China's Great Awakening

How the People's Republic Got Religion

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

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