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Pierre Thompson

Pierre Thompson graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2011 with a major in International Political Economy. Originally from San Francisco, California, he participated in the Berkley Center's Junior Year Abroad Network from Beijing, China during the spring of 2010.

Pierre Thompson on the Unlikely Appeal of Religion in China

March 21, 2010

If I had to choose one word to describe modern Chinese people, it would probably be “pragmatic.” A concern for practical outcomes over lofty ideals informs all manner of Chinese activity, ranging from the consumption of pirated films to the conduct of foreign affairs. This approach was best exemplified by Deng Xiaoping, who transformed China from a socialist economy into a market economy, famously declaring: “I don't care if it's a white cat or a black cat. It's a good cat so long as it catches mice.” Perhaps the ordinary Chinese person’s attitude toward religion would run something like this: “I don’t care if it’s Buddha or Christ. It’s a good religion so long as it gives me ping an

According to official estimates, China has 100 million religious believers, a number that is steadily rising. For those skeptical of information released by the Chinese Communist Party, independent research suggests a number closer to 300 million. What makes either of these figures so impressive is that it has only been thirty-four years since the end of the Cultural Revolution; and twenty-eight years since Article 36 of the state constitution substantially expanded religious freedom. Although the Chinese Communist Party continues to exercise strong state control over religion, especially when it is tied to political goals (such as Tibetan Buddhism) or proves effective at organizing people (such as Falun Gong), the fact is that most Chinese people no longer face the same insane obstacles to public and private worship they once did.

What puzzles me is why a modern Chinese person would even choose to worship at all. The Chinese take great pride in their modern achievements, especially in science and technology. Although I do not believe there is a conflict between scientific and religious truth, science does have an unfortunate tendency to lead rationalists away from religion, with its implication that God might exist only to explain temporary gaps in scientific knowledge. The Chinese are certainly capable of God-of-the-gaps thinking. Beijing’s Temple of Heaven is associated with the imperial practice of annually praying to the gods for good harvests, but that ancient ritual was discontinued around the same time modern farming techniques were discovered. Likewise, setting off firecrackers is a popular Spring Festival tradition that was once thought to drive away the evil spirits, but today few Chinese still believe in demons of the sort that can be scared away by loud noises.

Could the major religions in China one day suffer the same fate as these bygone traditions? Could the grand cathedrals and serene monasteries one day become primarily the destination of Western tourists in search of souvenirs, rather than of Chinese believers in search of truth? It is an appalling thought, but one that is not likely to be realized. Precisely because China has undergone considerable economic and social upheaval in recent times, the Chinese have a strong reactionary desire to adopt religious world views that might reflect or uphold traditional Chinese values. As the writer Thomas Friedman might have put it, religion is the “olive tree” that Chinese people can cling to in the face of relentless globalization and cultural homogenization.

I shall describe three examples. The first concerns the condition of the family. The Chinese have long regarded the family as the most basic unit around which community should be organized, but changing economic incentives and social norms have resulted in the disintegration of the traditional family structure. Whereas thirty years ago it was common for three or four generations to live together under the same roof, today Chinese people often pursue individualistic lives that tear them apart from their family members. Most rural children, especially girls, will migrate to large cities to work in factories in the economic processing zones and return home typically once a year during the Spring Festival. Most urban children aspire to study or work overseas in a Western country, with no intention whatsoever of returning home. Under these circumstances, there is a strong need for families to redefine or enlarge the traditional concept of community. Communities built around faith can provide many people with a strong sense of social cohesion in an increasingly fragmented society.

The second example concerns the materialism of society. Ever since Deng Xiaoping flung wide open the door to trade and foreign investment, the Chinese have been materially better off now than they were at any other point in history. Judging from the omnipresent advertisements and the large crowds that can be found on any given night, shopping seems to be the national pastime. Certainly from an economic standpoint, this is something to be proud of. But in a Chengdu monastery, a Buddhist monk confided to me his worries about the state of the world. “People have become so selfish,” he said. “Yet their unsatisfied desires will cause suffering. Buddhism can help them leave suffering and attain happiness. They need to sacrifice themselves for the family, the country, the world...” I told him that Christianity takes essentially the same view toward rejecting worldly values. Thus, religious doctrine can provide Chinese people with a traditional set of values to counter the unfamiliar and often unsavory values that modern, Western society forces upon them.

