One of my favorite China books is Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory. Shortly after the book was published in 2010, a CNN travel reporter interviewed Hessler about the book. There was one particular exchange that caught my attention.
CNNGo: In "Country Driving," villager Cao Chunmei turns to religion as a way to deal with the stresses of the country’s rapid development. Do you think Chinese will increasingly turn to religion?
Peter Hessler: I think we’ve already seen more and more Chinese taking an interest in religion. It’s going to continue, often for the same reason that Cao Chunmei turned to Buddhism—because she was overwhelmed by the incredible pace of change and the relentless materialism of this age. She wanted some deeper meaning in her life. I think that a lot of people in China feel this way, especially middle and upper class people who have already satisfied many of their fundamental material needs.
Still, it’s very different from religion in America or Europe. People in America see the statistics for numbers of Christians in China, and they envision a potentially deeply religious nation. The Chinese relationship with religion is pragmatic and fluid; people often change their faith very quickly. And I don’t see them following religion to a degree where it’s clearly not in their self-interest. Also, religion in China is very weak institutionally. It doesn’t matter so much whether a person says he or she believes in something; what matters is whether that person can become attached to a serious religious institution that has some impact on the community.
I got a glimpse of this "pragmatic religiosity" a number of years ago when I was still living in China. Some friends invited me to join them for a day in the mountains west of Beijing to visit some ancient Buddhist and Taoist temples. It was a nice weekend and I always enjoyed an excuse to head to the hills, so off we went.
Our “temple-hopping” party included me (the only foreigner), and six Chinese in our little two-car caravan, one of which was a little yellow sports car, but that's beside the point.
What is not beside the point is that all of these friends were thirty-something members of the Communist Party and five of them had fairly lofty positions (for their age) in either the central government or the Beijing city government. When pressed, all would profess atheism.
So as we went from temple to temple (some of which dated back 800 or 1000 years), I became increasingly intrigued by the fact that at each altar in each temple they would buy incense to burn and stand in front of the idols doing something that looked like praying. They asked me to join them, but I politely declined.
Eventually my bewilderment got the best of me and I had to ask them what was going on.
"Wait a minute," I said. "You're all members of the Chinese Communist Party, right?"
They all nodded their heads.
"But here you are burning incense and praying. Do you really believe this?"
Practically in unison they responded "No! We're doing this just in case."
Pragmatic religiosity; right there, on full display.
Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr
Note: This post is an adaptation of a post originally published on March 26, 2010 at Outside-In.