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Pacific Rim Report No. 19, March 2001
Nourishing the Spirit: Social Change and Spiritual Development in China Today



On February 12 and 13, 2001 a diverse group of scholars gathered at the University of San Francisco to explore the tumultuous changes in China today and the human crises generated by these upheavals. The colloquium was convened by Dr. Xiaoxin Wu, director of the Ricci Institute. Its goal was a cross-disciplinary examination of the impact of social modernization on the struggle for life meaning in China today.

Colloquium participants were united not by similar academic perspective but by shared interest in the spiritual development of people in China. Discussions were structured to take special advantage of the diverse disciplines and cross-cultural heritages of the invited members. Eight China-born scholars joined nine colleagues from North America. Of these participants, six are social scientists, seven are theologians or religion scholars, and four are educators whose scholarly interest focuses on China.

Dr. Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and Dr. James D. Whitehead, distinguished fellows of the EDS-Stewart Chair for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the Ricci Institute, chaired the colloquium sessions and subsequently prepared abridged versions of the papers.

In his keynote address, Dr. Richard P. Madsen, professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, describes moral situations that confront four segments of contemporary Chinese society.

Dr. Fenggang Yang, department of sociology at the University of Southern Maine, identifies spiritual aspirations of three distinct generations in China. Dr. Lizhu Fan, department of sociology at Fudan University in Shanghai, reports on research among workers in the newly industrialized city of Shenzhen. Dr. Diane Obenchain, Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at Drew University, examines the recent development of academic programs of Religious Studies in China. Dr. Zongkun Liu, visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union/Berkeley, reflects on Protestant Christianity’s presence in China today.

We gratefully acknowledge the EDS-Stewart Chair for Chinese-Western Cultural History at the USF Ricci Institute
for funding this issue of Pacific Rim Report and sponsorship of this colloquium. If you would like to subscribe to Pacific Rim Report, please email us.


Social Change and Spirituality in China Today
by Richard P. Madsen, University of California, San Diego


There is a painful contradiction between what modernity promises and what it delivers. It promises, indeed demands, intellectual, moral, and political emancipation. The modern person is supposed to be critically rational: to find the truth for one rather than accepting it from authority or tradition, to choose for oneself (as Nietzsche put it) the scales of what is good, and to govern oneself through democratic institutions. Yet while promising emancipation, modernity delivers an iron cage. Even as modern people aspire to express themselves as autonomous individuals, their choices are firmly channeled into paths laid down by the modern market economy and bureaucratic state.

China has been proceeding through a wrenching new phase in its modernization process, which offers new promises for emancipation and yet delivers new forms of the iron cage. China has entered what some have called a "post-socialist", a "market socialist," or "late-socialist" world. The socialist state has by no means disappeared, and many important legacies of the socialist era endure, but the state does not have the power it once had to dominate the popular imagination. Market reforms have given citizens unprecedented levels of economic independence. Loosening of the system of household residence permits have made it possible for citizens to evade many of the structures of state surveillance and control. The emergence of a consumer culture has given people paths other than the political through which to seek social status. And new media of communication have broken the government’s monopoly over information. While still an intrusive presence, the state is not looming as large in Chinese people’s lives as it once did.

What is looming ever large, on the other hand, are the exciting new opportunities and terrifying new pressures of a global market economy and the models of aspiration conveyed by a global popular culture. China’s economy of course is still only partly integrated into the global economy. But throughout the 1990s increasing levels of foreign investment and trade were powerful stimulants to Chinese industry, and this process will accelerate as China enters the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, parts of China have undergone a "consumer revolution," driven by commercial advertising, pleasure seeking, and entertainment, which, even when domestically produced, take their lead from the global "infotainment" industry. These processes of globalization affect most people in China, at least indirectly, but they affect them in very different ways.

The lack of uniformity makes the process extremely complex. Different sectors of the society, for instance the urban sector and the rural sector, are becoming transformed at different rates. Some institutions—like the economic institutions—are changing quickly, others—like the political institutions—are changing more slowly. Differences in the extent and pace of change lead to new forms of conflict.

The intersections of all these forces produce a crazy-quilt pattern of diverse moral situations. Each situation is characterized by a set of different constraints and different possibilities for emancipation. Individuals within each situation face different kinds of spiritual challenges.

Underneath these patterns, we can analytically distinguish four principal situations caused by the consequences of the modernization process for social integration and moral regulation. Modernization—and especially the hypermodern, globalizing phase of modernization— transforms the primordial bonds of family and local community that have traditionally anchored people within a meaningful world. In traditional societies at their best, the external, material practices of family and community incarnate a transcendent meaning and value. Modernization tends to suck the meaning out of these structures. The economic and political pressures of modernization force family and community members to use one another to attain the increasing amounts of money and power necessary for survival. At the same time, the spirit of skepticism attendant upon modernization makes people doubtful, or even cynical, about the deeper values embedded in the customary life of village and family. This leads to our first moral situation: the moral implosion of the traditional family and community.

In a parallel process, modernization opens up new opportunities for mobility, making it possible for people to gain at least partial independence from natal family and community. This leads to our second moral situation: the formation of migrant communities in which people are suspended between loss of the past and hope for a new identity.

Modernization—especially globalizing modernization—also produces an ascendancy of systems for accumulating money and power over the "lifeworld" of interpersonal communication and moral solidarity. One consequence of this, which especially befalls the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, is the perfection of methods to externally control behavior. This leads to our third moral situation: the intensification of control over labor. Another consequence, however, which befalls those who are successful, is liberation of ambition and desire through opening of labor and consumer markets. This leads to our fourth moral situation: the creation of an enterprising self.

