The Great Rebound

Back in December I was asked to write a short dispatch on Chinese religious belief for the just-released, all-China May issue of National Geographic. This is well-trod territory: even China Daily is willing to acknowledge the significant growth in Chinese religious believers over the last few years. But if the growth is acknowledged, the reasons for that growth are either left unexplored, or ascribed to materialist causes and left at that.

I’ve always felt that the situation is far more complex, and so – despite limited space – I decided to touch on the subject. To do it, I contacted Aloysius Jin Luxian, the 92-year-old Catholic bishop of Shanghai, and indisputably among the most learned religious leaders in China today (see my 2007 profile of Jin, here). Unfortunately, limited space prevented me from printing more than a brief sentence of Jin’s answer to the why question in National Geographic. But now that the dispatch has been published in the magazine (but not online), I can publish Jin’s complete answer on this blog. It is, readers will note, a distinctly Chinese perspective on this very important phenomenon, and one rarely – if ever – heard in the Western media. It is also quite relevant to current events:

Q. In your opinion, what accounts for the stunning growth in Chinese religious belief over the last three decades?

A. What is foremost certain is that, in China, more and more people have religious belief, and those numbers include Communist party members, even though the communist party clearly stipulates that no Communist Party member is allowed religious belief, otherwise he must withdraw from the party.

There are many and varied reasons.

The Chinese people were originally of religious belief, but under the time of Mao were suppressed. So, after reform and liberalization there began a rebound, and the more the suppression, the greater the rebound.

The religious belief of the Chinese people has a characteristic: that he may believe in a religion but will not expel other beliefs. That is to say, he may believe in two religions; he can believe in Daoism, while at the same time believing in Buddhism.

Modernization is secularization. Secularization more often than not is without religious belief. But in China this is not so, because since ancient times the belief of the Chinese people has always been otherworldly; the Chinese people always believe there is a transcendental spirit; this thought is ingrained.

Moreover, the Chinese people are profoundly influenced by the family.

Even though Confucius himself did not speak of spirit, but in his bones he did believe in spirit; his Confucian thought became Confucianism (or the religion of Confucius). Even though in the mid- 20th century there were persons wanting to strike down Confucius, in China Confucius could not be struck down, Confucianism had melded completely with religion. After reform and liberalization of course materialism and hedonism became the style, yet this did not eliminate the Chinese people’s belief in spirit.

Moreover, as materialism becomes more and more abundant persons souls become ever more empty, which affords religion room to expand.

In the 20th century Marxism had attracted Chinese intellectuals, with some persons believing it possible to build a heaven on earth without the need to be otherworldly; some thought to strike down God and recreate another god as substitute; the result is failure.

Intelligent Chinese people know that Marxism cannot supplant religion, that people need religion, and that on the contrary it is easy to accept religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, etc.

Of course, within the masses there are different trends, each adopting what he needs, also propagating some heresies/sects.

There’s much to consider here. For now, though, I only want to suggest that there’s much work and reporting to be done on the “otherworldly” and “transcendental” nature of Chinese culture. Many, if not most, reporters who touch on Chinese religious belief lead with an acknowledgment of China’s official atheist status but – somehow – totally ignore the spiritual, “otherwordly” (as Jin puts it) aspects of 2000 years of Confucian culture (ancestor veneration, above all), and the deeply superstitious (8-8-08) thread that runs through Chinese life. Just to be clear: superstition isn’t religion, but it’d be folly to deny links, especially as they lead to traditional animist beliefs.

[For the record: Credit for this very difficult, very subtle translation belongs to a very learned friend of this blog (you know who you are). I am responsible for adjusting some of the punctuation, and the emphasis in the third paragraph.]

14 thoughts on “The Great Rebound

  1. I was under the impression that one of the points to Jounrey to the West was to provide a basis for following Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. So this idea of being religious and still respecting more than one religious belief simulateously is an old one. I understand that most Koreans even the christian fundamentalists are still animists and confucianists. Buddhism fell out of favor in China and Korea partly because they had been taxed exempt and the monasteries accumulated a lot of wealth and become corrupt.

    Next time you see the Bishop please ask him what he things of all the Little Emperors and Empresses leading the current protests against the west who say they are atheist’s and only care about money?

    Also it seems the cult of Mao still has some hold over the CCP. That seems to contribute to the aversion to other spiritual leaders such as the Pope or the Dalai Lama.

