An Ambivalent Revival: Buddhism in China Today

As China is changing, so is Chinese Buddhism, morphing to meet cultural forces and adapting to find a place in the economy. Justin Ritzinger provides an inside look.

By Justin Ritzinger

Jiuhua Shan, China. Photo by Dennis Deng/Flickr.

In April 2008, I traveled for my dissertation research to Xuedou Shan, a mountain monastery rich in Chan history and famous for its connection to Budai, the merry monk believed to have been a manifestation of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future age. As I stepped off the bus into the dusty plaza, I found myself in the middle of a major construction site. Though the main monastery was open to visitors, it was surrounded by half-completed structures covered in scaffolding. Alongside the monastery, a large expansion was underway, and across the street, a new seminary was nearing completion. From a structure built into the hillside rose a massive bronze lotus dais, which would one day serve as throne to a monumental image of the future Buddha.

The goal was to construct a complex consisting of “one Buddha, three monasteries, and six cloisters”—a substantial expansion of the Buddhist footprint on the mountain, and an expensive one. The Buddha monument alone would cost tens of millions of dollars. Posters and signage around the grounds extolled the merit the pious might earn through donations to this mighty undertaking: “Offering a single spade of earth to the Buddha accumulates ten thousand blessings for your descendants,” declared one. Another offered donors the opportunity to sponsor components of the statue with donations ranging from fourteen dollars to over half a million. Still far from completion at that time, it seemed a tremendously ambitious undertaking.

I returned seven years later to find the once dusty plaza in immaculate condition and the seminary complete. The expansion, now open, featured an impressive courtyard and a large hall constructed with exquisite materials and craftsmanship in the Song dynasty style. Behind the expansion was another courtyard, which led up to a thirty-three-meter tall image of Budai, gleaming in the summer sun. But while the “one Buddha, three monasteries, and six cloisters” were all complete, new construction was only just beginning. The success of the first wave of expansion had spawned even more ambitious plans, and the main monastery and its Buddha monument were now only the first of three planned centers. At the foot of the mountain was envisioned a giant glass dome, large enough to accommodate five thousand people and topped with a golden hall representing Maitreya’s Tusita palace. Near the summit, another large monastery was planned, this one dedicated primarily to cultivation. Surrounding these three centers would eventually be thirty-three temples, rather than the modest six cloisters originally envisioned.

The sheer scale and speed of Xuedou Shan’s expansion are both remarkable and indicative of the Buddhist revival that has swept China, particularly in the prosperous coastal south.

Two Steps Forward

Not so long ago, predictions of such growth and prosperity would have seemed absurd. Shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Communist Party began to gradually, but systematically, dismantle Buddhist institutions and those of other religions. Monks and nuns were forced to study Communist theory, work in productive labor, and participate in political campaigns. Monastics in little more than name, their numbers dwindled. Temples lost the land endowments they relied on for support and were converted into workshops, warehouses, and factories.

Soon, only the most historically important monasteries remained to serve as showcases for foreign dignitaries, and with the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, even these ceased to operate. Chairman Mao Zedong, having been sidelined within the Party due to the disastrous failures of key initiatives such as the Great Leap Forward, took his cause directly to the people, urging them to rise up and destroy the “Four Olds”—old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Buddhism was clearly included within these. Across the country, Red Guards destroyed precious historical and cultural relics. Former monks were imprisoned or subjected to traumatic “struggle sessions” to correct any counterrevolutionary ideas remaining from their ostensibly “rightist” backgrounds. Untold millions kept faith in the Buddhas in their hearts, but few dared to speak such things aloud. One can hardly fault Holmes Welch, the great scholar of modern Chinese Buddhism, for declaring in 1972 that the religion was effectively dead.

Twenty-five years later, when I first went to China to spend a semester abroad in the northern city of Tianjin, though, I found that Buddhism was very much alive, if still recovering from the traumas of the Maoist era. The Cultural Revolution had ended in 1976, and a new era of Reform and Openness had been declared by Deng Xiaoping. Religious freedom was officially restored in 1980, but religion was, and remains, restricted in many ways. While the People’s Republic guarantees freedom of religious belief in its constitution, in practice, this is heavily circumscribed. The freedom of Chinese citizens to believe in religion is paired with the freedom not to believe in religion. Thus, all religious activity is legal only within the confines of a registered religious venue and must be kept out of the public sphere. Although by the 1990s many monasteries had been restored, many others had not, and the state intentionally suppressed the number of monasteries and monastics in order to contain religious activity.

