AsiaNews Symposium: The government's one-dimensional culture will not prevail over religion, says Richard Madsen
A policy seeking “a one-dimensional, rigidly unified culture [. . .] would only superficially cover the dynamic diversity of multi-dimensional Chinese lives”. Religious sentiments have survived and are now undergoing a renaissance. “Marxist ideology was too thin to substitute for the multiple dimensions of Chinese culture. The "flattened official ideology” has failed. The Catholic Church has to deal with Xi Jinping’s ‘sinicisation’ policy.
Rome (AsiaNews) – In his presentation at AsiaNews Symposium, Richard Madsen, a famous scholar in the sociology of religion from the University of San Diego (California), presented his analysis of today’s impressive religious renaissance in China. According to him, what is happening is not just a "revival" or the “re-invention of traditional forms of Chinese religion, but also the creation and creative adaptation of new forms.”
This is that more surprising since Chinese leaders tried to suppress all forms of religious practice in the country, starting with Mao. However, when Deng Xiaoping inaugurated in 1979 an era of ‘Reform and Opening’, religions of all kinds began to grow and develop rapidly, going farther than the imposed constraints.
According to Madsen, one of the reasons for the survival of religious sentiments in China, despite vigorous attempts at eradicating them, is the fact that “Marxist ideology was too thin to substitute for the multiple dimensions of Chinese culture." Both Marxism and capitalist consumerism tried to flatten this "multi-dimensionality" but failed.
Madsen went on to analyse how what he calls the “flattened official ideology" failed. It failed first when confronted with the reality of death. Another losing card was the relationship with fate and superstition, to which Chinese cultural tradition is very closely connected. Finally, the "one-dimensional" ideology failed to find answers to the questions of meaning and justice that it created.
The sociologist noted that a moral vacuum leads to a quest for integrity that the superficial Marxist-Leninist ideology failed to satisfy. This quest for moral integrity brought the Chinese closer to religious sentiments and Christian churches.
Catholicism, like other forms of Christianity, is "an integral part of the Chinese social ecology," Madsen said. “It asserts its identity either in contrast or in resonance with other parts of it”. Although the Catholic Church spread more in rural communities for historical reasons, “communal embeddedness has been a source of creative innovation as well as resistance to hostile outside forces.”
“As China’s social ecology changes, all forms of religious practice, including Catholic Christianity, continuously change and adapt. [. . .] Rural villages have become hollowed out as the young and middle aged leave to work in the cities. At the same time new means of communication provide opportunities for more expansive personal relationships, but also for increased government surveillance and control.” This has allowed the government to apply “the full power of [its] coercive apparatus” against religious practices that it considers dangerous so as to stifle their growth.
“As it appeals to nationalism to shore up a legitimacy that Marxism-Leninism cannot itself provide, the government today is encouraging Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism,” which it considers “better than ‘foreign’ religions with global connections, like Christianity, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism.”
With regard to the position of the Catholic Church in Chinese religious policy, the sociologist looks at the internal divide between, on the one hand, the government-controlled Church and Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and, on the other, the underground Church loyal to Rome. For Madsen, “Because of conflicts among communities in face of rigidities of state control, the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China has had difficulty developing theological and pastoral adaptations to the new urbanism.”
What is more, “cultural China is bigger than the mainland of the People’s Republic. In the different social ecologies of Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, the interplay between religion and social life is different and so is the place of the Catholic Church within these dynamic frameworks.”
“[A]lthough all of the areas of the Chinese world share the same basic Chinese culture, differences in their political, social, and economic dimensions of their social ecology lead the same Catholic theology to be heard, practiced, and institutionalized in different ways. Global Catholicism is being localized differently in the different localities of the Chinese world.
Prof Madsen ended his lecture looking at President Xi Jinping's plan to unite the society under a common culture in the name of the "great renaissance of the Chinese people". In his view, such a plan is "a blend of homogenized traditional values and Marxist ideology, under the control of a unitary state.”
For Xi, Christianity must be ‘sinicized". Yet, this would be “a one-dimensional, rigidly unified culture that would only superficially cover the dynamic diversity of multi-dimensional Chinese lives and would keep the Chinese people, certainly including Chinese Catholics, from creatively adapting to a dynamic social ecology. Like a persistent current, the forces of indigenous creativity and diversity will in the end prevail.”