Chinese religiosities: accelerated



China is in the process of one of the largest recoding transformations of religion, worldview, and philosophy in history. A new story about religious diversity and the order of the political Earth and Universe is being constructed, and sold as self-evident, eternal and universal. Even more strikingly, this model is being developed under the aegis of the nominally atheist Communist Party. Both government-stimulated and by grassroots initiatives, the Chinese religious landscape is changing and developing at accelerated speeds. Both secularization theoreticians in the West and communists around the World had argued that modernization and secularization go hand in hand. The contemporary situation of China, at the dawn of the age of Xi Jinping and the One Belt One Road Initiative, religion is back with a vengeance; sometimes nominally, when we look at the rise of Buddhism and Christianity in China, sometimes, in disguise, for example in the renewed embrace of Confucius as the cultural core of the Chinese Nation. However, nothing in these developments has anything to do with tradition or the past; most religiosity in China is unmistakably postmodern, and any appeal to tradition is purely rhetorical.

The Ubercode of the Chinese government, in their political model that they have dubbed “socialism with Chinese characteristics” are the so-called twelve “Core Socialist Values”; four national values: prosperity, democracy, civility and harmony; four social values: freedom, equality, justice and rule of law; and four individual values: patriotism, dedication, integrity and friendship. This code is repeated over and over in schools and in public space and is the foundation for the expression of power in its relationship towards ethics, philosophy and religion.

The Chinese Government officially distinguishes five Legal religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. Conspicuously absent are Confucianism or Ruism (not a religion anymore) and Chinese folk religion (not a religion either, but just culture). Fenggang Yang has distinguished between three “religious markets” in China: the Black, the Gray and the Red markets. On the marketplace of religion and spirituality, practices and ideas compete for the loyalty or at least their spiritual consumption by the Chinese laypeople. Black markets are those institutions which are registered under the CCP rules, and therefore “Legal”. The Red markets signal all religious activity which is illegal and usually actively persecuted by the state. Red market religion is also discursively suppressed by referencing to it as “superstition” or “evil cults”.

Christianity has been present in China since the 7th century CE, only a few centuries shorter than Buddhism – though Christianity is usually regarded as a Western religion, maybe we should rather see it as a Eurasian social movement; Christianity’s initial spread went towards Syria, Armenia, Persia and India, rather than the West – Today Chinese protestants embrace “Jesus” and admire his “exotic” values such as “love for your neighbor”. The number of Christians in China today is estimated at somewhere between 60 and 100 million (both Catholics and Protestants, both Black, Gray, and Red), especially in Southern Urban areas. They often gather in so-called home churches. At this speed, China is projected to be the largest Christian country in the World by 2050.

The strongest religious force in China today is Buddhism; numbers of self-identified Buddhist rose from 60 million in the 70s to somewhere between 100 and 200 million today; monasteries are turning into Spiritual Incorporations and Monks into CEO’s. Branding “Chinese Buddhism” as a humanistic religion that aims at happiness for all people, it is quietly working together with the Chinese government in the promotion of Chinese culture around the world as part of the “Soft Power” strategy. Chinese monks travel to Europe to learn how to meditate – a Western Buddhist practice – to integrate this into Eastern monastic life. PhD’s in technology from Qinghua University are becoming monks in Beijing and set up Artificial Intelligence and Social Media departments, clad in monk robes with smartphone in hand they float around the monastic compounds which were often build less than five years ago.

In Longquan Temple in Beijing, a robot monk can advise devotees on the teachings of Buddha; wisdom from the Buddhist Masters is also spread through Weibo, Wechat, and Instagram. The oldest Buddhist temple in China, Bai Ma Si in Luoyang has developed project of the construction of Buddhist temples in Indian, Thai and Myanmar style respectively, thus imagining a “Global Buddhism with National Difference”, coding Buddhism in the national model the Chinese government likes to see. Though people who occupy the spaces of “Buddhism” like to think of it as a World Religion and a long tradition, the Chinese context shows we could maybe better approach the world of Buddhism as a plurality, with hundreds of different “Buddhisms”, some traditional, but most very contemporary, even as “invented traditions”. Each temple claims its own “authority”. Buddhism however has already become a global phenomenon, and the speed by which Buddhist codes are moving is increasing. China has co-opted Buddhism in its political strategy.

Even more elusive is Daoism. Sometimes regarded as China’s “real” or “native” religion, it is similarly questionable whether we could consider Daoism a unified system of worship and thought. Dao which can be talked about is not the eternal Dao, says the Dao-de-jing. Though 180 million Chinese practice Daoism in some form, only about 10-20 million actually call themselves Daoists. Daoism has an inherent anarchistic nature. However, claims to authority and authenticity are just as common in Daoism, though it is even easier to claim to be a Daoist. American Taoism has spawned phenomena such as Tao Yoga and Healing Tao, all supposedly founded on “ancient Chinese Taoism”, though reference to tradition is often explicitly left out; “the Dao is everywhere”. To the great chagrin of “Quanzhen” Daoist monks and priests in China, these American new-age Daoists now flock to the “Holy mountains” of Daoism in China, such as Huashan, where they import their imagined Daoism to a country which has no clue what’s going on. Will the real Daoist please rise?

