Religious Groups in the Rapidly Changing Society: East Asia

Kyung Hee University, Seoul, Korea
June 18-20, 2016

Ting Guo, Jiayin Hu, Yun Huang

Organized by the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University and Department of Sociology at Kyung Hee University, Religious Groups in a Rapidly Changing Society: East Asia was held in Seoul, Korea from June 18-20, 2016. The conference attracted more than 60 scholars from the United States, mainland China, Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan, among whom 38 scholars presented papers.

China’s unprecedented social and economic changes experienced in the past decades have amazed the world. In their own ways, Japan and Korea have also encountered rapid social changes in the past half century. How different religious groups in those transitioning societies occur, develop and disperse with contextual social changes is intriguing and worthy to explore.

As Jae-ryong Song (Dean of Graduate School of Kyung Hee University, President of Korean Association for the Sociology of Religion) and Sung Gun Kim (Seowon University), two of the initiators as well as hosts of this conference have remarked, this conference was the first time that scholars of religion from Japan, Korea, and China gathered together to exchange their research findings, including religious traditions and the most up-to-date social and political engagement of religions in their countries. The close geographical location and the shared history and cultural traditions make this region an interesting and important case study for the role of religion in the contemporary world, a region whose religious manifestations indeed deserve more scholarly attention.

In his opening word, Professor Song mentioned the global shift of scientific study of religion from traditional religions to new religions and spirituality. Echoing with Dr. Song’s observation, Fenggang Yang (Director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Purdue University) also proposed his insightful definition of religion and classification of religious phenomena for the scientific study of religion in the keynote presentation. The study of religions in East Asia should not be limited in traditional religions nor be bounded by Western methodologies and theories. Thus various topics were covered in this conference: managing religious affairs in contemporary China, Daoism and ancestor worship in contemporary China, trends in local churches of China, religions on China’s periphery, the social dimension of Chinese Christianity, Christianity from an East Asia perspective, local identities in East Asia religions, state and religion in East Asia, religion in the twenty-first century East Asia, overview of East Asia Christianity, Christianity in Modern times, and constructing religious identity in East Asia. The conference also featured a field trip by visiting the current world’s largest congregation, Yoido Full Gospel Church, and the temple of the dominant order of Korea Buddhism, Jogyesa Temple.

On the first day of the conference, Won G. Lee, Professor Emeritus of Graduate School of Practical Theology of Korea presented his paper on The Reality and Prospect of Korean Church as the keynote speaker. In contrast with the rapid growth of Korean Protestant Church as a whole since 1960s, Korean Protestantism’s passion in religion and spirituality had cooled and her reputation had been tarnished in the broader society since the end of 20th century. Under such a background, Dr. Lee examined how and why the changes happened, and what the future of Korean Protestant Church would be.

In the session on Managing Religious Affairs in Contemporary China, Qiong Li (East China University of Science and Technology) looked into the Islamic religious affairs management through the window of a case study of Ning Xia HUI community. Based on the Triple-Market Theory proposed by Yang, Hui Li (Chinese University of Hong Kong) argued that the triple-markets are not clear-cut but are constantly shifting under China’s flexible religious policy. He illustrated his findings through the case studies of the Protestant churches in Linfen and Nanyang, two cities in Henan Province. Also from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Jianzhong Zhu investigated the ongoing anti- demolition action of Wenzhou churches. Considering the ongoing tension in the Chinese religious environment between the central government planning and free market operation, Zhu offered the “price-return” exchange theory to explain the pattern of contentious activities of Wenzhou churches.

In the session on State and Religion in East Asia, Suho Park (Joong-Ang Sangha University) and Hae Young Min (Korea University), examined how Korea Buddhism developed under the influence of modernization. Their research was a case study of the organizational change the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism went through in history.

PhD candidate Yunze Xiao (East China Normal University) presented his study of two types of house churches’ order changes and state controls in the context of urbanization in Zhuo city, Jiangsu Province. He found that urban activist churches were easier to survive and develop in urban society compared to the traditional patriarchal house church. Similarly, Dr. Hao Yuan (Chinese University of Hong Kong) presented his empirical study of the transformation of two rural churches in Beijing in the context of China’s urbanization. Yuan found that the rural churches showed a variety of organizational characteristics because of different factors. Some of them have successfully made the transition from a traditional community of belief to a modern civil community while some were still struggling to find their way out in Beijing.

In the session on Daoism and Ancestor Worship in Contemporary China, Wei Liu (PhD candidate, Tsinghua University) presented his ethnographical study of the mediums and a revival of folk religion in Jiangcun, a village in Anhui Province. In his investigation, the roles and functions of Jieshenren who played as mediums of various gods were examined. Dr. Jun Yan and Weizhi Lin (Shanghai University) presented their case study of lay Taoist in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province. Based on their fieldwork in the villages of Zhangjiang, they portrayed the community characteristics, daily religious practices and self-identity of the local lay Taoist. Qiyong Wang (Peking University) presented his case study of ancestor worship in a Huizhou rural community. His research looked into the role and position of ancestor worship as one kind of popular religion in contemporary Chinese society and how it would survive and develop in the face of urbanization.

