Monday, March 10, 2014

The Soul of China: Religion on the Mainland

(This piece, previously published in CrossCurrents, was co-authored with one of my Chinese graduate students, Bai Juntao, who helped write the factual-based sections).


“The old gods are growing old or are already dead, and others are not yet born.” ([1912] 1965: 475) –Emile Durkheim

I write this from PuTong University (pseudonym)- a sprawling school of 30,000 students in China’s northwest, where I am living and working as a visiting professor of sociology. My “regular” job is an assistant professor at a private, liberal-arts school in the northeast United States. This is my sixth trip to China, though my first to work and live here for so long. Undoubtedly, each trip has brought new personal and cultural discoveries. But a “war” is a first for me.
From past experiences traveling here, I knew American’s held many misperceptions about China, especially regarding religion. Despite popular belief, religion is not banned in China (well, sort of…like everything here…it’s complicated).
What is certain is that unlike the US, religion is not often discussed. This is in part an outgrowth of Chinese culture that is indirect and “polite,” and due in part to religion’s history in China during the 20th Century when religion was violently suppressed. Hence my shock and paranoia when my first day on campus I was asked by the administrator overseeing my stay a frank question I had never been asked in my five previous trips: “Are you a Christian?” The tone was not the friendly tone of inquisitiveness. It was the bureaucratic tone that warned I may need to select my next words carefully.
Caught off guard by this unusual question, unsure myself if I fell into this category or not, I was at a loss for words. I was born into a Christian family, raised in Texas and so was certainly of a Christian culture, but did not identify with the changed theological and political face of Christianity. As I struggled to formulate a coherent statement that would capture this, the administrator filled the silence, “It doesn’t matter, just don’t try to convert the students. You can talk about religion, you just can’t minister to them.”
            I did not know how to respond. Part of me was offended and resistant to being told what I could and could not talk to my students about- not that conversions had ever replaced my lectures. And if it had, I’m not at all certain what I would convert the students too. But my first response was resistance to overt control over my freedom in the classroom. But mostly, I was confused. I was confused by the unusual directness from a Chinese person, and confused by the motivation behind the statement. Part of me wondered if my observations had been incorrect. Perhaps the reports of religious persecutions that I had read about and the rumors that were told to me by my evangelical friends in Texas (friends, mind you, who had never been to China) were correct. I was not naïve. I knew that restrictions existed; I knew that for some in China, religion had brought trouble, but I had long concluded these were historical artifacts, and in contemporary China, overblown and bordering on Western propaganda and paranoia. In many ways, the visible pluralities of religion one sees on Chinese streets, is greater than what would be experienced in most US cities.
Mostly, though, I was confused because I knew from previous experience that many religions have a strong and visible presence here. Catholic churches are well-represented, though they are barred from recognizing the Vatican’s authority. Likewise, open and underground evangelical Christian churches are well-known, though members run the risk of arrest from government officials for failure to register their religious organizations. In fact, recent numbers indicate that anywhere from 20 to 100 million Chinese identify as Christian (US Department of State 2010). Judaism, though to a much lesser degree, also exists in the Mainland, though it is not officially recognized by the government. But Buddhism is by far the most visible of the traditional religions. Monks are a common sight on Chinese streets, especially near towns with large temples. And temples are everywhere. 
Likewise, the Muslim faith holds a strong foothold in certain areas of the country with over 20 million followers, and no less than 10 ethnic minority groups who adhere to its traditions (US Department of State 2010). The region where I work is classified as an Autonomous Region. In essence, this means that the province, because of its large ethnic and religious minority population (it is 1/3 Hui Muslim), is able to govern itself with less oversight from Beijing. As a result, there are even more outward religious freedoms here. Muslims, both men and women, are allowed to wear various forms of head coverings. On days when the wind is blowing from the east, I can faintly hear the Muezzin’s call for prayer from a nearby mosque. On the campus that I live, where six cafeterias service the students, four are certified as Muslim kitchens. In a country where pork is by far the most popular meat, Yang Ro (Lamb) is often the only meat found here.
Somewhat distinct, but abound and in competition with these traditional religions, are the periphery, quasi-religious movements. The Falun Gong, banned now for many years, with its combination of morality and health, falls into the category, as does Taoism, China’s only indigenous religion. As a polytheistic religion, it is widely practiced in rural areas.  Confucianism, albeit more a philosophy than a religion, could also fall into this category.
Likewise, the worship of Mao, appears strikingly similar to a religion. If Marx were a god, Mao would be his Jesus; both offering a path to a Communist-Utopian promised land. In the middle of Tiananmen Square, in the heart of the political Mecca of China, a daily crowd in the thousands makes a pilgrimage to view his preserved body. And after paying their respects to this demigod, they exit the grand and solemn mausoleum holding his preserved body in an airtight, see thru casket, and enter directly into a gift shop. Mao plaques are offered there, as are posters and postcards and anything else you can imagine; because much like America where shopping has become our contemporary religion, where for our offerings, utopia can be achieved, in China consumerism is also growing in its religious functions. As in America, the contemporary corporate totems are beginning to regulate the Chinese sexual practices and mating selection, they offer-up meaning to life’s pursuits, and advertise to all who is of your group and who is not.
Religion is everywhere, but rarely is it a topic of discussion amongst acquaintances, especially when that acquaintance is a Westerner. Which is why things became more confusing as the first week passed. In China, especially areas as remote as where I work (the city is the only city of size between Beijing and the Western most borders of the country and is surrounded on three sides by vast and open desert), it is not uncommon to be approached by a student wanting to practice English and take a picture with the first Westerner they have met.  But three of the first five students that approached me that first week (one wearing a “What Would Jesus Do?” T-shirt), after introductions, asked as their opening question if I was a “believer?” It was my sixth trip to the city and I had never been asked that question before. But on this campus, my first stay in this part of the city, it was a very popular topic of discussion. “If you believe in the Christian God, you are an honest person,” was a common phrase I would hear. One student whom I spoke with identified as a Muslim, but admitted that he thought Jesus might be a “better God.”

