Yang Fenggang, Gordon Melton, and others explain what the word Xi Jinping uses so often hides.
by Massimo Introvigne
One of this year’s most important books about China has been published by Brill (Leiden) as The Sinicization of Chinese Religions: From Above and Below. It is edited by Richard Madsen, who offers in the introduction a useful map to navigate through it and introduces the main issues. The book clarifies, with examples, what “Sinicization” of religion, or perhaps two “Sinicizations,” one imposed by the government “from above” and one the result of adaptive processes “from below,” are all about.
Perhaps the most important chapter in the text is the first one, by the well-known scholar of Chinese religion Yang Fenggang. He calls into question the very translation of 中國化 (zhongguo hua) as “Sinicization.” Traditionally, in English the word “Sinicization” had been used to translate 汉化 (han hua). The problem is that zhongguo hua and han hua are two different things. Han hua indicates a cultural process where foreign organizations or systems of thought are adapted to Chinese language, tradition, and aesthetics. For Christians, Yang argues, this “has been happening since the initial introduction of Christianity into China.” It was the very program of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci since the 16th century.
Zhongguo hua, Yang explains, does not have the same meaning, and using the same English word, “Sinicization,” to translate both han hua and zhongguo hua creates both linguistic and political confusion. Originally, zhongguo hua was mostly used in Marxist studies. Chairman Mao first used the expression “zhongguo hua of Marxism” in 1938. It meant adapting Marxism to the need of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than simply parroting the Soviet Union.
Since the 1980s, Yang states, zhongguo hua was also used for Buddhist studies, but in this field an historical falsification emerged. It was argued that Buddhism only became successful in China when it accepted to submit to the state, and this was part of its zhongguo hua. Arguably, this is historically false but has become the official view of Buddhism in China.
Further dimensions of the CCP’s control of Buddhism and Buddhist history, leaders, visual memories, and monasteries are presented in the chapters by Huang Weishan and Wang Dong. The former applies to the situation of Buddhism in China the concept of the “reinvention of a tradition,” and the latter explores how the famous Buddhist stone images of Luoyang, in the Henan province, have been alternatively praised and criticizes as expressions of a truly “sinicized” religious culture or, on the contrary, as not being “sinicized” enough.
Somewhat poisoning the well, Yang argues, were the militant atheists, for which zhongguo hua was the submission of the religion to the state so that the latter may preside over its slow disappearance, Yang notes that atheists lost power in the 1980s and 1990s but made a comeback in 1999, when they managed to persuade the CCP that actions needed to be taken against Falun Gong (a decision that had tragic consequences). They have become even more influential under Xi Jinping.
Yang insists that the pervasive influence of militant atheists, who have also used zhongguo hua as a slogan to criticize the neutral scientific study of religion in Chinese universities, should be considered to understand how zhongguo hua is applied to Christians (and Muslims) and why it is resisted by them. It is now clear that zhongguo hua does not mean adopting Chinese cultural styles (in fact, according to the CCP even Taoism, which is quintessentially Chinese, should be subject to zhongguo hua) but submitting to the Party and its ideology.
In essence, concludes Yang, zhongguo hua is “political domestication,” but if a more literal translation is needed, he suggests to use “Chinafication” to distinguish zhongguo hua from han hua, which is rightly translated as “Sinicization.”
Another very Chinese tradition that is now “sinicized,” Chen Yong argues in his chapter, is Confucianism. While the word “Confucianism,” which was created by Matteo Ricci in the 16th century, is never used, since Xi Jinping’s visit to the residence of Confucius in Qufu in 2013 (which no CCP leader had visited before), official speeches and documents are full of Confucian notions and (implicit) references. However, they refer to something Chen calls “official Confucianism,” i.e., a Confucianism re-invented by the CCP and Xi Jinping, not considered as a religion, and used selectively by picking up elements allegedly or really compatible with Marxism.
The book made a choice to stay away from Tibet and Xinjiang, and the chapter of Alexander Stewart on Islam focuses on the Hui, i.e. the Han Chinese Muslims, rather than on their Turkic counterparts. Among the Hui, Stewart notes, “Sinicization” is somewhat paradoxical. The CCP actually promotes the construction or restoration of Hui mosques (except when it suspects that they may harbor dissidents) because in the Party’s narrative they display “Chinese characteristics,” and therefore show to the country how a “good” Islam should look like, as opposite to the “bad” Islam of the Uyghurs.
However, the CCP also makes sure that Hui mosques do not become places of excessive religious fervor, and some of them are treated as museums. A good example, Stewart notes, is the mosque in the Hui Culture Park in Yinchuan, in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, where tourists are invited to discover a “sinicized” Islam, yet there are “no washing facilities, no Quran, no imams, and certainly no prayer.” Most Hui refuse to play the role of extras in this sideshow, and join revivalist movements inciting them to pray silently at home.
In the final chapter, Gordon Melton returns on a theme familiar to the readers of Bitter Winter, how the ancient expression xie jiao has been used by the CCP to claim that some new religious movements are in fact not religious but just anti-social or criminal organizations. To elicit the sympathy of Western anti-cultists, the government in its official Western-language document translates xie jiao (which means “heterodox teachings”) as “cults” or “evil cults,” which according to Melton “has led to considerable misunderstanding of the situation in China by Westerners.”
Melton notes that the term xie jiao has been applied by the CCP to three groups of movements. First to be banned as a xie jiao was the network of different groups in the tradition of the Chinese preachers Watchman Nee and Witness Lee, known in China as “Shouters.” Melton claims that at the time he wrote the article (2018) the CCP had started distinguishing between different groups called “Shouters,” repressing some as xie jiao and tolerating others, although more recent reports by Bitter Winter correspondents in China may indicate that, at least in several provinces, this distinction is lost to the local anti-xie-jiao police.
Paradoxically, Melton said, the increasing repression of house churches drove them underground, separated them from mainline Christian theology, and favored the emergence of Christian new religious movements with a theology the historical churches regarded as heterodox, none more successful, thus more persecuted, than The Church of Almighty God.
The CCP was also concerned with a possible “invasion” of foreign xie jiao. The concern may have been exaggerated, but it is true that South Korean movements made inroads among China’s ethnic Koreans, and other groups (not all regarded as xie jiao by the Party, and some in fact tolerated) came from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Finally, after the 1999 incident, Falun Gong and other qigong movements became the main target of the repression of xie jiao, although recently at least in some provinces the main target of the anti-xie-jiao specialized police is The Church of Almighty God.
Personally, I agree with the proposal of Chinese scholar Zhang Xinzhang, who in an article published in 2020 (as he reports, after a dialogue with the undersigned) suggested that to avoid both political and theoretical confusion xie jiao should not be translated into English, just as nobody translates qigong or kung fu.
I am also persuaded by Yang’s argument that “Chinafication” is better than “Sinicization” for zhongguo hua—or perhaps zhongguo hua may be left in its transliteration from Chinese as well. However, we are not confronted with mere misunderstandings. Translating xie jiao as “cults” or zhongguo hua as “Sinicization” serves important political purposes, and the immensely powerful propaganda machine of the CCP will continue to promote these misleading translations.