Rim Report No. 24, April 2002
Nourishing the Spirit: Social Change and Spiritual Development
in China Today
A roundtable discussion with Lizhu Fan, Peter Tze Ming Ng, Evelyn
Eaton Whitehead, and James D. Whitehead
China's current pace of development brings opportunity and disruption
to every level of society. These challenges have stirred China's
Today many in China actively affirm the spiritual dimensions of their
own lives. A new generation of urban workers, moving beyond the basic
struggle for economic survival, confronts deeper questions of personal
meaning. Intellectuals and artists alike seek to strengthen their
culture's moral sensitivities. And people at many levels of society
turn avidly to books and internet sites exploring the previously
disparaged wisdom traditions of classical China and Christianity,
as well as new religious movements.
The USF Center for the Pacific Rim's Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western
Cultural History has hosted a range of scholarly conversations
to examine these dynamics of spiritual development in China
today. Under the leadership of Dr. Xiaoxin Wu, director of
the Ricci Institute, the goal has been to engage Christian
and non-Christian scholars in dialogue on these complex issues.
In 1999 an initial panel of scholars considered the status
of religious studies programs at three major Chinese universities
and the influence of these programs in the lives of faculty
and students. A seminar in 2000, co-sponsored by the Graduate
Theological Union in Berkeley, brought together Bay-area scholars
interested in the path of spiritual pursuit among young Chinese
intellectuals; a concurrent exhibit of the work of two Chinese
artists illustrated contemporary dimensions of traditional
religious themes. In 2001 twenty Chinese and American resource
persons representing both academic disciplines and religious
institutions gathered for an interdisciplinary colloquium. Its intent
was (a) to provide a cross-disciplinary perspective on contemporary
spiritual development among both rural and urban Chinese and (b)
to establish a network of colleagues in support of further collaborative
On February 25, 2002 the lively interest
that has characterized this series was again evident at USF’s
Lone Mountain campus. A diverse audience of over sixty persons
joined four EDS-Stewart Fellows of the Ricci Institute in an
extended conversation. Their common interest: exploring
the resources that Chinese people find to support their spiritual
search, in this time of profound personal and social dislocation.
The panelists were:
Fan (Ph.D., Chinese University of Hong Kong) is associate professor
in the Sociology Department of Fudan University in Shanghai.
In the roundtable discussion, Dr. Fan provided compelling evidence
from her research on the spiritual hungers experienced by migrants
from rural China to Shenzhen, the special economic zone near
Eaton Whitehead (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is a social and
developmental psychologist investigating the interplay
of culture and personality. She and James Whitehead
have been involved since 1999 in the Ricci Insitute’s initiative on Social Change and
Religious Development in China. Her roundtable contribution offered
insights gained in collaboration with Dr. Fan in an analysis of contemporary
Tze Ming Ng (Ph.D., University
of London Institute of Education) is professor in the Department
of Religion of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and director
of the Center for the Study of Religion and Chinese Society at
Chung Chi College. Reflecting his experience in the development
of the academic discipline of religious studies in Chinese universities,
Dr. Ng described the religious and spiritual quest of Chinese scholars
D. Whitehead (Ph.D., Harvard University)
is a theologian and historian of religion. He and Evelyn
Whitehead travel annually to China to honor teaching commitments
at universities in Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hangzhou. In
the roundtable discussion, he examined the spiritual consciousness
of Chinese university students engaged in the study of
The conversation was moderated by Marsha
Vande Berg (Ph.D., Vanderbilt
University) an award-winning journalist, columnist,
and editorial specialist.
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 partial sponsorship of this
Vande Berg set out two interrelated questions
to begin the discussion: What are the spiritual hungers
experienced and expressed in China today? Where do the Chinese
people seek and find spiritual nourishment?
