the business of religion: buddhism, stock markets and the “authenticity” of religion

A recent news story on Reuters, headlined Thou Shalt Not Launch IPOs, China tells temples, reports that the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) has issued an injunction against temples listing on the stock exchange. SARA official Liu Wei is reported as staying:

Chinese worshippers offer coins for prosperity while praying at Longhua temple to greet the lunar new year in Shanghai on February 9, 2005.

Such plans “violate the legitimate rights of religious circles, damage the image of religion and hurt the feelings of the majority of religious people.”

Like much reporting on Chinese religion, this story is left unexplained, as an item of “bizarre news” which lends weight to the Orientalist stereotype of China, and especially Chinese religion, as being ineluctably mysterious. To those whose knowledge of religion is limited to the West, there are two main issues that need to be explained:

  • Why do religious sites want to go public on the stock exchange?
  • What interest does the state have in preventing them from doing so?

A pervasive modern view of religion is that it is somehow incompatible with money. This sentiment perhaps goes back to the familiar Biblical texts that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) and  “you cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6;24). There are certainly some parallels in China, notably in monastic religion where a contentious issue has always been how much time should be spent on properly religious activities such as meditation, and how much on the actual business of running the monastery. In Imperial times, many monasteries in China had significant landholdings. The rent collected from tenants was used to fund the operations of the monasteries. But from the times of the first anti-religious protests in 1922, the economic status of monasteries declined, first as tenants refused or were unwilling to pay their rents, and secondly as land was expropriated by the state (an act that bears comparison with Henry VIII’s dissolution of English monasteries and appropriation of their wealth). After the reforms of the 1980s monasteries were allowed once again to operate as religious sites under the ultimate supervision of SARA, but very little land was returned to them. As Jing Yin writes in his essay “The Economic Situation of Chinese Buddhist Monasteries” this meant that the monasteries were faced with a dilemma:

The good news is that Buddhists today have buildings to operate and services to perform; the bad news is that they have almost no money with which to work. Therefore the urgent priority for nearly every monastery is to find a way to generate revenue. Monasteries are thus trying to become economically independent and to minimize their dependence on state government.

Today, temples do not make money from renting out their land but rather as sites for religious tourism. Many are located in sites of outstanding natural beauty and have become ecotourism destinations in their own right. But probably the most successful religious site in China today is Shaolin Temple, in central Henan province, home to the famous martial arts school. Shaolin has been remarkably successful in marketing itself as a tourist destination, and as a site of global Buddhist pilgrimage, and has generated huge revenues that have benefitted the local economy. According to the Reuters report, there was an outcry when Shaolin contemplated an IPO three years ago, which led to the ruling reported on recently. To many, running the temple as a profit-making activity implies that it cannot also be a religious activity. But as André Laliberté notes, this view is often the view of outsiders rather than insiders.

Buddhist devotees may criticize the activities of organizations like Shaolin because of its emphasis on martial arts, but they do not fault the management of the temples because they appreciate the fact that the temples are wealthy. In the moral economy of Buddhism …  donors can gain merit by contributing to the building and furnishing of a monastery … . It is therefore non-Buddhists who are more likely to object to Buddhist temples gaining wealth.

In the case of local Daoist religions, the link between religious life and local economic life can be quite close. In rural China, local Daoist temples came to be owned and funded by the collective rather than by priestly lineages. Thus in contrast to affiliation-based religions in which people pay tithes to a religious organization that is distinct from secular society and governed by a special class of religious professionals, Chinese people founded community associations (hui) or common management organizations (gongsi; now the term for “corporation”) in order to manage their collective religious lives (see Schipper 2008). As a result the gap between “religious” activities and other local economic, educational or charitable activities becomes harder to discern. These communal associations, for instance, became significant managers of local wealth held in trust for the benefit of the community. In keeping with their originally religious motives, some of these funds are typically devoted to religious activities, but in many cases a significant proportion could be channeled into local enterprises or educational activities. Adam Yuet Chau (2005: 38) writes:

Besides being a site of both individual and communal worship, a temple is also a political, economic, and symbolic resource and a generator of such resources. A beautifully built temple and a well-attended temple festival attest not only to the efficacy of the deity but also to the organizational ability of the temple association and the community.

