Belief in contemporary China

Li Xiangping (李向平) is a professor of the Center for Research for Religion and Peace at Shanghai University. His essays about religion and society appear in a variety of publications, most notably the newsweekly Window of the South (Danwei translated a piece of his on Buddhism in Dazhai).

Li posts many of these pieces to his personal blog, which make it a fascinating window on the ways that faith is expressed in contemporary China. Li’s subjects include faith and Chinese modernity, the development of spirituality over the last several decades, the relationship between personal faith and organized religion, and the disposition of the government toward faith and religion.

In his most recent piece (written for Window), Li provides a brief rundown on what he means by faith/belief:

Although most Chinese do not claim a religious identity, they have their own beliefs, which means that their belief model is not dependent upon a religious organization but is expressed though a means of their own choosing. This creates a faith and means of expression that is highly random, personalized, and even secretive. When people cannot enter into the field of religious practice, faith and expression are dependent on an individual believer’s unique situation and convenience. Therefore, the poor seek fortune-tellers while the rich burn incense in temples, and a trinity of masters, officials, and the rich define the scope of faith.

A fair number of the posts were written for publication in academic journals and include bibliographies that make interesting reading on their own.

Some recommended posts:

A faith model worthy of suspicion: Leading off with the Li Yi phenomenon (a Daoist master who promoted astonishing powers of healing), Li discusses contemporary Daoism:

Although the use of bodily cultivation as a means of revitalizing and developing Chinese Daoism is naturally an internal Daoist affair, its functions and effects are social phenomena that deserve careful study. Particularly: who is coming for this cultivation? That is, who is creating this form of Daoist faith? The key issue is whether a Daoist developmental model that treats cultivation as faith will be one widely accepted in China. Will it become a generally-trusted belief system? Will countless ordinary people turn to Daoism through cultivation? The cultivation-faith observed in the Li Yi phenomenon indicates that under this cultivation model, the believers are mostly the rich and powerful. They are cultivating themselves, and what they believe in is only their own personal worth and power.


“From ‘Crisis of Faith’ to ‘Crisis of Religion'”: Personal faith has grown during the reform era, but many of these believers do not identify with religion.

Whose religious faith is it? Li addresses the controversy over the Shaolin Temple’s decision to go public on the stock market.

Culture Wars in China: Is Buddhism part of guoxue, classical Chinese “national learning”?

We’ve all been made believers!:

For thousands of years, paying respects on the new year has been a completely voluntary belief custom of the Chinese people, one that public power has not interfered with. This year, however, “Paying new year’s respects to the motherland” has become a political duty. This involves all sorts of problems and has attracted a wave of criticism. Not only does it concern how the new year is celebrated and honored, it is also closely connected to how the Chinese people can feel at ease today.

Li’s most recent essays on faith and religious identity have been collected in Believing Without Identifying: The Sociological Interpretation of Spiritual Beliefs in Contemporary China (信仰但不认同:当代中国信仰的社会诠释), which was published earlier this year.

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