China: Religionís Return

By GOH SUI NOI, The Straits Times/AsiaNews, Jan 12, 2008

More Chinese people are seeking spiritual sustenance as society has grown more complex and impersonal

Beijing, China -- Arrianna Liu, 30, feels more at ease now saying grace before a meal in a restaurant in China than she did before. It is not just that the government appears to have loosened the reins on religion.

People are also generally more tolerant than they were before of religious practices, including those of a foreign religion like Christianity.

“A few years ago, I would worry about how others saw me. But now, yes, there is curiosity but no judgment,” said the Beijing-based Liu, who works for a non-governmental organisation.

Indeed, in the 30 years since her birth in 1978—the very same year that China embarked on economic reforms and opened its doors to the world—Chinese society has undergone tremendous changes that have led to a burgeoning of religious believers.

A government-sponsored survey last year found that 300 million Chinese, or 31.4% of the country’s adult population, considered themselves religious believers, much larger than the government estimate of around 100 million.

Two-thirds of the believers are Buddhists, Taoists or devotees of traditional deities such as the Dragon King or God of Fortune. The survey estimated that 12% of all believers—or 40 million—were Christians, up from 16 million in 2005. That makes Christianity one of the fastest-growing religions in China. Some foreign estimates put the estimated number of Christians even higher, from 50 to 70 million. Many attend independent, unregistered house churches.
"Only when a society has prospered and developed can it have the strength to tolerate different kinds of thinking…"

The government recognises five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Buddhism, with an estimated 100 million believers, is the largest. There are around 20 million Muslims, many of whom are from minority ethnic groups such as the Uighurs.

Philosophy professor Liu Zhongyu attributed the spike in religious believers to the religious freedom the Chinese people have enjoyed over the past 30 years and the social problems they faced at a time of rapid change.

Traditionally, the Chinese state, while tolerating various religions, suppressed or controlled organised religious groups to prevent challenges to the Confucian order. As a result, religions in China tended to have weak institutional structures. When the communists came to power in 1949, religion was discouraged and then banned altogether during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.

After Deng Xiaoping launched economic reforms in 1978, the government began to loosen its control over various aspects of social life, including religion, in order to facilitate the reforms. In 1982, an edict on religious freedom was passed that acknowledged that religion would exist for a long time before eventually fading away. Freedom of religious belief was granted on condition that believers also love their country, support the rule of the Chinese Communist Party and observe the socialist law—in other words, place the state and the party before religion.

The government also sought to restrict religious practices by allowing only five religions to exist and granting legal status only to churches, temples and mosques supervised by government-sanctioned religious organisations. In 2005, new regulations on religious affairs were passed allowing religious organisations to possess property, publish literature, train and approve clergy and collect donations as long as they registered with the state.

The government’s decision to allow for greater—if not full—religious freedom is seen by observers as both the result of its growing confidence and a response to society’s demand for room to practise religion.

Certainly, Chinese society has undergone great transformation as a result of three decades of reforms. The reforms have increased social and geographical mobility. They have taken the state out of social life so people now have greater freedom to choose where they want to work and live, and whom they want to associate with. But such freedom also comes with insecurities, for the state no longer looks after people from cradle to grave, as it claimed to do during the Maoist era.

Liu, in an interview with the China Daily newspaper, noted: “More Chinese feel unstable and harassed by the rootless lives they live now.”

He told the Oriental Outlook magazine that standards of morality were declining and that “people don’t trust each other any more. They are looking for something to anchor their lives to”, including religion. Other analysts have noted that being part of a religious group, such as a house church, affords believers a social network they can trust.

Looking at it from a different perspective, particularly with regard to Buddhism, is Master Xuecheng, vice-president of the Buddhist Association of China, and abbot of four monasteries including the Longquan monastery in Beijing. He argued that once people have satisfied their basic needs and wants such as housing and food, they would have more spiritual demands.

He added: “Only when a society has prospered and developed can it have the strength to tolerate different kinds of thinking…Only after a society has prospered to a certain level can it have considerable numbers of people with relatively high standards of knowledge and, therefore, the qualification to devote themselves to the study of Buddhist scriptures.”

He cited as evidence the fact that Buddhism flourished during ancient China’s golden age, the Tang Dynasty, particularly in the region of Chang’an (present-day Xian), at the Chinese end of the Silk Road.

Liu, who has also explored Buddhism, finds Buddhist scriptures too difficult to grasp. They run into thousands of volumes compared with the one-volume Bible for Christians and the Koran for Muslims.

Besides, Buddhism “requires you to give up a lot in life”, said Liu, adding that she found this hard to accept. Buddhists strive ultimately to chushi, withdraw from the world, she argued.

Some Chinese scholars like professor Kang Xiaoguang of Renmin University do not think that Christianity will have significant success in China. But the reality is that it is growing at a tremendous pace and attracting many young people.

Kang, who advocates Confucianism as the basis for governance in China, held that those who are less mature, follow fashion slavishly and who worship things Western turn to Christianity, while more mature, knowledgeable Chinese tend to be followers of Buddhism. Christianity is popular among young people, Prof Kang noted, who are liberal-minded, pro-America, anti-establishment and Internet-savvy, and who live in big and medium-sized cities.

Master Xuecheng pointed out that Buddhism, a foreign religion, became rooted in Chinese society after it was localised, adopting the vocabulary of indigenous Chinese thought systems, such as Confucianism and Taoism, and developing its own Chinese canon. He added that Islam and Christianity face the same problem of localisation.

However, he noted that Buddhist groups had adopted some Christian methods of spreading the religion, such as through charity work. They are also using modern tools: His Longquan monastery, for example, has a Chinese and an English website managed by volunteer devotees.

A survey of cultural nationalism among Chinese, done by Prof Kang last year, found that 33.5% of respondents thought Buddhism was the greatest of all religions or cultural traditions, 14.9% said that of Confucianism, and 8.6% of Christianity, including Catholicism.

Taoism, China’s only indigenous religion, came in fourth with just 3%.

Although Taoism appears marginalised in Chinese society today, it is very much a part of Chinese life. Master Xuecheng pointed out that the basic principles of traditional Chinese medicine and the ideas of yin and yang and the five elements all have their origins in Taoism.

One might add feng shui, the basic principle of which is to live in harmony with the natural environment.

Analysts are optimistic about the growth of religion in China so long as the government sees its usefulness in helping to maintain a stable society. The government’s support for Chinese cultural traditions and indigenous or indigenised religions can be seen in its participation in the first World Buddhist Forum held in China in 2006 and in annual ceremonies to commemorate Confucius and the legendary Yellow Emperor from whom the Chinese are supposed to have descended. As for Christianity, it has adopted a policy of monitoring and controlling but not suppressing it, said Kang.

It remains to be seen whether Christianity will take root in China—and if it does, to what extent and in what form? Will it become a pillar of Chinese society together with Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism? It is difficult to tell at the moment, but Christianity’s growth in China is one of unintended consequences of the reforms Deng Xiaoping launched 30 years ago this week.