Religious Revivals in Communist China

by Arthur Waldron


Vol.42, No.2 ( Spring 1998 ), pp. 325-334

Copyright 1998 Foreign Policy Research Institute

The traditional role of religion in China is not unlike that found under Islam: religion and the state are effectively joined, and a ruler without religious sanction is as difficult to imagine as a faith independent of the state. The demands of Confucianism, for centuries China's official system of belief, are perhaps less exacting than those of Islam, but their place in society is similar. What is more, they continue to frame the problems with which religion confronts the Communist regime in Beijing today. Unless China's fundamental culture changes dramatically, no Chinese leader can rule without some sort of broadly recognized moral or ideological sanction. By the same token, the notion of religion as a separate estate -- the realm of individuals and private organizations -- will seem strange or even subversive to many Chinese, especially to government officials.

Yet communism today is dead. Not long ago there was a sense that Marxism, suitably Sinified by the party of Mao Zedong, could indeed serve as a new and revolutionary orthodoxy for modem China. Certainly communism was, in effect, a religion for its early Chinese converts: more than a sociological analysis, it was a revelation and a prophecy that engaged their entire beings and was expounded in sacred texts, many imported from Moscow and often printed in English. That faith has vanished today, leaving in China a great void that some shared belief must fill.

As communism has decayed dramatically over the past decades in China, religious practice of one sort or another has steadily increased. An extraordinary and entirely unexpected revival has made long-padlocked Buddhist temples teem again with worshippers; in Tibet and Xinjiang the Lamaist Buddhist and Islamic faiths, respectively, have become ever more vigorous, even as relentless persecution continues. Communist officials now exploit its ethic of hierarchy and authority to bolster their rule. Ironically, only Daoism, perhaps China's sole truly indigenous faith, has actually been eliminated by the nearly half century of Communist war on religion.

Like China's remarkable economic development, which is far better known, the revival of religion seems not to have been intended by the officials who set it in motion by lifting a few prohibitions. Rather, it has grown far beyond the manageable change they had envisioned would become, like economic development, a powerful factor for change that may threaten the status quo the regime seeks to preserve. Even though its numbers are relatively small, contemporary Chinese Christianity is a good initial index for these changes and the problems they cause for the central government(1).

The Current Christian Revival

If any religion could safely have been pronounced dead in Communist China, it would have been Christianity. After all, most forms of Christianity were introduced by foreigners, often in the wake of military force, were sustained by large foreign missionary establishments, and seemed mostly to attract "rice-bowl Christians" (drawn to the food, medicine, and education the missions provided) rather than genuine converts. Christianity was particularly hated by the new Communist rulers, and ruthlessly repressed for thirty years starting in 1949.

Novelist John Hersey assuredly believed Christianity to be dead when he published a memoir of his missionary parents in China(2). It is a tale of lost faith and futility in the face of bland Chinese indifference to Western concerns and never more so than at its tragicomic conclusion, when Hersey returns to attempt to bury his parents' ashes, as they had wished, in Shanghai's Christian cemetery. Of course, the cemetery has long been destroyed and forgotten: a concrete apartment house now fills the site. "All that effort for nothing," the son concludes, speaking, perhaps, not only of his attempt to fulfill his filial duty, but of the entire missionary enterprise in China.

Hersey's bleak assessment seemed unchallengeable in the mid-1980s, when by all accounts religions in China had dwindled or vanished under Communist repression, and not only foreign transplants such as Christianity, but indigenized faiths such as Buddhism. Yet, a mere thirteen years later, a religious revival is just as undeniably under way in China, and on a scale and of a vigor that is astonishing. Christianity, that alien faith his parents had labored, in vain as Hersey imagined, to foster in China, is today more vigorous than at the height of Jesuit influence in the seventeenth century, or at the peak of Protestant evangelization in the 1920s. The mass faiths are also rebounding: Buddhism's numerous shrines are thronged with devotees and pilgrims, Islam is reinvigorated, particularly in the Western border area of Xinjiang, home to a large Turkic population, and vast lamaseries dynamited by the Chinese army during the Cultural Revolution are being reconstructed in Tibet, where loyalty to the Dalai Lama appears unshaken(3). This religious revival is best understood, like so much occurring in China today, as an unintended consequence of some fairly limited measures of liberalization. When the Communists took power in 1949 they created an array of state-run organizations designed to control and direct religion -- a Buddhist association, an ecumenical Protestant "three self" committee, and a "patriotic" Catholic association independent of Rome -- as the sole "legal" sponsors of religious activity. Those unwilling to join went underground or died in the gulag.

