Purdue University College of Liberal Arts College of Liberal Arts logo

THiNK Magazine logo

Story's Main Image

A Different Look

Spring 2012 | By Della Pacheco. Photo by Yuanming Cao.

This above photographic collage was created by Shanghai artist Yuanming Cao, who traveled to hundreds of Central China villages to photograph the development of Christian churches in rural areas where such religious structures were not allowed just a few decades ago. The images were displayed at Purdue in 2010 as part of "Strangers No More: Village Churches on the Good Earth of the Sacred Land."

Few countries in the world have experienced more profound economic changes over the past 20 years than China. By allowing entrepreneurs to thrive and letting the market drive purchasing and production, China's economy has grown to become second only to that of the United States.

While its economy has boomed, this country of 1.3 billion people has also experienced a resurgence of religious faith.

A 2010 study conducted by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation found that there are more Muslims in China than in the whole of Europe, more practicing Protestants than in Great Britain, more practicing Catholics than in Italy, and an estimated 100 million or more who consider themselves Buddhists.

With this level of religious activity, it's not surprising that religion is playing a large role in Chinese economic reform and growth. Much has been written about the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong sought to replace religion, social tradition, literature, and art with communist ideology. Historical artifacts were destroyed, and cultural and religious sites ransacked in an attempt to replace Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism with atheism and secular ideology.

A sea change occurred after Mao's death in 1976, when many of these actions were renounced. Three decades later, while the official government position still advocates atheism, those in leadership positions recognize the importance of faith as a source of values, not ideology, and a means to create a more harmonious society.

Two Chinese-born Purdue professors have conducted extensive research on the role of religion and philosophical values and are working to build bridges of understanding between the U.S. and China.

Fenggang Yang
Twelve years ago sociology professor Fenggang Yang became one of the first scholars to study religious trends, practices, and beliefs in China. Yang continues his studies by focusing on what role religion plays in Chinese business, as well as expanding his work to focus on a variety of religions. Photo by Andrew Hancock.

Clarifying Confucianism

As China has developed economically, there has been a move toward embracing Confucian values in contemporary life.

Wei Hong, professor of Chinese and director of the Confucius Institute at Purdue, says the traditional values of respect, modesty, and responsible consumption are being promoted by the Chinese central government as a way to create a harmonious society — harmony being one of the central values of Confucius.

Wei Hong

Wei Hong, (left) professor of Chinese and director of the Confucius Institute at Purdue, teaches Kaew Ngern the art of calligraphy during a class activity for the China Immersion Learning Community. Photo by Mark Simons.

Immersed In Chinese

Brandy Selleck, a first-year student from Logansport, Indiana, who knew little about China's culture or language, signed up for a fall semester program that took her beyond the classroom to learn side-by-side with other beginning students who had similar interests in China.

"I had minimal knowledge about China and Chinese traditions," says Selleck, who is a linguistics major. "But I really wanted to experience China firsthand. I hope to become fluent in Chinese as well as other languages. My participation in this learning community has really provided a jump start for me."

The China Immersion Learning Community is designed for students who share a common interest in the Chinese language, culture, society, and economy. Wei Hong, professor of Chinese and director of the Confucius Institute at Purdue, leads the program. This year the students not only took classes together, but also lived together in the same area of McCutcheon Hall. Even though the learning community officially ended after the fall semester, the students continue to reside in the same area, where they can interact and study second-semester Chinese together.

Besides their language skills, students learned about Chinese civilization and culture including history, art, geography, ancient philosophy, and contemporary Chinese society. Outside of the classroom, the students participated in weekly Chinese tea hours, attended the Chinese Moon Festival, viewed Chinese films, practiced hands-on calligraphy, and visited Chinese art exhibits and restaurants.

Learning communities not only help first-year students adjust to college but also boost their academic performance and increase the likelihood they will return the following year. Selleck says that being grounded in a small group helped her overcome anxiety about attending a large university.

"Coming to a new place the size of Purdue can be overwhelming, but having a small intimate group is a relief," she says.

