After reading part of Qigong Fever, I believe I gained a better understanding of the Qigong Movement in China. Originally meant to be used in conjunction with modern (Western) medicine, I feel that Qigong may have grown out of control of the Communist government. While it was originally intended to be a strictly secular form of medical treatment, meant to be used on rural citizens, it eventually differentiated itself from its Western medicine counterparts in order to rid itself of “bourgeois” elements.
I found it interesting that Qigong attempted to eradicate superstition when it itself is based entirely on superstition. The Qigong Movement seems to have developed a pseudo-intellectual following in which these superstitious elements were proven in purportedly reputable laboratories under scientific conditions. Followers of Qigong also had a slew of reasons or continuing to believe in Qigong even after various experiments have disproven it. These various justifications supported their unfounded beliefs, with arguments along the lines of: “it appears contrary to science because modern science has not yet found adequate concepts and methods to observe, define, and explain the phenomena” (modernism). This argument essentially compares Qigong leaders to Copernicus and Galileo, whose beliefs were considered false and widely ridiculed in their times. However, they fail to mention that their findings were eventually accepted academically.
Another aspect I thought was relevant was the nature that Qigong eventually developed. Practitioners eventually began to make completely arbitrary claims that were clearly lies. One “master” claimed that he used his powers to prevent mosquitoes from stinging humans worldwide. These bold claims were easily tested, and when proven false, led to a loss of credibility and trust.
Regarding “Can’t Buy Me Love” by John Osburg and excerpts of Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
Osburg and Osnos’ works describe a very different China than what we have previously learned in class. In a modernizing world, China is no longer in a time of hardship, and religious belief is seeing a resurgence. Young people today are flirting with the idea of religion, many seeking refuge in Buddhist monasteries or “home church” groups.
This return of spiritualism seems rather contradictory to the CPC’s previous policies regarding religion. However, these policies have changed several times throughout history. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party was rather lenient toward the religious freedom of citizens. These frequent changes in policies, however, have left a profound effect on Chinese people’s attitudes toward religion. In Osnos’ Spiritual Void, he describes a modern China in which middle-aged women are unaware of Confucian traditions. However, I do find China’s newfound interest in religion to be interesting as it may potentially lead to an eventual liberalization of the Chinese government.
Osburg and Osnos differ in their beliefs as Osnos mentioned that he believes that China will eventually open up spiritually while Osburg believes that young Chinese people are more materialistic and would rather spend their time earning money than fighting for democratic change. Both of these seem like valid beliefs as the Chinese domestic affairs are heavily dependent on the current president’s policies. Xi Jinping has been a comparably conservative leader as seen in his policies over the past five years, including heavily censoring “morally obscene” content on television, a major gripe of young Chinese people today.
Honestly, I believe that the future of China is really unpredictable. The only thing for certain is uncertainty.
Chapter Five of The Religious Question in Modern China focuses on government attempts to eradicate religion throughout China. However, it also elaborates on the effects such policies had on rural societies in China. I found the details regarding KMT policies to reconstruct traditional holidays and festivals to be secular and nationalist to be particularly interesting. The way the nationalist government attempted to lower the risk of insurrection, especially in the countryside, was to change the very meaning of traditional cultural events. For example, Nationalists associated Guandi with Yue Fei, Turing him into a national god of martial resistance against the Japanese.
Another interesting detail mentioned in the text was the varying degrees of success of such policies. Urban areas were typically more easily influenced by these new policies while rural areas were more obstinate. However, a dichotomy existed between different regions of the country as well. Northern areas were supposedly more willing to make the switch from organized religion to redemptive societies while southern areas (the text specifically mentions the Jiangnan region and Fujian) were relatively more devoted to tradition.
The KMT’s religious policies definitely left an impact on China as a whole. The whole period following the fall of the Qing Dynasty was especially tumultuous in regard to religion in China as policies detrimental to religion continued to be implemented. In essence, opposition to state religious policies was indeed logical, as attacks on religion were tantamount to direct attacks on local identities, tradition, memories, and culture.
Chapter Four of The Religious Question in Modern China focuses on the effects of a tumultuous period of modernization of China. Two main focuses of the era were “redemptive societies” which conformed to the Christian model of religion (despite being inherently Confucian, Buddhist, or Taoist) and the secularization of tradition by preserving the “national essence”. Through my reading, I found that these attempts to “preserve” Chinese culture ultimately resulted in a perverse conglomeration of new and old.
Throughout our studies thus far, I’ve noticed that the influence of Western culture and religion in China often resulted in syncretism, which played a large role in the changing religious dynamic. For example, spirit writing societies purportedly received revelations from Leo Tolstoy, George Washington, Muhammad, and Jesus alongside the more traditionally recognized figures Laozi, Confucius, and Buddha. In addition, other aspects I found interesting were the establishment of spiritual healing and Lingxue (the study of spirits) as “sciences”.
The secularization of tradition also resulted in yet another instance of pseudo-academic practices when it came to traditional Chinese medicine. In order to maintain this “cultural heritage,” TCM underwent a significant overhaul in order to “scientize” traditional remedies.
The contrast between traditional Chinese practices and Western tradition just seems so large that any meaningful transition from one to the other would certainly result in a significantly distinct medley of ideas and traditions. However, the results of syncretism in China still seem rather abnormal, or at least unprecedented, to me.
