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China Gets Religion!

The Communist Party knows that this opening is risky but feels it has no choice. Part of its strategy is pragmatic: banning gray-market religious activity would be costly and most of it is harmless. But more positively, some in government now see religion as a potential ally in building an ideology based on more than greed. In 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao endorsed religious charities and acknowledged their help in solving social problems. The government has also sponsored international conferences on Buddhism and Daoism. As for folk religion, which makes up most of the gray-market activity, the government has acknowledged its existence and given it the positive-sounding title of “nonmaterial cultural heritage.”

This makes current government policy more in line with that of the old Qing dynasty. The government decides what is orthodox and what is heterodox and, with some important exceptions, largely supports activities that are not hostile. Indeed, in many ways, it is a generous patron of religion, helping to arrange for bank loans to temples or paying outright for new church construction.

Some speculate that the government still views religion in Marxist terms as an opiate of the masses—the twist is that instead of eradicating the drug, the Party hopes to use it to keep people diverted from politics. While that may be true, it’s also clear from the writings of some government leaders that they see religion as helping to hold together a country undergoing large-scale urbanization, with roughly ten million people a year moving from the countryside to the cities. This social dislocation is being eased by temples, mosques, and churches, which provide social services and a local community of believers to help people cope with the hardships and isolation of urban life.

How this happened is the overriding interest of the increasing number of studies of Chinese religion in the West, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. (In the People’s Republic, there is also a trend toward such studies, although the political interference endemic in Chinese universities limits the value of religious scholarship.) A couple of decades ago, few universities bothered with Chinese religion.4 Now, almost no major university is without at least one professor who studies contemporary China’s religious life.

One of the most prominent members of this new wave of scholars is Fenggang Yang, who was born in mainland China and studied there before moving to the United States in the 1980s. Yang’s book Religion in China has brilliant chapters, some controversial but all provocative and worth considering. Perhaps most novel is his use of market theory to help explain today’s religious landscape. Yang says China suffers from a “shortage economy.” Demand for religion is strong but, like consumer products in a Soviet-style economy, supply is lacking. Evidence of this is easy to find in China—almost every church is bursting with congregants on Sundays, while temples and mosques are being rebuilt as fast as authorities grant permission.

This lack of a supply of established religion, according to Yang, leads to “forced substitution,” such as practicing folk religion but calling it “culture.” Political leaders pay homage each year to the Yellow Emperor, the legendary founder of civilization, saying they are following Chinese tradition. Another substitution, according to Yang, can be seen in the popularity of physical exercises such as qigong, which often are accompanied by moral strictures. Most famous of these groups is Falun Gong, which was banned in 1999 after it began criticizing the government for what it saw as endemic corruption and amorality in society.

In Yang’s view the underlying appeal of Christianity is that it offers clear moral guidelines in a country where it often seems that anything goes. Christianity in China has been heavily studied over the years but two new books offer much of interest. One, God is Red, is the journalist Liao Yiwu’s account of the persecution of Christian churches. Liao is best known in the West for his reports on grassroots China, collected in The Corpse Walker,5 and for his decision earlier this year to flee China for the West. The subtitle of his new book, The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, is a bit grandiose—it isn’t really a secret history and the book isn’t as comprehensive as it sounds. In fact, Liao concentrates mainly on the border area of Yunnan, which is populated by non-Chinese ethnic minorities. He also writes considerably more about oppression than about revival.

But as with The Corpse Walker, the stories are meant to be more allegory than history. Liao, who himself spent four years in prison for writing a poem criticizing the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, is more interested in emphasizing the faith that sustained Christians during their years of persecution. His book has many stories of imprisonment and torture but also inspiring tales of perseverance. It is impossible to read them without being appalled by their heroes’ fate while also admiring their fortitude.

By focusing so much on the Communist era, however, it is easy to forget the bigger picture. A more nearly complete tale of Christianity’s growth (albeit without the broader appeal of Liao’s work) is told by Lian Xi, who teaches at Hanover College in Indiana. In Redeemed by Fire, Lian goes back to the Qing dynasty to explain how Christianity was initially rejected by most Chinese and took hold only with the rise of indigenous Christian leaders, such as Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) and Wang Mingdao. It was these pioneers who enabled Christianity to survive persecution and become the thriving “house church” movement of today. And in an interesting twist of history, it was the foreign denominations—Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican—that the Communists eventually united after 1949 into their state-controlled churches. (The Communists also organized a Chinese Catholic Church independent of the Pope’s authority. Partly because of such a flagrant restriction, however, the growth of the Catholic Church has been dwarfed by that of the Protestant groups.)

This history hasn’t been told so authoritatively in a Western language before. Lian can range across Chinese sources with ease, even as he writes in cogent English prose.6

It is, however, The Religious Question in Modern China, by Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer, that is the most telling of all the recent studies. Goossaert, a research fellow at the CNRS, in Paris, is one of the leading researchers on Daoism, while Palmer, of the University of Hong Kong, wrote a history of the qigong movement.7 Their book takes into account the huge wealth of insights into Chinese religion accumulated by the new research, and gives a very clearly written account of a truly remarkable event: the destruction of one of the world’s richest religious traditions and its replacement by a congress of competing traditions, faiths, and beliefs.

