Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Taoism Rises

Ian Johnson has a very insightful article on religion and the rise of Taoism in China in this past week's New York Times Magazine.

Below is a section I particularly liked from the article:

RELIGION HAS LONG played a central role in Chinese life, but for much of the 20th century, reformers and revolutionaries saw it as a hindrance holding the country back and a key reason for China’s “century of humiliation.” Now, with three decades of prosperity under their belt — the first significant period of relative stability in more than a century — the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise, not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions elsewhere in China.

It is impossible to miss the religious building boom, with churches, temples and mosques dotting areas where none existed a few years ago. How many Chinese reject the state’s official atheism is hard to quantify, but numbers suggest a return to widespread religious belief. In contrast to earlier surveys that showed just 100 million believers, or less than 10 percent of the population, a new survey shows that an estimated 300 million people claim a faith. A broader question in another poll showed that 85 percent of the population believes in religion or the supernatural.

Officially, religious life is closely regulated. The country has five recognized religions: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity, which in China is treated as two faiths, Catholicism and Protestantism. Each of the five has a central organization headquartered in Beijing and staffed with officials loyal to the Communist Party. All report to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which in turn is under the central government’s State Council, or cabinet. This sort of religious control has a long history in China. For hundreds of years, emperors sought to define orthodox belief and appointed many senior religious leaders.


Taoism has closely reflected this history of decline and rebirth. The religion is loosely based on the writings of a mythical person named Laotzu and calls for returning to the Dao, or Tao, the mystical way that unites all of creation. Like many religions, it encompasses a broad swath of practice, from Laotzu’s high philosophy to a riotous pantheon of deities: emperors, officials, thunder gods, wealth gods and terrifying demons that punish the wicked in ways that make Dante seem unimaginative. Although scholars once distinguished between “philosophical Taoism” and “religious Taoism,” today most see the two strains as closely related. Taoist worshipers will often go to services on important holy days; they might also go to a temple, or hire a clergy member to come to their home, to find help for a specific problem: illness and death or even school exams and business meetings. Usually the supplicant will pray to a deity, and the priest or nun will stage ceremonies to summon the god’s assistance. Many Taoists also engage in physical cultivation aimed at wellness and contemplation, like qigong breathing exercises or tai chi shadowboxing.

As China’s only indigenous religion, Taoism’s influence is found in everything from calligraphy and politics to medicine and poetry. In the sixth century, for example, Abbess Yin’s temple was home to Tao Hongjing, one of the founders of traditional Chinese medicine. For much of the past two millenniums, Taoism’s opposite has been Confucianism, the ideology of China’s ruling elite and the closest China has to a second homegrown religion. Where Confucianism emphasizes moderation, harmony and social structure, Taoism offers a refuge from society and the trap of material success. Some rulers have tried to govern according to Taoism’s principle of wuwei, or nonaction, but by and large it is not strongly political and today exhibits none of the nationalism found among, say, India’s Hindu fundamentalists.

Read the entire article
The growth of religion in communist China is a very interesting topic. Ian Johnson, the writer of this article above, has written the best pieces I've read on religion in China. The section of his book, Wild Grass, on the Falun Gong is journalism at its finest.

(All of Johnson's Wild Grass is journalism at its finest, actually. The book is at the top of my must-read China book selections along with Out of Mao's Shadow. I read it earlier this year but didn't quite get a review of it written for my blog. My thoughts on the Wild Grass in short: read it!)

Johnson compliments his NY Times article about Taoism with a piece he authored over at the blog, The China Beat. In his blog post, Johnson gives a primer to those interested in reading more about Daoism. I just ordered a copy of the number one book on his list - Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits.

Taoism is intriguing to me. I'm not too familiar with its specific tenets, but I have been moved by what I've seen. I'm particularly fond of Taoist holy mountains (they occupy spots #1 and #5 on my "Top 10 Travel Destinations in China" list from last year). Maybe I'm just a sucker for the commercialization at those sites that Johnson's article talks about. Or maybe I will find something exciting about Taoism once I look into it. I'm looking forward to finding out.


Martin said...

First, thank you for your blog entry. It shows very clearly that, in spite of what other say, there is a considerable amount of space to practice freedom of religion.

However, it is quite hard to take any survey about religion in China for truth. There are official surveys on religion in China, but I am pretty confident the outcomes of numbers of believers are a lot lower that this article states. Unofficial surveys are hard to trust either unless it is made crystal clear how the survey was done and, perhaps most importantly, by whom. One must be very careful in these times of propagandistic warfare.

When I talk to my Chinese friends, I would certainly not estimate the percentage of believers in China to be as high as 85. I would say that whenever I visit a buddhist temple with Chinese friends, maybe 40 percent of them would stop and kneel.

The number of believers also depends on your definition of 'believing'. It is my experience Chinese are quite easily prepared to believe in anything that just might bring them good fortune somehow, whether it be christianity, buddhims, islam or taoism or even the flying spaghetti monster, so to say. I wonder if you can call that 'believing'. If a survey would specificly ask about religious theories, and if a person would believe that, my guess would be that the number of Chinese believers is in fact much lower than my above estimation of 40 percent.
Illustrative for the way Chinese seem to 'believe', is my blog entry about a man that asked me why God would not give him good business opportunities (http://dailychina.web-log.nl/blog/2010/10/why-does-god-only-love-white-people.html).

On the other hand, when I talk to Chinese students, religion quite often pops up as a topic. There is definitely a great interest in religion, and definitely a lot more than before. So the assumption that religion is on the rise can be very easily found reflected in everyday life. In other words: that assumption is absolutely correct.

Mark said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Martin.

I agree that quantifying religious devotion is a very difficult, or impossible, task.

I've heard something along the lines of "Chinese people aren't particularly religious, but are very superstitious" before. From my experiences, this rings true. Most Chinese people I've encountered seem to take superstitions at least somewhat seriously.

As far as that 85% number goes, I think that it reflects that a great majority of Chinese people believe there is something or someone out there in the cosmos with their hand on things. That 85% is high, but is more realistic if the superstitious angle is included.

One example of where superstition and religion can get blurry would be people burning things in front of tombs and on street corners during the "Tomb Sweeping Festival" in March/April. During that time, people burn paper effigies of items that they want their ancestors to have in heaven - TVs, cars, mansions, money. Not every Chinese person participates in this ritual, but lots did during that festival while I was in Xi'an.

This sort of practice isn't overtly religious, but it does imply some belief in a higher power or, at least, the idea of an afterlife.

I don't think that an atheist (there is no higher power, period) person (or culture) would value such practices.