When one thinks of politics and religion in China, one often imagines the state as an omnipotent power, invincible and all encompassing, exerting direct control over the lives of millions of religious practitioners in Chinese society. But in reality that control is mediated by a bureaucratic system for the management of religion that has been undergoing significant transition in recent years.

A few years ago, there was a question posted by an anonymous user on the Baidu Zhidao (百度知道, “Baidu Knows”) website, one of China’s most popular search engines:

What is “Religious Studies”? Is it easy to find a job after graduating from college with this major?

And here is the answer that was offered by a helpful stranger online:

Most people go to graduate school after majoring in religious studies. They either end up doing academic work or religion work. For high school applicants, they need to apply to major in philosophy in university, and choose religious studies as their specialty after they enter philosophy.

This seemingly simple exchange touches on some of the most intriguing aspects of the study of religion in today’s China. First, religious studies in China does not have independent academic departments but exists under the institutional umbrella of departments of philosophy; students need to be enrolled in a philosophy department in order to major in religion, and religious studies professors are generally hired through philosophy departments. As a result, religious studies as a field has little institutional or intellectual autonomy. Second, it is a discipline that allows for at least two distinct career paths: that of scholars who conduct research on religion and that of civil officials who do “religion work,” such as serving in central or local state administrations of religious affairs, or working in state agencies dealing with ethnic minority groups that have specific religious traditions, such as Uyghurs.

The latter career path is unique to China. The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), the governmental agency that is in charge of the management of religious life in China (established in 1951), has an enormous network of civil officials who oversee all aspects of religious life in China. In Post-Mao China, the state has been under increasing pressure to manage religious life, not by means of blunt oppression, but through complex strategies of administration that exercise intellectual, institutional, bureaucratic, and political control. This emergence of “religion work” is not only a story of the production of academic knowledge of religion’s past, but also a story of the political struggle over the fate of religion’s future in China.

The “religion work” undertaken by SARA ranges from the making and implementing of policies on religion to interaction with international religious organizations, from temple and church supervision to the management of religious academies and seminaries, from the oversight of media coverage of religion to the crackdown on “evil cults.” The bureau has been increasingly professionalized in the past decade or so. On its comprehensive website, beyond posts on policies and regulations, job announcements are also routinely listed, directing candidates who take the annual national civil servant examination on how to apply for interviews, and informing applicants seeking research positions of the necessary credentials (a master’s degree or above is required).

If we want to understand how religious life is managed by the state in China, we need to understand how “religion workers” are trained, which implies that we need to understand how religious knowledge is produced in China. In my own research, I have examined the historical process through which Confucianism became a world religion; the contemporary controversy over the religious nature of Confucianism among Chinese intellectuals; and the way in which Chinese religions have been studied in the social sciences, particularly the problematic methods with which Chinese religions are classified and operationalized in survey research. I have also conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork on the actual practices that go on in Confucian temples, trying to capture the complex ritual component of Confucianism through empirical work. In this process, I have reached the conclusion that it is crucial for us to understand how our knowledge of religion is produced, and this is particularly true if we wish to understand the role religion plays in contemporary Chinese society.

We have only begun to better understand the politics of religious knowledge production in China. There are at least three important questions: First, we need to understand how religious studies draws its intellectual as well as institutional boundaries against existing academic disciplines; second, we need a better picture of the flow of power and knowledge between the academic sphere (institutions that produce knowledge about religion) and the political sphere (such as the bureaucratic agencies that are in charge of the management of religious life)—in other words, of the production, negotiation, revision, and distribution of religious knowledge; and third, we need to know more about the professionalization of “religion work,” given that the civil officials doing “religion work” for the state today are increasingly products of newly developed programs in religious studies.

In China today, religious studies is still in the process of distinguishing itself from disciplines such as philosophy and working to gain legitimacy as an independent field of study. Very often studies of religions have to be carried out in various other disciplines, including philosophy, history, anthropology, ethnic minority studies, and sociology. As a result, the establishment, dismantlement, and reestablishment of social science disciplines, such as sociology, after the Cultural Revolution has also had lasting impacts on the way in which religion has been studied in China.

In recent years, important new developments in the production of religious knowledge in China have emerged, such as the impact of scholarly exchanges between Chinese academics and international scholars through individual visits, conferences, exchange programs, jointly-funded research projects, and summer training institutes (such as the Summer Institutes for the Scientific Study of Religion at various universities in China, starting in 2004), which may have amplified the urgency of legitimizing academic studies of religion as a full-fledged discipline. There are also more interactions between secular knowledge of religion produced by universities and the non-secular knowledge produced by Buddhist, Daoist, Muslim, and Christian academies and seminaries.

These new developments of institutional boundary work, political negotiations of religious knowledge production, and the recent professionalization of state-controlled “religion work” deserve our attention. The divide between religious knowledge and “religion work” may be seen through the filter of analogous distinctions, such as that between the academic study of religion and the professionalization of clergy in the West. But what is happening in China is institutionally and politically unique, for it is the state that is ministering the professionalization, as well as controlling the organizational development of major religions in Chinese society.

[In conjunction with this series of essays on the state of religion in China, we have published a companion piece on the history of religion in China, written by The Immanent Frame’s Wei Zhu. Read What is religion in China? A brief history.—eds.]