Monday, May 19, 2008

Natural Disasters Produce Religious Echoes

It has been one week since the earthquake centered in the Chinese province of Sichuan, in Southcentral China. In that time, some have wondered just how religion is playing a part in people's lives at this time. The death toll is currently around 50,000 and still rising, not to mention that there are over 4 million people displaced at the present time. This presents a real challenge to those who are unfamiliar with the Chinese religious landscape in times of relative peace, much more so in times of upheaval and disaster. Chinese religion is a set of multilayered accretions and tends to be defined in terms of social locations and small common rituals. What this means in practice is that four different megaflavors of ritual and ideological systems are existentially available for most people to draw on: Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and popular Polytheism. All of these have suffered under Chinese communism, but none of them have been eradicated by any means, and sub-varieties of each exist. Moreover, other missionary religions, such as Protestant Christianity and Islam, continue to make significant inroads into the Chinese population.

In the wake of the earthquake, one of the few reporters to take careful note of the religious activity in the area was NPR's Melissa Block. In particular she observed how parents of children, upon finding them dead, would build small altars, bring candles and incense, and burn paper money as they were wrapped up. In Chinese (and Japanese) indigenous religion, money is a regular element of sacrifice, not only because it represents the hard work and commitment of the earner, but also because capital is a form of power. The sacrifice of money is a transfer of power to the ancestral realm, as the children take their place in the spirit world. Just as in Confucian religion China is termed the 'Middle Kingdom,' responsible for carrying out the 'Mandate of Heaven,' so the otherworld in Chinese religion often resembles a mirror image of the sociopolitical world of China, complete with a 'Celestial Bureaucracy.'  Money and power grease the wheels of a Celestial Bureaucracy just as they do in the Middle Kingdom. A radical separation between this world and the Otherworld does not exist in Indigneous Chinese religion--differences between human persons and "Other-than-human" Persons (such as ancestors, nature spirits, and immortals) are ones of degree, rather than kind. Of course, the situation is different in non-indigenized missionary traditions of Christianity and Islam, although at least Protestant Christians, both pastors and laypersons, are facing theodicy questions of  their own.

This also helps to explain the massive anxiety being experienced by the Chinese government at this time,. In addition to the controversies over the Olympics and Tibet, for some the earthquake is a religious challenge to the legitimacy of the government. The "Mandate of Heaven," perhaps best thought of as a transcendental seal of political approval/legitimacy from the Celestial Bureaucracy, is a fickle gift at best, and tradition holds that natural disasters can be a sign that Heaven no longer favors the current regime. Thus, for this reason, as well as many others, it behooves the Chinese government to spare no expense in confronting the tragedy in both religious terms and purely humanistic ones. In this they may have succeeded, because the response of the Chinese people, if news reports are to be believed, has been an outpouring of nationalist fervor, not unlike that which the United States experienced after September 11th. Of course, some in the United States have also interpreted the occurrence of either human-made or natural catastrophes here in religious terms as well.

1 comment:

Dee said...

Very interesting! I honestly had no idea what the religious landscape in China looks like. Thank you.