23. Population Dynamics

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

China today is the world’s most populous country, with a population of 1.3 billion that, although with a median age of 37 years, is rapidly aging, reaching doing in a mere ten years what took other countries half a century. Retirees over 65 numbered 100 million in 2005; there will be 330 million of them by 2050. Combined with a continuing low birth rate, this means that by then 44 percent of the population will not be working, placing a great burden of financial and social support on remaining workers and the state.

China was well on the way to lower birth rates and the two-child family in the 1950s, before Mao Zedong decreed that the country’s true wealth lay in its people and ordered everyone to multiply as much as possible. This trend contributed to the overarching poverty encompassing the country and would have slowed quite naturally once the edict was rescinded and economic progress set in.

However, the Party, never content to leave well enough alone, in blatant opposition to the good old Daoist wisdom of nonaction, in 1980 instituted the one child policy, imposing heavy fines on anyone daring to have a second or even third child. Local governments having to fulfill quotas of child birth took to harassing anyone resisting, from trashing their homes through taking their valuables to forcing women into (even late-term) abortions and involuntary sterilization.

Although rescinded now in favor a two-child model, the price has been high, especially since most of the population, still living in the countryside and following traditional forms of ancestor worship—however outlawed—saw a male heir as absolutely essential and either killed or abandoned females. Many Western families came to adopt a Chinese baby girl, often from legitimate orphanages but on occasion also the product of human trafficking. Selling a girl abroad, after all, made it possible to pay the fine for the next try for a boy.

Population-wise, the policy has left China with a screwed gender ratio: while the normal rate is 103-108 males per every 100 females, in China it is as high as 118-120 in the countryside and about 110-112 in the cities. Not only creating a potential political powder keg, this has also made it difficult for men to find marriage partners, who often require not only a steady job but also home ownership and other assets before consenting to even date. These are increasingly hard to come by as the Chinese education system is failing: unending memorization no longer cuts it in the rapidly shifting economy. Even college graduates, of whom there are more than ever before, often cannot find jobs. Having grown up in times of rising prosperity, they tend to have a sense of entitlement, wanting a cushy position with little effort and lots of money. Employers, on the other hand, are looking for people with real skills and creative thinking.

Another major factor in the population dynamics is the household registration (hukou) system, which firmly places each family in one particular location. While it is possible to travel to other places, anything requiring official involvement has to be done in one’s hometown: health care, housing permit, driver’s license, children’s education, to name but a few. As a result, huge numbers of people have become migrant workers, living unregistered and without benefits in slums on the fringes of the big cities, making minimal wage and only seeing their families once or twice a year.

Some are well-educated but, as Liao Yiwu shows in the case of the village teacher Huang Zhiyuan, cannot make ends meet in their home town and move into the city. Unable to find legal employment, Huang was forced to do hard labor and eventually ended up driving a flatbed tricycle. Even then, he was constantly on the run from police and on occasion faced imprisonment and had his vehicle impounded. Children suffer the most. If they join their migrant parents, they have no schools to attend and grow up illiterate and unskilled, becoming part of a potentially explosive underclass that digs China deeper into the middle income trap.

The government is set to alleviate this situation and has indicated easements in the registration system. It is also intent on urbanizing 300 million more people, moving them into newly build high-rises on the outskirts of smaller cities. However, the people are not all that keen on these artificial monstrosities, especially where there are no jobs, leaving projects to turn into ghost cities—another huge expenditure with no return grown by crony capitalism.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eNKQT7Ub2Ps



Read: Fong, Mei. 2016. One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Shepard, Wade. 2015. Ghost Cities of China. London: Zed Books.

Schmitz, Rob. 2016. Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams along a Shanghai Road. New York: Crown Publishers, 134-40.

Liao, Yiwu. 2009. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. New York: Anchor, 160-72.

22. City Temples

Daoist and other popular temples are part of the positive dynamic of the Chinese economy. Situated centrally in major cities, they are often the focus of commerce and the site of fairs and markets, plus they offer an opportunity to pray for protection and prosperity.

