Evelyn Eaton Whitehead

The city of Shenzhen, an hour’s train ride from Hong Kong, was until recently a sleepy fishing village. In 1979 Deng Xiaoping designated this hamlet and a vast tract of surrounding territory as a special economic zone. With generous tax incentives in place for foreign investment, the city has exploded into a rough-edged metropolis of seven million.

Shenzhen is unique in many ways. More than 90 percent of its inhabitants were born elsewhere; the average age of current residents is less than 30 years. The speed of change here has outpaced even the rapidly modernizing urban metropolises along China’s eastern coast. But while Shenzhen’s development is not typical, it may be suggestive of this country’s future.

Social Change and Personal Responsibility

Western critics are often appalled by what they find in Shenzhen: dangerous and degrading factory conditions, environmental damage, sexual exploitation, widespread corruption. But what appears to many foreigners as lawlessness and disorder appeals to many residents as opportunity.

Prior to their arrival in Shenzhen, most Chinese workers inhabited a world circumscribed by the danwei, the work unit that exercised nearly total control over employment and many other aspects of daily life. But in Shenzhen, workers can choose their own jobs. And opportunities for individual choice have expanded quickly beyond the economic realm. Where to live, what lifestyle to pursue, what values to adoptnow these decisions have to be made on one’s own.

Among Shenzhen’s economic migrants, this taste of personal responsibility has developed an appetite for personal freedom. And, in ways that contradicted predictions of both Marxist orthodoxy and Western secularization theory, this expanding economic freedom has released spiritual hungers as well.

The sociologist Lizhu Fan, of Fudan University in Shanghai, has investigated the scope of this hunger and the sources of spiritual nourishment among the industrial workers and small business owners who make up Shenzhen’s emerging middle class. The Ricci Institute has worked closely with Professor Fan over the past two years in the analysis and interpretation of her findings.

The Spiritual Search

This expanding city boasts new and refurbished worship sites of each of the five religions officially recognized by Chinese lawTaoism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestant and Catholic Christianity. And while accurate numbers are difficult to determine, membership in these registered religious groups is on the rise. But our research reveals another dynamic of Chinese modernization. Confronted by new questions of meaning and purpose, Shenzhen respondents did not turn to the now-approved religious institutions of Buddhism or Christianity. Instead they gave very personal expression to their spiritual search in the age-old idiom of China’s common spiritual heritage.

In both English and Chinese, the word religion (zong jiao) carries connotations that are foreign to Chinese sensibilities: a sharp dichotomy between sacred and secular, formal and exclusive group membership, the central role of a distinct group of professionally trained leaders, heightened concern for orthodoxy in belief and practice. Responding to these Western nuances, many early observers insisted that China had no religion. Later scholars distinguished sharply between China’s folk religionsthe varied beliefs and practices embraced by the massesand the great traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

Researchers today speak more appreciatively of the spiritual significance of China’s local traditions. This shared spiritual heritage exists symbiotically with the more institutionalized traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. People in Shenzhen today vividly illustrate this interpenetration of traditions, as they prepare home altars honoring Taoist spirits and adapt Buddhist ceremonies for use in communal devotions. But instead of simply returning, nostalgically, to familiar practices of the past, the modern residents are undertaking a personal reappropriation of these spiritual resources.

Fate: Fixed and Flexible

Five years ago Mr. Zhou moved to Shenzhen to start his own printing business. Before this move, Mr. Zhou recalls, important life decisions were determined by his family or by the work unit. Now, in the giddy freedom of Shenzhen, he confronts questions of purpose and meaning on his own. Why has he experienced financial success, while othersequally hardworkingcontinue to struggle? Perhaps some unrecognized power or unseen force favors him, guiding his fate. If so, how should he respond?

Mrs. Wang was born in Tianjin just prior to the Cultural Revolution. Neither family upbringing nor formal education exposed her to religious beliefs or practices. After a series of setbacks, she found an entry job at an accounting firm in Shenzhen and was quickly promoted. Her personal success has prompted questions similar to Mr. Zhou’s. What is the purpose of making money? What does life ask of her now?

In the effort to make sense of the new direction of their lives, these Shenzhen respondents drew on deeply traditional understandings of destiny (ming yun). This Chinese term describes fate as both fixed and flexible. Fixed: one’s destiny originates beyond the individual in the command [ming] of heaven. Yet flexible: it is shaped equally by the particular movements [yun] of an individual’s life.

Reflecting on their experiences in Shenzhen, Professor Fan’s respondents referred often to fateful coincidences (yuan fen), those unplanned occurrences that decisively influenced the eventual shape of their lives. Mrs. Wang’s early dream to study abroad was dashed when her belongingsincluding her money, visa and airplane ticketwere stolen. This chance event forced a change in plans; now without funds, she risked moving to Shenzhen, where she had heard jobs were plentiful. In retrospect, Mrs. Wang now sees this event as more than mere chance. An apparent misfortune became a positive turning point in her life.

Mr. Zhou notes the intervention of a similar fateful event: the abrupt failure of a youthful romance motivated him to leave his home village. Mysteriously, this early loss contributed to his present good fortune. Surely, Mr. Zhou insists, more than chance was involved in this experience of yuan fen.

