RELIGION IN CHINA
Inside a Chinese temple The four major religions and philosophies found in China—1) Confucianism, 2) Taoism, 3) Buddhism, and 4) folk religion—can be looked upon as single traditions or components of a broad, nebulous and variable belief system. According to the Library of Congress: The traditional religions of China are Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Confucianism is not a religion, although some have tried to imbue it with rituals and religious qualities, but rather a philosophy and system of ethical conduct that since the fifth century B.C. has guided China’s society. Kong Fuzi (Confucius in Latinized form) is honored in China as a great sage of antiquity whose writings promoted peace and harmony and good morals in family life and society in general. Ritualized reverence for one’s ancestors, sometimes referred to as ancestor worship, has been a tradition in China since at least the Shang Dynasty (1750–1040 B.C.). [Source: Library of Congress]
Religious beliefs tend to be viewed as personal matters that each individual works out on their own. There are few religion leaders and few organized times of worship other than festivals, thus leaving individuals to worship when and how they like, picking and choosing from Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist traditions and ways of thinking. Few people label themselves as exclusively Buddhist, Confucian or Taoist. But even though it could argued that the Chinese are not very religious, religion and religious culture have had a profound effect shaping the Chinese psyche.
Individuals in China often recognize a wide range of beliefs and religions—including organized religions like Buddhism and Taoism as well as folk religions and beliefs in local deities, ancestral spirits and superstitions— in hope of making all spirits, gods and supernatural forces happy and thus ensuring good fortune. The goal for an individual is often to be in harmony with the cosmic world rather than seek one true, divine path.
None of China’s religious traditions are completely independent of the others and the beliefs in one tradition rarely reject or oppose the beliefs of the others. Chinese have traditionally looked to Confucianism for moral and political guidance and lived by its code; looked to Taoist gods and animist spirits for good fortune and help harmonizing with nature and the universe; and looked to Buddhism for help answering questions of the afterlife. Shaman are still sought out as healers. Fortunetellers are sought out for advice. Sometimes the fortunetellers are Buddhist monks and the shaman also run the local Taoist temple.
Many Chinese pragmatically switch among Taoist, Buddhist, folk and other beliefs and practices, depending on the situation. A researcher in Taiwan told the New York Times that at least 70 percent of Taiwanese still adhere to some traditional ways.
On the ebb and flow and merging of religion in China, Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in Time: “Visions of imperial China as hermetically sealed off from the world are a myth. Foreign belief systems often made their way in and, once reaching Chinese soil, merged with some form of Confucianism (there have been many versions of that creed) or Taoism (ditto) to create hybrid schools of thought. Long before Deng Xiaoping's Marxist-inflected reboot of Lee KuanYew's Singaporean capitalist-meets-Confucian soft authoritarianism, there were equally complex homegrown fusion creations. A famous one was Chan Buddhism (known in Japanese as Zen), a mash-up of native Taoist and imported Indian elements. [Source: Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Time, January 1 2011]
Most Chinese know very little about China’s religious past, namely because the government wants it that way to keep religion reigned in. Traditional Chinese religions are often much stronger in Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong, and even Vietnam and Korea than they are in much of mainland China, where the Communists had some success stomping out traditional beliefs and many temples and monasteries are still overseen by caretakers, not monks or priests.
