From left: Folk temple of Chenghuangmiao in Shanghai (Martin Kalfatovic, 2016, cropped/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Daoist monk at Temple of White Clouds, Beijing (Bjoern, 2002, cropped/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); and Protestant church in Qingdao (Felibrilu, 2006, cropped/ CC BY-NC 2.0). All images cour

China's search for faith and values

A century-long period of attacks against religion has given way to burgeoning religious activity in China, said writer-journalist Ian Johnson at a recent event cosponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies and the UCLA School of Law.

“The effort to revive these traditions is often extremely touching; when people realize how much has been lost, it's harder to go back and have a link. But there is this idea that it has to be transmitted to the next generation, or these tracts and these other traditions will be lost."

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, April 11, 2018 — China is experiencing an upsurge in religious participation for the first time in almost a century, said Ian Johnson at a recent talk at UCLA. This trend is proceeding with the support of the Chinese government and its leader, Xi Jiping.

“Xi is supporting religion more than any other Chinese leader, I would say, in the past 100 years,” said Johnson. “And I think this is part of his recognition that there is a kind of moral malaise, a lack of social trust — it's constantly talked about in China…. I think Xi has addressed this in his anti-corruption campaign, which has been very popular, and also in his support for traditions, traditional values and traditional religions,” he continued.

Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize–winning correspondent for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times and other publications, as well as associate editor of The Journal of Asian Studies. He spoke about his most recent book, “The Souls of China: the Return of Religion after Mao” (Pantheon, 2017), on March 19, 2018, at an event cosponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies (CCS) and the UCLA School of Law. The event was structured as a conversation between Johnson, Assistant Professor of Law Alex Wang and Professor of Anthropology and CCS Director Yunxiang Yan.

Historical perspective

The critique of religion in China, noted Johnson, “goes back to a deeper cultural malaise in the late 19th century in the wake of the Opium War, [and a feeling] that there was something deeply problematic with Chinese tradition and culture in general.” Unlike India, where religion became part of the anticolonial struggle, religion in China of the late 1800s was viewed “as a social ill as analogous to illiteracy or foot binding or concubinage — these kind were seen as things from ‘the old society,’” he said.

“The vast majority of Chinese religious life was not neatly defined as Buddhist or Daoist, the vast majority was an amalgam of these two — and folk religion,” said the speaker. “This, I think, caused most religious life in China to be categorized as ‘superstitious,’ a term that was picked up by the Communists and used to attack religion all the way up until about 15 years ago. Now,” he reflected, “you normally don't hear that term anymore.”

The backlash against religion that began in the 19th-century and continued under the Communist regime has resulted in a stark disjuncture in the country’s spiritual traditions. “The effort to revive these traditions is often extremely touching; when people realize how much has been lost, it’s harder to go back and have a link,” he observed. “But there is this idea that it has to be transmitted to the next generation, or these tracts and these other traditions will be lost. And so many of these things are lost, or basically lost,” he added.

"Document 19" and the revival of religious life

Johnson noted that Chinese leader Xi speaks in terms of 30-year cycles under communist rule. During the first 30 years, religion came under heavy attack, particularly during the Cultural Revolution and all mosques, temples and churches were closed, he said.

Roughly 30 years later, the Chinese Communist Party issued “Document 19,” which permitted the practice of five officially sanctioned religions: Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. Under Xi, “folk religions” are also tolerated as part of the government’s support for “intangible cultural heritage.” As a result, seminaries, churches and temples have been re-opened and/or with time, restored.

Johnson claimed that Document 19, issued when Xi Jiping’s father was head of religious policy for the Communist Party, shed light on the mentality of Party officials. In his view, the document more or less says, “During the first 30 years, we used brute strength and attacks to shut down religion. That was a mistake. But as communists, we know that religion will die out as we move to socialism and then communism, so let’s let it happen naturally.”

Johnson interpreted the policy change as a sop to society after the brutality of the Cultural Revolution, “so that Grannie Wong could go back to the Buddhist temple and pray a little bit.” The expectation was that the elderly generation would eventually die and so would religion. “But in fact, the opposite has happened,” he commented.

