Heroes are the practical people who recognize current tasks (识时务者为俊杰 )
The vast majority of Nobel prize winners have religious beliefs, religious identity and some are even religious professionals. Most Nobel Prize winners from the West have Christian backgrounds. As of 1996, out of 639 Nobel laureates, there were 618 believers and only 21 a-religious laureates (for a reference in Chinese, see http://www.qq.com/). The a-religious are mainly from the former Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist countries.
Among those laureates who were religious, 596 were Christian (including Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox), eight were Jewish, eight were Buddhists, four were Muslims, and two were Hindus. Among the 81 Nobel Peace Prize laureates, religious identity was even more prominent. This data illustrates the close relationship between modern Western science and Western religion.
China, Nobel Prize Winners, and Religion
China has produced few Nobel laureates – I wonder whether this is linked to the fact that the Chinese are essentially non-religious. Just as one cannot imagine a completely non-Christian or atheist president being elected in the United States, in China it is difficult to imagine a theist would be elected president of the Republic. The Chinese ruler cannot be a Christian, Muslim or Buddhist yet.
The above suggests two realities: (1.) most Americans are Christian and (2.) most Chinese are a-religious. The traditional Chinese religions include Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism and others, which are essentially different from the world’s three major religions. In some ways, China’s religions are more like philosophy and wisdom.
The Chinese communist government, having banned all temples, mosques and churches along with religious professionals in the 60’s and 70’s during the “Break the Four Olds” and Chinese Cultural Revolution eras, started to gradually open up to the world over the last 20 years. Policy about religious practice has relaxed more in big cities and small provinces, evidenced by the occasional sightings of churches and temples full of Chinese followers. However, there is a long way to go for complete “religious freedom” in China. Or, it may be an impossibility for Chinese people in the foreseeable future; freedom of religion can only be promoted if religious activities do not threaten Communist rule.
Nonetheless, I predict that in the next few decades, more Chinese people will join one or another religious organization. First, the various religious organizations will find that China is a religiously empty land and there is much need to import various religions. Secondly, Chinese people are desperate for some religious beliefs and they will be eager to hear any gospels. As if drawing on a blank canvas, the visual effects from the new drawing will be very obvious. China can change from undeveloped to developing country in terms of religion, as it has with science and economy.
The Rebirth of Buddhism In China
This year when I returned to China I was surprised to find many friends have chosen to practice Buddhism. My generation of Chinese people were neither naturally baptized believers nor destined to be completely a-religious – until we were brainwashed by atheism during middle school. My godmother, diagnosed with a type of lung cancer, refused chemotherapy and radiotherapy with Western medicine and chose to become a full time Buddhist devotee in order to gain longevity in this life, and hopefully, peace in death.
Buddhism advocates vegetarianism, self-cultivation, daily chanting and good works, which meets the findings from the latest scientific research about longevity. Traditional Chinese religion is very practical to improve both one’s own – as well as other’s – quality of life, but not to promote individual accomplishment and glory. When Western science and religion entered China like twin brothers, it brought with it political and economic practicality. In this process, China has trained more scientists than religious practitioners because Chinese authorities came to the realization that scientific progress will be the path to lead to eventual prosperity and wealth for China.
Journey to the West
Although as many young scientists as government officials would like to build their country back to wealth, much young talent chose to come to the West to conduct their research due to the limited resources and poor experiment conditions in China ten years ago. More and more scientists are going back to China to contribute to the further modernization of China and to escape from the high unemployment in the West recently.
However, the scarcity of accomplished scientists in China these days is exemplified by the popularity and celebrity status of the Physics Nobel Prize winner, professor Yang Zhengling. Many Nobel Prize-winning scientists are from the U.S. Here, the Nobel laureates are treated as other “outstanding” scientists after the award, still tirelessly seeking the truth in the laboratory. But Yang in China not only won his 54 years younger woman’s admiration and marriage, but enjoyed a movie star’s glamorous visibility across the country, with the Communist Party and National People’s infinite tolerance and blessings. Interestingly, Yang, educated partly in the West, is also a firm believer in God, a Christian, who admitted that science alone cannot answer many questions in our world.
Catching up with the United States
China has developed very rapidly. One can say that China’s development miracle largely borrowed the achievements from modern Western scientific research, especially in the areas of computers and wireless communications, as well as the fields of medicine and healthcare. China borrowed a few hundred years of Western development of scientific exploration. Many research results directly contributed to the high degree of wealth in modern Chinese society.
Of course, there are other factors, such as, the “superiority” of authoritarian governance vs. the democratic government in the West, the consumption and energy from such a large population, as well as the hard-working nature of the Chinese people. In many aspects, such as renewable energy, infrastructure, urban construction, high-speed railway and so on, the country has even caught up with the U.S.
The Chinese government is also increasingly aware of the importance of science and technology. The government is not only increasing funding for the various national research institutions, but is also making great efforts to stem the effects of brain drain, giving incentives and creating a positive environment to attract research talents at all levels. In this way, China would not only import its talented expatriates, but also master the core technologies from the Western countries, eventually developing its own core technologies.
But I must also add: Western science and Western religion are still in their infancy in China. If Buddhism or Christianity do not promote tangible longevity or physical health, the religions can get very few followers. If scientists cannot commit or promise their projects will be profitable within three to five years, they cannot get the bulk of investment money. Billionaires still make more money on traditional industries than on high-tech industries in China. Whether for the government or private investors, their investments for Western science are largely driven by utilitarian and short-term profits. However, in China, unfortunately, these types of short-term visions are already creating safety, environmental and bio-economical concerns for future Chinese citizens.
The Chinese, as a nation, need a vision for their children and grandchildren. Such shortsighted views cannot be changed unless education promotes citizen awareness both from the perspective of science and religion, which are apparently a Chinese “catch-22”: if the authorities are educated by short-term visionaries, how can they become the long-term visionaries themselves?
Fortunately, the Chinese government has started to increase funding for both natural sciences and social sciences. However, funding from the government alone cannot possibly support a nation’s passion for science and religion. Nonetheless, scientists from China are mostly non-believers. Without a religion as the fearless and insistent truth-seeking spirit in the bones, how many intellectuals in modern Chinese society can eventually resist the temptation of materialism? That being said, when a society’s material wealth reaches a certain level, there are always some people who will begin seeking mental and spiritual pursuits.
For thousands of years, the popular Confucianism and Taoism in China will continue to carry forward, Chinese medicine will continue to be ambiguous between efficacy and toxicity; but at the same time, the Western world’s religious culture of being good and truth-seeking will find the right soil to take root in China.
For thousands of years, the Chinese did not invent antibiotics or cardiac surgery, but their traditional eating habits are being regarded as secrets of health and longevity by Western scientists. Living thousands of years on the earth, the Chinese people passed down a very practical wisdom: avoid being the risk-taking explorers and adventurers like the western-born. No matter how developed China is, it will eventually succumb to its “everything in moderation” philosophy.
So, China will have its version of “western science” and “western religion” in the end to accommodate the practicality of Chinese soil and people there.
Yanli Mi was born in Sichuan, China where people love spicy food. After studying in Beijing at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests, she worked in the medical, pharmacological, pharmaceutical and biotechnological fields. She obtained a Ph.D. at the U. of Tennessee in 2002. In addition to science, she enjoys spiritual exploration at an intuitive and religious level. She currently lives in Mountain View, CA, with her two daughters, her husband, and a greyhound dog.