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.

the religion and ecology of the blang minority nationality

A Blang nationality woman

The question of how to promote a culture of ecological sustainability in China took me this summer to conduct exploratory fieldwork among the Blang minority nationality, in Yunnan province, close to the border between China and Myanmar. The Blang are one of China’s smaller nationality groups and occupy a remote mountainous terrain that is a gruelling and dangerous three-hour drive from the county town of Menghai.

The economy of the Blang village where I stayed was based increasingly on the production of tea. Previously subsistence farmers, the villagers had now turned almost exclusively to the production of tea leaves which, when processed, become the famous and expensive pu’er tea. Since the economic and land reforms after the cultural revolution, the villagers had been steadily converting their lands to the production of tea, with tea bushes now dominating the steeply-terraced mountainsides. After harvesting the tea leaves, the villagers dry and lightly roast the tea leaves before selling them via middlemen to nearby tea factories that ferment, process and package the finished product.

A Blang nationaity Buddhist monk on his motorbike

The village is distinguished by well-preserved social customs: villagers are divided into a number of exogamous clans; newly married men live in their wife’s family’s home for three years; and most young men spend a period of time as a Buddhist monk in their youth. The Blang, like many nationalities in southwest China are Theravada Buddhists, but their highly complex religious life is also informed by local beliefs and customs that relate to the traditional ecology, with special attention being paid to rice, water, bees, beeswax, and the various local spirits that are associated with them. The production of tea has not been integrated into the religious life of the village and remains detached from it. On the other hand the relative wealth that has come to the village has enabled the renovation of old temples, the construction of new ones, and the hosting of lavish religious festivals, including the Kaowasa festival, known in Chinese as guanmenjie 关门节, a Theravada Buddhist festival to mark the beginning of the rainy season.

Here the relationship between religion and ecology becomes more evident. During the three month period inaugurated by Kaowasa, injunctions are placed on the life of the monks and laypeople in the village. Most notably these include a prohibition on cutting down large trees. In traditional times such large trees might be cut down and used for building houses. While most of the houses in the village are still made of wood, the more important reason for cutting down trees nowadays is to increase the land available for tea production.

Four important point can be made here. The first is that there is clear evidence of religion playing an influential role in managing the direct relationship between the Blang people and their local ecosystems. Their religious life is not a matter of private belief or personal spirituality, but a cultural system that clearly intersects with ecological and economic systems. In this regard, at least, religion is a cultural force that acts as a constraint upon a economic activity that has a deleterious effect on the local environment.

Secondly, in this regard at least, the Blang religion supports Chinese government policy and law which prevents deforestation. While I was in the village, I saw that this policy is supported by educational programs that aim to get local people to understand the important relationship between forests, water and the livelihood of local ecosystems. What struck me was that in this regard, religion could clearly be an ally towards government policy and environmental policy. When I interviewed a local CCP member, he informed me that the Party did not put up any obstacles to his participation in local religious activities, but would certainly view the spread of non-indigenous religions such as Christianity as highly problematic.

A new pagoda outside a Blang village is testimony to new-found wealth

Thirdly, the complex and lavish nature of the religious activities in the village were directly supported by the village’s economic development. Without the wealth brought by tea monoculture, it would hardly be possible to support the scale of religious activities that I witnessed. The village’s wealth could clearly be seen in the renovation of the main temple, and the building of a new pagoda outside the village. This pagoda was built upon the advice of a visiting Burmese monk and was located according to fengshui principles to ensure that the wealth generated in the village would as much as possible remain in the village. Economic development supports religious activities, and in turn religious activities are designed to support economic development.

The final point relates to the power of Buddhism as a transnational religion. The border between China and Myanmar was clearly a notional border for the local people. Commercial, religious and family relationships straddled the border, and villagers were able to cross easily into Burma by foot. Some monks had spent time in Thailand and were able to live there without any passport, so long as they had proof of their religious status.

From my exploratory research it seems clear that there exists a complex relationship between religion, economy, ecology and nationality among the Blang people that is deserving of much deeper study and analysis. At the same time, it is not clear how long these relationships will remain intact. The current five year plan holds out the prospect of a proper paved road from the village to the county town. This will make communications with the “outside world” far easier and undoubtedly bring momentous changes to the religious, economic and social life of the village.

Religion, Nature and Modernization in China

 Technology, Trust and ReligionJames Miller. 2010. Religion, Nature and Modernization in China. Pp. 107-122 in Technology, Trust and Religion: Roles of Religion in Controversies on Ecology and the Modification of Life edited by Willem B. Drees. Leiden: Leiden University Press.

