Sense and Sensitivity

Dr. James Miller
Professor of Chinese Religions, School of Religion
Director of Cultural Studies
Queen’s University

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Teaching and researching religion in China has been one of the enduring passions of my academic career. Contrary to what you might expect, there’s a wealth of research and teaching about religion that takes place in China. China is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world, with 54 official minority nationalities, each with their own culture and tradition. China is also one of the most religiously diverse countries, and officially recognizes five faiths, Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Daoism. Only one of these, Daoism, originated in China, so China’s religious landscape is a fascinating and diverse patchwork of cross-cultural influences from all over the world.

Since 1979 the Chinese constitution has guaranteed freedom of belief. Given the previous crackdowns on religion, this has meant that there has been an enormous boom in religious activities, with temples, churches and mosques being newly constructed or restored all over the country in the past thirty years. But China’s ruling communist party remains officially atheist, and this revival of religion has inevitably been a cause for concern, in part because of China’s long history of struggle between surging sectarian movements and the state.

Last year I was involved in a project funded by Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, which examined the lives and livelihood of Muslim communities in Shanghai. Our international research team carried out this research with a Chinese partner organization, and although we managed to oversee several research projects, the process was fraught with difficulty because Islam was deemed a “sensitive” topic. Nevertheless along the way we sponsored a one-day workshop at Fudan University in Shanghai, that featured research on Islam in China that was being conducted by minority students there. The Canadian consul in Shanghai stopped by and I think we achieved a frank exchange of views about the hot-button issues of minorities, racism, and indigenous peoples in both Canada and China.

Although religion is a sensitive issue in China, it’s probably fair to say that it’s a sensitive issue everywhere in the world.

js60653723New Zealander Phil Blackwood spent 13 months in prison in Myanmar for posting this image on Facebook to promote a drinks special in the bar he managed. His crime was offending Buddhism.

A few weeks ago Dutch citizen Klaas Haijtema was arrested on a similar charge for pulling the plug from a loudspeaker relaying a Buddhist sermon that he claims was preventing him from taking a nap in his hotel.

Whether you’re selling beers in Buddhist Myanmar, researching religion in Shanghai, or studying world religions and native traditions in postcolonial Canada, it’s likely that you’re going to run into some kind of sensitive issue. Learning how to negotiate these issues requires scholarship and learning on the one hand, but also tact and diplomacy on the other. It’s a matter of sense, and sensitivity. Balancing the two can sometimes be difficult, especially when the a scholarly perspective conflicts with that of a religious community. But learning this balancing act is one of main benefits of religious studies.

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