Peter Ng: According to an official 1997
report from the Chinese Government, membership in the five officially
recognized religious bodies stands at 100 million. This number
includes 18 million Muslims, 4 million Roman Catholics, and 10
million Protestants, along with the much larger membership identified
with Buddhism and Daoism. Most knowledgeable observers regard these
figures as very conservative; the more accurate estimates range
from two to five times the official numbers. For example, the government
numbers omit the extensive network of family-based and other unregistered
prayer communities that flourish in China today; reputable scholars
suggest an additional 30 to 40 million Chinese Christians should
be counted here.
Recently a delegation of scholars from the State Bureau of Religious
Affairs and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences visited my Department
of Religion at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. They were surprised
to find a course on Chinese popular beliefs listed in our curriculum.
A long discussion followed, examining whether such traditional
practices should count as religion in China today. In the end,
the delegation acknowledged that if ‘religious membership’ were
broadened to encompass those who embrace Chinese popular beliefs,
almost 95% of the current Chinese population would be included.
And this would overwhelm the capacity of the present Bureau of
Religious Affairs to oversee and regulate Chinese religious life.
So the spiritual quest of the Chinese people is by no means confined
to Christian spirituality. As Dr. Fan’s work vividly demonstrates,
we must bear in mind that Chinese people are drawing spiritual
resources from many traditions and across a range of disciplines,
including Qigong and Falungong. As a Christian and a scholar, I
am attentive to the broad scope of the religious and spiritual
development of the Chinese people. But in my later remarks I will
focus on the attitudes of Chinese scholars toward Christianity
Lizhu Fan (Fan): Let me introduce the new city of Shenzhen. In
1979 Deng Xiaoping designated this small agricultural center, located
about a one hour train ride north of Hong Kong, as a Special Economic
Zone. During the 1980s more than a million Chinese from rural villages
flooded into the area, seeking work in the factories and sweat
shops that had sprung up overnight. By the 1990s more highly-educated
Chinese had started to arrive in large numbers: some ready to fill
the better paying managerial jobs becoming available; others eager
to try their luck in small businesses of their own. Serious abuses,
of course, were evident from the start: poor working conditions,
ecological degradation, local corruption, and graft. Yet Chinese
workers continue to arrive in great numbers, transforming this
sleepy town into a metropolis of over four million by the beginning
of the 21st century.
I arrived in Shenzhen in 1998, to investigate the impact of rapid
industrialization on the lives of these recent urban migrants.
After initial contact with more than two hundred newly arrived
residents, I conducted lengthy interviews with fifty-six persons—both
men and women. A number of these research discussions blossomed
into continuing relationships. As a result, over the nine months
I lived in Shenzhen I was able to stay in conversation and often
participate in religious activities with those I had interviewed.
In these conversations, people would acknowledge the problems and
turmoil that came with living and working in Shenzhen. But they
were much more eager to talk about a new-found freedom. Here, for
the first time in their lives, they could choose their own jobs.
Their livelihood was no longer chained to the danwei, the local
work unit that had previously exercised near total control over
employment as well as many other aspects of daily life in their
home village. In Shenzhen people live in a ‘free market’ for
jobs and salaries. For many I interviewed, this utterly novel experience
of employment freedom was linked to a growing awareness of deeper
levels of personal decision-making now available to them. And with
their expanded consciousness came a new range of spiritual questions.
Mr. Zhou is an example. Five years ago he moved to Shenzhen to
start his own small business; now he has met with success well
beyond his earliest hopes. Only recently, he acknowledges, has
he begun to wonder about the meaning and purpose of his life. Living
in his village, he had never entertained such questions. There,
any decision about his life would be determined by his family or
by the government. Now, in the giddy freedom of Shenzhen, he found
he was not able simply to enjoy his new wealth. He was beset with
new questions: why was he so successful, when others around him
were not. Was there some power favoring his life, some unknown
force guiding his choices? Did his success indicate a new purpose
or goal for his life? In a life seemingly dedicated to making money,
spiritual concerns were emerging.
This scenario was repeated often among the people I interviewed.