One of most important concepts in the Weberian theory of modernity is summed up in the German term Entzauberung, usually translated into English as ‘disenchantment’ or ‘rationalization’. A concise summary of this concept can be found in an essay published in 1987 by the British sociolo- gist Ernest Gellner. He writes:

The modern world is organized in a rational way. This means that clearly specified goals are pursued by a calculated allocation of means; the means include not only tools but also human activity and men them- selves. These things are treated instrumentally and not as ends in them- selves. Effectiveness  and evidence  are kings. The procedures  are also rational in the sense of being orderly and rule-bound: like cases are treated alike. (Gellner 1987, 153)

According to this view, therefore, modernity presupposes a rational, logi- cal and orderly view of the world, one that is best managed by rational procedures and gives rise to the legalistic, bureaucratic institutions of the modern state. Rationalization, moreover, is not something that ‘happens’ to society. It also has consequences for the way that moderns view and engage the natural world. Gellner continues:

It is not only the procedures  of organizations  which are in this sense ‘bureaucratised’; the same also happens to our vision of nature, of the external world. Its comprehensibility and manipulability are purchased by means of subsuming its events under orderly, symmetrical, precisely articulated generalisations and explanatory models. This is Disenchantment: the Faustian purchase of cognitive, technological  and adminis- trative power, by the surrender of our previous meaningful, humanly suffused, humanly responsive, if often also menacing or capricious world. That is abandoned in favour of a more a more predictable, more amenable, but coldly indifferent and uncosy world. (Gellner 1987, 153)

As Gellner’s explanation makes clear, the Weberian concept of Entzauberung has at least two aspects to it, evident in the two English terms that are commonly  used to translate  it, rationalization  and disenchantment. On the one hand, Entzauberung involves a belief in the possibility of the rational ordering of the world; on the other hand this belief is predicated on an instrumental  view of nature, one in which nature is not valued as an end in itself, but becomes a means for the attainment of rationally cal- culated ends. Entzauberung is thus more than a process that takes place within the ordering of society. Rather it also ‘happens to our vision of na- ture’ conceived as the world that is ‘external’ to the self. Thus, according to this theory, the rationalization and bureaucratization  of society that we are familiar with in the modern period, is also accompanied  by the secu- larization of space and the disenchantment  of nature.

Recently,  however,  this  understanding  of disenchantment  has  begun to be questioned  by social theorists.  In particular, Bronislaw Szerszynski (2005) has argued that the reordering of society and nature in modernity should not be viewed as a final stage in the process of disenchantment and secularization,  but rather  as a moment  within the ongoing transforma- tion of the sacred throughout histor y. This transformation is not so much a gradual process of the sacred’s absenting itself from society and from nature, but rather a continuous reordering of the sacred within the world. The view of modern society as the highest stage in some gradual evolution towards rationality and secularism  is a view from a particular evolution- ary perspective, one that has been informed by centuries of Western theo- logical history, or as Szerszynski terms it, ‘the long arc of monotheism’. As Szerszynski writes:

The illusion that the sacred has disappeared is arguably a feature of all historical transitions from one form of the sacred to the next in a given society. Each transition can seem like an eclipse  of the sacred in the terms in which it was organized in the closing epoch; from a larger his- torical perspective,  however, it can be seen as the emergence  of a new sacral ordering. (Szerszysnski 2005, 26)

The secularization  of society and the disenchantment  of nature summed up in the concept  of ‘absolute profane’ are thus not to be seen as a final stage in history but as ‘an event within the ongoing history of the sacred in the West’ (2005, 27).

This paper aims to consider the disenchantment  of nature in modern China from the perspective  of this debate  within  social  science  theory. First  it examines  the  process  of modernization  in China  as a self-con- scious process of disenchantment  and rationalization. In this process the state assumed rational control over religious spaces and religious orga- nizations.  It was able  to do so in part  through  the  development  of the concept of ‘superstition’ in which the religious activities associated  most overtly with nature were prohibited.  All this seems to indicate the value of the Weberian view of modernization. This chapter follows Szerszynski, however, in arguing that this process should not be understood as the absolute  secularization  of Chinese  society  but rather  as the creation  of a new form of the sacred in Chinese society, this time the creation of a transcendent  monotheism  focused  on the  abstract  concept  of the  state and concretely  embodied  in the  Communist  Party. In effect,  therefore, the process of modernization in China has not been about secularization but rather about the establishment of a new sacred order in which the diversity of Chinese religious values became increasingly subordinated to a new transcendent  monotheism.

