Does religion exist in modern-day China?

The Chinese are normally very easy to communicate with. Speak to them on almost any subject and they’ll freely exchange information with you, especially over a drink. However, we’ve learned over the years that two subjects, politics and religion, are always avoided. As a matter of fact, you’d probably have an easier time getting them to agree to a GAAP audit then talking on either of these subjects. The reason: although China is capitalist, it’s still communist, and the government believes it stays in power because everyone is pointing in the same direction. If the government says they’re going in a certain direction, they want everyone to follow. Anyone that questions why they’re going in that direction is a threat and is dealt with accordingly. Religion is one of the areas in which the government has given direction, sort of. Let’s explain.

Many believe there’s little, if any, religion in China. After all, it’s a communist country and communists are, well, thought to be atheists. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary religion is defined as: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith. Therefore, we’re going to include Buddhism, Taoism, and ethic “religions” in this definition, although some may call these cultural practices or philosophies rather than a religion. In addition, we’re not going to include Confucianism, even though it technically falls within the definition provided in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, as Confucianism is about the harmonization of life in this world and has little to say about the after-life.

Not only does religion currently exist in China, but the government officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Taoism is the largest religion in China with 30% or so of the population accepting it as their principal religion. This is followed by Buddhism, with 18% of the population. Christianity has a following of 4% of the Chinese population, the same percentage as with the religions practiced by ethnic minorities. Islam is practiced by 2% of the populace. Agnostics, or non-believers, make up the majority, with 42%. In addition, rural China tends to be more Agnostic than urban China, with over 50% of the rural population, according to government surveys, not practicing religion.

Foreigners didn’t bring religion to China. It was already there when they arrived and it’s been a part of China for thousands of years. It never went away. It was like an iceberg, where you saw a piece of ice protruding from the water, but couldn’t see the underlying mass. That’s religion in China, and everyone knows it, including the government.

In China’s early history there was an interaction between religion and the emperor. Indeed, the emperor was deemed to claim his right to the throne from heaven and there was a plentitude of religious shrines and temples throughout the country. One of China’s earliest religions, Buddhism, was introduced in China around the 1st century. Christianity, on the other hand, was introduced into China much later, around the 7th century. However, between the 10th and 14th centuries Christianity was largely persecuted by the government and didn’t reappear until the 16th century when it was reintroduced into China by Jesuit missionaries.

Foreign introduced religion continued to be openly practiced within China until the end of the nineteenth century when a number of conflicts with foreigners caused a change in China’s view of foreigners and their religion. Domestically practiced religion would be affected approximately a century later. Let’s explain what happened.

China was largely a closed society through much of its history. It didn’t have a great deal of interaction with the outside world and it was a mystery to most countries. It did, however, trade tea with Great Britain. British merchants, as a means of balancing their trade with China over the import of tea, smuggled opium into China and sold it. The Chinese didn’t like the import of, or payment for, opium. They just wanted to have the foreigners pick up their tea, pay them, and leave. They didn’t much like foreigners and wanted to associate with them as little as possible. Therefore, over a period of time, the Chinese had enough of the British selling opium to the citizenry. In a mini “Boston Tea Party” the Chinese confiscated and destroyed a large quantity of Opium in Guangzhou (known as Canton at the time). The British had a problem with this, just as they did in Boston with their tea, and sent their fleet to pummel several coastal cities in China. This was the First Opium War, and it lasted from1839-1842. The Qing Dynasty, the ruling dynasty at the time, was openly humiliated as they were forced to accept Britain’s terms in order to settle the conflict. The settlement called for China to open five Chinese ports for trade as well as cede them Hong Kong.

Things didn’t go any better for China in the Second Opium War, which lasted from1856 to1860, when the British obtained access to 11 more Chinese ports and forced the legalization of opium.

The Chinese people were getting very tired of being pushed around by foreigners and they had little confidence in the Qing Dynasty’s ability to protect them. From this point forward things only got worse. There were additional wars, such as the First Sino-Japanese War, fought between 1894 and1895, and the Boxer Rebellion, between1898 and 1901.

The Boxer Rebellion or uprising was the Chinese people’s attempt to deal with foreigners by themselves rather than relying on a government in which they had no confidence. This uprising was aimed at both foreigners and Christianity. It was aimed at foreigners because they had militarily imposed their will on China, obtained economic windfalls as a result of this military strength, and generally humiliated China. It was aimed at foreign missionaries because they appropriated land and property from villagers and then constructed churches and whatever else they wanted on the land.

The Chinese people were rejecting all that was foreign, which included any religion with a foreign influence. They wanted foreigners to leave China. As the uprising gained momentum, 8 nations sent 20,000 troops to China, defeated the Imperial Army, plundered Beijing, and demanded China provide provisions for troops that would now be stationed in Beijing. They also demanded a huge sum of money to be paid, over the next 39 years, to the 8 nations who attacked China. As far as the people of China were concerned, the Qing Dynasty was through as was any relationship with foreigners and their religion.

Therefore, in 1911, Imperial China collapsed and the Republic of China (ROC), under Sun-Yat-sen, came into power. During this time the ROC further wanted to subjugate foreign influence, including religion. As part of this process they eliminated places of worship throughout China. This practice continued through 1919.

