If we think of a large Asian country where religion is the center of daily and political life we might think of India or Indonesia. But China? If we have associations of religion and China it might be historical: ancient classics like the Daodejing, great Buddhist art along the Silk Road, the Nestorian stele outside Xi'an, or Matteo Ricci's grave in Beijing.
As for contemporary Chinese religious life it is probably linked in our mind to Communism, which we think of as atheistic and intolerant of religion. Thus, we might think about persecution: Christians meeting in underground churches, the Dalai Lama in exile, or sects like Falun Gong being banned. This might be reinforced by governmental or non-governmental reports that paint a bleak picture of religious life in China.
None of this is wrong. Especially now, under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, some faiths are struggling, especially Islam and Christianity. Muslims have been interned in Xinjiang and churches closed or even torn down. It is clear that for some religions, these are challenging times—maybe the most challenging in a generation.
But one reason for this is that China is in the midst of an unprecedented religious revival, involving hundreds of millions of people—best estimates put the figure at 300 million: 10 million Catholics, 20 million Muslims, 60 million Protestants, and up to 200 million followers of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religions. This does not include the tens or even hundreds of millions of people who practice physical cultivation like Qigong or other forms of meditative-like practices.
The precise figures are often debated, but even a casual visitor to China cannot miss the signs: new churches dotting the countryside, temples being rebuilt or massively expanded, and new government policies that encourage traditional values. Progress is not linear—churches are demolished, temples run for tourism, and debates about morality manipulated for political gain—but the overall direction is clear. Faith and values are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life.
What drives this growth? I would argue that hundreds of millions of Chinese are consumed with doubt about their society and turning to religion and faith for answers that they do not find in the radically secular world constructed around them. They wonder what more there is to life than materialism and what makes a good life. As one Protestant pastor told me, “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor. But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet we’re still unhappy. We realize there’s something missing and that’s a spiritual life.”
Most surprisingly, this quest is centered on China’s heartland: a huge swath of land running roughly from Beijing in the north to Hong Kong in the south, Shanghai in the east to Chengdu in the west. This used to be called “China proper” and for 25 centuries has been the center of Chinese culture and civilization, the birthplace of its poets and prophets, the scene of its most famous wars and coups, the setting for its novels and plays, the home of its holiest mountains and most sacred temples. This is where Chinese civilization was born and flourished, and this is where the country’s economic and political life is still focused.
We have long known that China’s ethnic minorities—especially the Tibetans and Uighurs—have valued religion, sometimes as a form of resistance against an oppressive state. But now we find a similar or even greater spiritual thirst among the ethnic Chinese, who make up 91% of the country’s population. Instead of being a salve for China’s marginal people, it is a quest for meaning among those who have benefited most from China’s economic takeoff.
Not all Chinese see their country's national malaise in spiritual terms. Government critics often view it as purely political: the country needs better rules and laws to solve society’s ills. Reformers inside the system see it more technocratically: if they had better administrative structures and provided better services, apathy and anger would abate.
But most Chinese look at the problem more broadly. China needs better laws and institutions, yes, but it also needs a moral compass. This longing for moral certitude is especially strong in China due to its history and tradition.
For millennia, Chinese society was held together by the idea that laws alone cannot keep people together. Instead, philosophers like Confucius argued that society also needed shared values. Most Chinese still hold this view. For many, the answer is to engage in some form of spiritual practice: a religion, a way of life, a form of moral cultivation—things that will make their lives more meaningful and help change society.
All told, it is hardly an exaggeration to say China is undergoing a spiritual revival similar to the Great Awakening in the United States in the 19th century. Now, just like a century and a half ago, a country on the move is unsettled by great social and economic change. People have been thrust into new, alienating cities where they have no friends and no circle of support. Religion and faith offer ways of looking at age-old questions that all people, everywhere, struggle to answer: Why are we here? What really makes us happy? How do we achieve contentment as individuals, as a community, as a nation? What is our soul?
he mid-19th century. China went through a series of crises that were paralleled around the world. This was the encounter with the West, and its far superior military and technological power. China lost a series of wars that saw it lose territory. Chinese looked around the world and saw how the West had carved up most of the globe into colonies. Even ancient lands like India were controlled by tiny western countries like Britain. Would China be next?
