Buddha’s star appeal

Why rising prosperity has prompted growth in Chinese Buddhism

Buddha’s star appeal

Xu: hoped for harmony, but opting for Japanese nationality didn't help

Stories of film star spirituality often attract a scornful eye. Cue that Buddhism press release shortly after the one on the visit to the Betty Ford clinic, for instance. Then expect news of the first orphan adoption.

But can we really blame those who seek a more peaceful path, especially when facing what China News Net described last week as the “extraordinary psychological pressures” of fame?

The news agency was talking in particular of the actress Xu Qing, who has recently disclosed her conversion to the Buddhist way of life, joining actor Jet Li and singer Faye Wong.

Xu may have been in immediate need of some peace and quiet. Her casting as Song Qingling (also known as Madame Sun Yat-sen, one of China’s most significant figures in the early 20th century) in the ultra patriotic flick Founding of A Country has been stirring up all of the normal netizen controversy.

But in Xu’s case there is extra spice: she (allegedly) took Japanese citizenship. For many of her critics, this makes her unimaginably unsuitable to play the role of the ‘founding mother’ of the modern Chinese nation.

Like Xu, more Chinese are becoming interested in Buddhism. Exactly how many is difficult to put a number on. But according to a 2007 survey by professors Tong Shijun and Liu Zhongyu of Shanghai-based East China Normal University, close to a third of Chinese aged 16 and above are religious.

Definitions are everything here, of course. But the survey found further that two thirds of all believers (or about 200 million people) were Buddhists, Taoists or worshippers of legendary figures.

Buddhism arrived in China more than 2,000 years ago. Most argue that increased interest today is an offshoot of the country’s frenzied economic development. As the Chinese become wealthier, they have the opportunity (and need) for spiritual solace.

The materialist instinct isn’t wholly incompatible with the spiritual one, however – Buddhist monks themselves cite it as a major factor in the religion’s recent effervescence.

“Buddhism gets prosperous only when the economy develops. It’s been the case since ancient times,” a vice president of the Buddhist Association of China told Xinhua two years ago. “Without money, whoever would come to worship in the temple?”

The growth of the internet has proved a boon too. Buddhists may seek the simple life, but that does not mean that they reject the opportunities of modern technology. Most of the larger temples have websites. Popular monks produce their own blogs.

Changes in government attitudes have also played a role. One common misconception is that the worldviews of Buddhism and the Chinese state must inevitably lead to disagreement.

True, times were tough during the Cultural Revolution. Traditionally, Beijing has been cautious on religious activity that competes for its citizens’ affections. Tibetan Buddhism also continues to get a warier eye than other versions.

But in much of China, policymakers have been taking more notice of the Buddhist messages of peace, tolerance and social harmony.

The country has played host to two Buddhist World Forums in the last three years, for instance. Both have headlined in a “harmonious world” theme, striking a reassuring chord with Hu Jintao’s own message on the need for a “harmonious society”.

Local governments have welcomed the building or restoration of Buddhist temples too, not only as tourist attractions but also for their spillover benefits, like the opening of Buddhist businesses, or the investment of benefactor donations in the local area.

Typically, Chinese Buddhism seems to have chosen a path more accommodating to commercial realities than some of the more other–worldly variants of the creed.

Take the Shaolin monks, the country’s best-known Buddhist “brand”. The order guards its reputation carefully against imitators. It owns numerous trademarks for trades and services in a range of countries too.

An image somewhat removed from that of a solitary monk, requesting alms from a passerby.

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