The Rationalization of Sacred Space

In an article entitled ‘Knowledge and Power in the Discourse of Moderni- ty: The Campaigns against Popular Religion in Early Twentieth-Century China’  Prasenjit  Duara  (1991) argued  that  the  newly  emerging  modern Chinese state in part based its ascendancy on its ability to destroy the local religious associations  and local geographies of power so as to reorganize them within a monolithic ideology of the modern nation state. Even be- fore the establishment  of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the mod- ernization of the Chinese state was achieved through a reorganization  of local power and social networks, chiefly by appropriating land owned by local temples. ‘Monks and priests who had depended on religious proper- ties were deprived of their sources of livelihood; local religious societies that fulfilled social as much as spiritual needs were dispossessed  and replaced by government offices that seemed mainly interested in extracting revenues and uncovering unregistered  property ’ (Duara 1991, 76). Duara viewed this reordering  of local religion as socio-economic  activity, with the state assuming control over the economic resources and social struc- tures previously under the control of the religious organizations. But per- haps this was not simply a reordering of the religious economy, but also a reordering of the sacred. Perhaps in crushing the social and economic power of the local temple networks, the modern Chinese state was also establishing itself as the only legitimate source of spiritual authority with- in the nation. In short, this transformation might not be about seculariza- tion, as Weberian  theory  understands  it, but, in Szerszynski’s  terms,  as one of these various moments in human histor y when an old sacred order gives way to a new one.

In  order  to  understand  how  this  forced  disenchantment  of  China’s countr yside could legitimately  be viewed as a transformation  within the sacred  in modern China, it is necessar y to understand  the relationship between  the  sacred,  nature  and geography  in traditional  China. In the histor y of China, power was not only constituted  ideologically and theo- logically, but geographically too. This was evident most clearly in the sa- cred cosmography that held China to be the ‘middle kingdom’. This term originated in the Warring States period, and was originally understood in the plural. It referred to the various ‘central states’ that shared the culture of writing  in characters.  These  ‘central  states’  were  thus  distinguished from outer regions who did not share the same literar y and cultural tradi- tions. After unification under the first Qin emperor, these ‘central states’ became the ‘middle kingdom’, that is, the single China that is familiar to us today. At the centre of this middle kingdom was the capital, and at the centre of the capital was the imperial palace, and at the centre of the im- perial palace was the court from which the emperor governed the distant corners  of the empire.  This cosmology  was replicated  ever ywhere.  The magistrate had his offices in a courtyard at the centre of the city. The city was surrounded by walls. Outside the walls was the countr yside that pro- vided the food to keep the city functioning and beyond the countr yside was the wilderness inhabited by bandits, beasts, and barbarians. This cosmology was replicated also in the heavens, which were viewed as a circular canopy rotating around a central ridge-pole known as the Great Ultimate  (taiji), an axis mundi  connecting  the pole star down through the earth into the under world. In some Daoist religious movements,  the most significant  deities  were thus the ones associated  with the stars  of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) who lit the way to the apex of heaven and around which the lesser constellations  revolved. Power, in earth and on heaven,  was  manifested in the  construction  of space.  It was  about  the disposition of things, structuring human relations in a certain way within their  surroundings  so as to promote  a cosmic  vision of order and har-mony (see Lewis 2006).

Central to this worldview was the network of sacred mountains that symbolized  the  centre  and the  four corners  of the  empire.  In addition, both Buddhists and Daoists claimed their own sacred mountains and es- tablished monasteries and retreat houses there. At certain times and in certain  locations  these  sacred  geographies  overlapped  with  each  other. Mt. Tai in Shandong province, the Eastern mountain of the imperial cult was also sacred to both Buddhists and Daoists. On this mountain, the Qin emperor who reunited the country following the dissolution of the War- ring States period instituted new sacrifices to the supreme cosmic rulers. Only the emperor  was permitted  to offer these  feng and shan sacrifices. Through this exclusive ritual the emperor asserted his own personal con- nection to the cosmic powers that governed heaven and earth. He es- tablished  himself  not only as the  chief  mediator  between  the  gods and the people but as an indispensable  element in the theological  geography that constituted the Chinese understanding of their place in the universe. The Wu emperor of the Han dynasty reinstated these sacrifices and built a temple  at the base of the mountain where the entire cosmic pantheon could assemble to witness the rituals over which the emperor personally presided  (see Bokenkamp  1996).  The  imperial  cult  thus  served  to rein- force the authority of the emperor over his people, an authority vested in the ritual construction of sacred space by means of which the nation could orient itself in relation to the heavens above and the peripheral spaces to the north, south, east and west.

This network of sacred spaces, however, should not solely be interpret- ed in ideological and epistemological terms about what Chinese people believed about the nature of the cosmos. Rather we should interpret this construction  of sacred  space  as the  way in which  power  and authority were actually constituted in terms of the geography of the nation. The significance  of the feng and shan sacrifices  did not lie solely in the sym- bolic nature of the liturgy and the ritual, but in the fact that they were performed at the base of a vast and imposing mountain reaching vertigi- nously up into the sky. Through the ritual the emperor was appropriating power vested in the physical geography of that particular space.

