Come to Jesus: at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin, November 2013.
KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

For decades, outsiders have thought of China as a country where religion and faith play marginal roles. Images of Chinese people overwhelmingly involve economics or politics: massive cities sprouting up, diligent workers laboring in vast factories, nouveaux riches flaunting their wealth, farmers toiling in polluted fields, dissidents languishing in prison. The stories about faith in China that do exist tend to involve victims, such as Chinese Christians forced to worship underground or groups such as Falun Gong being repressed by the government.

Such images fail to fully capture the reality of present-day China, where hundreds of millions of people are consumed with doubt about their society and are turning to religion and faith for answers they cannot find elsewhere in their radically secular society. They wonder what makes a good life and if there is more to it than material gain. As a 42-year-old pastor of a church in the western metropolis of Chengdu told me recently, “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor. But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet we’re still unhappy. We realize there’s something missing, and that’s a spiritual life.”

Across China, hundreds of temples, churches, and mosques open every year, attracting millions of new worshippers. The precise figures are often debated, but even a casual visitor to China cannot miss the signs: new churches dotting the countryside, temples being rebuilt or massively expanded, and even new government policies that encourage traditional values. Faith and values are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life.

China’s ethnic minorities—especially Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims—have long valued religion, sometimes as a form of resistance against an oppressive central state. But a similar or even stronger move toward spiritualism is emerging among Han Chinese, the ethnic group that makes up 91 percent of the country’s population. A search for deeper meaning is no longer just a salve for China’s marginal people, but a major preoccupation of the same Chinese who have benefited the most from their country’s economic takeoff. 

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that China is undergoing a spiritual revival similar to the Great Awakening that took place in the United States in the nineteenth century. Then, as now, a country on the move has been unsettled by great social and economic change. People have been thrust into densely populated cities where they have no friends and no support systems. Religion and faith offer them ways of looking at age-old questions that people everywhere struggle to answer: Why are we here? What really makes us happy? How do we achieve contentment as individuals, as a community, as a nation? 

This burst of religious and spiritual activity poses risks for the Chinese Communist Party. But China’s leaders have also benefited from it, and have even encouraged and fostered it in some ways. So far, the party has managed a delicate balance, tolerating the spiritual awakening without overreaching or provoking a dangerous backlash. But as Beijing pursues a new, harder line on social, economic, and political change, this equilibrium may become harder to maintain.

A burst of religious and spiritual activity poses risks for the Chinese Communist Party.

OLD-TIME RELIGION

Understanding the spiritual revival in contemporary China requires a detour back in time to its cause: one of history’s greatest antireligious movements. Contrary to what many people assume, this campaign did not originate with the Communist takeover of China in 1949. Instead, it began a century earlier, when China’s traditional civilization began to collapse.

China’s decline in the nineteenth century triggered a crisis of confidence. For most of its history, China had dominated its neighbors. At times, some were militarily stronger, especially the nomadic peoples to its north, such as the Mongols and the Manchus. But even when those groups got the upper hand and conquered China, the Chinese rarely doubted the superiority of their culture. They were often self-critical, but they believed that their way of life would prevail.

Children hold candles during the Easter mass at a church in Xiaohan, China, April 2009.
Children hold candles during the Easter mass at a church in Xiaohan, China, April 2009.
VINCENT DU / REUTERS

China’s encounter with the West shook that self-assurance. China suffered a string of military defeats that began with the First Opium War of 1839–42, during which British forces defeated the Qing dynasty. As the century progressed, many Chinese looked around the world and saw how the West had carved up Africa and the Americas and had subjugated India. By the end of the nineteenth century, a growing number of Chinese had come to believe that their country needed to change if it were to survive. China lacked modern science, engineering, education, public health, and advanced agricultural methods. All these things were products of the West’s dramatically different way of ordering society, which was based primarily on science rather than religion and tradition. 

As China’s crisis deepened, increasingly radical ideas took hold. China didn’t just need new policies, or even a new dynasty. Reformers wanted to overthrow the entire imperial political establishment, and that meant destroying the religious system that undergirded it. Understanding why requires one to envision how traditional Chinese society was organized. Religion was not an institution separate from secular society, and religious practice was not something Chinese people engaged in once or twice a week, at a certain place, under the guidance of a particular holy book. Chinese religion involved little theology and almost no clergy. But this didn’t mean Chinese religion was weak. Instead, it was diffused over every aspect of life—a fine membrane that held society together. The country had an estimated one million temples around the turn of the century, with many villages home to half a dozen places of worship.