Chau goes on to note that such temples have been involved in local development work such as paving roads, planting trees, and building schools. The lesson to be learned from this is that the line between “religious” and “nonreligious” activity has no self-evident boundary. Rather what has happened in China is that the modern state has moved to create such distinctions, defining for religious institutions what constitutes proper religious activity.

By now the answers to the questions posed above should be somewhat clearer. Religious sites want to list on the stock exchange because it is in their interest to secure funds for their continuous development and expansion. Religious activity is not simply “spirituality” but requires buildings, staff, management, cars, roads and other infrastructure. In contrast, it is in the state’s interest to emphasize the modern definition of authentic religion as “personal spirituality” so that it can continue to limit the material base that religious institutions require in order to develop and expand. In China religious activities can only legally take place in spaces that are authorized religious sites: they may not take place in the public sphere. The stock exchange is clearly viewed as public space, and to allow religions to list on the stock exchange would be to permit the encroachment of religion into the public sphere. This is something that the Chinese government is clearly not willing to tolerate.

cultural transformation and ecological sustainability among the dai people in xishuangbanna

A conservation biologist by training, I first arrived in Xishuangbanna because of my interest in the ecological value of sacred groves called “holy hills,” fragments of old-growth rainforest that remain protected by indigenous Dai people despite rapid deforestation due to the proliferation of rubber plantations.

A typical landscape: rice paddies in the valley, rubber on the hillsides.

The Dai protect holy hills because they believe their gods reside in these groves of large trees. As a result, holy hills are often the only fragments of natural forests remaining outside nature reserves and have been documented containing endangered species from China’s Plant Red Data List.

I realized quickly upon my arrival that the question of conservation with holy hills requires a strong cultural perspective: because holy hills are religious entities without formal government protection, their existence and persistence is entirely dependent on local people and how they maintain their traditions. The relationship between the Dai and their sacred landscapes is long and complex, and I will not delve into that discussion in this current post. Instead, I will share some preliminary observations of changes in cultural and religious practices among the Dai from my two months in Xishuangbanna in summer 2011.

A holy hill: “White Elephant Mountain.”

For those of you who are new to this area of the world, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan province of southwest China is renowned for its exceptional natural beauty. Although the region covers only 0.2% of the country’s land area, it contains 16% of China’s plant biodiversity, 36% of China’s bird species, 22% of China’s mammal species, and 15% of China’s reptile and amphibian diversity. The people of Xishuangbanna are no less diverse, with more than 13 recognized minority nationalities, including Dai, Hani, Yi, Lahu, Bulang, Jinuo, Yao, Miao, Bai, Hui, Va, and Zhuang. With rich histories of traditional practices and beliefs, these minorities comprise roughly 75% of the local population. The Dai people, with 30% of the local population, are the biggest ethnic group in this area.

The Dai may have arrived in Yunnan as early as 3,700 years ago. Before Theravada Buddhism was introduced in the middle of the Tang dynasty, about 700 C.E., Dai religious life was heavily bound to the natural world. The Dai perception of the human-nature relationship consisted of five major elements: forest, water, land, gods, and humanity. Today, they still believe that the forest is humanity’s cradle, that water comes from the forests, that land is fed by the water, and that food comes from the land that is fed by the water and forests. Dai culture is deeply rooted in nature, as a traditional Dai folk song illustrates: “If you cut down all the trees, you have only the bark to eat; if you destroy the forests, you destroy your road to future.” To them, human life is supported by the forests, which are also intertwined with the supernatural realm.

Drying rubber latex.