    Thanks for the further information. Love the NG May issue, I wonder if there is anything in it that would upset Chinese sensisibilites of the Chinese the way that commentator from CNN has. I thought the NG May issue was a labor of love from a friend who likes China even with it’s warts and hopes for the best for the Chinese people and the world.

  2. You are like the only China blog on this Monday morning that isn’t talk about Tibet. What is wrong with you?

  3. J – I’ll have some book related news in the next month or two. But – it won’t be related to Chinese Catholicism. At some point, yes, I’d like to do an extended treatment of Chinese religion, but that’s probably a few years off.

    Keving – I wouldn’t read too much into that.

  4. I don’t see this is a rebound, but rather a surfacing. Vast majority of Chinese acknowledge the existence of an after live, in various shapes and forms, even if they don’t openly admit it. And most of these “acknowledgment” is based on a combination of Taoism (Not the study of Tao, but the religious branch), and nature worship, with health dose of Buddhism thrown in. The underground Christian and Catholic churches have always been strong. There are way more of the underground variety than the official variety, and much more active.

    When confessing to a “religious” believe became less prosecuted, people are just coming out of the closet and practise more openly. It also allowed more open and widespread communication on the subject.

  5. Larry –

    I’m going to have to disagree with you on a couple of points here. First, I do think rebound is more apt, if only because the population of believers is bigger now than it was before 1949 (given, so is China’s population). In 1980, for example, the Chinese gov’t estimated that there were 3 million Catholics; today, they estimate in excess of 12 million (and there are probably more). So, a rebound seems to be a better metaphor.

    Second, it’s important to be careful about claiming that the underground believers outnumber open believers (“official” is a misnomer). There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is the most simple: nobody knows. That is, there is simply no reliable polling on believers. But anecdotally, we know that underground communities tend to be largest in rural areas where the open religious communities lack the resources to set up congregations. In many cases, people are underground not out of choice, but necessity. At the same time, there is such significant overlap between underground and open religious communities that, at this point in time, the distinction is becoming much less meaningful.

  6. Funny how all almost all western comment I’ve seen on religion in China concentrates almost exclusively on Christianity. National Geographic has been especially guilty of that over the years. It makes about as much sense on reporting on religion in the US and only discussing Islam.

  7. Chris –

    Read carefully: this post and that NG article were about the growth of religion in China. Not about the growth of Christianity. The source material for the article is a Chinese academic study on the growth of religion in China. Not the growth of Christianity.

    True, I quote a Catholic bishop in the article and the post. But again, the bishop is discussing the growth of religion in China, not the growth of Christianity.

    In either case, academic studies, polls, and personal observation all agree that Christianity is the fastest growing faith in China. So, from the point of view of a journalist looking to explain the growth of religion in China over the last thirty years, it makes sense to start there.

  8. Actually, I came across this NG article based on a search on the current China issue of National Geographic (which I just read today). Ever since I’ve first started reading National Geographic (in the early 70s) I’ve noticed that whenever they had a China issue there was usually a little section about religion and it always focused on the Christian community (usually with a picture of Chinese Catholics worshiping – just like the one in this issue), even though that community makes up a small percentage of the Chinese population. My issue here is that you/they claim to be writing an article about religion in general and then concentrate almost exclusively on Christianity. If this was the first time this happened, maybe it could be excused but taken in the context of 30+ years of similar focus this looks to me like a clear case of religious and/or cultural chauvinism.

    Look at it another way, if every article written by the Arab media about “religion” (not Islam) in Europe focused almost entirely on Muslims (maybe they all do, it wouldn’t surprise me), then wouldn’t you feel that their “religious” analysis was somewhat biased?

  9. Chris – In my personal experience, National Geographic’s editors haven’t a drop of “religious and/or cultural chauvinism” in them.

    Glad you enjoyed the all-China issue, and thank you for stopping by.

  10. I suppose it’s a case of going with what you know then. If I ever want to find out anything about Taoism or non-Tibetan Buddhism in China I’ll just know to go somewhere else. Still, it reminds of the “world history” class they teach in my daughter’s school which the teacher told me is actually the history of western civilization. But I do love the NG photographs!

  11. Is there any chance you could post the original Chinese text of your interview with Mgr Jin?

  12. Or get your learned friend, the translator, to post it somehere? I’d love to read the original.

  13. Adam –

    I’m not sure, actually. I have it, but I believe that someone else might be holding it for its first Chinese-language publication. So let me check, and if I can do it, I’ll add it to the end of this post. If you don’t see anything by the end of the week, that means that I can’t do it.

    Thanks for reading!

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