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religious traditions and the future of east asia

By: James Miller

Here’s three reasons why China’s traditional religions and cultures will play an increasingly important role in the East Asian political scene. 

  1. In mainland China, more people than ever are turning to religion. An interview with Arrianna Liu, who works in a Beijing-based NGO, reported that it’s not just the government’s attitudes that have changed. Ordinary people are now more curious about religion, and more tolerant of it, especially foreign religions such as Christianity.
  2. Confucianism is increasingly being recognized as part of the social fabric that holds East Asian society together. Chinese scholars such as Kang Xiaoguang at Renmin University in Beijing, which has traditionally trained the cadre ranks of the Communist Party, openly advocate a more direct reliance on Confucian values for future policy directions. Moreover, Confucianism is also key to understanding East Asian society from Korea to Vietnam. And it is also a source of controversy for diaspora Chinese living in Indonesia. 
  3. Buddhism is playing an important bridging role in relations between mainland China and Taiwan. China’s second World Buddhist Forum is being held in the spring this year and is being held jointly between the mainland and Taiwan. Academics and Buddhist teachers will be holding the first part of the conference on the mainland, and then flying by charter air to Taiwan for the closing half. 

In order to fully understand 21st century East Asia, it’s vital to grasp the role played by religion in contemporary culture, and the way in which contemporary domestic and international politics is shaping perceptions of traditions. Traditions such as Confucianism and Daoism often do not look like Western religions, but nevertheless play an important part in Chinese culture, medicine, politics and philosophy. Transnational religions such as Buddhism and Christianity have the power to connect people across cultural and political divides and can play positive roles in diplomatic relations. In the case of the Vatican, or Tibetan Buddhism, they can also be thorns in the side of politicians in China, Taiwan and elsewhere. 

Most importantly of all, however, religious traditions function as repositories of alternative cultural capital. When workers feel soulless and rootless in Beijing, one reason they turn to religion may simply be that they are bored by the banal routines of modern society. In this regard it doesn’t matter whether religions are right or wrong, enlightening or otherwise. What’s important about religions is that they have audaciously survived the modern urge towards rationalization, routinization and homogenization and function as markers of difference for individuals, and repositories of ideas, values and practices for those who are seeking an alternative to the norm.

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