I’m at the First Summit on Laozi and Daoist Culture, which is taking place this week in Beijing. The Summit is the work of Prof. Hu Fuchen, one of the leading scholars of Daoism, and a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This morning, we had the opening ceremony, which was held in the Great Hall of the People. It was my first time in this magnificent building.
The purpose of the conference is basically to promote Daoism throughout China and the World. It is being funded by a wealthy donor, and has received backing at a high level from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Daoism has been something of a poor relative lately. Buddhism is better funded. Confucianism receives a very high level of support form the central government. But to many people, Daoism is poorly understood and associated with superstition.
As one of the invited foreign delegates, it seems that my job is to demonstrate international support for this venture, to have my photograph taken along with the 500 or so other delegates, and to be part of the ritual theatre that the organizers have carefully crafted to promote Daoism as an essential ingredient of Chinese culture.
Of the various speeches that were made this morning, what stands out the most was the speech made by Zhang Jiyu, vice-chairman of the Chinese Daoist Association. He argued for that Daoism was a key ally for China’s global revival for three reasons: (1) the Daode jing is the most widely translated of Chinese texts and has had a wide global impact; (2) the Dao is the universal foundation of vitality, and thus central to the life and livelihood of people everywhere; (3) Daoism promotes the harmony of human beings and the natural world, and is thus vital to the project of sustainable development. With these arguments, it seemed that Zhang was working to ensure that Daoism receives further backing from the government as an indispensable resource for its program of creating a “harmonious society.”
Tang Yijie, the renowned professor of philosophy at Peking University, made the case for Daoism in a slightly more traditional way. He argued that Daoism constituted part of the DNA of Chinese culture, and for this reason could not be ignored as part of China’s program to assert itself culturally throughout the world.
Together, Tang and Zhang seemed to be saying that Laozi and Daoist culture have always been part and parcel of China’s lifeblood, and are also vital for China’s continued development. Laozi, just as much as Confucius, should be regarded as a the face of Chinese culture in the world today.
Of course as a scholar of Daoism, I am broadly sympathetic to these arguments. But it is also fascinating for me to see a tradition in the midst of an enormous transition, struggling to reinvent itself in the context of China’s extraordinary pace of social and economic change. It is clear now that at the highest levels, Daoism is now officially China’s green religion. What this means for the for the masses has yet to be seen.
With reference to the penultimate sentence of your last paragraph: An “official” religion is a contradiction in terms.
I think that from a US perspective, the concept of an “official religion” in the sense of a national religion is certainly forbidden by the constitution. On the other hand, at some level religions in the West have to be officially recognized as religions in order to claim tax exempt status and other privileges afforded by the state.
Since 1979 China has taken the step of officially authorizing and legally protecting five religions, Islam, Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism and Protestantism. Other religious traditions such as Orthodox Christianity also exist in China though their legal status is not so clearly defined.