Prof: Religious trends in China fueled by government restrictions
Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology and director of Purdue's Center on Religion and Chinese Society, is the author of "Religion in China: Survival and Revival Under Communist Rule." Yang, who was one of the first to study the sociology of religion in China, has been collecting data since 2000. His new book, which was published by Oxford University Press this fall, looks at religion under communism from the 1950s to 2010. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock)
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The upcoming change in China's central leadership means an emphasis on the country's economic, policy and political power, but a Purdue University sociologist says people should watch the country's religious trends just as closely.
"The power struggle leading up to next fall's mandatory change of the 18th Congress of the Communist Party will define China in the following decade," says Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology and director of Purdue's Center on Religion and Chinese Society. "The forces competing to define China will ultimately influence religious practice one way or another. We really need to understand the country's religious foundations and trends today to understand the economic and political changes that are coming.
"The assumption is that the Chinese people are not religious, but they are, just in different ways. The spiritual awakening taking place today is worthwhile to watch because it will have long-term effects," he says. "This is not really merely about China anymore because what China becomes will affect the world in many spheres, such as economy, politics and culture."
Yang, the author of "Religion in China: Survival and Revival Under Communist Rule," says that a political and economic analysis can be applied to help understand religious change in China.
"The Communists want to suppress religion and have imposed strict regulations, but the restrictions have surprisingly created three colored markets: black, red and gray," Yang says.
The red market is composed of the five religions - Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism (also Daoism), Islam and Protestantism under patriotic associations - approved by the government.
"The government has banned certain religions, but these religions have simply gone underground - created a black market so to speak - and the gray market is composed of legally ambiguous groups and activities," Yang says. "When religious needs cannot be met in the open, red market, and the risks are too high in the illegal, black market, many people would seek what they need in the gray market. Ironically, the more restrictive and suppressive the country's religious regulations, the larger the gray market grows."
The gray market can emerge when one of China's five approved religions engages in an illegal activity, such as distributing pamphlets outside a church or temple, or when people hold spiritual beliefs that originate from non-religious sources. For example, qigong, which is a series of breathing techniques and exercises rooted in health, has followers that connect it to Buddhism and Taoism and, therefore, add a religious dimension. Another example is a Christian church offering Sunday school to children. The religion is legal, but teaching religion to children historically is illegal. Yang says the regulation regarding religious education is being revised, and, in the interim, individual government officials enforce it differently and contribute to the ambiguity.
What is happening in China could emerge in other countries, Yang says, because half of the countries today have religious oligopolies in which, like China, only a few government-approved religions are allowed.
Communist Party rule in China started in 1949, and religion was banned from 1966-1979. The Chinese Communist Party, just like other countries' ruling Communist parties, encourages an atheist ideology. Since 1979, a few temples, churches and mosques have been allowed to reopen and an interest in religion continues to grow among the people.
In China today, the government reports there are several tens of millions of Buddhists, 5 million Catholics, about 10 million Taoists, 21 million Muslims and 23 million Protestants. Yang says the numbers are believed to be much larger. In fact, Yang says a recent survey shows that about 85 percent of the Chinese either hold some supernatural beliefs or practice certain religious rituals.
Yang, who grew up in China and only remembers being exposed to a few ghost stories and Taoist funeral rites, initially studied religious behaviors of Chinese immigrants in the United States. About 10 years ago, he became interested in religious renewal in China, and he was one of the first to study sociology of religion in the country.
"As I traveled in China and saw different religious phenomena, I thought about how you would explain religion's survival in the past and revival today when China is under Communist rule," says Yang, who has been collecting data since 2000.
His new book, which was published by Oxford University Press this fall, looks at religion under communism from the 1950s to 2010.
Summer 2012 will be the ninth year Yang leads a summer institute that trains other scholars from China to use social scientific measures to study religion in the country.
Yang, whose work is supported as a University Faculty Scholar through Purdue's Office of the Provost, as well as by Purdue's College of Liberal Arts, the Henry Luce Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation, is working on a new book that focuses on individual believers in China, estimating and analyzing Christians, Buddhists and folk religion practitioners. He also is applying geographic information system technology to conduct spatial studies of religion in various areas.
"China is very big and complex, so I feel as if I'm working on a jigsaw puzzle," he says. "I have laid out the frame and a few major pieces during the past 10 years, but there are still many pieces to be filled in."
Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Fenggang Yang, email@example.com