the business of religion: buddhism, stock markets and the “authenticity” of religion

A recent news story on Reuters, headlined Thou Shalt Not Launch IPOs, China tells temples, reports that the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) has issued an injunction against temples listing on the stock exchange. SARA official Liu Wei is reported as staying:

Chinese worshippers offer coins for prosperity while praying at Longhua temple to greet the lunar new year in Shanghai on February 9, 2005.

Such plans “violate the legitimate rights of religious circles, damage the image of religion and hurt the feelings of the majority of religious people.”

Like much reporting on Chinese religion, this story is left unexplained, as an item of “bizarre news” which lends weight to the Orientalist stereotype of China, and especially Chinese religion, as being ineluctably mysterious. To those whose knowledge of religion is limited to the West, there are two main issues that need to be explained:

  • Why do religious sites want to go public on the stock exchange?
  • What interest does the state have in preventing them from doing so?

A pervasive modern view of religion is that it is somehow incompatible with money. This sentiment perhaps goes back to the familiar Biblical texts that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) and  ”you cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6;24). There are certainly some parallels in China, notably in monastic religion where a contentious issue has always been how much time should be spent on properly religious activities such as meditation, and how much on the actual business of running the monastery. In Imperial times, many monasteries in China had significant landholdings. The rent collected from tenants was used to fund the operations of the monasteries. But from the times of the first anti-religious protests in 1922, the economic status of monasteries declined, first as tenants refused or were unwilling to pay their rents, and secondly as land was expropriated by the state (an act that bears comparison with Henry VIII’s dissolution of English monasteries and appropriation of their wealth). After the reforms of the 1980s monasteries were allowed once again to operate as religious sites under the ultimate supervision of SARA, but very little land was returned to them. As Jing Yin writes in his essay “The Economic Situation of Chinese Buddhist Monasteries” this meant that the monasteries were faced with a dilemma:

The good news is that Buddhists today have buildings to operate and services to perform; the bad news is that they have almost no money with which to work. Therefore the urgent priority for nearly every monastery is to find a way to generate revenue. Monasteries are thus trying to become economically independent and to minimize their dependence on state government.

Today, temples do not make money from renting out their land but rather as sites for religious tourism. Many are located in sites of outstanding natural beauty and have become ecotourism destinations in their own right. But probably the most successful religious site in China today is Shaolin Temple, in central Henan province, home to the famous martial arts school. Shaolin has been remarkably successful in marketing itself as a tourist destination, and as a site of global Buddhist pilgrimage, and has generated huge revenues that have benefitted the local economy. According to the Reuters report, there was an outcry when Shaolin contemplated an IPO three years ago, which led to the ruling reported on recently. To many, running the temple as a profit-making activity implies that it cannot also be a religious activity. But as André Laliberté notes, this view is often the view of outsiders rather than insiders.

Buddhist devotees may criticize the activities of organizations like Shaolin because of its emphasis on martial arts, but they do not fault the management of the temples because they appreciate the fact that the temples are wealthy. In the moral economy of Buddhism …  donors can gain merit by contributing to the building and furnishing of a monastery … . It is therefore non-Buddhists who are more likely to object to Buddhist temples gaining wealth.

In the case of local Daoist religions, the link between religious life and local economic life can be quite close. In rural China, local Daoist temples came to be owned and funded by the collective rather than by priestly lineages. Thus in contrast to affiliation-based religions in which people pay tithes to a religious organization that is distinct from secular society and governed by a special class of religious professionals, Chinese people founded community associations (hui) or common management organizations (gongsi; now the term for “corporation”) in order to manage their collective religious lives (see Schipper 2008). As a result the gap between “religious” activities and other local economic, educational or charitable activities becomes harder to discern. These communal associations, for instance, became significant managers of local wealth held in trust for the benefit of the community. In keeping with their originally religious motives, some of these funds are typically devoted to religious activities, but in many cases a significant proportion could be channeled into local enterprises or educational activities. Adam Yuet Chau (2005: 38) writes:

Besides being a site of both individual and communal worship, a temple is also a political, economic, and symbolic resource and a generator of such resources. A beautifully built temple and a well-attended temple festival attest not only to the efficacy of the deity but also to the organizational ability of the temple association and the community.

Chau goes on to note that such temples have been involved in local development work such as paving roads, planting trees, and building schools. The lesson to be learned from this is that the line between “religious” and “nonreligious” activity has no self-evident boundary. Rather what has happened in China is that the modern state has moved to create such distinctions, defining for religious institutions what constitutes proper religious activity.

By now the answers to the questions posed above should be somewhat clearer. Religious sites want to list on the stock exchange because it is in their interest to secure funds for their continuous development and expansion. Religious activity is not simply “spirituality” but requires buildings, staff, management, cars, roads and other infrastructure. In contrast, it is in the state’s interest to emphasize the modern definition of authentic religion as “personal spirituality” so that it can continue to limit the material base that religious institutions require in order to develop and expand. In China religious activities can only legally take place in spaces that are authorized religious sites: they may not take place in the public sphere. The stock exchange is clearly viewed as public space, and to allow religions to list on the stock exchange would be to permit the encroachment of religion into the public sphere. This is something that the Chinese government is clearly not willing to tolerate.

  2 comments for “the business of religion: buddhism, stock markets and the “authenticity” of religion

  1. June 10, 2012 at 13:05

    James — This is an excellent little piece. I have a question about the terminology “local Daoist religions.” I know that the line between Daoism and “popular” or “local” religion is commonly blurred in China, but this seems to erase it completely. You must have a well-thought out reason for this — could you please share it? I don’t remember if you dealt with this in your 2003 book or elsewhere, and I’m not at my office so I can’t check. I know that Daoist priests perform the rituals at local temples. But historically Daoists have sharply distinguished their religion from popular religion (e.g. different deities, different rituals). And as you point out, local temples have no institutional link with officially Daoist temple/monasteries, such as Baiyunguan — except for the participation of the priests, which really confuses the issue.

  2. James Miller
    June 14, 2012 at 11:07

    Thanks for the comment. You’re right. I think that “local Daoist religions” is a mistake. I think I may have meant “local Daoist religion,” meaning the religious activity undertaken in community-owned temples at which Daoist priests officiate. The temples aren’t owned by “Daoism.”

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