These situations are not only characterized by distinctive economic and political structures, but—more importantly for this discussion of "spiritual development"—by distinctive categories of thinking, textures of feeling, and horizons of aspiration. Persons within these situations face characteristic temptations to deny the threats to their dignity. Some respond by constructing a tissue of illusions. Others attempt to face up to reality by taking responsibility for their lives.

I would like to illustrate these moral situations with examples from a forthcoming book Popular China, edited by Perry Link, Paul Pickowicz, and myself. This volume incorporates a range of new methods to explore the inner life of ordinary people in China today.

1. Imploding Bonds of Extended Family and Corporate Community

Rural China—especially rural areas far removed from urban centers—is lagging well behind urban China in its rate of economic development. In some places important progress has been made in using village elections to choose local leaders. But in many places politics is under the control of corrupt "local emperors," who exact onerous "fees" for their personal use and mete out arbitrary punishments to those who get in their way. The social imagination in such villages still sees the community as consisting of families, not independent households. Within the family, the individual is seen as of less significance than the welfare of the family as a whole; and females are seen to properly be under the authority of men. (Most of the strongholds of the Catholic faith are in just such villages.)

The feeling tone of such villages is an intricate mix of hot and cold. To get along with one’s neighbors, especially one’s powerful neighbors, one often has to diplomatically repress feelings of injury and resentment. But too much quiescence can be seen as a sign of weakness, inviting exploitation, so that on the proper occasion, one has to be ready to react loudly, dramatically, and even violently.

In the Maoist era, it was virtually impossible for residents to move out of such villages and villages had little communication with the outside world. The horizons of aspiration of present day villagers have widened considerably. Now many villagers, especially the relatively young, move frequently in search of work in local towns and in far away cities. But it is still difficult to permanently change one’s residence. Meanwhile, even remote villages have television and radio. For some villagers these new horizons offer bracing hopes for a richer, fuller life. Sometimes, however, for those who have little practical way to realize these hopes, the result can be an even more agonizing discontent. In Popular China, Paul Pickowicz and Liping Wang describe the consequences of such discontent on rural women. Their report is based on stories told by women themselves in the Beijing journal Rural Women Knowing All.

Consider this example of women subject to arranged marriage, a still common practice in many rural families, where the happiness of the conjugal couple is less valued than their contribution to the wealth and status of the family as a whole. Village women are somewhat more aware now that they have legal rights in such matters and that they can appeal to sympathetic supporters outside the family. But they also recognize that in contemporary China many arranged marriages are motivated by distinctively commercial considerations that have come to prevail in post-socialist society. To put it bluntly, many rural women understand that cashing in on arranged marriages is an important way for families to meet the increased financial burdens that are a result of greater integration (even if indirect) with a global economy.

Zhang Zhenlan, a resident of Ningjin county in Shandong, wrote to Rural Women about her own arranged marriage in the early 1990s. "I was only eighteen when I was engaged," she lamented. "As much as the terms of the engagement sounded nice," she recalled, "I went through the day of the engagement in tears. I felt like I was being sold." The youngest child in the family, Zhang had no doubt that her mother loved her. But she could not help wondering how her mother "had the heart to sell her own daughter."

Efforts were made to convince the teenager that the primary factor in the arrangement was the political and social status of the young man, the son of a village official. The head of the village committee, who served as the matchmaker in this arrangement, insisted that it was an honor for Zhang’s family to be singled out in this way. Other young women were said to be eager to marry the young man. Her mother asserted that the family should not "miss the opportunity to be honored in this way," but Zhang claims that she saw through this rhetorical façade.

The fact behind the story is that Zhang had a twenty-four year old brother who was not yet married. Village women had been gossiping for some time about the brother, because it was rare for a young man to be that old and without a marriage prospect. Deeply concerned about the family’s reputation, Zhang’s mother was exceedingly anxious to locate a marriage partner for him and a daughter-in-law for herself. Despite the shortage of eligible women in many villages, the mother was on the verge of finalizing a match for the son in the weeks just before Zhang’s own arrangement was announced. The problem was that Zhang’s family did not have the money for the bride price, so the son’s arrangement was in jeopardy.

As Zhang tells it, she realized at once that the news of her own engagement a few days later was a case of "getting wool from a donkey," that is, of getting something of real value from an unlikely source. The parents told the village official that the bride price for Zhang Zhenlan would be 800 yuan. As soon as an agreement was reached, a second understanding was worked out to pay the same sum, 800 yuan, to the family of the prospective daughter-in-law. Zhang, commenting on the inhumanity of the process, later wrote, "This was like trading a sack of sorghum for a sack of millet." In her engagement day she hid in her room staring at the ceiling as tears rolled down her face.

How do women—and for that matter men—make sense of this situation; being stuck in a corporate family while not being able to believe that such an arrangement is the inevitable part of a natural cosmic order? Sometimes they resist, invoking the vaguely formulated rights of the new marriage law, but there is little social support for this. Sometimes they seek to run away, which is more possible now that rural people have the right to travel outside the village to earn cash and to engage in various commercial activities. But the pattern of rural migration for rural people since the 1980s is for husbands to venture out to the cities to find work and for wives to remain at home to tend to framing and household matters. However, men who achieve economic success away from home (where village ethical norms cannot be enforced) are often tempted to engage in extramarital affairs and even to abandon their wives in favor of other women. A solution, which the feminist editors of Rural Women advocate, would be the establishment of more effective divorce laws. But given the male bias in rural communities, that is a long-term prospect. As a consequence of situations that seem almost hopeless, a great number of rural women develop mental health problems and a surprising number commit suicide. (According to the journal Rural Women, the suicide rate among Chinese rural women is reportedly the highest in the world.) Others resort to violence against their husbands, although these women are more likely to be the victims of domestic violence themselves.

