2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 296

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Religion and the State in Modern China

Organizer: Denise Y. Ho, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Chair: Rebecca Nedostup, Brown University, USA

Discussant: Rebecca Nedostup, Brown University, USA

These papers examine how religion has been defined by state and society in modern China and Taiwan. Definitions of religion are inseparable from discourses on modernity, the role of organizations in society, and the relationship between the people and the party-state. Crossing multiple eras and regimes, drawing from the disciplines of history, political science, and sociology, and using a variety of sources and fieldwork, these papers seek to understand how the modern state has defined religion. Within each historical and political context, these papers also explore how individuals and religious organizations have both contributed to or challenged these definitions. Denise Ho’s paper takes a historical perspective, examining anti-superstition campaigns from the People’s Republic in the 1960s. Using the example of an anti-superstition exhibition, she shows that propaganda demonstrates not only what the state wished to regulate, but also what beliefs and practices persisted despite such efforts. Alison Denton-Jones explores the contested cultural legitimacy of religion in today’s PRC. She demonstrates that different groups adapted different framings of religion, and argues that histories of exposure to modernist “militant atheist” discourses determine the degree to which individuals use different framings. Karrie Koesel analyzes how religious and government actors negotiate their relationship within the local religious marketplace, and argues that the core of religious-state interaction is economic. Finally, Jiexia Eliza Zhai compares the True Jesus Church movement in mainland China and Taiwan, using the experiences of miracles to examine how the movement has endured and revived in different political contexts.

"Love Science and Do Away with Superstition": Anti-superstition, exhibition, and propaganda in Mao-era Shanghai
Denise Y. Ho, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Denise Ho’s paper examines the ways in which the state in Mao-era Shanghai sought to control what were deemed to be “superstitious” beliefs and practices. Using documents from the 1960s held in the Shanghai Municipal Archive, this paper explores a range of anti-superstition campaigns in their political context, which included the regulation of the market in “superstitious” objects and the attempt to excise “superstitious” artifacts from temples. The paper focuses on a 1963 exhibition aimed at young people and entitled, “Love Science and Do Away with Superstition.” It analyzes the arguments, language, and form of the display to study exhibition as propaganda. The format of exhibition, it is argued, reveals how local officials aimed at particular beliefs. In addition, tracing a particular anti-superstition case from its actual occurrence to its appearance in a propaganda exhibit demonstrates propaganda’s selective use of examples. Finally, the persistence of official concern with “superstition,” the reappearance of believers at temple gates by the end of the Cultural Revolution, and the continued use of “anti-superstition” handbooks suggests that such propaganda was ultimately ineffective.

Is Buddhism a Religion? Urban Lay Buddhists Contending with the P.R. Chinese State's Multiple Framings of Religion
Alison Denton Jones, Harvard University, USA

Alison Denton-Jones’ paper asks, “Is Buddhism a religion?” It depends on who you ask. Her paper examines how regular lay Buddhists in urban China today use and negotiate with different framings of religion that are institutionalized by the state. Legally, Buddhism is one of five state-recognized religions. While the legal legitimacy of these five formal religions is clear, the cultural legitimacy of religion in the contemporary P.R. China is contested. The state itself promotes conflicting framings of religion; Denton-Jones identifies the two most important as “Religion is Anti-Modern,” and “Religion is Socially Beneficial.” Lay Buddhists from different social locations prioritized these different framings to different degrees as they made sense of their own involvement with Buddhism and presented Buddhism to others. People for whom the “Anti-Modern” framing dominated proactively denied Buddhism is a religion to justify their involvement. Others focused on Buddhism’s official legal status and the “Socially Beneficial” framing to emphatically claim the label of religion for Buddhism. In this paper, Denton-Jones explores both how regular lay Buddhists contend with these framings of religion, and who is most likely to employ which framing. First, she shows the variety of narrative strategies lay Buddhists use to negotiate the relationship between the categories of Buddhism, religion, and superstition. Then, Denton-Jones investigates the characteristics of people using different framings. She finds that the “usual” demographic suspects are less useful than expected. Instead, she argues that people’s particular life histories of exposure to modernist “militant atheist” discourses in particular institutional settings determine the personal salience of different framings of religion.

The Political Economy of Religious Revival
Karrie Koesel, University of Oregon, USA

Karrie Koesel’s paper investigates the question, “What are the political consequences of growing religiosity in post-Mao China? This paper analyzes how religious and local government actors negotiate the terms of their relationship—that is, how they make decisions and allocate resources within restrictive and competitive markets. Koesel argues that the local religious marketplace reveals, among other things, that religious and state actors are engaging in bargaining games, where the two sides exchange a variety of resources to ensure stability and maximize profits. What is particularly striking about this exchange is that it is centered on material, rather than spiritual concerns. In short, the core of religious-state interaction is economic.

Miracles, Healing, and the Authentication of Faith: How the True Jesus Church Grows in Mainland China and Taiwan
Jiexia (Elisa) Autry, George Mason University, USA

Jiexia Elisa Zhai, together with co-author J. Gordon Melton, investigates the True Jesus Church movement (TJC), an indigenous movement that originated in mainland China and subsequently was exported through the Chinese Diaspora. In building a truly Asian form of Christianity, TJC provides members with the experience of a vital religious life, a unique non-Trinitarian theology, and interpretations of Pentecostalism based on the miraculous. Following the Chinese Revolution, the church was divided into two jurisdictions. Despite religious restrictions and regulations in mainland China, TJC has endured and revived in spectacular fashion. At the same time, TJC has developed robustly outside of China in East Asia- most notably in Taiwan, where it has emerged as the second largest Christian body and one of the fastest growing religions. Drawing on the historical TJC statistics and new empirical data, Zhai and Melton investigate how power and authority are understood and resolved by TJC. They speculate about how the experiences of miracles are rationalized, how the subsequent retelling of miracles influences members’ conversions, and how miracles shape church orthodoxy under contrasting church-state relations and cultural contexts in mainland China and Taiwan.