The technological  limits of the pre-modern  era, however,  meant that the official state orthodoxy was not imposed uniformly throughout  Chi- na. China was thus a land of religious diversity in which local religions constructed  their own interpretations  of sacred space and competed with each  other  for the allegiance  of the people.  Dynasties  were  established on the  back  of religious  fer vour  and  were  destroyed  in the  same  way. As much as the Imperial court sought to impose its vision of unity and harmony on the empire, such an imposition was inevitably imperfect, fracturing  at its  various  intersections  with  the  authority  of local  cults and popular religions. In order for this vision to become a reality, it was necessary for the modern state to dismantle the networks of theological power and religious authority traditionally associated with the sacred mountains and local cults. This was made possible part by rapid developments in communications technology that, for the first time, enabled the central authorities to impose their vision of the world upon the various regions of China. Although from the perspective of traditional Chinese religious history this could be viewed as the secularization  of these natural and local spaces, the campaigns against popular religion could equally be interpreted  as the reordering of the sacred into a single, overarching , transcendent  monotheism constructed  around the abstract notion of the state.

It  would  come  as  no  surprise,  therefore,  that  religion  and  the  state would come into conflict  where  the function of religion was not clearly allied with that of the state. In such cases religion had to be controlled by the state because it was, in effect, a theological competitor.  Duara traced the modern history of conflict between  religion and the state to an offi- cial document published in 1928, called the ‘Standards for Preser ving and Abandoning Gods and Shrines’ (Duara 1991, 79). This document marked a milestone in the process of legitimating certain forms of religion and delegitimizing others. Some gods such as Confucius, Guandi, Laozi, and Buddha were  permitted  to be worshipped.  Other  gods, such as the city god and the god of wealth  were proscribed.  The  main distinction  to be drawn between these two lists of gods is that the former could be identi- fied in terms of their function with the overarching goals of a nation state, whereas the latter list contains gods who chiefly serve the interests of in- dividuals or localities. In short, some gods had a place within the temple of nationalism  and other  gods were seen as subversive  of the overarch- ing agenda of the state. Just as the rise of the nation state in Europe has been  seen  as  a theological  consequence  of the  Protestant  Reformation (Loy 2002,  94), so also the invention of the modern Chinese nation state could be seen a type of theological activity that demanded the restraint of religious competitors.

Religion, Nature, and Modernization

The debate  about the place of religion in the modern Chinese  state  was not, however, understood simply within the framework of the overarching theology of the nation state. It was also an ideological conflict predicated on competing visions of nature. This conflict was made possible by the invention  of the  category  of ‘superstition’  (mixin).  Duara demonstrates in the same article that although popular cults and local religions had previously been regarded with disdain by elite religious leaders and cat- egorized as ‘heterodox’ (xie) they were now increasingly placed under the new category of superstition  (mixin).  The categor y of ‘superstition’  thus functioned  as an ideological  tool by means  of which  the state  was able to make normative judgments about religious institutions so as to assert power over them. It did so by framing the ideology of local and popular re- ligious movements as ‘superstition’, that is to say, ‘deluded beliefs’. A devi- ant or unorthodox institution might have the possibility of being aligned, reformed or normalized in some way. An organization founded on super- stition, or deluded belief, would face a far harder task of surviving in the modern state. Just as the birth of the nation state in Western  Europe and North America was accompanied by the proscription of witchcraft and magic, so also the birth of the modern Chinese state witnessed  a violent struggle over the ideologically correct way to view and engage the natural world. In both cases, magic and superstition  were seen as the direct en- emies of technology and science.

The  attempt  to  define  superstition  in China  began  in 1930  with  the ‘Procedure for the Abolition of Occupations of Divination, Astrology, Physiognomy  and  Palmistry,  Sorcery  and  Geomancy,’  the  ‘Procedures for Banning  and Managing  Superstitious  Objects  and Professions,’  and the ‘Prohibition of Divinatory Medicines’ (Duara 1991, 80). The so-called superstitions  of divination, astrology,  physiognomy,  palmistr y, and geo- mancy were all key elements of popular religion in China, frequently con- ducted in local temples,  and were not generally associated  with the for- eign religions of Buddhism or Christianity.  In effect  the proscription  of these activities was designed to promote the demise of traditional Chinese popular religion. But there was also a significant ideological component at stake here that revolved around the philosophy of nature. Although astrology and physiognomy are generally dismissed in modern society as ‘fortune-telling’, in traditional Chinese religion they were part and parcel of the fabric of religious meaning that enabled people to make sense out of their lives, and also part of the local temple  economy. What binds all these forms of ‘fortune-telling’  together, however, is a shared philosophy of nature, one that is diametrically opposed to the ideology of science and rationality on which the modern Chinese state was building its authority. All the proscribed activities described  as ‘superstitious’ held in common the view that physical nature, whether  in the form of human bodies, the stars or geography, had the capacity to reveal truths that are of value for human beings. As such they were sources of religious meaning and moral capacity  that  originated  beyond  the  control  and authority  of the  state, or, indeed, any formal religious institution. The development  of science, on the other hand, was accompanied by an instrumental rationality that viewed nature not as the revealer of spiritual truths but as neutral, value- free space capable of being shaped by human will through technology and so forth. In the former case, nature revealed truths to humans through religious  processes;  in the  latter  case,  humans  imposed  their  values  on nature through technological and economic processes. In the modern na- tion state the imposition of values on nature is directed by the organs of the state  through  its various science  and technology  research  institutes and the modern university system.