Thus, the advent of market reforms has made life freer for many rural people. But it has increased the pressures on others, especially women. For those trapped in such a situation, there is the temptation to resign oneself to the situation as a bad fate. But there is also the possibility to struggle for personal empowerment, even though the process may be lonely, physically demanding, and emotionally embarrassing. There is danger that too much resignation can turn into self-destructive despair. But there is also the danger that a hightened sense of personal empowerment could lead to ugly, and perhaps self-defeating, violence. An ultimate solution would entail a change in familial institutions to meet modern standards of gender justice.

2. Formation of Migrant Communities

Perhaps 200 million rural people attempt to leave behind such dilemmas by seeking work in cities. This "floating population" of labor migrants, however, can not completely leave behind their rural communities and the associated moral order. They are not eligible for the rights associated with permanent membership in cities. So they live an existence as sojourners, albeit sometimes long-term sojourners, in the metropolitan world of commerce and industry.

The social imagination of such migrants sees their world as populated with fellow migrants (waidiren) from their home region or elsewhere, along with brokers and permanent city residents. Brokers, often personally connected with the migrants’ place of origin, guide the flow of migrants into various jobs, from factory work, to domestic service, to day labor, to begging. Since the migrants are protected by few enforceable laws, they are subject to exploitative treatment from bosses and arbitrary treatment from the police. (They are often driven out of the cities on the eve of important national holidays and when the authorities want to impress foreign delegations, such as delegation evaluating Beijing’s bid to host the Olympics.) Yet they can enjoy a measure of freedom, sometimes more effective freedom than they would have experienced in their home communities. And they can defend their interests by solidarity with fellow migrants, especially those from the same hometown. Their categories for viewing the world make important distinctions between "insiders" and "outsiders", between those who can and cannot be trusted.

From the (admittedly meager) evidence we have presented in our book, the emotional life of such migrants is shaped by the demands of social performance. Frontstage, in their dealings with outsiders, they project feelings of deference, and they carefully conceal feelings of resentment. Backstage, they allow themselves a more spontaneous emotional expression, although here too, they have to make fine-grained distinctions between who can or cannot be trusted.

Their horizons of aspiration are wider than those who never left the village, but their horizons are not projected forward, toward a deeper embrace of the urban world. Instead they focus backward, in a hope colored by nostalgic memory. Their hope is to return someday to their rural homes a little richer and wiser, able to enjoy the good traditional values of the countryside without having to endure the harshness of rural life.

Here are a few examples of people living in such a moral situation. The first is from a chapter on "Beggars" co-authored by Leila Fernandez-Stembridge and myself. It is the story of Lu Xiumai, a beggar who solicits alms in front of the Beijing Zoo, as told to the journalist Yu Xiu. Lu Xiumei invites the journalist to talk with her in the evening in the small shantytown where Lu Xiumei lives. When the journalist meets her, Lu Xiumei has combed her hair and replaced her dirty begging rags with a neat though faded dress. She is relaxed and friendly. She came from a modest, but by no means desperately poor, farm family. She had tested into upper middle school and hoped to go to a university someday. But when she was eighteen years old, she was raped by an older unmarried man in her village and became pregnant. Because of social pressure, her family forced her to abandon her schooling and marry the rapist. After her child was born, her husband became disabled in a farming accident. To get money to pay for her husband’s medical bills as well as to provide for her daughter, Lu joined the flow of migrants to Beijing. To get work, she had to go through a man from her village who acted as a broker for people from her region. But the job market was tight and the broker decided that Lu had the kind of appearance that would enable her to be very successful as a beggar. And thus she ended up on her mat in front of the Beijing Zoo. Although there is plenty to be outraged about in this story, Lu does not see herself as a victim. In some ways she has more control over her destiny now than when she was in the village. Assigned to a choice location for begging, she is making more money than she could have made in many other unskilled jobs available for migrant workers. She is using the money not just for herself but to fulfill her responsibilities toward her family. She knows how to put on a good performance to attract alms, but she sees it as a performance, and sees begging as a profession (zhiye) with a time–honored history in China.

Although Lu Xiumei’s story seems extreme, it is not radically different from the stories of the more "normal" migrants presented by Li Zhang in her chapter. "We are like fallen leaves in the wind," says one such migrant, a woman named Yang from Henan. "Who knows where the wind will take us tomorrow?" In Li Zhang’s summary of migrant experience (paraphrased from her essay in Popular China):

Many migrant workers come to the cities not only because they want to earn cash to support their families but also because they want to see the world (jian shimian). Prior to their departure, they tend to hold romanticized visions and high expectations of modern urban life as portrayed in movies and television shows. Yet almost as soon as they arrive in the city, their dreams are shattered by the harsh reality and urban prejudice against migrant outsiders. One young migrant, Zhao, explained his disappointment: "Before I thought that since Beijing is the capital, its people must be very polite, open-minded, and well educated. But now I can only say that Beijing people are parochial, arrogant, and intolerant toward outsiders like us. Derogatory terms such as "country bumpkins" and "stinky peasants" are typically used by urbanites to refer to migrants. And in everyday life, migrant workers are subject to arbitrary questioning and personal searches by the police on the street. Such urban prejudice reinforces migrants’ senses of alienation and inferiority.

While fully aware of such negative images of migrants imposed by urbanites, some migrant workers also challenge urban prejudice and demand fair social treatment. For example, one migrant woman from Wuwei county in Anhui province wrote to the Beijing Evening Daily, "Every time I try to squeeze onto a crowded bus, I often hear city people complaining that there are too many waidiren (outsiders)…But when you move to a brand new apartment building, when you eat fresh vegetables, when you walk on clean streets, when your trash disappears, when your elderly and children are well taken care of, have you ever thought about us—migrant working brothers and sisters?" Likewise many migrant workers point out that without their hard work and labor contribution, Beijing would not be the city it is today, and Beijing residents would not be able to live the lifestyle they enjoy today. They thus demand that urban society give them their deserved social space and better treatment. Yet the reality is largely dismal. Migrants as a whole are viewed by officials and urban residents as a social problem leading to over-crowding, crime, and other urban ills.

