China’s famed Shaolin Temple this week raised the national flag for the first time in its 1,500-year history as part of a patriotism drive, a move that has been criticised for mixing religion with politics.
The high-profile ceremony took place on Monday at the temple on Mount Song, in central Henan province, as part of a widespread government initiative to instil a love for the nation in the country’s religious institutions.
It was attended by local government officials and followed a proposal last month from state-sanctioned religious groups to raise national flags at all religious venues.
This is the first time a well-known Buddhist organisation has been involved in such a high-profile display of patriotism.
Shaolin Temple, a Zen Buddhist monastery that trains its monks in martial arts, is arguably China’s most prominent symbol of Buddhism.
Its abbot, Shi Yongxin, decided to “actively take the lead” and hold the flag-raising ceremony during a national Buddhist association conference, the temple said in an announcement on its website. Shi is also the vice-president of the state-run Buddhist Association of China.
News of the ceremony drew hundreds of comments on media outlets’ verified social media accounts before the posts were closed for comment.
While the move was applauded by some, critics said it risked tainting religion with politics.
“As a Buddhist, this makes me feel uncomfortable,” one Weibo user wrote. “Before, I thought of religious faith as pure, but now it confuses me … With patriotism interfering with spiritual life, there is no space at all for individual thought. Is this what a harmonious society looks like?”
Another wrote: “The Buddha and Marx have shaken hands … Buddhism is meant to cultivate the mind, body and spirit – what has it got to do with politics? Haven’t the monks in the monastery renounced worldly living? I feel uncomfortable and just think that raising the national flag at the temple is simply not appropriate.”
Tsui Chung-hui, of the University of Hong Kong’s Centre of Buddhist Studies, said Buddhist scripture already required its followers to respect the state.
“The government does not need to take pains to promote [this] and monasteries also do not need to pander to politics,” Tsui said on Tuesday. “They should let monks dedicate themselves to Buddhism and not waste their time performing various political propaganda activities.”
China has recently come under the spotlight for its efforts to clamp down on minority religions including Islam and Christianity, which it associates with foreign influence or ethnic separatism. Mosques and churches flying the national flag have become an increasingly common sight in China amid the crackdown.
Beijing officially recognises five religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism – with Taoism the only indigenous one. Buddhism, though it originated in India, has also been accepted as a Chinese religion, having been, apart from Tibetan Buddhism, integrated into Han culture through the ebb and flow of dynasties.
Overseeing these religions is the National Religious Affairs Administration, which was set up this year. That was the result of a government overhaul of the religious affairs bureau, to bring it deeper into the fold of the party. The new unit is now under the party’s United Front Work Department, which oversees propaganda efforts as well as relations with the global Chinese diaspora.
The Shaolin Temple is a Unesco World Heritage Site dating back to the 6th century AD and is said to be the birthplace of kung fu.