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China Gets Religion!

This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’ takeover in 1949. It’s also just opened a museum about the uprising in the Yangtze metropolis of Wuhan where the revolution started. And the National Library in Beijing is hosting an exhibition with the not-so-subtle title “Awakening of the East.”

These celebrations have focused on the political implications of the Qing’s fall, but the 1911 revolution was a major change in a less obvious realm: the spiritual. This might seem obscure, of interest perhaps only to specialists in religious studies. In fact, China’s religious upheaval around 1911 is central to its last hundred years of tumult, helping to explain the fanatical totalitarianism that gripped the country and now its bare-knuckled capitalism.

Chinese are often described as pragmatic people with little interest in faith. The prominent Chinese intellectual Hu Shih (1891–1962) declared that “China is a country without religion.” In fact, this was how early-twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals wished to see their nation—as free from what they presumed to be the backward and superstitious beliefs of their ancestors.

Yet for millennia, China was held together by its spiritual life, a shared system of ritual and belief that helped unite a country divided by harsh geography and mutually incomprehensible dialects. Every Chinese village had shrines to local deities and every home had altars to the ancestors, a pattern repeated across the vast land, whose rivers and mountains were also deified. Time was ordered by the unity of the sacred and the temporal: the calendar started when winter was on the wane with rituals and festivals meant to mirror the slowly awakening earth. Belief was based on moral equilibrium (you reap what you sow), as well as a world of spirits mirroring and interacting with the world of humans.

Overlaying this ancient system of belief were the formal religions of Daoism and Buddhism, which both took hold in China roughly two thousand years ago. These faiths were presided over by tens of thousands of religious specialists who carried out rites to purge evil and restore harmony. By the end of the nineteenth century, it was estimated that China had a million temples, or one for roughly every four hundred people. It was a country centered on a religious-political order held together by the emperor, who spent much of his time carrying out rituals at imperial temples to make sure that his empire was at one with the heavens.

The end of this system began with a series of reforms promulgated in 1898 by the government of the Dowager Empress. Temples were to be converted into schools—in fact a widely circulated slogan was “destroy temples to build schools,” setting in place the fundamental claim of subsequent eras: that religion was antithetical to modernization. Although short-lived, the measures gained traction after the 1911 revolution. The child emperor Pu Yi’s abdication didn’t just destroy the symbolic center of China’s political-religious order. His departure was the culmination of decades of crisis. For many Chinese thinkers at that time, the only conclusion—troubling as it was—was that China’s ancient system of values could not offer a way to counter the West’s military and industrial might. At first, most Chinese resisted this conclusion but by the early twentieth century it became inevitable: instead of trying to impose Chinese values on foreigners, the elite now would emulate foreign cultures.

* * *

Today, we can see this in the style of Chinese cities, the clothes Chinese wear, their hairstyles, many of their manners and customs, and of course their economic and political systems—all of them, including communism, versions of Western prototypes, even if they have been modified for Chinese circumstances. Underlying these changes was the attack on what had been seen as the country’s soul. If religion had previously held together ancient China’s social and political system, now it became the target of China’s top-down modernizers. So violent was the self-hatred that almost all Chinese religious practice was condemned as “superstition,” a term (mixin) imported to China from the West via Japan (as indeed was the word for “religion,” zongjiao).

Western religion, especially Christianity, came to be considered by many to be the norm of acceptable religious practice. That norm called for an identifiable clergy organized in a hierarchical institution and a clear doctrine expressed in a well-defined corpus of sacred texts—features typical of world religions but not of China’s indigenous belief systems. For many years, however, even Christianity had a hard time in China since many Chinese condemned it as an imperialist foreign import.

China was in the midst of what many scholars believe to be the most sustained attack on religion in history.1 Even before the Communist takeover in 1949, half of the country’s one million temples had been converted to other uses or destroyed.2 Over the next thirty years virtually all of the rest were wiped out; by 1982, when religious life was permitted to resume after the ouster of radical Maoists, China had just a few score temples, churches, and mosques still in usable condition—in a country that now had one billion people.

During this long period of destruction, the state offered a succession of substitutes. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek launched the “New Life” movement to inject Boy Scout–sounding ideals of doing good—and of course opposing traditional religion. When the Communists took over, they offered the totalitarian Mao cult. None of these endured, leaving contemporary China without a core spiritual belief. The result, as Vincent Goossaert and David A. Palmer write in their engaging and authoritative work, The Religious Question in Modern China, has been a “de-centered religious universe, exploding centrifugally in all directions…a de-centered society, a de-centered China: a Middle Kingdom that has lost its Middle.”

