Religion in Modern China
From the 1911 Revolution to the Cult of Mao
The Challenge of Modernity
The collapse of the imperial state [in 1911] roughly coincided with China’s entry into the modern era. The Qing empire’s inability to adequately respond to the challenges of modernity led to the disintegration of age-old social and political institutions. However, in the aftermath of the Republican revolution the initial efforts at creating a strong and modern state ended in abject failures.The bleak situation was exacerbated by the moribund economy, political uncertainty, and rampant corruption. There was a pervasive sense of disillusionment with China’s weakness and backwardness, coupled with resentment of its low standing in the international arena, brought into sharp relief by a series of traumatic encounters with the Western powers and Japan. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 243]
During the early twentieth century many educated Chinese, especially those who have received a Western education, came to have faith in the power of reason and science. ... Many among the urban elites shared a somewhat naive belief that modern ideas and institutions, derived from Western paradigms, could be readily appropriated by the Chinese, as they discarded their burdensome traditions and embarked on a crash course of modernization. This kind of progressive and anti-traditionalist trajectory was perceived as being part of a larger process of epochal civilizational change, spearheaded by the irreversible ascendancy of science and technology. ... All of these trends were given a potent political expression by the May Fourth Movement, which was initiated by patriotic students in Beijing on May 4, 1919. The students, along with their supporters among the intellectuals and the general public, were frustrated with the social and political status quo. ... While political makeover and modernization were on the top of the national agenda, a number of intellectuals argued that political transformation had to be accompanied with corresponding changes in the cultural sphere. That led to a reevaluation of central aspects of traditional Chinese civilization, including religion. ... Within that context, Confucianism was identified as the main culprit, as it was perceived as constituting the core of China’s traditional culture, although there were also anti-religious sentiments directed at other traditions, which were dismissed as dated superstitions. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 243-4]
While most of the modernist critiques centered on the shortcoming of Confucianism and its incompatibility with the modern world, similar criticism was also directed towards a whole range of “superstitious” religious beliefs and practices prevalent among the common people, which included those of Buddhism, Daoism, and popular religion. All of these are evident in some of the popular writings from the Republican period, which were composed in vernacular Chinese and in genres influenced by Western literature. Under the influence of a literary revolution launched in the 1910s by Hu Shi (1891-1962) and other intellectuals critical of the prevalent use of classical Chinese ... Lu Xun (1881-1936), arguably the most famous writer from this period, presents a forceful indictment of traditional Chinese culture and society. ... [A] good example of the use of literature as a form of social critique is “New Year’s Sacrifice,” where Lu Xun presents a compelling condemnation of the outmoded outlooks, restrictive mores, and coldhearted attitudes observable among the scholarly elites that still adhered to Confucian norms and rituals, along with a passing indictment of popular religious beliefs. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 245]
Lu Xun’s Critique of Tradition
Summary of “The New-Year Sacrifice”
Xianglin’s Wife has no name or identity of her own, and she is known only by her relationship to her first husband, who was a boy ten years her junior. ... Even upon the death of a husband ... a woman still resides with her in-laws and remains subject to them for the remainder of her life. Xianglin’s Wife, widowed by her first spouse, opts instead to run away from her deceased husband’s family and find work as a servant in the Lu household. Her mother-in-law tracks her down and forcibly reclaims her, as the woman is a valuable commodity and can be sold off again in marriage in exchange for a dowry. Poor families could not afford the luxury of chaste widowhood, a custom that encouraged women to marry but once and remain faithful to one husband until death. Married a second time, this time to a rustic, Xianlin’s Wife attempts suicide at the wedding ceremony. ... Misplaced faith in folk religious beliefs, as well as the superstitious beliefs of even the scholarly Lu household, completely alienate Xianglin’s Wife from both the living and the dead, and she never recovers her sanity; her later death during the “invocation of blessings” at the New Year is a silent curse on the family and its traditions. [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 282-3]