After reading chapters two and three of The Religious Question in Modern China, it appears that the Chinese experience with modernization was a rather tumultuous period of time especially due to the changing religious landscape. In any case, it seems that the Chinese at the time were influenced heavily by western conceptions of religion. Because of this, it is difficult to distinguish between religion and superstition. In fact, I was fascinated to learn that many words for western religious concepts simply did not exist in China prior to the late 19th century, including 宗教 (religion)、迷信 (superstition)、and 神权 (divine authority). These terms were borrowed from the Japanese and did not exist in the Chinese lexicon before.
Another aspect that interested me was the idea that Western conceptions of religion began to make their way into China, as Confucianism was proposed as a state religion. This is interesting because many Chinese today do not consider Confucianism as a religion (宗教) but rather an ideology (思想). As one group of Chinese people attempted to create a more “Chinese” state religion, more ambitious scholars viewed maintaining a uniquely Chinese identity as shameful. Kang Youwei, a scholar and political thinker, once said, “Foreigners come in our temples, take photographs of the idols, show these photographs to each other and laugh.” This insecurity and shamefulness also appear to have led Chinese scholars and religious officials to begin to reinvent religion in China.
I found it interesting that in an attempt to do so, some Buddhist groups felt the need to alter Buddhism to be more similar to Christianity. Changing Buddhism from a more spiritual institution to one that shared similarities with Protestantism: a religion that is text-based, ethical, socially engaged, and “humanist”. This came to me as a surprise because it appeared that in an attempt to adopt a more “Christian” or “Western” model, Chinese religion lost a lot of its original identity.
After reading the second half of Boxers, I noticed several instances of parallel events between Boxers and Saints. I found it interesting that Gene Luen Yang’s depictions of Guan Yin in both Four Girl and Little Bao’s experiences seem to demonstrate the permanence of a uniquely Chinese identity even when confronted with western, Christian tradition. In Saints, Jesus is depicted as a hybrid of the traditional crucifix image and Guan Yin’s thousand arms and eyes. This seems to be yet another instance of syncretism, which we have discussed briefly before in class. I find this interesting because this seems to be the case for many of China’s interactions with the West. On many occasions, Chinese philosophy and religion have been merged with other belief systems.
In both graphic novels, the main protagonists believe that they are doing the work of God, however, their definitions of God differ. Although Four Girl/Vibiana works for a Christian mission, I feel that she simply uses her religion as a means to escape her family. She provides the Christian community with services (such as taking care of orphans) in exchange for room and board. However, her perception of Christianity doesn’t seem particularly genuine. On the other hand, Little Bao’s ties to Chinese tradition run very deep. He is very invested in his beliefs and goes so far as to fight those who do not agree with his beliefs. In fact, Little Bao and Four Girl act as foils to each other due to the disparate differences in their personalities.
After reading the first half of Boxers, I personally think that the story has a much more interesting plot despite the two graphic novels sharing related storylines. Boxers references a lot of Chinese folklore which reminds me of the stories my mom would tell me as a kid. Compared to Saints, Boxers contains much more typically “Chinese” symbolism whereas Saints overlooks a lot of rich Chinese history and folklore.
The way religion is treated in China and referenced in Boxers and Saints is rather interesting to me. The western missionaries are not necessarily attempting to convert the Chinese people from atheism, but actually attempt to prevent them from practicing their “heathen” traditions. As we’ve discussed before in class, Confucianism and many aspects of Buddhism are intertwined in the Chinese culture and identity. Although today, many Chinese people consider themselves atheist or agnostic, they still practice traditional holidays with ties to folk religion (myself included) which may seem strange from a Western perspective. Personally, my parents consider themselves Buddhist, but don’t really practice the religion outside of a few traditional holidays.
I believe that Boxers and Saints attempts to demonstrate more than just the role of missionaries in China, but rather the cruelty faced by many Chinese people and the helplessness they felt when faced with great adversity. Instead of simply being a battle between religion and irreligion, the “Big Sword Society” is portrayed as guardians protecting the core identity of China and the missionaries are shown as evildoers attempting to erase this history.
Saints by Gene Luen Yang is a rather interesting graphic novel as it follows the life of a young girl throughout a tumultuous period of Chinese history. Chinese culture is heavily influenced by folk tradition as well as the teachings of several philosophers, and aspects of such traditions are evident throughout the work. Although Saints is fictional, it was interesting to see how interactions between Chinese people and Christian missionaries led to increasingly violent events. The character development of Four Girl or Viviana, as she came to be known, was particularly fascinating for me as although she attempted to emulate Joan of Arc, she died in vain.
As a Chinese American, I found this graphic novel to be rather pertinent to my personal experience. I come from a predominantly Asian community in Southern California, and many of my Asian friends are indeed Christians. It seems interesting to me that just a bit over a hundred years ago Chinese Christians were seen as traitors in the eyes of many Chinese people, yet today many overseas Chinese embrace “western” religious beliefs.
The introductory section of The Religious Question in Modern China by Goosaert and Palmer provides more factual information regarding the events that Four Girl experienced, including the Taiping Rebellion which her father participated in as well as the Boxer Uprising which Four Girl herself played a role in. It’s interesting to see how historical events are contextualized in a work of fiction, as although these historical events are significantly simplified, Saints provides an easily digestible introduction to the history of religion in China.