Blog EntriesContemporary Society

ZGBriefs The Weeks Top Picks, February 6 Issue


Our top picks this week all touch on some of the social issues that China is dealing with today: happiness, disappearing traditional culture, and the rise of volunteerism.

China's Way to Happiness (February 4, 2014, New York Review of Books)

Ian Johnson interviews Dr. Richard Madson, a scholar who studies Chinese religion about his research on happiness in China. Below are a few key "takeaways" from the interview:

On the subject of his next book:

My new research project is on searching for a good life in China in an age of anxiety. Where do they see their lives going? Where do they see China going? It's aimed at tapping into people's sense of meaning. I'm doing it with several other colleagues.

On moral anchors:

People's lives are disrupted by urbanization, economic change, and so on. There's also a collapse of Marxist ideology and a sense of dislocation. There is a need for new moral anchors.

On the relationship between unhappiness in China and religious revival:

In the reform era, the revival of religion is probably a quest to return to a normal life, to carry out normal festivals, to do things in a normal way, which always had a religious element to it in China. In China, religion has always been more about practice than about belief. You do these thingsyou sweep the graves of your ancestors because that's what you do to remain in connection with your family. People have been dislocated from their villages, but there's a sense that you have to maintain your roots. So they might go back and rebuild a temple or ancestral hall.

On whether China might become a Christian country:

If you look at the growth and project that over the next fifty or one hundred years, that would happen, but I would predict that the current trajectory will plateau out, like in Taiwan, in the range of 7 percent of the population. Maybe 10 percent. It's a guess, a hypothesis. But other things like Buddhism are becoming more popular. People will look at other things for meaning and that will crowd out Christianity.

On whether or not Christianity has failed in China:

It hasn't failed. What does success mean for a religion? Taking over the country? Or is it just becoming an accepted part of the plurality of understandings, and permanent in a sustainable way? You can definitely argue that it's like that for Christianity in China today. We're seeing new ways for people to find meaning in their lives. It's definitely changing and broadening. Christianity is part of it.

Lots to think about after reading this one!

In China, 'Once the Villages Are Gone, the Culture Is Gone' (February 1, 2014, The New York Times)

Ian Johnson writes about the loss of cultural traditions as villages are swallowed up by urbanization. The statistics he cites are staggering:

Rapid urbanization means village life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is rapidly disappearing, and with it, traditions and history.

"Chinese culture has traditionally been rural-based," says Feng Jicai, a well-known author and scholar. "Once the villages are gone, the culture is gone."

That is happening at a stunning rate. In 2000, China had 3.7 million villages, according to research by Tianjin University. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 2.6 million, a loss of about 300 villages a day.

For decades, leaving the land was voluntary, as people moved to the cities for jobs. In the past few years, the shift has accelerated as governments have pushed urbanization, often leaving villagers with no choice but to move.

"Once the villages are gone, the culture is gone." Wow!

The Rise of Volunteering in China: Transforming Cities and Personhood (January 31, 2014, Asia Pacific Memo)

In an authoritarian state, where "volunteers" tend to be appointed by the state, there is typically little room for true volunteerism. However, that is slowly beginning to change in China. Professor Lisa Hoffman, of the University of Washington writes a short, but interesting post about the rise of volunteerism in China:

In China, volunteering is reflective of two important governmental shifts: the dismantling of the command economy along with its centralized distribution of welfare provisions, and the legalization of "non-governmental" organizations across a range of fields, including poverty relief. These recent shiftsexpressions of decentralizationhave led to urban experiments in poverty alleviation, a diversification in the delivery of social services, and the acceptance of more market-based and non-state actors and organizations, such as volunteers. Spaces that used to be dominated and organized by the statesuch as poverty relief and educationare now inviting individuals to participate in new ways. Because these individuals are not necessarily familiar with those they are helping, this also means that volunteering establishes new kinds of (often cross-class) urban relationships between former "strangers."

Even though she does not touch on it in her piece, Christians in China are also a part of this new wave of volunteerism.

Image credit: Grandma waiting for dinner, by Peng Zhang, via Flickr

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is senior vice president of ChinaSource and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University... View Full Bio