Good Websites and Sources: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com ; Pew Forum pewforum.org; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de
Links in this Website to Different Religions in China: RELIGION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; FOLK RELIGION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CONFUCIANISM AND CONFUCIUS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CONFUCIAN BELIEFS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TAOISM Factsanddetails.com/China ; TAOIST BELIEFS Factsanddetails.com/China ; BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;HISTORY OF BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; HISTORY OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHISM BELIEFS Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHRISTIANITY IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MUSLIMS AND JEWS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MYSTICISM AND SUPERSTITION IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; FENG SHUI AND QI QONG Factsanddetails.com/China ; IDEAS ABOUT DEATH IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ;
For a long time the State Administration for Religious Affairs said there were about 100 million religious believers in China—less than 10 percent of the population. There are over 80 million members of the Communist party. In 2009, press releases suddenly began using the number 300 million. According to the World Christian Database: 1) 41.5 percent non-religious; 2) 27.5 percent Chinese folk believers; 3) 8.5 percent Buddhists; 4) 8.4 percent Christians; 5) 8.2 percent atheists; 6) 4.3 percent animists;7) 1.5 percent Muslims; 8) 0.05 percent other. [Source: World Christian Database]
Estimates of the number of adherents to various beliefs are difficult to establish; as a percentage of the population, institutionalized religions, such as Christianity and Islam, represent only about 4 percent and 2 percent of the population, respectively. In 2005 the Chinese government acknowledged that there were an estimated 100 million adherents to various sects of Buddhism and some 9,500 and 16,000 temples and monasteries, many maintained as cultural landmarks and tourist attractions. The Buddhist Association of China was established in 1953 to oversee officially sanctioned Buddhist activities. In 1998 there reportedly were 600 Daoist temples and an unknown number of adherents in China. [Source: Library of Congress]
According to the U.S. Department of State in 2005, approximately 8 percent of the population is Buddhist, approximately 1.5 percent is Muslim, an estimated 0.4 percent belongs to the government-sponsored “patriotic” Catholic Church, an estimated 0.4 to 0.6 percent belongs to the unofficial Vatican-affiliated Roman Catholic Church, and an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 percent is registered as Protestant. However, both Protestants and Catholics also have large underground communities, possibly numbering as many as 90 million. Chinese government figures from 2004 estimate 20 million adherents of Islam in China, but unofficial estimates suggest a much higher total. Most adherents of Islam are members of the Uygur and Hui nationality people.
Interest in religion is growing. In a 2007 survey by two professors at Shanghai’s East China Normal University a third of the 4,500 people interviewed described themselves as religious. If that figure is representative for the whole country then 400 million Chinese regard themselves as religious, four times the official government number of 100 million. Most of those who described themselves as religious said they were Buddhists, Taoists or followers of folk religions. Religious beliefs were found to be particularly strong among people in the 16-to-39 age group.
According to an other source: Religions (percent of population): 1) non-religious and atheist (50 percent); 2) Other (32 percent); 3) Buddhism (9 percent); 4) Christianity (8 percent); 5) Islam (2 percent).
China has the potential to be the world’s largest Christian nation and the world’s largest Islamic nation.
Evolution of Religion in China
Ancient Chinese agrarian religion revolved around the worship of natural forces and spirits who controlled the elements and presided over rivers, fields and mountains. Shaman known as wu acted as intermediates between the human and spiritual worlds and preformed rites to insure good weather and harvests and keep evil spirits at bay.
Even though China is regarded officially as an atheist state today, it is said to have had an officially recognized religion since 2356 B.C., when science, religion, mythology and government were all linked together. Taoism and Confucianism began to take shape around the 5th and 6th centuries B.C., evolving from religions that had been around in China for at least a thousand years before that.
The four centuries after Han dynasty--from the A.D.3rd to 7th centuries--were characterized by disunity and chaos, which in turn lead to a receptivity to new religious ideas. This was the beginning of the Age of Faith, when Taoism flourished, Confucianism became a philosophy of the wealthy, and Buddhism took root. In the Age of Faith, Taoists and Buddhists fought over souls for salvation. Many Buddhist converts were formerly Taoists.
Common Features of Chinese Religions
joss sticks The concept of living ancestors and honoring them is important in all Chinese religions. The Chinese have no concept of original sin or inherited original sin.
Supernatural beings are sometimes organized into hierarchies with heavenly beings like the Lord of Heaven at the top, followed by the spirits of humans beings that have transcended the human cycle of life and death, such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Taoist immortals. Next are the spirits of human heroes. Below them are earth spirits and gods regarded as protectors.
