This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’ takeover in 1949. It’s also just opened a museum about the uprising in the Yangtze metropolis of Wuhan where the revolution started. And the National Library in Beijing is hosting an exhibition with the not-so-subtle title “Awakening of the East.”
These celebrations have focused on the political implications of the Qing’s fall, but the 1911 revolution was a major change in a less obvious realm: the spiritual. This might seem obscure, of interest perhaps only to specialists in religious studies. In fact, China’s religious upheaval around 1911 is central to its last hundred years of tumult, helping to explain the fanatical totalitarianism that gripped the country and now its bare-knuckled capitalism.
Chinese are often described as pragmatic people with little interest in faith. The prominent Chinese intellectual Hu Shih (1891–1962) declared that “China is a country without religion.” In fact, this was how early-twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals wished to see their nation—as free from what they presumed to be the backward and superstitious beliefs of their ancestors.
Yet for millennia, China was held together by its spiritual life, a shared system of ritual and belief that helped unite a country divided by harsh geography and mutually incomprehensible dialects. Every Chinese village had shrines to local deities and every home had altars to the ancestors, a pattern repeated across the vast land, whose rivers and mountains were also deified. Time was ordered by the unity of the sacred and the temporal: the calendar started when winter was on the wane with rituals and festivals meant to mirror the slowly awakening earth. Belief was based on moral equilibrium (you reap what you sow), as well as a world of spirits mirroring and interacting with the world of humans.
Overlaying this ancient system of belief were the formal religions of Daoism and Buddhism, which both took hold in China roughly two thousand years ago. These faiths were presided over by tens of thousands of religious specialists who carried out rites to purge evil and restore harmony. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was estimated that China had a million temples, or one for roughly every four hundred people. It was a country centered on a religious-political order held together by the emperor, who spent much of his time carrying out rituals at imperial temples to make sure that his empire was at one with the heavens.
The end of this system began with a series of reforms promulgated in 1898 by the government of the Dowager Empress. Temples were to be converted into schools—in fact a widely circulated slogan was “destroy temples to …