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“Are China’s Rulers Getting Religion?”

By Maya E. Rudolph

For Chinese government authorities, there’s a lot to keep up with these days. “Worsening inflation, a slowing economy, and growing concerns about possible social unrest,” coupled with a mounting sentiment being splashed around the blogosphere that Chinese society is inherently lacking an upright moral fiber, have given Chinese authorities pause to reconsider the role of organized religion in society and the lives of individuals. On the blog of the The New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson reports:

China is now in the grips of a moral crisis. In recent months, the Chinese Internet has been full of talk about the lack of morality in society. And the problem is not just associated with the very rich or the political connected – concerns shared in western countries – but with the population at large. Beijing is giving new support to religion – even the country’s own beleaguered traditional practice, Daoism.

Among the approaches taken by a government still trading lightly where religion is concerned are an effort to restore Daoist temples and engage in Daoist discourse at the International Daoist Forum:

The meeting was held near Mt. Heng in Hunan Province, one of Daoism’s five holy mountains, and was attended by 500 participants. It received extensive play in the Chinese media, with a noted British Daoist scholar, Martin Palmer, getting airtime on Chinese television. This is a sharp change for a religion that that was persecuted under Mao and long regarded as suspect. What, exactly, is gong on here? During the Mao years many of its traditions, such as fortune telling, geomancy, possession by spirits, and popular rituals, were banned as superstitious. But it’s been making a limited comeback. Although still dwarfed by Buddhism, as well as newer religions, like Christianity, the number of Daoist temples has at least tripled over the past fifteen years, according to official figures. Priests and nuns who run the temples provide services to pilgrims and go out into the community to consecrate homes or businesses, and perform funerals. Others spread Daoist ideas through martial arts, such as Tai Chi, or medicine – two disciplines rooted in Daoism.

Johnson goes on to address why Daoism, of all religions and schools of thought existing quietly in unsanctioned communities of belief throughout China, may serve as a new point of reference – and possible moral compass in an ostensibly secular nation – as directed by Chinese authorities.

One reason authorities are now embracing Daoism as a source of moral guidance is that, in contrast to Christianity – which sometimes runs afoul of authorities – Daoism is widely seen as an unthreatening, indigenous religion. That’s true of Buddhism as well, which was founded in today’s India but took root in China 2,000 years ago. But Buddhism has long had a cadre of devoted, missionizing monks and nuns who try to spread the word, whereas Daoism is sometimes hard to crack – you often have to earn a Daoist master’s trust and respect before he or she will take you on as a disciple.

What even this government reconsideration of Daoist doctrine neglects to consider is the role of religion on a broader cultural plane. The existence of Buddhism, Christianity, and even much-maligned communities like Falun Gong remains strictly in violation of CCP restrictions on organized religion. Xu Xin‘s 2005 documentary Fangshan Church provides a portrait of one of these marginal populations – a Christian church and tight-knit community of believers in Jiangsu Province. Despite the congregation’s fairly durable standing in rural Jiangsu, the church elders express reservations about the always-looming threat of government rebuke. “We are not an anti-government organization,” one of Fangshan Church’s “disciples” insists, but there is no security in the intervention of politics and religion.

Johnson goes on to question the government’s motivation behind these recent actions and the ultimate effect it may have on Chinese society:

But the more China’s leaders try to use religion for their own purposes, the more difficult it may be to have an actual effect on perceived problems like society’s moral decline. Despite the rebuilding of temples, religious life is still tightly limited. Many practitioners do find a deeper moral answer in the teachings of Daoism and other religions. I have seen volunteers at Daoist temples provide food for the poor or engage in disaster relief. The teachings of compassion and unity with nature also make sense in a country that has pursued economic gain at the expense of charity and concern for the environment. But religion is still fighting an uphill battle. The recent conference gave Daoism an unprecedented amount of media attention, but most of the time religious life is completely absent from Chinese television or other media outlets. Then again, as the Daodejing [Daoist text] makes clear, human endeavors often miss the point: Thirty spokes converge on a hub but it’s the emptiness that makes a wheel work


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