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Introduction: religious revival of ethnic China.

Over the past three decades, Chinese "ethnic areas" (minzu diqu) have experienced widespread religious revival. Religious populations are steadily increasing as the religious infrastructure expands under governmental or non-governmental sponsorship. The restoration of sacred sites appeals to the larger ethnic populations for reasons relating to community and identity (re-)creation. The officially recognised religions are reviving different regimes of transcendence in the ethnically diversified localities. Unofficial, transnational, or radical movements and denominations are engaging in activities either in the sphere of underground proselytising or non-governmental organisation (NGO) instruments. Popular religions are being legitimised through ethnic renaissance and are being embraced by astonishingly large populations. They are also being commercialised by local state agents who are given incentives to generate revenue by translating invented traditions into tourist attractions. Ancestor veneration and the Daoist rituals of consulting almanacs, geomancy, horoscopes and spirit mediums are seasoned with ethnic flavour. However, growing social, political and economic disparities are engendering greater anxiety among people who are seeking answers through the old ways such as oracle reading, mask dances, sutra chanting or karma fairs. The flow of capital, symbols, ideas and practices nationally and globally also poses unprecedented problems of religious pluralism in these increasingly mobile multi-ethnic areas.

Religious revival and ethnic tensions are two emerging challenges to China as well as to the field of China Studies. The subject of religious revival in ethnic areas is rarely broached either in empirical studies or theoretical analysis. The lack of knowledge is partly attributed to the old departmentalisation of disciplines introduced by early intellectuals, i.e., the study of "Chinese religions" has traditionally focused on Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and the so-called "popular religions", whereas Buddhism practised in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, Islam in Xinjiang and the northwest, and of Christianity among the Hmong and the Lisu ethnic minorities, have been classified as not "Chinese". However, 64 per cent of the PRC's landmass, currently inhabited by over 200 million ethnic people alone, has been under the jurisdiction of "ethnic regional autonomy" for decades. This has always prompted aggressive questioning from scholars of "Chinese religions". Should they cover alternative centralities, cultural hybridity, connectedness and syncretism? In my cynical view, with the ongoing challenges and periodic breakout of crises related to ethnic-cum-religious issues, is it justifiable for social scientists to look only at China's "eastern half"?

This special issue examines the current revival of religious faith and practices in China's ethnic areas, and investigates the rationale and variations of revival, as well as the implications to China and Asia. It seeks to move beyond the general discussions of applicability of the state-society model to more sophisticated interpretations based on empirical and ethnographic study of the ethnic areas. The five articles here attempt to explore China's ethnic segregation, ethno-religious nationalism, risk society and folk religion, appropriation of religious practice and temple restoration. Each article focuses on issues of particular importance and can be read in retrospect to draw a unique perspective, but the authors agree that empirical studies on Chinese religion and ethnicity should contextualise the larger challenges of China and Asia in general.

The first article, by Ma Rong, lays out China's "dual structure" of Han versus ethnic minorities, a dichotomy which is extremely palpable but largely neglected. Tracing its historical roots, Ma argues that the ethnic classification project in the 1950s, together with the high sensitivity attached to the ethnic issues, tight control of discourse and preferential policies, make ethnic minorities increasingly isolated from the overall Chinese society. The dichotomy is manifested in the academic community, education system, government and entertainment industry. Ethnic separation is so ubiquitous that one can argue that, under the current policies, the ethnic minorities are preferentially segregated from the Han under a form of positive discrimination. The article brings forth how Chinese society in general, and the academic circle in particular, view the ethnic minorities. They are "seeing like a state", by which China is examined only by half as far as many disciplines of social sciences are concerned. This article contextualises the religious issues in the ethnic areas of China.

The second article, by Naran Bilik, analyses the nuanced roles of Chinggis Khan worship in the troubled Mongol identity, from the vantage point of cognitive anthropology. By contextualising the ritualised worship of Chinggis Khan with respect to ethnic relations (minzu guanxi) and nation-building, this article shows how the symbolism of Chinggis Khan is fabricated, manipulated and ritualised in a complex interaction of geopolitical power and constantly changing landscape of ethnicity. Central to the article is the distinction between Chinggis Khan as a form of "intuitive belief", as a result of instinctive perception of the Mongols, and Chinggis Khan as "reflective belief", transformed by virtue of second-order belief and manipulative geopolitical powers. Beyond demarcating between the "authentic" and "artificial", this article outlines the intricate process that has contributed to the diversity in Chinggis Khan symbolism, and the materiality of this paramount symbol manifested in a continuum of ethnicity-cum-nationalism. It explains the intersection of ethnicity and religion in contemporary China, offering added value in comparative studies.

