Ian Johnson

China’s emerging religious experiences have often been misunderstood by the West, says author Ian Johnson of The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao in an interview with the New York Times. “I think the government is happy to see these things grow—almost as a form of stability.”

The New York Times:

What are some of the ways faith in China is misunderstood?
In polls, if you say, What zongjiao (religion) do you believe in? people still think it’s an odd question. The word zongjiao has been heavily politicized under the Communists. It’s better to ask people what they do rather than about labels. There was a very good study done that found something like 25% of respondents said that a god or a spirit or—I think they used a word like “Buddha”—had influenced their life in the past 12 months. That’s much higher than if you say, do you believe in zongjiao, when you get like a 10% rate [of people saying yes].

For most people there was no contradiction between, say, reading Confucian books on morality and going to a Taoist temple and then inviting Buddhist monks over to perform a funeral ceremony for your granny. It was all part of the same thing. They were not discrete organized religions in opposition to each other the way we think of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

You write that President Xi has helped boost Buddhism and traditional religions in China.
Xi has strongly ramped up support for traditional Chinese ideas, including religion. A lot of guoxue (the study of traditional Chinese culture) now being taught in schools are essentially religious texts—a lot of Confucianism, but they’re reading the [the Taoist classic text] “Dao De Jing” and Buddhist texts as well.

There’s been increased support for this idea of intangible cultural heritage, which includes formerly banned religious practices or things that were considered [superstition]. They’ll call it music or theater but it’s religious music and religious theater. They’ve given tons of money to these groups. You also see it in the incredible number of temples under construction. Look at Beijing, which used to have one to two Taoist temples and now there’s over 20.

There’s a redefining of all this as culture. At one temple in Beijing, I asked a guy, “Is this religion?” And the guy shrank back, saying, “No, this isn’t religion.” And I was like, “But they’re kowtowing.” And he said, “No, it’s culture.”

If you’re just a cultural-activities thing or a moneymaking tourist site, it’s more relaxed, you can do what you want. You can have a temple fair and say it’s intangible cultural heritage.

What’s underpinning official support?
I think the government is happy to see these things grow—almost as a form of stability. If you wanted to be cynical, it’s almost as if the government buys into religion being the opiate of the masses: Let it be an opiate, because we need people to believe in something.

More in the New York Times.

Ian Johnson is a speaker of the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

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