Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On first read, I thought this article must be fake, because there's no way a Chinese official would go so far "off the reservation" as to say religion can be a force for good in China. However, one must understand the Chinese art of rhetoric. In any controversial issue, the Chinese typically lead with what a nod to they DON'T believe, as a way to be polite, and to disarm opposition.

In essay-writing, it's considered rude — almost barbaric — to have a clear thesis statement and defend it in a linear way. Rather, polite Chinese writers circle around an issue within the envelope of acceptable beliefs, occasionally nudging gently in one direction, and the reader is expected to figure out the author's thesis by understanding those elegant little deviations from standard views.

It is true, as I've seen in my teaching, that more Chinese are thinking about religion than I had expected before I came here. My wife's 94 year-old grandfather is a devout Christian who scratches out long passages from the Bible in beautiful Chinese characters on any scrap of paper or cardboard he can find. Many Chinese students seek out Westerners for information about Christianity, while others are turning to such traditionally Chinese belief systems as Taoism and Buddhism. Islam is strong in China's western provinces, and the guys who run the barbecue stands on sidewalks all over Dalian are mostly Muslims from those areas. (Supposedly, though, their version of Islam is very relaxed, and only the government's suppression has led them to become more overt about their religious identity. I don't know for sure about that.)

In sum, religion is on the rise in this country. So why? And what does Minister Wang intend to tell us about it?

The question of Chinese modernity has been: what went wrong? How did China fall so far from its position at the zenith of human culture, which it held through most of its history?

While I personally view the lack of religious belief as one of China's strengths, I can't fault a young Chinese student for thinking perhaps this is what brought China down. This is a common view among those who are turning to Christianity for answers.

Others complain that China under Mao lost its way. The old Chinese value systems were destroyed, traditional culture cannibalized. Thus I have a number of students who have turned to Taoism and Buddhism to form their value-identities.

Note also that the Minister's comments dealt with religion and superstition. Religion, per se, does not entail superstition. What the Minister was cautioning against was superstition, and I actually tend to agree.

All religions involve some form or other of superstition ("this wafer will turn into the body of Christ," or "I believe a man 2000 years ago walked on water"), but a particular religious believer may not have integrated that superstitious belief into his or her thinking. They may be very rational/scientific all week long, then they go into Church on Sunday and talk about a guy walking on water, and that's just a fun story to them. They don't really think in superstitious terms on a daily basis.

So I would say that, although the West is the seat of Christianity, and Americans in particular are largely religious, superstition is very low in the West. In China, on the other hand, superstition is quite normal even as overt religious belief is small. So if I were somehow to be named head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, what would I do? Probably much the same as Wang Zaoan.

Superstition is rife here, without any particular religious basis.

As I've mentioned before, the germ theory of disease has not penetrated the Chinese day-to-day thought process. If you get sick to your stomach, the Chinese are likely to tell you it's because you drank cold water. If you catch a cold, it's because you slept with the window open.

On the other hand, it's completely normal for someone to make a giant, demonstrative HOAWRCH sound and spit a massive loogie on the sidewalk. It's completely normal for someone to cough, open-mouthed, right out into your face while you're in a public space. It's perfectly normal for someone to sneeze on you. Some people might object, but their objection is seen as being in terms of wen ming — politeness — not the potential for deadly infection.

And yet, when there's a limited outbreak of disease, such as the last couple of bird-flu outbreaks, the Chinese collapse into paranoid solipsism.

Once, when I'd first come to China, I traveled with what I now recognize as a foolish level of unpreparedness — I'd planned to book hotels along the way, which is not usually possible in China at holiday time — but I lucked out, because there was an outbreak of some form of the sniffles which kept the Chinese cloistered in their family homes. In fact, I got some of the best deals I've ever seen on Chinese hotels and travel packages.

So when the government spokesperson in charge of religion says religion "could be a force for good in... China," take that as his initial sop to the religious among his audience. He doesn't really mean that religion could be a force for good, he means that he doesn't plan to crack down on religion at this moment.

Then when he says specifically that the government needs to help people "scientifically" deal with "birth, aging, sickness and death, as well as fortune and misfortune" he's naming precisely those areas in which the Chinese public are the most superstitious.

People will tell you straight-out that if you want to have a boy child (which all Chinese do), you should conceive on this-or-that-day of this-or-that month. If you were born in the year of the this-and-that, you will live to be 100. If you were unlucky this year, it's because you got married on an inauspicious date. Etc.

Note that the foreign reporter immediately wanted to "cut to the chase," such as "what happens after the exiled spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism the Dalai Lama dies, testy relations with the Vatican, or controls of Muslims in the restive Xinjiang region in the west." But to the Chinese, these are stupid and impertinent questions. They don't cover what matters. What matters is that the official in charge of religion has reassured the people that they can follow their religion (as long as it's officially sanctioned), and he has warned people about superstition.

So here's a classic case of "East meets West." The Chinese haven't yet quite gathered the nerve to tell us foreigners to F' off, but they're just about ready to do so.


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