PAUL WEBSTER August 18 2008


PAUL WEBSTER August 18 2008



History's largest religious revival is unfolding in China, and the government is smiling on it


On almost any day,

the scene outside Shanghai’s Jade Buddha Temple could easily be confused with a major celebrity event. Limousines compete for curb space, and sophisticated urbanites line up with tourists as well as peasants and workers from every region of China to purchase tickets. Inside the temple’s ochre yellow walls, its abbot, Master Jue Xing, revels as he glides through the throngs. Less than a decade ago, the 25-year-old temple he administers in Shanghai’s booming core remained a ransacked relic of anti-religious purges. Today, thanks to donations from hundreds of newly wealthy devotees, it’s thriving. As clouds of incense smoke rise from an enormous bronze brazier and saffron-robed monks softly chant traditional prayers, the richly lacquered altars glow in the late afternoon sun. Sweeping his hand across the panorama, Jue offers a thought that just a few years ago would have seemed ludicrous in a country governed by atheistic Communists with a long history

of repression. “This is a golden time for religion in China,” he pronounces.

A member of the Chinese Communist party’s central committee and one of the country’s most powerful Buddhist leaders, Jue, at age 38, has already been a monk for 22 years. He recalls the aftermath of the decade-long Cultural Revolution era. “We were educated to see religion as opium, as superstition,” recalls Jue, who entered a monastery as a child only a few years after the religious purges of the ’70s ended. Through the ’80s and ’90s, China remained barren ground. Now the rebirth of Shanghai’s pre-eminent Buddhist temple as a glittering showcase for a religion with an estimated 400 million followers and a billion sympathizers is evident in its bricks and mortar: “A few years ago the government moved a hospital to allow us to expand,” Jue says. “If the government was afraid of us they would not let us expand. And we plan to keep expanding.”

The miracle at Shanghai’s Jade Buddha

Temple is far from an isolated affair. Across China, popular fervour for Buddhism is swelling. At the newly restored Fa Zang Jiang Temple in Shanghai’s market quarter, where lives of monastic austerity are now leavened by comforts such as air conditioning in the eating hall, temple master Guan Hui says the situation is unlike anything he could have imagined 20 years ago. “In the 1970s we only had 30 or 40 temples here in Shanghai. In the 1990s, there were 70. After 2000 there were more than 80.” Temple reconstruction is big business in other parts of the country as well. In the villages of central Fujian province, for instance, a recent survey by McGill University professor Kenneth Dean estimates that there is now one temple in operation for every 350 villagers; residents can attend 250 days of religious celebration a year. China’s main Buddhist and Taoist sites and festivals are overrun with crowds of pilgrims.

Christianity, too, is booming, with an estimated one million new followers joining congregations annually. More Protestants attend church on Sundays in China than in western Europe, Protestantism’s historic heartland, scholars say. Although the government severely restricts missionary activities, many American evangelical churches see China as a new frontier even more promising than Africa and the former Soviet Union.

Seen just by the numbers, China’s religious reawakening can be called the largest religious resurgence in human history. It’s “a social transformation completely unprecedented in the history of world,” says James Miller, a professor of Chinese religions at Queen’s University. Like many observers, he thinks China’s economic liberalization is powering the resurgence. Freedom of belief partly flows from business freedom, Miller says. Growing numbers of China’s hundreds of thousands of new millionaires seem anxious to credit the traditional gods for their good fortune—to thank them and, perhaps, to acquire further blessings. “An old Chinese adage says, ‘Three feet above the head there are gods,’ ” explains Ye Xiao Wen, a former scholar who now charts China’s increasingly relaxed official policies as the country’s minister of religion. “Even when Chinese people are not religious,” he explains, “when they look up, three feet above there are gods.”

Coming from the mouth of a minister, this is remarkable. Beijing maintains an ideological commitment to atheism as a central tenet of Marxism; the government is famous for acts of religious repression, most notably involving the Falun Gong, a movement fusing elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Con-

fucianism. But Ye’s new attitude reflects a broader shift. In November, at a major meeting of top Communist officials from across the country before the run-up to the Olympics, President Hu Jintao listed the Chinese government’s top strategic priorities. Among the top five: managing the religious resurgence. That decision delighted Ye, whose status within the government has rapidly escalated since he took over his then-obscure ministry 16 years ago. Sporting a tie promoting the Beijing Olympics, Ye drove home a tolerant message. “If a society is to be a healthy one,” he said, “there must be different ideas within it, including religious and non-religious beliefs, including different religions, including Buddhists and Christians.” Then, in slightly stilted English, Ye added a rather revisionist assertion. “Our respect for freedom of religion,” he intoned, “is deeply rooted in our cultural history.”

