A Revival of Buddhism?

Article Review, “Buddhism in China”, “Buddhist Believers” China Today, Vol. 58 No. 6 June 2009.

Buddhism, although a foreign-born religion, has been a religious lifestyle in China for 2,000 years, absorbing Chinese culture and traditions.  The focus on Buddhism in this issue of China Today reflects the current state of Buddhism in China.  Zhang Xueying, in “Buddhism in China,” addresses why Buddhism is the choice of many Chinese people for meeting their spiritual needs.  In “Buddhist Believers,” Tang Yuankai takes a deeper look into the conversion experiences of a few Chinese Buddhists.  Together, these articles seek to explain why there is a revival of Buddhism in China, focusing mainly on the economy as a driving force in one way or another.  Both articles allow the reader a chance to understand the widespread appeal of Buddhism in China.  Furthermore, the authors discuss why this particular religion, born in India, has integrated itself so deeply into Chinese society and history.

Zhang Xueying argues that a revival is in fact in full swing because of the recent renovation and construction of temples throughout China (Zhang 12). Zhang cites several academics, all of whom offer an interesting perspective on this recent resurgence.  One of them, Professor Liu Zhongyu, argues that a recent survey shows that the Chinese are “chasing spiritual satisfaction through religion” (Zhang 12). The results of Liu’s survey also indicate that Buddhism is the main religion for this quest, accounting for 33% of the individuals surveyed (Zhang 12).   Zhang seeks to explain this phenomenon by looking at economic changes and the growth in the Buddhist constituency because of these changes. 

First of all, why Buddhism?  Zhang delves into the history of Buddhism in China to answer this question.  Buddhism spread from ancient India to Central China via the Silk Road.  Chinese royalty quickly took to the new religion, although the common people initially rejected it.  Buddhism, a religion that values other-worldliness, clashed with Confucianism, which focuses on the here and now.  In fact, Zhang points out that Buddhism was actually banned on four separate occasions because of the conflict it created with Confucianism and Daoism (Zhang 14).  Once Confucianism and Buddhism began to meld, however,the lattert became a popular religion, spreading throughout China.

The history of the introduction of Buddhism into China explains why Buddhism is there at all, but cannot alone address its recent growth.  Zhang interviewed a sociologist to gain perspective on what might be the motivating force for Chinese to convert to Buddhism.  Professor Zhou Xiaozheng argues that Chinese society has been impacted by three changes: the shift from planned to market economy; the huge number of farmers coming to cities as migrant workers; and a formerly quiet life being replaced by risk and competition (Zhang 13). The forces and the difficulties that accompany these developments might create a need for spiritual guidance in difficult times.  The articles suggest that Buddhism allows individuals to maintain psychological balance in the new fast-paced economy.  Tang Yuankai, author of another article entitled “Buddhist Believers,” picks up this point to describe the conversion experiences of a few Chinese Buddhists. 

Tang uses personal stories to point out the connection between recent economic changes and devotion to Buddhism. One particular narrative, the story of Fan Nannan, demonstrates the appeal of Buddhism to a mentally- and physically- overworked person looking for peace. She used to work 120 hours a week, and gradually began to feel like “a cup of ice-cream that could be nibbled by anyone”(Tang 16). Eventually, she took a long holiday and traveled with her family, visiting temples and learning about Buddhism.  

She even inspired one of her clients, Han, to follow Buddhism when she returned, because of her new peaceful demeanor (Tang 17). Han’s husband, like many other younger Chinese, believes religion to be a practice for the elderly (Tang 18). Nevertheless, both Fan and Han claim that Buddhism makes them purer and motivates them to do good others. Buddhism helps them maintain a good mental attitude, and they are quite open about their beliefs, even among their atheist friends (Tang 19).

Although Buddhism has been a part of Chinese culture for centuries, these authors, and the testimonies of the newly-converted Buddhists they quote, suggest that the rapidly growing economy, and all the side-effects of such change, might be causing a revival of Buddhism.  As people search for spiritual guidance, Buddhism seems to be a popular choice among China’s younger generation, not just among the elderly.  If you would like to learn more about the complex religious situation in China and the pressures produced by the vast changes taking place there, you can consult China: Ancient Culture, Modern Society by G. Wright Doyle and Peter Xiaoming Yu.