• kewal sethi

china and religion

china and religion

marx said religion was opium, meant to lull deprived people into inactivity so that they could not better their lot. the communist party of china adopted this view and had little patience with the opiate of the masses.

during the mao rule an entire generation was indoctrinated to equate religion with primitive superstition. during the cultural revolution, temples and places of worship across the country were attacked, deities defaced, and innumerable cultural treasures wantonly destroyed. monks were publically paraded in the streets and flogged. those who escaped this fury were left in penury. temples were converted into godowns, granaries and schools. it was the communist party people were told to believe in and not god.

with the new order, and the prosperity the belief was that god was in banks and atm machines. a person wu renjei said, “i do not believe in capitalism, socialism and communism;  do not believe in Buddhism or taoism or any ism at all. i believe only in money“.

this was natural. it was a hard won right to make money. it could still not be taken as granted. but alongside pervasive money worship a subtle but palpable resurgence of interest in the spiritual was also emerging. it was brought into centre stage when chen xiaosu, a famous actress turned successful business woman, appeared in tonsured head in february 2007. she had become a monk. in doing so, she gave up a fortune valued at $ 25 million.

this was a government move to allow religious feelings to be brought back. in april 2006, china organized world budhhist forum in hangzhou. at the forum many senior persons from the government said that buddhism could play in promotion of ’prosperous and harmonius world’.  other than budhhism,  philosophy of saint confucius was sought to be promoted. confucious said that harmony was something to be cherished. this is what the chinese government wanted – harmony. unity, morality and respect for authority advocated by confucious and this was needed by the party and the government. in 2006 hu jin tao talked of eight honours and eight disgraces. the honour included obedience, hard work, plain living while eschewing profit at the cost of others.

was this a change of hearts? communist party has, by now, become a party for status quo, one which will allow it to continue to stay in power and to lay down the policy. dissent and disaffection were not to be tolerated. with growing prosperity, corruption was also increasing due to greed of party leaders. religion was sought to be antidote for corruption. in one particular instance in hanan province, blood was to be collected. in order to increase supplies, red blood cells were separated and injected into donors to enable them to donate more often. in one instance hiv affected blood was mixed and the result was a vast increase in hiv affected persons. when the news leaked government tried to suppress it. there were many other cases involving baby food, etc. the party thought that a bit of spiritual will set matter right.

a symbol of religion was baimasi, where two monks from india resided in ad 68 and introduced it to china. destroyed in the cultural revolution, it has now been revived. it is visited by 200 persons dally (the official figure is 4000). only five monks were left during the cultural revolution but it housed 120 in 2007.

but the party has not loosened its control over religion. heads of temples, mosques, churches are picked by the party. catholics which showed more devotion towards pope and not the party are suppressed but the protestants can continue their activity, the quasi budhhist organization like falun gong sect was ferociously suppressed. overall for the party, religion is a handy tool for control of disgruntled population.

another showpiece is  shaolin, home of special kung fu martial art. constructed in 496 a d, the temple is associated with zen budhhism. it is said that an indian monk bada by name, did tapasya in a cave near here for nine years. in between he developed the art of kung fu. a ceo is now looking after the temple. according to him, “in the past, monks depended on farming for their living. now it is by tourism“. according to him advertising and publicity was with budhhism for the last 2000 years. it became the first temple to have a web site in 1996. in 1997 he had to hire lawyers to fight trademark case. it sends disciples all over the world to teach kung fu. half of its 200 monks can speak foreign languages. english, korean and japanese are the popular languages but some are learning farsi.  in the temple itself it is difficult to come across spirituality. half of the monks are there just to learn the techniques of kung fu. shi, the abbot was also deputy to chinese parliament and was equally at home with mao and budhha. it showed that despite all the bravado, religion was still secondary to communism. according to him, chinese culture values the concept of harmony, which is quite similar to budhhist doctrine.

