Moderator: Dr. Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Berlin
Up until the tumult of the 20th century, religion played a crucial role in Chinese civilization—so much so that scholars sometimes speak of traditional China as being a “religious state.” This system collapsed in the early 20th century, and Chinese religion was seen as a reason for China’s backwardness and weakness. Even before the Communists took power in 1949, anti-religious campaigns attacked places of worship, culminating in the cult of Mao.
Now, for the first time in a century, religion is back at the center of Chinese society. At first, this was mainly due to popular support for religious activity. In response to a growing feeling among people that China had a spiritual vacuum—that the period of economic reforms had no values to offer other than commercialism—new churches, temples, and mosques began to spring up.
But especially since the rise to power of Xi Jinping in 2012, religion has become central to government policy too. The government has begun to promote some religions, especially the traditional faiths of Buddhism, Taoism, and folk religion, while casting a more skeptical eye on Christianity and Islam. The result is a more politicized religious landscape, one with the potential for communal conflicts.
Ian Johnson is based in Berlin and has also lived in China for more than 20 years, writing for a variety of publications, especially The New York Review of Books and The New York Times. A Pulitzer Prize winner for his writing on China, he has written three books on civil society and religion, including The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao (2017).