Religion in China: A critique of Fenggang Yang and the Templeton Foundation

by Chlodwig Wimpffen

Who writes here is a scholar of Chinese religion, who has been following the development of the field over the years. I will advance a critique of the work of the American sociologist Fenggang Yang. What I will criticise is the extremely biased quality of his research and its methodology, their dubious nature and funding, and his deliberate misrepresentation of data. I will not put into doubt his integrity as a person or his preparation as a sociologist.

First of all, in 2014 Yang began to be financed with great sums of money (9.5 million dollars in total) by the John Templeton Foundation,[1] an American Evangelical Christian private foundation, or “think tank”, which has been criticised by many scholars as promoting biased pro-Christian research.[2] Thereafter, articles began to appear, sometimes even on a daily basis, on Anglo-American online journals, promoting him as a “leading expert of Chinese religion”. At the same time, he began to circulate the idea that “China will become the nation with the largest number of Christians in the world by 2030”,[3] despite in a survey conducted by he himself a few years earlier he found that “Christians remain a small minority in today’s China”, “33 million, much less than most of the popular speculations”,[4] a statistic confirmed by more recent analyses.[5] Yang himself claimed that his speculation was based on the Pew Research Center’s report Global Christianity,[6] incidentally it itself financed by the Templeton Foundation.[7]

Yang did not began as a scholar of Chinese religion, but as an American sociologist near to other scholars who belong, like he himself, to the American Christian milieu, for instance Rodney Stark, whom is the author of A Star in the East, it itself published by Templeton Press, and criticised for being a product of American Evangelical Christian triumphalist wishful thinking rather than of a thorough study of real facts.[8] Articles citing Yang or his claims are almost always among the first results of internet search engines (Google), a fact which, together with the insistent promotion carried forward by Anglo-American online journals, is certainly strange, curious, and unjustifiable in its overshadowing of the work of other tenured, long-time scholars of Chinese religion.

Yang is the director of the CRCS (Center on Religion and Chinese Society) of the Purdue University, which was supported by the Templeton Foundation even before Yang’s rise to mediatic prominence in 2014.[9] The centre, despite the name, focuses exclusively on Christianity and has become the platform for the promotion of Yang’s personal ideas. The latter is precisely the problem of the entire research of Fenggang Yang: it is basically a projection of his own private personal ideas with no grounding in reality, or really scientific, objective nature, so that the Chinese scholar Ji Zhe has criticised his research as “a projection of fantasy with a certain kind of Christian root”, a Protestant bias which makes him favour private doctrines as true “religion” over what the majority of the Chinese practise, that is civil public worship of gods and ancestors.[10]

In more recent times, Yang has authored an atlas mapping religions in China, part of a project commissioned by the Templeton Foundation,[11] which suffers from the same problems analysed here above, with the addition of deliberate misrepresentation of data, and with the addition that some maps (specifically those about Protestantism) are based on statistics coming from the American Evangelical Christian missionary agency Asia Harvest,[12] which are completely groundless inventions.

Some maps are elaborated in such a way that they show Christianity and Islam as the religions of a majority of the population in many counties of China. Much of central and northern provinces appear as having a Protestant majority, while a city like Tianjin appears as mostly Catholic and Islamic. The misrepresentation consists in the fact that these maps do not show the percentual amount of believers among the population, but are based on the count of the places of worship of each religion which are registered under the government’s SARA (State Administration of Religious Affairs); this is only cursorily mentioned in the text, while the title of the maps falsely proclaims to show the “major religion by county”.[13]

Some of the maps distributed by Fenggang Yang, falsely claiming to represent the “largest religion in China by county”, despite being based on the count of the registered places of worship and not on the actual number of religious believers, and despite excluding the temples of Chinese civil and folk religion (which outnumber those of other religions counted together at least by 4:1), to give advantage to Christianity, deceptively representing it as dominant in much of central and north-eastern provinces, while the number of Christians hardly surpasses the 2-3% threshold even in these provinces:

