Old-Time Religion in New New China: Alternative Religious Movements in the Post-Mao Era

By Walton, Jonathan | Cross Currents, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Old-Time Religion in New New China: Alternative Religious Movements in the Post-Mao Era


Walton, Jonathan, Cross Currents


The contemporary People's Republic of China (PRC) is home to a number of groups that are sometimes considered to be "new religious movements" (NRM). However, using this label in a Chinese context can be problematic. When analysts use terms like "alternative religion" or NRM, often we are trying to say "cult" in a more objective and less pejorative fashion. Cults in the Western parlance are often defined by characteristics such as being of relatively recent origin, having an illicit nature, and promoting heterodox beliefs. In contemporary China, though, nearly all religious practices are to some extent new, having recently reemerged from a period of near-total suppression; the PRC government's strict regulation of religion means that a vast number of religious communities and practices are illegal; and instances of heterodoxy may arguably represent the natural diversity present in a healthy and reinvigorated Chinese religious landscape. These complicating factors are introduced below.

First, Chinese religions suffered greatly under the indiscriminant ban and often violent suppression of all religious activities during the early years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). While scholars increasingly recognize that some religious activities continued throughout this turbulent period, many traditions and religious sites had to be restored or completely rebuilt by aging and politically "rehabilitated" clergy recently returned from prisons, labor camps, or forced defrocking. In some communities where the local clergy were no longer living or the knowledge of past traditions had otherwise been destroyed or lost, lay leaders and local elders (often older women) worked to reconstruct things as best they could. In the process, innovations and changes were inevitably introduced, especially as social and economic conditions have transformed the country dramatically in the nearly forty years since the death of Mao Zedong. The entire religious landscape of modern China could arguably be considered to be one massive new movement: the rebirth of Chinese religious life.

CL7 Second, the illicitness of China's NRM-like groups is a highly contested issue. Until the crackdown against Falun Gong began in 1999, the PRC government did not commonly use the archaic term xiejiao, which is rendered in official translations as "evil cult."

Nevertheless, the state has long felt that certain religious groups and activities posed a threat to social stability and the supreme authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In this, the current government is not unusual. Dating back to imperial times, the Chinese state has long claimed the responsibility of regulating and overseeing religious activities and periodically labeling certain groups as heterodox, Unmoral, and dangerous. The current government's concerns about religion have led to a system of strict regulation, building upon the ideas and methods of previous governments. Under this system, religious groups that are not registered with official PRC institutions are technically illegal, leading to a category of unregistered "gray-market" religious groups, even though most are not particularly different from those registered with the state. (1) ' Many gray-market activities are actually tolerated by local governments as long as they avoid creating public disturbances; after all, the odds of promotion or other professional advancement improve if officials avoid disturbances in their jurisdiction. China's shifting political environment, however, means a group that is normally tolerated may find itself the target of arrests, banning, and other suppressions, especially if central directives mandate a crackdown on illegal organizations.

In addition, several religious groups unruly or unfortunate enough to catch the state's direct attention have been declared to be xiejiao, banned, and subsequently suppressed. In a leaked internal document from May 2000--just after the beginning of the massive campaign against Falun Gong--the Ministry of Public Security listed five characteristics that could be used to identify xiejiao. …

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