Confronted with such rejection, many migrants try to forge a new identity that makes a positive value of their shared fate of floating "like fallen leaves in the wind." The floating life is an experience of freedom. "The biggest difference between us and them (Beijingers)", says Zhou a migrant who runs a successful retail stall, "is this: they we rely on the state, we rely on ourselves. As a result, they’re afraid of losing benefits provided by the state and are tied to one place for the rest of their lives; but we have little to lose."

And yet the freedom makes sense in terms of an imagined connection with their community of origin. They often speak of "home." According to one person interviewed by Li Zhang, "I miss my home a lot. You can’t just imagine how beautiful and charming the landscape of my home province is. Walking along the misty West Lake in the morning and wandering in the jade-like green Yandang Mountains is like living in heaven. Although my village is small and remote, the huills are always green and the water is crystal-clear." When asked why he had decided to leave such a beautiful home and stay in Beijing for so many years, he said: "We left our homes not because we were poor and had to come to beg in the city as many Beijingers imagine. We left our homes because we wanted to make more money…I can’t help missing my hometown and I try to go back home once or twice a year; but this doesn’t mean that I need to physically live there all the time. As private business people, we must be able to go wherever is best for business." Thus migrants are forging new forms of multifaced identity and, in spite of the hardships of their existence, are often finding real satisfaction from this.

The spiritual challenge for people in this situation is how to maintain a sense of moral connection to a home community that one has left behind. There is not really an option of forging a moral connection with the city, because its permanent residents are hostile, and often exploitative. (And the legal system, backed up by the household registry system, reinforces these attitudes.) So the main moral connection has to be backward, toward home and family, even though these may have all sorts of unpleasant features that pushed the migrant to leave in the first place. Inevitably, though, there is something unrealistic about such connection. It is often imagined through the rosy lens of nostalgia. Nostalgia, however, keeps one from clearly discriminating between what was good and valuable about that experience, while affirming and rejecting what was bad, or at least incompatible with one’s new life. One has to reappropriate the old values in a new way, and maintain one’s responsibilities to natal family in a new situation, without leaning on the crutch of nostalgia. Ultimate solutions to this will depend not only on the struggles of individuals to achieve a spiritual balance but on structural changes that protect the basic rights of migrants, give them a legitimate space within the city, and offer the public support necessary for them to forge a new way of life.

3. Intensifying Control over Labor

For one kind of rural migrant, the balance between a newfound freedom and newly imposed constraint is tipped almost exclusively toward the side of constraint. Such are the laborers who work under contract in the export oriented factories in special economic zones like Shenzhen. In her chapter, Anita Chan describes the moral situation of such workers in terms of a "culture of survival." She bases her analysis on a study of letters that were found among the personal effects of the eighty-seven workers who died when a fire broke out in their locked workshop at the Zhili Toy Company in Shenzhen in 1993.

As is common, the workers were young rural women who were paid about 200 yuan a month (even though the official minimum wage was supposed to be at least 280 yuan) to work about twelve hours a day, seven days a week. When they were given a job, the factory manager often confiscated their identity papers, so that they could not freely look for other work. They lived in cramped dorms provided by the factory and ate in factory canteens and cost of food and lodging was deducted from their pay. Most of their remaining income was sent back to their villages to help parents and spouses pay off debts. Most eventually hoped to return to their villages.

In their social imagination, they tended to view the world in terms of better and worse factories, on the one hand, and networks of relatives and village friends on the other. Seemingly absent from their thought was much view of their fellow workers. Fearful, perhaps, of labor solidarity, their bosses discouraged them from forming close social ties with fellow workers, and the work was draining enough that they had little time to do so anyway. The letters analyzed by Anita Chan had been sent to the deceased workers by friends and relatives. Sometimes these were friends and relatives who had traveled together to Shenzhen but had been separated when they were hired by different factories. Other letters were from their hometowns.

The letters seem to have been a way of expressing emotions that one could not express to those with whom one worked. As Anita Chan characterizes them, they commonly expressed "loneliness and feelings of isolation or misery, or badly missing friends and relatives, of crying, and of yearning for letters. They were voices crying out for human contact, comfort, and support. Most of the letters between women were filled with emotion and intimacy." Says one letter, "Now the several of us are scattered all over. Oh, how difficult it is to get together again! What a shame! When I think of our innocent lives at school, how beautiful it was. I can’s bear to think about it….Now you and Wang Guangfen have come here [to the Shenzhen area] as well. Though we are so near, we can only see each other in our letters. Little sister, can you please send me a photo? I sent my photo to your home. Did you get it? I’ll close off here. See you in a letter next time." Then a later letter: "I received your photograph. I looked and looked at it and felt so happy because I’ve wanted it for so long. I can’t express how happy I am. But suddenly I felt lonely. So lonely." In spite of this often-expressed loneliness, however, in all the letters there was not even a single reference to someone having made a new friend or having attempted to do so.

Two letters were written by a husband from a village to his wife who had left home and had found work at Zhili. The wife had left because the family was in debt. The letters were filled with endearments; they were romantic, intimate, and sad. Their daughter had been sent to stay with a relative. The husband was eager to know what kind of work the wife was doing in the factory. He has little idea of what production-line work entailed, since in both letters he queried, "Do you carry heavy things? Do you carry loads on shoulder poles?" The wife, who was illiterate and whose letters had to be written by someone else, seemed reluctant to provide him with the details. Her main message was that she was terribly sorry she could not send home any money for the time being. Indeed social relationships and responsibilities could be a source of psychological burden. There was an overwhelming sense that they must send money home to help their impoverished families. The writers of these letters who were not getting paid or not able to save money from their meager earnings suffered great anxiety.