The attack on superstition persisted in modern China through to the Communist period. At the Eleventh Party Congress in 1979, freedom of religion was restored in China only for the five state-sanctioned  religions of China. All other forms of traditional religious culture were deemed su- perstition. The policy on the regulation of religions adopted in 1979 states that:

By superstition  we generally  mean activities  conducted  by shamans, and sorcerers,  such as magic medicine,  magic water,  divination, for- tune telling, avoiding disasters, praying for rain, praying for pregnancy, exorcising  demons,  telling  fortunes  by physiognomy,  locating  house or tomb sites by geomancy and so forth. They are all absurd and ri- diculous. Anyone possessing rudimentary knowledge will not believe in them. (Document 3 from Selected Documents of the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Party Congress, 1979; MacInnis 1989, 33-4)

From this excerpt we can see that the principal question about the rela- tionship between religion and the state has been formulated around the capacity of nature to shape and direct people’s religious experiences.  The so-called  superstitious  activities  mediate  the  relationship  between  hu- mans and nature in a way that lies outside of the bureaucratic  processes of the state, or the established religions with solid institutional structures that could more easily be brought into line with the goals of the modern Chinese state.

Thus  the conflict  between  religion,  science  and superstition  was not just about  epistemology,  or the rational  procedures  for verif ying belief. They were also about the capacity of nature to be a source of sacred power and even moral authority outside of the structures of the state and the ra- tional procedures of science. The campaigns against superstition and local religions that were begun in the Republican  period and carried through most forcefully in the Communist period were not only contesting  ideo- logical  and epistemological  space  within  the  Chinese  psyche;  nor were they solely struggles to assert central power over local areas; rather they were also struggles over the value of nature, and the capacity of nature to function in some way as sacred space, as a source of divine revelation, or as a theological reality.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the serious nature of this conflict between science and ‘fortune-telling’. The various activities proscribed under the rubric of ‘superstition’ were by no means fringe activities re- stricted to a few uneducated people. Rather, they expressed a fundamen- tal aspect of the traditional Chinese worldview, namely the view of nature as a source  of sacred  power. This  view is neatly summed  up in a third- centur y poem by Cao Zhi. The subject is Mt. Tai, the sacred mountain of the east, mentioned above as the location of the feng and shan sacrifices.

I roamed the mountain in the dawn
Secluded in its misty depths
When suddenly I met two boys
With faces that were fair and fresh.
They gave me herbs of the immortals
The Numinous Supreme had made,
Medicaments that when absorbed
Revive the seminal essence and brain,
So life, like a rock’s or metal ore’s,
Passes through eons, but does not age.

(Trans. Elvin 2004, xxii-xxiii)

Here nature, in the form of Mt. Tai, is the space in which the poet encoun- ters two boys. They are described as having ‘fair and fresh’ faces, which is the clue that they are not ordinary mortals but immortal beings. This view is confirmed when they give the author ‘herbs of the immortals’ to ‘revive the seminal essence and brain’. Here, nature is not simply the location for an encounter with divine beings, but is also the source of cosmic power which has the capacity of conferring immortality on the one who ingests the herbs. Finally, nature in the form of unchanging  rock is a metaphor for  the  sacred  ideal  of immortality.  In these  three  cases,  nature  is not valued in terms of some rational economic calculus but as the medium through  which  the  adept  can  transcend  the  mundane  world.  Nature  is sacred inasmuch as it is the Way to attain a transfigured and more perfect reality. When the state proscribed ‘divination’ and ‘magic medicine’ it was in effect proscribing this view of nature, which formed the bedrock of traditional religious culture.

Remarkably,  however,  this  view of nature  was never  extirpated  from the Chinese mentality; instead it continued, albeit in a transformed  way, into the modern period. Despite the ideological rhetoric of the modern Chinese state, the view that nature is a source of sacred power and moral authority continues into the present day. Take for instance, the following song from the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s:

Let’s attack here!
Drive away the mountain gods,
Break down the stone walls
To bring out those 200 million tons of coal.

