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    Thursday, September 19, 2019-1:43:11P.M.






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BC’s Tales of the Pacific: Taoism is back in China

“People are lacking in faith, they’ve lost their cultural base, lost it all.  Daoism gives it back, we are reconnecting to our cultural inheritance.”

AFTER decades of official hostility, the Chinese government is slowly relaxing restrictions on traditional religion. But don’t break out your Bibles just yet. The religions that are gaining acceptance are the homegrown variety: Taoism and Buddhism. The imported ones like Christianity and Islam are still in the doghouse. What is happening and why?

In recent times China has experienced explosive economic growth, and with that has come increased prosperity and consumer spending. In a country historically dominated by a huge class of poor peasants, now people have money and the middle class is growing.

But the rampant consumerism, which similarly hit Japan a generation ago, has come with a downside. People feel the moral and spiritual emptiness that often accompanies material prosperity and are looking to counter it. For many, religion provides the fulfillment they seek but the communist government has stood against organized religion ever since Karl Marx characterized it as the “opiate of the masses.”

During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s the Chinese government tried to stamp out religion completely, and although they failed, they drove most churches underground. Strict rules governing registration and compliance keep churches stifled under a communist blanket of control.

But recent events have seen a change in the government’s attitude towards traditional Chinese religions, especially Taoism. Political leaders see the value in allowing certain forms of faith, provided they further the interests of the state, not undermine it.

There are, perhaps, more sinister intentions as well in the warm up between the communist party and the Taoist faith. Christianity is on the rise, by most accounts claiming more than 100 million adherents in China, making it the single largest faith in the country. If the government cannot stop the spread of the Christian faith, perhaps the Taoists can. From the perspective of the government, a local faith is better than an imported one.  

For now, the Chinese government is allowing, even encouraging the resurgence of Taoism, but with a wary eye. They do not want another Falun Gong-type movement like they saw a few years ago.

Make no mistake, the government is not interested in freedom of religion. One Chinese official said, “freedom of religious faith is not equal to religious activities taking place without legal restrictions.” Speaking of keeping government control over religion, he said that “these rules will help maintain the Sinicisation [Chinese version] of religion in our country...and keep to the correct path of adapting religion to a socialist society.”

We will have to see what the relaxation toward Taoism will mean for the future of China. For many it is a breath of fresh air and a sign that China is softening up, and modernizing. I am a little more skeptical than that.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He travels the Pacific but currently resides on the mainland U.S.