Dr. Xinping Zhuo, a professor and the director of the Institute of World Religions, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and also the author and co-author for multiple major Chinese publications on religious issues, visited UCSD on Nov, 3rd, 2014 for the full-day academic conference – Religion in China Today: Resurgence and Challenge. This conference, “brought together scholars from different institutes within China and the US to discuss the current religious landscape, religious developments in China, and more importantly the causes and political consequences of these developments.”
China Focus Blog staff writer Siru (Rose) Zhu sat down with Dr. Xinping Zhuo for a detailed follow-up discussion regarding the understanding of religion by the Chinese government and Chinese society. The interview was conducted in Mandarin and translated into English. The original Mandarin version of the interview is featured below for our Chinese-reading audience.
Zhu: Some people I know said that usually they don’t want to discuss religious topics with other people because they think that if you have different religious believes, it’s likely to lead to conflict.
Xinping Zhuo: There are these kind of situations. That’s why when there is discussion, there needs to be the attitude of listening. In mainland China there is this word called “transposition of thinking.” You ought to put yourself into other people’s shoes and consider their opinions. In that way, when we discuss, it’s not me or you talking just to talk, without the intention to listen. That’s not a conversation, that is called a monologue. Although it’s two people or more together, people are talking to themselves. In order to have conversations, there needs to be the willingness to listen, then there can be real conversations. There will definitely be different opinions, but different opinions can have two standards. One is to find the common ground, see if there is any commonalities. If there are none, there is the “agree to disagree” in the Chinese culture. We can be different but we can still co-exist harmoniously. Therefore when you have these basic considerations, if one wants to have conversation, I think it’s plausible. It’s understandable if one doesn’t want to have conversation. If the person doesn’t have the desire to converse, then there is no need to force him/her.
Zhu: When you talk to Chinese people about this, what are their responses?
Xinping Zhuo: There are all kinds of responses. I would say the responses are getting better now. When I first started research in this area, people couldn’t distinguish the differences between doing research on religion and being a follower of religion. They thought that researchers must be followers, and have very negative attitudes as if you are an unreasonable person. From that perspective, it shows even more the problems of our society. It’s getting better now. Now when I tell people that I do research on religions, people think it’s interesting or it’s worth studying. This is the simplest reply. If some people have some knowledge of religion or they themselves have some questions about religion, they will discuss with you in a friendly and kind manner. There are more this kind of situation and this kind of people now. It’s completely different from the time when I first started the research more than 30 years ago. At that time there was lack of understanding, and mostly misunderstanding.
Zhu: Also a lot of times there were negative responses/attitudes.
Xinping Zhuo: Yes, as if there is something wrong with you that you do research on religions.
Zhu: What do you think caused this transition?
Xinping Zhuo: The transition goes in both directions. One is that China is constantly moving towards the world, recognizing the diverse situation of the world. Religious beliefs are also an objective existence of human beings. The vision becomes broader, the prejudices and biases are slowly disappearing. “It’s not the people who do the research are ignorant, it’s actually me who is ignorant.” – this is the broadening perspective. The other direction is that during the last 30 years of development, I think Chinese people are becoming more cultured . Because people have become more cultured, there won’t be the reactions based on lack of understanding and ignorance. Thus, one may be more rational, more calm, and more friendly while treating with people who one wants to have conversations with [people who have different religious outlooks], or with relevant researchers. I know this experience too well. It has become much better in these years.
Let me give you an example. I was a teacher at a university. The then vice president of the school talked to me after I had applied for the Master of Christianity in Religious Studies at theÂ Academy of Social Sciences. He said our school is pretty good and you have pretty good life here, why do you take things too hard/take matters to heart and want to be a monk? He asked me but I didn’t understand. Then he asked me the second time, “Even if you want to be a monk, you shouldn’t be a ‘foreign monk’.” Think about it. This was how a vice president of an university in mainland China understood Christianity.
Zhu: This was in the 80s?
Xingping Zhuo: 70s. It was 1978. Nowadays, there definitely wouldn’t be situations like this. So one can think of the improvement in understanding.