The final example concerns the purpose of work and life. At the expense of waxing Marxism, the capitalist society has appeared to have a dehumanizing effect on human labor. If you work over sixty hours a week at a menial retail job, as many Chinese people do, it becomes easy to view your life in terms of your work. Moreover, those lacking higher education have virtually no chance of upward social mobility. Two of the first Christians I met in China were young women who left school to work as restaurant waitresses, which they could be doing for the rest of their lives. But when they viewed their lives through the lens of Christianity, it gave them a sense of living and working for something greater than themselves (God’s will on earth). In fact, every major world religion offers a compelling narrative and ultimate concern for the present life. Thus, religion in China can provide people with something important to strive after, imbuing their life with meaning where there might otherwise be none.

Pierre Thompson on Cultural Imperialism in China

May 11, 2010

SHANGHAI – Perhaps the most acclaimed Westerner to ever live in China was Father Matteo Ricci, S.J. A sixteenth-century Italian who led the first Jesuit mission into mainland China, he not only mastered the Chinese culture and language, but also shared a wealth of scientific and mathematic knowledge with the Chinese people, winning many converts along the way. Even to this day, Matteo Ricci still holds an important place in the Chinese psyche for his efforts to foster cultural exchange between the East and the West.

Four centuries on, that cultural exchange is still going strong but has also changed in unforeseen ways. Ever since China’s economic opening, the country has seen an unquenchable thirst for all things Western. But since most Chinese people lack the financial wherewithal to visit a Western country, they must find other creative ways to experience Western culture. For this reason, American film, music, and television are extremely popular and free to download online; American fast food chains, such as McDonalds and KFC, can attract huge crowds of Chinese people despite their ridiculously high prices; and many younger generations have embraced Western notions of individualism and materialism, which sometimes conflict with traditional Chinese values.

The fear is that American culture in its crassest form is steadily eroding a mountain of Chinese culture, history, tradition, and values. Some people call this cultural imperialism in order to connote one culture vanquishing another. However, I believe the trend observed in China is not cultural imperialism for two main reasons. First, we overestimate the power of American culture to displace Chinese culture; and second, we have a misguided tendency to equate modernization and Westernization.

The fact of the matter is that American culture has not replaced Chinese culture, nor is it likely to. Most Chinese are acutely aware of their own culture, and are quick to point out that the Middle Kingdom has more than 3,000 years of history – and that United States history is only one-tenth as long. Most Chinese people simply regard American culture as something that can enhance their lives, and are able to embrace it without neglecting their own. For all her international savvy, the average Chinese person is still familiar with Chinese imperial history, folk music, and Confucianism. (I seriously doubt that most Americans could make the same claims about U.S. presidential history, folk music, or Christianity.) Moreover, though English is now an integral part of the school curriculum, I have not once heard Chinese people conversing in English amongst themselves.

What is undisputed is China’s rapid pace of modernization. Barely twenty years ago, Shanghai’s Pudong district was a slum; now it has some of the tallest skyscrapers and fastest trains in the world. In fact, most large Chinese cities today are as comfortable and modern as American cities. The mistake Westerners make is to view every Chinese skyscraper or bullet train as distinctly Western; by that logic, we ought to regard American bicyclists and farmers as distinctly Chinese. I once lamented the modernization and urbanization of China, believing it responsible for the demise of Chinese culture – until I visited the rural areas and saw that that kind of lifestyle was simply unsustainable for a country of 1.4 billion people. Shanghai is currently hosting the 2010 World Expo, the theme of which is “better city, better life.” Building a better city and improving lives: that – not Westernization – is the goal of Chinese modernization. As a Shanghai friend assured me, “Chinese people haven’t really changed. Even if they work in skyscrapers and drive cars now, they still think and act like Chinese.”

Matteo Ricci would surely have understood that. As a missionary, he did not view Christianity as a distinctly Western faith, but rather as a universal faith that everyone should be able to enjoy. Moreover, he believed that the Chinese already had their own implicit concept of God, and that Christianity was merely a fuller revelation of that understanding. Whether in the sixteenth-century or now, China is not emulating the West; it is simply coming of age.