Conference on Study of Christianity Held in Beijing, Focusing on "Rural Religious Fervor"

The 2019 Conference on the Study of Christianity was held in Beijing in Oct 2019.
The 2019 Conference on the Study of Christianity was held in Beijing in Oct 2019.
By Yi YangOctober 29th, 2019

On October 19-20, 2019, the Conference on the Study of Christianity and the Chinese Symposium on the Study of Christianity was held in Beijing. The conference was organized by the Center for Christian Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In the keynote speech at the opening ceremony, Professor Wang Meixiu, a researcher at the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, shared the topic, "Looking at the Future of the Chinese Church after the Interim Agreement on the Appointment of Sino-Vatican Bishops."

Professor Wang shared three aspects: a brief description of the significance of the interim agreement on the appointment of the Sino-Vatican bishops; a brief overview and analysis of some of the major changes in the country at the time of the signing of the interim agreement and the evolution of religious policies over the past four decades; and looking ahead to the future of the Catholic Church in the country and give appropriate reasons.

The professor believes that the signing of the interim agreement has changed and improved the relationship between the Chinese Catholic Church, which is a local church, and the universal Catholic Church and other local churches.

Professor Lu Yunfeng of the Department of Sociology of Beijing University gave a speech entitled, "A Reflection on the Rural Western Religious Fervor: Facts or Myths." He referred to an analysis based on the China Family Tracking Survey (CFTS), which reflected on the "rural western religious fervor". The analysis looked at the composition of rural religions, the social demographic characteristics of rural believers, the comparison between rural Buddhism and Christianity, and the comparison of rural religious status in Henan and Guangdong provinces.

The study found that the distribution of beliefs in urban and rural areas to be similar, and there is no significant difference between urban and rural areas in terms of the frequence of religious practice, the degree of organization and the degree of emphasis on religion. So it is therefore difficult to believe that religion is "hot in the countryside". Based on the comparison between the development of Buddhism and Christianity in the countryside, Buddhism is on a much larger scale, and there is no single Christianity on the whole. When comparing the rural regions of Guangdong and Henan, the former is dominated by Buddhism, the latter is divided between Christianity and Buddhism, and the western religious hit in rural areas is only a local phenomenon.

According to Professor Lu, the so-called "rural religious fervor" was relative to the late 1970s, when the policy of freedom of religious belief was undermined and a large number of believers went underground thus creating a sign of religious decline. After the reform and opening up, the policy of religious freedom was restored, and the development of religion began to "reheat". According to the two "Religious White Papers", there were about 100 million religious believers in China in 1997 and 200 million religious believers in 2018, from the late 1970s to 200 million today. This seems to be "very religious". However in the early days of the founding of the People's Republic of China, the then Premier Zhou Enlai said in 1956 that "there are almost 100 million religious believers in our country". At that time, there were more than 600 million Chinese, and now the population of Chinese is close to 1.4 billion. So it seems that in a long period of time, the proportion of recognized religious believers in our country has not increased much.

"The current 'religious fervor' may be just a kind of reheating and more detailed study is needed in the case of rural religions."

The Xiuyuan Foundation has published a study entitled, "The Status of the Spread of Western Religions in Rural China", which argues that "Western religions are unique in the current religious ecology in rural areas of China, with Christian believers accounting for more than 95% of the rural population and underground Christianity (family churches and cults) accounting for about 70% of Christianity. Catholicism is moving steadily in rural areas" and "in the northern countryside, Christian believers already account for 10 to 15 per cent of its total population and are on a rapid growth trend". Thus, the authors of the report almost equate rural religious fervor with rural Western religious fervor. This suggests that rural areas are more conducive to the development of religion than urban ones while the reference to "rural Western religious fervor" means that Western religions are growing particularly rapidly in the rural areas. However these views are not self-evident and need to be further tested and reflected upon.

To this end, Professor Lu Yunfeng of the Department of Sociology of Beiing University as well as others conducted research, taking the 2016 China Family Research Survey (CFPS) as the main data and some of the data from the first two rounds of the survey, asking several questions: 1. Is religion more prosperous in rural areas, or is there a "religious fervor" in rural areas? 2. Are western religions, especially Christianity, unique in the Chinese countryside? 3. Are there differences in the state of religious development in rural areas between the south and the north?

In order to answer these questions, the researchers compared the differences between the development of urban and rural areas of the five religions in China from the chart data. They also compared rural Buddhism with Christianity, and compared the rural religious status of Henan to Guangdong.

Through comparison, it was found that the level of development of rural religion is neither higher nor faster than in the urban areas. In regards to the growth of the proportion of Christians, and the net growth of believers, the urban is even higher than the rural areas. With the development of urbanization in China, the development of religion in the urban areas is worthy of more attention and research.

Since the reform and opening up, Christianity has developed rapidly in China. According to document No. 19 and the second "Religious White Paper", the latest research shows that the number of Christians has increased from 3 million in 1982 to nearly 40 million in 2018. However its development has geographical preferences. Christianity in local areas such as rural Henan has become the largest religion there. However, in fact, the number of Buddhists is similar in size. Nationally, Christianity is still smaller than Buddhism in terms of size, both in rural and urban areas.

It was concluded that the term "rural religious fervor" itself needed to be reconsidered, and that the so-called "religious fervor" is relative to the decline of religion in the late 1970s. So far, China claims that the proportion of the population with religious beliefs is only a few percent, and religion is still on the margins of society.

In his speech entitled "What is a biblical study of Chinese consciousness?", Professor You Bin discussed the development of biblical studies in China and believed that the transition from biblical studies to exegesis should be realized. Chinese exegesis should not only be connected with the various biblical judgments since modern times, but also with the Christian tradition of Christianity that has a long history of thousands of years. We should recognize the important enlightening significance of modern Bible evaluation to Chinese biblical studies and make it become more Chinese in its exegesis. By benefiting from using biblical criticism, through the road of "comprehensive innovation", biblical studies can become an ideological and cultural system with independent status.

"In this process, it is particularly important to maintain a unique, holistic and systematic awareness of Chinese exegesis. Only in this way can Chinese biblical studies set the Bible in the Jewish Christian tradition. And as the current China enters into a deep mutual learning dialogue with Chinese civilization, the need for the sinicization of Christianity can also gain in importance."

The forum consisted of three sub-forums: Christianity and inter-religious dialogue, cross-cultural research; and various other scholarly themes regarding the lectures and discussion.

- Translated by Charlie Li

related articles