AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 554

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Session 554: From the "Small-Self" to the "Big-Self": Religion and Giving in Chinese Societies

Organizer: Keping Wu, University of California, Berkeley, Singapore

Chair: Chee-Beng Tan, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Discussant: David A. Palmer, , Hong Kong

Most people agree that free markets alone do not work very effectively to solve certain kinds of human problems, like education, old age care, medical care, or disaster relief. Nor have markets ever been the sole solution to the psychological challenges of death, suffering, or injustice. Instead, we find religious groups playing increasingly important roles in providing public goods in Chinese societies, especially since the 1990s when China experienced a “religious revival,” and most remarkably after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. This panel focuses on the unique ways that religious groups have helped solve these problems of social well-being through case studies from different Chinese societies (Mainland China, Taiwan, Chinese in Southest Asia) and multiple religious demoninations. We hope to shed light on discussions of globalization, social capital, state-society relations, and secularization. More specifically, we ask the following questions. First, what are the historical linkages of traditionally Chinese ways of providing public goods? Second, in which ways might religions in Chinese societies contribute to fostering community and civil ties, and most broadly what does this tell us about the changing relationship between state and society? Third, how do different regimes carve out different social space for the religious groups in contributing to the public good? Fourth, what is the significance of rituals in fostering a religious community that is better at giving? Each paper in the panel adopts comparative perspectives in answering those questions.

The Advantages of Weak Social Ties: On Social Capital and Philanthropy in China
Robert P. Weller, Boston University, USA

This paper argues that thinning out social capital may lead to important social innovations. As most predictions would expect, social ties are weaker in national-level organizations than in those with roots in the thick social capital of local communities. Unlike most theories of social capital, however, research in Taiwan suggests that weakening social ties leads to some advantages. In particular, the relatively recent creation of such organizations has allowed women to take on roles never before possible, and has helped foster new notions of philanthropy based on universal ideas of a public good, rather than on local ideas of a corporate good. Based on fieldwork and historical research in the town of Lukang, this paper examines three main forms of organization. First are popular temples, which have strong roots in local social capital. They usually undertake some charitable activities and sometimes have affiliated non-profit organizations. Second are Christian groups, whose roles have changed greatly since the early missionaries of the late nineteenth century. These groups tended to evolve to a localized structure dedicated to the corporate good of their adherents. Only in the last two decades have they again turned to broader forms of charity. Finally, the paper discusses modernizing Buddhist and syncretic movements, which have the weakest base in older forms of social capital, but which have led the way toward new images of charity and new roles for women.

Charitable Religious Organizations in China, Singapore and Malaysia: Chinese Popular Religion, the State and Charity in Chinese Societies
Chee-Beng Tan, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Based on fieldwork in China, Singapore and Malaysia, this paper will use the study of shantang, charitable religious organizations, to discuss religion and charity in Chinese societies, among the Chaozhou people in particular. The shantang are organized not only for serving religious purposes but also to provide and encourage charity. Today the charitable services have been modernized to also include modern medical services. However, shantang today are formally organized and so in China they are subject to panopticon by the communist state that is so suspicious of well organized religious groups. In Singapore where the state prides itself as non-corrupt, there is strict control of the ways donations are collected and managed. In Malaysia, the shantang are registered organization although as religious organizations, they are free from paying tax. By comparing the three “societies”, one gets a better idea of Chinese popular religion and charity and their modern development, as well as the roles of the state. United by the common worship of Song Dafeng, a monk of the Song dynasty, the shantang of the three countries cooperate transnationally. The paper will show that the link of charity with religious symbols has been important in the development and organization of Chinese popular religion, both in China and in Southeast Asia.

Facilitators and Providers: Religion and Social Capital among the Chinese in Malacca, Malaysia
C. Julia Huang, Stanford University, USA

This paper examines the relations among religion, ethnicity, and social capital in an Asian society. The subject matter is the new faces of the public contributions of Buddhism, Christianity, and popular temples among the Chinese in Malacca, Malaysia. Malacca is a particularly fruitful place for the examination of this topic due to its long and rich history of engaged religions among the Chinese, and since religious revitalization occurred in tandem with modernization and globalization. Parallel to the emergence of multiculturalism in the wake of the New Economic Policy, a change occurred in the scope and salience of Malacca’s engaged religions: old and established engaged religions such as popular temples and Christian churches began to embrace global and cosmopolitan approaches; and new global Buddhist philanthropic organizations emerged in the local religious landscape. Such changes parallel the modernization of religion in Malaysia as well as within the Chinese diaspora. The patterns of engaging the public good may provide a model for categorizing engaged religions in comparative studies. Based on fieldwork in Malaysia, I propose two categories of engaged religions: provider and facilitator. The former directly provides goods and services whereas the later facilitates the act of contribution through networks and inspiration. I would try to bring in Putnam’s distinction of bridging and bonding, and discuss how the two types of social capital work with the two types of engaged religions.

Business as Mission: Overseas Chinese Christian Entrepreneurs in China
Kooi Chin Joy Tong, Purdue University, USA

This paper seeks to study how religion moves with business expansions and produces soical ties that can generate not only business networks but also a sense of social responsibility. It focuses on a group of ‘return’ immigrant entrepreneurs, i.e. ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and North America, in China. I will discuss the issue of (1) how religion affects, positively and negatively, immigrants’ business practices in their new home. I examine the role of Christian commitment in shaping immigrants’ business activities and corporate culture and see if these religious influences impede or promote their business performance in China, a country which is officially atheist and has a long hostile history against Christianity; (2) how religion helps built and sustain their transnational business networks. I will trace their business networks and explore how religion plays a role in connecting them with Chinese Christian entrepreneurs elsewhere; (3) whether their Christian beliefs and practices produce a higher sense of social responsibility among these businessmen; (4) how these immigrants help shape local religious development. Western missions have limited influence on the present Christian revival in China due to China’s heavy regulation on western involvement. This gives overseas Chinese a crucial role to play in China’s religious spheres. This study engages with the classic Weber question of how religion affects their business practices and also shows how their participation contributes to the growth of Christianity in China.

Sacred State, Secular Religions: Charitable Religious Organizations in China
Keping Wu, University of California, Berkeley, Singapore

This paper examines religious organizations that actively engage in social services and other charitable acts in today’s China. It is often predicted that once the state starts to interfere, those organizations start to deteriorate. However, this research blurs the picture. I suggest that different relationships with the local state and local communities enable religious groups to develop multiple ways of delivering social services and therefore, foster different community and civil ties. Based on field work in Jiangsu province, this paper discusses three types of religious organizations across denominations. The first kind is state sanctioned religious charities. Two Buddhist groups discussed here tend to have most social space and are effective in giving but maintain week community ties. The second type is community based religious organizations whose social services are mainly locally directed. One Buddhist and one Christian organization are discussed here. They have little state support but can foster strong community through public rituals. The third kind is translocal organizations that have to downplay their religious flavors in order to get state sanction. The organization is more like an NGO and has limited local connections. The findings suggest state and society mutually carve out space for each other. The unique strategies religious groups in China have successfully developed to foster social wellbeing are not a simple result of globalization but rather, a result of local interaction between the state and religious groups.