Religion in China

While the Communist Party of China is officially irreligious (Aren’t most political parties?) the Chinese government officially recognizes and accepts five religions:  Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam, Taoism, and Buddhism.  And all are openly practiced here.

Ancient Buddhist temples are everywhere in China and are actively used and visited.
Ancient Buddhist temples are everywhere in China and are actively used and visited.

Buddhism and Taoism, along with Chinese folk religion, are the most common.  And while I admittedly know little about the core doctrine of any of them, my experiential sense is that all are practiced with ‘Chinese characteristics’, meaning only that there appears to be a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices among practitioners.

Many common Chinese cultural beliefs and practices, including feng shui, traditional Chinese medicine, and the Chinese martial arts, in fact, are intertwined with the tenets of Taoism, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Chinese are overwhelmingly ‘spiritual’ in their thinking even if they don’t adhere to prescribed behaviors of any broadly organized religion.

Statistics, however, are hard to come by and frequently disputed, as is almost anything having to do with the topic of religion anywhere in the world today.  Nonetheless, a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center found that 40% of Chinese identify with Buddhism or Chinese folk religion, a categorization which I assume includes Taoism.  And while 52% didn’t consciously affiliate with any defined religious belief system that is not to say they are atheists or irreligious.  While some undoubtedly are, a good many, I suspect, are both situational and varied in their beliefs and may not make the distinction between faith and religion.  (Personally I don’t believe Chinese culture is conducive to any kind of Western polling, but that is another matter for another post.)

Many aspects of Chinese life and culture, from feng shui to Traditional Chinese Medicine are intertwined with the basic tenets of Taoism.
Many aspects of Chinese life and culture, from feng shui to Traditional Chinese Medicine are intertwined with the basic tenets of Taoism.

Christianity, of course, gets the most attention by the Western media.  While noting again that any statistic on the topic appears to be disputed, another 2010 survey by Dr. Yang Fenggang of Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society identified 30 million Protestants and 3 million Catholics living and worshipping in China.

But, China’s critics will quickly point out, don’t such Christians live under the yoke of government regulation, and, by implication, various forms of government restriction, if not intervention?  While the regulatory part is technically true, however, that presumed implication does not align with my own experience in China.

Christianity has been in China since the 7th Century and Western Christian missionaries have been operating here since the 16th Century.  Both Sun Yat-Sen and Chiang Kai-Shek, the first and second presidents of the Republic of China (post-dynasty China) were Christians.  Even the Vatican recognizes the sacraments performed by Chinese Catholic clergy as licit.

Christianity has been practiced in China since the 7th Century.
Christianity has been practiced in China since the 7th Century.

Since their arrival centuries ago, however, the work of foreign missionaries and foreign governments has been intertwined.  And since those Western powers at times seemed intent on enabling China’s opium addiction or carving up and colonizing the country for their own economic and political gain, it is not surprising that missionaries ultimately became the face of everything evil about foreign intervention in China, ultimately leading to the Boxer Revolution of 1899, in which foreigners in general and missionaries in particular were targeted for retribution.

Given that history it’s no surprise, therefore, that when Mao Zedong and the Communists came to power in 1949 they took a dim view of Western Christianity and viewed the missionaries who were its face to China as puppets of Western oppression and exploitation.  And threw them all out.  Or at least made them feel unwelcome.

Mao, however, did not ban Christianity and ultimately reached a harmonious state of mutual accommodation with Chinese Christians leaders.  In 1951, Y.T. Wu (1893–1979), a prominent Chinese Christian leader, initiated the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, which promoted a strategy of ‘self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation’ in order to remove foreign influences from the Chinese churches and to assure the government that the churches would be patriotic to the newly established People’s Republic of China and not some foreign power.

Within these parameters Christianity continued to operate openly in China until the Cultural Revolution of 1966 – 1976, during which all religious expression was effectively banned.  While the Cultural Revolution did not eradicate Christianity in China it did force it underground, resulting in the creation of ‘house churches’ that many Westerners, largely incorrectly, associate with Chinese Christianity even today.

The contrast that is China today.  A modern performance fountain against the backdrop of the ancient Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an.
The contrast that is China today. A modern performance fountain against the backdrop of the ancient Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an.