When reformers and revolutionaries set out to re-create China in the late nineteenth century, they started with religion.

The prominence of faith in China has also long been masked by the complexity of religious identity among the Chinese. People today tend to think in exclusive terms about religion: this person is Catholic, that person is Jewish, that one is Muslim. “What faith do you believe in?” seems like a simple question for people who define religion according to monotheistic norms. But for most of Chinese history, this sort of question would have sounded strange. In China, religion has historically been more about community than identity. Each village had at least one temple where residents honored a certain god on certain holy days. For most of its history, China had three main religious teachings, or jiao: Buddhism (fojiao), Confucianism (rujiao), and Taoism (daojiao)—but they largely did not function as separate institutions with their own followers. Instead, people believed in an amalgam of these faiths that is best described simply as “Chinese religion.”

What mattered more than religious labels or identities were rituals, which helped organize Chinese society. In imperial China, the central bureaucracy was relatively small, and most officials sent to the provinces by Beijing made it only to the county seat, which meant that one person oversaw hundreds of villages and tens of thousands of people. Local life was run by committees headed by local grandees, and the most important committee was the one that ran the local temples. These bodies often managed other projects as well, such as building irrigation systems or raising militias to fight off bandits. Temples also provided a physical space for government rule: they were often the places where local elders met, read proclamations, and carried out punishments. In the words of the historian Prasenjit Duara, temples were Chinese society’s “nexus of power.”

But religion offered more than practical assistance in running imperial China; it was the political system’s lifeblood. The emperor was called “the Son of Heaven” and presided over elaborate rituals that underscored his semidivine nature. That is why when reformers and revolutionaries set out to re-create China in the late nineteenth century, they started with religion. To build a new political and cultural system, they first had to demolish the old one. 

Incense burns on the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, at a temple in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, February 2016. 
china stringer network / reuters

BORN AGAIN

At around the same time that reformers were beginning their assault on Chinese religion, a foreign faith—Christianity—was gaining traction and exerting a subtle but powerful influence. By the late sixteenth century, Christianity had secured a foothold in China, but it remained a minor phenomenon until missionaries began to arrive in the nineteenth century as a result of China’s defeat in the Opium Wars. Unlike Islam, which had entered China a millennium earlier but was largely confined to the country’s periphery, Christianity began to spread in China’s economic heartland and among its most influential classes. This caused a great deal of angst: one popular saying at the time was “One more Christian, one less Chinese.” 

But Christianity held a powerful appeal for modernizing reformers who often looked to the West for inspiration and were impressed by the religion’s apparent compatibility with modern states there. Some reformers, including the Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek, even converted to Christianity. But most important was the decision by almost all Chinese modernizers to adopt what they saw as a Protestant-style distinction between religion and superstition. They concluded that only religious practices that resembled Christianity were “real” and should be allowed to survive; the rest were mere superstitions and should be banished.

The religious cleansing that followed unfolded haphazardly, often through individual actions. A telling example involves Sun Yat-sen, who would eventually help overthrow the Qing dynasty and establish the Republic of China in 1912. One of his first acts of rebellion involved storming into the local temple in his hometown in Xiangshan County and smashing its statues. When Sun’s Nationalist Party took power, the pace of change picked up, and Chiang, who succeeded Sun in 1926, launched the New Life Movement to cleanse China of its old ways. Along with trying to eradicate opium abuse, gambling, prostitution, and illiteracy, the Nationalists launched a “campaign to destroy superstition.” In the period between the end of imperial rule and the Communists’ victory in the civil war in 1949, half of the one million temples that had dotted China at the turn of the century were destroyed, shuttered, or converted to other uses.

FAITH NO MORE

Following their takeover, China’s Communists initially handled religion as they did other noncommunist elements of society, through co-optation. The party set up associations for the five groups that had emerged out of the wreckage of the old system: Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants. These five were allowed to run their surviving temples, churches, and mosques. Everything was firmly guided by the party, but religion wasn’t banned.