Unlike the more entrepreneurial migrants I described earlier, these contract workers seem to be making no effort to construct a positive new identity that would bridge the village experience with the urban experience.The horizon of these workers is almost totally projected back from the city toward their village and family. Indeed, life in the city is a kind of extension of the family. The workers are laboring for the good of their families, not for their own personal development. The best hope for the future is to pay back enough of their families’ debts to be able to return to their families with honor. At the same time, for people in their situation the forces of globalization magnify some of the worst aspects of traditional family life. The pressure of debt produced by the new Chinese political economy makes it necessary for the families to send their wives and daughters into this kind of work. The bosses, on the other hand, utilize a version of patriarchal family ethics to justify strict, harsh treatment. Usually the workers are called "little sister workers" (dagong mei)—where "little sister" does not connote someone to be loved and cherished, but the weakest, most subordinate member of a family to be exploited for the good of the collective as a whole.

The spiritual challenge posed by this situation is mainly to keep hope alive. As Anita Chan writes, "As revealed in these letters, workers become consumed by the most primary concerns —a subsistence income, food, and health. They concentrate on the physical need to survive and the mental health to tough it out. In the factories the culture of survival inhabits a milieu that is very constricted. The young people have traveled long distances to get to these factories, but once inside, their physical world shrinks. When there is work in the factory, their days are divided between shop floor and dormitory. When there is no work, they have no use for their free time because they have no money to go anywhere.

"Leisure and entertainment are not part of their lives. The highlight of an occasional day off is no more than window-shopping (not shopping). For the duration of their years in a factory, their physical and mental horizons barely extend beyond the compound…Receiving letters from home and from relatives and friends working elsewhere in factories is the only means by which factory workers maintain links with the outside world. Photographs become valuable memorabilia that can bring contact with the world beyond the factory walls. Their emotional life seemingly revolves around these letters and photographs. It is possible to see parallels between the situation of these migrants and that of soldiers trapped endlessly in battlefront trenches, longing for letters and photographs of their loved ones. Their emotional focus on a place far away from the factory, where only the question of survival looms large, is what keeps the migrants going. The letters, which potentially carry news of other opportunities, also provide hope of escape from their present state. These escape routes are essentially illusory, but the workers prefer to live with hope than the reality of despair."

4. Creation of an Enterprising Self

Even as the new world of globalized production, in conjunction with the dynamics of local culture, locks such contract workers in an iron cage, the same world vastly expands the imagination and spirit of educated city dwellers, especially the university-educated young. Their moral situation is shaped by an environment of newly available well–paying jobs, by the opportunity to choose such jobs in an open market, and by a new world of consumer products. In such a situation, one imagines the world as peopled with individual selves and structured into a confusing but exciting variety of paths toward personal fulfillment.

As Amy Hanser writes in her chapter on the "Chinese Enterprising Self": "Labor market changes have enabled many young urbanites to view work not simply as their contribution to society or as political and economic necessity but as a newly available realm for autonomy and self-development. The ideas that young, educated urbanites espouse about work and their hopes for the future center on individual selves that are tested and tempered through market-based competition. An active calculating self is often at the core of such notions of work."

The emotional tone engendered by this is one of ambivalent anxiety. The possibility for choosing one’s own job is experienced both as thrilling and as frightening. It would have been boring (mei yisi), don’t you think?" said one of Hanser’s interviewees about work in the old state owned enterprises, where jobs were assigned for life. Now, said another college graduate, "The biggest issue facing China’s young people is the question of employment—not just finding a job, but finding the right job." But one can never be satisfied that one has found the right job. As one young man puts it, "While at college…your knowledge about work is very superficial…very naïve…because you’ve never worked before. Then after working, you start to feel a bit like this isn’t your favorite job, but now I still have to do this job well, still have to adjust to it. But now I also have a kind of…third stage…it’s a kind of idea…that I should still look for a job that I like, because that way I’ll do [my job] even better." There is also the anxiety that comes from not knowing whether one will be up to the incessant competition. As a young man who had been fired from three different jobs said, competition provides people with "motivation", but his own situation had become one of "forced adjustment." He saw the job market less as an opportunity than as inescapable and sometimes treacherous reality.

Although a fearful anxiety pervades those who are beginning to experience failure in this competition, a tremendous sense of exhilaration accompanies the rapid explosion of horizons in the emergent urban free enterprise sector. The expanding horizons are driven not just by new job opportunities, but by a globalized popular culture. A chapter in our book about "Basketball Culture in Post-Socialist China" by Andrew Morris captures some of the feeling of this exhilarating expectation.

The most popular televised spectator sport in China today is NBA basketball. Basketball has been a popular sport in China since it was introduced by the YMCA almost a hundred years ago. The PRC’s international sports debut was in the basketball competition at the Tenth World University Games held in Budapest in 1949. National men’s and women’s championships were established in 1951 and 1952 and except for several years during the Cultural Revolution have been held annually ever since. Even in periods of great political radicalism, the game’s revolutionary credentials were unquestionably red. Xie Jin’s 1957 film Woman Basketball Player No. 5 showed how hard-working players and coaches transformed the game, once defiled by Guomindang-era capitalism and corruption, into a symbol of communist sportsmanship and will.