"Confucianism, often thought of in the West as a religion, rather is a philosophy or set of values," Hong explains. "The government has seen people move away from the core values of communal versus individual, social order, harmony, and respect as the economy grows." Confucianism was a major target of criticism and annihilation by the Chinese Communists during the Cultural Revolution. Confucianism was not promoted until the 21st century, when the legitimacy of the Community Party was in serious crisis. Reconsidering these values today is seen as a way to move Chinese society forward.

According to Kang Xiaoguang, a prominent academic in mainland China and an advocate for the revival of Confucianism, the debate isn't about whether or not to resurrect Confucianism but rather whether to integrate its principles into the education system, a political ideology, or a national religion. China established a $10 billion fund to sponsor a worldwide network of schools that promote Chinese culture and language. The project, called the Chinese Bridge Program, is a first step to a wider global acceptance of Confucian philosophy.

Confucian scholars say adopting these principles is key to economic growth, both in China and the U.S. Because of this trend, Purdue's Confucius Institute is assisting local and state elected officials and business leaders to learn how to relate Confucian tenets to increase trade opportunities and cultural exchanges.

"Indiana is rich in manufacturing, agriculture, and technology and continues to increase business ties with China," Hong says. "I have been speaking to the business community and mayors on why it is important to understand the history, value system, and society of China before working with its people. Business practices there are much influenced by Confucian values."

Confucianism is good for business

In February 2011, the Confucius Institute at Purdue hosted the Indiana Mayoral Roundtable on China, bringing together mayors from all parts of the state to participate in a workshop on ways to attract Chinese companies to Indiana. Guoqiang Yang, consul general of the Consulate of the People's Republic of China to Chicago, shared his insights on doing business in China.

Hong says that "Li, one of the five essential elements in Confucianism, contributes to China's economic modernization with its prescription of social order, hierarchy, and human relation, a system that, Confucius believes, needs to be maintained in order to reach a social harmony."

She says the rapid economic growth in China is a combination of a market-based economy guided by Confucian values, evidenced by economic developments in many Asian countries and regions that are culturally influenced by Confucianism.

Another example is the rapid growth of family businesses and their management styles, "heavily shaped by Confucian values that stress family order and prosperity," Hong says.

Fenggang Yang, professor of sociology and director of Purdue's Center on Religion and Chinese Society, has spent the last 12 years researching religion and spirituality in the world's most populous nation. Yang grew up in rural northern China in a country where religious expression was suppressed and restricted under the Communist regime.

Yang has also seen a revival in Confucian ethics and values in China's economy. The emphasis on working hard, acquiring education, respecting seniors, respecting order, and being frugal have influenced the marketplace, he says.

In a recent essay in Asia Policy, Yang points to growing popularity of religious Confucianism as evidenced in the restoration of Confucius temples and memorial rituals throughout the country, the widespread reading of Confucian classics among school children and adults, and the proliferation of guoxue or the Confucian Studies.

Tiananmen Square
More students from China than any other country study in the United States, and the same is true at Purdue. Some of these students participate in the American Studies program to learn more about the United States. Photo of Tiananmen Square by Stuart Slimp.

On the flip side: Focusing on America

Students from China compose the largest demographic of international students studying in the United States, and they also represent one of the largest international groups interested in learning more about America through the American Studies field.

Bill Mullen, professor of American Studies and English, says Chinese students share a fascination with American political power because of America's historical position as a dominant country in the hierarchy of nations. "American and Chinese students are fascinated by the perception of China now rivaling America's power both politically and economically," he says. "This makes for very interesting discussions in the classroom."

The liveliest discussions often center on civil rights, race, and gender rights. "The U.S. has been through a number of civil rights struggles," Mullen explains. "Chinese students are interested in trying to understand the levels of discrimination that have operated in the U.S. historically. China doesn't havethe same history of civil rights struggles and they don't have the same categories of race."

China sees itself as a country of one dominant ethnic group — the Han majority — and a number of other small ethnic minorities. Mullen says in the classroom Chinese students often try to compare U.S. race relations with ethnic relations in China.

"Those discussions create a lot of complexity, conflict, and sometimes misunderstanding, because the social makeup of the two countries is so different," Mullen says. "A bi-national classroom provides opportunity for students to articulate their identities, values, and struggles in a way that can be transformative for everyone."

