For a half century, China has been led by a government that is avowedly atheist, and by extension that is how many in the rest of the world think of Chinese culture. We explore the fascinating story of China's ancient and now reemerging landscape of reverence and ritual. Our guest, anthropologist and filmmaker Mayfair Yang, says — provocatively — that modern China gleaned some of its dismissive attitudes towards its own religious traditions from the West.
China's Ancient and Abiding Pluralism
We circled towards a program on the religious and spiritual underpinnings of Chinese culture for some time, looking for the right voice to take us into this complex territory. Mayfair Yang has the kind of perspective that makes this very educational conversation listenable — a deep scholarly knowledge of her subject, along with an imaginative and open-hearted approach to it, and a stake in it from the inside.
The news from China — even the collective learning curve Western media and culture have embarked on, initially heightened as the 2008 Beijing Olympics approached — tends to focus on China's economic boom or its human rights abuses. We look at success in China in much the same way we look at success in the United States: in economic terms. Yet there, as here, the past few decades have seen a steady resurgence of religious, spiritual, and ethical longings and practices. The larger context for understanding that — as Mayfair Yang brings into vivid relief — is a vast, diverse, and sophisticated spiritual and ritual inheritance that has been suppressed only in the last two centuries, a brief period in the sweep of China's millennia.
Mayfair Yang was raised by mainland Chinese parents in Taiwan who were not deeply religious yet observed the occasional ancestral ritual. And she did not set out to study religion in China. But, while conducting field work in a rapidly industrializing coastal area of the country, she discovered to her surprise that all of the non-governmental and voluntary organizations underpinning civil society there had some kind of religious character.
I knew far less about the ancient and abiding pluralism of China than I'm happy to admit. I knew far more about Chinese crackdowns on specific traditions, such as the Falun Gong movement, Tibetan Buddhism, and the Vatican's right to appoint bishops. And while Mayfair Yang doesn't in any way excuse or justify repression or brutality, she does help me grasp their roots and reasoning.
Her most provocative point is her suggestion that Chinese elites learned some of their most inflexible attitudes towards religion in the modern era from Western missionaries and thinkers. Contrary to the West's "easy line" about religious freedom at present, 19th-century Protestant missionaries who flooded into China after the Opium Wars taught the Chinese that their own spiritual traditions were "backward" and "superstitious." Chinese elites who looked to the West as the bearer of modernity and progress put their faith in science, social engineering, and technology. Mayfair Yang says that the upheavals that followed in the 20th century — Communism being another import from the West — created an amnesia within China and beyond about China's robust historic relationship between religions, ritual, and culture.
At the same time, and with a long view of time, she suggests the contours of a vision of how and why the Chinese people — especially the young — might move into a new kind of appropriation, even embrace, of their own spiritual inheritance. Some of this embrace, she says, could be seen in how religious and secular Chinese confronted the loss of life during the catastrophic earthquake in the Sichuan province this past May.
Mayfair Yang continues to follow the revival of ancient and modern religiosities — including those which are ricocheting back to the mainland now as ties grow with a freer Taiwan. The Chinese possess abundant resources for healing — and models for a different kind of "progress" — as their own culture and the rest of the world encounter the limits of science and commerce that the 21st century is revealing. This conversation with Mayfair Yang is not an exhaustive exploration of that, but it does provide contours of insight — and refined curiosity and questions — that will imprint my own learning curve about China in the years to come.
And, as a footnote, Mayfair Yang explained to me why the 2008 Beijing Olympics began on the eighth day of the eight month of the eighth year at 8:08:08 pm. Listen, and you can know too.