Studying Religion Is Revolutionary in China

Like pretty much everything else over there right now, religion is a growth industry in China. After decades of official repression a whole bunch of new religious movements—and, even more, new forms of old religions—are gathering steam. Trying to get a handle on this from back here in New York, I did an interview with Mayfair Yang, a UC Santa Barbara anthropologist who has just returned back to the area of rural China where she has been doing fieldwork for the last 20 years. Our conversation appears at The Immanent Frame today. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.