Parent of All the Gods

By Ross PerlinMarch 20, 2014

Parent of All the Gods

Heart of Buddha, Heart of China by James Carter
Ecclesiastical Colony by Ernest P. Young
The Missionary's Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village by Henrietta Harrison

LIKE THE TERMS NOW used for “society,” “economy,” and “politics,” the Chinese word for “religion” (zongjiao) is a late-19th-century loanword from Japanese. It was the Meiji-era modernizers, feverishly translating European texts, who first coined these compounds; it was their Chinese counterparts, learning modernity in Japan, who carried them home across the sea. Call it reciprocity: the compounds were based on existing Chinese characters, themselves long ago transformed into Japanese kanji, their radical novelty smoothed over by at least partial semantic transparency for any educated East Asian. Zongjiao could be parsed literally as “sect teaching,” though “sect” referred to a school of Buddhism, and “teaching” meant something quite different from religious dogma.

Over a century later, “religion” in the Western sense is arguably still something of a foreign concept in the People’s Republic of China. The reasons are both ancient and modern. The template of monotheistic, “organized” religion is of little use for understanding any and all of these — the deep Chinese substrate of mythology and folk practice, the little-systematized accretions of Daoist tradition and teaching, the ethical and philosophical system of Confucianism — let alone a complex amalgam of them all, inlaid with a Buddhism only fully naturalized after centuries of conflict. The “three teachings in harmony,” which came to characterize the basic religious situation of imperial China, present a remarkably different picture from those three teachings of western Eurasia — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — which have also grown up together, but through constant opposition.

Now add in the Chinese Communist Party, over 80 million members strong, today the largest and most vigorous atheist organization on the planet. Some Party members maintain quiet belief and many others adhere to traditional rituals (burning incense, venerating ancestors, kneeling in Daoist or Buddhist temples) — but the basic rule is that believers need not apply, that unbelief is still vital for climbing the political ladder. There are lingering effects from decades of stigma and persecution, from “what many scholars believe to be the most sustained attack on religion in history,” as Ian Johnson put it in The New York Review of Books (“China Gets Religion!” December 22, 2011). The “three teachings” may still be considered quintessentially Chinese, but on the surface Chinese society today feels overwhelmingly secular.

The 1978 Constitution protects “normal religious activity,” informally defined as anything permitted by the government’s Religious Affairs Bureau, whose chief boasts of being “the parent of all the gods.” Places of worship must be registered with the government, and the five state-sanctioned “religions” are overseen by official organizations in Beijing: the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (for Protestants), and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Everything else is “underground.” Just how large and how vital is this underground? Johnson writes that “China is in the grip of a religious revival analogous to America’s Great Awakening in the 19th century.” Yet such awakenings have occurred periodically throughout American history, and a similar pattern of cyclical fervor arguably applies in China’s case as well.

Though they can vary tremendously from one another, post-communist societies across the world have witnessed a resurgence of religion, though the long-term staying power of these revivals remains open to question. After the Cultural Revolution, according to Johnson, there were “just a few score temples, churches, and mosques still in usable condition,” but hundreds of thousands have been reopened or rebuilt since. Comparatively speaking at least, all faiths appear to be flourishing in what scholar Fenggang Yang calls the “shortage economy” of China’s religious landscape: the question is who’s pulling ahead.

According to the best estimates we have, admittedly flawed and provisional, there are now some 70 million Christians in the country, around five percent of the population. David Aikman, the author of Jesus in Beijing, considers it “possible that Christians will constitute 20 to 30 percent of China’s population within three decades,” making “a Christian view of the world […] the dominant worldview within China’s political and cultural establishment, and possibly also within senior military circles.” Such a steep increase would bring China in line with Singapore, South Korea, and the Chinese-American community, in all of which Christianity has flourished during recent decades, as opposed to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, where so far the gospel has had a more modest and gradual impact.

Fashionable “China scenarios” usually give it short shrift, but the country’s deepening Christianization would have major ramifications for international relations and for the future of Christianity itself. For Christian missionaries and their supporters, China is the last great prize, and the battle for a billion unclaimed souls is on. Proselytizing is technically illegal, but the country is rife with it. Usually Westerners but increasingly Asians as well, the missionaries may nominally be English teachers or aid workers, but they model Christian values, share literature, and “plant” house churches. Within limits the government seems to tolerate their presence, whether due to insufficient law enforcement capacity, tacit approval of the good work that many missionaries do, or a desire not to anger Western governments. Evangelical Protestantism — dynamic, decentralized, and associated with Anglo-American power and prestige — clearly has the upper hand over Rome, but relatively little is known about who China’s Christians actually are, why they convert, or how they practice.

