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Creating Networks and Research Collaborations in China

USCI Faculty Grant recipient Donald Miller (Center for Religion and Civic Culture) reports on his recent trip to China to explore historical and contemporary religious expression.

January 8, 2009


The purpose of this report is to summarize activities that were funded by the USC U.S.—China Institute and were undertaken from October 7-24, 2008 by Donald Miller, Executive Director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC, and his graduate student, Joy Lam, a third year doctoral student in Sociology. There were five separate travel elements to this trip—Beijing, Lanzhou, Dunhuang, Xi'an, and Yinchuan—and in each location we visited with some combination of scholars, government officials, directors of NGOs, graduate students, and/or tour guides. The focus in each location was on religious expression in China, both contemporary and historical.  Although I had visited Hong Kong on several occasions (studying a religious NGO working with drug addicts) and I had made a brief visit to the south-eastern region of China (interviewing representatives of Pentecostal churches), this was my first exposure to Beijing and Western China.

The first week was spent attending the "Beijing Summit on Chinese Spirituality and Society," which was held at Peking University and was sponsored by the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Pushi Institute of Social Sciences, the Institute for the Studies of Buddhism and Theories of Religion at Renmin University, and was organized by Professor Fenggang Yang of Purdue University's Center on Religion and Chinese Society. The conference was funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and included various ancillary programs to the Great Wall, the Great Hall of the People, and the Forbidden City. In addition, I was able to visit the Lama Temple and Confucian Temple in Beijing as well as the South Cathedral—one of twenty Roman Catholic churches in the Beijing area. Indeed, had the trip ended after the first week, I would have gone home with an entirely different perception of religion in China. Present at the conference were the top experts in the world who are studying religion in China, including a number of Chinese scholars. I believe everyone felt that this was an historic conference, one that gave legitimacy to the academic study of religion in the 21st century. There were substantive debates about methodology, theoretical approaches, and case studies of particular religious groups.  In addition, preliminary data from a survey of religion in China was presented. Even the "house church" movement was discussed. And there was a keynote lecture on Confucianism by Harvard Professor TU Weiming, which packed a hall at Peking University with 800 eager students.

From Beijing we flew to Dunhuang to see the historic Mogao Grottoes. The first cave we entered contained a Buddha that was ten floors high. It was a stunning experience and an appropriate beginning as we visited a number of the caves, including one that a British archaeologist plundered, removing hundreds of precious manuscripts—many of which currently reside in the British Museum.  The Mogao Grottoes lay at a strategic point on the ancient Silk Road, where religion, culture and commerce between East and West intersected for a thousand years, from the 4th century until the Yuan Dynasty. There are 492 caves carved out of the cliffs 25 km southeast of Dunhuang in the Gansu province. On the walls of the caves there are elaborate murals, and many of the statues in the caves are remarkably well preserved.

Student at Confucian school learning to play the guqin.
From Dunhuang we backtracked to Lanzhou where I had been invited to give a lecture to a group of graduate students at the local university. This opportunity proved to be the gateway into three days of intense interaction with various religious studies scholars. Within the Department of Philosophy and Sociology there are two research centers—one on Christianity and the other on Islam. In addition to faculty representing these centers, we were also hosted by a Confucian scholar who proudly took us to a private school that he had founded for primary school children who were learning to play the Guqin, were reciting the Analects as well as various English classics, and were learning Taichi. As fortune would have it, we visited the school on the same afternoon as the parents meeting and were invited to ask them questions regarding their motivation for sending their children to this boarding school and heard testimonies about its impact on their sons and daughters. On the third day of our visit to Lanzhou, three of the professors took us to a Buddhist monastery where, in addition to interviewing one of the monks, we engaged in a long philosophical conversation while sipping tea at the top of a mountain about the connection between "heart" and mind in Confucianism, whether Confucianism is a religion, and rather esoteric reflections on life, virtue, and meaning. This philosophizing was later grounded by sipping noodles from one of their favorite restaurants in the city, visiting a Three-Self Church, and then walking along the Yellow River where we could see from a distance a beautiful Islamic mosque. One of the benefits of these engaged conversations is that I discovered that Professor Chen, the Acting Director of the Research Center of Christian Culture, has been studying the history of Pentecostalism (Assemblies of God) in the southern part of Gansu province. Since returning from China we have carried on an e-mail correspondence, and I am attempting to locate archival materials that will assist his research.
Monk from Tibetan monastery.