Among the monasteries to be restored was the Cloister of Great Compassion, where I spent much of my free time. The only place I could hear birdsong, it was an oasis of peace in what was, in 1997, a rather noisy, polluted city. Under grey autumn skies, I watched pious retirees, mostly women, make the circuit of devotions from hall to hall, offering incense and prostrating to the images enshrined inside. Their devoted cries of “Amituofo!” (Skt., Amitabha Buddha; Jpn., Amida Butsu) in salutation or celebration stood in stark contrast to the Buddhism of nightstands and lecture halls I had known thus far. It was there that I took refuge with the elderly abbot, Master Baohan. Like many monastic leaders of that time, he had left home to become a monastic prior to the 1949 revolution, been laicized during the Maoist period, and returned to a monk’s life in the 1980s. He provided a living link to tradition for the twenty or thirty younger monks who had gathered around him.

Buddhism’s revival in those early days was lean. Monasteries may have been restored, but the lands that had once served as their endowments were not returned. Historic monasteries received some government funds for restoration, but they relied on fees for ritual services and donations from the laity to meet their day-to-day operational expenses. These most often came in the form of small bills stuffed into the ubiquitous “merit boxes” that stood in each hall, but they also drew income from ticket sales and enterprises, such as the simple restaurant where the Cloister of Great Compassion served vegetarian versions of typical northern fare.

Entrepreneurial outreach to an increasingly wealthy and educated populace and an alliance, often fraught, with tourism have become key drivers of Buddhism’s revival in recent decades.

Many other monasteries were still in the process of being restored. On a trip to Wutai Shan, the mountain home of the bodhisattva Manjushri, every monastery seemed to have fliers printed on tissue-thin colored paper that told the story of the “karmic conditions” of its revival and enjoined the reader to earn merit by donating to its ongoing reconstruction. Donors’ names would be inscribed on stone tablets to record their generosity for years to come. While many did respond, in those days the average local believer was of limited means. Most of the largest donations came instead from the Chinese diaspora, often monks and laypeople who had fled the Communist regime and now wished to support the revival of the religion in their homeland. At Wutai Shan’s Pushou Nunnery, I saw a group of laywomen from Hong Kong present the abbess with an offering of a fat roll of redbacks, amounting to perhaps a thousand U.S. dollars.

Though in those days much of Chinese Buddhism was simply trying to reestablish itself and return to normal function, early sprouts of dynamism were already evident. One notable example was the Bailin Temple, where a monk named Jinghui was engaged in pioneering work to spread the teachings of Chan. Invited by the local government in 1988 to rebuild the historic home of the Chan Master Zhaozhou (Jpn., Joshu), Jinghui had broken new ground by publishing a temple magazine, organizing summer camps for university students to learn about Buddhism, and developing a distinctive brand, “Chan for Living,” for his approach to the dharma. Another was Putuo Shan, an island believed to be the home of the bodhisattva Guanyin. In 1997, the local Buddhist association erected the South Seas Guanyin, an eighteen-meter bronze image that has since served as the visual emblem of the island, attracting tourists and pilgrims alike. These two developments—entrepreneurial outreach to an increasingly wealthy and educated populace and an alliance, often fraught, with tourism—have become key drivers of Buddhism’s revival in recent decades.

These developments flourished during times of economic growth and favorable political conditions that followed. China’s gross domestic product stood at a little over a trillion U.S. dollars at the turn of the millennium; by the time of the Beijing Olympics, and my first visit to Xuedou, it had quadrupled to 4.6 trillion. When I returned in 2015, it had hit eleven trillion, a tenfold increase in less than a generation. With few exceptions, Chinese cities in the nineties were drab, polluted, and filled with nondescript concrete buildings. Those cityscapes are now long gone, and Beijing, Shanghai, and even second-tier cities are now home to skyscrapers and contemporary, even adventurous, architecture. Dirty alleys and aggressive hawkers have given way to smart shopping districts. Growth has brought prosperity to hundreds of millions and wealth to millions more. But along with them has come disorienting change and stressful competition. Thus, a new class has emerged with both a hunger for the peace of mind associated with Buddhist teachings and the means to support the religion financially.

