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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Buddhism and Islam > The Situations of Buddhism and Islam in China, 1996

The Situations of Buddhism and Islam
in China, 1996

Alexander Berzin
November 1996

General Situation of Religion in China

The situation of religion in the People's Republic of China has deteriorated over the last two years since 1994. In general, there are more restrictions than before. Religious activities and lectures are strictly limited to the temples, mosques, churches, and religious schools, and the prohibition on public or private lectures elsewhere is strictly enforced. Only qigong, a form of martial art style physical exercise and energy manipulation, is allowed to have public teachings. It has become immensely popular, indicating a strong thirst for traditional culture and spirituality.

Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism is facing the most difficulties of all the religions, and within Buddhism, the Tibetan tradition, and within that, what is found in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The number of monks and nuns in the Tibetan monasteries has been strictly limited to the officially permitted amount and all additional monastics beyond that – which were a large number two years ago – have been expelled. This has been less strictly enforced in Amdo (Qinghai) than in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The two official Buddhist colleges for the Tibetan tradition – in Beijing and Labrang (Gansu) – left from the five founded by the late Panchen Lama (1938 – 1989) have had to increase their emphasis on teaching communist doctrine.

The abbots and leaders of the major Tibetan monasteries were at the Tibetan Buddhist College in Beijing in the summer of 1996, summoned for a three-month intensive course on political indoctrination. They were required to publicly choose between following the Dalai Lama and communism, between "splitism" and "upholding the unity of the glorious motherland." In Tibet, the monks and nuns have not only had to do likewise, but are also being forced to step on pictures of the Dalai Lama that the police and military have collected.

Han Chinese Buddhism

The Han Chinese Buddhists are not facing as much of a crackdown as do the Tibetans. Their activities are also limited to only the temples that are open for worship. Of the 600 Han Chinese temples and monasteries in Beijing, only three are in this category, plus one Tibetan/Mongolian temple. The rest are museums. On the day of the annual Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara) festival this year, over two thousand people visited the main Buddhist temple of Beijing, Guangqi Si, where the Buddhist Association of China is located. Normally, however, about a hundred come on the few special days of the religious calendar each lunar month to make incense offerings, and on other days only a handful. The number of monks at this temple/monastery is limited to thirty. Although they have rituals twice a day for an hour, the rest of the time they serve as caretakers. There is no study because there are no teachers. The monks try to study on their own. Before their teacher died in 1988, they learned and practiced meditation together. Now, they have discontinued their common practice and only some of them continue in their rooms. There is one old meditation teacher who visits them occasionally, but he must also serve in about twenty similar temples/monasteries around China.

About eight Chinese monks are allowed each year to study abroad, mostly in Sri Lanka, where the form of Buddhism is not at all the Chinese tradition. Although there is much interest in Buddhism among the Han Chinese people, the government does not allow any courses in it at the regular schools or universities. New Chinese temples are not permitted to be built and the repair of old ones is being slowed down. The official reason is that there has been too much embezzlement of funds by people collecting money to build them.

The Chinese Buddhist government school in Beijing is located at Fayun Si temple/monastery. This is one of the five such major colleges set up by the government for training monks in the Han Chinese tradition. The others are in Shanghai, Nanjing, Jiuhua in Anhui, and Mingnan in Fujian. Han Buddhism is the strongest in Shanghai and especially Fujian, which is the most active area. There are eighty monks at the college in Beijing for a four-year course. The other four colleges have a similar number and there are several smaller training schools in other cities as well. Much of their training is devoted to political indoctrination.

The Beijing Buddhist Laymen's Society have two Han Chinese teachers in their seventies, who follow and teach primarily the Tibetan tradition. The association has about 1200 members. They have only a tiny, dilapidated facility and although they have collected sufficient donations for constructing a proper building on their grounds, the government will not give them permission.

The Chinese have constructed a temple at Lumbini, Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha. This year, for the first time, the government is allowing Chinese Buddhists to go on pilgrimage in Nepal and India for the opening of this temple. The number is restricted to eighty and is only for monks. Out of these, ten are from the Tibeto-Mongolian tradition and the other are from Han Chinese monasteries. The ten from the Tibeto-Mongolian tradition are forbidden to go on the Indian part of the pilgrimage, for fear of their contacting His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The price is $3000 for two weeks – far beyond the reach of most.

Islam

The situation with Islam is completely different. Although the Muslim population in China, including both the Uighurs and Hui, is about twenty million, they have nine large colleges, each with over a hundred students. Beijing has not only one of these Chinese Islamic Colleges, but also the headquarters of the Chinese Islamic Association. In sharp contrast with the Buddhist facilities, the building shared by the Islamic college and association in Beijing is enormous and well-equipped. Built in the mid-1950s, it is currently being renovated. Both the original construction and renovation are being partially state-funded. The college in Yinchuan, the capital of the Ningxia Autonomous Region of the Hui people, is the largest. Funded by Saudi Arabia, it is grandiose. In contrast to the Buddhists, over fifty Chinese Muslim students study Islam abroad each year in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Libya, and Malaysia.

There are 42,000 mosques in China and, unlike the Buddhist temples, all are open for worship and none are simply museums. They each have an imam who conducts classes for lay people in Islam. Many more educated Muslims survived the Cultural Revolution than Buddhists. This year, 6000 Chinese Muslims are making the haj pilgrimage to Mecca, which has been permitted since the end of the Cultural Revolution. The price is $2500 for forty days.

The Chinese government has branded the Dalai Lama public enemy number one, as they see him behind all "splitist" movements. The crackdown on Tibetan Buddhism must be understood in terms of a crackdown on support of His Holiness. The authorities are, in addition, afraid of Buddhism in general. The Muslims do not actively convert others in China, so they pose no threat to the Han Chinese people, who form ninety-two percent of the population. However, since most Han identify to some extent with Buddhism, Buddhism poses a direct threat to communism and the state for winning the main allegiance and loyalty of the population.