Eastern Upheaval

Understanding the resurgence of religion in China.

In China a lot of practices were derided as superstitious and outright banned throughout the 20th century, even before Communist rule. Now the government has allowed traditional folk religions to come back, but they call it traditional Chinese culture. Pilgrimages to holy mountains get support from government not as a religious movement but as a cultural event, even though they are quite religious. The government is helping out those kinds of groups because it hopes they can give society some sort of moral compass.

 

Ian Johnson is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the persecution of Falun Gong adherents in China. His new book is The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao (Pantheon, 2017).

When did you first realize religion in China was resurging?In the 1990s more people were interested in spiritual issues, and the radically secular and economically focused society around them wasn’t providing the type of answers they needed. You could see there was a searching for something else, but at the time I thought I only noticed this because I was interested in the topic.

When did you realize it was a crucial issue in China?I came back to China in 2009 and realized this isn’t just me being interested in this topic, it’s a crucial national issue that gets to the heart of a lot of social issues. In some ways it is the issue: What are the shared values of China?

How is this resurgence of religion in China different from what we see in the West?A lot of people in the West—as well as Chinese Communist ideology—think that as countries get more prosperous, society “progresses” and religions fade in importance. Religious attendance is going up in China, as it’s still in a period of growth rather than a period of entrenchment. A lot of people are still looking for answers.

How does the Chinese government differentiate between culture and religion?In China a lot of practices were derided as superstitious and outright banned throughout the 20th century, even before Communist rule. Now the government has allowed traditional folk religions to come back, but they call it traditional Chinese culture. Pilgrimages to holy mountains get support from government not as a religious movement but as a cultural event, even though they are quite religious. The government is helping out those kinds of groups because it hopes they can give society some sort of moral compass.

Are there some kinds of Buddhism the government would crack down on?They worry about foreign ties, so that could apply to Tibetan Buddhism with the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader, but they have more trouble with Christianity and Islam because both have strong overseas ties. Many of the unregistered churches have some overseas ties, maybe informal. They are also skeptical about Christianity because Christians believe that while religion is mainly about the transcendent, it also applies to this world and how society is organized. The Chinese government wants to control society.

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