For some, like Mr. Zhou, unanticipated success precipitated the
questioning. For others, a serious illness or personal crisis in
love or work was the trigger. Still others sought out spiritual
insight or religious practice in a desire to introduce order and
calm into lives now immersed in urban chaos. For these people,
economic opportunity and the lure of financial success did not
extinguish their spiritual search but instead ignited it. This
paradox gradually became the focus of my research.
James Whitehead: For my part, I have been intrigued by the connections
needs’ and ‘spiritual needs’ among Dr. Fan’s respondents.
Social observers are showing renewed interest in these interrelated human
hungers. Basic needs refer to the primal requirements of the human species:
food, clothing, shelter, safety. These needs are a matter of survival. Through
welfare programs and other strategies of social assistance, modern governments
attempt to assure these needs are met even for those unable to secure these
essential goods on their own.
Spiritual needs arise in another domain of
human life. They express the hungers that move us beyond basic survival toward
full human flourishing. Preeminent here are the quest for meaning and purpose
in life, and for the freedom needed to pursue this search. The new residents
of Shenzhen found that economic well-being was not enough. As their initial
hopes for a better-paying job and a higher standard of living were met, life
questions of a different kind emerged. And it was to traditional Chinese
spiritual resources that they turned for sustenance.
Marxist theory suggests that spiritual needs are a projection of unmet
basic needs. Religion functions only as compensation, distracting attention
from the struggle for a more just distribution of material resources.
When the material needs of a human population are met, this illusory
distraction will no longer be needed and religion will disappear. This
pessimistic judgment of the future of religion was shared by most interpretations
of modern society that grew out of the Enlightenment. As recently as
the 1950s, the juggernaut of secularization—with
its promise of a scientific understanding of all reality—seemed to be
erasing the last traces of religion. Now at the beginning of a new millennium,
religions and religiousness are on the increase. Something like ‘de-secularization’ is
taking place, for better and for worse.
Dr. Fan’s findings indicate not only that economic advancement does
not do away with spiritual needs; it appears to create the conditions for
people to name deep hungers of which they were previously unaware.
Evelyn Eaton Whitehead: The spiritual search that
Dr. Ng and Dr. Fan report occurs against the backdrop of China’s
rich and complicated recent history. It may help to recall the incredible
journey of the Chinese spirit over the past century. As the 20th
century began, the lives of most Chinese were constrained by grinding
poverty. For the millions of rural peasants, daunting challenges of daily
subsistence crowded out all other concerns. The urban intelligensia,
attracted by the technological and political progress of the West, still
seethed with resentment against foreign military and economic intrusion.
For most Chinese, the moral requirement was to ‘learn to eat bitterness’.
With Mao’s victory came the Marxist vision of hope. The popular imagination
was awakened, as idealism swept the country. After 1949, present suffering
had moral purpose; this was the price to be paid for a future transformed.
Current deprivation and personal sacrifice could be embraced with honor, understood
now as one’s patriotic duty, and ultimately as one’s spiritual
stake in the future.
But unchecked, this idealism led to the extremes of the Cultural Revolution.
Intellectuals were selected out for particular abuse, but most Chinese
felt betrayed and consequently lost hope in the still-dominant political
vision of communism. Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening brought
hints of increasing personal freedom along side improved material conditions
of life. But the 1989 events in Tiananmen Square gave the lie to the
prospect of a gradual lessening of party control. Throughout the 1990s,
revelations of widespread corruption among party and government officials
eroded any remaining idealism. As access to consumer goods and other
economic improvements spread to wider segments of the population, ‘socialism
with Chinese characteristics’ was
replaced by ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’. People
could seek satisfaction through ‘consumerism with a Chinese face’.
As Chinese scholar Jiwei Ci laments, "in hedonism, a spiritually
exhausted people found a pursuit in which the spirit did not have to
But, as Dr. Fan’s work shows, hedonism soon reveals its limits.
Consumerism offers only fragile refuge; the human spirit hungers for
Marsha Vande Berg: Dr. Ng, I am interested in what you have learned about
the appeal of Christianity for Chinese scholars today.