Politically, Chinese Buddhism has come to be increasingly favored among religions. In a time of disruptive transformation, the state began to see Buddhism as an indigenous source of pro-social values that could strengthen social stability and contribute to the creation of a “harmonious society.” The religion also serves as a useful tool for soft power through which to promote Chinese interests abroad. The triennial World Buddhist Forum, inaugurated in 2006, and the loan in 2002 of a finger relic, said to belong to the Buddha, for display in Taiwan are examples of this charm offensive.

Under these conditions, Chinese Buddhism has transformed. Monasteries in the prosperous southeast coastal region bustle with activity and gleam with a patina of new wealth. Most have rebuilt and refurbished the traditional array of halls and courtyards, while others, such as Jing’an Temple in Shanghai and Dafo Temple in Guangzhou, have built upward in order to grow their spaces in tightly packed urban environments. While dharma assemblies and ritual services remain their core offerings, many now cater to increasingly sophisticated and affluent urbanites. As in the West, meditation is marketed as a way to cope with the stress of modern life in a rapidly transforming economy and society. The Dafo Temple offers regular Chan retreats to busy professionals on an upper floor. Yet, while its appeal is growing, meditation remains a minority practice. Most laypeople and monastics alike practice recitation, either of the Buddha Amitabha’s name or a revered sutra or mantra. Moreover, vegetarianism, rather than meditation, is seen as the essential Buddhist observance, and so Dafo Temple boasts an elaborate (and expensive) vegetarian buffet.

Many Buddhist organizations are also using “traditional culture” to transmit the dharma. While “culture fever” dates back to the 1980s, it received a new impetus in recent years as growing economic and political clout created renewed pride in Chinese civilization, and Xi Jinping made cultural nationalism a linchpin of his rule. “Traditional culture” is thus both genuinely popular (if not always genuinely traditional) and a tool of propaganda. Today, the idea of spreading Buddhism as culture has become central to attempts to appeal to contemporary Chinese.

The arts figure prominently in many of these efforts. One monastery focusing on this approach is the Taixu Temple, tucked away up the road from the main monastery on Xuedou Shan. Several of the monks there are masters of one cultural tradition or another, be it the guqin (a kind of seven-stringed table harp), calligraphy, or tea. Students come up from the city to study and take classes, sometimes spending the weekend; the monks train them in the intricacies of traditional arts such as music and tea, all while expounding on the dharma. Other institutions use Chinese medicine. The Sixth Patriarch Temple in Guangdong, for instance, combines meditation with acupuncture, which it claims allows deeper states of absorption to be reached more easily.

Standing behind the banner of “culture” sometimes allows Buddhist teachers and organizations to skirt the constraints imposed by the religious regulatory regime. As one monk put it, “If you preach on a sutra, that’s religion; if you teach someone to copy a sutra and explain it along the way, that’s calligraphy.” Thus, in some cities on the southern coast, “Buddhist cultural activities” have been held outside of officially registered religious venues. In one city, meditation events have been held in public gymnasiums under the auspices of “Chan culture.” In Guangzhou, I happened upon a small, well-appointed “Chan Life Experience Hall” on the second floor of a building in a prosperous and heavily trafficked part of town. Signage on the street below openly advertised meditation classes and a reading group focused on Buddhist texts alongside traditional arts such as medicine, tea, and music. Elsewhere, a monk has established a network of institutions dedicated to the study of his own works on Buddhist doctrine under the cultural designation of shuyuan, or halls of classical learning.

