Caitlin Stone

Asian Studies
“The Costs of Good Karma: The Effects of Fangsheng on the Chinese Environment and Society”

Kate Stone

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, a resurgence of religious practices had unintended environmental consequences across China. The Buddhist practice of fangsheng, releasing captive animals to obtain good karma, has been on the rise. Fangsheng has introduced large quantities of non-native species to China’s environment and heavily influenced the likelihood of a non-native species becoming invasive, which has caused numerous problems. An example from 2015 is one fangsheng association’s singular liberation of thousands of loach into the Shanghai’s Huangpu River. Given that there are 281 different fangsheng organizations in China, with at least one in almost every province, the potential for environmental damage is great. In Hong Kong, too, liberation of non-native bird species has raised environmental and health concerns, including the disappearing of native bird populations and the spread of different avian flu strains. Fangsheng has also impacted the economy, causing an increasing demand among practitioners of Buddhism wishing to liberate animals. This activity is often quite expensive; many young people spend upwards of 5,000 yuan (about 765 dollars) per year on animals to release. Utilizing previous research of other scholars, this paper addresses these and other effects of fangsheng and proposes solutions for them.

What research experiences have you had?
I had the opportunity to do research about the Buddhist practice of animal release in China and the potential effects it has on the local environment. The practice is called fangsheng and it was a very challenging topic to research. In order to complete my research I had to examine research articles about the practice in Hong Kong and surrounding Asian countries, email some associations and groups that participate in the practice, and research the impact on public health and the economy as well.

How did you find the research opportunity?
My adviser, Dr. Constantine Vaporis, sent out an email looking for students to participate in an environmental research conference focusing in Asia at Bard College in New York. I volunteered to take the challenge, before I had even had a topic to research; then a friend sent me an article from The Economist about the booming market created by fangsheng.

Was this your first independent research project?
This was my first major research project.

Do you get course credit for this work? Paid? How much time do you put into it?
I received course credit but was not paid. I put every ounce of spare time into this project. It did get out of hand and I had to skip a few classes to meet some deadlines.

What academic background did you have before you started?
I am not sure I really have much of an academic background. I have a keen interest in Chinese religion and culture so I was more than happy to take up the challenge of this research.

How did you learn what you needed to know to be successful in this project?
Hours and hours and hours of research. Hours.

What was the hardest part about your research?
The topic itself was the hardest part. There are research articles about the topic for just about every country EXCEPT China. There were a handful of articles for China, but all based in Hong Kong. I had to use information about other countries, and my previous knowledge about China to try and piece the information together myself. Most of my research that involved instances in China was gained by translating fangsheng association website accounting records and the occasional social networking site. My Chinese isn’t the best, however, so, for the sake of time, I tried to stick with sources in English.

What was the most unexpected thing?
I was met with quite a bit of resistance in my research from fangsheng associations. They either refused to return my emails or would give me information that I had already found and not much else.

Is this the first time you have applied to present at URCAD? How did you find out about applying to present your work?
This was the first time. After applying to present my research at Bard College in New York, my adviser suggested that I also apply to present at URCAD. I was pretty excited. In hindsight, though, I think I would have chosen to present my research in a talk rather than present it with a poster.

How does this research experience relate to your work in other classes?
As an Asian studies student, I find that my research was very relevant to my course work. I am very interested in China and Chinese religion and culture and this research allowed me to put my interests towards a subject that is often discussed in the world today.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
My advice would be that you have to be ready to dedicate much of your time to your topic. It may be cliché, but you have to eat, sleep, and breathe your topic. Your friends should be sick of you ranting on and on and on about it. Most of all, you have to love it. If you don’t enjoy your research then you won’t want to push through any issues presenting themselves along the way.

What are your career goals?
As a result of my research, actually, I have really wanted to start doing work that relates to cultural and religious practices and their impact on the environment. I have been looking into research-based careers for non-profit groups and the like. Though, I think the first step I need to take is to look into graduate programs for environmental studies.

What are you doing next for research?
My plan was to continue this research. In order to truly complete my research on fangsheng I need to go to China and interview people and associations. I am hoping a friendly face will convince people to answer my questions better than my emails did.


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