The end of Chinese religion?

After two weeks in Beijing in 2012, I finally realized why I felt the city seemed so lifeless, even as it teemed with millions of people and their very real, full lives. Where were the temples? Where were the markers of a neighborhood like Tudi Gong shrines? Where were the folding tables full of offerings at the new and full moon? Where was the incense, the smoke of paper money, the sound of the wooden fish and chanting laypeople?

Ignorantly, I blamed these absences on things like Marxism and the Cultural Revolution.

I was wrong.

The absence of popular religious worship sites in much of China goes back much further, to the reform movement in 1898 and radical reformer Kang You-wei. His iconoclasm was indicative of a major shift occurring in elite perceptions of traditional Chinese religious expression. You can read about this in detail in Vincent Goosaert’s article “1898: The Beginning of the End for Chinese Religion.” The Journal of Asian Studies 65.2 (2006): 307-35. I’ll attempt to summarize the main issues quickly here.

Goosaert details the shift in anti-popular-religious sentiments among social elite in China that led to the whole scale destruction of popular temples. Up until this point, most anti-religious sentiments were aimed at popular religious cults that fell outside the already porous borders of the three great traditions – Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

A break occurred in the history of Chinese religions at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1898, the Guangxu emperor, at the suggestion of the reformers at his court, promulgated an edict proclaiming that all temples in China not registered to perform imperially sanctioned rituals of the state religion would be taken over and turned into schools. Although the edict was rescinded after some months, it set in motion forces that led to more temple confiscations throughout the early years of the 20th century. Destroying temples was just as much the point as creating schools, since if China was to advance into modernity, reformers believed it must leave behind its superstitious past.

This article makes me think that Taiwan, a Japanese colony from 1895-1945, must have escaped the successive waves of iconoclastic furor in China. Though the KMT led anti-superstition campaigns in China from 1926-1937, by the time they took over Taiwan in 1945, there were more pressing matters on their political agendas. As such, in much of Taiwan, the religious landscape is shaped differently than in China, and the expressions of traditional religion are colorful, loud, and everywhere.

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One thought on “The end of Chinese religion?

  1. Fascinating. I’m not properly informed on the topic, but it strikes me that the role of religion in daily life took a backseat apparently globally at around the same time and continues today.

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