Great Mosque of Xian. Photo: Frischifresh via Flickr, 2010, cropped; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Religious practice in China today

Good survey work on religious practitioners does not exist in China due to the sensitivity of religion in the country, noted Johnson. Nevertheless, he provided rough estimates of practitioner numbers based on available information (with the caveat that information on Buddhists, Daoists and folk religion practitioners are particularly unreliable). Among the roughly 300–400 million people (out of a population of 1.4 billion) who regularly engaged in religious practice, he said there were approximately:

• 10 million Catholics
• 20 million Muslims
• 50 million Protestants
• 200 million Buddhists
• plus some 200 million people who regularly engage in folk cultivation practices
  (many of which originate in Daoism)

Johnson stressed that Islam and Christianity, while important, played a much smaller role in the country than implied by the foreign press. Islam is the only religion that the Chinese state perceives as a security threat (a threat he considered exaggerated), due to fears of Islamist terrorism. Yet the government is also suspicious of religions, such as Catholicism and certain Protestant denominations, which have active global organizational structures.

Using what he called “crude generalizations,” the speaker said that religions in China appeal to different demographic groups. Folk religions, he explained, appeal to working-class people with not much more than a high school education, as well as people who seek to restore Chinese traditions.

Large urban Protestant churches, on the other hand, appeal more to white-collar young professionals. Whereas perhaps two-thirds of the members of Protestant churches are women, the speaker observed that the pastors are overwhelmingly men. Most such churches are not affiliated with a specific denomination of Protestantism (e.g., Lutheranism, Presbyterianism), said Johnson, although with time, some choose an affiliation in order to achieve better doctrinal clarity.

Protestant churches in China generally do not practice infant baptism, he explained, because most Chinese feel that only adults should choose their religion. These churches also benefit from the fact that physical churches are not required to build an active congregation, whereas the small number of remaining Buddhist and Daoist temples inhibit the vitality of those religions due to their need for infrastructure.

On the other hand, Daoism and Buddhism offer a greater role for women, with roughly one-third of the Daoist clergy comprised of nuns. One part of Daoism calls for a celibate clergy, as does Buddhism, which Johnson thought might diminish their contemporary appeal. “I think it is sometimes harder for Chinese men to take a vow of celibacy because they’re often under pressure to marry and then reproduce and carry on the family line,” he remarked.

Buddhist temple outside near Liujang. Photo: James Wheeler via Flickr, 2010; cropped; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

“Buddhism has a broader appeal,” he said. “It can appeal to very-well educated people who are also looking [for spirituality] in Chinese cultural traditions. Buddhism also has, for historical reasons, a better-educated clergy, so Buddhists are able to engage university graduates,” he added. He noted that Buddhist temples in China were adopting some of the study group, social media and organizational tactics practiced by Protestant churches in the country. 

“Daoism has had a harder time,” said Johnson, “Its clergy is not that well educated and it has had a harder time appealing to, say, rapidly urbanizing young professionals in Chinese cities.” Although Daoist teachings have typically been transmitted from master to student, Johnson remarked that the Daoists in China realize that they must share their teachings more broadly if the religion is to survive. As a result, recordings of lectures by Daoist masters now circulate on the Internet and Daoist temples sometimes run traditional Chinese medicine centers.

Asked by Professor Yan if religions and religious practices were helping to promote social trust, Johnson responded, “I think for a lot of the people who are interested in religion in China, it's more of an inward focus. It's focused on ‘society is untrustworthy, but at least my church, my temple, my mosque — people there are trustworthy.’

"One of the successes of Christianity, especially, Protestantism, has been to recruit young people who are coming to Chinese cities — often to study — from a town or a village… They do  missionizing work on the university campuses and the churches can provide a sort of instant community,” he commented.

Although all religious institutions are supposed to register and be organized by “associations” that report to the State Council, Johnson said all religious activities in China are characterized by a great deal of “grey area.” Roughly half of contemporary Catholic and Protestant churches operate in such a grey area, he estimated. Many churches and even many religious activities that take place in technically “tourist” Daoist and Buddhist temples are also not registered, he said, but their activities may nevertheless be quite substantial.

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