(Zhang Zhimin, Personalities in the Commune; quoted in Shapiro 2001, vii)

At first glance it would seem that this song supports the Weberian hypothesis that modernization involves the disenchantment of sacred space. Here modernization, in the form of coal mining, demands the secularization  of the  mountain  space  where  the  mining takes  place,  described as ‘driving away the mountain gods’. From the perspective of traditional Chinese religion this indeed is tantamount to the secularization  of sacred space, but from a larger perspective it is more accurate to interpret this as the reordering of the sacred. Driving away the mountain gods does not re- veal the mountain to be an inert place devoid of any sacred power. Rather it reveals the mountain to be harbouring a new form of sacred power, that of coal. Coal is not here simple ‘stuff ’, but during the Great Leap Forward was the means by which China would achieve its Great Leap Forward into the future. It was, in effect, the numinous substance that was essential in the concoction of a new elixir of immortality: steel. The view of nature as harbouring secret powers, whether conceived as 200 million tons of coal, or herbs  with  numinous  powers  remains  constant.  The  only thing  that changed from the time of Cao Zhi to the time of Mao was the understand- ing of the role of the traditional  gods as guardians  or mediators  of the sacred power of nature. These  were dispensed  with and replaced  by the gods of the human will. As Jasper Becker writes in Chinas Hungry Ghosts (1996, 308; quoted by Shapiro 2001, 68):

Mao wanted to modernize China but could not grasp the basis of modern thought, the scientific method: that the way in which the natural universe behaves can be proved or disproved by objective tests, inde- pendent of ideology or individual will.

Becker’s critique of Mao, and also Shapiro’s, was that Mao did not in fact secularize nature in the ‘correct’ way. Rather he simply replaced one form of ideology with another, asserting the supremacy of the human spirit, not the celestial gods, over nature.

Reading Chinese modernization not as ‘secularization’ but as an endur- ing theological  contest  over the location  and power of the sacred might also help explain contemporary Chinese leaders’ fascination with grand works of environmental  engineering.  Projects such as the Three  Gorges Dam can be understood as modern equivalents of the acts of mythological heroes who brought order out of the watery chaos. Such projects continue to reveal the enduring power of sacred mythology in modern China. Thus the destruction of the natural environment continues not through the rationalization and disenchantment of nature, as conservative religious critics  of modernity  might  suggest,  but because  of the  enduring  power of ‘secular theologies’ to subordinate human interests  to irrational ideals (see Gray 2004).

Religion and Nature in Contemporary China: Three Cases

The debate over the place of religion and nature in modernity was not, therefore,  decisively  settled  in the  twentieth  century  and has  begun  to take on new forms in an era of relative religious freedom in China. The following three brief case studies display something of the complex situa- tion of religion, nature and modernity in contemporary China.

The first case concerns that of religious sites located in areas of out- standing  natural  beauty,  which  have  been  developed  and  reorganized chiefly as tourist attractions in China, and function under the authority of local tourism offices. Although the reopening of temples might lead one to think that religion is somehow  resurgent  in China, the fact that reli- gious spaces are often contained firmly within tourist economic develop- ment zones makes clear that the sacred is secondary to the economic. The recent  flourishing  of religious  activities  in China  thus  leads,  paradoxi- cally, to serious problems faced by wealthy monasteries located in tourist development zones. Referring to Buddhism, Jing Yin (2006, 90) writes:

Problems associated  with the impact of the market economy on Bud- dhism  can  be divided  into two  categories.  The first  can  broadly  be termed external problems that arise when government officials, par- ticularly low ranking local ones, infringe upon the rights and interests of the monasteries.  The more wealthy monasteries  become  the more frequently this occurs, and this constitutes a rather serious problem in some areas. The second category of problems are internal disputes that arise when the state returns property to the monasteries following the implementation of the policy of religious freedom in 1979.

The  recent  freedoms  bestowed  on religious  institutions  in China  have thus come at a price, that of keeping sacred space contained within the bureaucratic  control  of the  state  as a means  to achieving  rational  eco-nomic ends. Jing Yin (2006, 91-92) goes on:

 From a Buddhist perspective, one can say that the one-sided economic development  in many monasteries  has made them lose their distinctively Buddhist characteristics.  I have accompanied many overseas Buddhist delegates on visits to monasteries in China. In my experience, visitors often feel that despite  the proliferation  of monasteries,  there is a lack of character  here. Monasteries  commonly operate vegetarian restaurants, guest houses, souvenir shops, and food and drink booths. Some even go to the extreme of running factories and operating companies. The long-term effect is that the market economy is seriously hurting the religious nature of the monasteries. Once monasteries be- come large-scale  enterprises,  it is difficult for them to back out. And when monasteries become principally tourist attractions, the danger is that the energy of the monks becomes devoted chiefly to receiving tourists, leaving no time for the sangha or to engage in Buddhist practice.

