Academic journal article China Perspectives

Religious Revival and Exit from Religion in Contemporary China

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Religious Revival and Exit from Religion in Contemporary China

Article excerpt

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The study of religion in the Chinese context confronts some basic problems: how relevant is the term "religion," borrowed from Western languages via Japanese, in referring to the social forms examined?(l) Even if one chooses to speak of a "religious sphere," can Western concepts turn up anything but largely misleading analogies in describing mental and social structurations,<2) even when the concepts are specifically tailored to take Chinese realities into account?(3) But then, which terms and what categories should be used to consider phenomena usually classed under Western "religious studies"? Conversely, would too narrow a focus on lexicographical matters not lose sight of universal elements in Chinese religious experience and manifestations, thus blocking the way to a comparative work? Further, to what extent do official designations of authentic and "acceptable" religious forms inform or distort our perception of Chinese religious activities in the spontaneity of social manifestations? Such questions can be expanded and pursued, illustrating the basic difficulties faced in any study of "religion in China."

iRellglon In China: Demography and ethnography

Regulating and controlling religious practice

It must be noted that from 1949 until now, only five religious forms have enjoyed legal recognition, and that each of them is "structured" by an association that acts as a conveyor belt between civil society and the party-state whose policies and instructions it transmits.(4) Further, the State Administration of Religious Affairs'5' at the central, provincial, and local levels functions as a sort of "ministry of religion" with extensive powers. Right from the start of the Communist regime, "heterodox cults" and "superstitions," as distinct from "religions," were officially banned, the former often subject to systematic repression, as illustrated right from 1951 by the violent crackdown on Yiguandao. This preliminary observation already points to a framework of understanding. The system in operation introduces a double rupture, while retaining the possibility of safeguarding a "continuum" for the religious sphere: a rupture between recognised and unrecognised religious forms (regardless of the latter's degree of institutionalisation); and within recognised religions, a rupture between groups and personalities participating in structures established by the party-state and those shunning them. However, in actuality there is less of a rupture than a "continuum" governed by a variety of strategies adopted by different actors as regards the degree of their inclusion in the official apparatus (from total integration to dissidence, with all the stages in between). Article 36 of the PRC Constitution<6) stipulates that:

Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organisation or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

Public control, individual freedom of belief, designation by the state of beliefs and their manifestations deemed "normal," a strict national framework assigned to religious organisations - such are the principles set out.

Barring the 1966-1979 period, the continuity of the regime's legal and ideological framework for dealing with religion prevailed over the changes introduced. The legal framework was set out in 1982, but the principles therein had been adopted ri^it from the early 1950s (a notable exception was the affirmation in 1982 that the elimination of religion was the longterm objective). …

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