AUTHORKristin D'Alba Kristin D’Alba, originally from Larchmont, New York, is studying Chinese and Mathematics in the Georgetown College. She is spending Fall 2012 studying abroad in Shanghai, China at East China Normal University. In addition to improving her Chinese...
October 7, 2012
November 6, 2012
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
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The Invisibility of Organized Religion in China
October 7, 2012 | 1 COMMENT
I am spending the semester at East China Normal University in Shanghai and living in a home stay. My home stay parents are a retired couple in their early sixties. They speak little to no English, but I speak enough Chinese to continuously have stimulating and interesting conversations. Upon reflecting on our conversations, I realized the concept of religion has only come up twice.
The first time we spoke about religion my host dad asked me if I wore a cross and attended Church. I explained that although I was raised Catholic and my mom practices regularly, I was not particularly religious. When I asked if he was the same, he shook his head implying “no” aggressively.
After that conversation, I began to take notice. I had not seen any Christian churches, temples, or mosques. In fact I noticed the only experience I had of religion in Shanghai was on a trip to Jing An Temple, a Buddhist temple. However, that visit did not feel particularly religious, as the temple attracts more tourists than individuals who are there to worship.
I noticed an even greater disparity in religion during a trip to Thailand and Vietnam. In Thailand I visited three Buddhist temples, all of which were major tourist attractions as well. However, every temple had a separate entrance line for “foreigners” and for “Thai people.” In addition, two out of the three temples reserved two hours everyday in which only Thai people could enter and pray. I also noticed every hotel, taxi, and store in Vietnam had a Buddhist shrine furthering enforcing the importance and prominence of religion. These stark differences made the lack of organized religion in Shanghai even more apparent to me.
In 1949 the Communist Party of China took control and implemented a complete separation of church and state. The Chinese Communist Party was anti-tradition and anti-religious. As a result, ancestral temples, city god temples and all other forms of religious worship were completely destroyed. The CPC viewed religion as reactionary. Although the People’s Republic of China guarantees religious freedom in its Constitution, the Chinese government has consistently held a negative attitude towards religion, which explains the lack of visible organized religion in Shanghai today. However, cultural practices and spiritual practices are extremely engrained within society, and I believe they take on the role of religion.
Historically Chinese thought is dialectical, which means it is an interaction of multiple trains of thought. Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Catholicism have all shaped Chinese thought and culture. Chinese thought is not linear like Western Aristotelian thought. Dialectical thought merges distinctively different thoughts into a cohesive whole. For example, the symbol of the Yin and the Yang is commonly thought to represent harmony and a complete separation of black and white. However, if you examine the symbol closely, there is a bit of black in the white and vice versa. The Yin and Yang emphasizes that black and white (or opposites) are not completely separated; in fact, both can coexist and be balanced. Chinese thought believe this balance exists in everything.
Balance is specifically exemplified in family life. In Chinese society everything is family-oriented. I have noticed that in Chinese culture family serves a very similar function that religion serves to individuals in other countries. Religion is generally a source of hope, support, and guidance, which is exactly what the Chinese people look for in family. Drawing on Confucius thought, familial-piety, relationships, and loyalty are essential. In Chinese society, family bonds are sacred and should be honored accordingly. Family members seek to achieve a balance between honor, respect, loyalty, and expectations.
I have experienced this is my one life living in a home stay. While I am younger than both my Aiyi (host mom) and Shu Shu (host dad), I am a guest in their home and continuously treated with respect and hospitality. Presenting their family well and preserving their family honor is extremely important, and they devout a majority of their lives to achieving this. However, in contrast, I am still a subordinate to them and need to take precautions not to offend them. For example, we have dinner every evening at 6 pm. It is extremely important to them that I arrive on time and finish all of the food. If I do not, they take offense. Every day I strive to achieve this balance, which is revered in Chinese society.
While religion in China is not specifically defined, China is not without religion. In lieu of organized religion cultural practices, such as balance, and family relationships have remained crucial in a developing society. However, I think the role of family, respect, and honor will continue to change as China modernizes.
COMMENT FROM SARAH HEATH October 19, 2012
Your observations interest me because I was actually surprised by the presence of religions (specifically Christianity) in China. For example, the church that I attended in Shanghai had its own Metro stop, and when shopping I occasionally see crosses or other religious merchandise. Of course, in part this can be attributed to stores desire to appeal to foreign customers; however, some of these stores are not primarily tourist stops.
Also, the Hui ethnic minority is often associated with Islam. My friends and I often eat at Hui-owned restaurants and have become accustomed to seeing the women wearing headscarves and the men wearing white caps. However, I do agree that it is interesting that China has so many tourist sites that are Buddhist or Taoist temples and yet it seems that the vast majority of people do not adhere to any religion or even seem interested. Do you think that this viewpoint is changing with the influx of foreigners in China?