Islam in China has always been something of a mystery to me. Besides delicious halal food (lamian, kebabs, etc.) I didn’t really have any prior experience with or knowledge of Muslim traditions in China. For many Chinese people, non-Han ethnic groups are often viewed as exotic and quaint. Chinese Muslims account for a large proportion of ethnic minority groups, and although they are all categorized under a single religious belief, the Muslim population in China is an extremely diverse group of people. Turkic Muslims in the Far West regions of China have significantly different traditions from Hui Muslims, for example. While Hui Muslims benefit from minority classification and are relatively integrated into Han society, Uighurs from the Far West are viewed as potential terrorists; basically, views of Muslims in China go beyond religious belief alone. Despite this, the Muslim identity in China is ethnoreligious, which essentially confines those from Muslim ethnic groups to one set of religious beliefs.
One particular fact I found interesting was that China actually has more Muslims by population than many major Muslim countries, yet the percentage of Muslims in China account for just over 1% of the entire population. This begs the question: Are Muslims in China fairly represented by the government? While many Muslims in China receive and benefit from affirmative action policies, many Han Chinese people are still xenophobic and view Muslims, especially those who “look different” as potential threats.
The growth of religion in Chinese communities could largely be attributed to the “spiritual void” as we have discussed in class before. This familiar concept is described as a “spiritual crisis” in Yu’s paper and is likely caused by a multitude of factors, including a lack of religious development following the Cultural Revolution and the growth of corruption and materialism in a rapidly modernizing society. The efforts of Chinese people today to find a sense of spiritual awakening have led many of them into traps, temples and religious groups managed like for-profit companies, taking advantage of those who don’t know any better.
Much of the Buddhism practiced in China today is considered “Lay Buddhism,” with “incense burners” or “xiangke” simply going to temples to ask for favors from gods. While Tibetan Buddhism has gained a wider following in Mainland China in the recent years, any traditions involving Tibet are heavily politicized and risky to take part in largely due to complicated politics which can be associated with possible involvement with Taiwan. For many Chinese people, including Taiwanese, the mystique surrounding Tibetan Buddhism has always been a major factor contributing to its popularity.
While Tibet and Taiwan have had previous connections politically, I find it rather interesting that the Mainland and Taiwan governments somehow always find a way to politicize basically every single topic. While the Tibetan issue is definitely a geopolitical issue, it is equally important as a religious and spiritual issue.
The Chinese people’s rediscovered fascination for religion seems particularly interesting because it primarily focuses around the economization of religion, which just so happens to be against the doctrines of many belief systems. Through the reading, I found the teachings of Daoism to entirely contradict the practices of many Chinese temples today. Daoism preaches against material possessions, yet modern Chinese people are extremely materialistic. Daoism’s strive for emptiness and The Way’s vagueness and obscurity do not seem appealing to many Chinese people today.
Instead, modern Chinese temples are run like businesses. Investors build temples in prime locations in order to draw visitors in hopes of stimulating local economies. Everything is focused on a return in investment as temples are built to appeal to visitors and patrons beyond simply acting as a place of worship. This materialistic approach to religion is commonly found all throughout China. This summer, I stayed in Shanghai and visited the City God Temple (城隍庙) and found the entire area around the temple to be commercialized. Although the City God Temple is technically a Daoist temple, none of what I saw remotely resembled the teachings presented in the Daodejing. As a tourist attraction, the City God Temple required tickets to enter (which could be said of any Chinese tourist attraction) and visitors prayed and left offerings at various shrines depending on what they were praying for (marriage, fertility, prosperity, etc.) All in all, these practices seemed rather capitalistic and superficial.
The resurgence of religion in China seems promising in filling the spiritual void, however, the superficial nature of modern Chinese people may undermine the efforts to promote a sense of “Chineseness” through religion.
Through this reading, l gained some insight into the different religious practices of various Chinese communities around the world. I found it particularly interesting that Chinese diaspora outside of Mainland China actually preserved Chinese traditions more effectively than within China. Because of the lack of religious institutions following the Cultural Revolution, I found it interesting that local religious groups were formed in the absence of temples.
