Beijing Summit on Chinese Spirituality and Society

Hats off to all the participants in the very successful Beijing Summit on Chinese Spirituality and Society! The Summit was held on October 8-10, 2008 at Peking University and included thirty-four distinguished scholars specializing in the study of religion. The participants were from a variety of academic disciplines and from all corners of the globe: Mainland China, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, England, and the United States.  They presented invited papers and engaged in lively discussions about the theories, methods, and important topics in the social scientific study of religion in China.  The thematic sessions included the Emerging Social Scientific Study of Religion in China, the Historical Factor in Contemporary Society, Religious Pluralism in Chinese Societies, Empirical Studies of Chinese Religions and Spiritualities, Confucianism in the Modern World, Applying Contemporary Theories to Understand Religion in China, Globalization and Religion in China, Religion and the Harmonious Society, Social and Spiritual Capital in the Market Economy of China.  In addition, many other Chinese and international scholars and graduate students submitted papers, from which we selected 42 empirical studies of Chinese religions for presentation at the Summit.   These papers covered a wide range of topics and religious phenomena in various parts of China.  Together they provided a clear indication of the growing interest in the social scientific study of religion in China.  The Summit also attracted many other scholars, students, government officials, and journalists for attendance.  The People’s Daily, the Guangming Daily, and the Chinese Ethnic News reported on the Summit with an affirmative tone, and their articles were reprinted by a number of other Chinese media organizations and official websites.

The Beijing Summit was organized by the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, the Center for the Studies of Chinese Religion and Society at Peking University, and the Institute for the Studies of Buddhism and Theories of Religion at Renmin University.  The Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Pushi Institute of Social Sciences in Beijing, the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and the Department of Sociology at Tsinghua University provided various supports.

The Beijing Summit was made possible by a generous grant to Purdue University from the John Templeton Foundation (JTF).  Moreover, the JTF top leadership team attended the Summit, including President John Templeton, Jr. and his wife, Executive Senior Vice President Charles Harper, and Executive Vice President Arthur Schwartz.  Vice President of Human Sciences Kimon Sargeant was one of the organizers who oversaw the whole process from the beginning to the end.  Meanwhile, more than a dozen members of the JTF Board of Advisors, including Nobel Laureate in physics Charles Townes, and special JTF guests attended the Summit.

The presenters and participants in the Beijing Summit sang high praises for its success and significance.  It served well as a bridge between scholars in humanities and social sciences and between Chinese and international scholars.  More importantly, the Summit provided suggestions and guidance for the further development of the social scientific study of religion in China, especially in the areas discussed separately below.

The Social Scientific Study of Religion in China

To promote institutional development, the Summit opened with a special session introducing the core disciplinary approaches in the social scientific study of religion.  Five invited experts, GAO Shining, LIU Peng, ZHANG Qingjin, LU Yunfeng, and Lewis Rambo introduced the sociology of religion, the political science of religion, the economics of religion, the anthropology of religion, and the psychology of religion, respectively.  They also responded to quite lively comments and questions from the audience.  Then, HE Guanghu provided a retrospective account of the academic study of religion in China and argued for the need to focus on the current social reality of religion and to adopt theories and methods in the social scientific study of religion.  Gordon Melton argued for the importance of history, especially the social history methods, in the study of Chinese religions, and called for attention to the changing social-historical contexts of religious groups.  Eileen Barker analyzed the terms “religion” and “spirituality” in the Chinese context, pointing out that to describe and understand religion and spirituality in China today, we must realize that these concepts are much more complex in Chinese society than Western social scientists might assume.  We must clarify what we are to study, raise specific yet theoretically important questions, test hypotheses with comparisons, and apply multi-disciplinary approaches.  Daniel Olson examined several interpretations of differences of religious practice in different regions, periods, and countries, discussed the possible applicability of various theories in China, and suggested how to test these theories with Chinese data.  SUN Shangyang reviewed secularization and desecularization theories in the West.  Kenneth Dean, Mayfair Yang, and FAN Lizhu argued or demonstrated the difficulties of applying theories developed in the West to the study of religion in China.  They were not simplistically rejecting theories developed in the West but emphasizing the need for caution in such application.