Peter Ng: In preparing for today’s discussion, I sent out a brief survey
to fifteen mainland Chinese scholars with whom I have been working closely
over the past several years. I asked for their comments on one simple question: "What
do you think would make Christianity appealing to Chinese scholars today?" And
I offered this list of possibilities from which to choose their response:
a. Christian Theology: Concept of an all-powerful, omnipresent, and all-loving
b. Christian Community: Opportunity to participate in a welcoming and
supportive local church,
especially when they feel lonely and depressed;
c. Christian Gospel: Biblical message of the life of Jesus, especially
his example of self-giving love for all people;
d. Christian Ethics and Social Services: Moral teachings of Christianity
and the witness of Christian service to those in need.
It was significant to me that none of these colleagues identified Christian
Theology or Christian Community. We might have anticipated that many
Chinese scholars who had lost their faith in communism would turn to
Christianity as an alternative. There are Chinese scholars in the United
States who have done so, but not many in China itself. Mainland Chinese
who study Christian theology most often approach it as one among many
of the philosophical systems that have influenced western culture. And
as such, it seems to offer them little in terms of a personal spiritual
Similarly, involvement in Christian community life holds little attraction
for scholars in China. Here again, some Chinese scholars have been touched
by the hospitality and support they experienced from Christian communities
during their studies in Hong Kong or the U.S. But their experience with
Christian groups in China itself is very different.
On the other hand, it is the life and teaching of Jesus, along with the
ethical message and service witness of Christianity, that hold relevance
for China today. And the appeal is in the potential contribution of these
aspects of the Christian heritage to the renewal of Chinese culture and
society. Many scholars recognize Jesus’s message of universal love as a significant
antidote to the poisonous climate of hate that China experienced during the
Cultural Revolution. Other Christian values—such as the equality of all
people as children of God and the witness of self-sacrifice in the love of
neighbor—are seen as relevant in the revitalization of China’s
deep tradition of moral sensitivity.
James Whitehead: Let me offer another example of Chinese interest in
elements of the Christian worldview. Over the past five years Evelyn
Whitehead and I have lectured annually at several Chinese universities
on themes of philosophy and ethics. Graduate students in our courses
have shown a special interest in the Christian view of the human person
as both ‘blessed and broken’.
The Christian understanding of human brokenness—embracing both the moral
failings of individuals and the endemic, enduring evil that pervades human
society—seemed to captivate many of them. We were intrigued that as
theology in the West has become less focused on the discussion of sin, many
intellectuals in China are becoming more attentive to this religious concept.
The notion of original sin has prompted thoughtful discussion in Chinese
academic journals and energetic discussion in our own classes.
Many Chinese intellectuals, I believe, have recognized that the deep
optimism of their Confucian heritage cannot account for the enduring
violence and destructiveness in human society. The many horrors of the
20th century—certainly in China
but throughout the world—call out for some reckoning. Some Chinese
colleagues sense that the Christian appreciation of sin may provide a means
of coming to terms with the inherent brokenness of the world.
As we spoke with these students and professors, we began to see more
clearly the intricate links among sin, grieving, and forgiveness. Perhaps
one can acknowledge wrongdoing, whether personal sin or a nation’s moral failures,
only to the extent that these wrongs can be forgiven. And perhaps only if
forgiveness is possible can the healing exercise of social grieving truly
Marsha Vande Berg: Dr. Fan, tell us more about the spiritual response
of the people in Shenzhen.
Lizhu Fan: People in Shenzhen are returning to their ancient cultural
heritage. They are aware that the government continues to exercise control
over the five officially sanctioned religions here. But these officials
are not able to control the more informal practices rooted in Chinese
cultural traditions. So rather than joining a Christian church or committing
themselves to a Buddhist master or temple, for example, newcomers to
Shenzhen develop other strategies on the spiritual search.