That might sound hyperbolic but Chinese now live in a nation without an accepted code of moral obligations. During the past few months, Chinese have been hearing about cases of passersby who have not helped people in need. In one case, a young girl was run over by a minivan twice before someone pulled her out of the street (she later died in a hospital). In another case, an old man fell in a market near his home and no one picked him up; he suffocated from a nosebleed while a crowd of people—including many vegetable sellers who knew him personally—stood by and watched. Part of the problem is that China lacks a “Good Samaritan” law to protect people who do good deeds from being sued if something goes wrong. Ever since a court ruled in 2006 that a man had to pay some of the medical costs for a person he rescued, many Chinese have shied away from helping others.

But the problem is more than five years old. Selfishness might be universal but it’s particularly pronounced in Chinese society. As the sociologist Fei Xiaotong noted in his book From the Soil about early-twentieth-century rural China, peasants are mainly concerned with their friends and family; those outside their guanxiwang (network of guanxi, or relationships) don’t count. But these tendencies were mitigated by traditional religions, which promoted ideas of helping the poor and weak. The lack of such influences has left China a harsh place. Indeed, the comments on some of these recent cases have been callous. One writer, without any apparent irony, said that old people nowadays can’t be trusted because they grew up in the early Communist era, when religion was all but banned, thus depriving them of a moral backbone.

But this cynicism is changing. After three decades of prosperity—the first significant period of stability in 150 years—Chinese have quietly but forcefully initiated a religious revival. Hundreds of thousands of places of worship have reopened or been rebuilt, often from scratch, many of them not registered with the authorities. China now has the world’s largest Bible-printing plant, while thousands of new priests, nuns, and imams of various faiths are being trained every year.

* * *

It’s no exaggeration to say that China is in the grip of a religious revival analogous to America’s Great Awakening in the nineteenth century (which also took place during a time of great social upheaval). By some measures, more Chinese (60 to 80 million) now go to church every Sunday than all the congregations of Western Europe put together, while China is now the world’s biggest Buddhist nation. Meanwhile, indigenous belief systems, such as folk religion or redemptive societies like Yiguanddao, are making a comeback.

Much religious activity is still suppressed. Unregistered churches are regularly closed (especially the well-known, and technically illegal, Shouwang Christian church in Beijing), while in the sensitive ethnic regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, Buddhism and Islam are tightly monitored, with violations of human rights that rightly gain much international attention. And of course any group that the government feels is a threat (most spectacularly the Falun Gong movement of the 1990s) is persecuted.

Still, religion is growing breathtakingly fast. Unregistered “house churches,” once quasi-underground groups, sometimes approach the scale of American mega-churches. I went to an Easter service in Beijing this year that filled an auditorium. The pastor outlined his sermon with a PowerPoint presentation while a dancing choir kept people’s eyes riveted on stage. Daoism, China’s only indigenous religion, is also growing fast, with thousands of temples once labeled “superstitious” now reopening. Overall, official figures show a tripling of Daoist places of worship over the past fifteen years.

All of this is happening despite tight government controls. The Chinese state recognizes only five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity, which for official purposes is treated as two groups: Catholicism and Protestantism. All have centralized governing bodies with headquarters in Beijing and staffed by officials loyal to the Communist Party. The Party appoints top religious leaders and bans nonapproved sects like Falun Gong.

This system was designed to monitor a handful of believers. When Party pragmatists took control of China after the Cultural Revolution, they assumed that reopening temples was a minor gesture of reconciliation to elderly believers who soon would die out—in the orthodox Communist view of the world, religion belongs to an obsolescent period of history that will fade away as material prosperity and rationality gradually take hold. But this secular vision never materialized and despite, or perhaps because of, the stunning economic growth of the past thirty years, millions of people are more dissatisfied than ever. Many have turned to religion. The Party has responded by maintaining the old system of control, but in practice it has slowly had to adopt a more laissez-faire attitude, allowing a huge gray market of religious activities: house churches, underground Catholic priests, folk religious leaders, and “masters” of Confucianism or the form of deep breathing called qigong.3

The Communist Party knows that this opening is risky but feels it has no choice. Part of its strategy is pragmatic: banning gray-market religious activity would be costly and most of it is harmless. But more positively, some in government now see religion as a potential ally in building an ideology based on more than greed. In 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao endorsed religious charities and acknowledged their help in solving social problems. The government has also sponsored international conferences on Buddhism and Daoism. As for folk religion, which makes up most of the gray-market activity, the government has acknowledged its existence and given it the positive-sounding title of “nonmaterial cultural heritage.”

