Jesus in the Middle Kingdom

The first question surprised me. We had come to China in the spring of 2006 as a group of college faculty members to experience the old and the new China and to meet faculty and students at a variety of universities. During our first meeting, which took place at Beijing’s Central University for Nationalities, a school that focuses on China’s ethnic minorities, we expected the mostly social science majors to ask us about curricula and pop culture, the job market and Brad Pitt. But the first student to raise her hand asked about our students’ religious beliefs. From that point on, it was impossible to miss a consistent fascination with religious traditions in the People’s Republic. What I experienced during the three weeks may have been only a series of snapshots, but they were so consistent and counterintuitive that they led me to revise radically my sense of life among China’s next generation.

Among the snapshots are the following: a small Christian church in Dali, where a young pianist practiced hymns under a painting of Jesus ascending over the Great Wall; the Panchen Lama’s elaborately orchestrated motorcadepolice cars, vans, a bus full of bureaucrats and an ambulanceforcing traffic off the road in the Tibetan Autonomous Region; newly rebuilt and refurbished temples like Songzanlin in Zhongdian, filled with monks on cell phones and tourists on holiday; and starkly primitive Naxi totems scattered about Lijiang’s Dongba Culture Center.

Almost all the students we met, incidentally, are committed capitalists, even those who are party members. Most English majors, for example, see their studies as a way to prepare for international banking rather than teaching Shakespeare. But they seem as concerned as my students in Florida about whether economic success is a means or an end. As one young woman asked me, Do your students really think a good salary and nice car are the only purposes of life?


Oddly enough, the government takes a surprisingly tolerant view of much of this curiosity about religion, treating it with a cautious but generally benign neglect. University administrators know about the many unofficial religious groups among their students but perhaps recognize the inevitability of this kind of student exploration. Or perhaps they believe that it is safer to allow the young to explore religious traditions rather than political ones. When I asked one popular young teacher whether the Confucian or Buddhist groups attracted the most students, he replied, Neither. The largest groups are Christians.

Although it would be naïve to regard the People’s Republic as a benevolent advocate of religion, its current treatment of religious pluralism seems far different from that of the Saudis or Iranians. So long as these movements remain Chinese in character, they appear to be not only tolerated but increasingly visible. Falun Gong, of course, is under relentless attack on the mainland, and the officials I met regularly characterized it as a terrorist cult. And some more evangelically minded or Western-oriented Christians have spent time in jails. But in Hong Kongone nation, two systemsFalun Gong has a booth by the Star Ferry, and our Marriott Hotel had a copy of the Book of Mormon but no King James Bible in the bedside table.

The Patriotic Catholic Association (P.C.A.), which was recently in conflict with Rome over the appointment of bishops, is clearly growing in support and influence. As long as it accepts the party’s teachings the P.C.A.’s support of the government’s one-child-per-family policy has led it to embrace abortion as a legitimate social policy and reject the authority of the popeits followers can practice their faith openly.

At the same time, the beautiful St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai displays a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, and various government registered churches offered memorial Masses for John Paul II. Even more tellingly, the government pulled the wildly popular film The Da Vinci Code out of theaters after the P.C.A. called for a boycott and pressed the government to suppress it. Of course, anyone who had not already seen it will soon have a pirated DVD copy.

Those DVD’s, along with the Internet and cell phones, may be a key factor in the growth of this religious curiosity. Students and intellectuals appear to enjoy a cat-and-mouse game with the reported 30,000 Web censors. While Beijing cracks downit recently sentenced dissident writer Yang Tianshui to a 12-year sentence for posting unapproved articles on a Web site, pressed Google to comply with its censorship rules and regularly causes computers to crash that use terms like Falun Gong or Tiananmen Massacrewriters and students post even more unauthorized articles and blogs and copy them quickly from Web site to Web site, rapidly multiplying sources and challenging authorities to find and block all of them.

Trying to deal with technology and the free flow of information clearly challenges a government that is trying to blend Marxism and capitalism. The recent adventures of Mission Impossible III capture the current contradictions. After allowing Tom Cruise’s crew to film in and around Shanghaithe Central Committee obviously does not watch Oprahthe People’s Republic banned the film from theaters. But every student I met had seen it on a pirated DVD.

Some of my liberal colleagues saw much of the interest in Christianity as part of the fascination with all things Western that dominates everything from language to beauty ads. But that does not completely explain the resurgence of traditional religions or the depth of questions from students and faculty.

One brilliant young faculty member, an impressive scholar who teaches both business and comparative religion, argued that this interest in religion is not an entirely new phenomenon. He believes that most Chinese never really lost their sense of religion: We merely had to keep it in the closet during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. He also added that his countrymen have always seen their religious traditions as complementary rather than competitive, so most people have been pragmatically eclectic and synthetic in their approach to religion. After all, he added, most of us Chinese realize that we’re Taoists when we wake in the morning, Confucians at work and Buddhists when we return home at night.

Although most people I met seemed very comfortable with the public emergence of religion, some recognized that it might also have costs. Two Muslim students who were to join us for dinner in Beijing decided that they could not even stay in the restaurant because it served pork. One of the other students with us observed that if it had only been one Muslim, he or she might have stayed. But with two students, we were told, one might have reported the other to the increasingly rigid campus Muslim leadership.

I told a distinguished Chinese academic administrator about the incident and repeated a comment of one of my colleagues that he always found it odd that those groups which are most insistent about demanding accommodations for themselves seem least willing to accommodate others. The dean, with a wry grin, agreed.

Neither Karl Marx nor Mao could have envisioned today’s China, especially one where many students seem as curious about the Gospel of Judas and Taoism as they are about high definition television and the International Monetary Fund. How this new generation adjusts Christianity to its traditional culture, its nominal socialism and its rampant capitalism may well determine the future character of the Middle Kingdom.

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