When Hersey was visiting in the early 1980s, those structures and restrictions still existed -- as indeed they do today. But they had been loosened by the new "pragmatic" Chinese leadership which expected thereby to pacify the few remaining indigenous believers and win approval from the World Council of Churches and other such organizations. The strategy was not unlike that taken toward the economy: forget about Marxist fundamentalism and let the people trade food and other products. So what if there are a few free markets? Socialism will survive. Likewise, why not unlock the iron grates in front of that temple? All that will happen is that a few old women will be pleased.

But the Communist leaders misjudged. Both actions started chain reactions that have proceeded far beyond expectations. The economic development, for instance, is today so well known as to be taken for granted as an intended product of government policy. Yet its broad effects across society now oblige Chinese and foreigners alike to consider, for example, how economic development requires clear laws and objective adjudication, and thus threatens the dictatorship that is fundamental to communism. The religious revival is less well known outside of China, and certainly far less analyzed. Yet it is already proving to be perhaps as significant and widespread in its effects as the more obvious economic changes.

Numbers of Protestant Christians in China have climbed so dramatically that their officially sponsored organization has had to scramble to accommodate even its own members. Thus, foreign visitors who wished to join Protestant worship in Beijing in the 1970s were regularly taken to a lovely small chapel with an adjoining parsonage for the minister, who was always happy to meet them. A decade later, however, the chapel was far too small, and what looked to be a vast old octagonal revival hall on the campus of a school was pressed into service. This is not to mention the numerous house churches, where unofficial Christian groups gathered, or the revival of indigenous Chinese Christian sects, such as the True Jesus Church (which now has converts and churches in foreign countries as well). Roman Catholicism has shown similar vigor. Because of their loyalty to the pope, Catholics were persecuted relentlessly during the 1950s and 1960s, foreign missionaries were expelled or imprisoned, and Chinese clergy were murdered or sent to the gulag. But belief did not disappear. In Fanshen, his classic and highly sympathetic account of how communism came to "Longbow Village" in rural China, William Hinton recounts the dramatic unmasking of a corrupt local priest. Once the party cadre had opened the people's eyes to the fraud perpetrated upon them, Hinton explains, the local Catholics quickly discarded their mistaken beliefs. Yet today, as Hinton himself documents in his sequel, Shenfan, the real Longbow Village is once again solidly Catholic(4). Elsewhere, Catholic churches have been reopened or rebuilt, and the great Marian shrine of Sheshan, near Shanghai, is once again a major site of pilgrimage.

Numerically, of course, Christianity remains a minor religion in China. Yet that fact has not reassured the Beijing government, anxious as it is about any independent source of authority and the growth of civil institutions beyond its control. There is plenty of real faith even in the official churches, where worshippers show an uncanny sense of who can and cannot be trusted. Officially sponsored worship is tolerated, but the independent Protestants and the underground Catholic church are persecuted. Some of the faithful follow secret lives of devotion: it is reported that many of the good and selfless nurses in Chinese hospitals are secret Christians. Nonbelievers too -- historians and social scientists -- are increasingly acknowledging the real contributions made to China by Christianity and its missions. So despite the recent appointment of an old-fashioned hard-line atheist, Ye Xiaowen, to handle religious affairs, Christianity continues to gain ground in China.