That system lasted only a few years. In the late 1950s, Mao Zedong began to suppress most religious activity, and by the time he launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Chinese Communist Party had begun one of the most furious assaults on religion in world history. Virtually every place of worship was closed, and almost all clergy were driven out. In the Catholic stronghold of Taiyuan, in Shanxi Province, the central cathedral was turned into a “living exhibition” to demonstrate the backwardness of religion: its priests and nuns were held in cages, and local residents were ordered to troop by and observe them. Across the country, Buddhist, Taoist, and Catholic clerics who had taken vows of chastity were forced to marry. Family shrines were dismantled. Temples were gutted, torn down, or occupied by factories or government offices; zealous Maoist cadres pitched the temples’ sacred statues into bonfires or smuggled them to Hong Kong to be sold off through antiques dealers. (This is one reason why so many temples in China today lack the great works of art that characterize ancient places of worship elsewhere around the world.)

In response to such repression, religion went underground. Churchgoers began meeting in secret, and Buddhists and Taoists tried to save their scriptures and ritual manuals by burying them or committing them to memory. Authorities forbade the open practice of physical forms of spiritual cultivation, such as meditation and many martial arts. In public, the only form of worship the party allowed to thrive was the cult of Mao. People wore Mao badges, clutched his book of sayings like a sacred text, and traveled to his hometown of Shaoshan as if on a pilgrimage. Some people even prayed to Mao, asking for his instructions in the morning and reporting back to him in the evening. Much of this fervor was coerced; a failure to show sufficient revolutionary fervor could result in prison or death. But especially among young people, the phenomenon was real—an ecstatic outpouring of emotion, an ersatz religion for a country that had destroyed its own.

THE GOD THAT FAILED

There was one problem with Mao as a living god: he died. When that happened, in 1976, the country went into shock. Some people were thrilled—finally, the tyrant was gone—but many were crushed. Tears flowed, and the country ground to a halt. With traditional religion decimated and Mao dead, people were unsure how to channel their hopes and fears.

The party responded by trying to turn the clock back to the early 1950s. In 1982, as part of a more general accounting of the destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party issued a 20-page paper titled “The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question During Our Country’s Socialist Period.” Better known as Document 19, it featured an astoundingly candid analysis of China’s religious crisis—and provided the legal basis for the religious revival now under way. The document stated that for 19 of Mao’s 27 years in power, “leftist errors” took hold—a surprising admission of how badly the party had fumbled religious policy during its first three decades in power. It conceded that Maoist radicals had “forbade normal religious activities,” “fabricated a host of wrongs and injustices that they pinned upon these religious personages,” and “used violent measures against religion that forced religious movements underground.” The document went on to describe religion in sympathetic language, arguing forcefully that it would disappear—but only very gradually. In the meantime, the party’s policy would be “respect for and protection of the freedom of religious belief.” Places of worship could reopen, and a new generation of clergy could receive training. 

There was one problem with Mao as a living god: he died.

The approach described in Document 19 has more or less guided the party ever since. As a result, China is no longer the bastion of godless communism that many foreigners still imagine. However, that hardly means that religion is not a source of severe tension in Chinese society. People of faith intensely resent the government’s control of major temples, churches, and mosques, and many have turned to underground places of worship. In the public sphere, religion remains tightly circumscribed. It is all but banned from the media; religious leaders, for example, almost never comment on the great issues of the day, or even interact with one another. Interreligious dialogue is all but unknown.

The turmoil of the past century and a half has also made people uncomfortable about expressing their religiosity. In fact, most people shun the word “religion” (zongjiao), which is still seen as a sensitive term. This results in colossal misunderstandings when outsiders try to gauge religious or spiritual life in China. In 2014, for example, the Pew Research Center issued a major study on global views about religion that reported that in China, only a startling 14 percent of respondents believed that morality was linked to belief in religion. In 2015, a WIN/Gallup International poll reported that 61 percent of Chinese identified as atheists, far higher than the worldwide average of just 11 percent. 

These studies were flawed, however, because they asked people whether they believed in a zongjiao. (Other translation issues ultimately led Pew to reissue its report with China removed altogether from the findings.) It is much more useful to ask Chinese people about how they act or whether they believe in specific ideas. In a 2007 survey of 3,000 Chinese conducted by British and Chinese researchers, 77 percent of respondents said they believed in moral causality, or baoying, a key pillar of traditional Chinese belief. This is the idea that you reap what you sow—what you do in this life has repercussions in the next. Forty-four percent agreed with the statement “Life and death depends on the will of heaven,” and 25 percent said they had experienced the intervention of a “Buddha” (fo) in their lives during the past 12 months, meaning that a god or spirit had influenced their lives.