By the 1990s, however, the domination of Chinese basketball culture by the globalizing commercial forces of the NBA had displaced the center of the Chinese basketball world. The big difference between NBA basketball and the kind traditionally practiced by the Chinese Basketball Association is in its individualization. Especially fascinating is the slam dunk. According to Andrew Morris, "few goals occupy as many Chinese minds today as does this great challenge." The most common letter to the editors of Basketball magazine seems to be one that goes, as Wang Qiang from Shanxi Province wrote, "My greatest desire in this life is to truly make a real dunk, and to experience just once the feeling of being "The Flier" (the Chinese nickname for being Michael Jordan)…I am 5’9" tall, my arms spanning 5’10"…I am not blessed with the best physical qualifications. Please suggest some training program for me." Advertisement for basketball shoes like Beijing-based Handsun Footwear (which offer a slightly downscale product than the most desired show—Nike Air Jordans), promise to deliver on this hope. "Do you dream of slam-dunking a basketball?" their ad in Basketball magazine reads. "Maybe you could." Their corporate slogan says it all: "I believe you can fly." The belief that one can fly is not just about jumping high on the basketball court, but of soaring through life with the flamboyant, aggressive self-expressiveness of the slam-dunk star. This is an enormous shift in popular aspiration from the culture of state socialism in which people warned one another that "the bird that sticks its head out gets it shot off." It goes along with visions of big money available to resourceful entrepreneurs and professional managers in an expanding urban market economy driven by multinational investors.

The spiritual challenge for people in this moral situation is to develop an inner moral compass, enabling one to set priorities and regulate one’s desires, and to find sustaining meaning when one is unable to live up to artificially induced expectations. The public media offer little guidance besides stodgy sermons about the values of socialism, which nobody believes. Popular tabloids vie for commercial success by catering to popular demands for the sensational, scandalous, and bizarre. Although at first glance they seem to represent the populist sentiments of the lower classes, in reality—as Zhao Yuezhi says in her chapter—they cater to the tastes of "the beneficiaries of the economic reforms, the professional and managerial elite, and the urban middle class consumers, who are invited to indulge themselves in the pleasure of consumption and relate themselves horizontally to middle-class lifestyles in the West." In the worldview of the tabloids, the rich have extravagantly luxurious life styles, but they have earned those life styles through hard work and talent. Tabloids present workers who are being laid off in droves from state-run enterprises with exciting new opportunities to gain fame and fortune in the market. Peasants and migrant workers, on the other hand, are backward and dangerous, responsible for most sex and property crimes. Crime stories, including those about official corruption, celebrate the bravery and efficiency of the police. The ideology of the tabloids is captured nicely by the way one of them quoted Karl Marx at the top of a "Layoff Special Page": "Life is an ocean. Only those will a strong will can reach the other side." Marx now becomes the prophet of the social Darwinist neo-liberalism that is the dominant ideology of the global market economy.

With belief in anything like an authentic Marxism having long since collapsed, this pseudo-Marxist neo-liberalism is the closest thing to an official ideology there is in China today. Many Chinese people, especially the successful urbanites who have learned to "fly" in the new globalized economy truly believe it. But what of those trapped in a cage? In many cases, as suggested by my remarks above, they do not completely reject it, even as they acutely see its downside. In their own way, surely, they are struggling to make sense out of the contradictions between freedom and constraint in their own moral situations—to name the experiences, locate them in a cognitive universe, and render a moral verdict on them. Perhaps the most important media through which they do this are not the public media but the vast flow of word of mouth wisdom that circulates among all strata of the people. In our book, Perry Link and Kate Zhou compile and comment on many of the most popular of the snappy jingles in which social commentary circulates by word of mouth. As Link and Zhou write, such sayings "reflect genuine popular ideas, values, and attitudes with extraordinary vividness." As one retrospection of the course of the Chinese revolution puts it:

For forty-some years, ever more perspiration,
And we just circle back to before Liberation,
And speaking again of that big revolution,
Who, after all, was it for?

One of the defining moments of modern consciousness is the recognition that the social and religious order is a human construction for which human beings ultimately have to take responsibility. But the capacity to exercise this responsibility remains elusive. The recognition of the social constructedness of beliefs and morals can lead to a profound cynicism, a view that sees our most cherished ideals simply as masks for interests or emanations of power. Unmasking the social fictions that hide the bars of the iron cage does not necessarily fulfill its promise of inducing human beings to rebel against such constraints. Indeed the evidence of social history is that human beings rebel against oppression not when illusions are replaced by transparent truths, but when meaningful traditions define right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil. And religious traditions, above all, have been able to speak truth to power, to invoke meanings that transcend and thus make demands on human beings, even the most powerful among them.

But my colleagues and I argue that despite all of the forces that often seem arrayed against the project of bringing spiritual meaning and moral order to the modern world, human beings can reappropriate and transform the meanings they inherit. Through such reappropriations—and sometimes through painful struggle with the core meanings that define self, social order, and the divine—human beings can alter the course of personal and social history. Facing such a challenge in a globalizing world requires cross-cultural solidarity and dialogue. I hope that listening to the voices of people in China who are struggling with this challenge may in a small way help us begin such dialogue and deepen our solidarity.

(Perry Link, Richard Madsen, Paul Pickowicz, eds., Popular China, Rowman and Littlefield, available in fall, 2001)


Three Approaches to Spiritual Values
by Fenggang Yang, University of Southern Maine


To assess the moral/spiritual development of Chinese young and middle adults today, it is helpful to distinguish three generations. In the center are persons approximately 35-50 years old, “the Pan Xiao generation.” The younger cohort has been labeled the 1970 generation, signifying the decade of their birth. The third grouping we can call the 1949 generation for they were born before or during that fateful time for China.

The Pan Xiao Generation

In 1980, a letter from “Pan Xiao” was published in China Youth magazine. “What is the purpose of life? Should I live for myself or for other people?” These questions, raised at a turning point in contemporary Chinese history, immediately evoked heated discussion about renshengguan (philosophy of life). Hundreds of thousands of young people engaged in local forums, small group debates, and personal conversations about the questions raised in the original statement and subsequently published letters.