Historically, the Dai live on the land by cropping upland rice and clearing forests. Their traditional land management practices include the collection non-timber forest products, cultivation of fuelwood trees, development of homegarden plants and different types of agroforestry, establishment of sacred holy hills as community-protected areas, and management of diverse plants in temple yards. More recently, the Dai have adopted a new land use practice: the cultivation of rubber. Following the 1949 revolution, rubber was first introduced to Xishuangbanna as a crop in state farms because it was thought to be a critical product for the national military and industrial development. In the 1980s, communes were dissolved, land was allocated to farmers, and the prefecture government was ordered to help minority farmers pursue economic development. The first smallholder rubber campaign began in the mid-1980s. It served two purposes: to help state rubber farms meet the rising national demand for rubber, and to help raise minority farmers’ incomes. Thirty years later, the campaign is more successful than its creators perhaps ever imagined.

Tourists in Dai homes.

Besides rubber, another area of rapid economic growth in Xishuangbanna is tourism. Local minorities entertain tourists with local foods, crafts, dances, songs, and wedding shows. Dai villages are major attractions, and large numbers of tourists are brought to these communities by travel agencies. Improvements in transportation, hotel services, and other tourism facilities have led to an increase in tourists from just over 5000 visitors in 1985 to nearly 2.8 million in 2005. The majority of visitors come from developed areas of China, though the international market is certainly expanding as well. I was quite surprised at the frequency with which I’d encounter Americans and Europeans during my stay.

Thus, it is evident that Xishuangbanna has undergone rapid cultural, ecological, and economic transitions throughout the past few decades. This is reflected both in the landscape and in the people themselves. The growing economy is pervasive, and the Dai are not immune to its effects: people are responding to new opportunities, values are shifting, and new practices arise. The following are a few anecdotes of changes I noticed during my travels.

With Xishuangbanna as one of the hottest new tourist destinations, Dai communities must routinely accommodate large influxes of domestic and international tourists and have modified some traditional practices to do so. According to religious customs surrounding the Kaowasa Festival (or guanmenjie 关门节 in Chinese), Dai villages are to be sealed off for three months such that no one may enter and no one may leave. However, this is impossible for villages with a growing tourist population, and many communities have reduced the sealed-off duration from three months to three days – in the most heavily visited areas, I was told that some villages can only be sealed for three hours!

Components of a traditional loom.

Many of the traditional activities applauded by tourists are becoming increasingly obsolete in the context of modern society. For example, I was graciously hosted by a lovely family in the village of Mengxingxiazhai, and the grandmother of the family was well-known for her ability to make beautiful traditional clothing. She proudly showed me her loom, and said that she was one of three women remaining in the village who knew how to use one. I asked her why, and she replied that making cloth is time-consuming and inconvenient, so the vast majority of people prefer to purchase their clothing from stores; thus, few young women have expressed interest in learning how to use the loom, and this traditional practice is fading.

Making traditional drums.

This dilution of cultural activities is not limited to making cloth. One man I spoke to, a well-known Dai dancer and traditional drum-maker in Mengla, said that his son is reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps and learn Dai dance and drum-making. This man told me the main factor is money: with the lucrative option of farming rubber, the son chooses to spend his time collecting rubber latex instead. Even this man’s wife is opposed to him spending so much time dancing and making drums because she thinks he should be out farming rubber to make money; she says, “Are you crazy? Why are you dancing when everyone else is out planting rubber?”

