Commodifying Religion in the People’s Republic of China


A review of Commodifying Mount Putuo: State Nationalism, Religious Tourism, and Buddhist Revival, by Courtney Bruntz.

In this dissertation, Courtney Bruntz analyzes the contemporary tourism industry at the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Mount Putuo. She examines not only the state’s tourist organizations and projects, but also the actions of Chinese intellectuals, monks and nuns, ordinary lay Buddhists and global visitors. Drawing on the author’s fieldwork at Mount Putuo; analysis of print, video, and online tourist promotional literature; and utilizing a variety of conceptual frameworks, she bridges the field of contemporary Chinese religious studies with scholarship on religious tourism. The dissertation offers one of the first in-depth examinations of the complex relationship between religious sites and the Reform-period Chinese tourist industry. She argues that although state tourism projects do secularize Mount Putuo and serve to educate tourists to consume the site as a modern, scientific (not religious) citizen, they also sow seeds that undermine both state control of tourism discourses and secularization efforts. In answer to the concern that tourism in general, and the PRC’s state-controlled tourism in particular, undermines the religious nature of a site like Mount Putuo through commodification and secularization, Bruntz argues that these have opened the door for other actors and discourses that promote the religious nature of the site and educate visitors to consume it, at least in part, as religious practitioners. Thus, she observes that religious activity and understandings are alive and well at Mount Putuo, and likely to only become more prevalent.

Chapter 1 describes the PRC state’s goals with regards to controlling religion, placing the management of religious sites as tourist destinations within the state’s policies of weakening religion through education. It also situates the study within several bodies of literature which discuss religion and tourism and introduces some key concepts. Critically, it lays out debates over the dichotomy between pilgrim and tourist, explaining her choice to use the term “religious tourism” in order to acknowledge the blurry line between religious and leisure modes of consuming religious sites like Mount Putuo.

Chapter 2 lays out the three conceptual frameworks Bruntz uses in her analysis. As a sociologist familiar with all three of these, I found it fascinating that the study brings together theoretical traditions rarely used in concert. Bruntz uses these frameworks to propose three arguments that together form her overall contention of how state-controlled religious tourism at Mount Putuo plays out. Pages 25-26 offer a succinct statement of this three-part argument, each part of which is taken up in chapters 4 through 6. As for the conceptual frameworks, first, she draws on Fenggang Yang’s “triple market theory” from the “religious economies” paradigm within Sociology of Religion. (Yang, Fenggang. 2006. Triple Religious Markets in China. Sociological Quarterly (47): 93-122) This first of all conceptualizes the religious field and dynamics within an economic vocabulary of markets, consumers, producers, government regulation, etc. Second, Yang’s elaboration on this paradigm adapts it for the contemporary Chinese context where there are not only official (red) and illegal (black) markets for religion, but also a vast semi-legal gray market. Her second conceptual framework draws on the more general “rational choice” paradigm within Sociology/Economics of religion, especially as laid out in the works of Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (2000. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press) and Lawrence R. Iannacone. (with co-authors, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke. 1997. “Deregulating Religion: The Economics of Church and State.” Economic Inquiry (35): 350-364). This allows her to frame visiting Mount Putuo in terms of competition by producers and cost-benefit analyses by consumers. Finally, she brings in Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and the dynamics of social fields to attend to how visiting Mount Putuo both affects regular lay Buddhists and allows them to play a role in shaping the socio-economic field of Mount Putuo’s (religious) tourism.

Chapter 3 provides a history of the adoption and transformation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitsevara (Guanyin) in China. This included the development of Mount Putuo as the Bodhisattva’s main sacred site, and a history of pilgrimage to the site as well as various Chinese state’s efforts to control and co-op it.

