hand, the promotion of international Buddhist and Taoist forums and the liberalization of regulations concerning the social activities religious organizations are allowed to perform, and, on the other hand, the continued harassment of some religious minorities. Debates about the involvement of religion in contemporary global politics have for the last four decades often overlooked China, an oversight rooted in two misconceptions widely held both in the West and among Chinese leaders themselves.
Before making projections about the future of religion and secularity in China, we should first take a step back and reconsider some notions about how China’s approach to religion has historically differed and sometimes conflicted with Western ideas and practices.
The first is the image of the People’s Republic as an axiomatically anti-religious state. One could certainly be forgiven for thinking of socialism and religion as oil and water. Marx famously declared religion to be the “opium of the people.” Lenin saw the Orthodox Church as the last and most recalcitrant bastion of Tsarist sympathy and insisted that the landed monasteries had to be destroyed in a way that was violent, thorough, and public. After the Second World War, the Catholic Church and Catholic-affiliated movements emerged among the most strident critics of Communism. Decades later, Catholic support would be instrumental in helping a Polish labor movement bring about the collapse of Soviet power in Europe.
The complex and ever-changing relationship between the Chinese state and the nation’s religions stretches back thousands of years. While the state never struggled with religious leaders for power, it governed an embedded religiosity in the population, one best described as diffused, non-exclusive, and pluralistic. As a companion to The Immanent Frame’s newly launched series of essays on the state of religion in China, this piece embarks on a brief historical survey, outlining the wide variety of beliefs and practices that religion in China encapsulates, and paying particular attention to the events and philosophies that have shaped the policies of the atheist People’s Republic of China.
Earlier this summer, The Immanent Frame published an off the cuff exchange about the State Department’s new initiative to engage religious communities in US diplomacy. Conversation and critiques are still going strong; Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, an original contributor to “Engaging religion at the Department of State,” has penned a commentary for Al Jazeera America in which she critiques US faith-based engagement abroad as a violation of the separation of church and state.
In the book The Invention of Religion in Japan, Jason Ananda Josephson traces the roots and history of religion in Japan.
For those of you following The Immanent Frame‘s off the cuff discussion of the new State Department’s office of religious engagement, officially announced as the Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, another perspective can be added into the mix.
In late July, The Immanent Frame published a set of reflections on the Department of State’s plans for a new office dedicated to engaging religion. Following an official announcement by Secretary Kerry on August 7th, scholars and policy commentators have continued to weigh in on the implications, challenges, and potential of the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives.