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More study needed on religious life in China

HONG KONG (SE): Researchers at the Purdue Centre on Religion and Chinese Society are getting together with the China Data Centre at the University of Michigan to conduct a Spatial Study of Chinese Religions in Society.

The research will focus on Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism and will be funded by the Henry Luce Foundation to the tune of US$400,000 ($3.1 million), the Imperial Valley News reported from California, the United States of America (US), on January 14.

“The religious landscape in China is still limited as we rely on government-provided data, so collecting additional data can help expand what we know about religious groups,” Yang Fenggang, from the Purdue Centre, said.

Yang said that much attention is currently being focussed on the explosive growth of Christianity, but he believes that it is necessary to study the reality of all religions in order to gain a balanced view and appreciation of what is happening on the religious field in China today.

“China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world in less than two decades, which is astounding considering religion was banned just a few decades ago and is still restricted today,” Yang, a professor of sociology and director of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue, said.

“But, how the country’s religious scene is changing beyond Christianity needs to be understood as well, as these changes can affect the economical, cultural and political landscape of the world’s largest country,” he explained.

He said that the topic is especially topical at present, because the new leadership on China of Xi Jingping has not set out a clear policy on religion at this stage.

He added that outside of the six religious faiths approved by the government—Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism, Islam and Protestantism—there are many other faiths that are thriving, despite not having government approval.

“There are still many other faiths not approved by the government, but they exist and some are thriving,” Yang, who is also the author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule, told the Imperial Valley News.

“It will be interesting to see what tone this government sets, or doesn’t, regarding tolerance or support that could influence religious groups,” he commented.

He added that although the government does provide basic data on religious activity, it is unreliable and often coloured for political reasons, so it cannot be relied upon.

Yang says that more demographic information is needed in order to identify which religions are embraced by various economic or urban and rural groups in China.

He wants to rally well-known scholars from around the US, Europe and China, as well as train new ones, in developing a social scientific study of religion in China.

Yang said that all information gained in the study will be available for public use, as the goal is to build a platform for people to learn more about religion in China.


The Imperial Valley News says that Yang, whose research focuses on immigrant religion in the US, Chinese Christianity around the world, and religious change and Church-state relations in China, is also the author of Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities.

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