On the eve of the Beijing Olympics, Ye is not alone among Chinese officials genuflecting toward human rights concerns in the face of grave evidence to the contrary. As Ye himself notes, “There are some problems, but foreign friends shouldn’t worry about it. Our country is building a harmonious society.” Then, after describing unregistered Christian sects as “wolves in the herd,” in time-honoured Chinese tradition, the minister blamed junior officials in the provinces, suggesting that problems with religious freedom can mostly be traced to the failure of local officials to respect national laws.

No surprise, China’s new-found tolerance is a strategic move. With floods of Chinese seeking spiritual solace, new government policies aim to use religion to promote national unity. “Religions should propel development and service social equality as much as possible, instead of causing problems,” Ye said. “As the economy prospers, people become agitated. The people need religious beliefs to support themselves.” According to analysts like Miller, Beijing hopes China’s rising religious fervour will help cement national harmony at a time of growing unrest and division between urban and rural people, and rich and poor. “There is a crisis of belief in China. People used to believe in Communism. But that isn’t the case anymore,” Miller argues. “People are looking for alternatives. Religion is one of these. The government is using religion as a kind of lever to promote nationalism, to promote Chinese culture, and to prop up its own support.”

Religion can serve other needs. In Fujian province, on China’s south coast, for instance, folk faiths that are thousands of years old are flourishing amid a spree of temple restoration. The Chinese government is supportive partly because Fujian folk faiths spread long


ago to Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia, explains Lin Guoping, a professor of religion at Fuzhou University. “We need Taiwanese investment and overseas Chinese investment. That’s why we have a flexible religion policy. Religion builds bridges.” That analysis draws an echo if om Jing Yin, a Buddhist monk who directs the University of Hong Kong Centre of Buddhist Studies. “The government gradually understands that diversity of faiths is very important,” says Jing, “and also that it is useful for economic development.”

It’s worth noting that China has a political history in which religious revolts—led by Buddhist, Taoist and other sects—have often helped to trigger dramatic regime change, including the late-19th-century unravelling of China’s last dynastic regime. And so lawmakers have expertly circumscribed religious freedom. Only five faiths—Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism— are legal. All forms of religious observance and debate are limited by lengthy lists of

forbidden activities. Religious festivals are closely monitored by overwhelming numbers of police. The masters of the temples may be monks, but they answer to masters of a wholly different type in Beijing.

In fact, Ye says, the sudden surge in religious fervour, and the flood of cash into the temples, justifies government intervention in every aspect of Chinese religious life. “Money flows ceaselessly into the temples,” Ye notes. “In the past, people went to the temple to burn incense sticks, and the temples could not earn money.” Now, because of the problem of “overflowing money,” the minister says, “monks have to accept supervision after getting rich. They cannot become corrupt.” Under this regime, the day still seems far off when the masters of the temples would dare raise political questions.

But Jing warns that government management of the religious resurgence may undermine the spiritual integrity of the temples and monasteries. He worries especially about the growing commercialism within many temples and of extensive business operations like those at Shanghai’s Jade Buddha, which has a busy website and popular outreach programs. Under government stewardship, other famous Buddhist sites like those on Putuo island, home to many ancient monasteries, are being redeveloped around massive new hotel and temple complexes. “The market economy is seriously hurting the religious nature of the monasteries,” says Jing. “Little time has been spent on teaching and meditation, to the extent that the core religious functions of monasteries are in danger of becoming merely decorative.”

For Chinese Buddhists with roots in the faith going back through the centuries, the changes are astonishing. Zhang Jin Guo, a 58-year-old Buddhist who lives in a two-room house and works in a temple park on Putuo island as a gatekeeper, says although the changes are ruining some of the island’s charm, he welcomes Buddhism’s change of fortune. “I’m happy that more and more people now believe in Buddha,” he explained on a stroll along the beach with his six-year-old granddaughter and her friends. And government policy, he suggests, can’t entirely control religion. “During the Cultural Revolution, all the temples here were destroyed. They destroyed the Buddhas. But we still prayed.” M