The Pan Xiao discussion was quickly followed by the ‘fever of existentialism’ in which the influence of Jean-Paul Sartre was prominent; the ‘fever of humanism’ which challenged reductionist materialism; the ‘pillar of fire’ discussion which debated the respective roles of money, fame, and self-realization in human flourishing; and the ‘fever of Freudian psychoanalysis’ which opened a public discussion of sex. The intellectual ferment and rival enthusiasms of the 1980s profoundly affected all those who participated. Many members of this generation were—and still are—spiritual seekers.

The 1970 Generation

This younger generation has come of age in the years of economic market experimentation. Without suffering the hardships of the Cultural Revolution and lacking the revolutionary idealism that characterized their parents, these young adults seem to be ‘naturally’ realistic, materialistic, and individualistic. In the late 1990s some emerged as writers of popular fiction. These writers as well as their critics commonly describe this generation as self-indulgent, interested in bars, rock and roll, and sex. They display little concern for noble ideals or sacred subjects. If the life of the Pan Xiao generation is unbearably heavy, the life of the 70s generation seems unbearably light.

The 1949 Generation

This designation includes people who were born before and during the founding years of the People’s Republic of China. If staunch Marxist-Maoists are still to be found in China, they are likely to be members of this generation who came of age during the inspirational heyday of the Communist party. These people tend to be sympathetic toward tradition, whether their allegiance is to the Chinese communist tradition or a more ancient Chinese tradition.

A representative of this generation is Yu Qiuyu. Born in 1946, Yu was president of the Shanghai College of Drama. In the 1990s he embarked on a ‘bitter journey of culture’ (wenhua kulü) and published a series of prose essays affirming the values of Chinese traditional culture. Yu Qiuyu’s beautifully written essays became very popular, appealing to people’s emotions if not their rationality. The more reasoned articulation of traditional culture and its modern significance comes from neo-Confucian scholars, such as Tu Wei-ming at Harvard University (himself born in 1940). But the appeal of neo-Confucianism among the young and middle-aged people in mainland China remains limited.
China is vast and changing fast; thus any generalization risks being one-sided and already out-of-date. Nevertheless, I believe that various religions and spiritual movements will revive and flourish in China in the coming years. The older generation of revolutionaries is aging and retiring from the social stage. The Pan Xiao generation continues to be filled with spiritual seekers, and the 1970 and younger generations are generally open to new ideas and interested in novel experiences. As governmental control over spiritual affairs continues to relax, the religious market place in China becomes more lively and diverse. This is a great era for religious enterprises and spiritual entrepreneurs.


Popular Religion in Shenzhen
by Lizhu Fan, Fudan University, Shanghai


M y research explores the ways in which Chinese people are responding to the challenge of a spiritual crisis that finds its roots in current economic reforms. In order to understand the emerging patterns of religious belief in modern Chinese society, I met with nearly two hundred urban migrants in the developing industrial city of Shenzen and subsequently interviewed fifty-six adults who belonged to various sects of popular religion.

My goal has been to examine how and why these modern city-dwellers are attracted to the so-called ‘new religions’ that flourish at this time throughout China. Let me make it clear at the outset that the religious understandings and practices studied here are not superstitious or anti-intellectual. They represent instead the beliefs embraced by ordinary people attempting to find meaning as their lives are caught up in significant transitions.

Workers migrated to this city, many from China’s rural interior, with a clear purpose: to make money in order to have a better life. Most of the people I interviewed had no religious identity before coming to Shenzhen. But as this generation of economic migrants found their way in the city, they adjusted their spiritual orientation from ‘temporary atheism’ to active belief in some religious group. Recent market reforms played a part in opening up their spiritual world. As economic freedom has been accompanied by a gradual decrease in political control over religion, individuals feel they have more choice in regard to their beliefs. This increasing opportunity for personal choice contributes to the growth of new religious movements in China.

Among those I interviewed, religious belief was usually understood as a factor in the private sector; this decision was their personal business. People mention that religion provided them both emotional support and practical assistance in meeting life’s crises. Most reported that their introduction to religion came not from exposure to institutional representatives (monks or ministers or official sites of religious activities) but from reading materials, to which they turned especially when they faced problems in their personal lives.

While religious identity is seen as a personal matter, its influence goes beyond the scope of private life. From my investigation, I found that many believers pour their religious enthusiasm and faithfulness into public life. And religion is often being seen as social in a normative sense: believers are convinced that greater involvement in religion among China’s people will result in less crime.

Religion as an institution remains highly regulated by the Chinese government. Five religions are officially recognized (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and both Catholic and Protestant Christianity), with other groups and movements deemed illegal. However, this official policy does not stop people from joining ‘unrecognized’ movements. In Shenzhen, for example, several new religious groups have been formed under the designation of ‘gong’. Avoiding the still foreign-sounding term ‘religion’, these movements—which include Yuanjigong, Tiandijiao, Xianggong, Zhonggong (and Falungong until recent events drew negative attention to its activities)—are more acceptable to both ordinary Chinese people and to the party officials charged with regulating religious activities.

In China today, successive waves of social change have brought questions of life’s meaning and of personal significance to the fore. In this context, popular belief has become an important support to personal spiritual life. Currently the new religious movements in China derive their legitimacy from this popular religiosity. These movements are likely to continue as major spiritual resources in the lives of ordinary Chinese people.

