The Curiosity of Christianity

From the Archives, 1983: Religious Faith in Communist China, II
This story is included in these collections
A girl reads a Bible during Mass in the state-approved Xuanwumen Catholic Church in Bejing, China (CNS photo/How Hwee Young, EPA).

In our second morning in the People's Republic of China, we met with a representative of the Foreign Experts Bureau, the Chinese office in charge of hiring foreign teachers This official told my wife and me that our application had nearly been rejected because I was a graduate of Yale Divinity School and made it very clear that anything remotely like missionary activity would be extremely unwelcome. "So much for that topic," we thought. Just as we had assumed, the subject of religion would simply not come up in China.

But we were wrong. The single question most often asked by our Chinese students and fellow professors during our year with them in Zhengzhou was, "Why are there millions of people in the United States who still believe in God?" The Chinese view of religion has been formed by centuries of what we, and now they, call "superstition." The puristic and beautiful Taoism of Lao Tzu, recently popular in the West, long ago deteriorated into a welter of shamanistic practices which inundated every aspect of life. Buddhism, which arrived in China in the first century, was contaminated by these practices and, though popular among the common people, was never adopted by the learned elite. Educated people were Confucians, and the feudal and hierarchic nature of Confucianism as practiced prevented promotion on the basis of merit and encouraged corruption. The chance blending of these three religions produced a hodgepodge of beliefs and practices which varied from place to place, household to household. Worship was more an act of fear than of reverence or hope of sustenance. Maxine Hong Kingston's books, Woman Warrior and China Men, give some idea of the effect of Chinese religion on human relationships, and the picture she draws is terrifying. It is certain that the old ways abused women disgracefully and that progress could not have come without eliminating those abuses as well as many others. All direct evidence the Chinese have supports their view that religion is superstitious, backward behavior.

This is strongly reflected in their reactions during religious discussions of any kind. When we tried to tell some Bible story necessary for the understanding of a textual allusion, the class would be in an uproar of hilarity. When a student told about lighting a candle in a church or visiting a shrine, he would be sure to tell it comically so that everyone knew he had only done it as a joke. The other students would giggle, poke each other, and act embarrassed, exactly like American children telling potty jokes. No other topic, even sex in America, about which they were intensely curious, elicited just this kind of response. Religion was shameful, dirty, and yet blissfully intriguing. Most of all, however, it was unprogressive. "If you just mention religion," a student wrote, "you admit being uneducated." 

Chinese religion is therefore strictly for illiterate peasants, and our students had no interest in it. They were amazed that we had read Lao Tzu. They disagreed about how much religion there is in the countryside today. Some claimed that Buddhism was being reborn on the communes, while others said the peasants today get to work and solve their problems instead of burning joss sticks. Everyone agreed, however, that city people were immune to the old religion and its ways. This did not apply to Christianity, an urban religion to the Chinese, somehow different from the others. The "young rascals" of Chinese cities, who ride their bicycles too fast, wear dark glasses and open-throated, unbuttoned shirts, often wear fake-gold crucifixes as a symbol of their small rebellion.

The official line is of course that religion is the opiate of the people, but it seems to have become possible to disagree with this. One student wrote that religion had nothing to do with politics -- though he went on to say that it could help someone become indifferent to the unfairness of society. But even if religion could be severed from ideology, its negative connection to science is unbreakable. The Marxist line is that men shall become the masters of nature and society through science. Therefore, sometime in the future, religion will evaporate because it will be irrelevant to men's needs. Inevitably, thinks the well-indoctrinated Chinese, this will happen in America, too. But this line fails to explain how America became technologically advanced. 

From the Chinese point of view, the United States is "living under a contradiction," and, they have been taught, progress requires a totally rational society. Religious beliefs are sure signs of backward unprogressive cultures. Religion impedes modernization. (This concept is so strong that our Chinese friends at first told us that they had no customs about such things as shaking hands, table manners, seating precedence, birthdays, weddings, and so on, fearing we would think them backward and irrational.)

When answering the why-are-Americans-religious? question, I began by saying that religion and science are in different realms and ask different questions. "But science has disproved God," i would be told. No one knew what was meant by this since no one had ever given them an argument to back up the bare statement. It was a scientific fact, and the Chinese accepted it much as we accept the fact that scientists can recombine DNA. I usually claimed there was a cow somewhere in the world that spoke French. Most people saw the impossibility of disproving this, but not all would agree to generalize to the impossibility of proving God's nonexistence. 

Ideology plays a strong role in this particular reluctance to generalize, for it is risky to entertain the thought that God might exist. During the Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976 as the Chinese date it, persecution of religion was widespread and brutal, though it is not certain that the government ever intended this. However, once it began, anyone who discouraged it was sure to be labeled a rightist and persecuted himself, so it continued. Churches, mosques, temples, and monasteries were fair game for vandals, looters, and revolutionaries intent on destroying every vestige of the old culture. Worshipers of all persuasions were stripped of their jobs and sent to the countryside in menial capacities; many died under the harsh conditions, some committed suicide, some were killed outright. This has stopped completely, but has not been forgotten. 

Still, a Christian cannot become a party member or, if converted, remain in the party. This no doubt discourages some who would like to join the three percent of Chinese who make decisions, but it discourages far more who realize that becoming a Christian will make life very uncomfortable for them. The practice of religion, the government says, is free, and this seems to be true. The catch is that proselytizing and teaching are forbidden. Most Taoist monasteries are down to their last three or four old monks. The Hue (Muslim) minority in our area held no services we knew of, and Hue students told us their only connection to religion was a refusal to eat pork. (One wonders if prohibitions are the most resistant to change.) There was a Christian church in Zhengzhou, our city, the capital of Henan Province, but its congregation was small and not growing. Christians we knew were afraid to attend services since the official climate might change at any time. 

