Is Anything ‘Sacred’ in Shanghai? Religious and spiritual geography of a Chinese metropolis

Benoit Vermander, SJ

 Benoit Vermander, SJ / Church Life / 7 February 2019

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The deeply rooted Latin concept of the “sacred” was integrated into the Chinese lexicon with the creation of a specific word. The term shensheng is primarily used by scholars and Christians – especially Catholics[1] – but can also be used by all Chinese attempting to describe a mysterious place, full of spiritual energies. This includes more than geographical locations. For many, their sphere of intimacy or their spiritual situations are the place of the truly sacred.

A study was conducted between 2012 and 2017 on the different religious and spiritual communities active in Shanghai, a metropolis of 24 million inhabitants. It sought to determine how their members experienced the strength of the “sacred” that was present in the places which welcomed them and other communities.[2] Interpreting some of the results of this work allows us to modify and enrich the description and understanding of Chinese faiths at a time when rapid urbanization and globalization have diversified the range of available beliefs, as well as the practices and tactics of the community of believers.

Religions and Chinese metropolises

The term “religion” (zongjiao) – also coined in reference to Western languages through the mediation of Japanese – does not adapt immediately to the mental and social structures of the Chinese people. One thinks of the difficulties in connoting the Confucian tradition in light of the lexical field centered on this word.[3]

On the other hand, the study of Chinese religions has traditionally taken into consideration the villages or networks organized around a few market towns. China’s accelerated urbanization has radically changed the social context in which religious manifestations take place.

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