Any scholar of Chinese religion knows that Christian churches and Muslim mosques are more strictly controlled by the government and thus more likely to be registered under the SARA, and that in most cases they cater to a small number of believers (especially churches, in most cases serving a few dozen members); otherwise, only a small fraction of Buddhist and Taoist temples are registered under the SARA, and all the temples of folk religion and civil public religion are not registered under the SARA, and they serve tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. The temples of folk religion or civil religion, which is the common worship of gods and ancestors essential to the Chinese civilisation and is not classified under the Chinese definition of “religion” (zongjiao), which is restricted to “doctrines”, are estimated to be the most numerous, between 1 and 2 million temples in the whole country.[14] Only the province of Zhejiang has counted them in recent years, finding that they outnumber all the places of worship of the five government-regulated doctrines (Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam) about 4:1, and thus outnumber Christian churches even by a bigger proportion.[15]

Yet, to Yang’s personal opinion and the type of research he promotes, this entire section of Chinese religious life, which constitutes the absolute majority of religious life in China, is not worthy of attention, of representation in his maps, and of the statute of “true religion”. The denial of the statute of “true religion” to Chinese civil public and folk religion may be related not merely to Yang’s Christian bias, but also to the related fact that his research is functional to the American neoliberal idea of market society (which is also that promoted by the Templeton Foundation).[16] Indeed, while Christian churches may function as Trojan horses of American neoliberalism, for a horizontal decomposition of societies, and have been used as such, in many parts of the world, by the United States[17] (and are created and financed in China by American Evangelicals and by the CIA itself, according to Vatican sources[18]). Chinese civil and folk religious temples are “communal property”[19] belonging to many people together, which can be families, broader groups, sectors of the organic Chinese society. From the point of view of an uprooted, atomised, anomic society like the American one it could indeed be very difficult, impossible in some cases, to understand what the relationship to the ancestors and to the gods of the surrounding world is, and what the civil public religion of a divine organic civilisation like the Chinese one truly is.

Not only Yang has been working to invent that China is majority Protestant in some areas on the basis of the mere count of the number of registered places of worship (which, I repeat, does not represent the amount of believers!), and not taking into account folk religion, which has the largest number of places of worship, but he is also elaborating that China is destined to be a new “Roman Empire”, with this definition meaning that it is destined to become Christian[20] (apart from the fact that Christianity was invented by the Roman Empire itself during its downfall, as a codification of the Gnostic transformation of Late Antiquity integrated with state theology, mystery religions and popular cults). All reliable surveys tell us that no more than 2.5% of the Chinese population identifies as Christian,[21] despite the enormous emphasis given by the Anglo-American media to this small minority and to the occasional arrest of some of its leaders, colluded with Western powers and hostile to the Chinese civilisation. Why shouldn’t a form of Confucianism become the new synthesis, and even state religion?

In some respects it is already so: the civil public religion I have been talking about is intrinsic to Chinese secular society itself, to Chineseness, so that it can be called China’s “state religion”. It is Chinese Universism, as J.J.M. de Groot called it, which comprehends Confucianism and Taoism as two of its modalities, but also the many popular traditions of worship of gods and ancestors, and, first and foremost, the civil public seasonal rituals of China for worshipping these gods of the environment and ancestor-gods of human groups in the public holy spaces of national temples, in harmonisation with Heaven (Tian, Shangdi, Huangtian Shangdi), which is not an abstract/transcendent God like that of the monotheistic Judeo-Christian tradition, but the present God of Heaven of pan-Eurasian religion, which is the supreme ancestor of the universe and of the ancestors of all entities, and manifests in the axis mundi of the communal, public holy space itself. This “cosmic religion”, which is civil and civilising, is the religion of China and of most of the Chinese, not the various private “doctrines” (zongjiao). This is the religion which has been revived in China, and is destined to integrate, or reintegrate, the state as a “religious state”, a “church-state”;[22] this religion is not separated from secular society — the separation of religion and secular society, the irreconcilable dichotomy between the private and public spheres, the emphasis on the former and on a schizophrenic rejection of the world, being a process triggered by Protestantism (or Christianity in its entirety[23]), the same Protestantism which vitiates the entire research of Fenggang Yang —; Chinese religion sacralises the secular/temporal being organising China as a centred divine civilisation.[24] In the meanwhile, corrupted by Christianity and its idea of God as an abstract entity and not as the supreme ancestor of the ancestors of all things, the West is degenerating and disintegrating.