Nourishing the Spirit in China Today
Diane Obenchain, Drew University, New Jersey


It has been a profound honor for me to teach in the field of the comparative history of religions at Peking University since 1988. The need—indeed the quest —I discern among my Chinese students is for guidance that will offer them a consistent and reliable way (a) to experience healing of the individual, family, and the larger social whole, (b) to give meaning to life, (c) to cultivate care and concern for others along with a sense of conscience, (d) to bring fairness to economic practice, and (e) to bring political safeguards that allow for, encourage, and protect these processes.

In the United States, we generally understand these processes as linked with ‘freedom of religion’. Some of us know, or think we know, what this phrase means in the West. But in China this term carries very different connotations. For most Chinese leaders, ‘freedom of religion’ signifies something akin to chaos.

The Western concept religion does not have an indigenous Chinese equivalent. In China, the term used to translate ‘religion’ (zongjiao) is associated with a certain set of practices, practices whose history extends back to the earliest Chinese culture for which we have historical and archeological evidence. As a result, in the minds of most Chinese—whether leaders or ordinary people—‘religion’ signifies ritualistic, sacrificial worship of superstitious power(s) that in time usually leads people to rebel against the leaders currently in power.

Among most Chinese, then, ‘religion’ has been understood as quite different from the ‘cultivation of the human person’ urged by Kongzi. Confucian self-cultivation yields a quality known as ren (benevolence, kindheartedness, humaneness), on the basis of which proper leadership is exercised—whether in family life, the province level, or the state. For centuries the Chinese have associated cultivation (xiu) of one’s person (shen) with the ‘moral human nature’ (daode xing), not with ‘spirit’ understood as separate from human nature. Accordingly Chinese have linked cultivation of the human person with what in the West is called ‘ethics’ rather than ‘religion’.

Many thoughtful people in China today recognize that some Western societies, particularly those with thriving economies, ground the political dimension of life on an ethical foundation, a foundation that is itself understood as an expression of religion. What if religion and ethics are not necessarily at odds? What if ethical cultivation of the human person is the basis of political leadership, in the West as well as in China? Then China’s current leadership—both intellectual and political—would be compelled to re-evaluate the deeply entrenched dichotomy between ‘religion’ and ‘ethics’.

Just such a profound re-evaluation is taking place in China today. This rethinking is a key factor in the establishment of Religious Studies departments in a number of carefully chosen universities in China. Faculty members in these departments undertake research into the cultural and intellectual reality of religion, especially the Western phenomenon of religion that is so closely linked with ethics. Chinese political leaders, eager to find more effective means to restore ethical order and harmony in contemporary Chinese society now awash with capitalist passion and greed for material goods, generally support this research effort. But no matter what Chinese scholars learn about Western religion and its expression in ethics, the political leadership will seek to keep religion in China under its control.

In my view, the situation in China today invites a deeper cross-cultural exploration of the interrelated and mutually influential dynamics of human well-being, moral cultivation, nourishment of the spirit, ethics, and the law. For this exploration, we will need new approaches—strategies that exhibit less cultural bias and more emphasis on rational, ethical, individual, and social/communal responsibility than the Western term ‘religion’ offers.

The Three Self (Protestant) Church and Chinese Christians Who do not Go to Church
by Zongkun Liu, Graduate Theological Berkeley, California


A visitor to China today may be surprised to see that churches in big cities are crowded with people of various backgrounds. They might be more surprised to learn that there are many others in China who identify themselves as Christians, but do not go to church. The latter may have an even more profound impact on the development of Christianity and on the intellectual and spiritual life of the Chinese society than the churchgoers have.

The social changes brought by the rise and fall of communism in China have been remarkable. Thus today Christianity does not revive in a virgin land, nor in the Confucian society that China used to be, but in a post-communist world in which communism is dead but the communist party is still alive. Christianity—indeed all religions in China today—must deal with the challenge of this communist heritage, particularly its foundational tenets of atheism and materialism. In some places, the Christian response to this challenge is coming not from inside the church but from outside the church.

The Chinese Three-Self Church

The three-self movement of the Chinese Protestant church, based on “self-management, self-support, and self-propagation,” dates from the early 1950s. According to the original proposal of the ‘three-self’ movement, at least two goals should be achieved:

1) the leadership of formerly Protestant churches in China by Chinese pastors rather than overseas directors, and 2) the construction of a Chinese Christian theology. In fact, however, the three-self church has thus far achieved only the first goal. Although some efforts have been made in the construction of a Chinese theology—by mingling certain Chinese

cultural ideas and even some modern concepts with the Gospel message—this project remains far from meeting the intellectual and spiritual needs of many Chinese Christians.

Chinese Christians Who Do Not Go to Church

The most remarkable development of Christianity in China today may be the presence of a Christian theology in higher education and academic research. Since the late 1980s, a group of mainland Christian scholars has been trying to resume Christian higher education and theological studies in public universities (there have been no private or Christian-affiliated colleges on the mainland since the 1950s). Some church leaders call these Christian scholars “cultural Christians.”

Their work has included the foundation of a number of institutes for Christian studies. For example, Peking University opened a Department of Religious Studies in September 1996, the first department of this kind since1949. Several universities in other parts of China followed suit. Over the last decade, hundreds of students in religious studies and theology at the undergraduate and graduate levels have enrolled in these schools. At the same time, several translation projects of Christian classics are in process, and more publications are expected in the near future.

As Christian books become more available, the attitude of young people towards religion, especially towards Christianity, is changing. Not only are Christian theology and spirituality recognized as the religious heritage of Western tradition, they are also taken to be beneficial to the development of Chinese culture and the spiritual life of the Chinese people. Chinese attitudes have also changed with regard to the relationship of religion and science, of religious values and morality, and the importance of spirituality. It may be too soon to evaluate the practice of these Chinese Christians who have developed Chinese Christianity outside the church, but the socio-psychological changes they have brought to Chinese society have already shown the significance of their contribution.

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