On the second day, Professor Fenggang Yang presented his paper on Studying Chinese Religions in Time and Space as the keynote speaker. In a time of modernization and globalization, when Chinese spread all over the world, how should scholars face theoretical and methodological challenges in the social scientific study of religions in China? Professor Yang’s presentations addressed the question and provided his answers.

In the session on Overview of East Asia Christianity, Kyung-hoon Hwang (Catholic University of Korea) introduced the history, development, and status quo of Catholicism in Korea. Similar in topic, Xianghui Liao (North Sichuan Medical College) presented her study on the family influence of teenagers converting to Catholicism. The third presenter of this session, Ying Xie (Guangzhou University) presented his case study of the strategy choices and organizational structure of The Disciple Society, which is regarded as a cult and strictly banned in China.

In the session on Christianity in Modern Times, two scholars presented their studies. In the first presentation, Mengyin Hu (East China Normal University) compared the individual-and-community relationship of two artist churches in Songzhuang, Beijing. She found that the church structure and membership constituent could influence the extent of unity of the church. Also on the topic of house church in urban society, Zhipeng Zhang (Anhui University of Technology) examined the growth path of a new city Christian group in Nanjing, Jiangsu. The Christian group Zhang studies had no full-time pastors and the church affairs were mainly taken care of by several part-time co- workers. How such church would develop in the future is worthy of further study.

In the session on the Social Dimension of Chinese Christianity, two case studies of Christian procreative culture were presented. Ling Wang (China Business News) looked into the dilemma many Christians in a house church in Beijing were struggling with, to abort or not, to obey governmental Birth Control policy or following God’s leading to multiply in number? Surprisingly Wang found that many female Christians chose abortion if they already had one child. The main reason for abortion, as Wang explained, was due to their pastor’s insistence on obeying the Birth Control policy. However, from another case study of a house church in Chengdu, Xiaopeng Ren (Western China Covenant College) found another scenery. The fertility rate of the house church he studied was high and he looked into the contributing factors. Through his research, he found that Christian belief, church life, religious community, the ethic of sanctity of life, and the traditional Christian marriage and family patterns worked together to form the current fertility culture of that house church in Chengdu. The third presenter, Ying Liu (Nanjiang Agricultural University), presented her case study on religious charity of a Christian church in Jiangsu Province. She found that through gospel mobilization, group identity generation, unified organization and decision making, and support from the secular world, the church could integrate the resources for charity.

In the last session on Constructing Religious Identity in East Asia, Kwangsoo Park (Wonkwang University, Korea) presented his study on the transformation of topography of new Korean religions in the context of rapidly changing social situation. It was interesting to find that many new religious movements arose with the purpose to cure Korean’s chaotic political-economic situation with their new religious ideas. Feifei Yan (Shanxi University, China) presented his case study of the suffering memory and power structure of a Catholic village in China. Being persecuted before 1978, the Catholic church Yan studied still used a series of rituals, community activities, historical collection and other ways to constantly remind the Catholic church’s suffering collective memory. Wei Xiong (Sun Yat-sen University) presented his anthropological study on a Catholic prep seminary in Hebei Province. Through in-depth interviews and participant observation, Xiong described the life of that Catholic prep seminary, which existed as an “alternative education” compared to the mainstream Chinese education system.

In summary, this conference showed that first of all, the persistence of religions in contemporary societies. For instance, Won G. Lee’s review of the historical development of Korean Christianity, Kyung-hoon Hwang’s paper on Korean Catholic church, and Kwangsoo Park’s study on the transformation of topography of new religious movements in Korea, all indicate that the role of religions in modern Korea has not only been spiritual or moral, but institutional on a collective, political sense. In this way, it challenges the prevailing secularization theory which was as most famously interpreted by contemporary British sociologists Bryan Wilson and Steve Bruce and refers to the decreasing presence of religion in social operations. However, as we can see from the abovementioned works, that religions have been consistently vital to social revolutions and political reforms in Korea, or even more implicitly, many major social and political revolutions embodied religious aspirations, for instance how Donghak developed into Cheondoism, and the first general election in modern Korea was helped by Presbyterian church to a large extent. Similarly, in Japan, for instance, Evangelical church has been the most active in opposing military nationalism, as Kenta Awazu and Yumi Murayama showed us. Such findings certainly contribute to the argument of “religious modernity” as most notably proposed by scholars including Peter Van der Veer (1990). In the case of China, Yunze Xiao, Hao Yuan, Yun Huang, Cuicui Zhao, and Dawei Liu all talked about the social engagement of Christianity, Confucianism, and folk religions, and questions regarding the “public” and the “private” space emerged as existing concepts that might require redefinition.

Furthermore, as widely noted by scholars of interest, issues around gender and family have been central to Japanese, Korean, and Chinese societies, and we saw from this conference how those issues have impacted the development of, and scholars’ view on religion.

Being the first of its kind, the large scope of this conference made it inevitable that some papers were of overview in nature, instead of more in-depth analyses, though many were detailed case studies. The structural, organizational, and institutional role of religions in Korea could be of great interest for Chinese religions, in addition to religions’ normative spiritual significance for individuals. And many religions, as much less represented this time including Islam in China, demand more attention, not only in terms of the internal composition of such religions themselves, but of the social and political factors that contributed to their low academic visibility. However, the enthusiasm this time from all participants showed us the promising future that we all look forward to.