Chinese Religiosities

With the Olympics going on, much attention is gathering around China’s policies on religion. Speaking of Faith took a look at China and its religious identity crisis of sorts a couple of weeks ago when Krista Tippett talked to professor and documentary director Mayfair Yang:

Put the words “religion” and “China” in a sentence together, and Western imaginations may go to indifference at best, to brutal repression at worst. Yet in grand historical perspective, China is a crucible of religious and philosophical thought and practice. Anthropologist and filmmaker Mayfair Yang says that the upheavals of the 20th century created an amnesia — in the West as in China itself — about this rich, pluralistic spiritual inheritance. She traces some of this story for us, and describes a subtle new revival of reverence and ritual.

Yang traces the history of the Chinese spiritual traditions and of attempts to squelch them by Protestant missionaries in the 19th century who reacted strongly to Chinese rituals–which reminded them of Catholic ritual, says Yang. In addition, she explains, priests of all China’s myriad faith traditions were seen as having too much influence and a threat to secular authority. And lastly, the monastic lifestyle that many Buddhists and others preferred was not seen as productive enough–the practice of meditating all day was seen as indolent. The result in the 20th century was sharp and reactionary, to turn away from spirit and instead direct their energy toward science, and to move also toward authoritarian regimes (not just the communists).

But now, it’s the 21st century, and China is easing up on some of those faith traditions. Religion is being seen as an antidote for materialism and capitalism. And people are experiencing a desire to explore their ancestral roots, and to have comfort and reassurance of what will happen to them when they day—age old concerns for the spiritually hungry.

She closes out with an explanation of the significance of the eights with regard to the Beijing Olympics that started last night:

Ms. Yang: And Chinese culture, you know, is so long and enduring, there are such wonderful things in its past that needs to be recuperated and revived, because it can play a very beneficial role for all the modern problems that China faces today.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Just my last question. Explain this to me, that the Beijing Olympics will begin on the eighth day of the eighth month of the year ’08 at 8:08:08 p.m.

Ms. Yang: Yes. Right. Well, it’s because the number eight, ba in Mandarin and also Cantonese, it rhymes with the word fa. Fa means, you know, develop and expand. It means, you know, it often has this kind of economic meaning of get rich. Which is like good luck, prosperity, good luck, good fortune. And so the eight is magical. You’ll never find the number eight available for your cell phone number if, you know, you get to pick your cell phone number, because that’s already taken by other people.

This link takes you to the podcast version of the episode as well as its transcript, outtakes, and a number of other extras Tippett posted online and on her blog.

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