Theses Doctoral

Spiritual State, Material Temple: The Political Economy of Religious Revival in China

Chang, Kuei-min

China’s dramatic religious revival over the last three decades has defied two dominant theories in the study of religion and politics: the secularization theory and the market theory of religion. Put simply, the former predicts declining religious significance along with economic modernization; and the latter holds that religious vitality is a function of state regulation. Not only is religious observance on the rise despite continued economic growth, but also the upsurge of religion has coincided with the atheist state’s unceasing effort to curb religious expansion. This dissertation focuses on the material dimension of religious revival. It investigates the mixed material and ideational incentives of both state and religious actors in the processes of temple restoration, their interactions, and the resulting variety of temple autonomy.
One of the key findings is that mass temple restoration has been greatly driven by state agents acting on their own interests. The atheist state and its local agents encourage temple reconstruction and tolerate priestly autonomy when doing so is expedient to social stability and economic growth imperative to their political survival. This dissertation argues that temple restoration has become a repertoire in local economic development. Local state agents seek to restore temples and redirect their functions to mass tourist consumption. Due to the immobility of temple assets, aspiring religious leaders seek to demonstrate political conformity and the temple’s economic contribution in their struggle for religious autonomy. As a result, Buddhism and Taoism have been battling with constant pressure of local state-led religious commodification. The close tie between temples and the interests of various state agents has resulted in uncertain religious development and a state-religion relationship that is simultaneously cooperative and contentious. The research hence contributes to our understanding of the antinomies of authoritarian state legitimation wherein state-religion enmities are endogenous to the system of economic development and religious governance. More broadly, the research situates the upsurge of religion in the larger cultural and institutional contexts and explores less-studied top-down religious institutionalization and its sociopolitical consequences. It therefore enriches the study of religion and politics by bringing the modernizing state and its local representatives to the forefront as the agent of secularization as well as religious restoration.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Political Science
Thesis Advisors
Nathan, Andrew J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 6, 2016