Different religions often times honor the same gods. Guanyin (Kuanyan), the Goddess of Mercy, for example, is found in Buddhist and Taoist temple and family altars at home. She is associated with both purity and compassion and has traditionally been sought by expectant mother for help with child birth. Often depicted with multiple heads and arms, she is closely linked with Avalokitesvara, the eleven-headed and the multi-armed Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.
Chinese temples—whether they be Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian—have a similar lay out, with features found in traditional Chinese courtyard houses and elements intended to confuse or repel evil spirits. Temples are usually surrounded by a wall and face south in accordance with feng shui principals. The gates usually contain paintings, reliefs or statues of warrior deities intended to keep evil spirits away. Through the gates is a large courtyard, which is often protected by a spirit wall, a another layer of protection intended to keep evil spirits at bay. The halls of the temple are arranged around the courtyard with the least important being near the entrance in case evil spirits do get in.
Chinese show their respect by bowing three times even for revered secular leader such as Sun Yat Sen. Offerings of food, drink and incense (joss sticks) have traditionally been made on family alters on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month. Offerings are also made to the Lord of Heaven, select gods and spirits
Religion and Communism
Communism denounces organized religion. Marx called religion the "opiate of the people" and promoted a belief in dialectical materialism over God. Communist countries have traditionally been atheist states, with the Communists attempting to substitute the study of Marxism for religion. Children are encouraged to take part in antireligious activities and schools emphasize antireligious aspects of science. The belief has been that if succeeding generations were taught to reject religion, religion would eventually die out.
Under the Communists many temples, churches and monasteries have been converted into archives of the state, museums, hospitals, schools, and insane asylums. Building a new temple, monastery or church under was the Communists is a problem, not so much because of money, but because is was difficult to secure the necessary building permits. Religion, particularly Christianity and Islam, have traditionally been seen as vehicles for foreign ideas and misguided loyalties to find their way into Chinese society.
In the early years of Communist rule, organized religion was ruthlessly oppressed and infiltrated by informers. Strict limits were placed on what was allowed and what wasn't. Priests were arrested, exiled, killed or forced to renounce their profession. Monks were expelled from their monasteries.
Religious worship retreated into the homes, family groups and small communities. Rituals and ceremonies were performed in secret in back rooms or outdoors on makeshift altars. Religious activists traveling as tourists quietly set up prayer circles in other communities and countries.
History of Religion in China Since the Communists Came to Power
Traditionally, China's Confucian elite disparaged religion and religious practitioners, and the state suppressed or controlled organized religious groups. The social status of Buddhist monks and Taoist priests was low, and ordinary people did not generally look up to them as models. In the past, religion was diffused throughout the society, a matter as much of practice as of belief, and had a weak institutional structure. Essentially the same pattern continues in contemporary society, except that the ruling elite is even less religious and there are even fewer religious practitioners. [Source: Library of Congress]
“The attitude of the Communist Party has been that religion is a relic of the past, evidence of prescientific thinking, and something that will fade away as people become educated and acquire a scientific view of the world. On the whole, religion has not been a major issue. Cadres and party members, in ways very similar to those of Confucian elites, tend to regard many religious practitioners as charlatans out to take advantage of credulous people, who need protection. In the 1950s many Buddhist monks were returned to secular life, and monasteries and temples lost their lands in the land reform. Foreign missionaries were expelled, often after being accused of spying, and Chinese Christians, who made up only a very small proportion of the population, were the objects of suspicion because of their foreign contacts. [Ibid]
“Chinese Christian organizations were established, one for Protestants and one for Roman Catholics, which stressed that their members were loyal to the state and party. Seminaries were established to train "patriotic" Chinese clergy, and the Chinese Catholic Church rejected the authority of the Vatican, ordaining its own priests and installing its own bishops. The issue in all cases, whether involving Christians, Buddhists, or members of underground Chinese sects, was not so much doctrine or theology as recognition of the primacy of loyalty to the state and party. Folk religion was dismissed as superstition. Temples were for the most part converted to other uses, and public celebration of communal festivals stopped, but the state did not put much energy into suppressing folk religion. [Ibid]
