religion, recent history of

The recent history of Chinese religion can be said to begin at the end of the nineteenth century with the emergence of a concerted ideological critique of religion. This critique gradually intensified over the next several decades, and was accompanied by increasingly violent and physically destructive attacks on all manner of religion. These attacks began to abate only in 1978 with the implosion of the Cultural Revolution and the government’s relaxation of its hard-line on religion. Though universally devastated by these events, most of the religions that could be found in China at the end of the nineteenth century have since shown an unforeseen resiliency in their re-emergence at the end of the twentieth. Though much of the modern religious landscape of China will appear familiar to those knowledgeable about pre-twentieth-century China—temples, incense, ancestor shrines, pilgrimage, monks, fortune-tellers, healers, etc.—there is little of Chinese religion that has been left untouched by the events of the twentieth century, and much that has significantly changed.
China has undergone many anti-religious campaigns in its past, but none so pervasive and debilitating as those in the twentieth century. This is accounted for by a unique constellation of factors. Among these were anti-Manchu animosities that conflated much traditional religion with the imperial system, the political power and single-minded intensity of the anti-religion forces over a period of almost one hundred years, the capacity of the nation-state to penetrate more deeply into all aspects of Chinese life, and the vastly improved technologies of communication and violence of the modern period. Abetting these tendencies from abroad were the Meiji Restoration in Japan and the ascendancy of Marxism, particularly in neighbouring Russia. The emergence of Japan and Russia as dominant powers, moreover, was perceived to be rooted in notions of scientific modernity.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, an influential majority of Chinese intellectuals, though an infinitesimal minority of the total Chinese population in whose name they spoke, sought to account for China’s humiliating defeats in the face of Western and Japanese imperialist aggression by blaming not only the Manchu monarchy but also religion, which was regarded as indistinguishable from pre-scientific, traditional or feudal society. Influenced by Western theories of Social Darwinism, these intellectuals saw the monarchy and religion as two of the primary forces enervating the Chinese people and inhibiting China’s evolution into a modern state, characterized by science and nationalism. Thus, the overthrow of the monarchy in 1911 opened the door to an attack on its perceived accomplice, religion. Among the earliest casualties of these campaigns was local religion. In routing the Manchus and seeking to erase the symbols of their presence in cities throughout China, officials of the Republican government set about destroying temples patronized by the Manchus and their Chinese subjects, such as those of the City and Earth gods. Government bureaus and taxation replaced local religious associations that had effectively structured and managed most of the social and economic infrastructure of rural China. Labelling local religion ‘superstitious’ (mixin), a neologism imported from Japan and applied initially by the Catholic missionaries, celebrations associated with lunar New Year (see New Year Festival) were prohibited in many regions, images of gods were removed from temples, and scores of smaller shrines destroyed—all this well before the Cultural Revolution. Geomancers, healers and diviners avoided the initial attack on local religion, largely due to the itinerant nature of their professions (see fengshui; divination and fortune-telling). Their itinerancy, however, tended to bring these quasi-religious professionals into contact and often affiliation with supra-village sectarian movements (see sectarian religion). As a result, the Nationalists generally viewed them as anti-government, and their demise began with the military suppression of these sectarian movements in the late 1920s.
The large traditional text-based religious institutions suffered initially as well. As part of the rhetoric of nationalism, Christianity (Protestantism), Catholicism and even Buddhism were intermittently attacked as ‘foreign.’ Daoism, often indistinguishable from forms of popular religion in the eyes of the intellectuals, suffered the same fate as local temples. Ultimately, however, many of these groups, through the formation of national associations, were better able to defend themselves and garner support among national and local authorities, thus gaining a temporary reprieve as ‘true religions’. Those not so organized or influential were suppressed as ‘superstitious’. Many of these largely anti-religious tendencies were instituted as government policy in the Nationalist-sponsored ‘Standards for Preserving and Abandoning Gods and Shrines’ in 1928.
