Coming to terms with religion

February 10, 2014 by Ting Guo

A fascinating article published by Reuters in December reported that President Xi Jinping hopes that “traditional faiths – Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism – can fill the moral void in China”. Some commentators have argued that this was a tacit acknowledgement by President Xi that China has somehow lost its moral compass due to past political events and that this represents the beginning of a new era in which the Party leadership will become more tolerant toward religions.

Others are less optimistic and argue it is a cynical move to try to curb rising social unrest and perpetuate one-party rule. If the state cannot satisfy the basic demands for jobs and better social conditions, the argument goes, then people can find solace in religion, rather than take it out on the Party. In spite of the varied opinions in response to Xi’s remark, his comments are worth examining. It is not often that a senior figure in the leadership makes comments about religion.

Religious policy has always been a sensitive issue in the officially atheistic People’s Republic of China, where official doctrine castigated religion as the “opium of the people”. The prominence now being given to discussion about religion within China appears to be partly a result of rapid growth in religious activity – as well as representing an identifiable pattern from Chinese history.

Historically, China has always been a religious country. In the most ancient times there were a great variety of tribal and animistic religious practices in which prayers, sacrifices or offerings were communicated to the spiritual world by shamans. Later, during the Han Dynasty Buddhism arrived from India whilst Zoroastrianism arrived from Persia around 500CE. Nestorianism from Syria and Islam from Arabia arrived in the seventh century, and much later Christian missionaries travelled to China – most notably Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610).

These external religions competed with or were co-opted by specifically Chinese religions, including Taoism and Confucianism, both of which have strong roots in Chinese philosophy and history.

When the Communist Party came into power in 1949, religious organisations were initially tolerated. But during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), religion became one of the principal targets of the Red Guards, resulting in the wanton destruction of thousands of religious buildings and priceless religious artefacts.

In reaction to these desecrations, the social reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping and embodied in the 1978 Constitution guarantee “freedom of religion” in Article 36, which states that “no state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens because they do, or do not believe in religion. The state protects normal religious activities… nobody can make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.”

However, religions were not given carte-blanche. Instead, the government established five state-sanctioned religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. The rest remained beyond the pale.

After Deng’s reform, there was a major religious revival. By the turn of the twenty-first century, official reports claimed 200m religious believers (a sixth of the population of 1.2bn) regularly worshipped in 85,000 authorized venues. Even this is likely to be an under-estimate.

Figures are notoriously unreliable and highly political, but we can make some rough guesses. Taoism and the various forms of Chinese folk religions and ancestor worship are the most numerous, with around half the population admitting to some form of worship.  Buddhists are next, with more than 300m adherents, 32,000 nuns and monks, and about 16,000 temples and monasteries nationwide. In Tibet and western Sichuan province, Tibetan Buddhism remains dominant, whereas in Xinjiang and Ningxia provinces it is Islam, with a total of around 23m Muslims and 35,000 mosques, many of them funded by Saudi Arabia.

Amongst Christians, there are thought to be around 30m Protestants and about 3m Catholics, served by 20,000 officially authorized clergy and more than 35,000 registered churches and meeting points.

China’s system of regulating religion and registering religious followers means that it controls the definition of what constitutes a religion. So despite the blossoming religious scene, many unregistered religious groups have been condemned by the government as deviant. These groups and sects regularly emerge in the rural hinterland of China with charismatic leaders claiming to be a saviour, or to revive Chinese medicine and conduct healing rituals.

These groups include Yiguandao, Eastern Lightning, Yaochidao and De. And in Taiwan there is Zailiism. The Falun Gong sect, most notably, attracts tens of millions of practitioners, yet it is unregistered and since 1999 has been subjected to a nationwide, government-sponsored campaign to wipe it out. Despite this, Falun Gong continues to flourish in secret and amongst Chinese communities overseas.

The conflict with the Falun Gong movement highlights the church-state tension within China. But is state control over religious matters really a modern invention by the atheistic CCP? Looking back at Chinese history, when Confucianism became the official ideology of Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), there were similar struggles between church and state.

As Oxford sinologist Prof. Barend ter Haar points out, folk religions were seen as containing the potential of harming the imperial central regime, therefore religions were feared, their followers cast out and prosecuted. In recent times, Falun Gong can be seen as one example which also shows the framing of a stereotype and the central government’s control over all matters ideological.

Therefore the recent speech of President Xi Jinping can be seen as a reinforcement of Chinese state heritage, to control matters of belief in order to sanction the growth and diversity of individuality. Any suspicion of disorder could trigger large-scale persecution and result in confiscations, banishments and executions. By applying a sense of belonging in state-sanctioned communities and religious institutions, the state seeks to secure its far-reaching control.

In addition to central government’s control, the complexity of religious matters in China also lies in the political, social and economic infrastructure of a fast-growing society and the complexity of social classes. For example, Christians in China nowadays – both Catholics and Protestants – are no longer under pressure to renounce their religion (though they still cannot join the Chinese Communist Party without doing so), but within and beyond the country, they are quite often misunderstood by their own people as well as by “foreigners”.

For example, it has been widely noticed that Christianity in China – particularly rural China – has been highly localised in terms of church architecture, the liturgy and many other aspects of worship and religious practice. However, it should also be noted that many non-local forces are at work, connecting Chinese Christianity to the wider world of Christian communication. Catholicism, for example, retains its essential nature beneath its localised images and diversities in China today, which certainly pronounces issues regarding the “global” and “local” aspects of world religions.

The same issue has also affected Islam in China, with a long-standing debate over the Chinese-ness of Islam. Is Islam merely an external religion grafted onto the Chinese culture or is it intrinsically Chinese?

As for Protestantism, the attempts to regulate that form of Christianity have in many cases led to the growth of ‘House churches’, formed initially during the period of the Cultural Revolution when even the supine, officially sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) was banned. The TSPM remains the only state-sanctioned protestant church, but it is a matter of conjecture as to whether or not its drive to find a specifically Chinese form of Christianity can stem the growth of house churches driven by the tide of people looking for real religious freedom.

As many religious organisations, including Falun Gong and house churches, are closely interrelated to Chinese communities from abroad, the political and socio-geographic complexity of contemporary China also highlights the transnational relations of religious communities and issues of belonging in Asia-Pacific and beyond. Whether it likes it or not, religion in China continues to be dominated by the same old – and unresolved – questions of central state ideology and what constitutes a specifically Chinese form of worship.

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