Why not, one might reasonably ask, simply tolerate religion? The reason is that the spontaneous spread of religion, like the largely uncontrolled growth of the Chinese economy, is more troubling to the Chinese leadership than many observers understand. Chinese authorities refuse openly to accord a greater measure of religious freedom for the same reason that they still refuse to permit freedom of the press, freedom to form political parties, or other freedoms: they understand quite correctly that doing so will drive the final nails into the coffin of Communist rule. And that rule is more than a matter of mere power, repression, or privilege for those in high places, because Marxism and Maoism were, and to some extent remain, quasi-religious phenomena themselves.

China has always been a state with an ideology. Its territory -- roughly as large as the United States (which also has an ideology) -- is too big to rule by force, or on the basis of consanguinity, or by appeals to local interests. The great question of the twentieth century has thus been: what ideology would serve a modem China in the way that Confucianism served two thousand years of traditional China -- as an internalized cultural basis for common action? To this query the phrase "Sinified Marxism" was the informed answer for four decades after the Communist conquest of 1949(5). Not only does that answer no longer persuade the educated, who recognize the intellectual bankruptcy of Marxism, it no longer works with the masses, whose possible one-time faith in communist class morality and the Marxist secular apocalypse of revolution and abundance has long since been swept away by the misery and famines the Communism actually brought.

Recognizing this fact, Beijing has turned in recent years to nationalism as the new basis for legitimate role and common action. But this, too, has its limits. The Chinese have rarely thought in narrow or exclusive terms, and their best thinkers want general answers to general problems -- which, ironically, is why Marx appealed to them in the first place. Furthermore, nationalism says nothing about morality or about the crimes and horrors of past and present, which so preoccupy Chinese in their private lives. Religion may not be able to resolve the enigmas of evil, but at least it ponders them.

The current religious revival in China, then, responds to a burden of personal and collective suffering over fifty years that is inexplicable through communist belief (the party, after all, is theoretically infallible). It also seeks to fill the immense moral and cultural void that has been excavated, at the center of Chinese life, by Communist rule. Religion is not the only response to these needs, as any visitor will testify: China today is a turbulent country, where throngs of merchants, real and figurative, hawk their commercial and ideological wares, while a weakening dictatorship steers to avoid the shipwreck of its authority. China has encountered such times of troubles often over its thousands of years of history, and whenever it has, religion has, as often as not, been a volatile factor.

The Tibetan, Islamic, and Buddhist Revivals

Tibet and Xinjiang are the places in China where religion currently plays the greatest political role. This is because religion in those territories has been recognized as the essence of national culture, creating a situation similar to that of late-Communist Poland, where even atheists paid homage to the national Catholic faith. In both territories Chinese oppression and gross miscalculation have greatly exacerbated the situation.

Prior to the overthrow of the Chinese imperial system in 1911, Tibet was linked to the Qing dynasty by the official patronage of the Dalai Lama by the Qing emperor. This vague relationship gave each party what it wished: from the Tibetan point of view, it was a great honor that the Dalai Lama conferred in permitting the Qing emperor to be a patron; from the Qing point of view, the emperor was properly recognized as superior by the tributary. Then, in the era of the Chinese Republic that followed from 1912 to 1949 Tibet was for all practical purposes independent. But when the Chinese Communists brutally invaded Tibet in the 1950s, they employed no such Qing subtlety. Today they face a national movement that has already won the struggle for international legitimation, even though Tibet's territory and administration remain in Chinese hands. By contrast, Xinjiang, or East Turkestan as it is also known, was conquered by the Qing in a series of bloody nineteenth-century campaigns. Having annexed the area, however, the Qing took great care not to offend the indigenous Muslim Uighurs. Chinese garrisons (the present provincial capital, Urumqi or Dihua, began as a military camp) were purposely located at a distance from regions of dense Muslim settlement. Although governance was difficult, given the absence in Islam of a distinction between church and state, the Qing satraps accomplished it by working with local Islamic elites. But when the Chinese Communists reoccupied Xinjiang, they once again adopted a cinder approach.