“During the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, in 1966 and 1967, Red Guards destroyed temples, statues, and domestic ancestral tablets as part of their violent assault on the "four olds" (old ideas, culture, customs, and habits). Public observances of ritual essentially halted during the Cultural Revolution decade. After 1978, the year marking the return to power of the Deng Xiaoping reformers, the party and state were more tolerant of the public expression of religion as long as it remained within carefully defined limits. Some showcase temples were restored and opened as historical sites, and some Buddhist and even Taoist practitioners were permitted to wear their robes, train a few successors, and perform rituals in the reopened temples. These actions on the part of the state can be interpreted as a confident regime's recognition of China's traditional past, in the same way that the shrine at the home of Confucius in Shandong Province has been refurbished and opened to the public. Confucian and Buddhist doctrines are not seen as a threat, and the motive is primarily one of nationalistic identification with China's past civilization. [Ibid]
“Similar tolerance and even mild encouragement is accorded to Chinese Christians, whose churches were reopened starting in the late 1970s. As of 1987 missionaries were not permitted in China, and some Chinese Catholic clergy were imprisoned for refusing to recognize the authority of China's "patriotic" Catholic Church and its bishops. The most important result of state toleration of religion has been improved relations with China's Islamic and Tibetan Buddhist minority populations. State patronage of Islam and Buddhism also plays a part in China's foreign relations. [Ibid]
“Much of traditional ritual and religion survives or has been revived, especially in the countryside. In the mid-1980s the official press condemned such activities as wasteful and reminded rural party members that they should neither participate in nor lead such events, but it did not make the subject a major issue. Families could worship their ancestors or traditional gods in the privacy of their homes but had to make all ritual paraphernalia (incense sticks, ancestral tablets, and so forth) themselves, as it was no longer sold in shops. The scale of public celebrations was muted, and full-time professional clergy played no role. Folk religious festivals were revived in some localities, and there was occasional rebuilding of temples and ancestral halls. In rural areas, funerals were the ritual having the least change, although observances were carried out only by family members and kin, with no professional clergy in attendance. Such modest, mostly household-based folk religious activity was largely irrelevant to the concerns of the authorities, who ignored or tolerated it. [Ibid]
Religion and the Chinese Government
Until Communism came along religion and the state were often closely linked. In the imperial era, the emperor was regarded as divine; political institutions were believed to be part of the cosmic order; and Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism were incorporated in different ways into political systems and social organizations.
These days religion is something the officially atheist Communist government tolerates but insists on having control over. The Chinese constitution promises religious freedom but requires that "religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination" and insists that no religious leader have more authority than the Communist party. These views partly explain why the Communists take a such dim view of Chinese Catholics and Tibetan Buddhist holding the Pope and the Dalai Lama in such high esteem.
Religious matters are overseen by the Office of Nationalities, Religion and Overseas Chinese Affairs.
When making decisions that seem wrong, repressive or unfair to the West on human rights issues China in many ways is acting on lessons it has learned from its long history. It is reluctant to grant too much religious freedom and cracks down on Christians and groups like Falun Gong because of the trouble caused by religion-based rebellions, cults and quasi-religions in the past like the Taipeng Rebellion. See Taiping Rebellion, 19th Century History.
Patriotic Religions and Atheism
Religious institutions in China are required to operate under the control of official “patriotic” religious organizations. There are five officially-recognized “patriotic” religions in China: Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism. Judaism isn't recognized.
Religious activity must be registered with the Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council and the Communist Party's United Front Work Department. Religions associated with China such as Buddhism and Taoism tend to be tolerated more than Islam and Christianity because they do not have an independent hierarchy or follow a foreign spiritual leader.
