Things are seldom what they seem in China: Religions and China’s Creative Power Featured

by on Monday, 05 January 2015 Comments

There are many Chinas – from isolated, struggling mountain communities to the communities of connected urbanites who live in futuristic landscapes. But there might be only two ways of looking at China, and both are right on their own terms.

On the one hand, engaging with Chinese realities sometimes overwhelms an observer who is struck most forcefully by the apparent homogeneity of the country. Unequal levels of regional economic development hardly mask an impression of sameness to life across China. The systematic formatting of modes of thought, urban planning and consumer habits necessarily leads one to lament the fact that sustainability and cultural diversity have been sacrificed as the price of quantitative growth and state-sponsored values and discourse. The gloom generated by looking at uniform skylines may then lead the observer to nurture a deep pessimism about the human future of China.

On the other hand, immersed into day-to-day Chinese life as I am, I often marvel at the ingenuity of a society that continuously renews the "practices of everyday life" as Michel de Certeau famously called them. Starting and maintaining social networks (both real and virtual) so as to build supportive communities, nurturing local art scenes, supplementing the state's deficiencies when it comes to take care of older people or bettering one's neighborhood, taking advantage of every educational opportunity... Such endeavors and many others translate into personal and collective tactics in which ordinary people engage with seemingly endless energy and creativity.

Gloomy skylines belie what happens at ground level. The more I enter into China, the more I feel impressed by the way Chinese people and the society they make renew themselves through ever evolving grassroots endeavors.

Religious vitality is far from being the sole expression and motor of a burgeoning society. But one should not underestimate how much it contributes to it. Its expressions are manifold: volunteers regroup in the compounds of Buddhist temples both for organizing workshops and charity events; in Shantou (Guangdong Province), a popular religion fellowship is revived for taking care of funerals in a way more sensitive to the grieving than the ones provided by state-sanctioned rituals; in various cities, mosques have become centers for professional training; and as Protestant and Catholic networks proliferate beyond control, they can come to define the full reach of the social life of their most devoted members.

As long as such vitality remains limited in numbers and in public expression, the State remains neutral. It may even start to favor these developments when the goals of local communities are congruent with official strategies, as it is most often the case.

Problems occur when social movements become far too conspicuous and autonomous. Such is the case in Zhejiang province, and especially in Wenzhou city, where the growth of Christianity has taken Korea-like proportions. The campaign to demolish crosses and sometimes even entire churches that occurred in 2014 needs this context for its interpretation: limits had to be enforced in a way that left no place for ambiguity about who is in charge.

However, in 2014, Christmas celebrations have supplied even more testimonies to both the popular appeal and organizational strength of Christianity. Far more than in preceding years, crowds at services, concerts and other events testify to its popularity – even if the reasons for such popularity remain debated, with the spiritual, the exotic and the taste for all things fun and fashionable mixing in varying degrees.

Not surprisingly, adverse reactions came from various sectors, especially in the Ministry of Education that is anxious to see that youth Chinese do not to embrace "foreign" festivals, but also from intellectuals advocating cultural nationalism. However, these sorts of reactions were not as common or notable as sometimes reported in the Western medias.

The directions in which Chinese society and culture are presently moving remain hard to assess. What is certain is that, from now on, their very creativity make them both unpredictable and, ultimately, uncontrollable.

Photo by Liang Zhun

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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