Shen Haimei's article describes the reaction and response of the Dai Lue people of Mandi Village to the development projects in China's southwest borderland. With the introduction of the rubber industry and other lifestyles, in the name of what the author calls "modernity", the social solidarity of the Dai Lue people has changed from the Durkheimian "mechanical" to the Durkheimian "organic". However, Shen deems the rapidly increasing multitude of risks and social problems experienced by the villagers a result of this shift. The income gap, consumerist competition, degradation of natural environment and locking up of homes and properties for security--when in the past, there was "no need to lock the door at night" in Mandi--are all indicators of the growing risks detrimental to the supposedly equilibrated mode of living characterised by reciprocity. Shen utilises the case study of the combined shrine of the village and regional guardian spirits to aptly highlight this profound change: on the one hand, new risks are presented to the old spirits in search of solutions; on the other, the old spirits must be combined and consecrated in order to enhance their power. The reverberating effects of global capitalism and folk religion result in a trend contrary to the classical secularist thesis. Religion does not decline in the face of modernity. Rather, in the remote Dai Lue village, it is "modernity" that has activated religious revival.

The article by Liang Yongjia adopts a similar treatment to that of Naran Bilik as it examines the different meanings that the state and local practitioners accord to religious practice. The Gwer Sa La Festival, celebrated by the Bai minority in southwest China, is a major festive occasion for households and local congregations to conduct rituals in revitalising the power of fertility and wealth through a chain of encompassment of different moral communities. Though it has been viewed with contempt for over a century, the local state agent nonetheless launched a strong campaign in 2005 to turn it into an intangible cultural heritage (ICH) Project, and to attach high cultural value to it. However, without engaging with and empowering the local practitioners, the state agent created an illusive image of the Festival associated with a primitive fertility cult, sexual promiscuity and sacred remembrance. This article argues that the state's efforts to turn Gwer Sa La into an ICH Project was an attempt of "superscription without encompassment". While analogous to the imperial court's attempts to legitimise religious practice, the state's attempts to reclaim its authority--in this case, a folk religion of an ethnic minority--are failing to superscribe local meanings into the practice. This article offers a critical analysis of the flood of ICH applications filed by Chinese state agents and demonstrates how religious identities intersect with ethnicity. It also show how this has become a popular avenue through which state officials are attempting to fabricate "fake" culture.

The final article, by Zhang Yahui, discusses in the context of its deep historical background, the restoration of a Lama temple. The Puning Temple, technically administered by the local Bureau of Religious Affairs of Chengde, was once an important imperial temple in the sophisticated network of Gelugpa monasteries that enjoyed prestige and royal patronage. The restoration process follows a secularist logic which ensures that the economic value or returns of the temple become a priority, i.e., that the sangha be financially independent and that tourist ticket sales become a source of income generation for the government. Zhang argues that it would be a mistake, however, to simplify the restoration process into a state-religion dichotomy. Rather, one should appreciate that there are different stakeholders involved in the temple's restoration: the government with its different and often conflicting interests, the personal networks of abbots and monks, the external actors (e.g., foreign academics and envoys of the Dalai Lama) and the pilgrims and tourists. This article is the only one in this special issue that deals with one of China's officially recognised religions, Tibetan Buddhism, whose rich history provides substantial context in which to elucidate the current wave of temple restoration.

The article contributions to this special issue were presented at the Religious Revival in Ethnic Areas of China Workshop held on 25-26 August 2011 at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. They will be complemented by more papers in other publications. The contributors believe it is a good time for China specialists to adopt a more holistic view of the intersection between religion and ethnicity, a challenge that is increasingly urgent in China in terms of academic discourse as well as policy-making.

Liang Yongjia ( is Professor of Anthropology at China Agricultural University, Beijing. He received his PhD in Anthropology from Peking University. His current research interests include religious revival in China, secularism and ethnicity in post-imperial China, and comparative study of world renunciation and kingship.
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Title Annotation:PART ONE: Special Issue on the Religious Revival of Ethnic China
Author:Liang, Yongjia
Publication:China: An International Journal
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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