Officially Communist China is an atheist country, God does not exist, there is nothing after death and only atheists are allowed to be members of the Communist Party. Mao said that religion is a "base superstition" and a "counter-revolutionary" relic of old China that kept the ruling classes in power. In 1949, after the Communist take over of China, all religions were banned and the Chinese were officially forbidden from talking about ghosts. As late as the early 2000s, the Chinese leader Jiang Zemin expressed his puzzlement that so many Western scientists believe in God.
In many ways Communism has replaced religion. Some have even argued that Communism is a religion. The director of the State Council's Religious Affair Bureau told Time, "The sincere advocacy of freedom of religion belief is based on our understanding of the dialectical materialistic theory. It is our concept of God."
As an alternative to religion, the government has launched the God-free jingshen wenming ("spiritual civilization") program, which teaches values such as family, loyalty and diligence. The atheist party line continues to be promoted by the Research Institute of Marxism-Leninism at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, which continues to give out an annual Hero of Atheism award (the winner in 1999 was a television personality who exposed quack shaman).
Early Communist Persecution of Buddhists in China
Master Deng Kuan, abbot of the Gu Temple in Sichuan Province, was 103 when the writer Liao Yiwu met him in 2003. “Over the centuries, as olddynasties collapsed and new ones came into being, the temple remainedrelatively intact,” Deng told Lao, “This is because changes of dynasty or government were considered secular affairs. Monks like me didn't get involved. But the Communist revolution in 1949 was a turning point for me and the temple.”[Source: The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu, from book review by Howard W. French in The Nation, August 4, 2008]
“Soon after Mao's victory, Deng was dragged out of his temple and stood up before a crowd, accused of accumulating wealth without engaging in physical labor, and spreading ‘feudalistic and religious ideas that poisoned people's minds.’ People stepped forward to denounce him, and the crowd that gathered responded on cue, howling slogans like ‘Down with the evil landlord’ and ‘Religion is spiritual poison.’ Some spat on him. Others punched and kicked. ‘No matter which temple you go to, you will find the same rule: monks pass on the Buddhist treasures from one generation to the next,’ Deng says. ‘Since ancient times, no abbot, monk, or nun has ever claimed the properties of the temple as his or her own. Who would have thought that overnight all of us would be classified as rich landowners! None of us has ever lived the life of a rich landowner, but we certainly suffered the retribution accorded one.’” [Ibid]
By Master Deng's reckoning, between 1952 and 1961 this meant he endured more than 300 ‘struggle sessions,’ as these organized hazings were known in the revolution's euphemistic terminology. In his area of Sichuan Province, he tells Liao, by 1961 ‘half of the people labeled as members of the bad elements had starved to death.’
In the Mao era Buddhist temples become schools and warehouses.
Crackdown on Religion in the Cultural Revolution
During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards did not discriminate against particular religions, they were against them all. They ripped crosses from church steeples, forced Catholic priests into labor camps, tortured Buddhist monks in Tibet and turned Muslim schools into pig slaughterhouses. Taoists, Buddhists and Confucians were singled out as vestiges of the Old China that need to be changed.
One Chinese man told Theroux about an effort by the Red Guard to tear down a cross from the largest church in Qindao: "The Red Guards held a meeting, and then they passed a motion to destroy the crosses. They marched to the church and climbed up to the roof. They pulled up bamboos and tied them into a scaffold. It took a few days —naturally they worked at night and they sang the Mao songs. When the crowd gathered they put up ladders and they climbed up and threw a rope around the Christian crosses and they pulled them down. It was very exciting!"
In Tibet the Red Guard turned thousand-year-old monasteries into factories and pigsties. "When the order went out, Smash the feudalistic nests of monks!," Paul Theroux wrote, "the soldiers, Red Guards and assorted vandals made chalk marks all over the monasteries—save these timbers, stack these beams, pike the bricks, and so forth. Brick by brick, timber by timber, the monasteries were taken down. The frugal, strong-saving, clothes-patching, shoe-mending Chinese saved each reusable brick. In this way the monasteries were made into barns and barracks.”