In other words, even in an era of religious freedom, it seems that religious activities  continue  to  be  subordinated  to  rational,  economic  functions and are increasingly unable to stand as moral or ethical challenges  to the dominant  values  of the  state.  Such  a view is borne  out  by the  Chinese state regulations on religion issued in 2004, which paint a clear picture of the place of religion within the secular space of the Chinese state. These new regulations do not deal with the thorny theoretical questions such as the definition of religion, or the relationship  between  religion, superstition and scientific belief. Rather they tend to focus on more bureaucratic questions  such as which government  agency is the competent  authority for dealing with various types of religious issues, and economic questions such as the relationship  between  religious  pilgrimage  and secular  tour- ism. Article 18 of the new regulations, for example, governs the manage- ment of religious sites and typifies well the new direction in Communist policy towards religion:

A site  for religious  activities  shall  strengthen  internal  management, and, in accordance with the provisions of the relevant laws, regulations and rules, establish and improve the management systems for person- nel, finance, accounting,  security,  fire control,  cultural  relics protec- tion, sanitation and epidemic prevention, etc., and accept the guidance, supervision and inspection by the relevant departments of the local people’s government. (State Council 2004)

As this regulation indicates, the overall goal now is to promote the smooth management  of religious  spaces  in such a way that  they do not disrupt social  harmony  or pose  a threat  to the  authority  of the  government.  It seems that party officials are no longer concerned with understanding the nature of religion in terms of political theor y, but only with managing its social and economic functioning. In contrast to the divisive ideological debates of the May Fourth and early Communist era over secularization, tradition,  and modernity, the contemporary  framework  for understand- ing the relationship between religion and society emphasizes  economics, management and social harmony. The CCP no longer seems intent on attempting  to control the religious beliefs of Chinese citizens, but rather on ensuring that religious organizations, whatever they believe, work to support the nation and its economy.

The second case study concerns the revival of interest, at least in a theoretical sense, of the value of traditional religions in contributing to the emergence  of environmentalism  in contemporary  China.  Most  notable in this regard has been the work of Pan Yue, Vice-Minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration  (SEPA). In a notable speech in 2003, he called for the creation of an ‘environmental culture and national renaissance’  that forged traditional  views of nature with the demands of the modern Chinese state into a nationalistic vision of Chinese develop- ment, and one that would avoid the ecologically destructive excesses of Western  modernization.  He quoted chapter 16 of the Daoist classic, The Way and Its Power (Daode jing), ‘The myriad creatures  all rise together / And I watch their return / The teeming creatures / All return to their sep- arate roots’ to argue for a ‘circular economy,’ his vision of an ecologically sustainable society (Pan 2007, 11). Such a society would be at once at the forefront  of ecological  economics  and sustainable  development  theory, and at the same time indigenously and authentically Chinese:

The pursuit of harmonious  relations  between  man and nature is the mainstream of traditional cultures in the past thousands of years. The Confucian school advocated ‘the unity of nature and man’, which em- phasizes  that all human behaviours  must conform  to the law of na- ture.

The Daoist school proposed the theory of ‘Tao following nature’, which elevates the concept of ‘nature’ to a metaphysical height. … According to Laozi, natural laws shall not be violated, and human principles must conform to the natural laws. (Pan 2007, 6-7)

In Pan’s view, therefore,  China’s religious traditions are sources of moral capacity and intellectual  authority which could be reconfigured  to fit in with China’s new goals of sustainable development. China’s economic de- velopment, its accompanying environmental and social pressures, and its state-sponsored  nationalism are thus ushering in new transformations  of the sacred.

Finally, the contemporar y Chinese  scene reveals a popular interest  in understanding  the  relationships  between  religion,  science  and  nature. Such an interest has most recently been evident in the 2005 debate about whether environmental protection in China was best served by an attitude of reverence  (jingwei) towards nature. He Zuoxiu, a prominent scientist, argued that reverence for nature was the product of anti-scientific  think- ing and was not helpful in fighting diseases or natural disasters (He 2005). Liang Congjie, the founder of the Chinese NGO Friends of Nature, on the other hand, argued that nature cannot be viewed simply as a tool, and that having a sense of reverence for the natural world was itself natural and rational (Liang 2006). Although Liang was careful to define his use of the word ‘reverence’ in a humanistic way, the very use of the term ‘reverence’ or ‘awe’ (jingwei) in the first place,  clearly  struck  a negative  chord with some  members  of the  scientific  establishment.  The  very debate  reveals that issues of the environment are not simply a matter of science and tech- nology in China, but also ethics and values.

These three examples from the contemporary Chinese scene reveal that in China’s  quest  for modernization,  religion  and nature  continue  to be sites of ideological conflict. Religious organizations continue to be active- ly managed by the state’s religious affairs administration.  This oversight is especially  strong  where  religious  sites  are located  in areas  of natural beauty and there is thus a large potential for making money by developing the local tourist economy. On the other hand, there seems to be a willing- ness among some of the elite to consider the value of traditional ideas in helping to solve China’s dire environmental problems. Their views are regarded as controversial because they seem to contradict the official ide- ology of modernization  and scientific  development  (kexue fazhan)  and yet figures like Pan Yue hold senior positions within the government. At the same time the question of respect for nature remains highly contested among scientists and environmentalists. All this seems to suggest that despite the rhetoric of science and modernity, there has not been an ir- reversible process of disenchantment in China. Some traditional values persist, whereas others have been transmuted into nationalism and sci- entism. The relationship  between science, nature, and religion continues to be contested both theoretically  and practically.


