Things You Need to Know about Faith in China [Excerpts]
Evan Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker, lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2013. Osnos writes that, beneath the physical changes, China’s rise is a story of spiritual revival comparable to America’s Great Awakening in the nineteenth century, an attempt to fill “a hole in Chinese life that people named the jingshen kongxu — ‘the spiritual void.’” In this adaptation from Age of Ambition, he explains essential dynamics in China’s quest for meaning.
Chairman Mao: The accidental missionary
Karl Marx considered religion an “illusory happiness” incompatible with the struggle for socialism; during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Red Guards demolished temples and smashed sacred objects in a surge of violence that the scholars Vincent Goossaert and David A. Palmer describe as the “most thorough destruction of all forms of religious life in Chinese and, perhaps, human history.” But they also deified Mao. As testaments to devotion, men and women collected Mao badges to wear over their hearts that hailed him as “Messiah of the Working People” and the “Great Savior.” People confessed their sins at the foot of his statues. The Cultural Revolution destroyed China’s old belief systems, but Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution could not rebuild them. People who had learned to believe in a force larger than themselves were left to set out in search of their own faiths.
After the almighty yuan, what?
In 1978, the average Chinese income was $200; by 2013, it was $6,000. By almost every measure, the Chinese people have achieved longer, healthier, more educated lives. The relentless pursuit of fortune relieved the deprivation in China’s past, but it failed to define the ultimate purpose of the nation and the individual. By the twenty-first century, the Communist Party presided over a land of untamed capitalism, graft, and rampant inequality. In sprinting ahead, China had bounded past whatever barriers once held back the forces of corruption and moral disregard. People did not trust the institutions around them: the Party, the press, big companies that had failed to provide safe food. People are placing their faith elsewhere.
Christianity: China’s largest N.G.O.
The Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the right is narrowed by regulations against proselytizing and other activities. Officially, China recognizes five religions — Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism — and believers can worship in state-controlled settings. More than twenty million Catholics and Protestants attend churches run by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and its counterpart the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. But more than twice that number worship in unregistered “house churches,” which range in size from small farmhouse study groups to large semipublic congregations in the cities. The house churches are not legally protected, so authorities can tolerate them one day and shut them down the next, if political orders came down to tighten up. The Party is under increasing pressure to change the way it regards the desire for faith; China today has sixty to eighty million Christians, a community as large as the Communist Party. Li Fan, a secular liberal writer, told me, “Christianity has probably become China’s largest nongovernmental organization.”
History suggests that China is more inclined to absorb the most useful parts of Western faiths and philosophies and discard the rest, as it had with Marxism, capitalism, and other imports. One thing is clear: Nothing has caused more upheaval in the last hundred years of Chinese history than the battle over what to believe. Today, the Party is not allowing the growth of faith as much as it is trying to keep up with it.