IIAS Theme Lecture | Religious Studies in Four Decades of China’s Reform and Opening up

On the morning of May 27th, 2021, a theme lecture organized by Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University (IIAS-THU) was held at Conference Room 205 of the Central Main Building, with the theme of “Religious Studies in Four Decades of China’s Reform and Opening up”. The lecture was presented by Dr. Li Jianxin, Research Associate at the Institute of World Religions, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and hosted by Liu Lanyu, Assistant Research Professor at IIAS.

Dr. Li systematically reviewed the landscape of China’s religious studies in the past 40 years of reform and opening up from five aspects, namely how to understand religion, the history of modern religious studies, the creation of the Institute of World Religions at CASS and the discipline of religious studies in China, the development of religious studies in China since the inception of reform and opening up, and the construction of the discipline system of religious studies in the new era.

At the beginning of the lecture, Dr. Li pointed out that the early religious studies went beyond the elite tendency to merely regard a religion as an ethical, philosophical and metaphysical system. In the 1980s, the studies of religions became more comprehensive, trying to understand religions at multiple levels and dimensions, including ethics, ritual, narrative, myth, experience, system, society, doctrine and art. Then, he introduced the results of China’s religious studies during the period of the Republic of China and from 1949 to 1978, when the reform and opening up started, represented by Collection of Buddhism in Han and Tang Dynasties and History of Chinese Buddhism (Volumes I, II and III).

Dr. Li further explained that it is generally believed that modern religious studies in China emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, and the year of 1964 marks the development of religious studies as a discipline with the creation of the Institute of World Religions by CASS, which was closely related to the international and domestic environments at that time. The birth of the Institute of World Religions was part of China’s efforts to strengthen the study of international issues, which include religious studies.

Dr. Li stressed that although great changes have taken place in the world, China and religions in the past 40 years of reform and opening up, Chinese religious studies have well accomplished the fundamental tasks of religious studies in the new period determined by the Kunming Conference in 1979. The Party and the government have grasped and understood the special complexity of religious issues, which coincides with the insights of religious researchers on religions.

Finally, Dr. Li concluded that in the future of China’s religious studies, on the one hand, it is critical to continue to attach importance to religious humanities, and on the other hand, it is also essential to pay more attention to the development of religious social sciences and make up for the shortcomings in this area. Religious humanities and religious social sciences are both indispensable to Chinese religious studies, such as two wings of a bird.

After the lecture, Dr. Li had heated exchange and interactions with the faculty and students on the spot on the method of topic selection in religious studies, the dilemma of communicating with religious believers in fieldwork, and how to establish a Chinese perspective and awareness of Chinese issues in religious studies.

Li Jianxin is Research Associate and Doctoral Supervisor of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Deputy Editor-in-Chief and Editorial Director of Studies in World Religions. His research interests focus on Indian philosophy and religions and studies in Chinese religions. He is the author of Research on Indian Classical Yoga Philosophy (Peking University Press, 2000), History of Oriental Philosophy (“Indian Philosophy” in Ancient Volume, People’s Publishing House, 2010) and Indian Religions and Buddhism (China Religious Culture Publisher, 2010) and the translator of An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues (Shanghai Classics Publishing House, 2012).

Text by: Wang Zijing
Typesetting by: Wang Zijing
Reviewed by: Zhang Yuan