The people I met in Shenzhen recognized themselves as on a very personal
search for spiritual meaning. They were eager to speak about activities
and practices newly significant in their lives. For example, they described
a loose network of people who gather with some regularity at a vegetarian
restaurant owned by a Buddhist laywoman. Here they can meet with other
persons on the spiritual journey. Part of the space in the restaurant
is dedicated to a small bookstore featuring a wide array of spiritually-oriented
titles; a bulletin board lists activities in which people may be interested—a
lecture in the area; a ritual gathering planned for the future; an
ecological project inviting volunteers. Sometimes the restaurant owner
will invite a local monk or a visiting international author to make
a brief presentation open to the public. More often the discussion
develops informally, as customers linger after their meal to share
concerns and speak about their spiritual practices.
Discussion often centers on traditional Chinese themes—mingyun,
yuanfen, fengshui. People share their experience with the practices
of meditation and physical exercise and prayer. Their interest is seldom
in the historical development or orthodox understanding of these themes.
Instead they speak of the impact of these spiritual insights and ritual
activities in their own lives.
The deep heritage of Chinese Buddhism serves as the background
here, both in the restaurant owner’s self-description and
in the appeal to the Buddhist theme of yuanfen. But
the Buddhism here is neither orthodox doctrine mediated through
a temple master nor disciplined practice overseen by an officially
designated guru. It is rather the popular expression of Buddhism’s
centuries-old spiritual heritage, now thoroughly woven into the fabric
of Chinese culture.
Peter Ng: Let me offer a comment to
affirm Dr. Fan’s findings. For Chinese
people, ‘religion’ is not an abstract, metaphysical speculation.
Their spiritual questions arise around the practical issues in life:
How do I live a long and healthy life? Can I find a way to live beyond
suffering and desire? How can I find blessings and peace? The cultural
traditions of Daoism, Buddhism, and most of the popular religions
in China deal with these practical issues. To my thinking, this is
another reason why certain elements of the Christian Bible—such
as the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Psalms—are
so appealing to Chinese people.
Evelyn Eaton Whitehead: To most westerners ‘religion’ suggests
a separate social institution with formal leadership, identified membership,
standardized doctrines and rituals. As Dr. Ng noted earlier, religion in this
sense has had little place in Chinese history—past or present. But local
traditions of spiritual belief and ritual practice have nourished the Chinese
people for centuries. One of the most significant findings in Dr. Fan’s
research has been the extent to which the urbanized Chinese in Shenzhen adopt
and adapt elements of these traditional ritual practices as part of a newly-intentional
In the 1960s sociologist C.K. Yang introduced the term diffused religion
to show how ritual practices and beliefs in traditional Chinese villages
differed from the highly organized ‘institutional religions’ that
characterize the West. In our collaboration with Dr. Fan, we are
using the term diffuse religiousness to highlight the personal choices
and communal activities through which these traditional spiritual
resources are reclaimed and renewed by contemporary Chinese people.
In ways that challenge many taken-for-granted western interpretations
of modernity, the heritage of traditional belief and practice remains
relevant to the Chinese spirit today. When Shenzhen residents describe
the practices they have taken up in their search for meaning and
healing in their lives, often they admit to previously seeing these
very practices as superstition (mixin). When they lived in the village,
they had looked down on their relatives who practiced meditation
or set up altars at home. Now they found themselves returning to
these same behaviors!
This modern embrace of traditional religious practices confounds
many observers. Western sociological theory has long predicted that
urbanization brings with it a loss of spiritual sensitivity, that
citizens in modern industrial societies have little need for religion.
From this perspective, the reinstatement in modern Shenzhen of these
practices, borrowed from China’s rural traditions,
must be interpreted as mere regression. Under the pressure of life in the big
city, these people would be seen as retreating into the solace of the familiar—if
superstitious—practices of their past.