These beliefs were not isolated to the students.

The first neighbor I met in the international faculty apartments, an amiable man from the American West coast, brought me a gift to welcome me several days after I arrived. Alone, working away from my family, I was living the bachelor’s life, and I had to offer him only uncooked beans, raw pig ears, or warm Pabst Blue Ribbon I had found at the local market.  So I offered him a beer. “I’m sorry, I’m Christian, I don’t drink alcohol.”
As I met more of my American neighbors, I learned more of their story. They were all English language teachers at the university and they were all sponsored by a US Christian-based organization.  They ranged from their 20s to their late 50s. Of the ones that I had a chance for extended dialogue with, few found joy in living in China. As “Betty,” one of the eldest of the group, told me in our brief first conversation upon meeting: “This is a hard place to live. It’s the center-point of spiritual warfare, you know.  And the warfare is intense. I don’t know if I’ll be back next year, but if God calls me to battle, I will be here.”

Of course she did not like it here. She saw herself as a soldier living in a war zone.

In meaningful ways, though in secular terms that my neighbor Betty would likely baulk at, she is correct. A battle of sorts is being waged for the religious soul of China. To understand any society or culture, is to understand its history. And the recent history of China is one of turmoil and up rootedness and seemingly never-ending change. Sociology, since the time of Emile Durkheim, has known that religion is essential to the existence and stability of a society. So essential in fact, that Durkheim in his 1912 classic, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, argued that the sacred of any given society was the symbolic embodiment of society itself. Religion, in whatever form it took, was society worshipping itself. Religion provided this most basic and essential function- it literally held society together and provided the deep existential and psychological health for the members of that group to find enough contentment with life, so as not to devolve into the depths of painful and egocentric narcissism, a condition that inevitably leads to a society’s demise (Mestrovic 1992). So argued Durkheim, where one finds a society, so too will one find a religion. They are one in the same (Durkheim [1912]1995).
Yet, this is not the only take on religion and society, and it has not been without its revisions. Robert Bella’s (1967) famous “Civil Religion in America” demonstrated mechanism allowing for a plurality of religions proper, co-existing within one society, with the notion of civil religion and associated symbolism that links the various  groups to a larger shared identity housed in a quasi-religious, quasi-secular institution. Hence in the American experience, various religions co-exist under the sacred symbols of the flag, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the sacred values housed therein. Yet, within this claim, Bellah recognized problems on the horizon. He warned that American civil religion, borrowing symbolism and religious sentiment from Judeo-Christian traditions, must in a new globalized age move toward new symbols incorporated and fused from other traditions, as the American-experience moved beyond its borders and onto an international scene. To fail to do this, he warned, was to follow the steps of other nations who when confronted with a changing world and a new age, failed to generate a new set of religious symbols. The result as Bellah stated it, “weakened and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past” (1967: 17).

This is the religious and cultural challenge now faced by China in its own and uncertain “New Age.”