Zhu: You mentioned yesterday that freedom of religious beliefs has improved a lot in China. What do you think are the effects of government policies on people’s consciousness and understandings?
Xinping Zhuo: Of course the government has become more tolerant. At the beginning of the Reform and Opening period (改革开放), most of the government’s understanding of religion were still at the same stage as during the Cultural Revolution. For more than three decades now, we have constantly implemented policies that support freedom of religious beliefs. Looking at the perspective of the government, the force of protecting religious beliefs is very big, and it has also done many good and concrete things for religion. To be honest, compared to U.S. society, the American government has enforced the separation of religion and the government, basically leaving religions alone. Therefore, there are two layers of intervention. The first one might be strict control, the second one is showing concern and supporting it. U.S government has none of the two layers. There are some people in the western countries, including the U.S., that condemn the Chinese government for too much religious intervention, but they don’t see the support and help that our government provides to religions, which is way more and greater than their own support.
There are some people in the western countries, including the U.S., that condemn the Chinese government for too much religious intervention, but they don’t see the support and help that our government provides to religions, which is way more and greater than their own support.
Zhu: Just like the example you gave yesterday.
Xinping Zhuo: Yes. That is something they don‘t have. People talk about freedom of religion, do religions need the support and help from governments? Of course.
Zhu: If government provides help or funding to religions then there isn’t such a thing as freedom of religion. Often times when government helps one specific religion, it’s promoting it.
Xinping Zhuo: This situation in China has a very complicated background. There is a precondition for why the government helps religions. During the Cultural Revolution, religions had been badly destroyed. The government owed these religions a lot. For example, the government confiscated property that belonged to religious groups, and destroyed religious society. As the government of a country, it needs to admit to this reality and provide funding to help religions recover their places of worship, give back the property that was unjustly confiscated. This is what the government is supposed to do. Also while religions continue to develop, the government realizes some difficulties that they are facing and helps them. From a historical perspective, I think it’s completely understandable and absolutely necessary. But there are some local governments that go to the extreme. They want to turn religions into a business, build many places for religious worship, (Zhu: “In God we use.”) help with financing and investment funding, and then sell expensive tickets for those places. There are many of these kinds of problems in China now, that some local governments see religions as a ready source of money. Then this is not right. That’s why I said I need to analyze these issues specifically. The former is what is supposed to be done, but the latter is not right.
There are many of these kinds of problems in China now, that some local governments see religions as a ready source of money. Then this is not right.
Zhu: So the former is with the mindset of “paying back the debt?”
Xinping Zhuo: One is to pay back the debt, which means normalize it. The latter is actually turning religion into something it is not, into a secular commercial product, which changes the fundamental meaning of religion. In some places, there are still many of these kind of situations. There are also a lot of domestic criticisms. From the long-term perspective, I think we should enforce some changes. When I first found out a Shaolin Temple was going to be listed in the market, I organized an academic seminar. People were condemning the local government, and thought that it should give back the peace to this place of religious worship. The reason I brought this up is to show that there are situations happening in China but not in many other countries. There are good and positive sides, but we admit that there are bad and negative phenomenon like this that we should overcome. Therefore when we look at the problem we should look at it holistically and fairly. We shouldn’t think in absolutes and wear colored lenses that only look at the bad and only talk about the problems, that’s not right.
There are good and positive sides, but we admit that there are bad and negative phenomenon like this that we should overcome. Therefore when we look at the problem we should look at it holistically and fairly. We shouldn’t think in absolutes and wear colored lenses that only look at the bad and only talk about the problems, that’s not right.
For example, many people are concerned about the freedom of religious belief in China. First they should see China’s achievements on freedom of religion. After talking more about that, then they [could] propose friendly criticisms, which I think Chinese people are able to accept. If you start off criticizing, regardless of the improvements that have been made since the Chinese Economic Reform, this will of course provoke a sense of rejection, people won’t want to have conversations with you.
If you start off criticizing, regardless of the improvements that have been made since the Chinese Economic Reform, this will of course provoke a sense of rejection, people won’t want to have conversations with you.
Zhu: Because it’s always criticisms but no affirmations.