Chinese nuclear and missile tests were carried out in Xinjiang without consulting the inhabitants, and much of the territory became in effect a Chinese military reservation. Many mosques were demolished during the Cultural Revolution (only to be reconstructed in the 1980s). Most important for the future of Xinjiang, however, has been the reestablishment of pan-Islamic links across its borders with the rest of the Central Asian Islamic world.

Authority in traditional Xinjiang derived from connections to the various international Sufi brotherhoods that played a similar role throughout Central Asia: the Naqshbandiya being the most important. Today that order is patronized and domesticated by Turkey. But more militant Islamic ideas are not hard to find: they come from Iran, other Central Asian states, and not least from veterans of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union. Bomb detonations and gunfights are now regularly reported from Xinjiang.

Both Tibetan Buddhism and Islam have important foreign connections. Lamaist Buddhism is the religion not only of Tibetans but also of nomadic peoples along an arc from the Himalayas through Qinghai and part of Sichuan north and east into Mongolia. The end of Soviet-style communism in the Mongolian Republic has been followed by a rebirth of that traditional faith. Reincarnated Buddhas are appearing in Mongolia, links with Tibet are being reestablished, and the Dalai Lama has visited Ulan Baatar. Islam's foreign connections are more obvious, but it must also be remembered that Muslims abound in China proper and have risen up in revolt in the past.

Beijing is understandably worried about Tibet and Xinjiang, but unwilling so far to admit the failure of its current policy which is one of denial and police repression, coupled with feeble attempts attempts to justify both, and private appeals to the United States, Israel, and the various Islamic countries, for help. Prospects are not good for its success. Neighboring governments certainly do not want to offend the Chinese, but they also know that cooperating with foreigners to persecute Islam will scarcely be popular with their people at home. The Turks of Xinjiang have already undergone the scorched earth treatment in the nineteenth century and emerged. Tibetans remain defiant despite the most appalling torture and oppression. Beijing meanwhile adopts a self-contradictory policy: repression and cultural destruction (most of Lhasa is now a Chinese-style city and classic medieval Tibetan structures are being leveled) coupled with transparent attempts at cooptation (such as the kidnapping of the young Panchen lama and the investiture of a Chinese candidate). While one may be assured that these policies will wreak much destruction, it is difficult to imagine them actually resolving the problems in either Tibet or Xinjiang.

Least threatening among the reviving religions in China must be counted Buddhism and what remains of Daoism. Historically both have well-developed doctrine, but in their popular form they have generally been part of the syncretic and poorly understood religious practices of the illiterate masses. Moreover, they stress escape from worldly suffering through meditation and scriptural recitation, or taking up residence in remote monasteries. Apocalyptic variants of Buddhism, such as the White Lotus faith of the eighteenth century, have powered mass movements in the past.

Today, southern and southeast China in particular are alive with Buddhist observances, and young monks and nuns and pilgrims of all ages are in evidence -- some of them communist cadres who have turned to Buddha -- and delight in the freedom to travel, share fellowship and devotion, and perhaps acquire some sacred souvenirs.

Invisible to the outsider but possible to track through the official Chinese press and other sources is a resurgence of charismatic and apocalyptic Buddhism. One reads regularly of the arrest of a group of followers of a claimant to some sort of divine or kingly status. Sometimes popular religion even fixes on communism itself: unregistered and unofficial temples to Mao Zedong and other Communist worthies have been built here and there in China. If the example of Taiwan, Thailand, and other strongly Buddhist states is to be followed in China, moreover, we may expect teachers of Buddhism, with their own sects, to become increasingly important politically as communism weakens. If even the U.S. vice president Al Gore has found himself courting Buddhist donations in California, one may wonder whether China can be far behind.

The Legacy of Confucius

Religion cannot be reduced to anything else without distortion and oversimplification. It is an autonomous phenomenon, not simply a cloak for personal or economic or national interests, although it can be all of those as well. Before turning to the significance of religion for China's social and political future, then, it is worth considering the role of individual devotion.