Religion in the Deng Era in China
“In 1978, a ban on religious teaching that dated from early in the revolution was lifted, and a few years later the rebuilding of the Gu Temple, and hundreds of others around China, got under way in earnest, aided by donations from people who had kept their faith in secret. No longer the target of punishing political campaigns, Master Deng has other worries: the designs of predatory local officials who see temples like his as cash cows or comfortable digs for their gambling parties. ‘A couple of months ago, some officials showed up and set up their mah-jongg tables right inside the temple,’ he says.” [Source: The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu, from book review by Howard W. French in The Nation, August 4, 2008]
They played that gambling game all day. Some ended up losing money. They walked into my room and wanted to get a loan from me. I did ‘lend’ some to them. You know they will never pay back.... The officials are so powerful, and can destroy you at a whim. The chief of the Religious Affairs Bureau shamelessly calls himself the parent of all gods.
Religion and the Chinese Government in Recent Years
In December 2004, the Chinese government announced new rules that guarantee religious beliefs as a human right. According to an article in The People’s Daily: “As China has more than 100 million people believing in religion, so the protection of religious freedom is important in safeguarding people’s interests and respecting and protecting human rights.” Some have their doubts as to whether this announcement means anything. A Finnish evangelist who has worked in China for a long time told Time, "There are two words that define China's attitude towards religious freedom: control and stability."
Land reform laws permit monasteries and temple to keep much of their land. Traditionally city monasteries and temples were required to engage in light industry and monks were required to produce a certain amount of crops on the land. If they didn’t they risked losing the land. Some of these rules have been relaxed.
In March 2005, religion was enshrined in China as a basic right of all citizens. Even so worship outside designated religion remains forbidden. The Chinese government has been criticized by the U.S. State Department for suppressing and denying religious freedom to Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighurs and members of Falun Gong.
In April 2006, a leader of China’s state-backed Christian church—the Rev. Cao Shengjie, president of the China Christian Council—said that believers were free to worship within limits, namely that they worship in private and “don’t have religious activities in public places because we don’t want to cause religious disharmony.”
Chinese President Hu Jintao seem to have given a tacit endorsement to religion by hosting a politburo study session on the expanded role pf religion in December 2007, and allowing religion to be discuused at the 17th Party Congress in October the same year. In January 2008, a photograph of Hu shaking hands with one of China’s main Christian leaders was featured prominently on the front page of the People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper. .
In a speech at the study session Hu said, “We must strive to closely unite religious figures and believers among the masses around the party and government and struggle together with them to build an all-around moderately prosperous society while quickening the pace towards the modernization of socialism.” The overall message seemed to be that religion is something that can be harnessed for economic and social progress but are nor necessarily things that should be pursed in themselves.
The phrase “parent of all gods” entered the news during the crisis in Tibet, when the ‘autonomous region's’ party secretary declared that the Communist Party was the “real Buddha” for Tibetans.
Religious Revival in China
Evangelical Christian gathering After Mao died, the government loosened up on religion. It stated it made a mistake persecuting monks and nuns during the Cultural Revolution and quietly abandoned many of its atheist positions. Under these circumstances, religion has experienced a rebirth. Buddhist, Taoism, and Muslim religious centers have reopened; lots lot of time and money has gone into building temples; and superstition and folk religion have crept back in people’s lives.
In Yulin, a city of about 1 million people in northern Shaanxi, 50 major temples, 500 medium-size temples and thousands of smaller temples have been built or repaired since Mao’s death in 1976. A school teacher there took it upon himself to rebuild a temple honoring a maiden who got pregnant by eating a peach and gave birth to five dragons—black, red, white, green and yellow—through her nostrils, mouth and ears.