A prime example is the temple of the City God of Shanghai, smack in the middle of a vibrant tourism and shopping district called Yuyuan 豫园 (Pleasure Garden) after a beautiful Qing-dynasty garden, complete with ponds, bridges, pavilions, and rock formations. Pedestrian walkways meander among reconstructed traditional-style buildings housing all sorts of shops, from Starbucks through fashion accessories to souvenirs. Numerous stalls and vendors provide a mouth-watering selection of Shanghai street food, including cookies, buns, dumplings, and more.

The temple itself centers around a large open courtyard, where an incense burner smolders with numerous incense sticks. Various side halls, equipped with benches for kneeling and boxes for money offerings, worship a slew of Daoist and popular deities, while the main hall is dedicated to Qin Yubo秦羽博(1295–1373), a local official under the Yuan dynasty and a distant relative of the late China scholar Julia Ching. Having done much to improve the plight of citizens during his lifetime, after his death his spiritual energy was considered too potent to be limited to just his own family as an ordinary ancestor. Accommodating petitions by the local elite, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, appointed him as city god of Shanghai. Believed to have greatly aided the city during times of crisis, notably in the 19th and 20th century under colonial rule and foreign occupation, by appearing to leading citizens in dreams and dispensing advice, he remained popular even after the founding of the People’s Republic.

As China’s economy expanded in the 19th century, the temple grew increasingly popular, offering an opportunity to express thanks and pray for good fortune. Growing to include various side halls and niches of worship to other deities, the temple also housed regular fairs and became the center of a popular market with numerous local businesses setting up shop. In 1951, it was subsumed under the Shanghai Daoist Association and made into a Daoist center. As a result, statues representing folk and Buddhist figures were removed and more Daoist deities installed. Closed during the Cultural Revolution used for other purposes, it reopened in 1994 and was renovated in 2005-06.

Today, as much as other city temples, it is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. It also contains a significant shrine to the God of Wealth, Guan Yu, originally a general during the Three Kingdoms, and offers the opportunity to pray for interference to the god of one’s year of birth, one among twelve supernatural administrators arranged according to the Chinese zodiac serving in of the Department of Destiny. In times of growing economic dynamic as well as insecurity, it provides succor and spiritual support, the opportunity to pray for wealth, success, and personal good fortune.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULgLajr_wrk

Read: Kohn, Livia. 1997. “The Taoist Adoption of the City God.” Ming Qing Yanjiu 5 (1997), 68-106.

21. Economic Development

China is today the world’s largest economy. This is the result of a massive expansion that increased it more than thirty-fold from $202 billion in 1980 to close to $7,000 billion in 2011. Growth rates, fueled by government credit, a controlled currency exchange rate, low-cost manufacturing, and global exports, stayed in the double digits for several decades and still hover around 7 percent. However, they are falling and expected to drop to 3-4 percent over the next few years. In addition, while the country’s overall GDP is $11 trillion, its debt has risen to 260 percent of GDP, compared to 104 percent in the U.S.

China is far from a developed country. Per person GDP is $8,000, just above Peru. The income gap within the country is widening. China has the most billionaires after the U. S. and 1 percent of the population hold 30 percent of the country’s wealth. About one third, 350 million, have reached the middle class, with incomes between $8,000 and $25,000. The remainder, 875 million, are still below, but set to move into cities and rise to the middle class, their incomes expected to rise 15 to 20 percent.

It is these people that make up the backbone of the Chinese economy. They are vibrantly entrepreneurial and aggressively upward moving. Many run sole proprietorships, and there are 40.6 million small businesses. When the government eased the requirement for cash reserves and simplified administrative procedures in 2015, new registrations rose dramatically. While moving the economy forward, the rising middle class will also require (and demand) expanding infrastructure and improved social services. This puts an additional burden on provincial and municipal governments, who are already facing heavy debt.