Thus began an assault on the existing power structure—which meant the political-religious state that ran China. Why religion? Couldn't China have modernized without attacking traditional religions? To understand why religion became a problem for China's modernizers, we have to understand the central importance of religion in traditional Chinese life.
In China, this was also the case. Religion was part of belonging to your community. A village had its temples, its gods, and they were honored on certain holy days. Choice was not really a factor. China did have three separate teachings, or jiao—Confucianism (rujiao), Buddhism (fojiao), and Taoism (daojiao)—but they did not function as separate institutions with their own followers. Primarily, they provided services: a community might invite a priest or monk to perform rituals at temples, for example, and each of the three offered its own special techniques—Buddhist Chan meditation or devotional Pure Land spiritual exercises, Daoist meditative exercises, or Confucian moral self-cultivation. But they were not considered separate. For most of Chinese history, people believed in an amalgam of these faiths that is best described as “Chinese Religion.”
This faith extended to politics as well—so much so that scholars like John Lagerwey speak of China having been run by a “political-religious state.” The emperor was the "son of heaven." His officials legitimated their positions through religious rituals at local temples. And at the very local level—where life was actually lived—the world revolved around temples. This was where the local gentry, or literati, met and organized local life, from irrigation and road-building to raising militias. Thus the historian Prasenjit Duara calls temples a “nexus of power” in traditional China.
So, when revolutionaries wanted to change China, they went after power where it lay: in this political-religious system that ran the empire. A telling example involves Sun Yat-sen, who would eventually help overthrow the Qing dynasty and establish the Republic of China in 1912. One of his first acts of rebellion as a young man was to go to the local temple in his hometown and smash its statues.
What of the monotheistic faiths? Islam entered China more than a millennium ago via traders along its coast and up through the Grand Canal to Beijing, as well as along the Silk Road from Central Asia. But Islam was mainly confined to China’s geographic periphery, including regions like Xinjiang, Gansu, and Ningxia that were only occasionally under Chinese control. Even today, with these regions firmly ruled by Beijing, Islam counts at most 23 million believers, or 1.6% of the population. Conversions almost only happen when people marry into Muslim families—a result of government policies to define Islam as a faith that is practiced by only ten non-Chinese ethnic groups, especially the Hui and Uighurs. Islam sometimes provides an identity for people who do not want to be ruled by China—a situation we find today among the Uighurs in China’s far western province of Xinjiang—but its marginalized position means it rarely enters the contemporary national debate on faith, values, or national identity.
The impact of Christianity was radically different. It entered China later but spread among Han Chinese, causing much angst around the turn of the century. One popular saying then was “One more Christian; one less Chinese” (duo yige jidutu; shao yige zhongguoren)—the idea was that the religion was incompatible with being Chinese. But its influence was huge, helping to define modern China’s religious world. One basic reason for Christianity’s influence was its presence in the West. Chinese reformers realized that Western countries were Christian and concluded that it was not incompatible with a modern state. Some, like the Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek, even converted.
But more influential was the decision by almost all modernizers of China to adopt the western distinction between religion and superstition. The paradigm to determine acceptable from inacceptable practices was imported from the West via Japan, which had started a similar discussion a generation earlier. Chinese tinkers imported words like zongjiao (religion) and mixin (superstition).
The new way of organizing society called for the compartmentalization of religion, much as it had been in other societies. For much of European history, for example, politics and religion were closely intertwined. The rise of the nation-state in the 17th century began to change this, diminishing and compartmentalizing religion. The bureaucratic state took over schools and hospitals and destroyed legal privileges enjoyed by the church. The rise of Protestantism played an important role too, with the binary terms of authentic “religion” and taboo “superstitions” used to try to discredit some Catholic practices. This fed into Christianity’s long-standing appeal to logic: true religion could be defended by reason; everything else was superstition and should be destroyed.
As the world globalized in the 19th and 20th centuries, these ideas spread. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, the new Turkish state abolished the caliphate—the ruler of all Muslims—and even converted some mosques into museums. In the Middle East after World War II, political movements like the Ba’ath Party in Iraq and Syria tried to scale back Islam as well, seeing it as a cause for their region’s colonization by the British and French. All these movements were united by one desire: a strong state to imitate and fend off Western countries.
