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Evan Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker, lived in Beijing from 2005 to 2013. His new book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, is an inner history of China’s transformation, told through the eyes of men and women at the center of it. Osnos writes that, beneath the physical changes, China’s rise is a story of spiritual revival comparable to America’s Great Awakening in the nineteenth century, an attempt to fill “a hole in Chinese life that people named the jingshen kongxu — ‘the spiritual void.’” In this adaptation from Age of Ambition, he explains the five essential dynamics in China’s quest for meaning.
1) Chairman Mao: The accidental missionary
Karl Marx considered religion an “illusory happiness” incompatible with the struggle for socialism; during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Red Guards demolished temples and smashed sacred objects in a surge of violence that the scholars Vincent Goossaert and David A. Palmer describe as the “most thorough destruction of all forms of religious life in Chinese and, perhaps, human history.” But they also deified Mao. As testaments to devotion, men and women collected Mao badges to wear over their hearts that hailed him as “Messiah of the Working People” and the “Great Savior.” People confessed their sins at the foot of his statues. The Cultural Revolution destroyed China’s old belief systems, but Deng Xiaoping’s economic revolution could not rebuild them. People who had learned to believe in a force larger than themselves were left to set out in search of their own faiths.
2) After the almighty yuan, what?
In 1978, the average Chinese income was $200; by 2013, it was $6,000. By almost every measure, the Chinese people have achieved longer, healthier, more educated lives. The relentless pursuit of fortune relieved the deprivation in China’s past, but it failed to define the ultimate purpose of the nation and the individual. By the twenty-first century, the Communist Party presided over a land of untamed capitalism, graft, and rampant inequality. In sprinting ahead, China had bounded past whatever barriers once held back the forces of corruption and moral disregard. People did not trust the institutions around them: the Party, the press, big companies that had failed to provide safe food. People are placing their faith elsewhere. In the bookstores of my neighborhood in Beijing, the Chinese titles included A Guidebook for the Soul and What Do We Live For?
3) Christianity: China’s largest N.G.O.
The Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the right is narrowed by regulations against proselytizing and other activities. Officially, China recognizes five religions — Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism — and believers can worship in state-controlled settings. More than twenty million Catholics and Protestants attend churches run by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and its counterpart the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. But more than twice that number worship in unregistered “house churches,” which range in size from small farmhouse study groups to large semipublic congregations in the cities. The house churches are not legally protected, so authorities can tolerate them one day and shut them down the next, if political orders came down to tighten up. The Party is under increasing pressure to change the way it regards the desire for faith; China today has sixty to eighty million Christians, a community as large as the Communist Party. Li Fan, a secular liberal writer, told me, “Christianity has probably become China’s largest nongovernmental organization.”
4) The Other China: Xinjiang and Tibet are boiling
China’s ethnic and religious politics are drifting toward a crisis. Three times in six months, militant Uighur Muslims have attacked Chinese civilians, most recently on April 30, in an assault at a busy train station that was one of China’s first suicide bombings. In a separate conflict, more than one hundred and thirty Tibetans have set themselves on fire in demonstrations over the past five years, demanding greater cultural and religious autonomy. The divide is deep and entrenched: Chinese leaders regard the self-immolations, and the Uighur attacks, as terrorism intended to peel away a part of China that is more than three times the size of Texas. By and large, Han Chinese, who represent more than 90 percent of China’s population, are proud of their history in Tibet and Xinjiang, which they see as a costly process of bringing prosperity to backward regions. The leaders of the People’s Republic and their ethnic minorities have rarely been farther from a peaceful resolution.
5) The home field advantage
For new sources of meaning, Chinese citizens are looking not only to religion but also to philosophy, psychology, and literature for new ways of orienting themselves in a world of ideological incoherence and unrelenting competition. What obligation does an individual have to a stranger in a hypercompetitive, market-driven society? How much responsibility does a citizen have to speak the truth when speaking the truth is dangerous? Is it better to try to change an authoritarian system from within, or to oppose it from outside, at the risk of having no effect at all? They are finding some answers in their own history. In the poorest reaches of the Chinese countryside, temples are reopening and offering a mix of Daoism, Buddhism, and a vast range of folk religions. China has passed a milestone to become the world’s largest Buddhist nation. The Chinese president Xi Jinping quotes Confucian classics more often than any of his predecessors, seeking a connection to a philosophical tradition that the Communist Party once derided as backwards and feudal.
The prospect that China will make a wholesale turn toward Western religion has never seemed likely outside the reveries of the true believers. History suggests that China is more inclined to absorb the most useful parts of Western faiths and philosophies and discard the rest, as it had with Marxism, capitalism, and other imports. One thing is clear: Nothing has caused more upheaval in the last hundred years of Chinese history than the battle over what to believe. Today, the Party is not allowing the growth of faith as much as it is trying to keep up with it.
Lead image via Shutterstock.