Purdue University



Chinese Religions as a Resource in Construction of Civic Identity:  A Comparative Study of Chinese Believer Groups


Professor, Sociology, Peking University



With its societal transformation, atheistic China has seen a great revival of religion and spirituality. Contemporary China is a genuinely religious country where Chinese people are exposed to multiple and rich religious resources.

However, empirical research on China’s multiple religions has been stuck within the dilemma of dual Orientalism: an external orientalist context, on the one hand, and an internal one on the other. The former indicates that China is regarded as an “Other,” or an object, when oriental religions are compared with western ones; the latter means that non-Han ethnic groups are considered “Other” or an object when non-Han religions are compared with Han ones. The prevailing approach to the former is the exceptionalism of Chinese religions, while to the latter, the approach is Han-centrism.

The goal of China’s nation-building in the process of its societal transformation is to establish the Constitution as the common and super-ordinate political grammar, fostering and consolidating “constitutional patriotism” so as to transcend and integrate the differences and disparities that exist among different multiple-cultural entities such as ethnic groups, religions, and languages within the People’s Republic. In other words, for all citizens of the Republic, their citizenship identity should be given priority among all their multiple memberships and multiple social identities, surpassing the differences and disparities in regions, ethnic groups, religions, and languages.

For citizens who are at the same time religious believers, their commitment to the religious communities might transcend their commitment to the polity, and they may become a political centrifugal force within the entity. Here, this dilemma is called the Believer-Citizen Dilemma.

Meanwhile, logically, there might be three types of relationships between believer identity and citizen identity. The first type is the non-differentiation of believer and citizen, the case with modern theocratic states, for instance. The second type is that the religious identity facilitates the construction of citizenship. And the third type is the believer-citizen dilemma, which is the focus of this project.

Religions provide rich resources that can help nurture civic virtues. The Golden Rule underlying almost all religious systems is the universal ethical code for human beings. This idea implies that a pious believer can also be a good citizen, integrating religious identity and civic identity harmoniously within himself/herself.

“Every Christian that increases is a decreased number in Chinese,” a saying which reflects the modern Chinese government’s fear of the believer-citizen dilemma in particular. However, as “God turns over to God, Caesar turns over to Caesar,” a boundary seems to have been set between the sacred life and the secular life of believers.

Focusing on the theme, “religion and the construction of civic society,” a comparative study will be undertaken to investigate different Chinese religious believer groups, with “Unity in Plurality” (多元一体) and “adhesive identities” as the normative standpoint and evaluation measure. The major purpose is to contribute empirical data and possible identity techniques that might help transcend the believer-citizen dilemma. In other words, the major concerns of this project are how the believer-citizen dilemma can be overcome in the context of contemporary China, and how the multiple Chinese religions can be made basic resources that can help construct the civic identity of the Chinese people, including religious citizens.

Three empirical issues will be investigated in this project: 1. How do non-believer groups and major believer groups mutually evaluate each other (what are their respective BIAS maps like)? 2. What are the modes of religious embodiment of different believer groups? 3. For different believer groups, what is the structure of their multiple memberships and the structure of their multiple social identities, and how does their religious identity relate to their civic identity?

Considering the complexity of the comparative research, and also because comparability is always a problem for such research, the participants will be 250 college students. Among them, 50 are non-believers, 50 are Buddhists from the Buddhist Academy of China, 50 are Muslims from the China Islamic Institute, 50 are Protestants from China Bible Seminary, and 50 are Christians from the National Seminary of the Catholic Church in China. Following the Stereotype Content Model and BIAS Map, we will adopt a priming experiment (priming of mortality salience) to investigate their BAIS maps.

Religious Embodiment
Twenty participants from each group will be invited to do additional tasks in this experiment. Semi-structured interviews and questionnaires will be adopted to investigate their important life events and their regular and religious activities after conversion, as well as their perception of and feelings for issues such as God, Heaven and Hell, death and eternity, and sin and redemption. This is to uncover the modes of religious embodiment of different believer groups.

Structure of Chinese Believers’ Multiple Identities
To avoid homogeneity bias, another five groups with the same number and of the same composition will be organized to participate in our project. We will design a multiple membership scale to study the construct of their multiple memberships, as well as the multiple social identities of different believer groups. This is to investigate and compare how believers of different religions relate their religious identity to their civic identity.

Expected Achievements
Three high quality theses are planned. At least one will be written in English.

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