In China, this movement gained ground as revolutionaries like Sun gained ground in the late 19th century. At that time, China had an estimated one million temples around the turn of the century. A movement for political reform in 1898 called for many temples to be converted to schools. Although this reform plan was defeated, many local governments took steps on their own, and today many of the best-known elementary and high schools across China are located on the grounds of former temples.
Some traditional faiths survived. Out of the old amalgam of Chinese beliefs, Buddhism and Taoism coalesced into organized religions with organized hierarchies—something they did not have previously. Buddhism responded best to the new times. In the last dynasty, the Qing, it had already held a privileged position in society because the ruling family were ethnic Manchurians, who worshipped a form of Buddhism. It had a better-educated clergy that could interact with the new bureaucratic state being constructed by the Nationalist (and later the Communist) state. Early 20th century Buddhist thinkers came up with the idea of “Humanistic Buddhism”(renjian fojiao), the idea being that Buddhism should be part of the here and now, dealing with problems in society, and not only concerned with otherworldly affairs.
But most Chinese religion did not fare so well. Confucianism had been too closely tied to the old system to survive easily, despite efforts in the early part of the century to organize it into a religion, or even to declare it China’s “national” religion, much as Japanese reformers had done with indigenous religious practices that became known as Shinto. As for Daoism, it survived, but only barely. Because it was less hierarchical than Buddhism, most of its temples were not organized and ended up being closed or destroyed, leaving just a few of the great monasteries in the countryside or remote mountains.
Most tragically, folk religion was all but wiped out. These were the innumerable small temples or shrines that were locally managed and not linked to the major faiths—in other words, the vast majority of temples in China. They were declared “superstitious.” Hundreds of thousands of temples were obliterated, an immense wave of auto-cultural genocide.
When Sun’s Nationalist Party took power, the pace picked up. Sun's successor, Chiang Kai-shek, launched the “New Life” movement to cleanse China of old ways of doing things. Along with trying to eradicate opium, gambling, prostitution, and illiteracy, the Nationalists launched a campaign to destroy superstition as part of a broader effort to jianguo, or create a nation. In a precursor of Mao’s Red Guards, Nationalist Party youth organizations sent groups out to destroy traditional temples, and the government issued regulations with the ominous name “Standards to Determine Temples to Be Destroyed and Maintained.” The Nationalists effectively controlled China for only 10 years, so the impact of their measures was limited, but the course was set: Chinese religion was a social ill that needed to be radically reformed or destroyed in order to save China.
This way of looking at religion—as a problem that had to be controlled for China to resume its place as a great power—was picked up by the Communists, when they took power in 1949. More organized and possessing a powerful bureaucracy led by a Leninist political structure, they treated religion as one among many social groups to control. As in the beginning of the Republican era, only five religious groups were registered with the central government: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam and Christianity, which for administrative purposes was divided into two: Catholicism and Protestantism.
These five groups were run by groups under Communist Party control. But this system only lasted a few years. By the late 1950s, China was being run by increasingly erratic radical policies, culminating in the Cultural Revolution that banned all open religious expression.
When the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao's death in 1976, the Communist Party began to revise its position. Bereft of allies in society, it allowed all five religious groups to return. They rebuilt churches, mosques, and temples. They retrained clergy. The five official religious organizations were reinstalled. In Christianity, underground congregations existed but were explicitly tolerated.
This does not mean that China enjoyed religious freedom. Over the next 30 or so years, persecution continued—underground communities were attacked, the Dalai Lama's faction was still ostracized, while new religious movements like Falun Gong were attacked. But by and large the government was neutral. Religion was viewed skeptically but its growth was tolerated. By and large the government allowed religious groups to multiply—and they did, with churches, temples, and mosques sprouting up across the country.
For about the past decade, however, we have been in a new era. It is easy to peg this to Xi Jinping's assumption of power in 2012 but I believe it began earlier, around 2008.
This article was adapted from an essay that originally appeared in Religion and Christianity in Today's China.