Other surveys have also managed to capture the scope of the religious surge. A 2005 poll carried out by East China Normal University, in Shanghai, found that 31 percent of the country’s population, or about 300 million people, were religious. Around 200 million Chinese adhered to Buddhism, Taoism, or folk practices such as worshipping one’s ancestors or deified historical figures, such as famous generals or medical doctors. The poll also found that around 60 million or so Chinese were Christians. The main reason for the poll’s high religious response rate was that the researchers used the word xinyang, or “faith,” instead of zongjiao. Another study, led by the scholar Fenggang Yang of Purdue University in 2007, reached similar conclusions: it found that 185 million Chinese considered themselves to be Buddhist and another 17.3 million had formal ties to a temple (making them the equivalent of lay Buddhists). As for Taoism, it found that 12 million considered themselves to be Taoist and another 173 million engaged in some Taoist practices.

The suppression of Falun Gong may have created space for other religious organizations.

The most obvious signs of China’s religious revival are the growing number of places of worship and the expanding population of clergy. A government survey from 2014 found half a million Buddhist monks and nuns in some 33,000 Buddhist temples and another 48,000 Taoist priests and nuns affiliated with 9,000 Taoist temples—twice the number of temples reported in the 1990s. That might seem like impossibly fast growth, but it matches what I have personally observed in dozens of cities across China. Even in Beijing, the most politicized and atypically atheistic city in China, the number of Taoist temples has increased from just two in 1995 to more than 20 today. That is still a fraction of the hundreds that existed in the past, but the growth indicates the speed of change.

As for Christianity, the picture is bifurcated. For a host of reasons, Catholicism remains the weakest and least influential of China’s five official religions. Even if one accepts upper-end estimates of 12 million adherents, that is still less than one percent of the population. Protestantism, by contrast, took off after 1949 and is often described as the fastest-growing religion in China. Official figures show that 20 million Protestants belong to government-run churches, a massive increase from one million in 1949. Almost all independent estimates, however, suggest that the true number of Protestants is far higher, especially because of the popularity of underground, or “house,” churches, which are not part of the government-run structure. In 2008, the Chinese sociologist Yu Jianrong estimated that Protestants number between 45 million and 60 million; in 2011, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life put the figure at 58 million. Whatever the precise number, the fact is that Protestantism has become a dynamic part of China’s religious landscape, especially in its biggest cities and among its best-educated people.

Men attend Sunday service at a makeshift, tin-roofed church in Youtong village, China, December 2016.
Men attend Sunday service at a makeshift, tin-roofed church in Youtong village, China, December 2016. 
THOMAS PETER / REUTERS

THE LOST MIDDLE

The Chinese Communist Party has kept a close eye on this explosion of religious sentiment and practice and has made sure that no one mistakes its modest liberalization for complete freedom of religion. Underground activities might be tolerated but are still illegal. So, too, are ties with foreign religious organizations—a taboo that often leads to persecution.

The most significant instance of official repression took place in 1999, when the government banned the spiritual movement Falun Gong, which authorities saw as a challenge to the government. When Falun Gong refused to disband, a crackdown followed. Human rights groups estimate that about 100 practitioners died in police custody, and thousands were incarcerated without trial, many spending years in labor camps.

However severe it was, the suppression of Falun Gong may have created space for other religious organizations. Since the crackdown, the government has loosened its policy toward the five established religions, perhaps feeling that it is better to allow religiosity to be channeled into groups that it can control rather than see it erupt in independent movements. The government has shown particular favor toward Taoism, folk practices, and most forms of Buddhism. 

Groups with foreign ties have fared less well, including Tibetan Buddhists who emphasize their ties to the exiled Dalai Lama, Muslims inspired by global Islamic movements, or Christians who look abroad for guidance and leadership—hence a recent campaign that saw the removal of crosses from the spires of churches in one heavily Christian part of the country. But religious organizations that are led and financed from within China have been granted considerable leeway.

And yet authorities also fear faith as an uncontrollable force—an alternative ideology to the government’s vision of how society should be run. In the past, state and religion were united, forming a spiritual center of gravity for China. That old system is now gone, and nothing new has taken its place. The situation has been complicated by a roiling debate within the ruling Communist Party about how to best govern the country. With no clear course, China percolates with ideas and saviors but has no system to hold it all together. As the historian Vincent Goossaert and the sociologist David Palmer describe it, today’s China is “a Middle Kingdom that has lost its Middle.”