Such efforts exist in a legal grey zone. Strictly speaking, they are not legal in the sense that they have not been registered with or approved by the proper authorities; they are tolerated by local officials, but could become subject to a crackdown should circumstances change. In China, such things are not so much a matter of what is legal but of what you can get away with. And what you can get away with often depends on the attitudes and agendas of local government officials. There is more leniency in the south, where the economy is stronger, the central government is more distant, and Buddhism is more prominent and economically powerful. Southern officials are also more likely to have believers in their own families and to see Buddhism as a normal part of Chinese society. In the north, monasteries are often more concerned with avoiding trouble.

This is particularly clear in the case of Buddhist tourism, the other key driver of the revival. In the late 1990s, because few Chinese had the leisure or the funds to travel for pleasure, there was very little domestic tourism. In recent years, domestic tourism has exploded as disposable income has grown and the government has attempted to make the transition to a consumption-based economy. Buddhist tourist development is an attractive way for officials to meet their growth targets. It is a relatively low source of pollution and, because many famous sites are located in the mountains or peripheral areas, it spreads the wealth to places that had not received the benefit of earlier growth. Thus, while the initiative for the construction of the grand Buddha on Xuedou Shan came from the monastery, it succeeded due to the enthusiastic cooperation of local government agencies. These bodies helped the monastery secure funding, coordinated construction, and lent their support to the difficult approval process. They hoped the grand Buddha would serve as an attraction anchoring tourism in the area. When this proved to be successful, it was the local government that approached the monastery with plans and a funding package for the latest round of expansion.

While the benefits to Buddhism from such initiatives can be great, there is also a cost. They introduce other agencies, interests, and incentives into monastic spaces, making secularization and commercialization real dangers. State actors and tourism companies are more concerned with revenue than religious life, and official ratings for tourist sites are most often based on the quality of the facilities, not the depth of the spirituality.

Some temples function as commercial enterprises.

Navigating these challenges requires canny leadership. Xuedou, for instance, has succeeded in large part due to the efforts of its abbot, Yizang. Like most heads of monasteries today, he is in his forties; the venerable elders of the 1990s have largely passed from the scene, leaving in their place younger men and women who grew up in the reform era and were trained and credentialed in the current system. Yizang, like many other successful figures, followed a strategy of spatial segregation. The monastery now has two axes: the newer one leads directly to the grand Buddha, so the more spectacle-inclined tourists can walk directly to it and leave; the original monastery halls that stand adjacent receive some tourists, but not so many that it disrupts the religious life of the community. Elsewhere, the same objective may be accomplished through subsidiary institutions. A short drive from Xuedou stands the Asoka Temple. Famed for its relic of the Buddha, it is often thronged with tourists. But not far away is a branch monastery, the Ancient Asoka Temple (which is actually a new institution on an old site), where the monks dedicate themselves to intensive Chan practice, supported by, but isolated from, the tourists at the main temple.

These, however, are prominent institutions in the coastal south. Elsewhere, the balance of power is different. A monk at Xuedou told me his home monastery in Datong, in Shanxi province, was restored by the local government entirely for its benefit. While there are monks in residence, they are essentially salaried employees of the local Religious Affairs Bureau. The authorities receive not just the ticket revenue, but even the cash from the merit boxes. He said that such arrangements are not uncommon in the north.

Some temples function as commercial enterprises. Fanjing Shan, a temple I visited in the interior province of Guizhou, had been restored to complement a new hotel. It seemed to exist primarily to extract donations from tourists whose buses stopped there on their way to the cable car up the mountain. Other institutions have been constructed as “culture parks,” existing for the purpose of selling Buddhist cultural experiences to tourists.

One Step Back

Recently, however, a shift has begun. When I traveled to Guangzhou in 2018, the temples I visited were vibrant and prosperous, but large propaganda posters now line the hall’s exterior walls. At the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, the traditional shelf of books for free distribution included a comic book titled “Citizen’s Guide to Preventing Terror Attacks” and another called “Learn about the Anti-Terror Law,” employing characters from the classic novel Journey to the West, alongside the more typical sutras and lectures by prominent masters. The shelf had been relabeled the “Policy, Regulations, and Traditional Culture Reading Area,” and a poster admonished, “Quantities are limited. Please read here. Do not take home” in opposition to centuries of tradition. When I asked about it, a monk told me to ignore it and take whatever I liked, but something was changing in atmosphere, if not practice.