Cross-Cultural Differences

Western consciousness carries the conviction that adults are masters of their fate. Unexpected events and mysterious coincidences challenge this cultural bias. For Westerners, this challenge can evoke a spiritual response of receptivitygreater openness to dimensions of life that lie beyond autonomous personal control.

But Shenzhen residents responded differently. Long accustomed to dependence on their extended families and state institutions, they now reported a heightened sense of personal agency. As they became more sensitive to the dynamics of personal destiny, these urban migrants assumed greater responsibility for the shape of their own lives.

Spiritual Practices

In modern Shenzhen, as has been typical throughout much of China’s history, most people do not join an established religious group. Professor Fan’s respondents gave personal reasons to explain why. Some suspected that the officially registered religions remain too close to the government, too susceptible to party control. But most offered another explanation. Shenzhen offers many options for belief and practice. And here, in the realm of spirit as in much of the rest of life, personal choice has become the standard.

Bookstores abound with titles providing alternative life perspective and moral advice. A steady stream of Buddhist and Christian television and Internet programming arrives from Taiwan and North America. Local and international religious entrepreneurs promote programs for health and healing and peace of mind, even as state propaganda urges a return to now-discredited Communist ideals and values. And images and icons of Western popular culture flood the local media. Confronted by this vast array of possibilities, Shenzhen residents need to, and want to, find for themselves the sources of spiritual nourishment that suit their own situation and temperament.

Personal Practices

Some people’s practice involves simply the regular repetition of prayer formulas. Others seek inspiration by reading texts or commentaries on religious classics (Taoist tales, Buddhist sutras, the Bible) or morally uplifting contemporary books. Some set up personal altars in homes and apartments, adorned with photos of deceased parents and other moral models.

Several respondents mentioned personal honesty as a chosen spiritual practice. In Shenzhen the dynamics of unfettered capitalism generate momentum for graft and greed. For some here, a new sensitivity to traditional themes of moral reciprocity (bao ying) prompts different behavior. That the universe is essentially moral, that both good actions and bad have enduring significance, that personal virtue contributes to improving the worldthese convictions support a more exacting commitment to fairness and honesty in their business dealings.

Communal Practices

While they resist formal identification with any particular religious institution, many Shenzhen respondents assemble regularly with fellow seekers. These gatherings function as a loosely organized network more than as a formally constituted membership group. For example, several of Professor Fan’s respondents meet often at a small vegetarian restaurant nestled in a downtown high-rise building. Occasionally one of the regular participants may bring along a newcomer. Over a shared meal they discuss details of their lives and their spiritual practices.

The motives for these gatherings seem to include a need for mutual support and spiritual encouragement, a hunger for the sense of transcendence awakened in the fellowship and shared practices, and a desire to improve the world by spreading spiritual awareness.

Social Practices

The loose network associated with this restaurant has adopted a Buddhist ritual as part of a wider social concern. Annually they undertake a symbolic freeing of animals (fang sheng) to cultivate mercy and compassion in the world. A monk from the nearby registered monastery is hired to read the appropriate sutras (lessons from the Buddha) and to guide the ritual activities of releasing birds and small turtles from cages. But the ordinary people are clearly the initiators and the hosts of this gathering.

These respondents often remarked on their heightened concern for the plight of suffering people. Working in Shenzhen had brought them increased material comfort and financial security. Now, in accord with their new spiritual awareness, they made generous donations to support people whose lives were disrupted by major disastersdrought, earthquakes, floods. But there was little discussion of issues of social justice or action for social change.

Many factors, personal and political, help explain this apparent absence of a prophetic response among these spiritually sensitive persons. Professor Fan points to China’s cultural memory: through the centuries the moral dilemma for most Chinese has not been How should I be just? or How can I make the world more just? Instead they faced the challenge, How shall I live and find peace in this unjust world?

For many, this question has been resolved in part by looking beyond the present injustice. In traditional Chinese understanding, experiencing poverty and suffering comes as one’s fate. But this understanding is not always fatalistic, since moral action has influence. Through self-cultivation one can alter the current situation and positively affect the future. Thus personal honesty and compassion toward others become the route to social change.

Traditional Resources, Forward Movement

Evidence in Shenzhen shows that a political initiative meant primarily as an economic reform does not easily stay within these limits. Shifting the boundaries of the economy alters the horizon of the spirit.

Opening society to new styles of work exposes people to new questions of meaning and purpose. To deal with these concerns, most respondents in Shenzhen turn not to state-recognized religious institutions, but to resources within their common cultural heritage. They embrace these traditional resources not as revival or regression, but as a means of moving forward. Instead of simply repeating past patterns, they select particular beliefs and practices that resonate with present experience. And in an authentic spiritual response, they adapt these themes to their current circumstances.

Observers, both Chinese and Western, have assumed that this common spiritual heritage would not survive the dislocations of globalization. But in this highly secular city, China’s spiritual tradition is being reaffirmed in the lives of modern Chinese. The view from Shenzhen suggests that knowledge and respect for this deep current in Chinese culture will be essential to understanding social change and spiritual development in China’s future. The spiritual practices in Shenzhen may also hold clues for a genuinely inculturated Chinese Christianity.

Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead are Distinguished Fellows of the Kiriyama and EDS-Stewart Chairs at the University of San Francisco. The authors report here on a cross-disciplinary inquiry, Social Change and Spiritual Developme