This makes current government policy more in line with that of the old Qing dynasty. The government decides what is orthodox and what is heterodox and, with some important exceptions, largely supports activities that are not hostile. Indeed, in many ways, it is a generous patron of religion, helping to arrange for bank loans to temples or paying outright for new church construction.

Some speculate that the government still views religion in Marxist terms as an opiate of the masses—the twist is that instead of eradicating the drug, the Party hopes to use it to keep people diverted from politics. While that may be true, it’s also clear from the writings of some government leaders that they see religion as helping to hold together a country undergoing large-scale urbanization, with roughly ten million people a year moving from the countryside to the cities. This social dislocation is being eased by temples, mosques, and churches, which provide social services and a local community of believers to help people cope with the hardships and isolation of urban life.

* * *

How this happened is the overriding interest of the increasing number of studies of Chinese religion in the West, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. (In the People’s Republic, there is also a trend toward such studies, although the political interference endemic in Chinese universities limits the value of religious scholarship.) A couple of decades ago, few universities bothered with Chinese religion.4 Now, almost no major university is without at least one professor who studies contemporary China’s religious life.

One of the most prominent members of this new wave of scholars is Fenggang Yang, who was born in mainland China and studied there before moving to the United States in the 1980s. Yang’s book Religion in China has brilliant chapters, some controversial but all provocative and worth considering. Perhaps most novel is his use of market theory to help explain today’s religious landscape. Yang says China suffers from a “shortage economy.” Demand for religion is strong but, like consumer products in a Soviet-style economy, supply is lacking. Evidence of this is easy to find in China—almost every church is bursting with congregants on Sundays, while temples and mosques are being rebuilt as fast as authorities grant permission.

This lack of a supply of established religion, according to Yang, leads to “forced substitution,” such as practicing folk religion but calling it “culture.” Political leaders pay homage each year to the Yellow Emperor, the legendary founder of civilization, saying they are following Chinese tradition. Another substitution, according to Yang, can be seen in the popularity of physical exercises such as qigong, which often are accompanied by moral strictures. Most famous of these groups is Falun Gong, which was banned in 1999 after it began criticizing the government for what it saw as endemic corruption and amorality in society.

In Yang’s view the underlying appeal of Christianity is that it offers clear moral guidelines in a country where it often seems that anything goes. Christianity in China has been heavily studied over the years but two new books offer much of interest. One, God is Red, is the journalist Liao Yiwu’s account of the persecution of Christian churches. Liao is best known in the West for his reports on grassroots China, collected in The Corpse Walker,5 and for his decision earlier this year to flee China for the West. The subtitle of his new book, The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, is a bit grandiose—it isn’t really a secret history and the book isn’t as comprehensive as it sounds. In fact, Liao concentrates mainly on the border area of Yunnan, which is populated by non-Chinese ethnic minorities. He also writes considerably more about oppression than about revival.

But as with The Corpse Walker, the stories are meant to be more allegory than history. Liao, who himself spent four years in prison for writing a poem criticizing the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, is more interested in emphasizing the faith that sustained Christians during their years of persecution. His book has many stories of imprisonment and torture but also inspiring tales of perseverance. It is impossible to read them without being appalled by their heroes’ fate while also admiring their fortitude.

By focusing so much on the Communist era, however, it is easy to forget the bigger picture. A more nearly complete tale of Christianity’s growth (albeit without the broader appeal of Liao’s work) is told by Lian Xi, who teaches at Hanover College in Indiana. In Redeemed by Fire, Lian goes back to the Qing dynasty to explain how Christianity was initially rejected by most Chinese and took hold only with the rise of indigenous Christian leaders, such as Watchman Nee (Ni Tuosheng) and Wang Mingdao. It was these pioneers who enabled Christianity to survive persecution and become the thriving “house church” movement of today. And in an interesting twist of history, it was the foreign denominations—Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican—that the Communists eventually united after 1949 into their state-controlled churches. (The Communists also organized a Chinese Catholic Church independent of the Pope’s authority. Partly because of such a flagrant restriction, however, the growth of the Catholic Church has been dwarfed by that of the Protestant groups.)