Amidst continuing revitalization and growth, Buddhism in China is seeing a shift toward being brought under tighter control. Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, he has consolidated power in a way not seen since Mao. At the Nineteenth National Party Congress in 2017, Xi was able to install loyalists throughout the politburo, eliminate term limits, and enshrine his own thought in the constitution. One of his core concerns has been the reassertion of ideology and party “guidance.” In the area of religion, this has taken the form of the drive for “sinification.” Promoted by Xi in 2016, this is cast as a “socialist theory of religions with Chinese characteristics” in which “rules and dogmas” are to be interpreted “in a way that corresponds to the needs attached to the progress and development of contemporary China.”

Buddhism occupies an ambiguous position in this development. On one hand, its long process of indigenization is presented as an exemplar as the party attempts to erase foreign elements from Chinese Christianity and Islam, the primary targets of this drive. On the other hand, insofar as Xi’s sinification is concerned with enforcing adaptation to the Party’s vision for China and its development, Buddhism is not exempt.

The most visible impact is a crackdown on “unofficial structures” and “commercialization.” Under this campaign, large outdoor images have been targeted for destruction, removal, or concealment, as has been extensively reported by the human rights magazine Bitter Winter. Many of these images were constructed in scenic areas at the behest of local authorities eager for tourist development, but now that the winds have shifted, government officials blame this commercialization on monks. Some developments never secured the proper permits, existing in the grey zone of unofficial toleration. Now, that toleration has been retracted.

Xuan Fang, a scholar at Renmin University, says that in cases where images were, in fact, purely commercial, their removal sometimes enjoys support in Buddhist quarters. Reports, however, indicate that even legally built structures are now being targeted and that the crackdown has affected prominent sites such as Jiuhua Shan, the mountain sacred to the bodhisattva Dizang (Jpn., Jizo).

Another impact has been pressure on Buddhist institutions to engage in more overt displays of nationalism. Some monasteries, most notably Shaolin, have been pressured to fly the national flag, and according to Bitter Winter, nuns at one temple were compelled to celebrate National Day with a patriotic dance, in violation of their monastic vows.

Playing some role in this shift seems to be the disgrace of Xuecheng, a former member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the one-time head of the Buddhist Association of China, and one of the most prominent monks in the country due to his innovative work at Longquan Temple outside Beijing. In 2018, Xuecheng became one of the few Chinese leaders to fall due to #MeToo accusations after monks who had worked with him published a ninety-five-page report detailing allegations of sexual harassment, embezzlement, draconian leadership practices, and political corruption. Exactly what role this scandal played is difficult to say, but some believe the incident sparked the current wave of restrictions by sullying the reputation of the monastic sangha. Others, including a group of nuns within Xuecheng’s circle, vigorously deny the accusations, arguing that the charges were fabricated in order to remove him from power. It may be a bit of both. Figures in the Party may have allowed a genuine scandal to come to light as a means to remove an opponent. Such would fit the pattern of the Xi era, in which crackdowns on real corruption often conveniently sweep up rivals.

Despite these headwinds, Buddhism’s growth in China is likely to continue. Many Chinese looking for meaning and moral orientation in a competitive and rapidly changing society will continue to look to religion, and the prestige of traditional culture will help Buddhism hold its ground amidst the explosive growth of Christianity. While renewed levels of restraint will almost certainly remain in place for the foreseeable future, Buddhism has become too useful as a source of social stability and soft power for this to grow into full-on repression. Instead, institutions will have to become accustomed to maneuvering within a more limited sphere than they’ve recently enjoyed, and operating in legal grey zones may become riskier. Nevertheless, given China’s growing wealth and international clout, the country’s increasing importance as a center of Buddhism in the decades to come seems all but assured.

Justin Ritzinger

Justin Ritzinger

Justin Ritzinger is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami, whose research focuses on modern Buddhism in China and Taiwan. He spent almost a decade living, working, and traveling in the Chinese-speaking world, primarily Taiwan. The author of Anarchy in the Pure Land: Reinventing the Cult of Maitreya in Modern Chinese Buddhism, he is currently working on ethnographic study of a small blue-collar lay group in Taoyuan, Taiwan.