Religious life is flourishing in China, and on many different levels. The growth of religion is evident not only on the mainland, but in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, and in overseas Chinese communities as well.
On the mainland, in the People’s Republic of China, religious life has re-emerged over the last thirty years. Despite official sanctions in some areas, there is a new openness in a society in the midst of rapid social, political, and economic change.
Buddhists visit a popular temple in east China to burn incense or ask the monks to conduct special services for their families. Villagers gather at festival time to usher in the lunar New Year and perform a communal sacrifice to the local gods.
Muslims in far Western China proceed to their neighbourhood mosque five times a day for prayers. Buddhists in Taiwan discover a renewed interest in service to society. An elderly women consults a fortune-teller to find out about the future prospects of her son and his family who are about to go overseas.
Christians go to a newly opened or reopened church in the early morning to prepare for Sunday services. A cook places fruit, specially prepared food, and incense before a small altar at the back of his restaurant.
A small group of women and men meet in a park to practice taijiquan, an exercise for the body as well as spirit.
These are some of the popular images of Chinese religious life that have become increasingly familiar in the period of openness and reform that began in the late 1970s. On the mainland, Chine people, as well as visitors or residents from overseas, can observe or participate in any number of public religious gatherings.
In contemporary China there is an official policy of freedom of worship – with some important caveats – that is enshrined in the Chinese constitution. For the most part, nowadays the Chinese people have relative autonomy to practice any of the officially approved religious, as long as that does not pose a challenge to the established social order or the political status quo.
An increasing number of people are availing themselves to the varied opportunities for religious engagement and expression. On the whole, there is a discernible trend towards greater religious participation, although China still comes across as being much more secular when compared to other countries with high levels of religious belief and affiliation, such as the US or India.
On the other hand, there is probably more religious participation in China than in much of Europe.
In spite of the greater openness and freedom of the post-Mao era, there continues to be state supervision and control over religious groups and institutions, which is exercised both from the political centre in Beijing and at the regional level.
The Chinese government is engaged in a balancing act: being tolerant and supportive of religious freedom and at the same time greatly concerned with maintaining social stability and political control.
The government has the prerogative –or even the duty- to use coercive measures and stamp out religious heterodoxy, especially when it deems it to be inimical to the party’s conception of public interest and social progress. In that sense, China still lacks full-fledged religious freedom, as understood in Western liberal democracies.
On the other hand, prevalent notions about the state’s right to exert control over religious organizations, as well as interfere with the religious beliefs and practices of its citizens, have longstanding precedents throughout Chinese history.
The government remains eager to channel religious participation via state-approved forms and organizations. These are primarily constituted by the official intuitions of the five main religions recognized by the Chinese state: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestant Christianise.
These are represented by a number of officially approved associations which operate at the regional, provincial and national levels, while the main governmental agency responsible for the supervision and control of religion is the State Administration for Religious Affairs (until 1998 known as the Religious Affairs Bureau).
For the most part traditional religious observances are tolerated by various local authorities. In many areas on the Chinese mainland there are significant revivals of popular religious beliefs and practices, which also continue to flourish in Taiwan and among the Chinese Diasporas in Singapore, Malaysia, and elsewhere.
Examples of such revivals include the rebuilding of communal religious networks in rural China and the widespread worship of a host of popular deities such as Nuwa, Shennong, Mazu, and Guandi. Recently there has also been a revival of the cult of the Yellow Emperor; his worship as the putative ancestor of the Han people and the father of the Chinese nation has become tied-up with an upsurge in Chinese nationalism.
Concrete examples of the cult’s revival are the huge public ceremonies staged at the Yellow Emperor’s mausoleums in Shaanxi and Henan –both of which claim to be his birthplaces- that have been organized under official auspices and have been attended by various politicians and other celebrities.
One striking characteristic of the relations between state and religion in China is the wide variety of approaches implemented across the country and over time. There exist important discrepancies between the formal laws and regulations promulgated by higher levels of governments and the ways in which local authorities implement or ignore policies determined above them.
There are also remarkable differences in the level of trust by authorities toward different religions, depending on their contacts with foreigners, their influence on minority nationalities, their ability to generate support, and their history of cooperation or conflict with the government.
The state alternates between deregulation of religion and the maintenance of strict control; intellectuals close to the Party discuss openly the importance of religion in Chinese society, and many religious people try to cooperate with the authorities for the sake of the common good.
In sum, there exists a wide diversity in the modes of relations between state and religion across Chinese societies. The spectrum of relations range from what can be described as symbiotic, when the state sponsors religious activities and religious actors offer their support to the state via public rituals, to what can be termed adversarial, when police forces harass religious associations they fear, or when religious movements express dissent.
Very often, relations between religion and state can also develop in a “zone of indifference”, in which the state gives up the pretence of regulating religion and religious institutions desist from involvement in politics.
This variety of relationship patterns obviously relates to the multiplicity of religious beliefs and practices in Chinese societies, which has changed over centuries as China has increased its exchanges with the world community and as it continues to amplify its exposure to different views of the world.