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Monastic Seminaries and the Chinese Dream, Part Two: United Fronts and Common Goals

A class at Qianfotasi Buddhist Seminary, Meizhou, Guangdong Province. From

In this two-part interview with Douglas Gildow, a dissertation fellow of The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program in Buddhist Studies, we take a look at how the institution of the seminary shaped the relationship between Buddhism and the state in China. In this second and concluding article, Douglas discusses the present relationship between Buddhist seminaries and the Chinese government, and by extension, between Buddhism and the Chinese state.

In today’s China, some observers believe that Buddhist seminaries function as a negotiating body between Buddhism and Communist ideology, given the latter’s public repudiation of religion. “Communist doctrine in China still claims that religions should and will eventually wither away as people become more educated and wealthy,” says Douglas Gildow. The picture commonly painted is one of closely regulated religion, with its scope of influence curtailed. Religious activities of any tradition are permitted only at officially registered religious venues, such as monasteries or government-approved churches.

What I found fascinating in my conversation with Douglas, however, was that there are so many more dimensions to this story. To me, his findings have brought home the immense complexities facing the Chinese government in handling religious institutions, and vice versa. After all, religion in the country is growing more popular, not less.

“The United Front system, a set of institutions led by the Communist Party’s (CCP) United Front Department, establishes the basic framework in which Buddhism can operate in China. The ‘united front’ concept comes from a military metaphor, and implies that the Communist Party should lead China through economic and political struggles while social institutions outside the Party should follow and support its endeavors,” he continues. “The United Front Department supervises the government religious affairs agencies (including the State Administration for Religious Affairs [SARA], the government agency that regulates Buddhism, and lower-level religious affairs bureaus), which in turn supervise various state-organized Buddhist associations throughout China. The top leadership in major Buddhist associations is ultimately controlled by the United Front Department.*

“Top Buddhist leaders are therefore often anxious to show that they comply with regulations and support the latest Party slogans—such as the recent ‘Chinese dream’ [coined by President Xi Jinping as a slogan of his administration that stresses the unity of individual and national progress] and ‘socialist core values’,” says Douglas. “In many seminaries, two or three flags are flown—one representing Buddhism, one being the national flag, and (sometimes) one representing the local seminary. In the seminaries with flags I have observed, the national flag flies highest.

Jiangxi Buddhist Seminary. From

“The influence between the state and academia on the one hand and seminaries on the other is asymmetrical; for the most part the state and academia influence seminaries but are not themselves influenced by seminaries. We can see this from the circulation of personnel and curricular materials,” emphasizes Douglas. “In the post-Mao era, official documents state that Buddhist seminaries should devote 70 per cent of their instruction to Buddhism, 20 per cent to non-Buddhist academic subjects such as languages and philosophy, and 10 per cent to politics. One of the mandatory classes for seminarians is on politics, to be taught from the perspective of the Party. According to published data and my own observations, the amount of actual instruction in each subject area basically follows this policy.” 

“Many monastics in seminaries—perhaps half—come as recently tonsured, novice monastics (shramaneras and shramaneris). Therefore the seminary is likely to be their first extended exposure to Buddhist doctrinal teachings. Furthermore, although less emphasized in seminaries than in other institutions [like monasteries], other activities such as ritual and contemplative practices are also taught in seminaries.” Seminaries form the foundation of Buddhist education, training, and sangha socialization for monks and nuns throughout China.

“In most seminaries, a small but significant number of the administrators and/or teaching faculty are also state officials and secular academics. Some textbooks in seminaries are also written by officials or academics. For instance, teaching materials in the mandatory politics class present the Communist Party’s policies and demand seminarians comply with them. And courses on Buddhist history are sometimes based on textbooks written according to conventions of academic historiography, which clashes with the traditional religious histories seminarians learn about in other classes,” says Douglas. Also, at Chinese universities, textbooks that discuss Buddhism are written from Marxist perspectives for officials in religious affairs departments or from academic perspectives for students. Neither are written from traditional Buddhist perspectives, as are seminary textbooks.

