New Religions in China

by on Monday, 13 December 2010 Comments

An Italian translation of this article appeared in the December 2010 edition of popoli and is a continuation of some ideas raised in eRenlai's October 2010 Focus on religious innovation in East Asia.

To recap, the term 'new religious movement' was originally coined as a less loaded alternative to 'cult'.  It represents an attempt to classify new religious groups that are either a brand new conception of reality, a reinterpretation of an existing belief system or transplanted beliefs in a foreign land. Such groups are continuously evolving all over the world, and China is no exception.

China currently holds much of the world’s attention.  If not for big-ticket items like the Beijing Olympics or Shanghai Expo, then because of the nation’s ever growing economic, diplomatic and military clout.  Not to mention the recent controversy surrounding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Chinese human rights activist and prisoner, Liu Xiaobo.

Sometimes amongst this flurry of activity it is easy to overlook the position of religion in China.  Having endured a lean spell with strict regulation during the height of communist ideology and in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), religion is enjoying a period of relative freedom and estimates of the number of religious Chinese vary between 100 million and 300 million.  Those are big numbers.  But that’s not to say that it is now a free-for-all as the state still exercises strong influence on religious matters.  Given the dynamics of Chinese society, it is worth employing a nuanced view when studying religion there.

Throughout history rulers in China have sought to bring religion under state control.  Currently there are five state-sanctioned religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestant Christianity.  However, the extent to which the state can –or is indeed willing to – control religion varies.  Outside of this classification exist a range of Protestant “house churches”, folk beliefs and new religious movements (NRMs), a diverse group of innovative religions that have the potential to mobilise vast numbers of people.

The academic study of NRMs developed in the West in the 1970s as a number of groups rose to prominence, such as Scientology, the Hare Krishnas and the Children of God, to name but a few.  Many theories have been proposed and debated as to why and how NRMs appear, who joins them and so on.  While this body of work should not be ignored when studying NRMs in China, it is useful to augment it with some additional concepts.

Chinese NRMs have innovated, hybrid or syncretistic belief systems.  Some groups develop indigenously, such as Falun Gong with its links to qi gong or the Protestant group Eastern Lightning, which claims to have millions of members and has spread throughout the north-eastern Chinese countryside. Falun Gong grew during the 1980s ‘qi gong boom’ when hundreds of millions of people were involved with similar physical/spiritual cultivation groups.  Other NRMs have been imported such as the New Testament Church, founded by a Hong Kong movie star and now based in Taiwan.  These three groups are all classified by the state as “evil cults”.  Yiguandao is a syncretistic NRM that was once popular in China but following a crackdown in 1951, relocated to Taiwan from where it stabilised and spread around the globe with the Chinese diaspora.  At the same time, large Buddhist NRMs such as Dharma Drum Mountain and Foguangshan were founded in Taiwan by Buddhist monks who fled China following the rise to power of the Communist Party.  These Buddhist NRMs seek to make Buddhism relevant to modern society.  As can be seen from these examples, Chinese NRMs are not easily defined by the borders of the country.

Given this diversity of Chinese NRMs, it may be more useful to investigate them in the context of the older religion from which they have evolved, instead of attempting to draw comparisons between the NRMs themselves.  This is particularly the case with NRMs that have developed in China, where the founder should be viewed beyond notions of charisma, mental illness or entrepreneurship, key terms in the Western academic study of NRMs.  The importance of genealogy in Chinese religious biographies suggests that researchers might be well served by examining an NRM and its founder in relation to the NRM’s preceding traditions.  Care must be taken when using terminology developed in the West to understand concepts originating in a foreign society, such as China.  It may be the case that Western terminology does not have an exact translation into Chinese, and vice versa, thereby raising the possibility that one’s understanding of a Chinese NRM may not accurately capture the social reality of its adherents and meaning of its scriptures.

There is still much to be discovered about China’s NRMs.  Some groups are reluctant to come forward, be it out of safety concerns or a reluctance to share its faith with non-believers.  Then there are the additional challenges posed by cultural and methodological differences and matters of translation. Nevertheless, NRMs in China will continue to offer hope for many people there, something that along with Expos, Olympics and Nobel Prizes, should be of ongoing interest to the rest of the world.

Photo by P.F.: Soares Avenue in Hong Kong, chosen by God as the first "original land" of the New Testament Church.

Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra. His primary research interests are new religious movements and religious innovation in China and Taiwan.


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