Religion in China: neverending search for meaning

Updated: 2011-11-26 13:40


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BEIJING - 28-year-old Wang Yuan doesn't reflect for very long when she is asked about her preferred religion. "Actually nothing," she says.

But as soon as she steps over the threshold of a Buddhist temple, she appears to be as devotional as any other worshipper. She says that the temple gives her a feeling of peace and inner calm.

Her experience and attitude are not unlike those held by religious believers all over the world. Although religious adherents aren't always eager to explain their personal beliefs, they all have a similar desire to discover greater meaning and transcend their Earthbound existence.

China, in accordance with this need, offers freedom of religious belief to all of its citizens.

"Freedom of religious belief in China means that every citizen has the freedom to believe or not to believe in any religion," says a white paper issued by the Information office of the State Council.

Today China has 20,000 Buddhist and 3,000 Taoist monasteries, 35,000 mosques, 6,000 Catholic and more than 58,000 Protestant churches. China is home to 100 million religious adherents, largely Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, Catholics and Islamists.

The ruling Communist Party of China is officially atheist but allows freedom of religious belief. Four years ago, just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the party added the word "religion" for the first time to an amendment to its constitution.

Religons grows in China

There is an old Taoist who practices "gong fu," a type of martial arts, and reads the scriptures of Taoist founder Laozi every day. His massive white beard and large eyeglasses give him the look of an old scholar or wise man.

He says he worries about the future of Taoism, as it is not as popular as it once was. He believes government leaders could use Taoist principles to aid them in managing the country, just as he uses it to divine the fortunes of those who come to him for guidance.

However, while some religions are fading in China, others are becoming more popular than ever before. Buddhist temples are attracting adherents in greater number, and Christian churches have become popular as well, particularly among the country's growing middle class. Protestantism is more popular than Catholicism, but many of those who convert to either religion are not entirely aware of their differences. They simply say believe in the "Western God."

There is a theory that some of China's newest converts are not necessarily seeking spiritual guidance or knowledge, but merely want to appear progressive and modern. One middle-class woman says she wants to join the Catholic church after moving to Paris, but can't seem to give a reason why. When asked which religion she currently adheres to, she replies "I'm a vegetarian."

"Spiritual emptiness has caused some people to become prone to taking on any new practice or belief that might offer them some footing," says one professor at Tsinghua University.

The modernization of China has brought sweeping changes to the country, and spirituality is just one of many areas that have been affected. A Buddhist monk who regularly goes to Beijing's Lama Buddhist Temple says that he is there to instruct his disciples in the "deep wisdom of Buddhism," encouraging them to reexamine and adopt old values.

However, a Catholic priest working in the same city has a different attitude. "Traditional Chinese culture will not be able to bounce back. It's all about economics these days," he says.

Analysts say younger generations may feel a sense of emptiness as they search for material wealth while ignoring spiritual wealth. Others say that wealthy people are more insecure than others and have a tendency to become religious as a result. Still others say that China is full of spirituality, and that it simply hasn't been discovered by most people.

However, none of them can say that religion is absent in China. Rather, the opportunity to practice religion freely simply means that religion exists in many forms. The search for meaning, regardless of what religion it draws upon, is neverending and crosses borders, oceans and continents.