The vast burden of China's twentieth-century past has already been alluded to above. Look at almost any recent Chinese movie -- Farewell My Concubine or To Live, for example -- and you will be confronted by an avalanche of images of evil -- real evil. For the events portrayed in these films have not been dredged from the twisted imagination of some Hollywood writer, but rather from the everyday experience of hundreds of millions of Chinese. Every Chinese bears the burden of this evil and more than are willing to face up to it bear some responsibility. Although materially China has made much progress in the last two decades, the more difficult task of confronting, admitting, and pondering the meaning of this suffering -- a task on a scale comparable to dealing with Nazi, Soviet, or Japanese imperial guilt -- has scarcely begun.

In most of the world the doctrines and language of religion have been crucial to this process. In the West, the successive catastrophes of the twentieth century called into being a whole cultural enterprise that meditated on war and peace, memorialized the dead, pursued some of the malefactors, and generally attempted to find meaning or value in the whirlwind -- even if it could get no further than Job did when confronted by the divine questions. The Chinese world as yet manifests little by way of analogue to this process. Confucianism has never accepted the existence of radical evil -- evil at the root. As the opening words of the famous Confucian text Three Character Classic reminded the generations who traditionally memorized it, "man is originally good." Society and contact with other human beings are what make him evil. But education in virtue can forestall that process and create genuinely good people, who in turn can make society good. This belief must be sorely tested by the reality of China's past century, and the issue must arise of who then is responsible for the catastrophe.

Whether Confucianism is in fact a "religion" is a question without a definitive answer. Its "this-worldly" focus is very different from that of the great theistic religions with their three-story universes. Confucius himself refused to speak of the gods "until he understood the affairs of men." Confucianism has always frowned on "superstitious" religious practices, even while insisting that its serious followers spend hours in self-examination and study. Certainly it is more than a felicific calculus. As the French Jesuit scholar Michel Masson has persuasively argued, faith permeates it.(6)

But the emphasis of Confucianism is on the moral practice of the individual, not on whether he is "justified." (That question does not arise, for to be truly good is considered eminently possible). Chinese traditional thought about the legitimation of rule derives from this. The true ruler follows the kingly way (wangdao) of virtue and is thus able to rule without force and create perfect harmony. The philosophers admit that there is another path to rule, the way of the hegemon (badao) which relies on coercion and harsh laws -- but this is neither enduring nor morally creditable.

On sale at Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, are little red books with plastic covers entitled Lunyu (The Analects) and looking just like the books of Mao's sayings that were so ubiquitous during the Cultural Revolution. The souvenir is good fun and very popular, but one suspects that a lot of Chinese value it because it manifests the simple fact that for as long as people can read Chinese, Confucius will be a classic, whereas Mao's crude utterances have quickly faded. The religious bedrock of China, if such a thing can be said to exist, is a set of attitudes about morality and responsibility that come from Confucianism.

The theistic religions tend to stress the inscrutability of divine action. By contrast, Confucianism puts responsibility into the hands of individuals, rulers in particular. It has nothing like the Judeo-Christian notion of divine justice, but equally it is less forgiving. At the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, obliterated by Nazi bombers, the inscription above the former altar reads "Father Forgive." When in China the tomb of the great hero Yue Fei was smashed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, a graffito appeared asking "Who did this?"

Such attitudes do not bode well for individuals -- or the memory of individuals -- implicated in the various disasters of communism in China. Traditional Chinese histories always judged individuals in extensive biographical sections. That approach is by no means dead. This moral, if not exactly religious, dimension to Chinese culture may figure in surprising ways as, in the decades ahead, Chinese seek to cope, individually and collectively, with the issues of meaning and responsibility in their recent history.

Chinese Religions and Foreign Affairs

In China's immediate future, however, religion seems likely to be a secondary factor in processes of change. Issues of meaning and history are critical to cultural health, but for the next decade or so whoever is trying to run the country will be preoccupied with how to feed and employ the vast population, meet aspirations for greater freedom and voice, maintain the flow of foreign money, and somehow hold on to power.

