A resurgence of religious faith is changing China

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Buddhist, Daoist and Christian believers are adapting the rhythms of the past to modern life.

HISTORICALLY in China, state and religion were always united, forming a spiritual centre of gravity. China was poor but its identity was clear, its vision for the future based upon its knowledge of the past. Communist revolutionaries saw these religious traditions as an impediment to progress and a reason why the country remained poor. So they set about destroying the entwined belief system of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, and replaced it with the new trinity of Lenin, Marx and Mao. Only by doing so, they believed, could China be saved.

When Mao died in 1976, belief in communism began to erode. Now, four decades on, his successors have found the absence of a belief system to be a problem. At least in Europe, the ebb of the Christian tide left a deeply rooted rule of law and a compassionate welfare state. Shorn of Dao and Mao, modern China has been left with a corrupt party state and a brutal, wild west capitalism. In a recent poll 88% of people said they believed that there was a moral decay and a lack of trust in society.

This is part of a much bigger crisis of identity. The outside world sees a thrusting, confident new China, but many people (and party leaders) are still trying to work out what it means to be Chinese in the modern world. The order of human relationships has been damaged by socialist modernity. The nation’s feng shui has been rattled. As one historian put it: the Middle Kingdom has lost its middle. In a society without universal rules, many yearn for a new, or reconstituted, moral order.

A sure sign of the confusion was the sight of China’s party chief, Xi Jinping, standing at Confucius’s birthplace in 2013 and paraphrasing the sage: “A state without virtue cannot flourish; a person without virtue cannot succeed.” Aware of the political implications of a society lacking virtue, Mr Xi has launched a campaign of national renewal based on revitalising China’s traditional values and melding them to the Communist Party. This is no small switch, since these are the same traditional values that the party spent 60 years trying to destroy. Mr Xi seemed to say that only if ancient beliefs are revitalised can China be saved.

One change has been the arrival of serious spiritual competition in the form of Christianity. Long derided as a foreign religion, it has become Sinicised over decades and is now supported by the growing enthusiasm of the young, urban middle class, who see it as refreshing and socially engaged. Whereas 185m people consider themselves Buddhist and 173m say they engage in some Daoist practices, there are now as many as 80m Christians in China, many of whom like the faith’s links with the West and its commitment to social change—the very things the party abhors.

This heady spiritual mix is the subject of Ian Johnson’s new book, “The Souls of China”. Mr Johnson has long delved into the Chinese soul, winning a Pulitzer prize in 2001 for his reporting in the Wall Street Journal on the party’s suppression of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement. He compares the religious revival with the Great Awakenings in America in the 18th and 19th centuries, when a stirring of popular Christian belief led to major social and political change. He believes the West, by focusing on the politics and economics of China, is missing the massive cultural shift of hundreds of millions of Chinese people turning to religious faith for answers. “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor,” says one interviewee. “But now a lot of us aren’t poor any more and yet we’re still unhappy.”

The book presents a fascinating panorama: wealthy urbanites on Daoist pilgrimages and young Christian activists learning how to campaign against forced abortion. Mr Johnson is sceptical about the party’s top-down morality campaign. “A government that relies on fear cannot instil morality; it can only enforce behaviour,” he writes. Much more important, he feels, is the sense of bottom-up empowerment that faith often provides. The state will continue trying to co-opt religious groups it believes are safe, and to crush the ones it perceives as more dangerous, which means that traditional religions such as Buddhism and Daoism are likely to be the winners.

Mr Johnson believes that faith can co-exist with the party but it will continue to be an uneasy truce, as more Chinese people decide how they want to live. The party wants believers’ morality without their activism, but is finding that the two are inseparable, especially for Christians. The sermons of Wang Yi, a house-church pastor in the city of Chengdu, epitomise the changes taking place across the country, perhaps because he presents a clear vision of the future that is neither the party narrative nor just a reversion to the past: “We are creating a Jerusalem,” he says. “This is the city on the hill.” The Daoists and the Buddhists have changed, too, adapting the rhythms of the past to a more modern beat. They have lost much of the old fatalism under which people accepted their lot, and they now have a vision of their own of a more moral, less brutal society, where relationships matter and people know how to live in harmony, even if they are poor. As one of the book’s protagonists, a Daoist undertaker and fortune-teller, says: “You create your own fate.”

The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao.

By Ian Johnson

Economist

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