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26 JAN 2022 (WED) 16:35-17:05

Spatializing the Interface between Spirituality and Secular Modernity: Mahayana Buddhism as Entrepreneurial Religion in Urban China

Mr ZHANG Han PhD Student, Department of Geography, HKU


While religious revival in reform-era China has been the theme of a growing corpus of research, the dearth of geographical perspectives is evident when the foci of analyses are traditional belief systems such as Buddhism. Buddhism has emerged as one of the backbones in contemporary China’s religious renaissance. In the context of rapid urbanization and the transition to a market economy, the ascendancy of secular modernity is in parallel to widespread feelings of meaninglessness and spiritual emptiness, which drive Chinese urbanites to pursue spiritual lifestyles and religious practices. In the recent decades, Buddhism in Mainland China has demonstrated clear inclinations towards this-worldly engagements and has accommodated adherents’ demands for spiritual pursuit in a volatile era of rapid socio-economic transition. Meanwhile, the visibility of religious landscapes in contemporary China’s urban spaces has been significantly increased, exemplified by the massive investments in the development of spectacular religious landscapes as part and parcel of urban spatial expansion. In this process, there is the mutual constitution of religiosity and modernity, and religion needs to reinvent and reform itself – becoming entrepreneurial – to maintain its legitimacy in modern society. This proposed research will focus on Chinese Mahayana Buddhism and develop a comparative study examining two case study sites located, respectively, in Beijing and Hangzhou. The first case study seeks to roll out a re-theorization towards the symbiosis and co-production of religion, modern science and technology. It does so by engaging with the emerging scholarship on science and technology studies (STS), through an empirical study of Longquan Monastery, a Buddhist monastery in Beijing that has advocated the mutually complementary relationships between Buddhism and modern science. Echoing recent debates on the blurring and porous interface of religiosity-secularity, this case aims to destabilise the ontological boundaries between religion and science by unpacking the translocal geographies in which knowledge and new theological discourses circulate. The second case, which concerns the lifestyle communities surrounding Lingyin Monastery, is more oriented towards revealing how religion has become an integral dimension in urban development, capital investment and accumulation, contributing to new rounds of space production and place making. It aims to provoke a dialogue between religion and issues related to capital accumulation and economic development in the modern city. This proposed research scrutinizes the relationships between Buddhism and secular modernity amidst the market transition in contemporary China, as well as provides a negotiated epistemological space for reconciling seeming oppositional concepts and ontologies.

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