Indeed, religion may well turn out to be a more important factor in foreign policy than in domestic policy. At present, Beijing is attempting to avoid penalties for violating religious human rights, manage its uneasy connections with foreign religious groups active in China, and persuade the Vatican to remove its ambassador from Taipei. A decade or two ago, when global cold war politics dominated Western relations with China, these tasks were easier. But today there is no more Soviet Union against which China served as an ally, while knowledge of the persecution of religion in China is widespread and international reaction, however slow and muted, is growing.

Moreover, the precipitous collapse of liberal Protestantism in the West and concomitant rise of evangelical Christian groups savvy in politics mean that Beijing is facing far tougher interlocutors on matters of religious persecution than in the days when all it had to confront was a flaccid World Council of Churches. The new evangelical and Catholic lobbies are not fooled by official Potemkin-village religion, and are more sympathetic to truly zealous evangelicals like themselves, whom the regime persecutes. Likewise, the Polish pope has proved resistant to the entreaties of some of the Vatican bureaucracy for a quick settlement in China that would, in effect, recognize the state-run church and leave underground believers in the lurch.

The situations in Tibet and Xinjiang are, from Beijing's point of view, even worse. Many in China understand that true compromise is the only way out of both problems, but so far such voices have been overruled by hardliners. Massive repression has already been tried, however, in both places, and if executions, exile, imprisonment, and inundations of propaganda were going to work they would have done so by now.

The problems in Tibet and Xinjiang are probably not regime-threatening, but they are chronic ulcers. Denied every form of peaceful redress, Tibetans and Uighurs will likely turn increasingly to violence in the years ahead, violence of the sort that is extremely difficult to stamp out once it has begun even by means of major reforms. The rising generations in Tibet and Xinjiang have a hatred for the Chinese oppressors and a steely determination to resist that is akin to that of the peoples of Eastern Europe under the Soviets, not least in that it is sustained in good part by religion.

In China proper, religion will play a role in the growing debate about values and morality, expressed in questions about how the country should legitimately be ruled. Practical questions about mechanisms will be the primary focus of this debate: what sort of legislature and executive? what rights for citizens? and so forth. But as with the framing of the United States Constitution, some sort of moral orientation will be necessary. If there is no political reform in China, then one can expect religion to continue to develop on the personal level within the country, and to grow both as a source of resistance to tyranny at home and as a source of tension with the rest of the world.

The classic European pattern of king and bishop, or church and state, never existed in China. Political authority was absolute, and religion, or Confucian philosophy, was controlled and coopted much more completely than in the West. China's different tradition and social architecture mean that in the contemporary world China may confront the same sorts of issues as other countries, but cannot address them in the same ways. Given that totally unitary rule, whether by emperor or Communist party, is probably at an end in China, the independent role of religion there will almost certainly grow in strength and significance in the years ahead. The words of defeat, "all that effort for nothing," spoken by Hersey about Christian missions, will then be more appropriately said of the far larger and far bloodier business of Chinese Communism.

Arthur Waldron is Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.



1. The best survey of Christianity in China is Daniel Bays, ed., Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996).

2. John Hersey, The Call: An American Missionary in China (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985).

3. On Tibet, see Warren W. Smith, Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996); and Cutting Off the Serpent's Head: Tightening Control in Tibet, 1994-1995 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996); on Xinjiang, see Donald H. McMillen, Chinese Communist Power and Policy in Xinjiang 1949-1977 (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1979); and Raphael Ismaili, with the assistance of Lyn Gorman, Islam in China: A Critical Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994).

4. See William Hinton, Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), pp. 118-124; and William Hinton, Shenfan (New York: Random House, 1983), p. 283.

5. See Benjamin T. Schwartz, Chinese Communism and the Rise of Mao (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951).

6. See Michel C. Masson, Philosophy and Tradition: The Interpretation of China's Philosophical Past: Fung Yu-lan, 1939-1949 (Taipei: Institut Ricci, 1985).