Mayfair Yang —
China's Hidden Spiritual Landscape

A filmmaker and scholar gives us a parallel story to the ubiquitous news of China's economy and politics. Mayfair Yang discusses the ancient and reemerging traditions of reverence and ritual — revealing background to its approach to Tibet. And, she tells us how China gleaned some of its recent dismissive attitudes towards religion from the West.

Share Episode

Shortened URL


is Director of the East Asia Center at the University of California in Santa Barbara. She has produced two films about China and is the author of Chinese Religiosities: Afflictions of Modernity and State Formation.

Pertinent Posts


Krista's conversation with Nicole Mones about Chinese cuisine as a necessary means of building connectedness.

About the Image

Survivors flee on a military ferry three days after an earthquake struck southwestern China on May 12, 2008.

Photo by Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images

Episode Sponsor

Share a Reflection



I think of amnesia as forgetting where you came from, and how you got from the forgotten "there" to where you are today. My tradition of origin is Roman Catholic, and I feel there's a collective amnesia when I think about the story of the historical Jesus on one hand, and then the present life of the Vatican City State on the other. How did we get from the one to the other? Do we even know? Can we admit what we know, or don't know?

My discouragement with what the Roman Catholic tradition has become, has prompted me to study other spiritual traditions and other cultural stories, and find some intellectual and spiritual nourishment in these many other places. The Taoist tradition of China has been one of my "favorites" of the various traditions I have studied recently. And so, I was delighted to hear some references to Taoism, even just briefly, in Krista's program this week. I hope that Speaking of Faith will do a whole episode on Taoism some day. I think that Taoist author Solala Towler would be a great person whom Krista could interview for a discussion of Taoism.

Two things that I really like about taoism -- (1) It is one of the very few spiritual traditions which does not anthropomorphize the divine reality. The intellectual and spiritual implications of intentionally resisting the common human tendency to anthropomorphize the divine ... are profound. And, (2) it is a tradition which honors the mystery of the quietness of the divine. Not silence ... but quietness. Other religions are focused on divine words, chosen prophets and sacred texts -- all words upon words. Taoism, on the other hand, truly appreciates, honors, and reflects upon the quietness of the divine. A fresh perspective!

My name is Hector Garfias, I am Mexican. I am a descendant of the first Lutehran families that started missions in Mexico, in the late 30s and earli 40s. I am, I believe, teh product, of a complex inter-relation and encounter of the protestan (pietist branch of teh Lutheran tradition) Christian faith with the predominantely and many times opppressing Roman -Catholic church in Mexico.
When I wa slistening the yor interview, I almost could see myself as Mayfair described the way the pietistic protestan groups tried to eradicate anything taht looked/sounded/smelled Roman-Catholic, among which they erased any cultural and popular spirituality. I grew up in a church that had to react to the tremendus oppresion and discrimination (and sometimes persecution)from some Roman-Catholic groups. The best way to do it was to forget and even consider diabolic any celebration or ritual done bt the Roman-Catholic church. Liturgical rites, and cultural and popular expressions of faith and spiritual life were seen as the work of the devil. The day of the dead, as you may know is a sincretistic tradition among Mexicans. There are elements of the native Mexica culture and the Christian faith brought by the Spaniards. I was never ever able to celebrate it and to even ask about it. I was thought to dismiss it and to dispaise it. I finaly able to revisit it and lear about it in my 30s. As today, I do regret that I ddi not havs an opportunity to expereince, wrestle, and discern about it.
Today, I know that our cultural roots are a gift and thaty give us an identity that help us to see ourselves of the world and of a greater reality as Christians.
My wife is Taiwanese, we have many Chinese Christian friends, as we have visited their congrfegtions we havenoticed that the have almost nothing that reflects their cultural origins. A Chinese female woman who is a dear friend of us, told me once that thei pastor did not even allowed them to have a lion dance becausethey are the devil's work. So that congregation only way to express their culture is to worship in Chinese. Their sanctuary is more like an Anglo protestant/evangelical setting than a Chinse faith community. They dismiss and despise anyhing that could look like non-Christian. It ibreaks my hart when I see that there is not even a conversation about it, the conversation is shut down.
For many years I experience that 'amnesia" in my spiritual and cltural traditons, I believe my wife and I are trying to find ways to re-visit those spiritual and cultural traditions which can strengthen our Christian faith. We beliee that we are to accept that we have a God taht is greater than our intellect and our narrow understanding of the world and God's relation with the world.
I wish I could have had that opportnity to learn more about my spiritual and cultural traditions when I was younger, but life is life... As for now I hope i will be able to bring back that original traditions and look at them in a new way and celebrating that gift from God.