During this period a number of local transformations of what had been foreign religions began to emerge among Christians. The Assembly Hall Movement of Watchman Nee (see Little Flock; Local Church (and ‘shouters’)), a, separatist Trinitarian movement, and the True Jesus Church, a separatist Pentecostal movement, were both founded by local charismatic figures (and see Jesus Family). Separatist Christian movements are not a new phenomenon in China, as demonstrated by the Taiping movement in the nineteenth century.
By the mid 1930s, the anti-religious rhetoric was shifting from Social Darwinism to Marxist, promising the eventual disappearance not only of religion but of the state as well. With the Communist victory in 1949, the so-called ‘true religions’, though still criticized, enjoyed a modicum of freedom under the umbrella of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), namely self-governing, self-propagation and self-supporting. Numerous documents and public statements authored by members of the Party elite, while maintaining the position that religion would ‘wither away’, asserted that this would happen naturally with education and the expected prosperity of Communist reform. Force would not and should not be used. At the same time, the new government continued the policy of suppressing groups and individuals it labelled as ‘superstitious’, often quite violently (see Yiguan Dao).
The attack intensified in 1966 with the onset of the Cultural Revolution. The government formally dissolved the distinction between legitimate ‘true’ religion and illegitimate ‘superstitious’ religion, declaring the practice of religion in any form whatsoever illegal. The Red Guards took it upon themselves to enforce this policy, often with a viciousness far exceeding the intentions of their elders. Groups that up until this time had been minimally affected, such as Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, suffered along with the traditional targets of state animosity (see Islam in China). Great numbers of religious monuments were painstakingly dismantled or burned, relics smashed and practitioners harassed, in many cases to their deaths. Those religious buildings that survived destruction did so through conversion to factories or schools, and through the intervention of the PLA or highly positioned members of the Communist Party such as Zhou Enlai. The anti-religious movements peaked in the mid 1970s.
With the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1978 and the repeal of many of the more stridently anti-religious policies, religions began a cautious reappearance, still largely without formal government approval. By the late 1980s, some ten years after the ‘opening up’, an increasingly pragmatic approach began to emerge. While not officially reversing its position on religion, the government began to overlook religious activities it had attempted to suppress before.
The Buddhists quickly reconstructed themselves on the ruins of the past, becoming the wealthiest and most conspicuous form of religion in contemporary China (see Buddhist monasteries (Chinese)). The government allows one Catholic church building and one Protestant church building for religious activity in any given area. Beijing is, for example, divided into a number of districts with one Protestant church building serving each district. In each church, the membership tends to be dominated by one of the older denominations, and the style of worship on Sunday morning will reflect, for example, the Anglican, Baptist, Methodist or Lutheran past. The state management of religion has been the responsibility of thousands of officials working in the Religious Affairs Bureau (State Administration for Religious Affairs) in cities throughout China, and is brokered in many cases by large pan-China confederations of religious groups such as the Buddhist Association, the Daoist Association, the Islamic Federation, the Chinese Church of Christ and the Patriotic Catholic Church. These non-governmental confederations are delegated, in effect, the responsibility for determining which groups are legitimate and which are not. Much of the criteria determining legitimacy is based of the principles of the Three-Self Movement. Most house churches are evangelical Christians and do not wish to be associated with the Three-Self Movement, which they regard as heretical. Hence, they have been labelled ‘underground’ (dixia) religion. The government actively attacks groups it characterizes as ‘evil cults’ (xiejiao), understood as particularly harmful forms of ‘superstition’. This label has been applied to some of the house churches and to the Falun gong. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century the government has granted tacit though unofficial approval to some healers, geomancers and diviners, and they again operate with a modicum of freedom, though largely in rural areas. Foreign-based missionary groups and churches, such as the Mormons and the Roman Catholic Church (as opposed the Patriotic Catholic Church), have explicitly been denied legal status into the twenty-first century and are effectively underground.
See also: Daoism, recent history of; Daoism (Quanzhen order); Daoism (Zhengyi tradition); pilgrimage; processions (religious); religious policies of the state; spirit-mediums
Duara, Prasanjit (1996). Rescuing History from the Nation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kipnis, Andrew (2001). ‘The Flourishing of Religion in Post-Mao China and the Anthropological Category of Religion’. Australian Journal of Anthropology 12.1:32–46.
WILLIAM POWELL

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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