Acute sensitivities remain surrounding any kind of research on contemporary religious life in China, especially where Christianity is involved. Most studies have traditionally been big-picture and historically oriented, but several recent books are beginning to fill the gap, illuminating the varieties of Chinese religious experience. Published in 2010, Lian Xi’s Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China provided a coherent, up-to-date account, focused on the “millenarian quest” and “fiery, apocalyptic” theology at the heart of popular Chinese Protestantism. Released the following year, dissident writer Liao Yiwu’s God Is Red told the stories of individual Christians energized by the state’s persecutions. Now a cluster of recent books shows that China’s recent religious history is much more varied, and open to much more fine-grained analysis, than either the “three teachings” synthesis or the new Christian triumphalism would suggest. In one, four centuries of Chinese Catholicism are traced in a single mountain village; in another, the legacy of a 20th-century Buddhist leader is followed from Northeast China to Hong Kong to the Bronx; in a third, the uncomfortably close connection between 19th-century French imperialism and Catholic evangelism is analyzed and evoked.


It’s with a very traditional question that Henrietta Harrison begins her scrupulous new history of one of China’s longest-lasting Catholic villages, places where the “teaching of the Heavenly Lord” now seems almost fully indigenous. Why has Christianity so far failed in China, she asks, at least compared to the sensational forecasts? Will this be the wave of evangelism that brings China decisively into the Christian camp? Woven together from missionary archives and villagers’ accounts, Harrison’s microhistory of Cave Gully and the surrounding area, the mountainous heart of Shanxi Province, stretches over four centuries of Christian ebb and flow. Despite “a constant tension,” it’s a story of deepening religious globalization, according to Harrison — of “progress towards authenticity defined in terms of global Catholicism,” rather than the “gradual development of a local Catholic church,” convincingly Chinese.

Yet Shanxi Catholicism still seems notably distinct in theory and in practice — and, on the other hand, global linkages have been present from the very beginning. Shanxi merchants first encountered Christianity in 17th-century Beijing, where the Jesuits were patiently localizing Catholic belief for a Confucian audience. At the same time, they were trading on foreign prestige, bringing high-technology transfer to the Ming court — there was even a Jesuit who came to Shanxi, reports Harrison, and “entertained the local officials with displays of optical illusions and performances on the harpsichord.” The Jesuits’ Franciscan successors in turn brought Latin and Italian, principled opposition to foot-binding, and even study abroad opportunities for their Chinese novices (in the 18th century!) at the College for Chinese in Naples, which was then one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Europe.

Statistics for adult baptisms show that “the great age of conversion in Shanxi” was the early Qing dynasty, roughly from the mid-17th century until the Yongzheng emperor banned Christianity outright in 1724. Around the same time, the missionaries’ attempts at acculturation began to come up against insuperable limits: the church could not condone or accommodate ancestor worship, then as now a vital component of traditional Chinese practice.

A small Catholic presence endured over the following century and a half, but the mid-19th century proved to be a watershed. The protection, prestige, and funding of Western imperial powers were at last fully behind the missionaries, who now included Protestant competitors. So much French money was pouring in, and so strong was the pressure to pump up baptism numbers, that the Catholic missionaries in Shanxi appear to have “bought” conversions, according to Harrison — real evangelism was always punishingly difficult work.

Young Chinese were simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by a faith closely associated with foreign imperialism. In Shanxi, the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901, traditionally understood as an anti-imperialist revolt, took the form of a religious civil war between Chinese Boxers and Chinese Christians, with the latter cast as traitors in thrall to the foreign enemy. With a few principled Western allies, Chinese Catholic priests began a bitter struggle against European missionaries for control of the church, as documented by Ernest Young in Ecclesiastical Colony. Young’s book highlights an unusual institutional arrangement at the center of this struggle: the “religious protectorate” exerted by France over all missionaries and later all Catholics living on Chinese soil, a policy that prevailed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bitterly resented as another form of Western encroachment, the protectorate offers an important institutional explanation of Christianity’s “failure” in China, according to Young — it came tainted by imperialism.

Though backed by the Vatican, the attempt to create a truly indigenous Catholic church remained an unfinished project — until the Communist victory in 1949, when a strictly limited, state-controlled version came into being. Harrison notes that the most recently converted areas in Shanxi abandoned Catholicism right after 1949; only in villages like Cave Gully was it entrenched deeply enough to hang on. The last foreign missionary in the village was deported in 1953, “a kindly man who ran an eye clinic, cycled round the villages to see his patients, tossed children in the air.” With that, the local Chinese priests finally took over, just in time to experience the harrowing persecutions of the Socialist Education Movement and the Cultural Revolution.

According to Harrison, over three decades of reform and opening have brought about “a spectacular wave of new conversions and the rebuilding of the structures of the institutional church” — as well as a global turn, despite the continuing enmity between Beijing and Rome. Such is the context in which an inspired lay evangelist like Cave Gully’s Duan Runcheng, triumphing over earlier persecution, can reportedly go from village to village and make 3,000 conversions.