Many students who have taken these classes are African American, Latino and Asian American. They find it challenging to explain to a more homogeneous society how regional and ethnic differences work in America.

Since President Barack Obama's election in 2008, there has been a heightened interest in China in the history of race and civil rights in the U.S. The Chinese view President Obama as a product of that struggle and see him, in some ways, as a turning point in American history.

Chinese students often point to Tiananmen Square as a turning point in their own history, yet Mullen says many are unfamiliar with details about the event. To illustrate his point, he tells of being at a 2010 seminar held in China, when Professor Jin Hengshan, the director of American Studies at East China Normal University, one of Purdue's collaborative partners, showed a documentary about Tiananmen Square. Mullen says it was the first time that the young Chinese students had seen the famous image of the protester standing in front of a tank. The revelation was extraordinary for everyone present.

Because the students had not personally participated in anything like Tiananmen Square or the American civil rights movement, both professors hoped to show them how people fight for things like individual rights and democracy.

"It was a great teaching moment," Mullen says.

Religion in China, a revival

The Chinese government officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. While Yang is currently analyzing data he has collected about these religions and Confucianism, the bulk of his published research has centered on the resurgence of Christian religions. He sees the effects on economic reforms being influenced by this resurgence.

"The market transition has come along with social corruptions and moral crises," he says. "Is there anything to counter material greed in the market economy?" Yang, the author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival Under Communist Rule, asserts that religion can be that counterbalance. He first studied its resurgence within Christian faiths, and is expanding deeper into other religions, such as Islam.

For example, in a study he conducted on Christian ethics and market transition, Yang found that Christian workers are favored by private-sector employers because they tend to be more disciplined and honest. Christian entrepreneurs also are seen as more trustworthy in their business dealings as they press the government for rule of law for the market order.

Emerging from this convergence of religious ethics and economic growth are "boss Christians," Chinese entrepreneurs recognized by the Chinese media as principled, disciplined, ambitious, and global thinking.

Until the 1980s, there were four perceptions of Christians in China, Yang says: they were less educated or illiterate, predominantly women, old, and in rural areas. Suddenly now there are rich, powerful business people who are not powerful political leaders, but who wield enormous economic power.

Oriental Pearl Tower
Shanghai, China, illuminated here by the Oriental Pearl Tower, is a hub of business and commerce for China as the country's largest city. Photo by Wei Hong.

In another study, Yang interviewed 300 Chinese entrepreneurs who are Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, or Confucian. Although followers of these practices are still a minority in China, Yang says these religious entrepreneurs appear to be shaping the market economy.

Recently Yang has analyzed data on Chinese Muslims as a religious minority in a non-Islamic society that has been undergoing rapid economic and social changes. In the emerging market economy of China, Yang has identified five distinguishable types of Chinese Muslim business people: socially detached, socially engaged, pragmatic, traditionalist, and secular. Understanding these different styles can provide valuable information about how Islam is compatible with modernity and with non-Islamic cultures, Yang says. Having lived as ethnic and religious minorities in China for more than a thousand years, Chinese Muslims not only have been able to adapt to Chinese culture in the past, but also have developed the ability to deal with the complexities of a fast-growing modern Chinese society.

Change in just a decade

What has been most surprising to Yang is the rapid change in public expressions of religion. When he began his research 12 years ago, few people in China were aware of religious practice in their own neighborhoods.

"No one seemed aware of the presence of Christian churches or Muslim mosques — places that might be just 500 meters away," Yang says. "Finding them meant clandestine meetings with locals.

"I had to gain trust. They had to make phone calls to confirm who I said I was and then they might say, 'Let's meet at a McDonald's restaurant.' My contact would take me on a circuitous route, ending up at an apartment that was actually close by — all to confuse me."

Only three to four years later, these same house churches became public with open congregations that anyone could visit.

"The spiritual awakening taking place today is worthwhile to watch because it will have long-term effects in China and the world," Yang says.

Share via E-mail


Comments will be added to the story after review by a moderator. Name and e-mail address are optional, but if you would like an email response to your comment, please indicate this and provide your contact details.