Ancestor worship, Buddhism, Christianity and devotion to local gods has returned in a big way in southern Chinese. Ancestor worship halls have sprung up in Guandong; Buddhist monks advertise on television in Fujian; shaman and yingyang masters have set up enterprises in rural communities; and Bibles are being printed up by the millions.
On his experiences entering houses in Shanghai’s oldest neighborhoods, Howard French wrote: “I had not expected to find so much evidence of China’s thriving quasi-underground religious culture here. In house after house, I found people worshiping privately as Christians or Buddhists. Asked how she had come to the church, a woman who had been sent to the countryside as a youth in the Cultural Revolution told me she had been converted by her neighbors. Everyone in this building believes in Christ, she said.” [Source: Howard W. French, New York Times, August 28, 2009]
A poll by a Shanghai university in 2007 found that 31 percent of Chinese 16 or older are religious. Among those most interested in religion are China’s wealthier classes. Members of the Communist Party are still banned from belonging to a formal religion.
As the interest in religion has grown a multitude of quack healers, self-proclaimed prophets and spiritual masters have appeared. Scholars have compared the Chinese to passengers on a rudderless boat drifting a sea. Every time the wind shifts they look for new direction and easily manipulated because they feel have nothing to lose.
In many cases the government views the revival as a threat but can do little to stop it because the movement is so widespread. One Chinese sociologist told Newsday, “The resurgence of folk religions reflects the pursuit of folk symbols of authority and new ways of communicating. It represents the rise of a new kind of rural power and authority.” Perhaps the biggest obstacle that religion has to overcomes is money as it battles materialism for attention and the hearts and souls of many Chinese.
Reasons for Religious Revival in China
Religion addresses many questions that Communism doesn’t answer and there sometimes seem to be a need in China to address these questions. American sociologist William T. Liu told Time, "Chinese communism is a system of economic development, but there is no theology to explain what people should believe in.” Chinese that once believed in the Communist Party with religious zeal have lost faith partly as result of its widespread corruption and are looking to fill the void.
Many feel that China is experiencing a spiritual vacuum. Li Baiguang, a prominent lawyer and Chinese activist, told the Times of London, “Rising wealth means that more and more people have been able to meet their material needs, the need for food and clothing. Then they are finding that they need to satisfy their spiritual needs, to look for happiness for the soul. In addition, they are seeing a breakdown on the moral order as money tales over.”
Buddhism and Christianity have become especially popular with new believers who come fall all segments of society, rich and poor, urban and rural. On religion and materialism, Aloysius Jin Luxian, Shanghai’s 92-year-old bishop who spent 27 years in labor camps and prison, said, “Souls become ever more empty, which affords religion room to expand.”
Chinese President Hu Jintao has repeatedly said there is place for spirituality religion in modern Chinese society, in part to fill the void left by the collapse of Communist ideology. But rather than being more accepting of existing religions he has attempted to steer Chinese towards traditional Marxist values and traditionally Confucian beliefs about society.
Qin Shihuangdi, Mao and the Search for Spirituality and Meaning in Modern in China
Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, “As people search for happiness and freedom, spiritual traditions are flourishing, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism and folk religions, as well as Christianity and even Bahai. But according to Robert N. Bellah, one of the world’s foremost sociologists of religion and author of “Religion in Human Evolution, to establish true freedom through a society wide, ethical framework that is connected to Chinese traditions, the country first must break the tyrannical spell cast by Mao Zedong, who led the Communists to victory in the civil war in 1949 and ruled with an iron fist until his death in 1976. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times December 28, 2011]
Bellah notes the parallels between Mao and Qin Shihuangdi, a follower of the Legalist philosophy, which taught that only harsh punishments could keep people in line and provide effective government. The Qin emperor silenced criticism, burned books and buried scholars alive, while Mao, who admired the emperor, once boasted that he had caused the death of more scholars than Qin Shihuangdi. Qin Shihuangdi’s short-lived reign proved that tyranny doesn’t work, Mr. Bellah writes in “Religion in Human Evolution.” “Somehow a moral basis of rule was necessary after all,” he wrote. What, then, might China’s “moral basis” look like, as the country looks to the future as an increasingly important member of the world community? Mr. Bellah offered the traditional Chinese concepts of tian, or heaven; li, manners or rituals; and yi, justice, as some building blocks of morality.
