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YOU Bin:Religion and its role in building China’s soft power


According to the Chronicle of Zuo, “worship and warfare are the greatest concerns of a country.” Worship and military affairs – one pertaining to religion, the other to warfare – representthe soft power and hard power ofa country. This concept is not unique to Chinese culture. In the Ancient Civilizations Pavilion of the British Museum, only two major themes appear in the engravings: the king’s sacrificial worship and the army’s military campaigns.


Why does religion play such a significant role in a country, even to the extent that “worship” comes before “military affairs”?


“Worship” is a direct prayer to the invisible divine and a form of remembrance of the sages and ancestors who have passed over. In terms of immediacy and urgency, it obviouslyis not as important as warfare to a country or nation. However, through “worship,” a common attitude is formed that gives meaning to one’s short-lived incarnation, fitting one’s life into the “invisible uniformity” set by ancestors. It constructs a perpetual time-space framework that promotes a sense of moral confidence for members of a society to collectively uphold historical responsibilities. In weighing its long-term and foundational significance, “worship” or religion (that which it represents) is much more important than warfare and is a major realitywhich state governors should seriously consider.


Rationality constitutes only a small part of human nature


As the social division of labor becomes more discrete and civilizations become more complicated, “worship” is dispersed over many parts of the social system and framework. Today’s categorieswhich are lumped together to form the concept of “culture” (such as ethics, law, politics, academia, art, education, and media) take the role that was once played by “worship/ceremony” alone. Each of these categories facilitates the growth of a country’s soft power. Among these socio-cultural patterns, however, religion’s role is unique, because it is the softest of the soft powers.


First, religion utilizes an especially soft way to build up the hearts of the people. Although it perceives rationality as an important facet of humanity, it does not regard humanity to be governed solely by reason. As Augustine of Hippo stated, “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed.” Religion regards reason as just a small part of humanity, just the tip of an iceberg. A far greater part of humanity lies beneath the surface, within the emotions and spirituality of the human being. Religion takes a well-rounded and integrated approach to human nature, offering emotional and spiritual consolation to a society.


For a society to run normally, the basic principle of “reciprocity and justice” must be practiced. However, for the masses that are living in a common space, various kinds of conflicts of interest and power struggles exist. If the only measure taken is “reciprocity and justice” to handle individual-to-individual or group-to-group conflicts, then there will never be order and harmony.


Hence, humanity must find a way to transcend the “an eye for an eye” behavior, to dissolve conflicts, and to once again walk along the path of wisdom. Religion offers this type of wisdom. On answering how to respond to those who hurt you, only religion, of all the structures within a civilization, offers the suggestion to “transcend justice.” Christianity says, “Pray for those who hurt you.” Taoism says, “Return ingratitude with kindness.” Buddhism says, “Give your body to feed the tiger.” Only such mandatescanhelp rejuvenate a society which has been seriously torn apart by political and economic strife. They can pave the way for a new mode of coexistence.


Religion must not depend on political support


If there werea soft side to every heart, then the things that couldmove a heart would be those that are softer than itself. Of all human innovations, religion takes on the softest model by which to touch individuals’ hearts. In today’s secularized modern society, religion’s presence is not particularly significant, but when it is given a full role to play, then it will be like salt – invisible, yet able to give taste and meaning to every experience.


China’s leaders are starting to recognize the practicality of soft power and to try to increase the overseas influence of Chinese culture. However, the role of religion in developing such soft power has not been given sufficient attention. We can ask the following questions: If we do not speak of Confucianism, Buddhism, or Taoism, how much of Chinese culture can we speak of? If we do not understand Christianity and Islam, how canwe understand Europe, the United States, and the Islamic world? How would we then gain the respect of Christians and Muslims, who constitute half of the world’s population?


Saying that we need to fully honor the role that religion plays in building a country’s soft power does not mean that the state should support religion’s development. Precisely because religion is the softest of all powers, its development must be kept far away from the influence and support of the state, which is mainly driven by hard power. For religion to be established as a form of soft power, the parties behind its development must not be the state, but rather civil groups. The state should be open tocivilians forming religious associations. The development of religion must not rely on political or economic investment noron media support. Instead, it must rely solely on the quiet awakening of the masses. Finally, its development is not for the growth of a nation, but for humanity to live with meaning and dignity.



CEFC Advisor, Professor of Christian Studies, Minzu University of China

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