The Chinese society is sometimes called “Confucian” – while for Mao, Confucianism was part of “The Four Olds” which needed be exterminated; Xi Jinping has realized that Confucius fits in very well within the National Chinese exceptionalism narrative. Furthermore, Confucius emphasized respect for authority. Confucianism was named as the result of the prejudice of Western Christians that all religions should have a founder. In fact, Ruism refers to the Teachings of the Ancient Masters, of whom Confucius was but one. Furthermore, although Confucianism has historically been part of the Three Teachings of China, since the 1900s, Confucianism was not given the label of “religion”; partly because the concept of religion was necessary to express something more modern, and partly because many religions don’t want to be called “religions” by their proponents. Confucianism is too exceptional, to be merely a religion.

Confucius has been the symbol of one of the largest global soft power operations of the PRC; currently there are 480 so-called “Confucius Institutes” in the world, all functioning hierarchically under the Beijing based Hanban. Confucius Institutes are nominally erected to promote Chinese language and culture, but unofficially serve as centers to defend the Chinese narrative on the global order. The pace of Confucius is currently accelerated, with the aim of having 1000 Confucius Institutes around the world by 2020. In the spirit of the historical Empirical Examination system, thousands of students around the world now take Confucius Institute facilitated exams in HSK Chinese levels. The Chinese religion of Confucianism still is the Faith in China. China is fast becoming a religion in itself.

Islam is having a hard time in this particular order. As a religion, it is legal. Hui Muslims, which are technically just Han-Chinese who are Muslim have to navigate a religio-sceptical Chinese state; but the Uyghurs – who are a Turkic minority – have been met with strong resistance against their cultural identity by the Chinese state, and this is an understatement.

But dividing religion into “religions” has in China always been part of a strategy of divide and conquer. Emperors invited Buddhist and Daoist over to their courts to make their cases for either religion; this emphasized “difference” and always led to temporary support of one creed over the other. The Western model of “World Religions”, which developed somewhere near the end of the 19th Century, has been particularly useful for the people in power. These models, however, do not reflect the actual situation of religion and spirituality in China; namely messy, magical, subversive, diffused, rhizomatic. Even the definition of “folk religion” doesn’t faithfully reflect what is actually happening, on the ground, when religion is lived. Gods, demons, fairies, shamans, they usually don’t neatly fit within the clear boundaries of “religions”. Contemporary estimates show us that 215 million Chinese people today believe in the spirits of the ancestors; 362 million Chinese people have participated in divination practices such as fortune telling, face reading and so on and so forth. A stunning 754 million people practice ancestor worship. The country which likes to see itself and is often observed by the outside world as “atheist”, harbors incredible numbers of religious believers and practitioners.

And then we haven’t even touched on the Dark Religiosities and the New Spiritualities. Dark religiosities, those practices and religions which are considered illegal by the Chinese government, whose rhetoric describes them as “evil cults”. Falun Gong is the most famous example. The Chinese history is however scattered with millennial movements, cults, and religious guru’s. Today we also see the arrival and rise of self-help emotional-expressive New Age and New Spirituality movements from the West, often via Taiwan. The Body Heart Soul movement is only one of several “psycho-movements”, in which people dance and sing together expressively and search for their true selves. Often, these cultures are also connected to individual entrepreneurship and the startup culture in China. We might refer to these movements as an “Easternization of the East”.

One of the largest mobility movements in contemporary China is the rise of tourism, which takes the historical place of pilgrimage. Buddhist and Daoist Temples often won’t be able to distinguish between the “secular tourist” and the “religious pilgrim”, since both participate indiscriminately in the two most important religious activities in China: lighting incense and making selfies. Tourism is accelerating and become the code practice which subsumes all difference between religions.

All these religiosities: the Socialist code, the Confucian Chinese order, the “Religions of the World” and the hybrid religion are in constant negotiation and clash with each other. Some have coined the term “religious ecology” to describe the particular environment of Chinese religiosities. Others have called the Chinese being engaged in a “Strategic participation in a shared religious landscape”. These descriptions ascribe to a “harmony” discourse, which is strongly propagated by the Chinese government. “The Chinese didn’t make the mistake of underestimating the power of religion” – I read somewhere recently. The harmony on the surface comes at the expense of strong suppressive forces to put the genies of religious emancipation and spiritual individualism, let alone Dark Religion, in their respective bottles. Who controls how we relate to the transcendent, the divine, the immanent transcendent; who sells us salvation? Who is allowed to sell it to us? Who delivers us from suffering? If religion expresses our Ultimate Concern; who sets its price? Which productive forces have to be employed and, how does anybody produce salvation?

We used to emphasize on the afterlife and the transcendent world itself. But a new-materialism is rising; a materialism which does not exclude religion as being superstitious or backwards, but considers religion a material force within an inherently political world, a world in which philosophy, religion, politics, the private and the public can never be separated. This earthly stage is being shared by a wide variety of religious actors; humans, gods, spirits, demons, churches and temples, animals and plants. The scent of incense. The sound of drums and bells. Divination cards and charts. Wechat payments and cellphones. We have artificially separated religious activities from other domains of human and planetary culture. Therefore we failed to see that it has never left and will never leave, although it will transform into forms that we couldn’t imagine before. In the end, religiosities are about imagination; the imagination of code violations, decoding existing systems, recoding them; writing algorithms about how bodies move together. Develop Rules for the Human Park, which the planet is becoming. The prophets are still among us. Let them dance.


This essay was originally presented on 11 August 2018 at UCCA Gallery 尤伦斯当代艺术中心 in Beijing in the context of the Long March Gallery performance lectures under the title “Spiritual Unbecomings”. 

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