If China is, as many Westerners once appeared to believe, a society in which religion is unimportant, how does one explain the enormous number of temples and shrines that dot its vast landscape? That was the question put by the great sociologist C. K. Yang at the beginning of his book Religion in Chinese Society (1961), which dealt primarily with pre-Communist China. Perhaps a better question is why so many Westerners once believed religion to be irrelevant in China. One answer is the common Western misunderstanding of nonexclusive religious groupings (it is not unusual in other parts of the world for people to adopt religious practices from more than one religious tradition). Another answer is that many intellectuals, from Voltaire on, preferred to believe in a great ancient civilization that owed nothing to the superstitions and dogmas of the West. Later, many proponents of the modernization theories developed in the middle of the twentieth century held that “traditional societies,” with their old cultures, old beliefs, and superstitions, would give way before the inevitable march of progress, secularism, and rationality. So too, after the victory of Communism in 1949, the theories of Marx and Lenin (to say nothing of Mao Zedong) left little room for religion.
In 2019 the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will celebrate its seventieth birthday, and will boast of the accomplishments of the enlightened leadership of the Communist Party—increasing prosperity, huge modern cities, high-speed rail networks, a strong military, advanced technologies, and so forth. Chairman Mao’s war on religion, culminating in the persecution of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), will once again be politely overlooked, and the officially atheist regime will simply await religion’s ineluctable extinction.
They may have a long time to wait. Not only are the old ashes of Chinese religion still glowing but, as Ian Johnson’s book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao explains, they appear to be bursting into flame once again. By the mid-1950s, the PRC recognized five official religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism (Jidu jiao, the religion of Jesus) and Catholicism (Tianzhu jiao, the religion of the Lord of Heaven). The divide between these last two may stem partly from earlier Christian missionary teachings in a pre-ecumenical age. It’s worth noting that of these five, only Taoism is genuinely indigenous, though after some early persecutions Buddhism eventually came to be accepted as Chinese. Thousands of Christian missionaries were expelled or imprisoned after 1949, and in 1951 the old Protestant sectarian divisions—Congregational, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.—were swept away, replaced by a new official unified Protestantism called the Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Catholicism was harder to domesticate for several reasons, chief of which was loyalty to the pope, a foreign leader and thus highly suspect in the eyes of a regime seeking to cast off the shackles of imperialism. Not until 1957 did the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) appear as the “official” Catholic Church. Both the CCPA and the TSPM were firmly under Beijing’s leadership. But large numbers of believers, seeing these official churches as puppets of the regime, stayed away, coalescing into unofficial groups generally known as underground, unregistered, or house churches.
Soon the Cultural Revolution ended even this limited toleration. But in the late 1970s, religion began to reappear under the watchful eye of the state, as Deng Xiaoping’s regime sought to clear away some of the wreckage left by Mao. The results have been uneven: while Buddhism and Daoism are growing once more, Catholicism is barely holding its own; in fact, it may be slightly declining. In 1949, there were roughly 3 million Catholics in China, and this year roughly 10 million—just keeping pace with China’s population growth over those seven decades. Protestantism, by contrast, has grown from about 1 million in 1949 to about 60 million. Thus, as Ian Johnson points out, of the five official religions Catholicism is today the weakest and least consequential, even though the last three popes, and especially Francis, have made clear their wish to reopen relations with China.
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