This history hasn’t been told so authoritatively in a Western language before. Lian can range across Chinese sources with ease, even as he writes in cogent English prose.6

It is, however, The Religious Question in Modern China, by Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer, that is the most telling of all the recent studies. Goossaert, a research fellow at the CNRS, in Paris, is one of the leading researchers on Daoism, while Palmer, of the University of Hong Kong, wrote a history of the qigong movement.7 Their book takes into account the huge wealth of insights into Chinese religion accumulated by the new research, and gives a very clearly written account of a truly remarkable event: the destruction of one of the world’s richest religious traditions and its replacement by a congress of competing traditions, faiths, and beliefs.

This is sometimes a depressing story. Many traditions have been lost and much of the remaining liturgy has been reduced to a kindergarten level. I once visited a Daoist puppet troupe in Henan province that formerly had a repertory of thirty passion plays that it performed on religious holidays. By the late 1990s, however, only two of the older members were still active and the younger members didn’t have the time to learn more than three plays. The rest were lost—no one had written them down or recorded them.

Such loss is the result of the systematic eradication of local memories. Urbanization contributes to the trend, wrenching people out of their ancestral villages to new lives in the cities—which themselves are subject to “urban redevelopment” that wipes out old streets, temples, and other landmarks to make way for the rich. In Beijing, for example, almost none of the city’s neighborhood music troupes—all of which had a religious function—remain. Hundreds were banned and then, when policy was relaxed three decades ago, their members had been scattered across the city after their homes were torn down. The members slowly drifted apart. Today, just one troupe is left.

Even when religious life has been restored, the government maintains a heavy hand. For centuries, Chinese rulers have sought to define religion and ban heterodox faiths. Now the modern authoritarian state is worried about the growth of groups that operate outside its control, and its fears are not unfounded. Faith is giving rise to more social and political activism, fostering the growth of NGOs that are resisting government control over life. Some argue that religion will democratize China. This may be wishful thinking, since in some ways, religion can be a pietistic escape in a country where politics is out of bounds. But religion is also creating rudimentary forms of civil society.

In countries like Communist-era Poland and East Germany, religious civil society helped undermine authoritarianism. A similar process—albeit a slower one, as one would expect in a continent-sized country—is going on in China. Most Christians are apolitical, saying they incorporate traditional Chinese values of upright living, filial piety, and hard work. And yet it’s no coincidence that a hugely disproportionate number of political activists are Christian, especially the weiquan, or “rights-defending” lawyers, who take on politically sensitive cases.

In my experience, China’s faith-based civil society is often more robust and influential than the few beleaguered environmental or legal NGOs that attract so much Western attention. This is especially the case in the countryside, where folk religion temples—an amalgam of Daoism, Buddhism, and age-old ideas of divine retribution and fate—are run by committees that can rival in influence the local Communist Party. Academics such as Adam Chau and Lily Tsai have spent years documenting these temples, showing how local religious groups provide philanthropic work while promoting government accountability. The McGill professor Kenneth Dean goes so far as to call them a “second tier of government” in some parts of the country.8

The government’s problem in countering these trends is its lack of moral authority. It can enforce the appointment of bishops or Tibetan lamas and try to claim the moral high ground by talking about quasi-religious concepts such as a “harmonious society”—the slogan of the outgoing administration. Yet they are avowedly atheist. For believers, this makes the government’s efforts to guide religious life hollow.

Adding to the strains on China’s neo-Qing form of religious control are the country’s connections with global religious life. New Age pilgrims visit China seeking martial arts masters and Buddhist lamas, while evangelical missionaries are reentering China for the first time in two generations, convinced that China is the final piece of the puzzle needed for Christianity’s global triumph. Meanwhile, Chinese folk religion and Buddhism are helping to strengthen ties to Taiwan and Southeast Asia, while Islam is a point of contention and a bond with the Muslim world. The state is caught between lethargic self-satisfaction and a paralyzing fear of unrest, and it seems unlikely that it will be able to modernize China’s antiquated system of religious oversight. After a century of bitter experience, religion remains at the core of China’s transformation.


