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China Gets Religion!

Peter Kujundzic/Reuters
A man receiving communion during Easter service at the state-controlled Xishiku Cathedral, Beijing, April 2011

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 build schools,” setting in place the fundamental claim of subsequent eras: that religion was antithetical to modernization. Although short-lived, the measures gained traction after the 1911 revolution. The child emperor Pu Yi’s abdication didn’t just destroy the symbolic center of China’s political-religious order. His departure was the culmination of decades of crisis. For many Chinese thinkers at that time, the only conclusion—troubling as it was—was that China’s ancient system of values could not offer a way to counter the West’s military and industrial might. At first, most Chinese resisted this conclusion but by the early twentieth century it became inevitable: instead of trying to impose Chinese values on foreigners, the elite now would emulate foreign cultures.

Today, we can see this in the style of Chinese cities, the clothes Chinese wear, their hairstyles, many of their manners and customs, and of course their economic and political systems—all of them, including communism, versions of Western prototypes, even if they have been modified for Chinese circumstances. Underlying these changes was the attack on what had been seen as the country’s soul. If religion had previously held together ancient China’s social and political system, now it became the target of China’s top-down modernizers. So violent was the self-hatred that almost all Chinese religious practice was condemned as “superstition,” a term (mixin) imported to China from the West via Japan (as indeed was the word for “religion,” zongjiao).

Western religion, especially Christianity, came to be considered by many to be the norm of acceptable religious practice. That norm called for an identifiable clergy organized in a hierarchical institution and a clear doctrine expressed in a well-defined corpus of sacred texts—features typical of world religions but not of China’s indigenous belief systems. For many years, however, even Christianity had a hard time in China since many Chinese condemned it as an imperialist foreign import.

China was in the midst of what many scholars believe to be the most sustained attack on religion in history.1 Even before the Communist takeover in 1949, half of the country’s one million temples had been converted to other uses or destroyed.2 Over the next thirty years virtually all of the rest were wiped out; by 1982, when religious life was permitted to resume after the ouster of radical Maoists, China had just a few score temples, churches, and mosques still in usable condition—in a country that now had one billion people.

During this long period of destruction, the state offered a succession of substitutes. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek launched the “New Life” movement to inject Boy Scout–sounding ideals of doing good—and of course opposing traditional religion. When the Communists took over, they offered the totalitarian Mao cult. None of these endured, leaving contemporary China without a core spiritual belief. The result, as Vincent Goossaert and David A. Palmer write in their engaging and authoritative work, The Religious Question in Modern China, has been a “de-centered religious universe, exploding centrifugally in all directions…a de-centered society, a de-centered China: a Middle Kingdom that has lost its Middle.”

That might sound hyperbolic but Chinese now live in a nation without an accepted code of moral obligations. During the past few months, Chinese have been hearing about cases of passersby who have not helped people in need. In one case, a young girl was run over by a minivan twice before someone pulled her out of the street (she later died in a hospital). In another case, an old man fell in a market near his home and no one picked him up; he suffocated from a nosebleed while a crowd of people—including many vegetable sellers who knew him personally—stood by and watched. Part of the problem is that China lacks a “Good Samaritan” law to protect people who do good deeds from being sued if something goes wrong. Ever since a court ruled in 2006 that a man had to pay some of the medical costs for a person he rescued, many Chinese have shied away from helping others.

But the problem is more than five years old. Selfishness might be universal but it’s particularly pronounced in Chinese society. As the sociologist Fei Xiaotong noted in his book From the Soil about early-twentieth-century rural China, peasants are mainly concerned with their friends and family; those outside their guanxiwang (network of guanxi, or relationships) don’t count. But these tendencies were mitigated by traditional religions, which promoted ideas of helping the poor and weak. The lack of such influences has left China a harsh place. Indeed, the comments on some of these recent cases have been callous. One writer, without any apparent irony, said that old people nowadays can’t be trusted because they grew up in the early Communist era, when religion was all but banned, thus depriving them of a moral backbone.

But this cynicism is changing. After three decades of prosperity—the first significant period of stability in 150 years—Chinese have quietly but forcefully initiated a religious revival. Hundreds of thousands of places of worship have reopened or been rebuilt, often from scratch, many of them not registered with the authorities. China now has the world’s largest Bible-printing plant, while thousands of new priests, nuns, and imams of various faiths are being trained every year.

It’s no exaggeration to say that China is in the grip of a religious revival analogous to America’s Great Awakening in the nineteenth century (which also took place during a time of great social upheaval). By some measures, more Chinese (60 to 80 million) now go to church every Sunday than all the congregations of Western Europe put together, while China is now the world’s biggest Buddhist nation. Meanwhile, indigenous belief systems, such as folk religion or redemptive societies like Yiguanddao, are making a comeback.

Much religious activity is still suppressed. Unregistered churches are regularly closed (especially the well-known, and technically illegal, Shouwang Christian church in Beijing), while in the sensitive ethnic regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, Buddhism and Islam are tightly monitored, with violations of human rights that rightly gain much international attention. And of course any group that the government feels is a threat (most spectacularly the Falun Gong movement of the 1990s) is persecuted.

Still, religion is growing breathtakingly fast. Unregistered “house churches,” once quasi-underground groups, sometimes approach the scale of American mega-churches. I went to an Easter service in Beijing this year that filled an auditorium. The pastor outlined his sermon with a PowerPoint presentation while a dancing choir kept people’s eyes riveted on stage. Daoism, China’s only indigenous religion, is also growing fast, with thousands of temples once labeled “superstitious” now reopening. Overall, official figures show a tripling of Daoist places of worship over the past fifteen years.

All of this is happening despite tight government controls. The Chinese state recognizes only five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity, which for official purposes is treated as two groups: Catholicism and Protestantism. All have centralized governing bodies with headquarters in Beijing and staffed by officials loyal to the Communist Party. The Party appoints top religious leaders and bans nonapproved sects like Falun Gong.

This system was designed to monitor a handful of believers. When Party pragmatists took control of China after the Cultural Revolution, they assumed that reopening temples was a minor gesture of reconciliation to elderly believers who soon would die out—in the orthodox Communist view of the world, religion belongs to an obsolescent period of history that will fade away as material prosperity and rationality gradually take hold. But this secular vision never materialized and despite, or perhaps because of, the stunning economic growth of the past thirty years, millions of people are more dissatisfied than ever. Many have turned to religion. The Party has responded by maintaining the old system of control, but in practice it has slowly had to adopt a more laissez-faire attitude, allowing a huge gray market of religious activities: house churches, underground Catholic priests, folk religious leaders, and “masters” of Confucianism or the form of deep breathing called qigong.3

  1. 1

    Although certainly similar efforts took place in Soviet Russia, Kemalist Turkey, and parts of the Middle East. One key difference, however, is that these campaigns did not last as long as China’s century-long effort. 

  2. 2

    One book that deserves special mention is Rebecca Nedostup’s Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity (Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2010), a pathbreaking book that recounts the Nationalists’ efforts to suppress indigenous religion. As in other areas, the Nationalists lacked the time and political stability to carry out their goals, but their religious policies were a precursor for those of the Communists. 

  3. 3

    See especially Yang Fenggang’s “The Red, Black, and Gray Markets of Religion in China,” The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 1 (February 2006). 

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