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  • Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule by Fenggang Yang
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Fenggang Yang. Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xv, 245 pp. Paperback $24.95, isbn 978-0-19-973564-8.

In his first book, Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999),1 Fenggang Yang writes with fascinated interest in Christianity and the excitement of a newly baptized Christian in 1992. His exposure to the Christian faith came from his experiencing at the evangelical Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, DC, its sense of “a big family caring for each other.”1 A decade or more later, he writes more generally as an established sociology professor at Indiana’s Purdue University about religion in China under Communist rule. Yang has been on Purdue’s faculty since 2002 and is also the director of its Center on Religion and Chinese Society.

As an academic, Yang makes no reference to his personal religion since he believes that scientific work should be value-free (p. 29). He looks at religion in China under the determined opposition and constraints of an avowedly atheistic Communist government. How, under such adverse conditions, can religion not only survive, but flourish, especially since the economic reforms beginning in the late 1970s? This is his project of inquiry. Religion in China attempts to understand its “survival and revival under Communist rule” and come up with some sociological theories through empirical research. Yang says this scholarly task has been neglected by China specialists in the world and also is “underdeveloped in China today” (p. 63). [End Page 549]

The author builds on the theories of European sociological giants such as Max Weber (1864–1920) and Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), but also adapts their work to the Chinese situation by improving on these theories, which originated in Western contexts. A case in point is Weber’s notion of secularization of society being concomitant with the decline of religion, which Yang sees as not happening in China under Marxist-Maoist rule. Another is that while appropriating the Durkheimian insight that religion is socially conditioned, he finds Durkheim’s one-religion-in-one-society at odds with a China where “multiple religions have coexisted for thousands of years” (p. 33). Yang comes up with the term “oligopoly” for a society that has a number of selected religious options, however determined and limited. Here, the millennial syncretic nature of Chinese religions with Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism interact and influence each other, which can be useful in seeing Yang’s oligopoly as hybridization of religious values in a globalized world. In referring to his earlier work on Chinese Christians, Yang claims that his research has shown that Chinese Christians in the United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even mainland China can be labeled “Confucian Christians,” a hybrid.2

For his theorizing, Yang uses both political and economic perspectives. The political is the ongoing, sustained atheistic position of Chinese Marxism. He gives three aspects: (1) hard-nosed atheism, which he designates as “militant,” (2) a more open-ended atheism he calls “enlightened,” and (3) an even more compromising atheism, which he sees as “mild.” These different aspects are seen in different periods of China’s five decades of Communism with any one aspect as overriding, depending on the particular period and situation. If the social order is stable, the religious policy of the Communist Party is more lax, leaning toward the enlightened form of atheism. Under threat from within or without to the Chinese social order, atheism would be more militant, as happened in the period immediately following Communist rule and during subsequent periods of social unrest. Periodically, however, the religious policy oscillates between militant and enlightened or even mild, responding to the domestic situation or external threat, not unlike the tightening or loosening of a balloon, in consolidating control or liberalization of power toward the people, respectively.

Yang tells about the long debates by the Communist authorities over the question of religion being the opium of the people, a notion which was finally seen in its original context. Marx was...


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