Are Chinese People Religious?

When I was teaching on a university campus, one of the things that surprised me was the admission by many of my students that they were afraid of ghosts. One of them put it to me very succinctly: “We are atheists during the day, but when the lights go out it’s a different story.”

I was reminded of that as I read an intriguing article in The New York Times by Ian Johnson about the difficulties in polling Chinese people about their religious beliefs and/or affiliations. He notes that, according to the results of a recent WIN/Gallup Poll, “47 percent identified themselves as atheist and 30 percent as nonreligious; 14 percent said they were religious.” These numbers are pretty much opposite of what is found in other countries, where 13 percent and 23 percent describe themselves as being atheist and non-religious respectively.

How can this be?

One possible explanation that Johnson highlights comes from Dr. Yang Fengang, Director of the Center on Religion in Chinese Society at Perdue:

Yang Fenggang … believes the answers have to do with the question. The word for religion in Chinese, zongjiao, is a 19th-century term borrowed from the Japanese, who in turn translated the concept from German.

In East Asia, religious beliefs and practices were long an organic part of daily life. Modern states separated religion into a separate sphere, and so needed a new word. As religion became a hotly contested subject in China in the 20th century, under the Nationalists and then the Communists, zongjiao became a narrow, highly politicized term that usually referred to formal organizations and structures.

“‘Religion’ in China is a contested term,” Professor Yang said. “You have to look at how the questions are posed.”

WIN/Gallup asked respondents in every country to characterize themselves as “a religious person,” “not a religious person” or “a convinced atheist,” with a fourth option of “do not know/no response.” In China, the first two options used the term “xinyang zongjiao,” literally “a person who believes in religion.”

Xinyang zongjiao is a very formal term,” Professor Yang said. “People may not respond the way the researchers intend.”

The authors of the recent book A Star in the East: The Rise of Christianity in China, by Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang also speak to this question, noting that according to numerous surveys, many Chinese people who identify themselves as being atheist or non-religious frequently engage in what are normally considered “religious activities (going to the temple, burning incense, etc.). In other words, it depends on what is meant by “religion.”

It seems that most Chinese define religion as belonging to an organized religious group, rather than consisting of practices, such as praying in temples, or of belief. Hence, some Chinese say that they believe in Jesus Christ while denying that they are Christians.

Keeping this peculiar definition of religion in mind, there was in immense decline in irreligiousness between 2001 and the 2007 surveys. The percent who gave their religion as "none" fell from 93 percent down to 77.1 percent. It seems implausible that a change of such great magnitude, reflects conversions. Rather, it seems to reflect an increased willingness of Chinese to admit to having religion. (p.5)

In March of 2014 Johnson wrote a similar piece for The New York Review of Books analyzing a similar PEW Survey, in which he focuses on the use of the term for God:

“I don’t know how the question was translated for other countries (especially Japan or India), but in Chinese, the question used a term for “God” that is applicable in modern China almost only to Protestant Christianity: shangdi (上帝).

In Chinese, the questions were: “不信仰上帝,也能有良好的道德和价值” and “为了有良好的道德和价值观,信仰上帝是必要的.” I would translate these questions back into English as “Even without believing in (the Protestant) God, one can still have good virtues or values” and “In order to have good virtues and values, one must believe in (the Protestant) God.”

Shangdi has a pre-Christian meaning—referring to a supreme deity—but it was appropriated by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century and since then has come to be synonymous with the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions, especially Protestant Christianity. (Catholics eventually changed their nomenclature for God to “tianzhu”; see the Rites Controversy of the early eighteenth century, the dispute among Catholics about how far to incorporate indigenous traditions into Catholic practice.)”

Are Chinese people religious? It depends on what the meaning of “religion” is.

Image credit: Yonghegong Temple, Beijing, by V.T. Polywoda, via Flickr