I've have never heard your show before today. I listened for about two minutes before I said to myself 'it is Bush's fault'. I was right! Mayfair Yang blamed Bush. Amazing!

Hi Krista -- Just listed to your interview with Mayfair Yang ---- I was a student of Dr. Joel Kupperman, author of many books on Asian ethics, philosophy, etc. at the Univ. of Connecticut: Would love to have you interview him -- he was one of the 'original quiz kids' -- a genius, Oxford graduate, one of the most influential people in my life -- Barbara Carder

I enjoy Krista Tippett's radio program, "Speaking of Faith." I am wondering if Krista has interviewed any philospher, theologian, scientist, neuroscientist, psychiatrist, psychologist, monk, priest, or a guru who has looked at the evolving notion of human spirituality in the twenty-first century from the perspective of the emerging theory of "neuroplasticity." These days brain researchers, scientists, neuroscientists and physicians are meeting in world forums, conferences, and conventions dealing with the subject of "neuroplasticity." This is going to have bearings on everything that have known ourselves to have been since the dawn of human civilization. Genetics has not been the only force that has brought us to this level of growth and civilization. In fact, scientists tell us that there is not a single gene among 25,000 genes in the human gene pool that predisposes humans to acquire and master skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic. It is the brain's design of plasticity, and its ability at adaptation, organization and reorganization that enabled our ancestors to invent reading, writing, and arithmetic 5,400 years ago. Alphabets were invented just about 3,800 years ago.

Suddenly it dawned on me this morning as I was listening to Krista's interview with Mayfair Yang, on "China's Hidden Spiritual Landscape," especially when Yang said that the "secular thesis" is dead in our times.The educated scientific-secular mind of the twenty-first century has created newer problems for humanity like ecocide, biocide, and geocide leave alone not being able to solve the problems of suicide, homicide and genocide.

This question has haunted me for past seven years. I have just published my second book, "Spiritual Intelligence and The Neuroplastic Brain: A Contextual Interpretation of Modern History." People of good intention and intelligence may agree or disagree with what I have written, but surely this subject matter is going to capture the attention of many thinking people in future. I suggest "Speaking of faith" take a look at this subject.

Charles Mark

Your interviewer insisted on using the word "religiosity" when almost always the correct word would have been "religion." This undermines confidence in the competence of the interview process. --Or perhaps, taking her cue from the anti-religion sophisticates, the pejorative "religiosity" IS TAKEN TO BE the underlying truth of religion qua religion. Of course, there's always the possibility of illiteracy: after all, "off" is now in ordinary speech a synonym for very many, many prepositions, including "ON". (I base this claim off of hearing and reading many thousands of such sentence heard on campus by both students and faculty.)

During her purported survey of religion in China, I waited for Mayfair Yang to speak to one of the most momentous events in Chinese history, which has colored the attitudes of the Chinese social and political leadership toward religion to the present day. As anyone who knows Chinese history, including presumably Yang, is aware, the Taiping Rebellion, 1850-1864, was spearheaded by a messianic leader who, inspired by an American missionary, portrayed himself as "Jesus's younger brother." His movement attempted to seize power by force, occupying major cities in China. When the rebellion finally ended, between 20 and 30 million people were dead. It was arguably the bloodiest civil war in world history. It is no wonder that China's political leaders have a prejudice against what they regard as cults, no matter how innocuous they may seem to Westerners; for the Chinese know their history, especially such a recent and shattering history as Taiping . Yang's omission of Taiping, in discussing Chinese attitudes regarding religion, is like omitting The War Between the States, in a discussing slavery in America. If not dishonest -- the attempt of a pseudo-scholar advocate to cherry-pick her facts -- then it is grossly incompetent, as is your failure of preparation. (Competent interviewers read up on their subjects.) In any case, the omission thoroughly discredits your program.

My name is Mr. Kevin Ragins I was raised in a Baptist home which is a sect of the Christian faith. My mother forced my brother and I to go to church as young child.In my younger days I wasn't as versed about my religion as I now am. I really didn't understand it totally, now that I am an adult I have a greater understanding of the whole concept of my religion. I'm not saying that I know it all. However I have a better understanding of my faith. Furthermore after listening to this video and understanding the direction they are coming from dealing with faith has given me a greater grasp on the faith concept. Mayfair Yang has also made me just look at religion from a different prospective especially in other countries. I always look at things from one point of view which was my personal view and I believed that, this way of thinking has hindered my growth spiritually.