China’s success as a rising global power hasn’t always had the effect at home that many Chinese, including China’s leaders, might have liked or expected.
“As one guy who told me, ‘We used to think we were unhappy because we were poor. Now, we’re no longer poor, but we’re still unhappy,’” says Ian Johnson, a long time correspondent in China, most recently writing for The New York Times and the New York Review of Books, and author of the new book The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.
If it’s tempting to pull out the old saying “money can’t buy happiness,” many Chinese are more interested these days in figuring out what can. And so, a search for meaning has intensified in recent decades, as the descendents of those who once revered Mao Zedong and the Communist Party, and Chinese emperors before that, now embrace new centers of meaning, and new communities that share their values.
Over the past couple of decades, the number of Chinese who call themselves spiritual adherents has shot up; now, about one-third of all Chinese self-identify as belonging to a religion. The majority follow Buddhist or Daoist practices, but the number of Christians in China has grown fast too. There are now an estimated 60 to 100 million Protestant Chinese, and about 10 million Catholics, with many in social justice endeavors in China citing Christianity as an inspiration for their work.
This search for meaning in China is by no means a new thing. China is, of course, the birthplace of two of the world’s great philosophic traditions, Confucianism and Daoism. Buddhism was born in India, then traveled to China, and was absorbed, and synthesized with aspects of Daoism, Confucianism, and folk religion, into a belief system uniquely China’s.
It is embedded into the old Chinese lunar calendar, into seasonal rituals, and even into the way Beijing is laid out as a city.
For centuries, these rituals, and the beliefs underlying them, were practiced faithfully and seemed immutable. Chinese emperors, for a time, rejected foreign influences and modernizations, saying that China, the Middle Kingdom, already had all under heaven that it needed.
That began to change with the Opium Wars with Britain in the mid-19th century, which shook China’s self-confidence, and with the introduction into China of Christian missionaries. The latter inspired the Taiping Rebellion, a millenarian uprising, led by a guy, Hong Xiuquan, who claimed to be Jesus Christ’s younger brother and sought to upend and replace China’s political and moral order. It was the bloodiest war of that century; estimates of those killed range from 20 million to more than 70 million.
This article continues at [Public Radio International] If money can’t buy happiness, many Chinese now seek spiritiual meaning