Academic journal article China Perspectives

Raising the Quality of Belief

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Raising the Quality of Belief

Article excerpt

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The Christian revival is among one of the most remarkable social and cultural changes occurring in China in the post-Mao era. Considered a deep social stigma closely linked to Western imperialism and colonialism half a century ago, Christianity is now increasingly regarded as modern, fashionable, and even coveted among China's urban population, especially the younger generation. (l) Chinese Christians not only hold worship services, prayer meetings, Bible study sessions, Sunday schools, and choir rehearsals but are also actively engaged in the market economy and contributed to the post-Mao modernisation.(2) While the party-state still sets the parameters within which Christians can pursue and promote their faith in the broader society, Christianity, in both popular and official discourse, has been increasingly recognised as a legitimate participant of Chinese modernity and a positive moral force "benefiting a spiritually hungry population that is growing more 'individualistic.'"(3)

Western discourse on Chinese Christianity has been dominated by sensational journalistic accounts of state religious persecution on the one hand, and speculative demographic assessments on the Christian proportion of society on the other. While China historians have contributed a great deal to the understanding of Chinese Christianity today, few social scientists have engaged in fieldwork-based research on contemporary Chinese Christianity and its changing dynamics.<4) Christianity in post-Mao China has been popularly perceived as an alternative reality for people who are spiritual needy and politically disillusioned - an explanation that is too abstract to have any scholarly significance.(5) This paper aims to provide an empirically-grounded, drastically different picture, in which the religiosity of Chinese Protestant Christians is not so much related to acts of spiritual seeking in a state-centred political framework as it is shaped by desires and practices of self-making among neoliberal individuals under rapid marketisation.

My analysis explores this Protestant project of self-making with a focus on the quality (suzhi) discourse among the urban-oriented church community. Suzhi is a keyword in contemporary Chinese life and has structured a wide range of post-Mao socio-political practices.(6) In particular, it has become an overarching term that marb one's sense of selfworth and value in the market economy, and the governing elite views raising the suzhi of China's vast population as vital to the country's overall competitiveness in the era of global capitalism.(7) Likewise, as I argue below, the emerg- ing Christian discourse of suzhi articulates a sense of urban elite subjectivity and becomes central to the development of the Chinese church in the context of a highly commercialised economy.

To make this point, I have structured the article as follows. I shall first explore the socio-political context in which the Christian discourse of suzhi is made possible, especially in comparison to the resurgence of Chinese popular religion that has been labelled as superstition by both modernist Chinese states and Christian orthodoxy for most of the twentieth century. Then I shall explore the suzhi discourse in the post-Mao context of Protestant revival in Wenzhou, one of China's most advanced regional economies. I shall use this case to illustrate how the Christian discourse of suzhi involves simultaneously an expression of elite status in religious terms and the cultural and political use of social power to construct an urban religious identity. This discursive production of identity constitutes a core cultural mechanism of Protestant development in economically advanced urban areas that is distinctively different from that in the economically stagnant rural inland, e.g. Henan Province (known as the Bethlehem of China). Although I lack the space to make a comparative case here, I hope the effort will suggest some new directions in the thinking on this understudied topic. …

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