Purdue News

May 27, 2005

Chinese religious trends attracting scholars' attention

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – While issues of China's trade and human rights policies dominate the headlines, a Purdue University professor says a dramatic growth in religious activity in the country also will play a role in China's internal politics and international relationships.

Fenggang Yang
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"China's increasing global role is undisputed in economics and politics, but religious changes – China's ongoing transition from a secular state to a religious state – are often overlooked in the West," says Fenggang Yang (FUN-GUNG YOUNG), an assistant professor of sociology. "Religion plays increasingly important roles in China. In reform-era China since 1979, Buddhism, Daoism and traditional folk beliefs have been revived, and Christianity and some new religions grew so fast that it caused great concern for the government.

"The Chinese government needs to be prepared to handle new religious groups and adapt to religious trends, or it could create civil problems or international tensions. In today's world politics, would China tilt toward the Islamic world or to the Judeo-Christian world? If the government suppresses Christianity, China could alienate Western trading partners. However, if China favors Buddhism, then its ties with Japan and South Asian countries could be strengthened."

Yang, a member of the religious and Asian studies programs in Purdue's College of Liberal Arts, is directing a three-year project focused on training Chinese scholars to study religion and improve Americans' understanding of religious issues in China.

Yang grew up in a village near Beijing during the period of 1966-79 when leader Mao Zedong forbade religion in communist China.

"Growing up, I, like many people living in China today, had no idea what religion was," he says. "There were no clergy or buildings associated with religion."

When Yang went to college, the ban on religion was lifted, and he began studying the religions that were emerging in China.

Yang is not surprised that so many people in China are turning to religion.

"People have a spiritual need that government cannot fulfill," says Yang, who also is a member of Purdue's China Center. "Changes in economics and politics also motivate people to seek answers from religion. Now religion is flourishing, and the government is not sure how to react."

For example, the Chinese government admits that the number of Protestants has increased from about 3 million in 1982 to 16 million today. But American observers believe the number is at least 50 million today, with most of the Chinese Protestants in underground churches.

"This is causing concerns for the government," Yang says.

In response to the growing interest in religious studies in China, Yang and colleagues in China organized the first Institute for the Scientific Study of Religion at Renmin University in Beijing. Last summer, scholars from more than 20 Chinese provinces met to discuss religion in China.

Yang will continue to direct the institute in Beijing as part of a three-year initiative funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. This year's meeting is scheduled for July 11-24.

During the three-year project, Yang also will bring Chinese scholars to Purdue for additional social science training and to interact with scholars who have studied similar topics. This is important because many religious scholars in China are not trained as social scientists to measure demographic changes and trends. Small grants also will be made available through this program, and a lecture series, Chinese Religion and Society, also will be organized at Purdue.

The role religion historically played in China is disputed by philosophers and sociologists, Yang says. Some philosophers say religion was not an important part of China. Some sociologists, however, identify China as a very religious society. Some people practiced Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, but most people practiced the faith of their villages. Each village has a particular god or several gods that they worship, instead of being followers of institutionalized religions.

Yang also is studying whether Christian ethics have an impact on the emerging market economy in China and why urban Chinese tend to convert to Christianity. Yang co-edited "State, Market and Religions in Chinese Societies," which will be published in August by Brill Academic Publisher in the Netherlands. His articles in this book examine how a Buddhist temple south of Beijing has morphed from ruins into a cultural center, the evolution of the Christian church in a village in northwest China and the history of studying religion in China.

The Henry Luce Foundation, based in New York, supports educational programs that increase the understanding between East Asia and the United States. Luce, who was born in China, was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Sources: Fenggang Yang, (765) 494-2641, fyang@purdue.edu, Yang will be traveling in China from June 5 to Aug. 1, and can only be reached by e-mail during that time.

Helena Kolenda, program officer for Asia at The Henry Luce Foundation Inc., (212) 489-7700, Hkolenda@hluce.org

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu

 

Related Web sites:
Purdue Department of Sociology and Anthropology

 

PHOTO CAPTION:
Fenggang Yang, assistant professor of sociology at Purdue University, is directing a three-year project focused on training Chinese scholars to study religion and improve Americans' understanding of religious issues in China. Yang, a member of the religious and Asian studies programs in Purdue's College of Liberal Arts, also directed last summer's first Institute for the Scientific Study of Religion in Beijing where scholars from more than 20 Chinese provinces met to discuss religion in China. This year's meeting is scheduled for July 11-24 at Renmin University of Beijing. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

A publication-quality photo is available at http://news.uns.purdue.edu/images/+2005/yang-f05.jpg

 

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