The Rise of the Tao

The New York Times Magazine has a lengthy article about the renovation of a Taoist temple and the revival of the belief system in China:

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.

Officially, religious life is closely regulated. The country has five recognized religions: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and Christianity, which in China is treated as two faiths, Catholicism and Protestantism. Each of the five has a central organization headquartered in Beijing and staffed with officials loyal to the Communist Party. All report to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, which in turn is under the central government’s State Council, or cabinet. This sort of religious control has a long history in China. For hundreds of years, emperors sought to define orthodox belief and appointed many senior religious leaders.

Beneath this veneer of order lies a more freewheeling and sometimes chaotic reality. In recent months, the country has been scandalized by a Taoist priest who performed staged miracles — even though he was a top leader in the government-run China Taoist Association. His loose interpretation of the religion was hardly a secret: on his Web site he used to boast that he could stay underwater for two hours without breathing. Meanwhile, the government has made a conscious effort to open up. 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. In 2007, President Hu Jintao endorsed religious charities and their usefulness in solving social problems. The central government has also recently sponsored international conferences on Buddhism and Taoism. And local governments have welcomed temples — like the one on Mount Yi — as ways to raise money from tourism.

November 7, 2010 4:51 PM
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