Sidestepping secularism: performance and imagination in Buddhist temples in contemporary China

Yang Shen


The project investigates Buddhist temple spaces as unique semi-public arenas in late socialist China, where the interaction between the secular and the religious takes place openly. Based on 15 months of fieldwork in East China, the project identifies and documents three stylistic forms of temple participation that are widely accessible to the public and require no prior religious commitments: (1) making wish-vows; (2) drawing efficacious lots; and (3) providing residential temple services. By revising a ritual analysis approach, the project reveals the ways in which temple participation allows diverse Chinese citizens to flexibly negotiate modernity, side-step institutional constraints in a non-confrontational way, and introduce ritual-religious momentum to their temple-going lives in a mainstream society. Theoretically, the project discusses the social conditions for creative actions, and the relationship between religious participation and state secularism. It also transcends the dichotomous paradigms of state/religion or state/society, which do not support us to understand how people relate to religious practices under the late socialist state secularism. Instead, it shows that ‘temples’, as spatial entities, can be a place for many-sided meaningful activities and an incubator for complex visions of life, outside of the conventional type-cast of sacred spaces based on institutional religious dissimilarities. This brings us to an anthropology of religion which effectively considers the making of humanity in contemporary China in a shared modern world. 

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