Sidestepping secularism: performance and imagination in Buddhist temple-scapes in contemporary China
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Why, in the second decade of the 21st century, do Chinese temple-goers visit Buddhist temples even if they are religiously unaffiliated, folk religionists, or even self-proclaimed secularists? How can we develop new conceptual tools to better understand religious involvement in contemporary China? The thesis investigates the significances of temple-based activities under late socialist state secularism, which defines religion in a specific way. It suggests that temple participation allows diverse Chinese citizens to flexibly negotiate modernity, sidestep institutional constraints, and introduce ritual-religious momentums to their temple-going lives in a mainstream society. Based on fifteen months of fieldwork, the study identifies and documents three stylistic forms of temple participation that are widely accessible and require no prior religious commitments: making wish-vows, drawing efficacious lots, and providing residential temple services. It refines a method of ritual analysis for studying how these non-institutional activities affect temple-goers’ self-understandings and their worldly stances. Theoretically, the dissertation discusses the social conditions for creative actions and the relationship between religious participation and state secularism. It shows that “temples” as spatial entities can be a place for many-sided meaningful activities and an incubator for complex visions of life, outside the conventional typecast of sacred spaces based on institutional religious differences. In late socialist China, Buddhist temples exist as semi-public sites because of an inclusive Mahayana Buddhist ideal of bodhisattva practices and, paradoxically, because of a state secularist policy that endorses “Religious Activities Venues” as spatial and even residential units. Overall, the dissertation treats Chinese temple-goers as our interlocutors sharing the global modernist predicament of state secularism. We theorize a sidestepping, non-confrontational mode of religious activism, move beyond a dichotomous view of religiosity and secularity, and consider the existing creative transformative processes of a hegemonic linear-developmental view of history. Temples as places of self-transformation are historically constituted sites within the sovereign state spaces. When Chinese temple-goers reconfigure their historical selves by actively visiting temple spaces, they also open the possibility of different futures for the late socialist regime. This brings us to an anthropology of religion effectively considering the making of humanity in contemporary China in a shared modern world.
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