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Review of “Between a Powerful State and a Market Economy: Monastic Buddhism in Post-Mao China” by Brian J. Nichols, PhD, April 12, 2015

Mainland China is experiencing a dramatic revival of temple and monastic space. This has been heavily influenced by two factors: the powerful regulation of the state, and a national focus on economic development and the expansion of a market economy. These factors are not always in harmony with the interests of those within the walls of the monastery, who are trying to restore monastic Buddhism.

The state regulates religion by requiring religious sites to be registered, permitting only “normal religious activities” and forbidding activities deemed superstitious. It oversees religious activity through the State Administration of Religious Affairs and the Buddhist Association of China. Important Buddhist monasteries also have a temple management commission to monitor compliance with policy and sell entry tickets.

The other factor is a strong emphasis on “economic construction”, which in this context means tourism and related activities. Temples have had an economic role throughout history, but only recently have economic issues become a central concern of state and temple officials. Some of the most famous temples in China have become nothing more than tourist attractions staffed by “fake monks”!

Monasteries are caught between these two factors and have had to battle for greater autonomy. Tourists have brought in income, they also disrupt religious activities and are contributing to commercialization and “museumification”. There is a tension between “curators”, who want to preserve monastic spaces for cultural and economic reasons, and “revivalists”, who want to reclaim these spaces for religious use.

Generally, clergy have worked within the system to resist the exploitation of temples and monasteries for non-religious purposes. In some cases, however, protests have erupted. Government institutions have been trying to defuse these conflicts.

It is unclear what path the continued revival of monastic Buddhism may take. It may be a path leading to greater museumification, one leading to more genuine restoration of the sangha, or a third path which accommodates a combination of tourist and commercial activities as well as revival of a religious community. The most important factors influencing which path is taken are, on one hand, the presence and vitality of state agencies, and on the other, the presence of a viable sangha with strong leadership.

By Paul Hancock (DDM Vancouver)

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