China’s Religious Character May Be Deeper Than Thought

May 9, 2008

china-2.jpgThe light being cast on China by the coming Summer Games is far brighter than the flickering Olympic flame now wending its way across that vast country. Politics, society, human rights, the status of Tibet and even the environment have been widely discussed.


Now a window has been opened on faith and religion in a country where six decades of Communist philosophy and rule might seem to have pushed those subjects into obscurity.

In a recent report the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has analyzed available surveys, some a few years old, and concluded that 31 percent of the Chinese population considers religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives, with only 11 percent rating it as meaningless. Even the exact starting time of the Summer Olympics is rooted in Confucianism and Chinese folk religions,  the report adds, where the numeral 8 is revered for its luck and power. The games will start on the 8th day of the 8th month of ’08 at precisely 8 minutes and 8 seonds past 8 o’clock.

This does not mean that religious affiliation is high in China. Only one in five adults has an active connection, the report says, with one of the country’s five major religions — Buddhism (by far the largest single group), Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam and Taoism. That compares to 8 in every 10 adults in the United States who claim a religious affiliation.

But a recent report from East China Normal University in Shanghai appearing in state-approved media said that about 300 million Chinese over 16 — slghtly less than a third of the population in that age group — are religious, perhaps indicating the government has given recognition to the depth of religious sentiment.

The question is whether China’s modernization brought about by its economic engine will bring religion into society in a bigger way. The report notes that Hu Jintao, general secretary of the country’s Communist Party, earlier this year told the Chinese Politburo the leadedrship should try to “closely unite religious figures and believers … to build an all-around … prosperous society while quickening the pace toward the modernization of socialism.”

Photo credits: Reuters/Bobby Yip/David Gray


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It totally depends on whether you think Confucianism is a religion or not. For Chinese, they don’t think confucianism is a religion rather than a system of philosophy and moral thoughts. I would say 60% percent of Chinese still have a strong and deep confucianism root, and theoretially, all follower of Confucianism should not actively worship any god except your own ancestors.

Posted by orsino | Report as abusive

The number 8 is the symbol for wealth and 4 is the symbol for death. Neither of these have any connection to faith or religion. It would be more accurate to say that many Chinese are superstitious.

Posted by T | Report as abusive

There’s much religion in China. I remember my young Chinese colleague telling me there wasn’t. But, he doesn’t understand.
Communism is a form of religion, so is capitalism. Christianity, is now very popular in China, but most underground. Certainly both Isalm and Buddhism are strong. Even the Communist Party can’t stamp out religion, too much a part of human nature. Marx said, ‘Religion is the opiate of the masses!’

Posted by F.A. Hutchison, China | Report as abusive

I’d like to second the comment by T. I read the Pew study last week … the data is okay, but the analysis is terrible. The author clearly has a hard time distinguishing between religion and superstition. Of course, the irony is that the CCP spent decades trying to equate religion with superstition as a means of weakening support for it among educated Chinese. And anybody with even a minimal understanding of Chinese language and/or culture would know something about the national obsession with homonyms for numbers. Still, the data is good, and it’s a nice supplement to the East China Normal study.

Posted by Adam Minter | Report as abusive

Very very slowly the Government of the PRC is loosening it’s stranglehold on it’s people. The Chinese culture has always been ‘deeper’ than the PRC’s so-called communist govt could possibly comprehend or perhaps would ever want to admit. It will be a long hard road for the many Chinese people who have had their beliefs (whether based on superstition/religion/spiritualism) oppressed for so long. The PRC’s attitude towards another group ‘Falung Gong’ (who have never appeared violent but just want to practice their ‘faith’), is so superstitious, perverse and oppressive it is a wonder that any religion is allowed to be practised in the country. The quote by Hu is in stark contrast as to what is really happening to minority groups that the PRC Govt perceive as a threat to power, within the country. Does Hu mean to include the real Dalai Lama as part of these ‘religious figures’ or only the prop-up puppet currently within the PRC? When it comes to issues not making money in the PRC the country’s govt, only discuss the issues but not deal with them. Or if they do it’s like putting a bandaid on an amputation. May sincerity and integrity finally wash away the scum build up of political corruption, ignorance and oppression.

Posted by Conscientious Observer | Report as abusive

china cannot escape from the reality of religion.
sooner or later…

Posted by matt | Report as abusive

I have known many Chinese people in my life, particularly the younger generation. Take the time to talk to a Chinese young person about religion and you will find them very interested. What has kept them away from open discussion is the fear that in their country, they will be persecuted if they talk about it openly.

Better yet, speak to them about “relationships”. Talk to them about a God who can help them with their problems. You will discover much interest and communication when they hear that the Bible speaks about a God who can actually help them in their daily living.

Really, that’s what all people need to hear. God is interested in people who value a relationship with Him, not empty theological mumbling about religion!

Posted by Rev.Smallwood | Report as abusive

i just wanna tell Conscientious Observer,who issued comments before: you don’t kown any about China and Chinese, you have none idea about the reality.

“fa lun gong”,as you said, do you know what is the reality about it. it said that anyone who is ill don’t need to have any medicine but to speak to himself the spirit of falun you know how many patient was dead or hurted by this way.

don’t speak the idiot words unless you really kown the reality!

Posted by aiqinocean | Report as abusive

Regarding Rev.Smallwood’s post, I find it full of ignorance.

First, if you consider Confucianism/Taoism/natural deities a religion then the majority of Chinese would be considered religious but as the another poster mentioned most Chinese consider it a philosophy and moral thought.

Second, young people talk about religion all the time. You perpetuate the Mao myth, where during Mao’s reign religion was completely banned. Furthermore, the younger generation do not fear persecution by the government merely talking about religion. The reason why certain religions are persecuted is because of the political aspects linked to religious activities which the CCP fear above all else. The CCP doesn’t tolerate any other political thought and religion and politics mix readily hence the massive crackdowns, but religion itself is not persecuted as one can witness by the numerous Buddhist/Confucist/Taoist temples everywhere in China.

Posted by sg | Report as abusive

Before you boast about how many religious persons exist in America, I urge you to ask them some questions about their faith: more than likely, they will know nothing of their so called faith, or even God. It is purely social conditioning and has zero relation to spirituality.

Posted by Pittman | Report as abusive

[…] arrived to convert the population.  It would take generations to rid the culture of its Confucius Taoist influence—China’s cultural […]

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