Xinping Zhuo: Yes. If you go to churches in the U.S, sadly there are not many people in there. If you go to the places of worship in China, they are packed. Why people don’t reflect on that? Why people don’t mention that? In this comparison, that’s what I mean that it is better that we look at the situation from an objective and fair perspective.
If you go to churches in the U.S, sadly there are not many people in there. If you go to the places of worship in China, they are packed. Why people don’t reflect on that? Why people don’t mention that? In this comparison, that’s what I mean that it is better that we look at the situation from an objective and fair perspective.
Zhu: You said that these situations happen in China but not in many other countries, is because the Chinese government intervenes in religion so that it can help religions but can also use them as a ready source of money? Would you say other countries don’t have these kinds of situations?
Xinping Zhuo: It’s not that there is absolutely no such thing in other countries, but it’s not as typical. There are two reasons why this happened. First is China’s overemphasis on GDP in its development phase, sometimes it puts religions as one of the developing factors too. This idea is understandable but unagreeable. Second is that the relationship between religions and the Chinese regime is different from Western countries. Looking at it from a historical perspective, the government’s control over religions had always been there. When you look at Europe, religions controlled everything during the Medieval Era, kings would kneel in front of religious leaders and make confessions. After the separation of church and state, they mind their own business, as if there is a clear separation. But if you take a look, it’s actually not that clear. It’s because within the cultural environment, religions and historical traditions are largely related. Because there are these foundations, religions themselves have very strong economic power. There are different conditions in different countries, we can’t just simply compare.
In order to understand if the development of contemporary Chinese society is improving or regressing, you have to know the development in the structural relationship between government and religion from ancient times to now. It’s very obvious that we are improving. That’s why I also mentioned this yesterday that the government management of religions is actually a double-edged sword. If it is not a qualified leader, it is likely that it will cause some problems for religion. But on the other hand, the managing process indeed helped religion to solve many specific, concrete problems. This is the positive side. Without any outside intervention, there is no positive influences, and of course no negative influences as well. You cannot say that is absolutely correct. I think this is not scientific.
Zhu: Because they all have benefits and drawbacks.
Xinping Zhuo: Yes. That’s why you need to analyze the situation specific to different countries.
Zhu: Like you said earlier, Chinese government is helping religions because it wants to “pay off the debt,” so it’s not mandatory. Why does the Chinese government choose to “pay the debt?”
Xinping Zhuo: There is a phrase called, “bringing order out of chaos.” To some extent, it is not mandatory, but from the societal management point of view, also from an ethical point of view, it is mandatory, because China has its own historical conditions. Besides, because the government is in a relatively strong position and religions are in a relatively weak position. It’s totally OK that the government helps religions to solve some problems. It’s also necessary during the transition stage of China.
Besides, the government is in a relatively strong position and religions are in a relatively weak position. It’s totally OK that the government helps religions to solve some problems.
Zhu: Do you have a religious belief yourself?
Xinping Zhuo: I am very candid. I am a Party member. I do research on different religions, with the focus on Christianity. But in the religious field, especially Christianity, I have a lot of friends that know my identity. It is not a contradictory issue. That why I would say religious belief and political belief are not confrontational, they are conversational.
Let me tell you a story. When I was studying abroad in Germany, I was the branch secretary for the international student [organization]. When I went back to China, some government units didn’t quite understand religion. When people found out that I was studying abroad for religious study, they asked, “are you some religious leader investigating me?” After the Party Secretary in my unit introduced me as the “Underground Munich City Party Secretary of the Party” they then thought I was trustworthy. It makes you think of some Western countries, including some people in America, that think Communists as some scary and horrifying figures, without having any contact with them. Some people in our branch see religious followers as horrifying and scary without getting to know them. People like me actually know both sides. People from both sides are kind people, but there are misunderstandings in-between that creates divisions. Can we eliminate the misunderstanding and eradicate the divisions? I think that’s the use of us studying religion.
It makes you think of some Western countries, including some people in America, that think Communists as some scary and horrifying figures, without having any contact with them. Some people in our branch see religious followers as horrifying and scary without getting to know them. People like me actually know both sides. People from both sides are kind people, but there are misunderstandings in-between that creates divisions. Can we eliminate the misunderstanding and eradicate the divisions? I think that’s the use of us studying religion.
