Blog | June 2018

Workshop on “Chinese Religions in the Age of Massive Urbanization”

by Jie Kang

The Religious Diversity department organized a workshop on “Chinese Religions in the Age of Massive Urbanization” on 6th and 7th of June. International scholars working from different disciplines such as such sociology, anthropology, sinology, history and theology were invited to consider how urbanization and religions constitute each other and the implications of broad changes resulting from urbanization and the dynamics of religion.

The workshop had three panels organized around three themes:

  1. Urbanization and Religious Governance
  2. Urbanization and Religious Transformation
  3. Identity, Mobility and Urban Religiosity

Different from other countries where urbanization is regarded as part of a natural process of modernization, China’s urbanization is a state-led and engineered project. In many ways religious activity, discourse, organization and even its spaces are formed, affected and confined by the state’s policy, which creates a unique social and political environment for religious transformation. Gareth Fisher vividly showed that four-stages in the evolution of a Buddhist temple in Beijing correspond with Chinese political and economic changes over the last 45 years. The relationship between church/religious institution and state is politically and historically entirely different from that of western society. As Peter van der Veer has suggested, religion can therefore be “a lens” through which we can analyse the consequences of the interaction of state policy and social life in cities that has largely been neglected bysocial scientists who work on cities in China.

All papers looked at the interaction of religion and urbanization over time, either historically or within recent changes. Key to some of the presentations was the role of Chinese state policy. On the one hand the state has for some decades promoted a program of massive, regulated urbanization of its citizens. On the other hand it has established, especially in cities, tight rules regarding religious expression in an attempt to keep existing and new religious organizations under its control. A major concern was to consider local religious reactions to such state regulation in the context of urbanization. Basing his analysis on texts detailing state discourse on and church responses to urbanization, Fredrik Fällman asked whether the recently emerged “Reformed” church can be regarded as reforming Chinese Christianity through Sinicization, with a good intention of transforming people and society in the face of state-sponsored urbanization. Looking at the control of political regulation and surveillance, Liza Wing Man Kam described how Japanese colonists in Taiwan from about 1871 shifted the focus of Shinto shrines from worshipping local deities to their function in strategically planned city locations of expressing religious loyalty to the emperor and the nation. The urban effects of such policies are evident in Taiwan today. Pursuing the theme among Protestant Christians that religious regulatory frameworks arise in urban contexts, McLeister showed how religious specialists and lay people have had to develop ways of negotiating the new regulations, resulting in religious sites that are less likely to be regarded by officialdom as permanent.

The Chinese state has constantly been attempting to control different faiths and religion right after the Communist party took over the country in 1949. However, as Wang Xiaoxuan indicated in his paper, a new Chinese governance of religion has been emerging recently, which has shifted from an ideological-orientated approach to one based more on economics and the financial accountability of religious sites. The new Chinese governance of religion seeks greater convergence or standardization of different faiths into manageable ‘religious units’ in order to better control religion. State power thus penetrates religious organizations through new rules and regulations to monitor their properties. Many religious spaces used to be rural and now have become new urban areas, and so have to follow the new urban planning regulations. This brings religious organizations and government into dispute, particularly over temples and churches, which were once rural and need to confront the tremendous changes of urbanization and the possible appropriation of their sites and land. There is moreover huge variation between towns and cities regarding rights to religious property. That is often where disputes arise as reported in Liu Jifeng's paper, where a decades-long struggle to recover rights in a Buddhist temple was successful through the use of communist revolutionary discourse and the influence of overseas Chinese “qiaoxiang”.

Like Mark Mcleister, Christ White showed that often there is negotiation and flexibility at the local level. While the state itself is a complex configuration of regulations, rules and bureaucratic hierarchy, in actual interaction with locals there is both overlap and conflict of interests. After all, the state is run by people. The giant Chinese communist bureaucracy is run by individual government officers who implement the rules but may themselves be believers of a particular religion. In fact, as Jie Kang documents, the Calvinist house church movement goes out of its way to discourage opposition to the government and even argues that the CCP is God-given and should therefore be respected. Calvinist opposition is rather against theological liberalism and Islam. Chris While illustrates moreover that the major conflict and struggle is not necessarily against government but may occur among locals themselves over social issues.

Overall, religious institutions or individuals have reacted to the Chinese state’s recent stricter regulation of religion by developing new strategies, resulting according to Mcleister’s case in a more minimalist and mobile approach to officially-recognized sites for religious activities. This the same strategy that House churches and other household-based religions have been practicing for decades. Is Chinese religion continuing to become more informal, hidden and household based?