From Lanzhou we flew to Yinchuan via Xi'an. For the remainder of our trip we were hosted by Mahmoud Dakhil, the President of the Omar Foundation which is associated with the mosque across the street from USC on Vermont and Exposition. For several years the Omar Foundation has been working with the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and private donors to support the education of Muslim children in China, including orphan children. In fact, while we were in Beijing we had a wonderful dinner with about twenty Muslim youth who are attending Peking University with financial assistance from the Islamic Development Bank. When our plane arrived in Yinchuan we were surprised when the stewardess ushered us from our economy class seats to a VIP lounge where we were greeted by four lovely young Muslim girls (with flowers in hand), along with Mahmoud Dakhil and Madame Hong, the chairperson of the Yinchuan Committee of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, who formerly was Vice-Mayor of the city. After checking into our hotel, Madame Hong got to work! She was set on showing us the philanthropic work that she and the Omar Foundation were doing. 

View from the Islamic Cultural Center in Yinchuan.

Our first stop was at the home of an orphan whose father had died and whose mother had committed suicide. While Madame Hong scolded the neighbor for not taking better care of him, Mahmoud encouraged him to study at the university, pursuing his self-declared goal to be a doctor. The next stop was at the home of a 12 year old orphan girl who Mahmoud, without hesitation, said should enter their support program. And so the afternoon went until we arrived at Madame Hong's orphanage, which had about fifty children. As soon as we stepped out of our vehicle two young children grabbed Madame Hong's hand and for the rest of the visit would not let her go. She clearly was a surrogate mother to these kids.  As we drove back to town, I asked her what motivated her to care for these children. Without hesitation she gave four points: it was her duty as a government leader; it was her responsibility as a Muslim to care for those who are disenfranchised; her grandfather was an orphan who later became an important religious leader; and in helping these children she better understands herself. As if to further reinforce the importance of her faith, we went directly from the orphanage to an incredible dinner at the Islamic Cultural Center.

Student studying at Ningxia University.

The next day we visited Ningxia University. Like several other universities that we visited—each about the size of USC—it had been built completely from scratch in a period of several years. Everything was new; the buildings were architecturally interesting; the campus was spacious; but, surprisingly, most of the faculty did not have doctorate degrees. An exception was Professor Ma Zong Boa who was director of the Research Centre of Hai Nationality, and who had been invited to visit UC Berkeley in the spring of 2009. He spoke like a sociologist, describing the ways in which Hui Islamic culture was influenced by Confucian values; the ways in which urbanization was challenging Hui traditions, including gender roles; and so on. Like our friends at Lanzhou University, he was eager to establish long-term relationships with USC. From this meeting we went to have tea with Madame Hong in her elaborate wood paneled government office, and then to the meeting room of the Mayor, where we sat on overstuffed chairs, spoke into side microphones in a chandelier studded room, and were filmed saying wonderful things about the city of Yinchuan. 

The next day we were served lunch by Madame Hong at a restaurant which featured a special dish which was the giant head of a fish. I was given the honor of sucking out the brain with a straw, which, frankly, tasted better than the cow's knee bone or the duck's feet that I had imbibed on other occasions during the visit in China. However, it did not compare to the dumplings that we were served in Xi'an, our next destination. 


Mahmoud Dakhil and Madame Hong with children from the orphanage founded by Madame Hong.