A class at Yunmen Buddhist Seminary, Ruyuan Yao Autonomous County, Guangdong Province. From

However, Douglas prefers not to conflate this asymmetry of influence into an overall picture of the relationship between the state and Buddhism. Most intriguingly, a joint study between Renmin University and Purdue University, originally published in 2007, indicated that 12.3 per cent of Chinese Communist Party members self-identified as Buddhist—quite a large number for a party that does not permit religious believers to join it. “Buddhists have not been above ignoring or circumventing official regulations. For example, reportedly some seminaries have purchased the state-sanctioned textbook on politics, but then do not actually use it in class. In some places, such as rural parts of southern China, it is not uncommon for Buddhist rituals to be performed in private residences as well as in monasteries,” qualifies Douglas.

Seminaries have actually been growing in influence and power among Chinese Buddhists ever since Zhao Puchu, one of the protagonists of Chinese Buddhism in the mid- to late 20th century, declared that they were crucial to Buddhism’s survival. This influence can be traced to the Maoist period (1949–76), when one state-sponsored seminary in Beijing, the Chinese Buddhist Seminary (see Part One), sustained operations despite the fact that others had shut down after 1956.

“For a time, state authorities viewed instructors and graduates of this seminary as an educated, politically vetted elite group, and they were often given positions of authority in monasteries throughout China. There were no seminaries operating at all during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). But from 1980 onwards, seminaries were re-established or newly established, and regained many of their former roles. It was the very institution of the seminary itself, not the particular seminaries founded beginning in 1980, which produced new channels for monastics to acquire knowledge of Buddhism and authority within the sangha.”

Douglas gives several reasons for the importance accorded to seminaries. “Monastics can develop prestige and social networks in seminaries, mainly with fellow monastics, but also—especially for seminary instructors or administrators—with state officials and other social elites,” he says. These climbers are, for example, able to lobby the state to promote their policies and preferences. “Several years ago, a high-ranking seminary leader lobbied to have the Ministry of Education (MoE) recognize the degrees of certain seminaries. These negotiations failed, but the SARA stepped in to support a similar policy, and established standards for seminary degrees to be recognized, albeit only within religious circles through the sanction of the SARA (rather than the MoE).

Hangzhou Buddhist Seminary. From

“In the post-Mao era, official regulations released by the SARA mandate that the top officers in monasteries must be seminary graduates. This regulation is not strictly enforced, but it indicates that the state views graduation from a seminary as a kind of credential for office,” notes Douglas. With this kind of status, seminary administrators and managers gain the means to fund academic endeavors such as conferences, book series, lecture series, and research centers. “Also, by funding academic research on Buddhism, Buddhist institutions gain some control over what should be studied and how it should be studied.”

There is no doubt that Buddhism has a place in present-day China. Far from being cast in stone, it is one that is evolving according to the needs of Chinese politics and those of Buddhist leaders and communities. More often than not, the Communist and Buddhist paths converge. When they do not, it is at the seminaries that the power-broking and deal-making begin.

Douglas Gildow earned his BA from Washington University in 1996 and an MA from Harvard University in 2006. Before attending Harvard, he did course work at Chung Hwa Institute of Buddhist Studies in Taiwan and worked as an interpreter, translator, and editor for Dharma Drum Mountain Foundation. His research focuses on modern and contemporary Chinese Buddhism.

* As of March 2018, the State Bureau of Religious Affairs has been dissolved, with the Buddhist Association of China liaising directly with the United Front Work Department. Observers describe the Department’s work as to, “manage relations with the non-Communist Party elite, including individuals and organizations holding social, commercial, or academic influence, or who represent important interest groups, both inside and outside China.” (Wikipedia)


Yang Fengguang and R. J. Leamaster. 2010. “Buddhists in China Today.” In The Present and Future of Religion in China (II), 1041–62. Beijing: The Institute for the Studies of Buddhism and Religious Theory, Renmin University of China and The Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Perdue University.

See more

United Front Work Department (Wikipedia) 

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Monastic Seminaries and the Chinese Dream, Part One: Polity, Power, and Persuasion (Buddhistdoor Global)

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