muslims form a small section of chinese population. they are divided in two sects – hui and uighars, uighars are in xinjiang province. hui are descendants of traders who came during the tang dynasty. over the years they mingled with han majority and were barely distinguishable. the only difference was the absence of pork from their diet. about 1.8 million hui, reside in ninxia autonomous region in gobi desert where they formed 35 % of the population,. it is one of the poorest area of china. growing business relations with the arabs and other muslim countries led to a need for persons who could act as interpreters. as such the study of arabic in the region was undertaken, the religious education was allowed as a bye product but care was taken that the imams were appointed by the state. as with the budhhist temples, mosques, destroyed during the cultural revolution, were being restored and new mosques were coming up as well. one striking feature is that there are female imams also. but there is a restriction, they cannot lead men in prayer while male imams can lead the women. the more conservatives dismiss the notion of female imams describing it as a joke and calling them teachers only. amongst the uighars, only male imams are there.

why was religion allowed to be practiced in china? the aim of mao was to have a  nation with harmony. a harmonius society is desirable so long as harmony is defined by the party. it was hoped that religion opiate will act more as a soothing salve for society’s dissatisfaction. ningxia province had 700 licensed imams and 3000 mosques. how many had unlicensed ones was not known. there were 5000 manla (young students) learning arabic and islamic doctrine part time. many of these were women. one of them remarked, “earlier we too busy to make a living. now that we are richer, we have some time to focus on spirituality“.

other provinces have ports and natural resources, we have muslims, said one official. muslims are our competitive advantage. to bolster up this advantage, government organized a massive halal food exhibition. aim was to establish connections between ningxia and the middle east. hui population with its arabic language skills and cultural affinity to islamic countries were seen as a valuable economic resource. hui tribe was exempted from one child rule (unless they worked for government).

but these contacts with islamic countries had its drawbacks. stricter ideas of islam have crept into the hui community. as an imam said, “we realised what a big gap there was between their level of understanding of islam and ours. this is finally changing and islam is being taken as functional to everyday life“. in 2004, large parts of henan province witnessed fighting between hui and han communities. also the hui are concerned about job quotas that benefited a tiny minority of the community. on the other hand han people consider hui people to be untrustworthy. the relations between the two communities is far from cordial. but still the government want peace with the hui community.

another trouble spot for religious differences was tibet. even in yunan province which borders tibet autonomous region, and where the majority of people are of tibetan ethnicity, the differences can be felt. the local area zhongdian has been renamed as shangrila in 2002 to attract the tourists. there are many persons there who have relations in india or who have visited india, often clandestinely. the tourism has given the residents material benefits and have been spared the banalities which other tibetans have faced. the desire to make profit proved more potent than any ideological consideration and efforts to maintain local tibetan culture has been stepped up. but the influence of chinese can be observed. one person, however, remarked, “the chinese think that they can bribe us into loyalty but they never can. our only loyalty is towards dalai lama“.

in tibetan autonomous region, people live in a siege. expression of cultural and religious identity is looked upon with suspicion and there is ever present threat of arrest and torture. monks and nuns were also not spared.

but things are changing there also. songazanlin temple was damaged in cultural revolution but has since been meticulously restored. freshly painted murals are there and it houses 800 monks now. entrance costs four dollars but it is thronged with visitors. though informed by an escort that abbot had lived in india for quite some time, the abbot denied it. “he has to be careful“, commented the informer.

china has built a railway track to lhasa overcoming natural obstructions. but it is more to encourage tourism than to help the tibetans though indirectly the benefits will flow to them. the han attitude to tibetans has not changed. the general idea is that they are in native outfits and likely to burst into singing and dancing at any time (much like the city bred indians who think of tribals in colourful attire singing and dancing as depicted in countless movies and the republic day parade). the winter residence of dalai lama is maintained and renovated but there is not a single photo of dalai lama therein. but the restrictions on religious worship has been loosened.

overall summing up the situation, the old communist view about religion being opium of masses which has to be eroded from the minds of the people, the party has recognised that religious rituals have their uses. the teaching of confucious about loyalty to authorities and lao tze stress on harmony is in favour of party maintaining its paternal attitudes on the people. to that extent the rituals are allowed so long it does not frown upon the supremacy of the party. it was done by the falun gong which was brutally suppressed. the government have also found religious places to be important for tourism and for earning dollars and have restored the temples and allowed visitors on payment. whether they can control the sentiments once released is a question for the future.


(the main idea of the article is from the book ’smoke mirrors’ by pallavi iyer who stayed in china for five years, first as teacher of english and later as newspaper correspondent).

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