The government is now carrying on a quiet campaign to encourage people to develop a "philosophy of life." This has caused considerable confusion, for no one knows exactly what this means or what the government wants. Everyone realizes that service to the Chinese state, party, and people will have to form part of his philosophy, but what else might one include? A few students who had heard the word "existentialism" stopped by to ask us about it. Cautious religious questions increased. Everyone felt obligated to come up with a philosphy of life but feared party disapproval because there had been no statement admitting that Marxism as a total way of living and thinking had been found insufficient. Why anything new?

Accustomed to being spoon-fed their philosophy in weekly political meetings, the Chinese were understandably afraid and nonplussed when asked to cook their own. It seems likely that Peking wants to get people thinking again. Most people are cynical about politics and don't want to discuss or think about ideology. The upheavals of the Cultural Revolution were so terrible that the average Chinese has been able to think of nothing but bare survival. Eventually, the party will propagate a Marxist philosophy of life which will be accepted, at least on the surface, by everyone. In the meantime, many Chinese are thinking about something other than the next meal and trying to fit their lives into a wider and more meaningful context. Unfortunately, they lack the knowledge needed to get very far in the process. 

With teaching forbidden and religious books very scarce, it is not surprising that next to nothing is known about Christianity. A student paper said, "There are two kinds of people in America: Christians and Catholics." Conversely, we were sometimes asked, "Are you Protestants or Christians?" Understandably, distinctions are not important when the basic question is God's existence. It is surprising, however, that next to nothing is known about science, either. Though we kept telling ourselves that we were teaching English students and professors, not scientists, and that we were in a province where education had never been good, we were still astonished at how few people could outline a theory of the origin of the universe or of evolution. Mere phrases were accepted in place of facts and theories. 

The Chinese Communist notion of explanation seems to be conditioned by sloganeering. By our standards, it is woefully inadequate. Giving something a name is often accepted as a full explanation. "Feudalism" is blamed for almost anything that goes wrong; both government and ordinary people throw this word around with such abandon that it's impossible to find out what it means and what the cause of a given injustice is thought to be. "Leftist influences," the newspaper said, caused the recent floods in Szechuan Province. I asked a professor who was complaining of being tired why he couldn't sleep the night before. "I had insomnia," he answered immediately. Students and professors alike constantly attempted to persuade me to accept or promulgate one-phrase formulations of the themes of complex stories. For those few who had heard of the Big Bang, "There was a Big Bang" explained creation. They know nothing more about the theory and cared less. They readily admitted that, as far as they knew, science could not say where the stuff of the universe had come from and, after long discussions, they usually agreed that this was not the kind of question science was likely to be able to answer. They also saw that science could never answer the common, human "why" questions, and they found this more than a little disturbing. 

"Labor makes man," a quote from Engels, constituted their knowledge of evolution. The idea of the survival of the fittest was known by some, but no one understood that the fittest produced more offspring, making survival a long-term affair rather than the outcome of a bloody battle between species. Natural selection and mutation were new concepts. The newest idea, however, was that the Genesis story did not have to be taken literally, and this was difficult to grasp, for the modern Chinese are definitely literalists. 

Let me give an example from literature. A class of young teachers, who had been convinced at last (I thought) that fiction was not true in the ordinary sense, read John Collier's short-short story, "The Chaser." A young man goes to an old man's shop to buy a love-potion. The old man describes his potion's wonder-working power, says its price is five dollars, and adds that he has a fantastic, untraceable poison which sells for a thousand dollars and which many love-potion purchasers return to buy. The young man ignores this. The old man explains how the beloved will want to be with him every minute, know his every thought, be told about his dreams, never take her eyes off him, etc., then mentions the poison again. The young man, oblivious to the warning, buys the potion. The story ends with the old man saying, "Au revoir." When asked to state the theme of this tale, one woman wrote, "A too-possessive love might not be good," but the other ten people in the class played a variation on the theme, "It is easy for old people to cheat young people out of their money." 

Since love-potions do not exist, the young man has been cheated and the story has no more to say. And if God did not create man on the sixth day, the Bible has nothing to tell us about God's lordship of life. Fictions not true in the literal sense cannot be true in any sense. Literalism seems to be a corollary of unsophisticated Marxism. Symbolism and metaphor are seen as cousins of idealism, which is, of course, anathema. The propaganda machine trains people badly, but it does train them to think in terms of dichotomies -- the simpler, the better: good/evil, fiction/reality, materialism/idealism, leftist/rightist, backward/progressive. This way of thinking makes it difficult for the Chinese to detect meaning in texts and, more seriously, hinders them in dealing with both ambiguity and ambivalence -- not only in texts, but also in their personal lives. 

Strangely enough, however, once we had discussed a text enough for the theme to emerge, especially if it was a simple text like "The Chaser," everyone saw and understood it with adequate quickness. But making the leap from story to possible meanings in reality was simply too difficult for all but an extremely small number of students. It required thinking for oneself, something the educational system, based entirely on rote learning, profoundly discourages. 

Nevertheless, some Chinese are thinking for themselves, and, as their continual questioning showed, they are perceiving a contradiction in their own thinking. Europe and America, model advanced societies, are Christian, and the only way to eliminate the contradiction inherent in that statement is to assume that Christianity might be a different, unbackward religion. Ironically, years of anti-religious propaganda coupled with the drive to modernize have together created a great deal of interest in Christianity, far more than. in any other religion. Interest and curiosity do not, needless to say, add up to belief. Whether anything will come of all this interest—will be allowed to come—is another question entirely, one which I would have to answer gloomily even though the philosophy of life campaign, if more than temporary, makes me pause. But it is certain that many people in Communist China today are beginning to wonder if Christianity might just possibly be true. 

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