With the Communist victory in the civil war and the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, all religions in China had to contend with a governing ideology that had little sympathy for traditional religious beliefs and practices. ... From the outset, the Party adopted the negative stance towards religion that is emblematic of Marxism, according to which religion is “the opium of the people.” The Communist state asserted its control over religion by instituting policies that restricted the activities of the clergy, expropriated religious properties, and imposed state supervision over religious organizations, amidst a general atmosphere infused with intimidation and fear. Notwithstanding the deteriorating situation in regard to religious freedom, during the early period of Communist rule the state and the party largely abstained from directly engaging in brutal repression of religion. ... Despite the efforts of the Communist Party to educate its populace about the worthlessness of religion, many people continued to hold on to their faith and engage in traditional religious observances. The disappearance of religion, which according to orthodox Marxist dogma was to follow the establishment of socialist society, was not exactly happening. Accordingly, not only was there an intensification in the anti-religious rhetoric and propaganda, but gradually more repressive actions were introduced in order to stamp out the persistent presence of “superstitious” beliefs and practices among the Chinese populace. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 249-51]
The religious situation rapidly deteriorated during the 1960s, and reached its lowest point with the violent suppression of all religions during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). During this chaotic and turbulent period of perpetual revolution — ostensibly meant to stamp out the influence of “bourgeois” social elements that threatened the putative dictatorship of the proletariat — there was a wholesale attack against all ideas or things that could be construed as conveying traditional values or being linked with foreign influences. ... The revolutionary fervor and the violent war against religious traditions waged during the Cultural Revolution led to the closing or destruction of all monasteries, temples, churches, and mosques, along with the forced laicization of the clergy. No religious sect or tradition was spared from violent persecution. In the process of cleansing China from bourgeois elements and old-fashioned superstitions, countless religious artifacts, including statues, books, and paintings, were destroyed. The anti-religious expression was extended to people’s homes and their private lives. All expressions of faith, public and private, were proscribed. Individual instances of noncompliance with these guiding principles, which could simply mean the mere possession of a religious symbol or artifact, carried serious consequences, including harassment and imprisonment. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 251]
The indiscriminate anti-religious suppression and the sweeping inhumanity of the Cultural Revolution were accompanied with the growth of a cult centered on Mao’s revolutionary persona. Ironically, at its height the cultic veneration of Mao adopted many of the elements of organized religion, notwithstanding the official atheistic ideology espoused by Mao and the party. The image of Mao assumed mythical proportions as he effectively became deified. Within the mass hysteria that prevailed at the time, his eager followers, who were subjected to methodical propaganda and systematic indoctrination, worshiped him as if he were a living god. ... The cult of Mao had its own scripture, in the form of the ubiquitous Little Red Book, a collection of Mao quotations that was fervently read and memorized by the Red Guards, the youthful units assembled to serve as the revolution’s vanguard, and other devoted followers of the Great Helmsman. The recitations of the red book, which effectively functioned as a “bible” of sorts for the Red Guards, assumed forms reminiscent of religious rituals. In terms of practice, the cult’s followers were taught to cultivate revolutionary virtues and self-sacrifice, study the thought of Mao, and work for the common good and the welfare of the people.

It is also possible to draw parallels between the utopian belief in a perfect communist society and the various millenarian beliefs promoted by different religious groups throughout Chinese history. Finally, there was a pronounced puritanical streak in Communist outlook and practice, already observable before Mao’s grasp of supreme power. That was manifested in the proscription of an array of vices, such as gambling, prostitution, and drinking, which evoked the puritanical attitudes of the Taipings and other religiously-inspired movements. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 251-2]
Gradually, during the course of 1964, the emphasis began to shift from boy scoutish good deeds to the cult of Mao. The essence of Lei Feng, the teachers told us, was his “boundless love and devotion to Chairman Mao.” Before he took any action, Lei Feng always thought of some words of Mao’s. His diary was published and became our moral textbook. On almost every page there was a pledge like: “I must study Chairman Mao’s works, heed Chairman Mao’s words, follow Chairman Mao’s instructions, and be a good soldier of Chairman Mao’s.” We vowed to follow Lei Feng, and be ready to “go up mountains of knives and down seas of flames,” to “have our bodies smashed to powder and our bones crushed to smithereens,” to “submit ourselves unquestioningly to the control of the Great Leader” — Mao. The cult of Mao and the cult of Lei Feng were two sides of the same coin: one was the cult of personality; the other, its essential corollary, was the cult of impersonality. [Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 311]