Traditions and Modernities

Some scholars suggested research to examine the roles of traditional religions in modern Chinese society.  Fang Litian, Director of the Institute for the Studies of Buddhism and Theories of Religion at Renmin University of China, analyzed some basic philosophical concepts in Chinese Buddhism.  Responding to the environmental, social, and spiritual problems in modern society, he pointed out the practical wisdom of Buddhism and its possible modern significance.  David Palmer argued, in light of sociological concepts of modernity and globalization, that the Daoist focus on nurturing the body could be recast in terms of a modern quest for individual self-hood and authenticity rooted in embodied experience, which would make Daoism a reservoir of cultural resources for the religious productions of global modernity.  Daniel Bays discussed the modern development of Christianity in China as a “foreign religion” and as a “Chinese religion.”  Given the flexibility and adaptability of Christianity in various cultures, he contended that Christianity in China should no longer be regarded as a foreign religion but as a Chinese religion with multiple indigenized traditions.  Philip Jenkins described the growth of Christianity in Asia, and pointed out the gender role transformation it has brought about. He suggested that the social scientific study of religion examine the social impacts of Christianity on gender roles and family relations in Chinese societies and among the Chinese diasporas.  MOU Zhongjian presented his view that the Chinese religious culture had a characteristic of a Pluralistic-Assimilatory Model, suggesting that this culture had the features of the unity of subjectivity and diversity, the unity of historical continuity and specificity at different time periods, the unity of sacredness and mundanity, and the unity of national characteristics and openness. HE Qimin reported their empirical studies of ethnic religions, which might be considered a test or empirical support to the Pluralistic-Assimilatory Model.  MA Rong and GUAN Zhixiang used Islam as a case in their analysis of the inclusiveness of the traditional Chinese civilization and an indigenization model of a foreign religion.  Graeme Lang and LU Yunfeng pointed to the individualistic and collectivistic characteristics of Chinese religion and argued for the study of the relationship between religion and environmental protection.

Religion and Politics

Many scholars discussed the relationship between religion and politics.  ZHUO Xinping, Director of the Institute for the Study of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, analyzed the influence of globalization on religion and various social relations.  He focused his discussion on the relationship between religion and politics in Chinese society, provided a historical perspective, and predicted that the relationship would be harmonious in the future.  On the micro level of individuals, FANG Wen discussed the tension between political loyalty to the political entity and religious loyalty to the transnational religious entity among believers of world religions.  He argued that “adhesive identities” may serve as the basis for getting out of the predicament.  On the meso level of organizations, GAO Bingzhong and MA Qiang presented a case study of a temple fair and suggested that the development of grass-root associations of the folk religion would contribute to the development of the civil society in China.  Robert Weller compared and analyzed the contributions of traditional religions to social welfare and public goods in several Chinese societies.  LIU Peng investigated the mechanism by which religious groups to enter the field of social services in China today, suggesting the need for better laws and regulations in regard to religious charities.  On the macro level, Richard Madsen compared mainland China and Taiwan in terms of state-religion-society relations.  ZHANG Zhigang discussed the relationship between religion and international politics.

Quantitive Research

A luminous point of the Summit was the presentation of “A Survey Research on the Spiritual Life of Chinese Residents” by YUAN Yue, President of the Horizon Research Consultancy Group.  His preliminary analysis shows that religious beliefs in China have not reached the high level seen in some Western societies. But along with the betterment of material conditions, more people have begun to express interest in religion.  This survey, conducted in 2007 through in-person in-house interviews, and with a representative sample of over 7000 cases, represents an important step forward in the quantitative research on religion in China.  We anticipate more in-depth and detailed analyses and reports based on this survey data.

