chapter  4
Hierarchical plurality: State, religion and pluralism in southwest China
Pages 20

During a small workshop on Chinese Christianity, twoAmerican scholars present findings on when and how the Chinese state ‘intrudes’ into society by ‘harassing’ house churches, and how Christians are ‘scared’, suffering from severe trauma to the extent that, even after being evacuated to California with the help of underground asylums, they are still afraid of praying in public. However, when the Chinese state is mentioned, the scholars do not seem interested in explaining why the state regulates house-churches so strongly. Instead, they repeat for a dozen times the word ‘harassment’. This lexical shortage suggests a conceptual one in regard to describing the empirical data of state-religion relations in contemporary China, a topic dominated by a set of terms laid out by the universal-in-disguise standard of religious freedom based on individualism and state-church separation. This standard also implies that religious freedom will prevail once the state is removed, and that religious adherents should be left alone, free to choose among religions in the way similar to customers in a shopping-mall where the state is nothing but a negligible security guard, as suggested by the term ‘religious marketplace’ (Yang F. 2010a). With these assumptions, religious pluralism is premised by religious organizations being free from state ‘harassment’. State-church separation, state-society dichotomy, and religious freedom based

on individual choice are not fixed categories, but provincial experiences that have undergone a long process of contention, re-interpretation, and indigenization, in a particular spatial-temporal setting. The reason for its universalistic claim is in itself interesting, and deserves a stronger methodological caution than merely transplanting the given categories to non-Western contexts. If one distils Chinese ‘facts’ with these categories, one is methodologically going nowhere other than the office desktop, and China will continue to remain a mysterious exception. By so doing, one is not comparing but inventing ‘cases’ with categories non-existent in the societies in question, and there will always be some ‘residual’ that eventually escapes from the analysis. The consequence of such analysis may be politically pressing but academically it is insignificant. Several chapters in this volume suggest that religious diversity in the Asian

context is in itself plural, and something must be done to correct the conceptual shortage, such as the workshop example I mentioned. Mark Mullins provides an example of the Yasukuni Shrine that turns from state-cult into private shrine,

inducing domestic and international controversies in the context of legally sanctioned religious pluralism and the separation of religion and state. Carool Kersten also explores the variation of pluralist policies in Turkey and Indonesia. All of them deal with situations where state presence is (or was) strong. Rather than dismissing the state-presence as an annoying ‘harassment’, these authors explore the potential for comparative concepts capturing the particular state-religion relations in salient settings in Asia. In this chapter, I provide an example from Dali, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious

city in northwestern Yunnan province, in southwest China. Based on empirical data set against historical records, I explore the state’s relation with religion in the post-Mao era. I argue that we can’t understand religious pluralism without appreciating the religiosity of the state itself – the transcendence of the state, which provides a context of pluralism under strong regulatory measures, a context I propose to call ‘hierarchical plurality’. I will explore the religiosity of the Chinese state, and assess state regulations and their operation in Dali, with an example of commodification.