A Chinese revival (or several)

A few months ago, we discussed Confucianism's comeback in China. Now the New York Times magazine considers the rise of Taoism as part of a broader religious revival in the Communist country. Ian Johnson's article seems pretty thorough, but it also feels a little light on China's tense relationship with religion.

Religion has long played a central role in Chinese life, but for much of the 20th century, reformers and revolutionaries saw it as a hindrance holding the country back and a key reason for China's "century of humiliation." Now, with three decades of prosperity under their belt--the first significant period of relative stability in more than a century--the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise, not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions elsewhere in China.

It is impossible to miss the religious building boom, with churches, temples and mosques dotting areas where none existed a few years ago. How many Chinese reject the state's official atheism is hard to quantify, but numbers suggest a return to widespread religious belief. In contrast to earlier surveys that showed just 100 million believers, or less than 10 percent of the population, a new survey shows that an estimated 300 million people claim a faith. A broader question in another poll showed that 85 percent of the population believes in religion or the supernatural.

The NYTmagazine offers the kind of space needed to explore such a complex subject. The author devotes much space to explaining the belief system and history of Taoism. The explanation could serve as an example to other reporters trying to neatly describe a complicated belief system.

Taoism has closely reflected this history of decline and rebirth. The religion is loosely based on the writings of a mythical person named Laotzu and calls for returning to the Dao, or Tao, the mystical way that unites all of creation. Like many religions, it encompasses a broad swath of practice, from Laotzu's high philosophy to a riotous pantheon of deities: emperors, officials, thunder gods, wealth gods and terrifying demons that punish the wicked in ways that make Dante seem unimaginative.

Not only is China, well, huge, but religion's interplay with the government makes it even more sensitive as a subject. As the article explains, religion is closely regulated in the country.

Balancing this desire with the imperatives of China's political system is tricky. While the Communist Party has allowed religious groups to rebuild temples and proselytize, its own members are supposed to be good Marxists and shun religion. ... His company's Web site has a section extolling his party-building efforts and has a meeting room with a picture of Mao Zedong looking down from the wall. Although it might seem like an odd way to mix religion and politics, Taoism often deifies famous people; at least three Taoist temples in one part of China are dedicated to Chairman Mao.

The article navigates the trickiness between the government and religion in China, but perhaps the author could have explained a little bit better China's tense history. The writer makes it seem as though the government has been merely skeptical of religion, when some, like the monks in Tibet, might say it's more than suspicion. Just last year, the Dalai Lama said China transformed Tibet into a "hell on earth" and that the Chinese authorities regarded Tibetans as "criminals deserving to be put to death."

When technocratic Communists took control of China in the late 1970s, they allowed temples, churches and mosques to reopen after decades of forced closures, but Communist suspicion about religion persisted. That has slowly been replaced by a more laissez-faire attitude as authorities realize that most religious activity does not threaten Communist Party rule and may in fact be something of a buttress.

The article acknowledges that there are crackdowns, but it seems soft or mostly in the past. Just last month, more than 100 Chinese Christians were barred from leaving the country to attend Lausanne, an evangelical congress held in South Africa. Overall, the article is informative about the rise of Taoism but somewhat disappointing for its weak description of the government's relationship with religion.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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