What’s Behind China’s Religious Resurgence?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The vast populace of China is experiencing a new purchasing power fueled by changing economic policies. Meanwhile, China watchers are reporting another lifestyle shift in the world’s third largest country: the resurgence of organized religion. James Carter, Ph.D., professor of history and director of the international relations program at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, says this phenomenon is a legacy of the opening and liberalization of China that began after Mao Tse Dong, Supreme Leader of the communist nation, died in 1976.

According to Carter, there are two different phenomena at work in the current religious resurgence. “Individual interest in religion appears to be growing dramatically. The reasons for this, I think, are not very different from the reasons organized religions ever grow: people are seeking to fill a spiritual void in their life or are looking to find a social community, or may be trying to connect to a cultural or family tradition.”

The decline of communism as a living ideology has left many people searching for something to provide meaning, Carter says. “The state formally espouses capitalism and advocates very capitalistic policies. This undermines the credibility of the government, and people have turned to religion to take the place of the state at the center of their lives.”

The second is tied to China’s huge economy. “There is a desire for tourist dollars and putting a nice face forward,” Carter says. “Religious sites across China – mainly Buddhist and Daoist temples – have been rehabilitated and are being promoted as important tourist destinations for both domestic and foreign visitors. This has increased the prominence of many of these institutions, which has also encouraged the interest in religion.”

Carter is the author of Heart of Buddha, Heart of China (Oxford University Press), a book that chronicles the life of Tanxu, a 20th century Buddhist monk who founded Buddhist temples throughout China before the Communist Party came to power. “Tanxu believed that Buddhism would provide a strong moral foundation for the country during this turbulent period in its history,” Carter says. “It is interesting that many of the same principles that are at work in the current revival of religion – mainly Buddhism – were at work in the earlier 20th century revival.”

Media Contact

An expert in 20th century China, Carter has lived and traveled widely there. He is the chief editor of the journal Twentieth-Century China. He can be reached for comment at jcarter@sju.edu, 610-660-1988, or by calling the Office of University Communications at 610-660-3240.

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