How far do religion and philosophy shape Chinese society today?

How far do religion and philosophy shape Chinese society today?

Before the modernist transformations of the 20th century, China had one of the richest and most diverse religious cultures in the world. Despite the Cultural Revolution by Mao during his rule which halted any forms of progress, religion can be argued to shape Chinese society to a large extent through the formation of new communities and social welfare programs. However, the role of religion is restricted by the dominance of the philosophy of Chinese communism that is promoted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Therefore, religion and philosophy does indeed shape the Chinese society today to a large extend.


  • Formation of new communities

In the post-Mao era, religion has been shaping Chinese society to a great extent through the formation of new communities based on religious belief in the post-Mao era. In the post Mao era, ethnographers have documented the rise of new communities based on religious belief through the construction of many churches and temples, and the regular performances of rituals to honor ancestors, seek out good fortune, ward off evil, celebrate festivals, and accumulate merit for a good afterlife. Through these activities, the Chinese have on their own without official support from the government, created new institutions based on old religions such as Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and even Christianity. In addition, these Chinese have also given these old religions new centralized hierarchies and congregational boundaries that separate religious practices from daily life. With the de-collectivization of agriculture and the dismantling of the commune system, in order for families and local communities to take care of themselves and to establish newly mutually supportive relationships, engagement in new communities formed based on religious beliefs serves to take up this role. This is evident with Christian congregations in particular have skyrocketed since churches began reopening when Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 and that the number of Christians in Communist China is growing so steadily that it by 2030 it could have more churchgoers than the USA. Therefore, these new communities based on religious belief are shaping Chinese society independently of the influence of the CCP and government.


  • Role of philanthropy and disaster relief

Religious organizations are officially encouraged to play a role in philanthropy and disaster relief, including healthcare and poverty alleviation. The Chinese government under its past president, Hu Jintao introduced the idea of China as a “Harmonious Society” and this has encouraged religious organizations to provide social welfare services. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, while the Chinese state is increasingly disengaged itself from the village level, providing few resources to cash-strapped village governments, religious organizations have frequently emerged as an alternative centers of resource collection and allocation, to which villagers willingly contribute funds, which in many cases are spent on local infrastructure such as the construction and repair of roads, bridges, schools and even basketball courts. In 2015, a Buddhist temple in Hubei province had a charity week raising 124.1 Million Yuan to support local construction for new villages. They also raised 1 Million Yuan for families affected by the Tianjin explosion. This shows that religious organizations are actively involved in charity works, helping to alleviate poverty and provide social support. Therefore, religion can be argued to play large role in Chinese society today given that it helps in alleviating poverty and providing social support for the people.


  • Promotion of Culture rather than spirituality

In order to secure approval from the atheistic Chinese authorities, many religious organizations modify their programs such that they appear to be promoting culture rather than spirituality. In this case, religion therefore shapes the Chinese society today through artistic and literacy pursuits. In terms of popular culture, “Confucius fever” is likewise going strong. A professor at Beijing Normal University, Yu Dan, gave a very popular series of lectures on the Analects of Confucius. She then published them into a book called Lun Yu Xin De, or Reflections on the Analects. This book published in 2006, became a huge best seller in China, a real publishing phenomenon, with over 3 million copies sold in its first 4 months in print. In 2009, it was even translated into English as Confucius of the heart. Even the PRC government has gotten into the act. In 2014, not only did Xi Jinping and other high government officials attended the celebration of Confucius’s birthday, but Xi JinPing also acknowledged him proudly as a great contributor to Chinese traditions — exactly opposite if the harsh anti-Confucian rhetoric by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Furthermore, the CCP has been sponsoring the establishment of “Confucius Institutes” all over the world in the name of educating the world on Chinese traditions. However, it is known that one of the reasons which the CCP actively promotes Confucianism is that it emphasizes on loyalty to the party and the nation. This shows that religion and philosophical thoughts are important tools for the CCP to govern the country. Hence it plays a vital role in China today.


  • Secular mindset of the CCP

On the other hand, religious and philosophical thoughts play a small role due to the strong existence of secular mind-set by the communist regime. With the CCP remaining staunchly committed to the promotion of the atheistic philosophy of communism, it has warned that should any of its members harbor any form of religious beliefs or take part in religious activities, they would be dealt with severely and expelled from the party itself. Furthermore, this secular mind-set has in turn, shaped the educational system to be atheistic, grooming Chinese citizens to be more atheistic and less religious. In 2015, Mainland universities have been told to step up propaganda and teachings of Marxism and Chinese socialism by the CCP in order to promote China’s political integrity and to shun textbooks that promote western values. In addition, in 2016, an all-time high of over 1 million university students are getting special education in Marxism through the “Young Marxist” Program, where students can learn all about the Party’s guiding ideology. Therefore, the continued efforts by the CCP to protect its beliefs shows that communism continues to be an important philosophy shaping Chinese society today.


  • CCP’s tight supervision and control

Officially, all religious organizations and activities fall under the close control and supervision of the CCP. Using the 1982 CCP decree “The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during Our Country’s Socialist Period”, commonly known as Document Number 19, religion has come under combined administrative supervision by state approved associations and close monitoring by the State Administration and Religious Affairs. Such regulations are used against religions which the authorities deem to threaten China’s social and political order. For instance, in 2015, the Chinese authorities have issued regulations severely limiting Muslims in their religious practices such as the restriction of fasting by the Ugyhur Muslims during the month of Ramadan in Xinjiang. Hence, the CCP continues to play a dominant role in the shaping of the Chinese society today.


In conclusion, although religion plays an important role in the shaping of the Chinese society today, it has to adapt its programs to suit political realities such as the continued dominance of the official communist philosophy promoted by the CCP.