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Shapiro, Judith. 2001. Maos War Against Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

State  Council  of the  People’s  Republic  of China.  2004.  Decree no. 426: Regulations on Religious Affairs. Adopted at the 57th  Executive Meet- ing of the State  Council  on 7 July 2004,  promulgated  30 November 2004,  effective as of 1 March 2005.

Szerszynski, Bronislaw. 2005. Nature, Technology and the Sacred. Oxford: Blackwell.

china must talk to its religious leaders to create a culture of ecological sustainability

Over the past sixty years China has achieved something close to a miracle when compared with other developing nations. It by and large manages to feed, educate, house and employ its own people. It is not involved in futile and costly military conflicts. It is a creditor nation, not a debtor. Its social and political system provides sufficient stability for the vast majority of its people to pursue their own livelihoods in a rational and predictable way.Yet all this will be lost if the world does not help China to embrace an ecologically sustainable culture. (More…)

what is freedom of religion for?

A Taiji quan peformance

A Taiji quan performance at a Daoist temple in Sichuan

There is hardly a truth more sacred to the contemporary American imagination than that religion must be free from interference by the state and that the state must be free from interference from religion. Neither of these ideals holds true in China, and this fact is an enormous thorn in the side of Chinese-American relations, especially as regards the Tibet question.

The fact is that religions and the state in China have co-existed in something of a symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. In medieval China, Buddhists seeking to ingratiate themselves in the life of the court proposed rituals to bring about the salvation and prosperity of the empire. Daoist priests also ordained emperors and oversaw court rituals. In return, the Emperor bestowed his patronage on monasteries and temples, granting them land, money and prestige. At the heart of this arrangement was a very simple and natural proposition: you help me and I’ll help you. (More…)

does environmental science lead to environmental action?

Green Heart (And the Green Grass Grows All Around, All Around)I have just finished teaching my undergraduate course on religion and the environment. Most of the students are in engineering or environmental science, and the course fulfills a humanities requirement for them. It’s been fascinating teaching scientists about religion, as you can imagine, but it’s also been hard.

One of the most serious problems that I’ve had to deal with among my students is the basic assumption that seems to be taught in environmental science, namely that knowing more about the environment is the best way to generate action on the environment. (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. 

i’m dreaming of a green christmas

By James Miller

Christmas, as we all know, is the grand festival of the religion of consumerism. We pay homage to our saviour Santa Claus in the vast cathedral of the shopping mall. There we make a sizeable donation to the faltering economy and, just because it’s Christmas, cheerfully pay the GST to our non-existent government. We stagger home laden under the weight of a vast array of glittering gifts. We then dress them in the finest of wrappings and reverently lay them at the foot of the sacred tree. Over a sacrificial meal of turkey and pinot noir our family bonds are strengthened, relationships renewed, and we settle into a blissful oblivion before the television set.


closing the religion deficit

By James Miller

An editorial in Friday’s Dallas Morning News argued that Hillary Clinton, the incoming U.S. Secretary of State, should move to “close our diplomats’ religion deficit.” The argument was that in order to succeed in international relations, it’s vital for the state department to understand the role religion plays in shaping the politics and culture of the world. This, in fact, was the theme of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s book The Mighty and The Almighty: Reflections on God, Man and World Affairs.

Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero

In modern culture, religion is understood as something that belongs to the private realm, not the public realm. The consequence of this is that people involved in world affairs such as politicians and journalists are trained to deliberately ignore the role played by religion in shaping people’s values and attitudes. Religion, it is argued, plays a diminishing role in the world and is therefore best forgotten. World affairs are to be explained by economics, politics and culture, in that order. This results in a “religion deficit” or a lack of basic “religious literacy,” as the title of Stephen Prothero’s recent book put it. 

The fact is, however, that we do not live in a modern world where democracy and science reign supreme. We live is a pluralistic, postmodern world, which lacks a single coherent narrative. We live in a fragmented world dominated by secular post-Christianity, Islam, East Asian values, and conflicts between globalizing traditions and indigenous traditions.


the end of environmentalism?

By James Miller

In October I was invited to participate in a symposium on International Perspectives on Nature and Culture organized by the Institute for the Humanities at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. I was on a panel responding to a paper by the French philosopher Augustin Berque. His most recent book is called La pensée paysagère (Paris: Archibooks 2008), and it articulates a fundamental distinction between “thinking of the countryside” or “la pensée du paysage” and “country thinking” or “la pensée paysagère.” In modernity, he claims, we have ideas about “nature” or “the environment,” but we do not have ideas that are grounded in nature as a biophysical reality or which express themselves in the flourishing of nature. We have too much “pensée du paysage” and not enough “pensée paysagère.” The contradiction of modernity is that the theorization, symbolization and fetishization of nature as a concept proceeds apace and at the very same time as the annihilation of nature as a biophysical reality. (More…)