Belief Economy in the Chinese Religious Market

Rationality in the economic sense focuses on the utilitarian value of choice-making, but in the economic aspect of the Chinese religious market, belief-driven activities should be evaluated in an alternative framework of spiritual capital that entails more than rationality in the practical sense (Berger & Hefner, 2003). The following analysis of different religious activities in China will hopefully delineate how commercial practices are inseparable from spiritual reasoning.

It is true that on the one hand worship activities in Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucian sites in China have seen more popularity, while on the other hand these spiritual practices have been contaminated by monetary contribution and secular incentives and lost some fundamental religious essence. Under growing capitalism and globalization trends in China, religious institutions and activities have faced great challenges from modern development detached from traditional beliefs. While the decline of religious activities is often times attributed to the lack of practical utility, religious groups are now trying to engage more people through market tactics.

There is a religious market in the sense that worship practices are often seen in gift exchange which involves interaction and social bonding among individuals with their community and with gods (Yan & Palmer). The definition of religious market thus can be distinguished from that of commercial market comprised of selling and buying in monetary exchange. The adherents in a particular religion can be seen as the equivalent of a client in commercial exchange. Indeed, material offerings are required in many religious rituals, and monetary contribution is necessary to make religious institutions and activities possible. Religious offerings are obligatory acts to collect merit and express gratitude to the divine. Materials and cash contribution to the religious rituals are believed to possess the power to secure blessings to this world (Wagner).

In addition to the demand for material needs in market exchange, cultural and spiritual values are central to the sustainability of a religious market. According to Palmer (2001: 572), the cultural value partly lies in the social interaction and communities created through the material and intangible exchange in terms of religion. Religious objects have inalienable values. They remind people of the sacredness of the divine and morality of one’s behavior (Arnould et al). Material offering is an important means of merit-collecting through which people can cleanse their bad deeds, receive blessings from gods, and create and sustain happiness in the shared experiences.

Of course, nowadays more and more religious institutions are making efforts to commercialize their activities to attract more visitors for reputation. This is called religious market competition (Palmer, 2001). The competition in religious market also leads to both standardization of services and customization and freelancing services. Monetary charges include registration for particular religious events, printed copies of materials and DVDs, vegetarian meals, religious objects such as pendants and locks for good luck, and customized services and so on. There is a degree of dilution in a lot of these acts, many of which are considered superstitious swindling. But all of the religious activities that involve money are just forms of rituals to reach certain level of spiritual gain and communal experience.

The post-Cultural Revolution religious revival is characterized by “local negotiations of morality, power, and place” (Fisher, 2008: 146). As Fisher observed in several of his visits to China, the monks were so eager to collect money to rebuild or construct new temples where they could be abbots themselves, engaged themselves in presumptuous banquets with local bureau and investors where meat and alcohol was served. The belief that participation in fundraising is a kind of moral revival and merit collecting drew many officials and businessmen into financial backing, which also wins monks and nuns their own reputation (Fisher, 144).

A lot of religious institutions in China are also engaged in subtle relationships with the Party-gov’t. Due to the significance of guanxi in the success of any social activities in relation to the public and the gov’t (Yang, 1994), it requires the efforts to persuade the ruling power that guided spiritual activities work in favor of both religious sectors and gov’t rule to unite people for belief activities. There is a “cultural nexus” in the involvement of lay investors, government sectors, and religious practitioners (Fisher, 2008). There also lies a “cash-merit” relationship (Fisher, 2008) that appeals to the interests of the temples with those of the state to legitimize religious activities.



Works Cited

Arnould, et al. (2004). Inalienable Wealth in North American Households. In C. W. Bell, Values and Valuables: From the Sacred to the Symbolic (pp. 209-120). Walnut Creek: Rowman & Littlefield Publisher, Inc.

Berger, P. L., & Hefner, R. W. (2003, March). Spiritual capital in comparative perspective. In Paper written for Spiritual Capital Research Program Planning Meeting, Philadelphia.

Fisher, G. (2008). The Spiritual Land Rush: Merit and Morality in New Chinese Buddhist Temple Construction. In The Journal of Asian Studies, 67, pp 143-170.

Palmer, D. A. (2001, Dec). Gift and Market in the Chinese Religious Economy. In Religion.

Wagner, R. G. (2014). Fate’s Gift Ecnomy: the Chinese Case of Coping with the Asymmetry. In J. v. Welker, Money as God: the Monetization of the Market and its Impact on Religion, Politics, Law, and Ethnics (pp. 184-218). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yan, Y. (2005). The Gift and Gift Economy. In J. G. Carrier, A Handbook of Economic Anthropology (pp. 246-261). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Yang, M. (1994). Gifts, Favors, and Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China . Ithaca : Cornell University Press.



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