In addition, the economy is hampered by large-scale government interference, notably the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that still control 40 percent of the economy and are known for being cumbersome, bureaucratic, and corrupt. In fact, they are a prime example of what economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, in their ground-breaking study Why Nations Fail (2012), call “extractive” as opposed to “inclusive” institutions. Concentrating power in the hands of a narrow elite and placing few constraints on the exercise of this power, such institutions extract resources from the rest of the society, appropriating the resources of many, erecting entry barriers, and suppressing the functioning of markets.

They prevent what Joseph Schumpeter has called “creative destruction,” the way in which economic growth and technological change replace the old with the new. New firms take over, new technologies make existing skills and machines obsolete. The process creates losers as well as winners, endangers old privilege and power structures, potentially toppling governments and upending social patterns—in other words, it presents a major danger to Party rule.

This rule is still strong. Without an independent judiciary and unhindered by private competition, state-owned enterprises control entire industries, most importantly banking, transportation, telecommunications, the media, and real estate. The latter is a prime example on how local governments manipulate the economy, alternatively creating bubbles or slowing the market. That is, they influence demand by willfully installing or removing home purchasing restrictions: preference to local versus out-of-town buyers, restrictions on the number of properties one can own, requirements on the amount of down payments, plus a wide variety of taxes due at purchase (in lieu of the annual property tax): value-added tax, land-value tax, real estate transaction tax, capital gains tax, property tax, education tax, to name but a few.

A rigged economy, combined with a lack of clear property laws and freedom of expression, does not bode well for China as it finds itself now in what economists call the “middle income trap.” This is reached when a country has lost its competitive export edge due to rising wages and increased cost of living, yet is unable to evolve toward higher levels, mainly due to lack of creative destruction but also because of it fails to educate and create opportunities for lower earners. In the 1960s, 106 countries entered the middle income trap, and so far only 13 have made it out—most notably Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, who all seriously democratized in the process and created excellent educational systems with justly enforced laws and free independent media.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9uKYYQAgJDg


Read: Rein, Shaun. 2014. The End of Copycat China: The Rise of Creativity, Innovation, and Individualism in Asia. New York: Wiley.

Shambaugh, David. 2016. China’s Future. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Also check: http://popupchinese.com/lessons/sinica/the-china-meltdown

20. Western Daoists

Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot

A yet different form of Daoist international expansion is the practice and teaching by westerners initiated into the religion by Chinese masters in China, then building communities in their homeland. There are numerous such western masters, prominent all over Europe and the U. S. I introduce a few representatives.

A major force in the initiation of western Daoists since the mid-1990s has been Feng Xingzhao, the abbot of a small, isolated temple called Leigutai擂鼓台 (Terrace of Rolling Thunder) in the high mountains of southern Shaanxi near Ankang. He initiated many of the leading Daoists of Europe, including Shi Jing and his fellows of the British Taoist Association (http://www.taoists.co.uk/); Karine Martin, president of the Association Française Daoiste whose center near Montluçon just opened (http://france-dao.blogspot.com/); as well as Herve Louchouarn, the leader of a Chinese medicine clinic and Daoist community in Guernavaca, Mexico (https://tusaludcuernavaca. wordpress.com/ tag/prof-herve-louchouarn-t/).

All these groups provide lessons in taijiquan and qigong, teach Daoist philosophy and ethics, offer healings and counseling, and operate Daoist temples and priestly education. They also commonly publish newsletters and sponsor workshops with leading Daoists, scholars, and taiji masters.

In the U. S., practicing Daoists tend to be initiated by various masters. For example, Michael Rinaldini, founder of the American Dragon Gate Lineage (https://qigongdragon.com) with a center in Santa Rosa, California, trained with Master Wan Sujian (b. 1953). A former military physician, he runs a medical qigong clinic on the outskirts of Beijing, which he expanded to also house a Daoist temple in 2002. Training in bagua and other forms of taijiquan as well as in medical qigong and Daoist scripture studies, Rinaldini practiced at home and visited Wan over several years, to be initiated by Wan’s resident Daoist in 2003. He now has an active training center and himself initiates the next generation

Louis Komjathy, the founder of the Daoist Foundation (http:// daoistfoundation.org/about/), trained with a vice abbot on Huashan and lived both there and on Laoshan as a Daoist monk in addition to being a Ph. D. level scholar and academic professor of Daoist studies. He teaches various workshops and proposed an integrated program that encompasses a Daoist lifestyle (breathing, exercises, cooking, fengshui) in combination with internal cultivation and alchemical transformation.

