Resurfacing Religion in Contemporary China

April 18, 2017
Ann Sun
Professor Anna Sun. Photo courtesy Anna Sun.

Anna Sun, Associate Professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kenyon College, is Harvard Divinity School’s second Berggruen Fellow. Her research focuses on the revival of Confucianism as a religion in contemporary China. She also works on larger conceptual and methodological issues in the study of Chinese religions, as well as the relationship between religion and politics.

While at HDS, Sun is working on a new project around the return of religion in contemporary Chinese society and its consequences.

On Wednesday, April 19, at the Center for the Study of World Religions, Sun delivered her talk, "The Logic of Prayer in Contemporary China." Below, she discusses the “resurfacing” of religion in China, and how prayer is contributing to a thriving ritual life.

HDS: Can you briefly explain the return of religion in contemporary Chinese society and its consequences?

Sun: I have been studying religious life in China as a sociologist for about 15 years, since the beginning of our new millennium, using both ethnography and survey research as my methods. During this time I have seen a tremendous revival of religious life, and especially of ritual life, everywhere in China, even in some of the most cosmopolitan places such as Shanghai and Beijing.

The return of religion has been dramatic and its consequences are many and profound. In an anxious time of rapid economic growth and political uncertainty, shared ritual life is bringing families and communities closer, sustaining social bonds, and maintaining values and virtues. In terms of our understanding of religion, the case of China is revealing new modalities of religious life, which may shed much light on the changing religious landscape today on a global scale.

I see the “return of religion in China” not so much as a “returning” but as a “resurfacing,” like a great river coming back in full force after having gone underground, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, the years of the Cultural Revolution. Even during the height of religious repression, ritual activities never fully went away, as I have learned in my fieldwork.

Since the 1990s, after the Chinese government loosened controls over many religious activities (with the exception of Falun Gong, Christianity, and Islam, which are often closely monitored), there has been a renaissance of ritual life among ordinary people, consisting of practices drawn from Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, and many local traditions.

What’s important about this resurfacing is that people are not simply resuming old ways exactly as they were. People are creatively engaging with traditional ritual practices, often reinventing them to make them meaningful in the contemporary world, such as the way women are playing increasingly important roles in Confucian rituals.

The book I am working on now, which will be titled "The Social Life of Prayer: Contemporary China and Beyond," offers a new way of understanding contemporary religious life by focusing on the most essential element of religion: prayer. In most survey data, about four out of five Chinese people say that they are not religious, since they think of being “religious” means one has to be a formal member of a religion. However, ethnographic research shows that there is in fact a rich prayer life in temples, shrines, graveside, private homes, as well as churches and mosques.

Once the survey question changes from “What is your religion” to “Do you practice any rituals,” we get a very different picture: at least three out of four people engage in ritual activities regularly, particularly the ancient Confucian ritual of ancestral rites. The thriving ritual life can be seen in some of the most metropolitan areas, drawing young people and old, migrant workers and people from the professional classes.

It is therefore not the case that the Chinese are less religious. What we need to explore is how they do religion differently. I suggest that, far from being unique, the China case may be archetypal in the sense that we are seeing similar patterns in the rest of the world today, where people are increasingly moving away from clear-cut religious doctrines and identities without moving away from ritual life, as is the case in the US, where many people who say they are “not religious” nevertheless still pray.

I have been working with the Pew Research Center to develop new survey questions on religion that can do better justice to the actual religious life lived in China, other parts of East Asia, and beyond. The hope is that we may be able to understand and articulate what doing religion differently means in our pluralistic and global twenty-first century world.

—by Michael Naughton