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Christianity and China’s “Religious Ecology”

In China, the study of religion as an academic discipline has been gaining momentum in recent years. Centers and institutes for the study of religion have been established at numerous top-tier Chinese universities. You can find a list of several of these organizations and samples of their scholarship in English at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and Global Affairs. As research on religion in China grows, indigenous theories regarding the role of religion in Chinese society and culture are also being constructed and debated. This post introduces one particular theoretical framework of note, the “religious ecology” model.

Chinese scholars of religion have articulated their own framework for engaging religious change through the lens of religious ecology. Two of the leading scholars of this framework are Zhongjian Mou and Xiaoyi Chen. Mou and Chen recognize religions exist and operate within larger sociocultural contexts that can determine the nature of a religion’s expression and ends. For Mou and Chen, what is most important for understanding religious change is the religion’s relationship with the sociocultural ecology that surrounds it. Chen explains his theoretical and methodological position in this way:

In my study, [religious ecology] . . . mainly covers the relationship among religions, the relations between religions and their social environments, relations among believers within religions, relations between religious believers and their social environment, as well as the relations among religious elements within the individual psychological make up of religious believers and the relations between religious elements and their individual ideational environment (Clart 2013, 194).

In other words, Chen seeks to study the way religions operate within a greater ecology of social environments and individual psychologies. Religions do not contain a distinctive essence so much as they carry within them the sociocultural goals and individual hopes and desires of its believers. In the case of China’s religious ecology, Mou and Chen believe Chinese culture is especially suited to fostering a peaceful harmony amongst different religious worldviews—a distinctly Chinese formulation of religious pluralism.

Of particular note for Christians is the way the religious ecology model critiques the rise of Christianity in contemporary China. When China began its economic reforms in the 1980s, Christianity also saw a marked increase in many rural areas. By the 2000s, the rapid spread of Christianity was also becoming an increasingly urban phenomenon. Many wondered how a religion so foreign to traditional Chinese spiritual sensibilities could experience so great an increase in so short a time. Seeking to make sense of this dynamic, Zhongjian Mou presented the first formulation of religious ecology in 2009 on the premise that China’s indigenous religio-cultural ecology had been thrown off balance by wrongheaded religious policies that drove out traditional forms of religious culture. Mou argues that past Mao-era policies created a vacuum of values and ritual, setting the stage for an exclusivist religious tradition like Christianity to take root and grow:

One reason for the enormous growth of Protestantism in the last 30 years lies in the following circumstance: previously, the various forms of polytheistic popular belief tended to limit the development of Protestantism. Later, ceaseless efforts were made to stamp out popular religion. In this way, religious ecology was thrown out of balance and obstacles to the vigorous development of Christianity in the sphere of belief were cleared out of the way . . .  One important strategic task for the future social and cultural building up of Chine is to re-establish, under the guidance of the system of the socialist core values, the equilibrium of a diverse and harmonious ecology of religious culture (Gaenssbauer 2015, 87).

For Mou, a traditional Chinese religious culture is “characterized internally by its harmony and emphasis on morality, and externally by its positive role in promoting religious dialogue and preserving world peace” (Clart 2013, 189). This culture is best expressed in the ways the three teachings of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism managed to blend and operate seamlessly in the everyday lives of Chinese persons.

Mou perceives Christianity, on the other hand, as an exclusivist religion birthed from a religious culture obsessed with social domination and unity of thought. Evidence for this position has been gathered from ethnographic studies of inter-religious relations in Chinese village communities. For example, Zhijun Liu’s 2007 study of spirit mediums in Zhangdian village revealed an explicit conflict where a spirit medium accuses local Christians of being responsible for the spread of diseases in the community because of their refusal to provide sacrifices to local deities (Gaenssbauer 2015, 89-90). Xiaoyi Chen’s 2008 study of Qingyan village reports another incident of conflict from the perspective of Christians who gathered to hear their pastor preach against the ritual practices employed during the very important Ghost Festival taking place that day (Gaenssbauer 2015, 90).

For Mou, Christianity’s opposition to popular practices that have found ways to integrate Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian beliefs is evidence of Christianity’s incompatibility with China’s religious ecology. The goal of religious ecology scholarship, therefore, is to provide the evidence necessary to remove state persecution of popular beliefs and rituals, thereby bringing back a degree of balance to China’s indigenous religious ecology. Mou goes so far as to actually advocate for state policies that will promote popular belief systems, believing China’s distinctive sense of religious plurality serves as “an inexhaustible treasure store enhancing China’s cultural competitiveness and soft power” (Clart 2013, 189).

Christianity is not the sole culprit in the degradation of China’s religious ecology, however. Xiaoyi Chen places equal blame for this disequilibrium with the Chinese elites who have long ignored grassroots religion: “Popular religion enjoys no appropriate status in the construction of the religious eco-system in China. It is often described as ‘feudalistic superstition’. . . For so long as popular religion continues to receive no recognition our understanding of religion as a phenomenon which affects very many people will not be sufficiently profound” (Gaenssbauer 2015, 88).

Chen laments the irony of Chinese disdain for indigenous Chinese religious beliefs, tracing them to an inferiority complex inflicted by nineteenth century colonial powers. Framed as an urgent need to recalibrate China’s religious eco-system, the study of popular beliefs and popular religion is thus set against both party-line polemics of religion as superstition and exclusivist conceptions of Christian religion as the only real truth.

This post has introduced some basic ideas in Chinese academic discourse and the conception of religious ecology. Scholars like Mou and Chen believe this position’s support for popular forms of religious belief and practice stands against both Christian and Marxist exclusivism, arguing for a religious pluralism they believe to be more consistent with the lived reality of Chinese people.

Chinese Christians would do well to consider the challenges issued by the Chinese religious ecology perspective.  On the one hand, the theory supports the positive role spirituality and religious life play in Chinese culture and society, pushing against traditional communist policies that label religions as superstitious.  On the other hand, the position still views Christianity as a divisive and foreign presence that disturbs the pragmatic and harmonious orientation of popular beliefs and practices. 

In light of these critiques, Chinese Christians would do well to re-assess the ways their ministries speak of, and to, practitioners of other faith traditions—seeking a posture of dialogue as witness instead of confrontation. Given the increasing religious diversity of contemporary Chinese society, a contextually appropriate Chinese Christian theology of religions capable of forming positive inter-religious relationships is vital. This is especially important when it comes to fostering stronger support for religious freedom in society as a whole. Chinese Christians cannot argue for more openness for their own faith while simultaneously engaging in sustained polemics against others.  In short, Christians must show skeptical scholars that the presence of Christ is not one of exclusivity and rigidity, but of love and grace that can bring an even greater harmony to China’s social, cultural, and religious landscape.

For more on the Chinese religious ecology model, see:

  • Clart, Philip. 2013. “ ‘Religious Ecology’ as a New Model for the Study of Religious Diversity in China.” Religious Diversity in Chinese Thought. Edited by Perry Schmidt-Leukel and Joachim Gentz. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 187-199
  • Gaenssbauer, Monika. 2015. Popular Belief in Contemporary China: a Discourse Analysis. Bochum/Freiburg: Projekt Verlag.
Easten Law

Easten Law

Easten Law is the Assistant Director for Academic Programs at the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary (OMSC@PTS). His research focuses on lived theology, public life, and religious pluralism in contemporary China. He completed his PhD at Georgetown University, an MDiv at Wesley Theological Seminary, and an MA …View Full Bio

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