Date of this Version
November 2, 2009 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
A collection of essays on the religious revival in the People’s Republic of China,Making Religion, Making the State (Stanford UP, 2009) focuses on how the state has influenced the development of Chinese religious institutions and practices. But, as the title suggests, the state’s rehabilitation of different religions has been far from a one-way street, with both clergy and laity prompting the state to adjust its strategies. The essays demonstrate just how complicated this process has been thus far, and suggest that the dynamics of the current religious revival will remain subject to change, albeit under the shadow of a state very interested in maintaining social order.
The editors, Yoshiko Ashiwa and David Wank, frame the book’s essays using the work of Talal Asad, an influential scholar of religion, who argues that political and intellectual developments in Europe in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries made religion a category distinct from science, history, and culture, while opening it up as an object of scientific study (6). This concept of religion strongly emphasizes individual belief, and is seen as an essential component of a modern state; in China, as elsewhere, elites have historically grappled with the issue of how to fit diverse religious beliefs and practices that often defy simple categorization into a form that can accommodate and support state formation (7). Religious revival in China today, the contributors argue, is indicative of a process where the institutionalization of religion and modern state-building processes buttress one another (8). Working within this framework, the contributors to this book cast recent developments such as the growth in the membership of many different religious denominations as an ongoing process of coming to terms with modernity in addition to contesting it in its Chinese iteration.
Many China observers have noted that economic reforms and the easing up of state control over private life have been crucial to the recent upsurge of religion in China. To give just a few examples from the volume, even in conservative government estimates, the number of Chinese Protestants boasts a 10 percent annual growth rate, going from 3 million in 1982 to 15 million in 1999, with even higher rates in some urban areas (96), and there has been a sharp interest in restoring Daoist temples, with some tens of thousands of Daoist ritual masters, monks and nuns active in many provinces today (193).