A disheartening, if not completely unexpected, story in China Daily today (h/t Sinocism) on the ways in which the growing materialism of Chinese society is undermining the practice of Daoist religion:
Taoist abbot Yuan Zhihong has a complicated attitude toward money: He knows his temple needs funds to make ends meet, but the commercialization of religious venues is affecting their sacred status....
A Taoist for 31 years, Yuan said religious venues have received more donations in recent years as the economy has grown, yet he lamented that many temples have become profit-driven, which is contrary to the nature of the religion.
This gets at the sometimes contradictory interactions of the competition for wealth and the search for personal meaning in China today. To thrive economically, a person has to seize whatever opportunities for gain there might be. And, in doing so, a person may fail to cultivate and maintain more deeply meaningful human relations. The market (even one still significantly shaped by the state) dissolves the social bases of humanity. What was it that Marx said? Oh yes:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
When faced with that brutal materialism, many people seek spiritual or religious succor. Thus, as China has become more competitively materialist, it has also become more religious, and Daoism is one of those religions that has grown in recent decades.
But, as the China Daily story suggests, religious practice cannot always escape from the venalities of the market:
However, Li Zhijin, deputy director of the Hebei Provincial Taoist Association, who attended the seminar, complained that many Taoists now care about nothing other than money. "They ignore the disciplines and don't observe the rituals," he said.
During a 2011 memorial in Huaiyang county, Henan province, a Taoist temple auctioned off the privilege of lighting the first joss stick for 1.18 million yuan to an entrepreneur. The action led to a public outcry.
Wang Ka, a professor of religious studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said commercialization has ruined the reputation of many religious venues.
"Ticket prices for some renowned temples are higher than 200 yuan, which is unaffordable for many people," he said in a lecture at the seminar. "The religion should not be used as a machine to make money."
But as Mr. Wang and Mr. Li and Mr. Yuan well know, the Daodejing anticipates just these sorts of problems:
Understanding sparse and sparser still I travel the great Way, nothing to fear unless I stray.
The great Way is open and smooth, but people adore twisty paths: Government in ruins, fields overgrown, and granaries bare, they indulge in elegant robes and sharp swords, lavish food and drink, all those trappings of luxury. I
t's vainglorious thievery - not the Way, not the Way at all. (passage 53)
People adore twisty paths: a tendency still as strong today, if perhaps not stronger, as it was back in the day when somebody wrote down those words. Plus ca change...