A New Age for China

by on Friday, 24 September 2010 8246 hits Comments
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The Lama Temple (雍和宮) on Yonghegong Street in Beijing’s inner north is one of the most impressive temples in Beijing.  Built over 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty, it now serves the dual purposes of being both an active Buddhist temple and a popular tourist destination.  Camera-toting tourists mingle with incense-offering devotees, marvelling at the impressive and sprawling compound, before heading over to the nearby Confucius Temple (孔廟) for some more happy snaps in a slightly more serene atmosphere.

Anyone approaching the Lama Temple from the nearby subway station will be struck by the number of stores selling impressively large packets of incense, not to mention the hawkers prowling around the subway exit, ever ready to pounce on potential worshippers and try to offload a packet of incense or two.

Indeed, Yonghegong Street and the surrounding hutongs (alleys) are not only filled with incense vendors, but a whole range of stores selling statues, prayer beads, Tibetan religious curios and items of worship (My favourite was a solar powered prayer wheel).  There are also a few vegetarian restaurants in the area.  Add to this a large number of Daoist fortune tellers and geomancers and the neighbourhood has a strongly Chinese religious appearance.

I was then quite surprised to come across 智慧之光 or ‘Wisdom Light – the New Age Shop’, a mere 100 or so metres south of the Lama Temple and nestled next to a vendor of Taiwanese tea.  To anyone who has perused the advertisements in a Western New Age magazine or attended some sort of New Age ‘gathering’, this location might make perfect sense – “Fengshui and astrology – *tick*.  Tibetan artefacts – *tick*.  New Age trinkets and tchotchkes – *tick*”.  But I was not walking down the main street of a hippie town on the East Coast of Australia or one of Canada’s Gulf Islands.  I was in Beijing.  A place that in recent decades has seen little of the type of religious experimentation and social conditions that spawned the West’s now nebulous and pervasive New Age movement.

While it is tricky trying to define the New Age movement (NAM) as a religion, it is certainly influenced by religious thought.  The NAM is a loose collection of ideas and philosophies – often contradictory – with the general intention being to engender personal or societal change.  Lorne L. Dawson wrote that the NAM often utilises “processes of self-discovery that have either been invented or recovered from numerous traditional and usually pre-modern or marginalized groups of the world”[1].  How such a group would fit into the rigidly defined Chinese religious landscape (with  state-sanctioned religious groups limited to Buddhist, Daoist, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic) is not clear.  It would not be inconceivable for a New Age group elsewhere to include aspects of two or more of these five groups, not to mention influences from Chinese and Tibetan religiosity.  This ‘recycling’ of spirituality – the NAM in the West takes a Chinese idea and reconfigures it to be suitable for Western audiences and now attempts to market this back in China – is fascinating.  In discussing the potential of the NAM in Asia, Lee writes that individuals seeking to give meaning to their sense of being may “turn to enchanted traditions as a form of resistance to state attempts in enforcing the processes of disenchantment”[2].  Such a state of affairs could be possible in China, where the Communist party continues to reign supreme and oversee a rapid modernisation of society.  Of course, with China being the vast place that it is, not all areas are modernising at the same rate and not everyone has the same opportunity to engage in some form of spiritual practice.

The nascent NAM in China most likely began through contacts with Hong Kong and Taiwan, often through businessman assigned to Chinese posts.  The NAM really began to develop in Taiwan after Martial Law was lifted in 1987[3].  Significantly, all the printed material in ‘Wisdom Light’ was published in traditional Chinese (the script used in Hong Kong and Taiwan) rather than simplified Chinese (as used in mainland China).  Photocopies of books were also available for sale.  I was told that the books were primarily printed in Taiwan.  Returning to the store one day, I spied some new flyers advertising Reiki courses in Hong Kong, left earlier in the day by a Reiki representative.

Singing-bowls-for-saleBesides literature, the store offered an eclectic range of products and services - bell chimes, angels, pyramids, crystal singing bowls, herbs, Native American dreamcatchers, DVDs, CDs and aura photography. The shop’s staff were not too sure about their boss’ New Age background or credentials, but did know that he owned another business.  Compared to the other shops on Yonghegong St, ‘Wisdom Light’ was not too busy.  However, perhaps the boss has recognized a niche market.  As long as China’s middle classes continue to grow and relative religious freedom remains, the New Age has the potential to be quite profitable.  China’s moneyed class just needs to be convinced to buy the crystal singing bowl from ‘Wisdom Light’ instead of a copper one from the Tibetan merchant across the road, even though it might be several times more expensive. At this stage, ‘Wisdom Light’ only sells products, not having yet expanded to offer courses.

One could ask, is the NAM suitable for China?  The experience in Taiwan and Hong Kong, similar cultures to that of China, suggests so.  In Taiwan one can purchase a wide range of New Age books at the most mainstream of outlets.  But if we shift the focus back to Yonghegong Street, then perhaps we might reconsider the NAM’s short term prospects in China.

China’s thawing religious landscape offers hints. Ten years ago Yonghegong Street might well have looked considerably different.  It was only in 2002 that the Beijing Religious Regulations were amended to allow fortune tellers and palm readers to be considered as ‘cultural heritage’, rather than feudal superstition[4].  While these businesses are now ubiquitous, it was not that long ago, certainly during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, that they would have been more difficult to find.  Now packaged as ‘cultural heritage’, palmistry and the like might not seem so alien to the average Chinese citizen.  And it is making this cultural connection that foreign religious groups in China must do.  As long as something is seen as alien, its relevance will be questioned and acceptance will be slow, if at all.  Christian and Catholic missionaries in China have long recognized this.  The NAM is no different.  To take hold in China, the new ideas that the NAM encompasses and how entrepreneurs promulagate them will have to be adapted to Chinese society.  Translating some of the available texts into simplified Chinese might be a good start.

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[1] Lorne L. Dawson.  Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements.  Oxford University Press. Toronto. 1998. Page 191.

[2] Lee, Raymond L. M., The reenchantment of the self, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 18:3, 351-367, 2003.

[3] Chen, Shu-Chuan and Beckford, James A., Parallel glocalization: the New Age in Taiwan, page 3 (available online)

[4] Chan, Kim-Kwok and Carlson, Eric R., Religious Freedom in China, Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, 2005, 15.

 

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
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.

Website: twitter.com/paul_farrelly

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