In the summer of 1953, a massive drought hit the Chinese province of Zhejiang. Villagers took the disaster as a sign that deities were angry at officials for converting temples for secular uses and destroying ritual items, including statues and dragon boats. To placate the gods, villagers rose up to try to take back religious spaces and pray for rain by resuming boat racing, which officials saw as a “superstitious” practice incompatible with the spirit and law of the new People’s Republic.
Tensions were defused in the villagers’ favor: instead of ordering a crackdown, cadres rebuilt temple buildings, removed non-religious activities, and allowed dragon boat racing to resume.
This story—of state disruption of religious practices, a resilient community response, and negotiated co-existence of faith believers and local officials—is told in Maoism and Grassroots Religion: The Communist Revolution and the Reinvention of Religious Life in China, by historian Xiaoxuan Wang. His well-researched and convincing narrative counters the oft-held belief (and frequent book subject) that Mao Zedong’s reign sounded a death knell to religion, and that faith communities sprouted up from dust in a “spiritual revival” only after the Chairman died. Instead, Wang argues religious groups that have grown since the start of China’s “reform and opening” are a direct lineage from believers who weathered suppressive campaigns under Mao by innovating, compromising, and steadying themselves against harsh and unpredictable political winds.
Wang focuses on Rui’an County in the city of Wenzhou, the so-called “Jerusalem of China”, with its long history of Christian movements, which were brought by Western missionaries in the 19th century, and proselytizing migrants who have branched out around the world. The book explores, at varying depth and length, Protestants, salvationists, “communal” groups (connected to temples and monasteries), and Catholics. Wang, who draws heavily from state archives, interviews, records of religious institutions, and memoirs, explains that the political and social upheaval of Mao’s time “unintentionally incited religious fervor, contributing to the diffusion of religious ideas throughout China.”
Wang admits to a homefield advantage. He was born in Wenzhou and speaks the local dialect, reputed to be among China’s most inscrutable to outsiders. His background served as a passport to get interviews with villagers and officials and to dig through local archives. Wang’s timing also feels fortuitous: He finished his interviews in 2013—the year President Xi Jinping came to power, and under whom the political climate in China has chilled considerably. Wang is wise to potential troubles for his interview subjects, and changed most of their names out of security concerns.
The Nationalists and Communists, while fending off each other, largely tolerated faith believers and even accepted them onto their sides and took part in religious activities without jeopardizing political standing. The Communists drew a firmer line in the sand in 1949, when aspects of religious communities, particularly their occupation of buildings and so-called “superstitious” ways, were discordant with collectivist policies.
Under land reform, communal groups fared badly, as officials moved in to install state offices, schools, granaries, and other secular spaces in temples and monasteries. Religious rituals and state functions sometimes ended up under the same roof, but when compromise proved unwieldy, religious practitioners moved their statues and continued their rites in spots where they could meet in peace. These groups lost income from rituals after being stripped of religious spaces, and their patrons were among the elites purged. They recovered slowly after Mao died, as privatization of the economy and the resentments of locals left state enterprises with little justification to occupy their structures. Neglect ensued, and temples and monasteries were often left to fend for themselves to rebuild, and the restitution of property rights was complicated by attacks that they were used for “superstitious” activities. Temple reclamation and restoration truly got off the ground in Rui’an only in the mid-1980s, when their use as gathering places for the elderly provided a legitimate legal framework in the government’s view.
Wang shows that salvationist groups in Rui’an fed off mayhem surrounding land reform to spread their messages and attract followers, even as the government labelled them “counterrevolutionary” and dispatched the military to eliminate them. Salvationists proselytized to the families of People’s Liberation Army soldiers, telling them that joining their sects would protect their sons from being killed in battle. By 1953, salvationists had been declared illegal in the region, and many of their leaders had been executed and members had fled into the mountains. Catholics were also accused of “counterrevolution” and for having “imperialist” ties to the Vatican, and a national campaign against the Legion of Mary, a Catholic association, broke up two such groups in Zhejiang, their members terrorized by the stigma of political shame.
The fortunes of communal groups improved during the Great Leap Forward (1958-60), but Christians fell under greater attack. Officials tolerated those in temples, since their seasonal rituals didn’t undermine industrial and agricultural production. In contrast, officials shut down virtually all Protestant churches and meeting places. Clergy and adherents were forced to give up religious items and renounce religious rites, including regular worship, which officials saw as too distracting to meet economic goals.
Wang explains that a major result of this persecution is that Protestants reinvented their way of worship. They began to gather out of public view, in smaller numbers, and at less fixed dates and times. Mobility remains a key survival instinct today; congregations that do not belong to the official Protestant church in China (Three-Self Church) typically meet in informal “house churches,” hoping to keep a low profile.
