Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 is often seen as a watershed in contemporary Chinese history, and it did indeed imply changes on many levels in society. Deng Xiaoping came to power and the era of reform and opening up (gaige kaifang) started in late 1978. The so-called “Deng Xiaoping theory” is one of the main ideological foundations for current Chinese political life. Deng Xiaoping supposedly said that “To get rich is glorious,” which is one of the central tenets of his “theory”; it also follows the lead of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
When the CPC discarded its fundamental ideology for economic development, a vacuum appeared. When Mao Zedong no longer was “the red sun in our hearts,” as people had sung just a few years earlier, there was no obvious substitute. Many officials, and also some academics, agree that the reform policy brought on a threefold “crisis of belief”(san xin weiji): a crisis of trust (xinrenxinxinxinyang). Although this expression was originally related to social beliefs, identity and moral cohesion in society, it can also be applied to the religious situation in contemporary China. From all areas of society there is great concern regarding this development, and the drive in recent years to reestablish Confucian teachings as a potential norm is an example of how the CPC is trying to tackle this issue. Nationalistic projects such as the Beijing Olympics, Shanghai Expo 2010 as well as the space program also serve this purpose. Recently, president and party leader Xi Jinping also started to promote “the Chinese dream” as an analogy to “the American dream.”
One could easily paint a very dark picture of contemporary urban China as a hedonistic society where entertainment, fun and pleasure dominate, and government supported nationalism is the mainstream thought or “belief.” Casual sexual relations are increasingly common, abortion rates are high and there is a rapidly increasing consumption of various drugs. According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is now the primary cause of death for the 15 to 34 year-old age group in the PRC. The party-state shows concern over the moral decline, and several official reports and academic studies confirm the negative trends. This is all in stark contrast to the distinct “puritan” morality of the Maoist period.
There is a strong need for faith, even an urge, as there is otherwise a great risk for further social disruption and political instability, the latter being the greatest fear of the Chinese leadership. When acknowledging the “crisis of faith,” the party in a way also acknowledges its own lack of legitimacy. The general mistrust in authorities, especially in the CPC, gives little alternative for the individual but to care for oneself and to satisfy one’s personal needs. Party membership still increases, but it is merely for career purposes. This situation has led to fragmenting and a strong individualist perspective. Traditional Confucian teachings stress “filial piety” (xiao), but the lack of concern for the elderly in contemporary society is so serious that the government implemented a law in July 2013 making “frequent” visits to parents mandatory.
The pent-up urge for cultural and intellectual choice and freedom has been fertile ground for postmodern practice. It was also fuelled by the ideological vacuum. Basic identity came into flux as people realized that what they had believed in was false. What happens if you never get rich—is there only “glory” for those who succeed? After the June fourth massacre of 1989, much of the hope from the 1980s disappeared, and this paved the way for a narrower outlook and egocentrism. The economy and success came even more into focus during the 1990s as a workable way for the CPC to regain at least some credibility. Large parts of Chinese society are in a postmodern state today, an eclectic mix of unfinished modernizing processes, beliefs and hopes. There are also symbolic and geographical border areas where dissidents, the poor, ethnic minorities and other marginalized people struggle to control their own lives, challenge development and protect their subcultures.
In some ways the relativity and lack of absolutes or solid truth in contemporary China have been positive. People are curious about different things and are open to adding their own interpretations. This openness is also having some impact in other areas, and many question authority, social conditions and inequalities. Being religious is not stranger than any other fad or weird behavior in an individualistic society. Religion is becoming a commodity that can be sampled, and people visit temples and churches like a smorgasbord of faith and religious belief from which one can choose a little of everything. This resembles very much the way that New Age is influencing the Western world, and books by Osho and other Eastern gurus have found their way into Chinese bookstoreswhere Bibles still are not generally available. Self-help literature is also a bestseller in China. One may associate this with the old Confucian idea of self-cultivation (xiushen), but there is actually a significant difference. Confucian self-cultivation aims at a higher goal of virtue and is not ego-centered but takes into account one’s place in society.
The emergence of falungong in the 1990s showed the great need for spirituality and, to some extent, also put a focus on faith healing. Healing is one of the incentives behind the great religious revival, especially in the countryside. Among the urban wealthy and powerful, health care is readily available, and there is no urgent, actual need for it. Nevertheless, self-proclaimed “qigong masters,” who claim to cure disease and perform magician’s tasksall for a hefty sum of moneyare very popular. Recently, such a “master,” Wang Lin, fled to Hong Kong to escape investigation in the Mainland. Apparently Wang also attracted high-level CPC officials. Officially, the CPC clamps down on such activities and promotes “a scientific view of development” adhering to an almost “scientistic” worldview.
However, when the CPC in 2005 started promoting the idea of a “socialist harmonious society,” it also started taking religion into account as a potential source for “harmony”although with a purely instrumental perspective. The party expects religious organizations to wholeheartedly support the socio-economic development of society, as well as “making harmony a major part of their activities.” Registered religious groups, more or less willingly, follow this directive but often make something different out of the propaganda, taking the opportunity to preach and spread their original message. In my observation, the majority of believers in registered groups do not approve of such a politicized message, and the Protestant church leadership struggles in earnest to determine how to make theology relevant to contemporary society.
The so-called “cultural Christians” (wenhua jidutu) that emerged in the 1980s were an interesting counterweight to the moral struggles of society. They were intellectuals with no Christian background who found that Christian ethics, and eventually faith, were an answer to their search for something on which to build a new society. This handful of well-known scholars claimed to be “Christ followers,” and while rejecting Christian community and rites, they saw faith as something central. The “cultural Christians” claimed that their “personal” faith was the modern, individual form of religion. It is noteworthy that they rarely talked about postmodernism.
Having lost their impact today, the “cultural Christians” have still been important as an inspiration for the younger generation of intellectuals becoming Christians today. They showed that faith was also possible in post-Mao China—not just finance, success and despair. In a kind of postmodern twist, several handfuls of leading young intellectuals—writers, lawyers and cultural figures—have chosen Christian faith in recent years. Since they are outspoken about it, including in the media, they again inspire many students and young professionals.
There is a tendency among some of the urban, unregistered churches to adhere to reformed theology, inspired by what in North America is sometimes known as “New Calvinism.” The focus is more on Puritan teachings than on John Calvin himself. Such communities draw much interest from young urbanites, and they seem to attract these young people because of their solid stance on moral issues and their non-relative beliefs, contrasting with society at large. Reformed Christianity may also appeal to the subconscious Confucian thought patterns and beliefs that linger among Chinese elite intellectuals in general. As both Christian elders and public intellectuals, the young urban church leaders also assume the traditional role of the intellectual, feeling his responsibility to act and assist when the nation is in danger, this time from moral decline.
The “unconsciously postmodern” contemporary Chinese society shows many signs of counter movements and beliefs that go against the mainstream of relativity and egocentrism. The acknowledgement from the party-state that there is a “crisis of belief” is also a sign of urgency, even if the interpretation of what is lacking differs from that of many urban intellectuals. One also needs to take into account the countryside which faces a different set of challenges than those of urban areas. Yet despair for the future and lack of faith are equally serious there, if not more so. However, in both urban and rural areas there is a movement of faith, Christian and otherwise, which shows great hope for China’s future.