Although the rural-urban dichotomy is used in various papers (Huang Jianbo, Jie Kang) in analyzing religious transformation in the urbanization process, the problem of defining the boundary between rural and urban was often addressed. It is difficult to define where city ends and where rural area starts. On one hand, the rapid urbanization, which is called “overnight urbanization” by Robert Weller, turns the former agricultural land into urban space by building massive rows of apartment complexes within an extremely short time. The people who used to live in a “rural” area are suddenly relocated in high-rise buildings located on exactly the same spot as their original residency and yet they suddenly become “urban inhabitants”. To what extent can they then be recognized as urbanites? In some areas, “urban villages” have emerged because the area and its inhabitant have not kept up with the pace of urbanization and remain economically backward living in what may sometimes be called “Chinese urban slums”. Huang Jianbo uses the term “urban returnees” to refer to second-generation urban migrant Christians who have decided to go back to their home village and set up a new church in imitation of their urban church. The process he describes is thus a transformation from “rural” church in the cities to “urban” church in rural villages. Looked at dynamically, the rural-urban distinction is thus much more complex than that of a simple dichotomy.

It has been argued that urban is modern and therefore less religious. However, it is evident that religion is in fact thriving and growing in Chinese urban areas. Spirit mediums are increasing, new forms and objects of temple worship are emerging (Weller), more church buildings are constructed, religious membership is growing (White), professional religious specialist or clergy are more widely found, and religious knowledge is imported, restored and transmitted (Kang). Religion has become an important means of bonding people in cities where “strangers meet”. Through a comparative study of three waves of Chinese migrants coming at different times and to different countries, Alex Chow argues that they embraced evangelicalism because it offers existential and material resources to deal with the struggle of adapting to their new homes. He further suggests use of the term, “Chinese evangelicalism” to indicate its unique characteristics and its difference from American and European versions. Moreover, as Fan Lizhu suggests, religion as social capital may function as a means of helping rural migrants adapt to urban life. Based on a case study of a Christian fellowship in Shanghai, Chen Na shows how a Christian community provides refuge for “uprooted” rural migrants by constructing a new identity for them while preserving their old one. Urban religious institutions thus partly replace the former Danwei Work Unit by dealing with people’s everyday life problems arising from difficulties of marriage and parenting, the work ethic, joblessness and homelessness (Kang). Also, spirit mediums and members of religious households provide physical and psychological healing for their believers (Fan). Moreover, Robert Weller shows that, in southern Jiangsu, new, flexible forms and objects of religious worship have developed despite the fact that territorially-based religion has become untenable in the rapid urbanization process. Fan Lizhu also indicates how, under such urban conditions, new religious movements increasingly attract migrants.

Robert Weller suggests recasting the rural-urban dichotomy in terms of that of Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft, coined by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, which distinguished respectively two main kinds of social ties: 1. Personal social interaction 2. Indirect interaction. Max Weber further argued that Gemeinschaft is rooted in “subjective feeling” while Gesellschaft is rooted in “rational agreement by mutual consent”, such as in a commercial contract. This leads to a proposed contrast of tendencies between emotionally based religiosity in rural areas and that of rationality in urban contexts. As evident in Huang Jianbo and Jie Kang’s papers, there is indeed a contrast: rural Pentecostal-like Christianity emphasizes prayer, the recognition of miracles, the power to physically heal, and feeling and being moved by the presence of God, while urban Christianity embraces theology and biblical doctrine and expects adherents to undergo an incremental process of rationalization, professionalization, and institutionalization through various education and training programs. As Huang Jianbo puts it, the migrant experiences “intellectual torment” in the rural-urban transition. Nevertheless, we may ask whether this is true also for Chinese popular religion, which is deeply embedded in family and social life and has no formal institutional structure like a church. C. K. Yang attempts to capture this difference by differentiating “institutional religion” from “diffused religion”. The latter is deeply involved in secular social institutions, transactions and networks, while the former functions as a separate institution. Anna Sung suggests the generalization that Chinese religion is socially embedded and so is rather invisible largely hidden despite being rich and diverse and greatly used in everyday life.

In general, the workshop is one of the first to analyze closely the relationship in China of religion to the current issue of rapid and extensive urbanization. More precisely targeted researches are needed on the implications of state-engineered urbanization and the creation of rules to regulate religious activity and organization.


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