Wang emphasizes there were few absolutes about how religious groups were treated even during the most strident campaigns, partly since local officials waded through a constant contradiction: cadres were ordered to assert control over worshippers in a non-theistic state but one where religious freedom was nominally protected in the constitution (a practical fiction then as now). Officials oscillated between turning a blind eye to religious activities—or even joining in—and trying to halt them through intimidation, legal maneuvers, and violence. Superiors often criticized local cadres for being either too harsh or too lenient, unable to hit a political sweet spot, as Wang found in Rui’an archives:
“Our cadres are not willing to confront [religious issues], afraid of violating freedom of religious belief and making [political] mistakes. Some cadres even believed that any move would constitute interference with religion… In some other areas, [cadres] used different approaches… [They] arrest religious leaders in the middle of religious activities and interrogate them [as criminals]. Some places confiscated the Bible… Some places use verbal harassment to disturb festival activities… causing discontent among religious followers.”
The principle of “religious freedom” was consigned to irrelevance during the Cultural Revolution, which communities got through in different ways. Catholic clergy were jailed, and the religion has since struggled to gain a strong footing in China. Communal groups saw their temples raided and shuttered, and their rituals suspended until the late 1970s. The chaos sometimes decimated Protestants but also were a galvanizing force, leading separate denominations—Adventists, Assembly church groups, and others—to work together. Turmoil stimulated local faith healers, gospel preachers, and soul saviors. City records from Rui’an describe a surge in Protestant converts who were convinced to pursue “imminent salvation” after violence meted out by competing factions of Red Guards was interpreted as a “symptom of end times”.
Wang cautions against taking archives from the Cultural Revolution at face value, since record-keeping was spotty and materials that do exist could be colored by propaganda. While true, they also are the source of some of the book’s richest details. As noted in archives, some Christians believed rumors that exposure of the “Lin Biao anti-party clique” meant Jesus Christ would descend, bringing about a “change in dynasty.” Authorities hunted down “counterrevolutionary” preachers, including a Methodist accused of “spreading rumors to slander” the government and “speaking nonsense” such as:
“Now one country (guo) is fighting another and the people are fighting the people.” “The end of the world is nigh! You should make haste and believe in Jesus. Faith in Jesus will save your soul. Life in this world is short but salvation of the soul is eternal.”
Wang notes with curiosity that such eschatological messages are absent in the memoirs of Protestant leaders, who instead celebrated the piousness and passion of attendees at church meetings:
“[We] often convened spirit cultivation gatherings that would continue for three days and nights. [No one] felt tired or was afraid of the winds or snow or cold weather. [People] were so thirsty to hear the preaching that they would not leave at midnight and [instead] ask to continue… Nothing could deter the sisters’ and brothers’ passion or reduce their eagerness to participate in prayer meetings. The spirit of God seized people’s minds!”
After the worst havoc wrought by the Red Guards had subsided, Wang notes that
Protestant churches and other religious traditions in Rui’an and Wenzhou reemerged and even thrived, much like the private economy.
The last third of the book focuses on the post-Mao period, when the government set about “reinstating religious policy” and requiring religious groups to register with the state to operate legally. A top priority for officials was bringing Protestants out from underground and back into the open, as they were seen as susceptible to foreign influences, such as overseas churches that had provided them succor during the Mao years. Thinking pragmatically, many Protestant groups joined the government’s Three-Self Church, lured by the promise of restoration of religious buildings that they had possessed in 1949, and by the chance to gain back property rights. Some were too antagonized by their experiences under Mao to accept official regulation, and Protestant denominations began to splinter, with schisms leading to expansion of religious communities in Rui’an and beyond.
The book closes in 2015, in the shadow of the state-ordered dismantling of Protestant church buildings and crosses in Zhejiang, a grotesque campaign begun the year prior that remains the most prominent incidence of persecution of Chinese Christians in the Xi Jinping era. Though he doesn’t dwell on recent events, Wang nods to trying times for religious life in China. In fact, it is somewhat a matter of history not repeating, but rhyming. Official actions towards religious groups under Xi, who has been exalted in the Chinese Communist Party’s mythology in a manner approaching the Chairman, have strong parallels with Maoist campaigns.
“Unofficial” Protestant groups and their leaders are persecuted for “illegal gatherings”, “disrupting social order”, and charges involving land rights and finances. The invasive data collection on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, conducted under a pretext of “maintaining stability”, was foreshadowed under Mao, when police rooting out “counterrevolutionaries” surveilled Catholic “activists” and reported on their backgrounds, social relations, and personal traits. The mass detention of Uyghurs for “re-education” is part of a formula to exterminate religious and cultural identity in the name of political goals, and executed with such intensity that there may be no future history to tell of Islamic innovation and reinvention in Chinese territory.
While Wang points out areas for further research, the passage of time looks unfriendly for on-the-ground study into Maoist China. The generation of eyewitnesses who supplied Wang with firsthand details and corroborative accounts will dwindle in number. Research on “sensitive” subjects, which is whatever the government decides is off-limits, may be further constrained under Xi, who is bent on steering the country towards a “New Era” while burying uncomfortable aspects of past ones. It may end up that Wang’s book, fueled by his scholarly dedication and industry—and blessed by his birth and timing—will stand alone as a deep dive into how religious life in a corner of China buckled, but didn’t break, in the country’s most tumultuous years.