Graeme Lang is Professor and Head of the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong. His publications on religion include The Rise of a Refugee God, with Lars Ragvald (Oxford University Press, 1993), and 30 articles and book chapters. His research also includes environmental and resource issues.
1. Your first book is on Wong Tai Sin. Why are you interested in it? Could you please tell us your main findings?
I first visited the Wong Tai Sin temple during the first day of the Spring Festival in 1984. The temple was packed with people. I was amazed. I wanted to find out why it was so popular. Then I discovered that nobody had written about the history of this temple or tried to explain why it is so popular (the usual answer from believers is that the temple is popular because the god is powerful. As a sociologist, I can’t just accept this explanation). The book included some historical investigations and discoveries, as well as an explanation about the god’s popularity in Hong Kong. I think that the temple is so popular because it was in an excellent location. Originally on barren land near a village, it was surrounded by squatters and poor people who moved into the area in the 1950s. As Hong Kong’s economy grew, and most of these people experienced rising incomes and better living standards, the god Wong Tai Sin got some of the credit, because they had prayed to him when they needed help during their struggles. In a sense, Wong Tai Sin was successful because Hong Kong’s economy and the Hong Kong people were successful.
2. You are the first sociologist to apply the economy model to explain Chinese religion. What is the strength of the model from your perspective? In general, what is your attitude towards theory?
The economy model is useful because it encourages us to think about how religions and religious entrepreneurs compete with each other to gain followers and supporters, and helps us to understand why some religions are historically more successful than others, because they are able to offer more of what people want, at that particular time and place. In a society where people can choose which temples or shrines to visit, based on their experiences at these places (as in Hong Kong and for much of China’s history, in the cities), this is a very useful perspective. Of course, the state is a factor in the ‘religious economy’ in most societies, just as the state is also a factor in the secular economy in most societies.
Theory is a way to understand how things happen in the world. But no social theory is complex enough to capture all of a particular reality in a particular location, because local realities are always more complex than any single general theory.
3. Folk religion temples are reviving quickly in China. What are the factors contributing to this revival?
People are prepared to believe that there are gods and that they may help humans with their hopes and struggles. People hear stories about how a god has helped somebody and decide they will try asking that god for help. Meanwhile, some rich people and rich organizations are willing to spend a lot of money on temples, for a variety of reasons. The best of these temples are very attractive, well-managed, and well-located. The ‘entrepreneurs’ who developed some of these new temples are very skillful and intelligent in planning and promoting their temples.
4. You are a sociologist, but you pay a great deal of attention to anthropological studies in your book. What is the relationship between sociology and anthropology when studying Chinese religion?
Some of the best work on temples and folk religion in China have been done by anthropologists. Sociologists interested in such topics should always read these studies and can learn much from them.
5. Could you please tell us about your recent research?
With two colleagues, I have been studying Buddhist organizations in Hong Kong. I also have a research project on environment-and-energy policies – how cities are dealing with environmental challenges and increasing problems with energy supply now and in the future. We are comparing cities and towns in Europe, North America, and Asia, to see how they are developing their environmental and energy policies, and we hope to bring that knowledge back into the Hong Kong context, and into the discussions about these issues in China.
6. What should we do when reviving sociology of religion in China?
Sociology of religion is reviving due to the great contributions of a number of scholars. For the longer term, I would like to suggest a sociology-of-religion journal, focusing on religions in Chinese societies or communities, in which articles are published in both English and Chinese versions. The journal should aim to become a SSCI (social sciences citation index) journal. The editor should be based in China, with associate editors from China and other countries who are experts in the sociology or anthropology of religion. Such a journal would be attractive to good scholars and I think it could do a lot to facilitate the further development of the sociology of religion in China.
(Interview conducted by LU Yunfeng)