Remarkably, Catholicism has remained “central to the villagers’ identity and sense of community,” but Harrison sees this latest wave of conversions as “the result of a particular combination of circumstances,” and not necessarily a sign of China’s Christian future. Nor should Cave Gully be seen as remotely representative, when so much of today’s evangelism is Protestant-led, unfolding in cities or in ethnic minority areas, where Christianity has often had an even deeper appeal.

Moreover, at least in part to counter the Christian threat, the Chinese government has started actively restoring Daoist and Buddhist temples, promoting the “three traditions” as authentically and integrally Chinese forms of religious expression — indeed, even as a spiritual basis for national renewal. Unimpeachably Chinese and safely moralistic, the remote, semilegendary figure of Confucius has become central to the Party’s effort to construct a usable past. The lavish opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics made no mention of Mao, but led with anodyne excerpts from the Analects. The Party now pedals soft power through more than 400 “Confucius Institutes” all over the world, which spread acceptable versions of Chinese language and culture. There may be a genuinely popular component to the Confucian revival — a much-touted 2010 mainland biopic starring Chow Yun-fat, a runaway bestseller called Confucius from the Heart — but Beijing’s desire to restore an officially sanctioned ethno-religious Chinese identity is unmistakable.

Out in paperback this April, James Carter’s Heart of Buddha, Heart of China, a biography of the monk Tanxu (1875-1963), who was a patriarch of the Tiantai Buddhist sect, is a reminder of how this impulse toward “national religion” keeps recurring in Chinese history, and in particular of how once-foreign Buddhism now stakes a vital claim within Chinese culture. The Chinese monk Tanxu’s life is “an instrument with which to gauge broader trends,” writes Carter, presenting his subject as a microhistorical angle on the early-20th-century nationalistic revival of Buddhism.

That Tanxu lived in interesting times is without a doubt — born in coastal North China, he was a young man “constantly in motion,” working as a laborer, minor government official, fortune-teller, and pharmacist before abandoning his family and embracing monasticism at the age of 42. His life certainly dovetailed with seminal moments in modern Chinese history: he was twice a refugee in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War, and spent the following three decades “navigat[ing] feuding warlords, Japanese invasion and occupation, and the Chinese civil war” before fleeing to Hong Kong in 1949.

More telling was Tanxu’s “spiritual crisis” in the wake of these events, which led him to explore Christianity, Daoist alchemy, and ultimately Buddhism, seen as both a source of national renewal and an “axle” around which China (and the world) should turn. It was as “a cultural patriot” that the monk found his vocation, establishing temples across northern China with funding from an emerging class of Buddhist businessmen and with spiritual backing from more established clergy in southern China. Tanxu’s particular blend of Buddhist nationalism may have gone under with the advent of the Communists, but it has renewed resonance today as tradition mounts a comeback under Party auspices. A flashier, contemporary incarnation is arguably Shi Yongxin, the “CEO monk” who serves as abbot of the Shaolin Temple and relentless promoter of Shaolin’s global brand. Since Tanxu’s time, Buddhists have learned how to compete in the modern religious marketplace, now even in the West.

However intertwined they’ve sometimes grown, “Caesar and Christ” represents an ancient division in Western thought, reinscribed even in the Enlightenment separation of church and state. The lines are much less clear in China: these studies remind us that there’s no partitioning Chinese religious movements from Chinese nationalism, that no creed or tendency can take root in Chinese soil until it reckons with the Middle Kingdom in all its civilizational complexity, including a certain degree of submission to the state. Theoretically, the imperial state lorded it over a relatively open and roomy pantheon — where the emperor was high priest and former bureaucrats might be worshipped as gods — but in practice the Chinese religious landscape has long been complex and decentralized, including flourishing cults. How open is the pantheon now?

Islam found a niche, but nothing more — of the 20 million-plus adherents reported today, more than half are the Hui, deeply assimilated to Chinese life, and most of the others are Central Asian Uighurs, only recently brought into the Chinese sphere of influence. Under Chinese influence, the tiny Jewish settlement in Kaifeng adopted patrilineal descent, unlike all their coreligionists, and the community’s gradual disappearance has only been narrowly arrested. The often-schizophrenic Chinese engagement with Christianity has mirrored a profound ambivalence about foreign influence in general. Periodic openings to the world, in which outside faiths are tentatively welcomed, have been followed by sudden closures. To quote historian Jonathan Spence, to change China remains an “ongoing quest” — even for the faithful.


Ross Perlin is a writer and linguist based in Brooklyn.

LARB Contributor

Ross Perlin is a writer and linguist based in Brooklyn. His first book, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, was published by Verso in 2011 and is available in paperback and ebook as of April 2012. Ross' work has appeared in The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Guardian (UK), and The Washington Post, among other places.


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