In 1979 the government lifted the ban on religious expression and officially restored the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, joined the following year by the China Christian Council (CCC).  Together these two organizations, along with the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) are collectively responsible for the regulation of Christianity in China.

But what does that mean, exactly?

I’m sure you would get a myriad of answers to that question depending on whom you ask.  And I’m sure there are those who would vehemently assert that the very concepts of Christianity and government regulation are inherent contradictions.

But here’s what I’ve seen.

The churches must stay out of politics.  Any attempt to stir up political debate would, I’m sure, be met with swift ‘regulation.’  And the churches, I am confident, cannot officially promote or endorse any religious allegiance that supersedes or compromises allegiance to the state.

The iconic Temple of Heaven, built in 1406-1420, is regarded as a Taoist temple.  During the Boxer Rebellion, however, the Eight Nation Alliance of foreign forces used it as its temporary command headquarters.
The iconic Temple of Heaven in Beijing, built in 1406-1420, is regarded as a Taoist temple. During the Boxer Rebellion, however, the Eight Nation Alliance of foreign forces used it as its temporary command headquarters.

Beyond that, however, government regulation appears to have had little or no impact on the liturgical beliefs and practices of any Christian church.  Chinese Christians, from my experience, hold beliefs and follow practices very much in line with Christians the world over.

There is one further caveat, however.  Proselytization, particularly by foreigners and unregistered religious groups, is forbidden.  And even registered groups are only allowed to proselytize within state-approved venues and private settings.

If you’re visiting China you will have no trouble finding Christian churches catering to Western tourists and ex-patriates openly operating in all of the major cities of China.  These churches conduct their services in English and the look and feel is very much in line with what you’re accustomed to, I’m sure.

These Western churches, however, are only open to foreign passport holders.  Chinese nationals are not allowed to attend, even as guests.  And I can tell you from experience that passports are mandatory and they are checked.

My own family has attended one such church off and on for several years (There’s a bit too much worship music for our tastes.) and have never found the program or the sermons to be visibly censored in any way.  Government officials will attend from time to time and sit quietly and respectfully in the back but there’s no sense of ill-will or intimidation.  One senses that like the rest of the working world these officials have a ‘to do’ list and are merely checking it off.

The grounds of the Hongluo Buddhist temple in northern Beijing are dotted with more than 500 statutes of Buddha, often adorned with red cloaks.
The grounds of the Hongluo Buddhist temple in northern Beijing are dotted with more than 500 statutes of Buddha, often adorned with red cloaks.

It is true that for the six months leading up to the 2008 Olympics the church was denied use of its meeting place but I honestly believe that was a function of security concerns rather than political ones.  If the government were truly concerned about the political optics one has to assume that it would have encouraged the churchgoers to meet and paraded Western journalists through the services.

Beijing was genuinely and legitimately concerned that one of its critics, and every country has them, might try to use the games as a political soap box and I can say that meetings of any kind were carefully monitored and generally discouraged.  Fair enough, in my book, as the games went off without a hitch and were the kind of positive spectacle they are designed to be.

And the fact is that Western missionaries are here in abundance.  They currently operate NGO’s, like orphanages, disaster-relief organizations, and the like, but they’re here nonetheless, very visible, and making a difference.  They don’t proselytize, having adopted an accommodating strategy of ‘see what I do for people and ask me why’, but within those parameters they appear to have, in most cases, earned the sincere gratitude and support of the government.

Like so many aspects of Chinese life, including commerce, the government plays a role in Chinese religion.  And under such circumstances there is always a fine line between interference and harmonious co-existence.  It is a line, however, that the Chinese people and their government seem particularly adept at walking.  Somehow, some way, they seem to make it work.

Religion, faith, culture, and tradition intertwine in China.  Money placed on the back of a turtle on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in the hope of securing good luck.
Religion, faith, culture, and tradition all intertwine in China. Money placed on the back of a turtle on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in the hope of securing good luck.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

2 thoughts on “Religion in China

    1. Thank you. That’s an interesting question and one that I thought about as I wrote this. I must admit that I have never encountered even a reference to Judaism among the Chinese nor am I aware of any organized services. There are Jewish ex-pats here, of course, but I am ignorant of their worship practices while here. I will try to find out more!

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