The new role of “religion” as a help for maintaining social peace


I have just returned from Beijing where I collected empirical material for my next public talk on “wisdom traditions” in China. I would like to share with you some of the stories I heard from young students and elder scholars about how people see change taking place regarding “religion” in their country.

As I have mentioned in my earlier articles, the concept “religion” cannot be used to describe Asian spiritual traditions the same way it is used to describe western spiritual traditions. The eastern cultures have various belief systems with their pantheons of spirits, demigods and gods that do not exclude one another, but are rather intertwined in the daily reality of the people.

In China religious institutions have never played a significant social or political role like e.g. the Catholic Church in the western world. Furthermore, as spiritual life in China has always been extremely multifaceted no spiritual institution has ever obtained exclusive power over others.

The People’s Republic has been experiencing an ideological vacuum for quite some time. My old friend Chen Feng Shan, a sociologist, made the point that “people do not accept the communist ‘language’ / ideology any longer. Neither do they accept the free market ‘language’ of the 1980’s. And generally speaking, people are having more and more trouble accepting any authority at all.” A new ethic codex is badly needed to give the people a new guideline for moral conduct.

The government is trying to fill this vacuum in two different ways. On the one hand it now allows the practice of traditional spiritual activities (as long as they can be controlled). On the other hand it actively propagates the ancient moral doctrine of Master Kong. The idea is that if spiritual activities help people to manage the contingences of their lives better then they serve the purpose of maintaining social peace. Keeping the country politically stable is the highest aim of the Chinese government.

Spiritual activities

People can and do worship in temples and churches of the five officially sanctioned religions. They can do this as long as they “don’t disturb anyone”. However, religious meetings in homes are forbidden, because they cannot be controlled by the government. Thus religion remains a private thing.

Adam Chau (Chau, Adam Yet 2006: Miraculous Response. Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China. Stanford, California. Stanford University Press: 211-215) has done research on popular belief systems in northern China in the 1980’s and states: ”To my knowledge there has been no crackdown on superstitious activities in Shaanbei since the 1980’s, which partly accounts for the vibrant popular religious life there. Yet so much of Shaanbei popular religious life (e.g. divination, spirit mediumism, rain prayers, symbolism of hell and divine retribution, etc.) would qualify as superstition according to the criteria of the Maoist era. It is quite plane to everyone in the local state that cracking down on popular religion, no matter how superstitious it looks, will meet with popular disapproval and even resistance: it ´will not win people’s hearts´.”

The age-old “self-employed” fortunetellers can practice their trade now more or less openly also in urban areas. They can be found e.g. around the Lama Temple in Beijing. They can’t draw attention to their services in newspapers, but they can do it online in a limited way. And they have their clients.

There are two most beautiful ancient and well restored Buddhist temples, the Azure Clouds Temple and the Temple of Recumbent Buddha located near the Fragrant Hills in the NW of Beijing, which are frequented by locals as well as tourists. A young lady, who lives in this area, told me about new, privately financed Buddhist temples that are being built in the hills. By building new temples well-to-do families seek to establish themselves socially in the traditional Chinese way.

I was told that Buddhist communities tend to be growing strong around old Buddhist centers. The same thing happens with Daoist and Christian communities. The geographical location and local traditions, not individual ponderings, seem to influence the choice of the main spiritual activities of the locals. But, as mentioned before, other spiritual activities are well accepted and practiced in parallel with the main stream activities.

The Confucian doctrine as the old / new moral codex

The government’s preferred alternative to spiritual practices is the Confucian moral codex. Confucianism is an ancient Chinese social doctrine that includes everything necessary for “good governance” from the point of view of the present government. Certain aspects of the doctrine suit the government well, because it is basically hierarchical and authoritative the same way as the Communist Party.

Confucianism is theoretically a moral code of conduct rather than a spiritual tradition. In China, however, it has obtained aspects that could be regarded as “religious”. There are Confucian temples where people show respect to their ancestors and the “demigod, sage Confucius” by conducting ceremonies similar to those in Buddhist and Daoist temples. The common goal of such practices is to ensure that one’s dead relations do indeed become ancestors, supernatural powers that are benevolent and remote rather than ghosts that are malevolent and proximate. These practices make the basically rational, non-metaphysical doctrine acceptable for the many people. Furthermore, the Confucian ideology is regarded as part of the ancient Chinese culture.

As for Confucian style weddings and the more and more popular grand scale family gatherings (especially in southern China), they are regarded as commercial rather than spiritual affairs, says Chen Feng Shan. Thus the gatherings of the often large crowds are not perceived as a threat to the organized society.

The Confucian doctrine is summed up in the “Five Confucian Classics” (compiled after Confucius’ death). The current interpretation of the texts seems to stress the role of an individual as a citizen. Yu Dan expresses this in her book “Confucius from the Heart” as follows: “Unlimited possibility leads to chaos, because you don’t know where to go or what to do. We must rely on a strict system to resolve problems. As citizens, our duty is not necessarily to be perfect moral persons. Our duty is to be law-abiding citizens” (Yu Dan: “Confucius from the Heart” 2006).

However, to Confucius social harmony was consensus, not conformity. It required loyal opposition. When censors now remove critical comments from the Chinese Web with the argument that it is done in order to protect political stability, people say that the text has been “harmonized.”