Zhu: You want to create a “bridge”?
Xinping Zhuo: Yes. That’s the function.
Zhu: You doing research on religions as a Party member is actually already functioning as a “bridge.”
Xinping Zhuo: Yes. Many religious people also admitted that I have way more religious knowledge than they do. Often times I can totally be their teacher in some areas.
Zhu: You mentioned yesterday that religion is theism and idealism, Communism is atheism and materialism, so these two by nature are contradictory?
Xinping Zhuo: I was talking about a kind of understanding in China. Some people think that the ideologies of religion and socialism are incompatible. Some people think that religions are theism and idealism, our mainstream ideology is atheism and materialism. These two sides seem to be incompatible, I didn’t have time to elaborate on a deeper level. Actually when it comes to theism or atheism, it’s all about epistemology. Because whenever you discuss if there is a god or not, you have to first define what is your understanding of God. After getting this straight, then you can talk about if there is a god or not. While you are talking about that, you can converse. Theism and atheism can be a relationship through conversation, is not absolutely conflicting.
Theism and atheism can be a relationship through conversation, is not absolutely conflicting.
When you look at the history of China and also other countries regarding theism and atheism, it’s actually both conflicting and communicating. I think there is no absolute incompatible relationship. We can talk about epistemology, but it’s not absolutely isolated. It’s the same for idealism and materialism. Sometimes it’s hard to draw a line between idealism and materialism, or theism and atheism. Let me give you an example.
People say Confucius is an atheist because he said “Confucius did not talk about prodigies, force, disorders and gods.”(子不语怪力乱神) People also think Confucius is a theist because he also promotes “respecting [worshiping] God and following the examples of ancestry.” (敬天法祖) Why? Because if the sky is the natural sky, then you don’t need to worship it. When there is worshiping, it must be a sky with religious concept. Can you absolutely define Confucius as either theist or atheist? Some people think that Buddhism is a religion without God. Because the core of Buddhism – Buddha means consciousness, doesn’t mean God. That indicates that there is an understanding, you can discuss it on an intellectual level.
Zhu: What do you think of the relationship between science and religion?
Xinping Zhuo: My focus on the history of natural science causes me to observe this phenomenon that science is not all-powerful, because human knowledge is still improving. The knowledge of human beings is improving. There are some areas that people already know, and there are areas that they probably don’t. In the known areas, people can use scientific methods to explain. But in the areas that are unknown, the explanations don’t have absolute authority/credibility.
Let me give you an example. The former director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lu Yong Xiang presented a report saying that because the universe is unlimited, there are a lot of things that are impossible to find out. There are only 4% of the world that can be thoroughly explained with science, the rest 96% can’t be explained with science. But it’s a characteristic of human beings that we try to make sense of things that cannot be explained. At this time, there is no better or worse statements. Science, philosophy, and religion can be on the same level, and are able to have discussions. Within the realm of 4%, science is the absolute authority, no problem. But outside of the 4%, scientists also need to be cautious of what they say, which can be wrong. When we look at the cognition of human beings, it looks like a circle. Within the circle it’s known, outside of the circle is unknown. The more you know, the bigger the circumference of the circle is, then the more things you find out that you don’t know. This is the evolution of human knowledge. So speaking from that perspective, science and religions can communicate. You can also see that many scientists in the western countries are also sincere religious followers. Many people found it puzzling, but actually it’s very simple. Scientists can use science to explain within their field of research but outside of that, they are seeking answers too. That why they can resort to philosophy, or even religion. It’s completely understandable.
I used to say there is a thing as “scientific belief.” A typical example of that is the God Particle, the winner of Nobel Prize in Physics. More than 60 years ago, a scientist believed the existence of this particle but he couldn’t prove it. After more than 60 years, he proved it, so he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. With that being said, there are some things in science that before being fully proved are beliefs. Scientists search after their belief, and once proven, it becomes truth that can be fully explained. But it’s because of these different kinds of imagination that people can develop further. Science has imagination, and also religions, cultures, arts, and philosophy do as well.
Featured image from Flickr.
Siru (Rose) Zhu
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