Bellah, 84 in 2011, published “Religion in Human Evolution” in 2011. The book traces the roots of belief and ethics in human society and examines four cultures — Israel, Greece, China and India — from 800 B.C. to 200 B.C., when major world philosophies were formed. “Turning away from Legalism and Mao is going to be a challenge, because they haven’t worked their way through the Mao period,” said Mr. Bellah, a sociology professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. “His picture is still there, and they want to separate the good from the bad part of Mao Thought. Well, sorry, you can’t. You’ve got to break the spell,” said Mr. Bellah.
Mr. Bellah said he was deeply impressed by the forward-looking optimism and — relatively — free debate he saw in China among intellectuals and students. Yet people also seem to be morally adrift, with the “eviscerated” Marxism of the Communist Party failing to provide the framework for a functioning set of beliefs, Mr. Bellah said.
Chinese leaders, who are officially atheist, assume that they have a moral system in place already, he said. “The fact that Marx is taught at every level, from kindergarten to university, shows that they think they have a civil religion. The fact that to many Chinese it’s a joke and they don’t take it seriously shows they have a problem on their hands.”“I think China has to face the fact that Mao was a monster, one of the worst people in human history,” said Mr. Bellah.
He compared China’s situation today to that of Germany and Japan after World War II. “In a curious way, it’s like the war guilt of Germany or Japan. I think in Germany they’ve come to terms with it, whereas in Japan there’s almost a dramatic lack of any sense of responsibility,” said Mr. Bellah, who is also a Japan scholar. “There is so much self-pity in China about the Western powers and the 150 years of imperialism, and about the Japanese aggression” of World War II, said Mr. Bellah. “And it’s justified in a way.” “But God knows what Mao did can’t be blamed on the Westerners or the Japanese,” he said. “The Chinese have their own guilt, and it requires a complex symbolic, ideological and psychological change, and that’s hard.”
Why do morals matter? Because tyranny does not work. Qin Shihuangdi’s short-lived reign proved that, Mr. Bellah writes in “Religion in Human Evolution.” “Somehow a moral basis of rule was necessary after all,” he wrote. What, then, might China’s “moral basis” look like, as the country looks to the future as an increasingly important member of the world community? Mr. Bellah offered the traditional Chinese concepts of tian, or heaven; li, manners or rituals; and yi, justice, as some building blocks of morality.
The emphasis in his book on Chinese tradition as a contemporary guide was warmly welcomed in a recent essay in the state-run newspaper China Daily, in which the writer, Zhang Zhouxiang, argued, perhaps pointedly, that li justifies the ruler’s right to rule but that the ruler also has an obligation to treat his subjects well. “The ruled are asked to maintain order, but they also have the right to choose another ruler if the covenant is broken,” Mr. Zhang wrote.
Importantly, the Confucian tradition of individual self-improvement also provides “a moral resource, no question,” said Mr. Bellah. “In this way, China is deeply egalitarian. I think there are great moral resources in China for moving ahead in good directions, but you can’t predict these things,” he said, noting that the Communist Party relies on people’s fear of social chaos to justify its controls. “But there’s a certain point at which that argument isn’t enough,” he said. “You need something more substantial than that.” True ethical standards — in fact, a new civil religion — must develop “if China is to fulfill its ability to be one of the great powers of the 21st century,” Mr. Bellah said.
Are China’s Rulers Getting Religion?
Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books, “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.” [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, November 10 2011]
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.
Image Sources: 1) Inside Temple, photo Micheal Turton ; 2) joss sticks, beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/Evangelical gathering, Open Door com.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012