Chapters 4 through 6 lay out and provide evidence for the study’s sophisticated argument, drawing on the three theoretical traditions explained in chapter 2, as well as a wealth of wide-ranging secondary literatures such as that on post-Mao Era Chinese nationalism and on the diffusion of Guanyin worship in the West. In Chapter 4, Bruntz contends that the goal of state tourism is to control the presentation and mode of consumption of Mount Putuo (and other religious sites) to accord with party policies of scientific rationalism, modern consumerism, and national loyalty. In this effort, non-religious dimensions of Mount Putuo are elevated (beaches and other natural features, sculpture and non-religious art, etc.), and elements of Mount Putuo history and current development are linked to CCP development efforts and images of the ideal, loyal citizen. Despite these efforts to control the presentation and consumption of the island, the very investments that the state has made in restoring Mount Putuo’s sites and tourism amenities, in improving transportation to the island, and in promoting it as a tourist destination have increased the number of visitors and opened the door to alternative discourses and consumption practices.

Bruntz argues in chapter 5 that Chinese intellectual elites mobilize a “Buddhism as culture” discourse as part of the construction of a cultural, rather than political nationalism. Their goal is to promote an alternative conception of Chinese unity that focuses on traditional culture, of which Buddhism is a key representative. In this effort, though, she argues that Mount Putuo’s specifically Buddhist (religious) elements are reinforced and promoted, but in a “safe” way that avoids explicitly talking about religion. Thus, the “Buddhism as culture” discourse and its link to national pride allow religious aspects of Buddhism to appear in public. Furthermore, she contends that, because of the competitive dynamic between state tourist agencies and cultural and religious specialists, the state tourist agencies respond to the efforts of cultural nationalists by themselves gaining expertise on and providing information about the Buddhist dimensions of Mount Putuo. Thus, state tourism projects reduce the economic costs for visitors to consume Mount Putuo and projects of cultural nationalism reduce the social/reputational costs of learning about and engaging in Buddhist culture, including religious dimensions.

Finally, chapter 6 argues that not only do state representatives and elite Chinese actors play a role in shaping the social field of Mount Putuo tourism, but so do regular lay Buddhists and international Buddhist actors and global discourses on Guanyin. Regular lay Buddhists not only demand to consume Mount Putuo in specifically religious ways, but in doing so through highly visible and embodied practices such as prostration pilgrimages and carrying Guanyin statues around the sacred sites, they also educate other tourists about religious modes of consuming Mount Putuo, increasing this segment of demand. Bruntz furthermore argues that Western discourses that have incorporated Guanyin into understandings and veneration of goddesses (though not necessarily Buddhist ones) impact the presentation of Guanyin in state tourism agencies’ English-language promotions. She argues that these global discourses serve to emphasize that what is centrally important about Guanyin, and Mount Putuo, is her sacredness, and that state tourism agencies respond to this demand by shifting their efforts to educate tourists how to consume Mount Putuo to include consuming its sacred qualities. Thus, by virtue of its efforts to remain the primary and authoritative provider of tourist services on Mount Putuo, the state tourism organization adapts to consumer demand for religious knowledge and experiences, ultimately re-sacralizing the site.

This study offers a thought-provoking analysis of religious tourism at Mount Putuo and the project of the PRC state to control religious sites and religious practice through the work of tourism bureaus. The combination of several conceptual frameworks with glimpses into the tourism promotional materials and activity on the island adds a novel piece to the puzzle of understanding both the revival of Buddhism in the contemporary PRC and state’s complex role in that revival. One of many strengths of this work is its treatment of history. Throughout, the author reminds us that many aspects of this story are part of a long tradition in Chinese history, whether the ways the state has tried to manage religious sites with a combination of control and patronage, or in the ways that pilgrims to Mount Putuo combine religious and leisure modes of consumption. This work will be of interest to scholars of contemporary Chinese Buddhism and religion more generally, as well as to scholars of tourism in China and of religious tourism around the globe.

Alison Denton Jones, Ph.D. Sociology
Committee on Degrees in Social Studies
Harvard University

Primary Sources
Author’s observation and interviews on Mount Putuo during the summers of 2012 and 2013
Print, video, and online promotional materials regarding Mount Putuo by state tourism agencies

Dissertation Information
Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA. 2014. 199 pp. Primary Advisor: Judith Berling.

Image: Nanhai Guanyin at Mount Putuo in Zhejiang, China. Photograph by Courtney Bruntz.

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