While in China it seems that temple revival movements came in direct conflict with modernization, I found that communities outside of Mainland China were modern yet preserved their religious practices. When I went to Taiwan and the Mainland over the summer, I remember seeing “南无阿弥陀佛” (Namo Amitabha) plastered on walls and telephone poles throughout the countryside between Taitung and Hualien, and even throughout Taipei. This is particularly interesting to me because it seems that religious practice in Taiwan has generally grown despite the original KMT policies to ban “backward” Chinese traditions in lieu of Christianity.
It was saddening to read about the flourishing cultural practices of overseas Chinese in comparison to the lack of cultural identity within the Mainland. One example that stood out mentioned Han Chinese treating the cultural traditions of ethnic minorities as oddities while forgetting that Han traditions were at one point in time very similar. This behavior can be widely seen in any Chinese travel show in which celebrities gawk at the “strange” and “mystic” practices of ethnic minority groups.
As modern China continues to rediscover its cultural identity, it must find a way to develop modern resources while preserving its traditional practices.
China’s rich history has left it with a very abundant cultural dynamic. I find it interesting that in the process of modernization and economic liberalization, China has always found a way to commercialize essentially every single one of its cultural relics. In this aspect, China seems to be doing capitalism better than the west, essentially commercializing history. While this “cultural materialism” assures the preservation of these cultural artifacts, it simultaneously degrades their inherent significance.
Today, I feel that Chinese people are left with a new form of Confucianism, one that is used to promote nationalism and as a symbol of “Chineseness” rather than the philosophical beliefs traditionally associated with Confucius. The text mentions that people often treat Confucius as a god with the power to influence educational success and pray to him to pass exams. Rather than following the teachings of Confucius, many Chinese people are instead following Confucius himself, much like a deity. This loss of moral guidance has led many Chinese people to seek refuge in religion, whether it is Tibetan Buddhism, Protestantism, or Humanist Buddhism. However, a large proportion of Chinese people are also trying to fill this spiritual void with material possessions under the guise of religious belief.
This happens to be a common occurrence in China, as traditional ideas have begun to be revitalized, modern depictions and adaptations of centuries-old relics have become very popular due to a growing middle class. While the Chinese economy is seeing progress, are these traditional Chinese ideas losing their true meanings?
The text this week referenced a quote made by Jackie Chan regarding the supposed nonessential nature of freedom. This statement seems rather strange considering the fact that Chan’s family hails from Hong Kong, where many Mainland Chinese immigrate to in order to pursue freedom. The text attributed this statement to three characteristics of “Contemporary Confucianism,” which I can definitely understand, but disagree with. These attributes include an intuitive group morality, the moral critique of youth, and freedom with Confucian characteristics.
While these views may seem normal from a Chinese perspective, I believe that these supposed characteristics may be a bit hypocritical, at least from a Western perspective. This romanticization of the past happens all throughout history, and I believe that this case is yet another example of that. While proponents support a return to “Confucian values,” these individuals fail to realize that China was not nearly as developed in the past, and closing itself off from the world once again would just result in a repetition of the events of the late Qing Dynasty.
With the widespread availability of the Internet in China, legally questionable content (from the CCP’s point of view) is often exposed to the public before government censors are able to react, which results in situations similar to those of Yang Jia and Deng Yujia and mentioned in the text (115). Perhaps this romanticization of the past is just a reactionary response to a modernizing world and the cynicism associated with it, a contrast to globalization. While “Contemporary Confucianism” may appeal to the public, I believe that it’s definitely a step in the wrong direction as it severely limits individuality, a trait that is often lacking in Eastern traditions.
It’s interesting to me how Confucianism has become such an integral part of Chinese culture. Back in elementary school, I remember going to Chinese after-school and having to memorize the San Zi Jing, which is essentially a Classical Chinese text written in the Song Dynasty used to teach children Confucian values. I remember my Chinese teacher explaining each three-character section of the text and describing the allusions to folk stories that were constantly made in throughout the text. I still remember parts of it today because of how much it was instilled in me. What I find particularly interesting though is that despite China’s infatuation(?) with Confucian ideals, it still very much isn’t considered a religion by most people, but rather a set of ideals people strive to achieve. Growing up in a Chinese household, filial piety has definitely been a subject I was constantly reminded of, as well as other concepts including the importance of knowledge and integrity. In today’s society, one can still find applications of these ideals, which draw parallels to many other belief systems which that are generally referred to as religions.