What is often not reported is that China, in less than a generation has managed to create one of the world’s largest middle classes. What is even more astonishing is that a generation ago, there was no middle class. While my students almost all come from indescribably poor rural areas, they stand on the cusp of a changed country. For the first time ever, they have within their reach homes, cars and material abundance that just a few decades ago was reserved for the ruling elite. This economic and cultural change, for all of its celebrated advancements, leaves them in a precarious situation. Entering a world vastly different from the Communist-dominated rural work units their parents labored under, the Chinese are now left to navigate a modern urban world with no hope or ability of past generations to offer any guidance. As one female student told me, “My parent’s ways are to backward. Life is different now. They are too old to understand what is going on. But I don’t understand it either. That’s my problem.“
China has traditionally been a culture firmly rooted in filial piety (Fei 1946 and 1992). Deeply different from religious forms we in the West are accustomed to, devotion to the family (most recognizably “religious” to the Western eye in the ancestor worship it often produces) nonetheless provided the same religious functions of uniting and binding, social control via ethical and moral regulations, and providence of meaning and purpose to life, that all religions provide. Yet with the Mao revolution, the family as the central unit and religious institution within Chinese society was violently weakened. But Chinese society did not dissolve. Instead, the family was replaced by the State, organized around the Communist-controlled work unit (Fong 2011). These functioned as social control, and provided a communal ethics and morality that placed the maintenance and advancement of the State as the very meaning and purpose of one’s life (Kleinman, et al. 2011). (See North Korea as another, and perhaps even more exaggerated example of a State religion). Mao was worshipped as the embodiment of the State, and the State was the sacred embodiment of the people themselves: a perfect example of a Durkhemian take on religion as society worshiping itself.
If one doubts the religious connection here in the transfer of religious sentiments from the family to the State, one only needs to see the religious-like effervescence culminating in China’s Cultural Revolution and other purges. In a religious fervor that surpasses any Western crusade, the Chinese turned on their own family members, much less anyone else accused of heresy and unorthodox beliefs. The Salem witch hunts were child’s games compared to the Cultural Revolution.
But as quickly as communism swept across China, since China’s opening up under the direction of Deng Xiaoping, capitalism appears to be eroding the unity provided by the older Communist secular religion. At the same time, as China is responding to a bustling Capitalist trade on its coastal front, mass migrations from the rural areas to cities makes one question what will become of the older filial piety that has been traditionally embedded in the Chinese character-type. Almost inevitably, the old live in the rural villages, while the youth, single and separated from their families, migrate to the factory towns mostly on the nation’s east coast. At last count a staggering 140 million were on the move (People’s Republic of China 2009). From the Communist-era reforms which sought to break the family as the center of Chinese society, to the one-child policy which furthered worked to limit the family, and now capitalism’s splitting of families as capital is chased, filial piety is under strong assault.
Both the family unit and the Communist State as conceived by Mao to take the place of the family, are now weakened. As Durkheimian religious institutions that bound the society together, they are growing old in the new China.  The result is a culture that is a hodge-podge of religions and quasi-religions, but nothing that holds the center. A plurality of religions exist here, but a new set of sacred civil-religious symbols has not yet coalesced to bind (or suppress) these groups under a common Chinese identity
The Chinese, in this classic anomic state, are for the time being left to individual devices. This “infinity of desires” for existential meaning manifests itself in a pervasive and deeply embedded search for spiritual outlets. A recent 2007 survey by Chinese academics found that despite the Communist Party’s official atheist stance, 1 in 3 Chinese now consider themselves religious (this is triple the previous estimate), and almost 2/3’s of the religious are under the age of 40 (Shijun and Zhongyu 2007). It is clear the Chinese are grasping for unifying moral and ethical codes to make sense of their new world.  The numerous religious pursuits mentioned above, and others not mentioned here, are examples.  As individuals, the Chinese have manifested a strong desire to seek religious sentiments in one form or multiple forms for an ethics and morality that will give them some set of guidelines and norms to navigate the rapid modernization their generation is witnessing.
What religious form will win out, if any, to hold the society together is not yet known. Consumerism, Taoism, Socialism, filial piety, Islam, Christianity, or some yet unknown, but uniquely Chinese form are all competitors. At this time in history, caught between the needed sacredly and emotionally infused religious symbols to rally around, but with no consensus on which ones, the Chinese as individuals, seem to have a strong desire to latch-on to some form, any form of sacred symbol. And so Mao bobble-heads compete with McDonalds and BMW, who compete with the ethnic Muslim minorities, who compete with my American Christian neighbors for the souls of the Chinese.  The Chinese seek though for their own well-being and direction, and latently, for the well-being and direction of their very culture.
So yes, my neighbor may be correct. China is a center-point of spiritual warfare. But more than souls, a culture is at stake.






REFERENCES
Bellah, Robert. 1967. “Civil Religion in America.” Daedalus 96: 1-21.
Durkheim, Emile. [1912]1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Translated by Karen E.   Fields, New York: Free Press.
Fei, Xiaotong. 1992. From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society. Translated by Gary G.   Hamilton and Wang Zheng. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Fei, Xiaotong. 1946. “Peasantry and Gentry: An Interpretation of Chinese Social Structure and    its Changes.” The American Journal of Sociology LII:1.
Fong, Vanessa. 2011. Paradise Redefined: Transnational Chinese Student and the Quest for         Flexible Citizenship in the Developed World. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Kleinman, Arthur, et al. 2011. “Remaking the Moral Person in China.” Pp. 1-35 in Deep China:   The Moral Life of the Person, What Anthropology and Psychiatry Tell Us about China          Today, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
Mestrovic, Stjepan. 1992. Durkheim and Postmodern Culture. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
People’s Republic of China. 2009. “PRC National Bureau of Statistics Annual Report.” Beijing,   China:National Bureau of Statistics.
Shijun, Tong and Liu Zhongyu. 2007. “Survey of Contemporary Chinese Religious Beliefs [in      Mandarin].” Oriental Outlook Weekly 6: 26-31.
United States Department of State. 2010. “International Religious Freedom Report.” Washington,            DC: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.


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