A book deconstructs the “sinicization” of religion
Yang Fenggang, Gordon Melton and others explain what the word Xi Jinping so often hides.
by Massimo Introvigné
One of this year’s most important books on China was published by Brill (Leiden) under the title The sinicization of Chinese religions: from above and from below. It is edited by Richard Madsen, who proposes in the introduction a useful map to find your way around and presents the main issues. The book clarifies, with examples, what is the “sinicization” of religion, or perhaps two “sinicizations”, one imposed by the government “from above” and the other resulting from adaptive processes. “from below”.
Perhaps the most important chapter of the text is the first, written by the famous scholar of Chinese religion Yang Fenggang. It calls into question the very translation of 中國化 (zhongguo hua) as “sinization”. Traditionally, in English, the word “sinization” was used to translate 汉化 (han hua). The problem is that zhongguo hua and han hua are two different things. Hanhua indicates a cultural process where foreign organizations or systems of thought are adapted to Chinese language, tradition and aesthetics. For Christians, Yang argues, this “has been happening since the initial introduction of Christianity to China.” This was the very program of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci since the 16and century.
Zhongguohuaexplains Yang, does not have the same meaning, and using the same English word, “sinization”, to translate the two han hua and zhongguo hua creates both linguistic and political confusion. Originally, zhongguo hua was mainly used in Marxist studies. Chairman Mao first used the phrase “zhongguo hua of Marxism” in 1938. This meant adapting Marxism to the needs of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than simply repeating the Soviet Union.
Since the 1980s, says Yang, zhongguo hua was also used for Buddhist studies, but in this area historical falsification has emerged. It has been argued that Buddhism only succeeded in China when it agreed to submit to the state, and that was part of its zhongguo hua. This may be historically wrong, but it has become the official view of Buddhism in China.
Other dimensions of the CCP’s control over Buddhism and Buddhist history, rulers, visual memories, and monasteries are presented in the chapters by Huang Weishan and Wang Dong. The first applies the concept of “reinventing a tradition” to the situation of Buddhism in China, and the second explores how the famous Buddhist stone images of Luoyang, Henan province, have been alternately praised and criticized as the expression of a true tradition. religious culture “Sinicized” or, on the contrary, as not being “Chineseized” enough.
Somewhat poisoning the well, Yang argues, were the militant atheists, for whom zhongguo hua was religion’s submission to the state to preside over its slow demise, Yang notes that atheists lost power in the 1980s and 1990s but made a comeback in 1999, when they succeeded in persuading the CCP that action should be taken against Falun Gong (a decision with tragic consequences). They have become even more influential under Xi Jinping.
Yang insists that the pervasive influence of militant atheists, who also used zhongguo hua as a slogan to criticize the neutral scientific study of religion in Chinese universities, must be considered to understand how zhongguo hua is applied to Christians (and Muslims) and why they resist it. It is now clear that zhongguo hua does not mean adopting Chinese cultural styles (in fact, according to the CCP, even Taoism, which is essentially Chinese, should be subject to zhongguo hua) but subject to the Party and its ideology.
In essence, Yang concludes, zhongguo hua is “political domestication”, but if a more literal translation is needed, he suggests using “chinafication” to distinguish zhongguo hua from han huawhich aptly translates to “sinicization”.
Another very Chinese tradition that is now “Sinicized”, asserts Chen Yong in his chapter, is Confucianism. While the word “Confucianism”, coined by Matteo Ricci in the 16and century, is never used, since Xi Jinping’s visit to Confucius’ residence in Qufu in 2013 (which no CCP leader had visited before), official speeches and documents are full of Confucian notions and references ( implicit). However, they refer to what Chen calls “official Confucianism”, i.e. a Confucianism reinvented by the CCP and Xi Jinping, not considered a religion, and used selectively by taking up supposedly or actually compatible elements. with Marxism.
The book chose to steer clear of Tibet and Xinjiang, and Alexander Stewart’s chapter on Islam focuses on the Hui, i.e. Han Chinese Muslims, rather than their Turkish counterparts. Among the Hui, notes Stewart, “sinicization” is somewhat paradoxical. The CCP actually promotes the construction or restoration of Hui mosques (except when it suspects they may harbor dissidents) because in the Party’s narrative they display “Chinese characteristics” and thus show the country what should resembling a “good” Islam, as opposed to the “bad” Islam of the Uyghurs.
However, the CCP also ensures that Hui mosques do not become places of excessive religious fervor, and some of them are treated as museums. A good example, Stewart notes, is the Hui Culture Park Mosque in Yinchuan, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, where tourists are invited to experience a “Sinicized” Islam, but there are “no toilets, no of the Koran, no imams”. , and certainly no prayer. Most Hui refuse to play the role of extras in this side show and join revivalist movements encouraging them to pray silently at home.
In the final chapter, Gordon Melton returns to a theme familiar to readers of bitter winterhow the old expression xie jiao has been used by the CCP to assert that some new religious movements are in fact not religious but simply anti-social or criminal organizations. To arouse the sympathy of Western anti-sectarians, the government, in its official document in Western language, translates xie jiao (meaning “heterodox teachings”) as “cults” or “evil cults”, which, according to Melton, “has led to considerable misunderstanding of the situation in China by Westerners”.
Melton notes that the term xie jiao was applied by the CCP to three groups of movements. First to be banned as xie jiao was the network of different groups in the tradition of Chinese preachers Watchman Nee and Witness Lee, known in China as “Shouters”. Melton claims that by the time he wrote the article (2018), the CCP had begun to distinguish between different groups called “Shouters”, suppressing some as xie jiao and tolerate others, although more recent reports of bitter winter correspondents in China may indicate that, at least in several provinces, this distinction is lost on the local anti-xie-jiao police.
Paradoxically, Melton said, the growing repression of house churches drove them underground, separated them from mainstream Christian theology, and fostered the emergence of new Christian religious movements with a theology that the historic churches viewed as heterodox. none more successful, and therefore more persecuted, than The Church of Almighty God.
The CCP was also concerned about a possible “invasion” of xie jiao. The concern may have been exaggerated, but it is true that South Korean movements have made inroads among Koreans in China and other groups (not all considered xie jiao by the Party, and some tolerated by the way) came from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Finally, after the 1999 incident, Falun Gong and other qigong movements have become the main target of the repression of xie jiaoalthough recently, at least in some provinces, the main target of anti-xie-jiao specialized police has been the Church of Almighty God.
Personally, I agree with the proposal of the Chinese researcher Zhang Xinzhang, who in an article published in 2020 (as he reports, after a dialogue with the undersigned) suggested that in order to avoid both political and theoretical confusion xie jiao should not be translated into English, just as no one translates qigong Where Kung Fu.
I am also persuaded by Yang’s argument that “chinafication” is better than “sinicization” for zhongguo hua—or maybe zhongguo hua may also be left in its transliteration from Chinese. However, we are not faced with simple misunderstandings. Translating xie jiao as “sects” or zhongguo hua because “Sinicization” serves important political purposes, and the CCP’s immensely powerful propaganda machine will continue to promote these misleading translations.