The relationship between the state and religion in China has long been a complicated one. More recently, the twin forces of globalization and modernization have reshaped both the practice and understanding of religion in China. Meanwhile, religion poses a number of problems for the atheist Chinese Communist Party as it attempts to manage a diffused, non-exclusive, and pluralistic religiosity among the populace. We have invited scholars to discuss these and related issues, and to offer readers their visions of the state of religion in China, past, present, and future. In conjunction with this discussion, we have also published a companion piece: What is religion in China? A brief history.
The state of religion in China
This short essay draws up the principal ideas from a book chapter concerning the historical field of Chinese religions in comparative context in order to identify its distinctive problems and possible pathways. In order to distinguish religions in the Sinosphere from other state-religion relationships in the longue durée, we need to identify how the state and religions have managed the question of transcendence. Scholars working with the Axial Age theories of religion have often expressed confusion or hesitation with regard to Chinese notions of transcendence. I argue that Chinese religions have a transcendent dimensions often missed by analysts because they operate with an Abrahamic notion of radical transcendence and dualism rather than what I call “dialogical transcendence.”Read Chinese religions in comparative historical perspective.
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.Read Gazing into the future.
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.Read Stand still and watch.
When one thinks of politics and religion in China, one often imagines the state as an omnipotent power, invincible and all encompassing, exerting direct control over the lives of millions of religious practitioners in Chinese society. But in reality that control is mediated by a bureaucratic system for the management and study of religion that has been undergoing significant transition in recent years.
First, religious studies in China does not have independent academic departments but exists under the institutional umbrella of departments of philosophy; students need to be enrolled in a philosophy department in order to major in religion, and religious studies professors are generally hired through philosophy departments. As a result, religious studies as a field has little institutional or intellectual autonomy. Second, it is a discipline that allows for at least two distinct career paths: that of scholars who conduct research on religion and that of civil officials who do “religion work,” such as serving in central or local state administrations of religious affairs, or working in state agencies dealing with ethnic minority groups that have specific religious traditions, such as Uyghurs.Read Doing “Religion Work” in China?.
Everyone in China knows that official religious policy has only a nominal relationship to religious practice. The complaint comes from temple managers who are unable to register their temples, from Christian pastors tired of running their churches underground, and just as loudly from the atheist state itself and the Communist Party officials charged with enforcing the policy. Why does China continue to promote religious policies that do not fit reality and that satisfy no one?
In contrast to its religious policy, China has not been frozen at all in other policy realms. In the economy, for example, the past few decades have seen the rapid move from the agricultural responsibility system, a spurt in collective township and village enterprises followed by a general privatization, and the successful resolution of the government’s fiscal crisis in the 1990s. There are arguments about whether policy makers were leading or only following these developments, but either way they have shown a nimble ability to adapt—”to cross the river by feeling their way from stone to stone,” to borrow a phrase that Deng Xiaoping was fond of using. In the river of religion, however, they are still searching for the next stone.Read Governing religion with one eye closed.
A recent Gallup poll found that almost half of China’s people (47 percent) say that they are “convinced atheists”—the highest rate of atheism in the world. However, surveys conducted by Fenggang Yang and others show high levels of religious practice—as much as 85 percent of the population carry out rituals to honor ancestors, seek out good fortune, ward off evil, celebrate festivals, and accumulate merit for a good afterlife. Ethnographers have also documented the construction of many churches and temples, elaborate festivals, rituals for healing, and the cultivation of the mystical forces of qi. How, then, can we reconcile reports of widespread atheism with those of widespread religious practice?Read Secular belief, religious belonging.
The slim crescent that rose above the skyline on July 9th signifies the beginning of this year’s holy month of Ramadan in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where I have been teaching for the last four years. Pious Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking, sex, swearing, and other unlawful behaviors from dawn to dusk, following the traditions of the Prophet to get closer to God. During this sacred month of spiritual renewal, the ritual of sharing food after sunset, known as Iftar, serves important social functions such as bringing families together and reinforcing community bonds. As the last strands of sunlight disappear from the horizon, many celebrate the day by enjoying a lavish dinner with friends and family. In the UAE, as everywhere else, Iftar parties have also become an opportunity for Muslims to reach out to non-Muslims and for non-Muslims to reciprocate the hospitality.
I have been fortunate enough to attend a number of Iftars parties this Ramadan, hosted by several institutions, both secular and religious. The most recent Iftar party that I attended was hosted by the Chinese Consulate General in Dubai, in a popular family restaurant situated on the legendary Sheikh Zayed Road. To strengthen the Unified Front and in the interest of building harmonious relationships among Chinese communities overseas, the Consul General extended invitations to more than 150 Chinese expatriates from various walks of life and different ethnic backgrounds, both Muslims and non-Muslims.Read The “good” and the “bad” Muslims of China.
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.Read The Communist Party and the future of religion in China.
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.Read Opiate of the masses with Chinese characteristics.