One point in Sun’s text mentioned the possibility of a “civil religion,” which appears to be a promising solution to the “religious void” in China. Although it may be nearly impossible to implement, the novel idea still seems intriguing. In order to fill this void, a mixture of Confucian and Christian values could potentially be used to promote “traditional” cultural values, nationalism, and a relatable set of concepts to the rest of the world.
After reading these two texts, I feel like there are a lot of similarities between Chinese and Western societies when it comes to religious belief. Although the media often demonizes Chinese people as irreligious or immoral, the actions of individual Chinese people prove otherwise. Many Chinese people seek to fill a
“spiritual void” in order to make sense of this world, much like many people in Western societies. Despite official government policies of atheism, even high-ranking government officials feel this need to have a spiritual belief system. This isn’t necessarily a hypocritical act, but rather an aspect of human nature, finding somewhere you belong.
The actions of many modern Chinese people in regard to religion are not homogeneous. Just like Christians, Chinese Buddhists use religion for problem-solving, seeking spiritual meaning, and as a lifestyle. While many people may view this simply as a “casual” form of religiosity, this occurs all the time in Western countries. Many people view China through a strictly political lens when instead they should be viewing it (and other countries as well) from all perspectives, including a socioeconomic one. In order to truly be aware of the complexities of Chinese culture, one must understand the vital role religion plays.
I feel as though religion acts as a humanizing factor and a better understanding of others’ beliefs can bring people together. Despite all the turmoil in this world, religion still plays a role in the daily lives of many people, and in order for this world to become more just, a more tolerant and forgiving society needs to be more appreciative of the diversity that surrounds all of us.
In comparison to the religious climate in China following the Cultural Revolution, religion in Taiwan was much less restrictive. Although there were government-sanctioned religious organizations, religious groups were generally allowed to freely practice their beliefs. What really interested me was the development of rational-ethical religion: a belief system that downplays doctrines to reduce religion to ethics. The development of “this-worldly Buddhism” was basically justified by the belief that “one must enter the world in order to leave the world” and that salvation can be found by bringing compassion into ordinary life. This was fascinating to me because once again, typically Chinese religious beliefs began to take on aspects of Christian tradition. Rather than focusing on seeking otherworldly satisfaction, followers of these new varieties of Buddhism and Daoism began to work to improve their communities. Despite being religious groups, these associations began to take on humanist qualities to help those in need.
The extent of which these organizations promulgate their beliefs is astounding. As a Chinese American coming from Southern California, I’ve spent much of my childhood at a Chinese school run by the Tzu Chi Foundation and went to Hsi Lai Temple at least twice each year. However, the way many Chinese people follow these organizations is not necessarily in a religious context. The Chinese school I attended didn’t force its religious doctrine on students, and many of the Chinese people I knew simply visited the temple for the sake of tradition. Essentially, these rational-ethical religious groups have become much more than simply religions. Because of their wide range of influence, from running hospitals to schools to media, have these originally religious groups evolved to become cultural organizations?
After reading the assignment, I started to wonder how Falungong became such a large organization. Was the growth of Falungong a consequence of China’s volatile religious history? Due to its connections with Qigong, Falungong was originally seen as an innocuous spiritual organization. However, through several years of policy changes, it continued to develop into a cult.
Falungong’s growth in China is centered around one man, Li Hongzhi. From the reading, it appears that Falungong largely targeted retired people and marginalized individuals. In a sense, this strategy is rather ingenious, as these groups are particularly vulnerable and are easily influenced by outside ideas. However, the rapid growth of Falungong still doesn’t seem justified. The teachings of Falungong contain apocalyptic and messianic themes that just seem absolutely preposterous to any layperson. For example, Zhuan Falun claims that Li Hongzhi himself is the omniscient and omnipotent savior of the entire universe. Zhuan Falun also includes heavily misogynistic themes, criticizing men with long hair and women with short hair as causing an imbalance in Yin and Yang.
One aspect that may have contributed to the rise of Falungong could be due to its heavily centralized nature. Li is able to control his followers by claiming they must defend Falungong in order to attain enlightenment. Li essentially controls the entire organization’s financial and bureaucratic functions and is able to use the internet to circulate his doctrine. He goes so far as to prevent followers from speaking about Falungong but rather limiting their speech to reading from approved texts. Li’s overwhelming control over the organization essentially allows him to establish and maintain his cult of personality.