CHURCH AND STATE

China’s religious revival has become a bellwether for broader changes in Chinese society. When Mao died and moderates took over in the late 1970s, they tried to rebuild the regime’s credibility among the population by loosening control. Their goal was to push economic development and let people do much as they pleased as long as they did not challenge party rule. During this reform period, which lasted for about 30 years, until roughly 2010, observers believed, or at least hoped, that this relaxation would continue indefinitely and result in a freer society. This was an optimistic period around the world; when the Cold War ended, it seemed that societies were moving inexorably toward freedom and democracy. During much of this period, Chinese society did become increasingly free. Part of this process was led by the government; following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party concluded that reforms and openness could actually strengthen their grip on power by creating more prosperity and thus dampening opposition.

But in recent years, the government has changed course. Perhaps because leaders feel that further liberalization could threaten their rule, they have begun to take a harder line. Critics, even moderate ones, have been locked up; the Internet has been brought to heel; and social movements have been instructed to obey the government or face suppression. A period of stasis has set in.

In the field of religion and faith, the government has tried hard to co-opt groups instead of crushing them. It has cleverly tapped into the phrases and some of the ideas of the traditional political-religious state that ran China for more than two millennia. These trends toward control are likely to continue: the state will never fully yield its grip on the country’s moral life.

The winners will likely be China’s traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religion. Seeing them as easier to manage, the state will give them more space, even while making sure they follow government policies. This does not mean that China will become like Russia, with its nationalist Orthodox state church. Nor will the Chinese Communist Party morph into something like India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), which advocates a nationalist-religious agenda. The Chinese Communist Party enjoys a higher degree of support, so it doesn’t need to resort to the blatant instrumentalization of religion. Instead, like the imperial dynasties of the past, it will continue to push acceptable forms of faith as a way to strengthen its position as the arbiter of the nation’s moral and spiritual values.

FAR FROM HEAVEN

If one had to summarize the collective aspirations of the Chinese people in one word, it would be “heaven” (tian), a concept that is central to how the Chinese conceive of a well-ordered society. Tian implies a form of justice and respect and suggests an authority higher than any one government.

But aspiring to tian does not always lead to political dissent. Throughout the decades of communist rule, China has had dissidents, including inspiring figures such as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. But by and large, these activists and their pursuit of universal rights have left ordinary Chinese people cold. Most Chinese see political activists as well meaning but unrealistic. When ordinary people have pursued political change, their goals have been fairly narrow: farmers protesting unfair taxation or city residents opposing the destruction of their homes. Their motivations were personal and rarely part of an overarching ideology or a yearning to change the system.

The new desire for spiritual transformation is deeper and more profound than such expressions of dissatisfaction. All religious and spiritual movements have self-interested goals, but they also offer systematic critiques of the status quo. It is true that faith can be an escape from politics, a pietistic flight from a chaotic society: “Most people aren’t trustworthy, but at least my church/my temple/my pilgrimage society is filled with good people.” And yet faith can also inspire social action. It is no coincidence that among Chinese human rights lawyers—a group currently suffering from intense state repression—one finds a disproportionate number of Christians, or that other activists have found inspiration in Buddhism and Taoism.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as the scholar Richard Madsen documents in his book Democracy’s Dharma, faith-based Buddhist and Taoist charities played a significant role in democratizing Taiwan. Something similar is unlikely to happen on the mainland in the near term. The Communist Party has made clear that it will not permit nongovernmental organizations—religious or secular—to be set up and organize. Religious groups have been limited to providing services—disaster relief, for example—and have been hindered in pursuing broader goals, such as trying to reform society. But seen from a wider historical perspective, religious organizations are helping lay the groundwork for a broader transformation. 

Out of this ferment, China is becoming more than a hypermercantilist, fragile superpower. It is a country engaging in a global conversation about how to restore solidarity and values to societies that have made economics the basis of most decisions. Perhaps because Chinese religious traditions were so savagely attacked over the past decades and then replaced with such a naked form of capitalism, China might actually be at the forefront of this worldwide search for values. These are universal aspirations, and like people elsewhere in the world, many Chinese people believe that their hopes are supported by something more than a particular government or law. They believe they are supported by heaven.