Buddhism and Communism: A Case Study

I recently participated in a program sponsored by Fo Guang Shan Monastery in Taiwan that allowed me to study the history of Buddhism by visiting Buddhist sites in and around the ancient Chinese capital Chang'an (modern day Xi'an). This program taught me a great deal about Tang Dynasty history, as well as about the relationship between Buddhism and Chinese society and politics today. I hope to post a few posts about some of the things I learned there.

In the west, we have this conception of Communism in China and their relationship with religion in largely Marxist terms. Religion is the “opiate of the masses” and the Communist government took expedient measures to control and then, come the 1960s, outlaw religion. While this may be a mostly accurate, albeit simplistic, history, the situation then, and now, deserves a bit more analysis, especially since the last 10 years has seen a large divergence from former policy.

Actual government involvement in religious affairs began large scale in 1958 when the government collectivized land owned by monasteries. Since monasteries were in all economic terms owned by the government and therefore forced to conform to collectivization and taxation policies, many monks were forced to disrobe, drastically decreasing the sangha. This continued into the 1960s until the cultural revolution, when a full scale attack began on the vast majority of temples throughout the country. Buildings, statues, and relics were destroyed, and all except a few monasteries who managed to avoid persecution because their monastery had practical purposes, such as international and historical importance (a few prime examples would be the Llama temple in Beijing and Nanputuo temple in Xiamen). Nevertheless, nearly all monastics were forced into lay life as their temples were overtaken by party members.

Within the last 30 years, almost all of the temples destroyed during the 60s began renovation (nearly all the temples we visited, over 25, had been rebuilt in the last 30 years, many of which are still in the process). Much of this was funded by the government. Furthermore, more and more Chinese people began to join or rejoin the sangha. However, the government did not simply rebuild temples and leave them to their own devices. All temples active temples must register with the bureau of cultural affairs, who has jurisdiction over appointments of head abbots. Similarly, they must register with the Buddhist Association of China. This relationship is sometimes, though not always, antagonistic. In the case of most things in China, the relationship between a monastery and the government depends almost largely on the personalities involved. In Jiangsu, for instance, it seemed from those we talked to that the provincial director was quite responsive and open, wanting to have a harmonious relationship with the monasteries there. Other temples have had more negative experiences with this power struggle. Another interesting rule in the creation of monasteries is that no new monasteries can be built, monasteries must be “rebuilt.” However, the definition of “rebuilt” can be quite flexible, as we heard of temples being built upon two stone steles that happen to be found at the site.

A case study that represents the complexities of this relationship, I think, is Famen temple, 115 kilometers outside of Xi’an. This temple, in its heyday during the Tang dynasty, was one of the most famous and important monasteries in China, housing a Buddhist finger bone relic given to China by the Indian Prince Ashoka (according to legend). Today only about 1/24 of the size it once was, this temple saw a procession of emperors and other government officials who came to pay respects to the relic, offering a total of nearly 2500 priceless artifacts as offerings.

This monastery went into decline after the Tang dynasty, though it continued to function well into the 20th century. After the 1949 revolution, the Famen temple received the same treatment as many of the temples in China. It was hit particularly hard in 1966, when red guards stormed the temple and destroyed all buildings except for the central pagoda which housed the relic. As the guard prepared to dig into the pagoda, the one monk still residing at the monastery, a venerable Liang Qi, stacked wood infront of the pagoda and proceeded to light himself on fire in protest. Frightened, the guards abandoned the stupa, leaving it intact. At the monastery today, this monk is revered as a brave and honorable protector of the temple, of 2500 years of history, and Buddhism as a faith.

Beginning in the 1980s, the temple began restoration after the main stupa collapsed. After it had collapsed, monks and archaeologists discovered beneath the pagoda treasures left behind by emperors as well as the relic itself (and its 9 layer cage). This began heavy restoration of the monastery to the way it is today, buildings, stupa, and Buddhist college in tact.

Considering the importance, historically and spiritually, of this temple, it is no surprise that the government has taken a heavy interest in the managing of this temple. While there are very clear borders to the monastery, outside the monastery the government has constructed a vast public space reminiscent of an even larger Tian’anmen which leads to a new main shrine, topped with a gold monstrous statue and lined with gaudy gold statues. Within the last 10 years, the monastery has battled with the local tourism board, who wants to house the relic as well as all the treasures in their museum beneath the main shrine (and charge a hefty entry fee). While they lost out on the latter, which are housed in a museum within the monastery, they succeeded in the former. Currently, the relic sits within the compounds of the large government created shrine, and it emerges itself twice a month for large ceremonies for the gaggles of pilgrims coming to pay respects (and take pictures, of course).

Conversations with the vice abbot very clearly demonstrated the antagonistic and hopeless attitude of the monks at Famen temple. Out of sheer practicality, they play the government’s game by sending 4 monks a day to oversee the main shrine and the relic, and they all participate in the bimonthly rituals (though no dharma talks are given). At the same time, they have refused to allow their monastery under full jurisdiction of the tourism board, which wants to include both sites under one entry ticket (currently, they own the control over the entry ticket into the monastery, and 1 million RMB is donated monthly to the monastery). He also mentioned, in passing, that the monks have committed other very subtle signs of protest against the current situation.

While many of the temples in Jiangsu demonstrate the possibility of amicable relationship between the government and religious authorities, Famen temple is highly representative of the pulls between political power, tourism, and religious faith. While the government certainly likes the idea of having a part (a large part) in such a highly influential space and ritual, they also see the economic benefits of being involved. Meanwhile, the temple sees the current relationship as a threat to their ability to write their own history, significance, and spiritual doctrine (for example, who writes the placards explaining the history of the relic?) It is unclear what the future will hold for this monastery, and many others like it, but from the monks’ perspective, it seems quite clear that they don’t like the situation, but they don’t feel totally powerless either.


  1. nice work, Gina! Looks like you got some great notes on Famen Si. I'll hopefully be blogging a bit about the trip too: americanbuddhist.blogspot.com --- keep in touch!

  2. I am curious how Chinese popular religion (I do not care for the condescending term "folk" religion). survived during Communism. Most Chinese have kept worship in their homes for thousands of years and do not regularly visit temples in the way Western people use their churches. Did Communism affect religious worship in the same way it was was in the West?

  3. Bill,

    As far as popular religion, I'm not exactly sure how temples were affected, although most temples I know of, while including deities from the Chinese popular pantheon, were labeled as either "Buddhist" or "Daoist." I do know that as far as policy goes, any kind of religious praying that was considered "superstitious" was criticized by the party. Today, you will still see a lot of the educated Chinese scoff at silly superstitions (although most apartment buildings still have no 4th floor). My knowledge, however, is clearly lacking in this subject. I'll see what I can find out

  4. I have been studying Chinese popular religion as part of a commitment to my fiancé to study Chinese culture and in my study of Chinese film. We have over 300 Chinese foreign students here at my University and while they toss off religion as superstitious, whenever I mention I pray to Guanyin they generally reply, "You too?". I have a feeling traditional Chinese religion runs very deep, more deeply than Westerners know. I think we expect a structure and an allegiance to a particular faith or religion, but when I ask what religion you are Buddhist or Taoist, I usually get a blank stare. Family religions have developed over centuries and don't take the same form as Western belief systems. Confucius did not criticize family or popular religion because he felt it was necessary to preserve mental health. I am no authority, but I believe as Westerners understanding Chinese belief systems is a key to understanding the Chinese better, and maybe learning that they are not that different from us.