Jerry Alan Johnson, the founder of the International College of Medical Qigong (http://www.medicalqigong.org), as well as his successor and current director Bernard Shannon, in addition to training in traditional Chinese medicine and qi-healing, hold multiple Daoist lineages: Dragon Gate from Qingcheng shan in Sichuan, Highest Clarity from Maoshan near Nanjing, and Celestial Masters from Longhu shan in Jiangxi. The College is located in Palm Desert, California, complete with Chinese gardens and a Daoist sanctuary, the Temple of Peace and Virtue. In addition to training medical qigong healers, they also run a publishing house specializing in qi healing, offer a program leading to initiation as a Daoist priest, and maintain continued close contact with Chinese masters.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dD4VJIPZLzE


Read: http://www.taoists.co.uk/Files/FengXingzhao-interview.pdf

Komjathy, Louis. 2004. “Tracing the Contours of Daoism in North America.” Nova Religio 8.2:5-27.

Rinaldini, Michael. 2008. “How I Became a Daoist Priest.” Journal of Daoist Studies 1:181-87.


19. International Masters

Master Chen

As part of the overall Chinese reach abroad, Daoist organizations, notably the Chinese Daoist Association, have been making various efforts to create positive relationships overseas and establish Daoist masters and centers abroad. Most recently, the Association is planning to send an official delegation on a 10-day tour to the western United States, connecting to universities, overseas Chinese, and local practitioners.

For several years, moreover, its vice chairman and long-time hermit, Master Meng Zhiling 孟至岭, has run workshops both in the U. S. and in Europe, teaching forms of Daoist cultivation, including philosophical and ethical teachings together with taiji quan, qigong, and quiet sitting meditation. Sponsored by the U. S. Taoist Association (http://ustaoistassoc.com/1.html), an unofficial arm of its Chinese counterpart run by David Hessler, also leader of the Society of Dao Fa Zi Ran (http://societyofdaofaziran.com/), Master Meng has also been active in the International Daoist Forum. Held in China every two-to-three years, it brings together practitioners and scholars from China and the West to engage in Daoist practice and discuss issues of Daoist teachings, such as the adaptation of key notions to the modern world.

Another, slightly less official, representative of Chinese Daoism is Master Chen (Zeng Yongxiang 曽永祥; www.wudangchen.com), a 25th generation Dragon Gate and 14th generation Zhang Sanfeng lineage holder, sent to the U. S. in 1990 to spread Daoism in the West. Trained on Mount Wudang and teaching a mix of martial arts and internal alchemy, he built communities in various cities, notably New York, Atlanta, and St. Louis before settling in Colorado, where he now runs Dao House near Estes Park, a retreat center and starting point for a future Daoist temple. President and founder of the Daoist Association USA (https:// daousa.org) and the North American Wudang Daoist Association, he offers priestly training, spiritual counseling, various ceremonies to celebrate life events as well as protective devices, such as talismans. Every year, moreover, he sponsors the Universal Consciousness Festival, a Daoist gathering that provides workshops on Daoist living (https://www.universalconsciousnessfestival.org/).

A yet different Daoist organization with an increasing foothold in the West is the Taoist Tai Chi Society (http://www.taoist.org/usa/), the international arm of a major Hong Kong temple, known as Fung Loy Kok. It began when Master Moy Lin Shin emigrated to Canada in 1970 and from there spread throughout North America. With a dominant focus on the practice of its own unique brand of taiji quan, the Society emphasizes health benefits and moral values, allowing members to rise to higher levels but not initiating anyone into the Daoist priesthood. It has by far the most Western followers.