  1. Although certainly similar efforts took place in Soviet Russia, Kemalist Turkey, and parts of the Middle East. One key difference, however, is that these campaigns did not last as long as China’s century-long effort.
  2. One book that deserves special mention is Rebecca Nedostup’s Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity (Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2010), a pathbreaking book that recounts the Nationalists’ efforts to suppress indigenous religion. As in other areas, the Nationalists lacked the time and political stability to carry out their goals, but their religious policies were a precursor for those of the Communists.
  3. See especially Yang Fenggang’s “The Red, Black, and Gray Markets of Religion in China,” The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 1 (February 2006).
  4. The exception was C.K. Yang in his Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religions and Some of Their Historical Factors (University of California Press, 1961). Yang’s book shook Western academics out of their acceptance of the generalizations of Chinese intellectuals like Hu Shih. But his work tended to view religion as a dead, folkloric tradition, having little to do with contemporary China. This was part of an overall trend in the West that saw religion as a relic from yesterday having nothing to do with the future. The best-known exponent was Peter Berger, who told The New York Times in 1968 that “religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”
  5. Pantheon, 2008, reviewed in these pages by Howard W. French, October 14, 2010.
  6. Another book deserving high praise is Nanlai Cao’s Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power, and Place in Contemporary Wenzhou (Stanford University Press, 2011), which tells the fascinating history of China’s most famous Christian city.
  7. Vincent Goossaert, The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949: A Social History of Urban Clerics (Harvard University Asia Center, 2007); David A. Palmer, Qigong Fever: Body, Science, and Utopia in China (Columbia University Press, 2007).
  8. Adam Yuet Chau, Miraculous Response: Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China (Stanford University Press, 2006); Lily L. Tsai, Accountability Without Democracy: Solidary Groups and Public Goods Provision in Rural China (Cambridge University Press, 2007); Kenneth Dean, “China’s Second Government: Regional Ritual Systems in Southeast China” published in Shehui, minzu yu wenhua zhanyan guoji yantaohui lunwenji (Collected Papers from the International Conference on Social, Ethnic, and Cultural Transformation), (Taipei: Centre for Chinese Studies, 2001).
Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based writer who specializes in civil society, culture, and religion. For thirteen years, Johnson worked at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a page-one feature writer...
Reviewed in this Article

The Religious Question in Modern China
by Vincent Goossaert and David A. Palmer
University of Chicago Press, 464 pp.

Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule
by Fenggang Yang
Oxford University Press, 245 pp.

God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China
by Liao Yiwu
HarperOne, 231 pp.

Redeemed by Fire: The Rise of Popular Christianity in Modern China
by Lian Xi
Yale University Press, 333 pp.

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This article was first published in the December 22, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)

PERRY LINK

Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing

IAN JOHNSON

The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi...

PERRY LINK

The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star

IAN JOHNSON

In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!

RICHARD BERNSTEIN

The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny

SIMON LEYS

Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds

IAN BURUMA

Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing

IAN JOHNSON

One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future

FANG LIZHI

Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?

JONATHAN MIRSKY

On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China

AMARTYA SEN

1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo

PERRY LINK

1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds

JONATHAN MIRSKY

July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful

IAN JOHNSON

In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers

ORVILLE SCHELL

It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

The Passions of Joseph Needham

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics

ORVILLE SCHELL

The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

Casting a Lifeline

FRANCINE PROSE

Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Mission to Mao

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)

PERRY LINK

Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

A Little Leap Forward

NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...

AsiaWorld

IAN BURUMA

1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

Found Horizon

IAN BURUMA

1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West

IAN BURUMA

Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer

IAN BURUMA

“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace

IAN BURUMA

1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery

ORVILLE SCHELL

1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan

IAN BURUMA

Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment

JONATHAN MIRSKY

The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End

IAN BURUMA

Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster

JONATHAN MIRSKY

In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

The Last Days of Hong Kong

IAN BURUMA

1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.” —Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People...

Keeping the Faith

FANG LIZHI

On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Stories from the Ice Age

JONATHAN MIRSKY

Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for...

The End of the Chinese Revolution

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan

NATHAN GARDELS

Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Passing the Baton in Beijing

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR

Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

China: How Much Dissent?

JONATHAN D. SPENCE

In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked...

Rules of the Game

JOHN GITTINGS

On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards

JOHN GITTINGS

Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier

JOHN GITTINGS

In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a...

A Mao for All Seasons

MARTIN BERNAL

A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

DISCUSSION

Contradictions

MARTIN BERNAL

Professor Schurmann is not modest. Near the beginning of his book he writes: “translations from Chinese, Russian and Japanese are my own, and hundreds of articles had to be read in the original Chinese with precision and at the same time extensively. It was important to...

Chinese Checkers

MARTIN BERNAL

In Response to:Contradictions from the July 7, 1966 issueTo the Editors:Martin Bernal in his review [July 7] describes Franz Schurmann’s brilliant new book Ideology and Organization in Communist China as “easily the most provocative work…yet seen on contemporary China.”...

Mao and the Writers

MARTIN BERNAL

By the 1930s the intolerable quality of life and the inefficiency, corruption, and conservatism of the Kuomintang had driven nearly every serious creative writer in China to the Left. Most turned toward some form of Marxism, which not only offered the most convincing explanation...