Worship of the three great ancestor-gods Huangdi (Yellow Deity), Yandi (Red Deity) and Chiyou, in Guizhou
Worship of Huangdi in Henan
Worship of Guandi in Shanxi
Worship of the Taimu Niangniang in Fujian

Confucian and shamanic worship of Fuxi and Nuwa in Shandong
Confucian worship of Fuxi in Shandong
Statue of the Chishanshen, Red Mountain God, in Shandong

Worship of Yandi in Gaoping, Shanxi

[1] Patterson Neubert, Amy (10 December 2015). “Did You Know: Center on Religion and Chinese Society”. Purdue University.

[2] Wiebe, Donald (2009). “Religious Biases in Funding Religious Studies Research?”. Religio: revue pro religionistiku. XVII (2): 125-140. ISSN 1210-3640. p. 126. According to Manfredi La Manna of the Economic University of St Andrews the Templeton Foundation “is a Christian US organisation whose mission is to convert students and scientists to accommodationism and whose financial strength allows it to have a worldwide reach”. “Religious bias”. The Scotsman, 17 February 2014.

[3] Jiang, Jie (25 April 2014). “Christian estimate ‘inflated'”. Global Times.

[4] Patterson Neubert, Amy (26 July 2010). “Prof: Christians remain a small minority in China today”. Purdue University.

[5] Wenzel-Teuber, Katharina (2017). “Statistics on Religions and Churches in the People’s Republic of China”. Religions & Christianity in Today’s China. (VII) 2: 26-53. China Zentrum e.V. ISSN 2192-9289.

[6] Jiang (2014).

[7] Stern, Amy (19 December 2011). “Event Transcript: Global Christianity”. Pew Research Center.

[8] White, Chris (2017). “Counting Christians in China: A critical reading of Rodney Stark’s A star in the East: The rise of Christianity in China”. MMG Working Paper 17-03. Göttingen: Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. ISSN 2192-2357.

[9] “Center on Religion and Chinese Society Newsletter”. 1 (2). Purdue University. June 2008: 4.

[10] Liang, Yongjia (2016). “The Anthropological Study of Religion in China: Contexts, Collaborations, Debates and Trends”. Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series. (250): 12-16.

[11] Yang, Fenggang (2018). Atlas of Religion in China: Social and Geographical Contexts. Brill. “Acknowledgements”.

[12] Ibid., “List of Maps”.

[13] Ibid., p. 13.

[14] Dean, Kenneth (2011). “Local Ritual Traditions of Southeast China: A Challenge to Definitions of Religion and Theories of Ritual”. In Yang, Fenggang; Lang, Graeme. Social Scientific Study of Religion in China: Methodology, Theories, and Findings. Leiden: Brill. p. 134.

[15] Wenzel-Teuber (2017), p. 36.

[16] Liang (2016).

[17] Spadaro, Antonio (18 July 2018). “The Prosperity Gospel: Dangerous and Different”. La Civiltà Cattolica. The article reflects the Catholic Church’s viewpoint, yet it is clear in identifying American Evangelicalism as a “justification for economic neo-liberalism”.

[18] Introvigne, Massimo. “Who Is Afraid of Bitter Winter?”. Bitter Winter, 5 May 2018. It is opinion of the Vatican scholar Gianni Valente that American Evangelicals and the CIA create and finance Christian churches, in particular in Henan, conspiring to overthrow the Chinese government.

[19] Abramson, Daniel Benjamin (2011). “Places for the Gods: Urban Planning as Orthopraxy and Heteropraxy in China”. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 29 (1): 67-88. DOI 10.1068/d4707. p. 19.

[20] Yang, Fenggang (15 October 2018). “Is China the New Roman Empire?”. College of the Holy Cross.

[21] Wenzel-Teuber (2017).

[22] Palmer, David (2012). John Lagerwey, China: A Religious State. China Perspectives. 2012/3.

[23] Littlewood, Roland; Dein, Simon (2013). “Did Christianity lead to schizophrenia?”. Transcult Psychiatry, 50 (3): 397-420. DOI 10.1177/1363461513489681.

[24] Palmer (2012).

(c) Chlodwig Wimpffen
CC BY-SA 3.0 Creative Common License: This work may be shared and adapted freely as long as its source is cited.