Christian House Churches

The panel on the “The Current Status and Future of Christian House Churches” squarely faced one of the most important and politically sensitive religious issues in China today.  The house church phenomenon arguably has been the most noticed and concerning religious phenomenon in China among China watchers, journalists, scholars, religious communities, and even governments in Western countries.  The principal speaker was YU Jianrong, Director of the Center for the Study of Social Problems at the Institute of Rural Development of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.  Based on a project sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Sciences “Soft-Science” program, he reported the scale, types, and challenges of house churches, and suggested the government should allow house churches to gain a legal status and register with the government without going through the Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee and the China Christian Council.  He said, it was a reality that Christian house churches are widely spread throughout China, and the ostrich attitude—pretending they did not exist—will not help.   He stressed that this topic should be “desensitized” and open for research and public discussion.  An open discussion like that which occurred at the Summit, Dr. YU pointed out, was a sign of tremendous social progress.  Two other Chinese scholars, GAO Shining and LIU Peng, who have conducted extensive research on house churches, responded to YU Jianrong’s presentation by providing supplementary descriptions and suggesting practical solutions to the problem, all arguing for making house churches legal and public.  People attending this panel expressed their enthusiasm and praised the panelists, saying that this was probably the first public forum on this important issue at an academic conference in China.

Confucianism in China and the West

The climax of the Summit was the keynote presentation and plenary session on “Confucianism in the Modern World” in the evening of October 9th, which was open to the public.  We announced this session only through posters at a few major universities in Beijing and some academic internet bulletin boards.  However, the 500-seat Qiulin Lecture Hall of Peking University was filled and packed long before the start of the session.  Many people sat on the floor in the aisles and up front, or stood on the sides and back against the wall, even outside the doors.  The audience was estimated at over 800 people.

The world-renowned Harvard scholar of Confucianism TU Weiming delivered the keynote address.  He described Confucian humanism as including four constitutive parts: (1) holistic integration of the body, heart, mind and soul, (2) fruitful interaction between self and society involving the family, community, nation, world, and the cosmos, (3) a sustainable and harmonious relationship between the human species and nature, and (4) mutual responsiveness between the human heart-and-mind and the Way of Heaven.  He argued that this form of humanism is distinct from the secular humanism that emerged in the modern West and is well positioned to offer sympathetic understanding and critical reflection on the Enlightenment.  He believed that Confucianism could play an effective and meaningful role in bridging the seemingly insurmountable gap in inter-civilizational communication and religious dialogue.

The keynote address was followed by fascinating presentations by Robert Neville and John Berthrong, well-known as “Boston Confucians” and Christian theologians, as well as KANG Xiaoguang, who has been regarded as one of the most active “Mainland New Confucians”.  Neville articulated the importance of ritual on the foundation of Ren (Confucian humaneness) in humane social development without denying genuine social and cultural differences.  This presentation provided an excellent counterpoint to Robert Weller’s paper, which described the revival of religious rituals in China and their significance for the social relationships of individuals, groups, and people of diverse backgrounds.   KANG Xiaoguang reported his empirical findings from the social movement of Confucian revivals in China that arose from the grassroots but had been encouraged and supported by the government.  He argued that this movement would have impacts on the cultural and political views of the Chinese people, consequently influencing political development and China’s international relations.  Berthrong sang enthusiasm for the contribution of the revived and reformed Confucianism in the moral construction in China and North America, whereas Joseph Tamney’s paper analyzed the resilience of Confucianism in several Asian societies.  After the presentation, TU Weiming, KANG Xiaoguang, Robert Neville, and John Berthrong had an interactive discussion and answered a number of questions raised by the audience, especially regarding the relationship between Confucianism and Christianity.

Spiritual Capital

The last session of the Summit was on the social and spiritual capital in the market economy of China.  It was the first team presentation of preliminary analyses of the interviews of the Project of Faith and Trust in the Emerging Market Economy of China.  Fenggang Yang as the project’s Principal Investigator won a grant competition from the John Templeton Foundation.  WEI Dedong, GAO Shining, GONG Zhebing, WANG Yuting, and LI Xiangping participated in conducting interviews with Chinese business people who were believers of one of the five major religions in China: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism, respectively.  This project follows Max Weber’s Protestant ethic thesis, but updated with the current theoretical developments and Chinese social reality.  The theoretical approach, methodological design and the rich data raised much interest among many of the Summit participants.

Photo Exhibition of Religion in China

In addition, the Summit organized a “Photo Exhibition of Religion and Chinese Society” in the hallway outside the Summit conference hall.  The exhibit consisted of religious venues, rituals, activities, and believers of various religions throughout China, and a special section of Chinese-style Christian churches in rural villages in central China.