Does China need a new religion for the 21st century?

This will be a controversial post so let me explain in detail before throwing any cyber tomatoes) Hu Jintao and many other top ranking Chinese officials have spoken about the need for cultural influence and development of Chinese culture. But Chinese culture does not have as much influence in the rest of the world today and now even among Chinese, much of their traditional culture is being replaced with outside influences. I believe that as China becomes more wealthy and politically influential some level of cultural influence will come with that as well. But I don’t think economic development alone will do the trick for seriously developing one’s own cultural influence among one’s own people and others people.

But for China to truly have their own modern culture and to influence its own people and others with its culture–that is, for there to be true cultural exchanges in the world and not just a mostly one way west-to-east cultural exchange–China would need to develop something new and fitting.

I see nothing wrong with outside influences per se. Often it helps with developing society as whole. Tang China was influenced by outside cultures and it assimilated those outside influences to create a more nuanced and developed Chinese culture.

But I also have sympathy for those who see outside influence as a kind of harm when it is mostly a one-way street and when aspects of a foreign culture is adopted uncritically. It’s shocking how many westerners are hypocrites in this regard. When it comes to Chinese cultural, linguistic, political influence in, say, Tibet, westerners often throw a fit and see this as an evil act where there is a replacement of a native culture with a foreign influence. Yet they do not sympathize with Chinese peoples’ wish for the development of their own culture instead of simply adopting outside influences. They wish to save all the world’s religions (well, mostly just the Judeo-Christian ones and others palatable to western tastes such as some forms of Buddhism) but wish to abolish China’s native religions.

But there is good reason why I think many Chinese may want to further develop their own culture, that is, to develop something that is truly their own (even if it may be influenced or inspired by foreign sources as was the case in the Tang dynasty). That is because I believe collective self-esteem is a trait necessary for a happy and prosperous nation and such self-esteem heavily depends on cultural identity. A sense of cultural identity or a consistent, practiced, living tradition that the people can identify with and be proud to call their own gives people a sense of self and self worth. It also instilled a sense of purpose in life. Like it or not, religion provides much of the glue for society. A religion is the greatest vehicle for tying all these loose ends and packaging it in a way society accepts. It is also the vehicle that makes possible what Hu and others who wish for native development can only vacuously plead for.

That sense of identity, I’m afraid might sound frightening to many outside China who have been raised with the racist thought that Chinese culture and people are evil and if they had any self-esteem, would conquer the world. Thus the world must keep Chinese people in a state of cultural/spiritual sickness like it has been kept for many years. The west would love for China to adopt religion but only if it is western religion.

This is why I am more and more inclined to believe that Chinese people ought to develop a new religion. But won’t the re-adoption old ones do? No, not if they are adopted without any necessary changes so as to be more conducive to modern life. Religions are large aspects of culture and a culture is a mode of living and believing which must be first of all conducive to the lifestyle of the people practicing them. When they are not so conducive, they go extinct.

For many of our readers who are possibly enlightened and very secular people (as I am), the suggestion may conger up the thought that I am advocating a kind of retrograde systems of superstition to be adopted by the masses of Chinese people. No. That is not what I mean by ‘religion.’ A religion isn’t necessarily bad. Likewise, a religion isn’t necessarily superstitious advocating hocus pocus metaphysics and outdated moral systems though all of the Judeo Christian ones and many forms of Buddhism and other major religions (ahem, FG) certainly do.

I have in mind a very broad meaning of religion. It is what Joseph Campbell emphasized. A religion is simply a mythical narrative or story about how a people came to be, what they have done, and where they are going. It supplies the context of their creation and of their historical struggles in a way that at the same time mythologizes those experiences and gives posterity a sense of cultural value. Such a mythical narrative, as Campbell made explicitly clear, need not be fictional. It may have large elements of truth (as well as metaphor). It also supplies rituals where people can come together to share those religious experiences with each other.

But developing such a narrative is a collective effort. Just like no single person made the Christian or Jewish faith as we know it today, no single person made many of the other major religions including Buddhism and Hinduism. Rather the traditions are lived. They encompass many lives in many eras and is simply the collective wisdom of a people telling their own story passed down from one generation to the next with each contributing something special and meaningful.

A truly Chinese religion, whether it be created ex nihilo, or created with the inspiration of its past religious, moral, philosophical, historical developments (as I hope it will be) will need the efforts of many Chinese people to contribute.  It needs to be novel, it needs to be grand, inspiring and it needs to tell the story of us as Chinese people. It is also important that it be attractive to modern people’s sensibilities and worldviews. This can be achieved by making the narrative relevant to their modern lives. Hopefully China’s artists are up to this great task and they need all the encouragement they could get. I believe that artists, especially writers and people in the humanities, will contribute the most here in the development of a future Chinese identity, one in which future Chinese will proudly call their own and see as a continuation of the past linked by a profound, spiritually beautiful narrative which can also teach us about ourselves and give meaning to our lives.


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