To my great surprise, I learned that another activity in danger of becoming a relic is going to school. Education is a difficult path to pursue, to which many of us can attest, and the motivation to achieve academic success is simply non-existent for Dai youth in Xishuangbanna. Farming rubber provides a comfortable and stable salary, and no education is required for such a career; thus, the more prudent choice for many is to invest their time and energy in planting rubber instead of reading books. I spoke to schoolteacher in Xishuangbanna who passionately believed in education and strongly encouraged children to stay in school. She told me that the typical response to her campaigns for education was, “What’s the point of going to school? For school graduates like you, your monthly salary is equivalent to my salary for one day. So what’s the point of spending extra time in school? And in addition to me making more money than you, I have more freedom in life.” (The last point is in reference to the growing season for rubber: rubber trees lose their leaves for four months each year, during which rubber latex cannot be collected and most farmers go on vacation.) There are few Dai students who make it to university, and in modern Chinese society where the majority of youth attend university, a Bachelor’s degree does not guarantee a job or any advantage on the job market. Moreover, if these students return to the rubber farms to earn a living, they are at a disadvantage to their peers who chose to stay home and gain experience with farming rubber.

A monk on a motorcycle.

One evening, I met a crowd of teenage boys for beer and fresh barbeque. I found that while all of them could speak Dai, none could read or write. I asked if they learned any Dai in school, and they said very little. The reason for this, I learned from a schoolteacher, is that the curriculum in schools is formatted after a Han curriculum. When speaking to elders in Dai villages, my interviewees said that they learned the most about Dai knowledge and culture when they were monks in the temple as young men. Unfortunately, the recent decline in education is not limited to the secular realm, and enrollment of young boys as monks in temples has also dropped precipitously. Furthermore, for those who do enter monkhood, the rules are significantly relaxed. Monks can leave the temple when they choose to, ride motorcycles, and enjoy many modern luxuries. Many elders saw this slackening of rules as a drop in moral strength; indeed, they said, reports of theft in the temples has been higher than ever before. Twenty years ago, no one would dare to steal from the temple. Now, temple thefts are common enough that they are no longer scandalous.

One important question is: as Dai culture changes, what is preserved? It is obvious that both the land and the people if Xishuangbanna are undergoing a period of rapid transition, and it remains unclear how people will redefine their relationship with their religion, culture, and environment. In the case of my particular interest in holy hills, it appears that culture which created them may not be the same one that preserves them – that is, if the people choose to maintain these holy hills. When speaking to Dai villagers, everybody young and old unanimously asserted their unwavering faith in the spiritual power of the holy hill. Even teenagers who could not read or write Dai still firmly believe in their sacred forests because their parents raised them to revere and fear the holy hill. But with weakening traditions and declines in cultural and spiritual education from schools and temples, how can this reverence be maintained?

Lily Zeng

what climate change means for religion in china

Much intellectual discourse about Chinese philosophical and religious views of nature focuses on ideals such as harmony between humans and the natural world, or “forming one body with heaven and earth” (tian ren he yi). But when it comes to historical studies of Chinese environmental history, it’s hard to find instances of where this ideal was concretely realized. Mark Elvin concludes his monumental history of China’s environment with the following observation

The religious, philosophical, literary, and historical texts surveyed and translated in the foregoing pages have been rich sources of description, insight, and even, perhaps, inspiration. But the dominant ideas and ideologies, which were often to some degree in contradiction with each other, appear to have little explanatory power in determining why what seems actually to have happened to the Chinese environment happened the way it did. Occasionally, yes, Buddhism helped to safeguard trees around monasteries. The law-enforced mystique shrouding Qing imperial tombs kept their surroundings untouched by more than minimal economic exploitation. but in general, no. There seems no case for thinking that, some details apart, the Chinese anthropogenic environment was developed and maintained in the way it was over the long run of more than three millennia because of particular characteristically Chinese beliefs or perceptions. or, at least, not in comparison with the massive effects of the pursuit of power and profit in the arena provided by the possibilities and limitations of the Chinese natural world, and the technologies that grew from interactions with them.

But when it comes to the history of religion in China, (rather than philosophical ideas), the story is quite different. Chinese religions demonstrate a continuous attempt to grapple with the natural world, imploring the heavens to aid the productive bounty of the earth. For popular Chinese religion in particular, the natural world is also depicted as a dangerous force capable of producing death and destruction on a massive scale. (More…)

religious traditions and the future of east asia

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.