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May 16, 2008

Professor: Religious growth in China fueled by economy

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -
Fenggang Yang
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China's religious growth is driven by the rapid development of the country's market economy, says a Purdue University sociologist who studies religions in China.

"China's role in the economy and international issues have captured the spotlight for many years, but it's only recently, thanks to the Beijing Olympics, that the religious and spiritual trends are drawing attention," says Fenggang Yang, an associate professor of sociology who spoke Wednesday (May 14) at the Washington, D.C., National Press Club seminar "China, Religion and Human Rights."

The 2008 Summer Olympics are in Beijing in August.

"There have been sweeping and rapid changes in China, such as industrialization, urbanization and overall democratization, and there is a religious dimension that affects all these areas of growth," he says. "People have a spiritual need that the government cannot fulfill. Now, all kinds of religions are flourishing in China. It is a common pattern that people turn to religion to seek solace when there are such rapid and dramatic changes in society."

The Chinese government officially allows five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism, says Yang, who also is director of Purdue's Center on Religion and Chinese Society. In addition, many other traditional and new religious groups are increasing in numbers as well.

"Religion in China is much more diverse than many Americans realize," he says.

At the National Press Club, Yang described nine religious trends occurring in China today.

Christianity is growing the fastest, Yang says. In the 1950s there were 3.4 million Christians, and now that estimate ranges from 23-130 million, but such numbers are hard to confirm because religion has been and still is considered a politically sensitive topic by the Chinese authorities, he says.

More people in China practice Buddhism and Daoism than Christianity, but fewer have formally joined as members of Buddhism or Daoism.

"This is an interesting relationship because many people will not identify themselves as Buddhist or Daoist, but those same individuals will report they worship the Buddha or practice Daoism," Yang says. "The Chinese government and party leaders also seem to promote these two religions.

"Daoism-based popular beliefs such as feng shui and numerology are widespread."

Numerology is even reflected in the start of the Olympics. As eight is considered a lucky number, the games will start at 8 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 2008.

The Chinese government reports that 22 million people in China are Muslims. Yang says that not every Hui or Uygur, the so-called Muslim ethnic minorities, practices Islam. Islam has attracted converts among Han people, the ethnic majority who account for more than 90 percent of the Chinese population.

"We are just beginning to understand the role religion plays in this large country and how this growth will affect China's neighbors in the global village," Yang says. "The Olympics sparked much of the world's interest in China's religions, and it will be interesting to see how the global spotlight shines in this country come August."

Yang directed a three-year project from 2005-08 that focused on training Chinese scholars to study religion and improve Americans' understanding of religious issues in China.

Growing up, Yang had no idea what religion was. He lived in a village near Beijing during the period of 1966-79 when leader Mao Zedong forbade religion in communist China. The bans on religion were lifted in 1979.

He is the author of "Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation and Adhesive Identities" and is co-editor of "Asian American Religious: The Making and Remaking of Borders and Boundaries" and "State, Market and Religion in Chinese Societies."

Yang also is studying whether Christian ethics have an impact on the emerging market economy in China and why urban Chinese tend to convert to Christianity. His work is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Fenggang Yang, (765) 494-2641, fyang@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: Fenggang Yang is pronounced FUN-GUNG YOUNG

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