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The Changing Religious Landscape in Modernizing China

The Great Awakening in China (1)

From the series The Great Awakening in China

As a professor of sociology at Purdue University for 19 years, I have been regularly teaching a course called “Religion in America.” In American history, there have been three or four Great Awakenings. During a Great Awakening in the United States, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in camps for revival meetings and flocked into churches for personal salvation and spiritual renewal. This series will look at the changes in the religious landscape in China as the country modernizes. Another way to look at the topic is through the lens of a Great Awakening.

In China, the current Great Awakening has lasted for more than four decades, with millions of people turning to religion every year. You might think, really? Is that true? Why haven’t I heard of it until today? Don’t be surprised. The Chinese Great Awakening has been unnoticed by most people for two reasons. On the one hand, the Chinese Communist party-state has denied it, and tried hard to suppress it. On the other hand, America has become more secular, and Americans pay more attention to Chinese economy than Chinese religion. In this series, I will offer glimpses of the Great Awakening in China and trace the ways that religion has shaped and been shaped by modernizing China.

China through the ages has given birth to many religious traditions. China has also embraced many religions from other parts of the world, including the world religions of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. In recent decades, traditional Chinese religions have revived, world religions have thrived, and many new religious movements have sprung up. Some of the spiritual movements have gone beyond China’s borders, and their impacts in some parts of the world will become more noticeable in the coming years. Together, these factors are all part of the Chinese Great Awakening.

During World War II, China and America were allies. After that, they parted ways. While America became the leader of the free world, the Chinese Communist Party followed the Soviet path and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In the first 30 years of the People’s Republic, the Communist Party had frequent political campaigns. Many of them were disastrous and resulted in casualties in the millions. In the second 30 years, the party-state took a sharp turn toward economic development, and officially adopted the market economy. The market economy has liberated the Chinese spirit and unleashed Chinese creativity. Therefore, China’s economy has grown quickly and is on its way to catching up with the United States in total GDP. However, since 2012, under the current leadership of the Communist Chairman Xi Jinping, the party-state has been returning to the first 30 years in many of its policies. The religious policy is one that has been returning to the old days, which are not the good old days, but the bad old days.

I personally lived through those bad old days. I grew up in rural China in the 1960s and 1970s. During the so-called Cultural Revolution, all religions were banned. Religious buildings were shut down, holy scriptures were burned, sacred statues were smashed, monks and nuns were forced to return to the secular life, and many religious leaders and staunch believers were sent to prisons or labor camps. In the entire human history, only two countries ever banned religion. One was China, and the other was not the Soviet Union, not North Korea, but Communist Albania in Eastern Europe.

During my childhood, there was not a single temple or church in my village, in the larger township area, or in the nearby city. There was nothing religious around us. American church leader and scholar Donald MacInnis visited China in 1972. He observed:

During our visit we saw almost no evidence of surviving religious practice…. We saw no functioning Buddhist temples. Some of those we visited had been converted to use as tea houses, hostels, or assembly halls; others were maintained as museums…. Some Chinese with whom we talked were curious about religion. They were amazed to learn that educated persons in the West continue to believe and practice religion. For them, they said, the study of scientific materialism had exposed the logical fallacies and absurdities of religion.

Atheism has been the official ideology of the Chinese Communist Party. It is not only for Communist Party members. Atheism has been taught in schools, and from elementary school to graduate school, we had to learn Marxist dialectical materialism. According to it, religion is the opium of the people, which is only for weak people who cannot face hard reality. People should find life satisfaction in material wealth and cultural richness without the illusion of religion.

Not only religions were banned. Universities were closed too. In my first year in high school, I did not even know that there was such a thing called university. In high school, we had an English class for a while. The first English sentence we were taught was “Long live Chairman Mao!” The Communist leader Chairman Mao was worshipped like a god. Mao’s portraits were in every home and public place. People made morning prayers and evening prayers in front of a statue or picture of Mao. There were songs and dances dedicated to Mao. Mao’s sayings were collected in the “Little Red Book.” Everyone had a copy of the “Little Red Book,” memorized Mao’s sayings, and quoted them on almost all occasions. At school, each class would begin with chanting in unison: “Long live Chairman Mao.”

But soon after we learned to chant that in English, Mao died. How magical the English language is! That was in September 1976. The following year, universities were reopened. I entered university in 1978. In 1979, churches, temples, and mosques began to be restored and reopened for religious activities. That was the beginning of the economic reform era, and it was also the beginning of the Chinese Great Awakening.

I sometimes get this question: How did you become interested in religion if you grew up in a society without religion at all? At the personal level, religious conversion often involves accidental encounters with believers. It may also include mystical encounters with the Divine. At the social level, there are social and cultural factors that make spiritual awakening possible or inevitable.

In college, somehow I became fascinated by the notion of logos in ancient Greek philosophy. In graduate school I discovered that almost every Western philosopher made some statements about God. Therefore, I wrote my bachelor’s thesis on the notion of logos in Heraclitus and wrote my master’s thesis on the notion of God in Western philosophy from ancient Greece to modern times. Some years later, I discovered that the Gospel of John in the New Testament begins with this verse: “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God.” Oh, my God. To me this is both philosophical and mystical at once.

Editor’s Note: This article, together with the others in the series, was originally a lecture, given at the Chautauqua Institute on June 29, 2021. The lecture has been lightly edited and reprinted with permission.

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Image credit: Zhang Kaiyv via UnSplash
YANG Fenggang

YANG Fenggang

  Dr. Fenggang Yang is a professor of sociology at Purdue University and the director of the Center on Religion and the Global East. His primary research interests include the sociology of religion, religious change in China, and immigrant religion in the United States. Dr. YANG has authored numerous articles and …View Full Bio

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