Are China’s Rulers Getting Religion?

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Ian Johnson

Detail from a 14th century mural from the Daoist Yonglegong Temple in Shanxi province

With worsening inflation, a slowing economy, and growing concerns about possible social unrest, China’s leaders have a lot on their plates these days. And yet when the Communist Party met at its annual plenum earlier this week, the issue given greatest attention was not economic policy but what it described as “cultural reform.”

The concern appears quixotic, but China is now in the grips of a moral crisis. In recent months, the Chinese Internet has been full of talk about the lack of morality in society. And the problem is not just associated with the very rich or the political connected—concerns shared in western countries—but with the population at large. This has been precipitated in part by a spate of recent incidents in which people have failed to come to aid of fellow citizens caught in accidents or medical emergencies. A few weeks ago, a two-year-old girl in Guangzhou was hit by a car and left dying in the street while eighteen passers-by did nothing to help her. The case riveted China, causing people to ask what sort of society is being created.

So, no sooner was the plenum over than the party indicated that it would limit the amount of entertainment shows on television and possibly set limits on popular microblogs. While it is easy to read this move simply as censorship, which it certainly is, it also reflects the new preoccupation with morality: many of the banned shows are pure entertainment—the party now wants more news programs—and Chinese microblogs have long been a forum for anonymous character assassination. Meanwhile, though it has been far less noted, Beijing is giving new support to religion—even the country’s own beleaguered traditional practice, Daoism.

After decades of destruction, Daoist temples are being rebuilt, often with government support. Shortly after the plenum ended, authorities were convening an International Daoism Forum. The meeting was held near Mt. Heng in Hunan Province, one of Daoism’s five holy mountains, and was attended by 500 participants. It received extensive play in the Chinese media, with a noted British Daoist scholar, Martin Palmer, getting airtime on Chinese television. This is a sharp change for a religion that that was persecuted under Mao and long regarded as suspect. What, exactly, is gong on here?

Daoism (sometimes spelled Taoism) began as a philosophical tradition in early China. Its most famous work is the Daodejing, attributed to a person known as Laozi, who may have existed in the 6th century BCE. It developed into an organized religion by the 2nd century CE. Although its practices vary widely, it generally advocates self-discipline and good living as a way to attain immortality, as well as elaborate rituals to purge individuals or communities of evil. Its ideas of harmony with nature underlie many aspects of Chinese culture, from calligraphy and painting to architecture and medicine. For generations, its formal teachings were passed down by Daoist priests as well as lay practitioners.

During the Mao years many of its traditions, such as fortune telling, geomancy, possession by spirits, and popular rituals, were banned as superstitious. But it’s been making a limited comeback. Although still dwarfed by Buddhism, as well as newer religions, like Christianity, the number of Daoist temples has at least tripled over the past fifteen years, according to official figures. Priests and nuns who run the temples provide services to pilgrims and go out into the community to consecrate homes or businesses, and perform funerals. Others spread Daoist ideas through martial arts, such as Tai Chi, or medicine—two disciplines rooted in Daoism.

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Ian Johnson

Daoist priests in a martial arts pose on Mt. Wudang

One reason authorities are now embracing Daoism as a source of moral guidance is that, in contrast to Christianity—which sometimes runs afoul of authorities—Daoism is widely seen as an unthreatening, indigenous religion. That’s true of Buddhism as well, which was founded in today’s India but took root in China 2,000 years ago. But Buddhism has long had a cadre of devoted, missionizing monks and nuns who try to spread the word, whereas Daoism is sometimes hard to crack—you often have to earn a Daoist master’s trust and respect before he or she will take you on as a disciple. Moreover there’s no Daoist Gideons International, dropping the Daodejing in Chinese hotels. And then, of course, Daoism can be seen as the original tune-in-turn-on-drop-out religion; many Daoist luminaries have preferred a life of contemplation to pursuit of earthly power.

Still, the Daodejing, says a lot about ruling, and one translation of that work’s title is “The Way and its Power.” Certainly, the text can be read profitably by authoritarians (translations from Lao-tzu’s Taoteching, Copper Canyon Press, 2009):


the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the belly

Then again there are other verses that might well trouble a government trying to fight a perception that it is corrupt:

The reason people are hungry
is that those above levy so many taxes


the reason people are hard to rule
is that those above are so forceful

Another part of Daoism that isn’t so easy for the government to swallow is that it has become a world religion, one that a government can’t easily control. Four months ago, for example, a very different international conference on Daoism had been held at exactly the same location—a conference that the government was far from excited about. Organized by Chinese and international scholars and practitioners, the conference did not have as much high-level support but it reflects something potentially more powerful: an explosion of popular interest into Daoism and Chinese religion. The authorities not only shunned it but put up roadblocks. It was almost canceled at the last moment and was eventually curtailed from five to three days, with many panels cut or abbreviated.

I attended that conference, which focused on the role of women in Daoism, commercialism of its temples and other issues facing the religion, and observed the discomfort of Chinese officials as the organizers announced that next year’s conference was going to be held at a German lakeside resort. One official later said to me that it should be up to the Chinese government, not a non-government organization of scholars, to determine when an important Daoist conference should be held. He was also skeptical of many of those who came, some of whom were practicing Daoists or martial artists—who were these people? Many weren’t even Chinese!

Tellingly, none of the participants from June—and very few foreign scholars save Mr. Palmer—took part in the recent government-sponsored conference. It wasn’t posted on scholarly websites and was treated by Beijing as something that didn’t really concern the outside world.

But the more China’s leaders try to use religion for their own purposes, the more difficult it may be to have an actual effect on perceived problems like society’s moral decline. Despite the rebuilding of temples, religious life is still tightly limited. Many practitioners do find a deeper moral answer in the teachings of Daoism and other religions. I have seen volunteers at Daoist temples provide food for the poor or engage in disaster relief. The teachings of compassion and unity with nature also make sense in a country that has pursued economic gain at the expense of charity and concern for the environment.

But religion is still fighting an uphill battle. The recent conference gave Daoism an unprecedented amount of media attention, but most of the time religious life is completely absent from Chinese television or other media outlets. Then again, as the Daodejing makes clear, human endeavors often miss the point:

Thirty spokes converge on a hub
but it’s the emptiness
that makes a wheel work

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