Taoism is quintessentially Chinese. The campaign confirms that “Sinicizing” religion does not mean making it more Chinese, but more subservient to the CCP.
by He Yuyan
On July 25 and 26, 2023, the government-controlled China Daoist Association, in cooperation with the Shanghai Taoist Association, the Shanghai City God Temple, and the Mingdao Taoist Culture Research Institute of East China Normal University co-organized in Shanghai “Taoism on the Sea: The First Forum on the Theory and Practice of Sinicization of Taoism.”
Readers not entirely familiar with what “Sinicization of religion” means in Xi Jinping’s China may find the very fact that a campaign for the “Sinicization of Taoism” is launched strange. Taoism is a quintessential Chinese religion. How may it be in need of being made more Chinese?
The fact is that “Sinicization of religion” does not mean adapting the different faiths to Chinese culture and traditions, which would be absurd for Taoism, as it eminently represents such traditions and culture. It means adapting religions to the ideology of the CCP and shaping them to become more and more propaganda mouthpieces for the Party.
That much was explained to those who attended the “First Forum” in Shanghai. Chen Chang, director of the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, told the delegates that Taoism needs to be “rectified” and subject to a “modern transformation.” Meng Zhiling, Vice President of the China Daoist Association, said that Taoism always survived by “adapting itself to the times,” and is now called once again to put itself in harmony with the new times. Lu Zheng, a representative of the United Front Work Department, reminded the audience that “Sinicization of religion” is “a new requirement for religious work since the  18th National Congress of the CCP.”
Representatives of dozens of leading Taoist temples from all over the country attended the conference. They were trained through several workshops to offer in their temples “educational activities on the theme of loving the Party, loving the country and loving socialism, learning the history of the Party, the history of New China, the history of [Deng Xiaoping’s] reform and opening up, the history of socialist development, and the history of the United Front.” As an example of “Sinicization” of Taoism, it was suggested that when teaching Taoist painting and calligraphy “through methods such as brushstrokes and ink splashes,” students should be encouraged to produce works whose content would express “thoughts of loving the Party, the country, and socialism.”
Best practices were presented where temples were “Sinicized” by eliminating divination and limiting the practices of “offering incense and burning paper that produce a large amount of chemical waste, which not only pollutes the environment, but also poses a safety hazard.” Temples were also instructed to curb the activities of independent vendors of religious objects, which should be sold in only one single temple-managed shop in each venue.
Clearly, these measures will not make Taoism more “Chinese” than it already is. Actually, they will make it “less” traditionally Chinese—but more strictly controlled by the CCP. This is what “Sinicization of religion” is all about.