Religion in China beyond Christianity

West Lafayette, Indiana - While attention is focused on the explosive growth of Christianity in China, a Purdue University religious studies expert says that the popularity and trends of other religions need to also be studied in the world's largest country.

"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," says Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology and director of Purdue's Center on Religion and Chinese Society. "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."

Yang, who is launching a new study of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism in mainland China, says this year will be interesting as the country's new leadership, established last year, has not yet set a clear religious policy. The topic is expected to be addressed this March during the National People's Congress. In China, the government approves the practice of five religions - Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism (also Daoism), Islam and Protestantism under patriotic associations.

"There are still many other faiths not approved by the government, but they exist and some are thriving," says Yang, author of "Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule." "It will be interesting to see what tone this government sets, or doesn't, regarding tolerance or support that could influence religious groups."

The government provides some basic statistics of religious sites - churches, temples and mosques, and Yang is interested in collecting more demographic data that could identify specific religious trends such as which religions are embraced by different economic or urban and rural groups in massive China.

Purdue's Center on Religion and Chinese Society is partnering with the China Data Center at the University of Michigan on the "Spatial Study of Chinese Religions and Society." The research focusing on Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism is funded by a three-year, $400,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. Yang's collaborators are Z. George Hong, professor of history at Purdue University Calumet and co-director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, and Shuming Bao, director of the China Data Center at the University of Michigan.

"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 says.

The researchers will work with various scholars on the data collection and collaboration. Yang, who is president-elect of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and editor of Review of Religion and Chinese Society, has been instrumental in training many of the scholars in China who are studying religion. Since 2004 Yang has led many summer institutes and organized a series of empirical research projects on religion and Chinese society with the goal of training new scholars and rallying well-known scholars in the world for U.S., Europe and China to develop the social scientific study of religion in China.

In addition to linking religious sites with demographic data, this project will make the information publicly available. The goal is to build a platform for people to learn more about religion in China. Yang says teachers, journalists and religious leaders are some of those who may be interested in access to this information. 

Yang, whose research focuses on immigrant religion in the United States, Chinese Christianity around the world, and religious change and church-state relations in China, also is the author of "Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities."

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