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.]