In Xi'an we were hosted by another of Mahmoud's Muslim friends, Mr. Muhamud Mubarak Wu Qingyun, the  President of the Shaanxi Muslims for the Promotion of International Cultural and Economic Exchange. Mr. Mubarak was an elderly man, a former high ranking military officer who, in spite of his age, was assigned a government driver and was treated by everyone around him with utmost respect. In collaboration with the Islamic Development Bank, Mr. Mubarak's organization has sponsored the education of nearly 300 Muslim students. In addition, he plans on developing a vocational school for disadvantaged Muslim youth, teaching them to be plumbers, electricians, etc. This organization is also planning to rebuild Islamic schools and mosques that were damaged in the recent earthquake, if they can find available funds. Throughout the several days we were in Xi'an we were constantly interacting with Muslim leaders of the community, although we did slip away one day to visit the Terra-Cotta Warriors, the Big Goose Pagoda, the Stele Forest Museum which contains a large stone slab that records the existence of Nestorian Christians in China in the 4th century, and the Grand Mosque, where I participated in daily prayer with one of our Muslim escorts. What I did not sufficiently exploit—but will on another visit—was the invitation of Mr. Wang (who is in charge of religious affairs for Xi'an) to visit senior religious leaders of various faith traditions. However, I did have extensive conversations with Wang, whose bottom line is that all religions are "good" so long as they contribute to the common good.

Waiting for noon prayer at the Grand Mosque in Xi'an.

Nearly three weeks after arriving in Beijing, I headed back to Los Angeles and Joy remained to follow up with several additional contacts that she had made, especially related to the rise of the New Confucianism. To summarize, what was the value of this trip to me, personally, to the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, and to the USC U.S.—China Institute?

First, the conference in Beijing was remarkable. The forty different presentations and panels opened up a new world of scholarship to me on religion in China. I have been invited to give a lecture on global Pentecostalism at Peking University (date to be determined). Likewise, very solid connections were made with scholars at Lanzhou University and Ningxia University. Everywhere we turned, people expressed their desire for relationships and partnerships.

Second, extremely solid connections were made with the Muslim community in various parts of Western China. I have an invitation to return to Yinhuan and Xi'an in April with Mahmoud Dakhil. One possibility is to launch a research project on the transnational connections among Muslim's world-wide (e.g., Muslims from Los Angeles and the Islamic Development Bank assisting Muslims in China). I am also intrigued by the degree of religious freedom that Muslims appear to experience in the Western part of China. Is this really the case? And how have Muslims been influenced by Confucianism? One Friday, while in Lanzhou, we visited a huge mosque where several thousand men had come to pray. There were no women in sight; we were told they we praying separately in a different building.

Third, I would like to follow up on various encounters with individuals studying Christianity. I have just received a $7 million from the Templeton Foundation grant to study global Pentecostalism. Competitive grants will be given to research centers around the world and it is quite possible that my new friend, Dr. Chen, who directs the Christian Studies Center in Lanzhou could be a viable applicant. In addition, I had an extensive conversation with a graduate student in Beijing who is studying house churches, some of which are Pentecostal or charismatic.  Hence, my three weeks of establishing contacts in China and learning more about its culture might result in leveraging Templeton funds to study religion in China—or at least one variant, Pentecostal Christianity.

Fourth, as a result of our visit at the Confucian school in Lanzhou and Joy Lam's interest in this subject, we has been invited by the Templeton Foundation to submit a proposal continuing Joy's research on this subject during the summer of 2009. Arthur Schwartz, one of two senior Vice-Presidents, is interested in collaborating with Joy on an article that focuses on moral education in these schools.  Joy has proposed doing in-depth interviews with students, parents and teachers in seven different cities in China where there are Confucian schools.


Donald Miller and Joy Lam at the exhibit of the Terra-Cotta Warriors.

In summary, this brief three week trip to China has opened numerous research possibilities. For Joy there is the obvious connection with the Templeton Foundation and a project on Confucianism. For me, the groundwork has been laid for ongoing relationships with various Muslim organizations and scholars as well as the opportunity to explore the growing role of Christianity in China—both among Pentecostals as well as the expanding house church movement. I am also very intrigued with the transnational connection between Muslims in China and Muslims in the US and the various Gulf states. And, finally, a very strong relationship has been created with Professor Fenggang Yang at Purdue University and his network of scholars in China.

Donald Miller is Executive Director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture and professor of religion and sociology at USC at USC.

All photos by Donald Miller.