A closer look suggests something quite different is
James Whitehead: The Pulitzer Prize
winning author Frances Fitzgerald has just published a book about
a very similar phenomenon in Vietnam. Returning to that country after
nearly thirty years, she has observed the refurbishing of temples
and a renewed interest in spiritual rituals. An earlier socialist
regime had severely curtailed these practices, but in recent years,
she writes, "there
has been an astonishing revival of traditional social and religious
practices throughout the country."
In Vietnam, as in Shenzhen, this spiritual renewal has accompanied
the development of the market economy. Instead of signaling the demise
of traditional religiousness, economic opportunity seems to have
quickened the impulse of spiritual renewal. And Fitzgerald judges, "In Vietnam the revival of rites does not mean
a return to the past…People may go to pagodas to pray for good health
or fortune, but they also go to health clinics and learn business skills."
Her concluding judgment parallels what Dr. Fan has found in her own
Vietnamese are going back to tradition and forward at the same time.
More precisely, they are reclaiming and refashioning their traditions
in order to move on."
Marsha Vande Berg: Let me
ask now for any final remarks you may have on this intriguing set
Lizhu Fan: For me, the most significant
finding is that the deep religiousness of Chinese traditional
culture is very much alive. Today in Shenzhen,
economic opportunity coexists with a new and
exciting spiritual awakening.
A moral freedom in this city—unimaginable in earlier days
and places in China—generates not only significant abuses,
but also a resurgence of interest in China’s cultural heritage
of religiousness. Residents of Shenzhen today enjoy a freedom that
is not only economic, but spiritual. The western religious imagination
might expect these now-urbanized Chinese to embrace an organized
religion by formally affiliating with a Buddhist temple or Christian
church. But most of the spiritually sensitive people I met are
returning consciously—even self-consciously—to practices
that are part of China’s deep tradition, practices to which
Chinese people over the centuries have turned in their search for
deeper meaning and a peaceful way to live in the world. Whether
Shenzhen is a signpost to China’s
future, both economically and spiritually, remains to be seen. But
my research at least raises questions and, perhaps, even generates
I want to close with a caution. For the people in Shenzhen, a dominant feature
of life is the exhilaration of personal choice. Dr. Fan’s respondents
wanted to make clear that their new moral convictions and ritual practices,
too, arose from personal decision. Spirituality, they would often insist,
was for them a personal matter. Personal—because their decisions were
not limited by the social pressures exerted by family and village life. Personal—because
their choices were not coerced by government control or political orthodoxy.
At first hearing, this discussion echoes the contemporary U.S. debate
concerning spirituality and religion. In both Shenzhen and San Francisco,
for example, many people today will say "I’m spiritual,
but I don’t belong
to any religion." But to understand the significance of ‘personal
spirituality’ for the people of Shenzhen, we must avoid incorporating
their experiences too quickly into the U.S. discussion.
In America, the religion/spirituality distinction is situated within
the more pervasive western dichotomy of public/private life. To offer
the Shenzhen experience as an example of ‘private spirituality’ masks
critical cultural differences. The spiritual individuality of Dr.
Fan’s Shenzhen respondents
is not the individualism most familiar in America. In Shenzhen, the ‘personalized’ quality
of spirituality is less a private adventure of the interior life and
more a heightened awareness of personal responsibility.
Interpreting the experience of the people of Shenzhen as ‘just
like us’ may
be initially helpful, to the extent that it opens us to greater understanding
and empathy. But ultimately this too-quick identification proves constraining.
The supposed similarities shield us from confusion, but easily blind
us to seeing what is genuinely different in the Chinese experience
Peter Ng: Let me return to the question
of Christianity in China. We need to bear in mind that for most
Chinese people who are interested in Christianity, Chinese culture
and Christianity are by no means mutually exclusive. Chinese people
embrace Christianity because it works. Christianity does no harm.
In fact, it contributes to—it supplements—their lives.
Chinese scholars, too, welcome Christianity as one of the many
supplements they can take from western cultures. And in the Chinese
view, there are many supplements to choose from—especially
if we consider the rich religious and spiritual resources of Asia.
Christianity is just one of the many options available to them.
