Elizabeth Zehe on Secularism in China

By: Elizabeth Zehe

February 25, 2008

In Chinese society, religion is much more an absence then a presence. The secular lifestyle is so prevalent; at least ostensibly, it seems to be a default setting for an entire society. To be sure, many ethnic minorities and other religious enclaves boast impressive numbers of spiritual followers (for example, the Hui people, an Islamic minority, number at almost one million). Yet in a country of 1.3 billion, the popularity of secular views cannot be easily dismissed as an ideological fad accompanying the rapid economic and scientific development.

In fact, has a long history of secularism, tracing all the way back to Confucius, who stressed the state of shishu (being in this world). While the aggressive secularism of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party may be a more recent and perhaps ruthless manifestation of Chinese secular society, the Chinese social order was never intimately linked with religious institutions as it is in many communities in the West.

It is true, however, that recent economic and technological developments have reinforced these secular roots. Many Chinese have expressed to me their belief that the spiritual rituals of the past are no longer relevant to a modern society: religious traditions can no longer fulfill people’'s daily needs, and consequently such doctrines have been replaced by democracy and science. Temples and mosques are increasingly seen as historical landmarks and tourist attractions. Still revered as cultural relics and evidence of rich past, the longest continuous civilization on the planet, they now exist as a history lesson and national symbol instead of spiritual fulfillment.

The most significant difference between the American conception of religion and the Chinese conception: the purpose of spiritual activity is for the fulfillment of daily needs – personal guidance, or inner peace—not the source of community, social order, or behavioral norms. I have been surprised by the ambivalence with which the Chinese discuss religious questions, which seem to inspire hardly any passion at all. If present at all in an individual’'s life, it is a personal choice and not community motivated. A group of Chinese graduate students articulated this difference to me in a very intriguing manner: American religious activity arises out of a zuigan wenhua (guilty culture), while Chinese religious activity arises out of a legan wenhua (happy culture). That is, Americans turn to religion out of guilt and in search of moral guidance, while the Chinese turn to religion out of a desire to be happy. However unfair these sweeping generalizations might be, it is significant that the common perception is either a) one does not practice any religion, or b) even if one does follow a particular doctrine, it is mostly likely that you will practice only when you want your test scores or your mother’'s health to improve. And with the infusion of Western inventions and ideology, many Chinese now look elsewhere to satisfy their needs.

What of the obvious paradox that if science and democracy are inversely correlated with a vibrant religious culture? Why is religion still such a prominent force in the lives of many Americans? To me, it seems the development of the role of religion in Chinese society has just begun. Initially, progress and materialism pushed an already fragile institution to the side. However, the rising standard of living and ever increasing contact with nations possessing vocal religious constituencies (ahem...…the United States), have got the Chinese thinking, “"Maybe there is something to this religion thing.”" 

An example: even while stressing their position as nonbelievers, those graduate students perceived an increasingly significant role for religion in Chinese societies, as more and more spiritually inclined individuals model their worship on community-based institutions. While they do not view their lives as lacking without a spiritual component, they still believe the number of more organized and vocal religious communities are growing and could be advantageous to Chinese society. In the coming years, it will be interesting to see if the Chinese Community Party agrees with them.

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Elizabeth Zehe on Secularism in China