This is sometimes a depressing story. Many traditions have been lost and much of the remaining liturgy has been reduced to a kindergarten level. I once visited a Daoist puppet troupe in Henan province that formerly had a repertory of thirty passion plays that it performed on religious holidays. By the late 1990s, however, only two of the older members were still active and the younger members didn’t have the time to learn more than three plays. The rest were lost—no one had written them down or recorded them.

Such loss is the result of the systematic eradication of local memories. Urbanization contributes to the trend, wrenching people out of their ancestral villages to new lives in the cities—which themselves are subject to “urban redevelopment” that wipes out old streets, temples, and other landmarks to make way for the rich. In Beijing, for example, almost none of the city’s neighborhood music troupes—all of which had a religious function—remain. Hundreds were banned and then, when policy was relaxed three decades ago, their members had been scattered across the city after their homes were torn down. The members slowly drifted apart. Today, just one troupe is left.

Even when religious life has been restored, the government maintains a heavy hand. For centuries, Chinese rulers have sought to define religion and ban heterodox faiths. Now the modern authoritarian state is worried about the growth of groups that operate outside its control, and its fears are not unfounded. Faith is giving rise to more social and political activism, fostering the growth of NGOs that are resisting government control over life. Some argue that religion will democratize China. This may be wishful thinking, since in some ways, religion can be a pietistic escape in a country where politics is out of bounds. But religion is also creating rudimentary forms of civil society.

In countries like Communist-era Poland and East Germany, religious civil society helped undermine authoritarianism. A similar process—albeit a slower one, as one would expect in a continent-sized country—is going on in China. Most Christians are apolitical, saying they incorporate traditional Chinese values of upright living, filial piety, and hard work. And yet it’s no coincidence that a hugely disproportionate number of political activists are Christian, especially the weiquan, or “rights-defending” lawyers, who take on politically sensitive cases.

In my experience, China’s faith-based civil society is often more robust and influential than the few beleaguered environmental or legal NGOs that attract so much Western attention. This is especially the case in the countryside, where folk religion temples—an amalgam of Daoism, Buddhism, and age-old ideas of divine retribution and fate—are run by committees that can rival in influence the local Communist Party. Academics such as Adam Chau and Lily Tsai have spent years documenting these temples, showing how local religious groups provide philanthropic work while promoting government accountability. The McGill professor Kenneth Dean goes so far as to call them a “second tier of government” in some parts of the country.8

The government’s problem in countering these trends is its lack of moral authority. It can enforce the appointment of bishops or Tibetan lamas and try to claim the moral high ground by talking about quasi-religious concepts such as a “harmonious society”—the slogan of the outgoing administration. Yet they are avowedly atheist. For believers, this makes the government’s efforts to guide religious life hollow.

Adding to the strains on China’s neo-Qing form of religious control are the country’s connections with global religious life. New Age pilgrims visit China seeking martial arts masters and Buddhist lamas, while evangelical missionaries are reentering China for the first time in two generations, convinced that China is the final piece of the puzzle needed for Christianity’s global triumph. Meanwhile, Chinese folk religion and Buddhism are helping to strengthen ties to Taiwan and Southeast Asia, while Islam is a point of contention and a bond with the Muslim world. The state is caught between lethargic self-satisfaction and a paralyzing fear of unrest, and it seems unlikely that it will be able to modernize China’s antiquated system of religious oversight. After a century of bitter experience, religion remains at the core of China’s transformation.

  1. 4

    The exception was C.K. Yang in his Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religions and Some of Their Historical Factors (University of California Press, 1961). Yang’s book shook Western academics out of their acceptance of the generalizations of Chinese intellectuals like Hu Shih. But his work tended to view religion as a dead, folkloric tradition, having little to do with contemporary China. This was part of an overall trend in the West that saw religion as a relic from yesterday having nothing to do with the future. The best-known exponent was Peter Berger, who told The New York Times in 1968 that “religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.” 

  2. 5

    Pantheon, 2008, reviewed in these pages by Howard W. French, October 14, 2010. 

  3. 6

    Another book deserving high praise is Nanlai Cao’s Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou (Stanford University Press, 2011), which tells the fascinating history of China’s most famous Christian city. 

  4. 7

    Vincent Goossaert, The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949: A Social History of Urban Clerics (Harvard University Asia Center, 2007); David A. Palmer, Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China (Columbia University Press, 2007). 

  5. 8

    Adam Yuet Chau, Miraculous Response: Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China (Stanford University Press, 2006); Lily L. Tsai, Accountability Without Democracy: Solidary Groups and Public Goods Provision in Rural China (Cambridge University Press, 2007); Kenneth Dean, “China’s Second Government: Regional Ritual Systems in Southeast China” published in Shehui, minzu yu wenhua zhanyan guoji yantaohui lunwenji (Collected Papers from the International Conference on Social, Ethnic, and Cultural Transformation), (Taipei: Centre for Chinese Studies, 2001). 

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