As outsiders hoping to help fill up the spiritual vacuum in China,
Christians should come as true disciples of Jesus. We should come
to China to serve, and not to be served. We come to offer one option
or ‘spiritual supplement’ to
help nourish the Chinese spirit. But we need to bear in mind that
Christianity is but one among the many options for Chinese humanity
today. Certainly, the Christian faith can make us unique, hence our
unique contribution to China; but it is by no means to divide us
from, or to be a weapon for us to use against, other non-Christian
religions of China.
James Whitehead: Peter Ng has suggested
that the Chinese look to supplement their spiritual diet with
nourishment from other cultures and societies. Ever practical,
the Chinese are willing to add to their spiritual practices anything
that will help. Dr. Ng reflects, with much realism, that Christianity
may in the future serve this role as supplement to Chinese religiousness.
The example of Buddhism in China may serve as a precedent
here. Long recognized as indigenous to China, Buddhism
was originally an import from India. In Chinese culture,
Buddhism has always served this supplementary function.
From the institutional resources of Buddhism, the classical
tradition of China has drawn an impressive range of rituals
and doctrines that serve a useful purpose for Chinese.
Over time these practices, rituals and prayers have become
more and more Chinese. Now they are a central part of the diffused
religiousness that continues to nourish the Chinese soul.
In this light, a useful task for Christianity may be to explore,
with greater flexibility and imagination, the ways in which
our cherished values and spiritual insights may be offered
freely to the Chinese people, to help nourish their spirit
in this season of momentous social change.
Vande Berg offered these
Our world is increasingly pluralistic when it comes to religion and yet singular
when it comes
to faith and spirituality. This is the message I take away from our dialogue.
When we hunger for
spiritual meaning, we turn to religion. Or do we? Sometimes, we may find
we search for nourishment in spirituality instead of—or in addition
Our discussion today has heightened my appreciation of China’s
recent religious development. Economic reforms that started in 1978 under
Deng Xiaoping began to loosen the party’s iron grip on personal
freedoms, including the practice of religion. Changes have been glacial
and are not yet complete. Still, they continue to inspire a growing interest
in religious practice, coinciding with the opening up of China’s
This evolution also displays a dark side. An example is the central government’s
characterization of the Falungong as a cult and its brutal repression of
practitioners the authorities say violate China’s anti-cult laws. The
irony, of course, is that Falungong is one of many practices that manage
to attract adherents right and left. The difference between Falungong and
the others, however, is Falungong’s intensity in what seems to be a
blatant effort to call attention to its own repression by state authorities.
Still, the popularity of Falungong and other Qigong-related practices reflects
the resources they provide for simply living one’s life. These resources
resonate with aspects of folk practices that have flourished off and on
over the course of Chinese history. These religious practices can be carried
out alone or in small groups.
They do not depend on government approval for their existence—as
do the five registered religions in China. As such, they are also instructive
from another perspective, namely their ability to be a catalyst for the
further opening of personal freedoms in China as well. And if that
can happen, it will nourish the individual spirit of many and the collective
spirit of the nation.
1. Peter TM Ng. "From Ideological Marxism to Moderate Pragmatism—Religious
Policy in China at the Turn of the Century," pp. 405-422. In Lau Chung
Ming, ed. China Review 2000. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press,
2000. [Return to Text]
2. Jiwei Ci. Dialectic of the Chinese Revolution: From
Utopianism to Hedonism.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994, p. 11. [Return to
3. C.K Yang. Religion in Chinese Society. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1962; see especially Chapter XII. [Return
4. Frances Fitzgerald. Vietnam: Spirits of the Earth. New York: Little, Brown,
2001. All quotations here are from her article "Silk Robes, Cell Phones," which
appeared in the January 2002 issue of the Smithsonian
pp. 84-92. [Return to Text]
Grateful acknowledgment is due to Courtney Conley,
whose accurate notes of the roundtable discussion provided the framework
for the text in this issue of Pacific Rim Report.