Religious Studies and Research in Chinese Academia: Prospects, Challenges, and Hindrances

By Wiest, Jean-Paul | International Bulletin of Mission Research, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Religious Studies and Research in Chinese Academia: Prospects, Challenges, and Hindrances


Wiest, Jean-Paul, International Bulletin of Mission Research


Under the impetus of Deng Xiaoping's guiding principle that "education should be geared to the needs of modernization, of the world, and of the future," (1) Chinese academia has undergone important changes since the early 1980s. Travels abroad for conferences and research have become commonplace, ties with Western academic institutions are flourishing, salaries are much higher, and the government has made grants and subsidies available. Not surprisingly, Chinese universities are registering a growing number of foreign visiting professors and a steady increase in the number of returning Chinese graduates to fill vacant or new positions. This situation has contributed to a steady improvement in the depth and scope of Chinese academia. Today, courses and research at top Chinese universities compare well with those at renowned Western institutions. Prospects of finding well-paying jobs with joint ventures and high-flying local enterprises have swollen the ranks of students majoring in business, engineering, and computer science. But other faculties and departments are also well attended, including some that had been banned for a long time, like sociology, psychology, and religious studies.

In 1978 Deng revived the United Front. But unlike the United Front formed by the Communists and non-Communists to defeat the Japanese invaders during the Sino-Japanese War, this new United Front was an alliance to muster all the forces in the society toward the common task of modernizing the country. This policy called for a more benevolent and open attitude toward religion. Among the many signs of such a change was the reappearance of representatives from the five officially recognized religions--Taoism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam--at the meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Then, in 1982, China's new constitution dropped the ultraleftist content of the preceding ones and recognized the freedom of religious belief for all Chinese people.

Pioneer Studies on Religion

This inclusion of religion in the common task of modernization also required a reinterpretation of the history of Christianity in China. In 1978, with the restoration of colleges, universities, and other academic institutions, the Institute of World Religions reopened, including its Department of Christian Studies. (2) Until the late 1980s this department remained the only institution entrusted with the study of Christianity.

Meanwhile, the lifting of the prohibition on religious activities and of the persecution of religious people led to a rapid revival of religions, which was reinforced by the spiritual void caused by a widespread disillusion with Communism and a rampant moral chaos. Such a revival could not escape the attention of scholars and some government officials. Four major studies published in the 1980s testify to an increasingly positive view of Christianity among Chinese academics: Missionaries and Modern China (1981), by Gu Changsheng; The History of Religious Conflicts in China (1987), by Zhang Li and Liu Jiantang; Religion Under Socialism in China (1988), by Luo Zhufeng; and The Chinese Catholic Church, Past and Present (1989), by Gu Yulu. (3)

These four books were still ideologically and politically Marxist in their critique of religions, Christianity in particular, but one notices a clear progression in their appreciation of some aspects of the missionary enterprise. They not only saluted the scientific and artistic achievements made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by the missionaries employed at the imperial court but also acknowledged some later contributions in fields such as education, medicine, and agriculture.

Three articles published in the early 1990s in the Institute of World Religions' journal, Studies in World Religions, are typical of academic studies during that period. The first essay, by Fang Litian, entitled "Ten Years of Religion in China," analyzes changes that took place in the religious world as "changes for the better. …

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