Mao, Meet Confucius: China’s Religious Revolution

In the fall of 2009 I visited eight cities in China. I discussed Marxist understanding of religion, homosexuality, the persistence of popular religiosity, freedom of research, and approaches to the study of religion with Chinese colleagues in a carefree and open atmosphere. The Chinese colleagues followed closely what was happening outside and asked me about the schism within the Anglican Communion over the issue of homosexuality.

I found many new books on religion by Chinese scholars and translations of Western religious texts selling in local bookstores. I offered lectures on feminist theology in top universities and a Protestant seminary. Religion was no longer a taboo subject. Students at a Shanghai university, mostly non-Christian, saw the poster about my lecture and came to listen out of curiosity. 

These kinds of exchanges would have been unimaginable twenty years ago.

Confucius Faces Mao

In another marker of the new, more pluralistic religious landscape in China, President Hu Jintao will visit a Confucius Institute in Chicago on January 21, 2011, after his meeting with President Barack Obama and a state dinner at the White House.

After a stringent purging of Confucian teachings during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Confucius has been rehabilitated by the government. Books and TV programs about Confucian teachings have become hugely popular, making some authors millionaires. And less than a week before President Hu’s state visit, a new eight-meter bronze statue of Confucius was put in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in front of the National Museum of China—directly opposite Mao’s portrait. 

In addition to the revival of the Confucian tradition, Christianity and Buddhism enjoy phenomenal growth. Throughout China, churches burst to the beams and one has to arrive early in order to get a seat. Chong Yi Church in Hangzhou, one of the largest churches in China, seats about 5,000 and easily fills to capacity on Sundays.  

As membership of mainline denominations in the U.S. continues to decline, many Westerners marvel at the rate of growth of Chinese Christianity. In 1949 there were about 700,000 Chinese Protestants; today the number is estimated to be 50-80 million, if one includes members of house churches. Adding 8-12 million Catholics, China will soon become home to the largest Christian population on the globe. 

How did this Religious Renaissance Come About?

Many new Buddhist temples have been built in recent years. Devout Chinese Buddhists go to temples to burn incense and make offerings. Famous temples associated with martial arts, such as Shaolin and Wudang, have become major tourist attractions. New religious movements, such as Qigong and mind-body-spirit movements, have huge following. 

Chinese scholar Qiu Feng has called this religious renaissance the greatest social movement in China in the last thirty years; it has been attributed to many factors—the spiritual vacuum left by the loss of faith in Marxist ideology, increased materialism and consumerism, the strength and vitality of Chinese popular religion, and a certain degree of relaxation of Chinese religious policy.  

Religious revival contributes to the expansion of civil society in China. For a society in which the state exerts so much influence in politics and the business sector, this has important consequences. In the West, civil society is often construed as antagonistic to the state. This conception, however, is not quite applicable to the Chinese case. Sociologist Fenggang Yang of Purdue University, who has followed religious change in China very closely, suggests a more dynamic model. He writes, “The state can be constructively involved in the creation and growth of civil society. Meanwhile, the state also restrains civil society.” 

Top scholars of religion inside China have been pushing for less government control over religion for years. In a report in 2009, Zhuo Xinping, Director of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, advised the state to phase out from the religious sphere to allow for greater social participation and cultural renewal. He said the government should be tolerant of different forms of existence of religion in China: traditional religions, new religious movements, and the hybrid movements in between. 

Religion and State Power

Other scholars argue that religion is not a reactionary force, but is beneficial to China’s rise to power. Several months before the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2009, Liu Peng argued that spiritual vacuum is the weakest link of China’s meteoric rise. A senior research fellow at the Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Liu says religion can provide civic and moral education to ease rampant social problems and spiritual dis-ease. He urges the government to adopt more liberal policies toward religion.  

State and religion in China are not always on a collision course, as often reported by Western media. The government recognized the contribution of relief work done by the Taiwanese Buddhist Compassion Relief Ciji Foundation and allowed it to establish a branch in China in 2008. Established by the nun Zhengyan, Ciji Foundation has worked in China since 1990 to help victims of natural disasters.  

Chinese churches and seminaries respond to the government’s call to build a harmonious society in a country torn by decades of class struggle and a growing gap between the rich and the poor, and between urban cities and countryside. A year after the government adopted the ideal of constructing a socialist harmonious society, the faculties of the Chinese Protestant seminaries gathered at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary to discuss how Christianity could contribute to this effort.  

Of course, the state also regulates and is highly suspicious of certain religious activities. The riots in Tibet and Xinjiang showed the anger and unrest of ethnic and religious minorities. The government continues to be concerned over foreign influences and “religious infusion” from the outside; especially increased activities of Korean missionaries in China. Beijing’s relation with the Vatican remains tenuous.  

In his controversial book, China’s Best Actor Wen Jiabao, China’s most famous Christian author and dissident Yu Jie mocks the popular Chinese Premier as paternalistic and a “puppet” for the hard-nosed Chinese Communist Party. His books have been banned in China since 2004. Yu converted to Christianity after he was disillusioned by the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, and had openly criticized the suppression of religious freedom in China; especially regarding the rights of Christians to meet in house churches.  

The story of religion in China is a dynamic, shifting narrative, and one that deserves all the attention we can muster.