While there is a certain proselytizing fervor among all these masters, they tend to be sincere and honest and strive present the tradition in an authentic way, emphasizing good ethics and purity of living.

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwcknEEkcnY


Read: Moretz, Harrison. 2009. “The Dao is Not for Sale.” Journal of Daoist Studies 2:167-76.

18. Reaching Abroad

With increased economic prosperity and the drive toward becoming a world power, China has been expanding its influence abroad, focusing particularly but not exclusively on developing countries with great metal or mineral resources. Efforts are threefold: state-owned enterprises (SOE) that strike deals with governments and provide aid, private conglomerates that set up cooperative ventures, and individual businessmen who establish their brands in various locations.

Used to their home-style brand of crony capitalism, Chinese entrepreneurs on all levels tend to be overbearing and arrogant, with little or no regard for local culture and customs. They impress leading magnates with grand projects and rich gifts, and expect exclusive contracts largely in their favor, typically hoping to build massive infrastructure projects (roads, railways, bridges, power plants) in exchange for the rights to mine metals or minerals the growing Chinese economy so urgently needs. Geographically their prime focus has been Africa, where governments in numerous small states have struck big deals and where China is by far the biggest foreign investor, followed closely by Central Asian countries in China’s backyard, where the One Belt One Road initiative—the New Economic Silk Road—not only seeks to create easy lines of communication and transport but also to establish a solid Chinese presence. Beyond that, China has been very active cooperating with Australian mining operations and ruling elites in Polynesian islands as well as in Papua New Guinea and, to a lesser but not unimportant degree, in South America.

The Chinese government has also begun to establish harbor facilities that house military vessels officially serving as escorts through pirate infested waters along the southern sea route toward the Middle East, its main supply line for oil. Notably the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Singapore forms a bottle neck that could be easily blocked by a hostile navy, bringing China’s economy to a grinding halt within days.

The overall success rate of this expansion policy has been a great deal less than made out in alarmist Western publications. Very little land in Africa is actually owned by Chinese, and agriculture plays a minimal role. Crony capitalism, too, only goes so far. Often the Chinese strike deals with authoritarian tyrants, only to find them toppled in an overthrow or ousted in an election, rendering their efforts null and void. The prime example here is Burma (Myanmar), where the Chinese were hand-in-glove with the ruling junta but have lost all standing since democratization.

Also, once actually in business, the Chinese tend to bring in their own workers and engineers as well as supply personnel, refusing to train locals or treating them miserably, never really benefiting the local economy. This leads to high levels of resentment and may result in protests, in some cases causing projects to fold. Add to this the overall shoddy quality of their work—one road in Africa began to crumble at one end before it was completed at the other—and it becomes understandable that their overall success rate is maybe around 30 percent, for the most part being a massive waste of money.

Another major expense, meant to result in cultural rather than economic expansion, is the worldwide initiative of establishing so-called Confucius Institutes in cooperation with academic institutions. Not unlike the British Council or the Japan Foundation, these Institutes propose to increase access to Chinese learning, both of language and culture. Typically, a full professor at the host institution serves as director, joined by a Chinese language instructor sent from headquarters in Beijing and helped by several local assistants. Each Institute operates independently, without thematic or ideological restrictions. They each receive an annual budget to cover salaries—especially for language teachers who work at the host institution and other venues, including most importantly high schools—as well as for library acquisitions, workshop expenses, honoraria for guest speakers, and more. Often placed at less prominent universities and in more remote locations, the Institutes—so far number around 500 worldwide—make an important contribution to the understanding of Chinese culture and the increase of Chinese literacy (ses http://english.hanban.org/).

Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLKgGyBO5x8

Read: Brautigam, Deborah. 2015. Will Africa Feed China? New York: Oxford University Press.

Economy, Elizabeth, and Michael Levi. 2014. By All Means Necessary: How China’s Resource Quest is Changing the World. New York: Oxford University Press.

French, Howard W. 2014. China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa. New York: Vintage Books.

Miller, Tom. 2017. China’s Asian Dream. London: ZED Books.