From the collapse of Imperial China through 1919, foreigners were vilified and almost every problem experienced in China was laid at the feet of foreigners. However, in 1919, things changed. In that year there spread throughout China a popular belief that foreign religion, in itself, had little to do with their defeat. The blame, instead, was due to China’s traditional way of thinking, which most felt didn’t adapt to more modern times. Both the general population, and the Chinese government, felt that the reason China was unable to defeat foreigners in armed conflict was that Chinese society philosophically couldn’t adapt to changes that were occurring domestically, or to their increasing interaction with foreigners. Therefore, the government decided that their societal philosophy would have to change.

In a major change to Chinese teachings, and their prevalent philosophy for the past 2,500 years, the government blamed the teachings of Confucius, blaming his philosophical norms as the reason China continually suffered defeat at the hands of the West. Confucianism stopped being taught in schools and was no longer a requisite exam for obtaining positions in the government. Even with the elimination of Confucian teachings, nothing really changed within China. Nothing changed, that is, until1949 when Mao Zedong came to power.

When Mao Zedong came to power in 1949 he regarded religion as a tool of colonialism that was used by the West to enable them to get a foot hold within a country. Nevertheless, he was initially tolerant of religions when the People’s Republic of China was first established because religion was not his priority. Instead, he was more worried about the country he’d just taken over and the host of critical issues he had to deal with just to enable it to survive. Therefore, it took the Chinese government about eight years to circle around and establish broad guidelines for religion in China. When they did, they recognized five major religions within China.

According to David Palmer, who teaches at the Department of Sociology at Hong Kong University, Mao intended to eventually eliminate religion in China by transforming China into a classless society where there was no need for religion and, as a result, religion would gradually disappear. But Mao didn’t want to alienate those who practiced religion. Instead, he wanted to give them space within the socialist system until religion would gradually disappear on its own from Chinese society. However, in practice, this didn’t happen. More radical officials within Mao’s government tried to speed up the process of eliminating religion in China and, eventually, these officials had their way. During the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and1967, religion was officially eliminated within China with the subsequent destruction of a great many places of worship. As a result, religion went underground in China.

For the next 11 years religion could only be practiced in private. But after the death of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping came to power. Deng was progressive and knew that the only way for China to succeed as a nation was to become a global society. He subsequently initiated China’s Open Door Policy and opened China to the world. Religious expression was once again permitted.  Memorializing this freedom of religion in China, Article 36 of the 1978 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, guarantees “freedom of religion”. According to Article 36:

“No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens because they do, or do not believe in religion. The state protects normal religious activities”, and continues with the statement that: “nobody can make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.”

In addition, Chinese law, according to, also stipulates:

“citizens, no matter they are religious believer or not, enjoy the right of election and to be elected; legitimate property of religious organizations is protected by law; education is separate from religion and citizens, religious believers or non-believers, enjoy the equal opportunity of education according to law; people of all nationalities respect the languages, customs and religious belief of one another; citizens are not discriminated in employment because of their different religious beliefs; advertisement and trade mark may not carry content that discriminates against any nationality or religion.”

In 1979 churches in China were re-opened. Shortly thereafter people started practicing their faith again in numbers that closely resembled those before the Cultural Revolution. That surprised government officials who had thought that all religion in China was gone. Moreover, government surveys had previously shown that nearly 50% of those surveyed claimed to be atheists whereas, in actuality, only 15% were atheists. Apparently it didn’t occur to them that people taking a government survey wouldn’t be honest with the government about their religious beliefs.

One of the government’s fears about allowing religious activity in China is that religious organizations would act as a social reform platform for their followers. They would, in essence, have a political component. This is one of the reasons why Chinese leaders are so afraid of religion. However, this didn’t materialize.  Churches in China tend to be apolitical. However, apolitical in the moment doesn’t mean the potential isn’t there for it to be political in the future.

According to Robert Lawrence Kuhn, the status of religion is now changing in China and the government is becoming more tolerant of religion. Former Chinese President Hu, in an increasing indication of tolerance, has said that “the Party and government shall reach out to religious believers in difficulties and help them through their problems.”

But this isn’t a one way street. Former President Hu also indicated that he requires religious groups to be law-abiding, be patriotic, and help develop Chinese society. In other words, you’re free to practice your religion as long as your religious beliefs don’t conflict with the government. Therefore, in keeping track of religious organizations within China, China requires all religious organizations to be registered with the government.

Throughout Chinese history, religion was always present. It never really left. For a short period of time it went underground, and some religious activity stills remains so when it’s practiced in homes or other non- recognized locations. Nevertheless, religion never left China even when the Communists assumed power. The Chinese government has always been fearful of anything they couldn’t control. Their power stems from a harmonious employed citizenry who believes life is better with communist rule than without it. Anything that rocks that boat is swiftly dealt with by the government. However, as long as religion in China remains apolitical and doesn’t conflict with government policy, it will remain a part of Chinese life and culture, expanding over time as more people feel free to publicly embrace it.

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