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Researching Western culture. Chinese scholar views US splinter religions

A tall, athletic figure stands in the chilly drizzle beside a used clothing store, his face intent under a visored tweed cap, his pencil poised over a black notebook. Next door, in a room above the business, Prof. Li Shih Yu has found another church. It's the hundredth this social anthropologist -- a scholar from the People's Republic of China -- has recorded in just the 20-block-square area here known as University City. When Americans ask him what brings him to the United States to study splinter religions, Dr. Li's reply is slightly amused: ``You should ask this question of the American and European investigators who explore the temples of my country. . . . I am propelled into my research by the same interest in the institutions of man and by fascination with your religions.''

Li, known internationally as a leading authority on the popular religions of China and for his pioneering research on China's early coastline, is a man who moves easily in Western culture. He is currently rounding out a lecture tour at more than 20 universities in the United States and Canada as a Visiting Luce Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

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As a very young man, working with eminent Belgian anthropologist Willem Grootaers, Li walked some thousand miles across North China, exploring every temple, every building dedicated to public use in myriad villages and towns. The Grootaers team often used pick and shovel at long-abandoned sites to verify -- or occasionally overturn -- accepted conclusions. That kind of painstaking care and zeal has become an integral part of Li's working philosophy. ``Other men may see only trash,'' he comments, ``but there is often gold, which history will be poorer for not having.''

This is the attitude that led him to unravel a mystery that long puzzled Chinese historians -- the location of Pau Ming Suu, a temple of China's White Lotus religion. Though mentioned in ancient writings, the temple's location was unknown until Li deciphered an inscription on a bell that pinpointed it. His investigations into the White Lotus religion and the scrolls he found at the temple, which revealed new information about the origins of the religion and the life of its matriarch, are the subjects of one of Li's books now being translated into English.

In another area, Li's research made clear that North China's coastline has twice drastically altered. Research in the '50s had suggested that the oldest coastline dated back 1,000 years. Li, in his analysis of the components of the soil and the artifacts in it, proved that the earliest coastline is some 4,000 years old, and a more recent one (which he discovered) is 2,000.

Li is no stranger to Christianity; his father introduced it into the family when Li was young. Li himself studied at Catholic University in Peking, and he attends frequent Bible study classes in a Protestant church as part of his research. This, he believes, can help him define the degree of radicalism and evolution in the faiths he is studying in America.

The professor says he often considers the significance of the naked ``superstition'' he sometimes encounters in sects which call themselves Christian. ``We are seeing a great upsurge of religion in the great cities of the US,'' he says. ``In this land in which scientific information at such a high level is freely accessible in the press and in splendid documentaries, why are there so many superstitious, and even socially inimical, cults. . . ? What is the significance of this in such a well-educated and informed society?'' he asks.

``I visit poorly attended services in many beautiful neo-Gothic and Romanesque buildings,'' he continues, ``and in the same neighborhood, in which two universities are located, I find recently established religious groups in row houses, sometimes side by side . . . .''

Another question that intrigues him is why ``so many Americans support religions propagated on the electronic media, which have aroused the indignation of much of respected opinion because of some of the financial practices and because of some of the crude definitions of Christian ethics used to criticize culture and American liberalism.''

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If the answers to these questions can come only after much debate among experts with widely different views in this democracy, Professor Li says he believes the current religious ferment in America relates to the transitional character of the times as well as an increasing hunger for certainties in a dangerous world. The traditional religions, he says, have not been proved compelling or attractive enough to young people who are dissatisfied and searching.

Despite the rise of so many splinter groups, Li contends that religion will continue to provide a vital ethical foundation in society. He adds, ``It is obvious that religion plays an important role in many cases of rehabilitation among law-breakers. . . . Religious foundations often give force to secular justice, a bringing of the needed respect, in addition to to any fear of punishment for violation of the statutes.'' He says agnostic philosophers have ``frequently been known to hold similar private views.''

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