China's Search for Values
China's religious revival is a historic shift back to spirituality akin to America's Great Awakenings of the 19th century--itself a time of social unrest and dislocation. Across China, people are returning to established religions and inventing new spiritual traditions. Buddhist and Daoist temples are flooded with believers and money, while Christianity has gained a permanent foothold, centuries after missionaries first introduced it to China--indeed, it's probably the country's fastest-growing and most politically active religion. And then there are new ideas, more spiritual or esoteric than religious: anthroposophy, yoga, Gandhiism, and hybrid mixtures of traditional and modern beliefs. Together, they are efforts by Chinese to make sense of their confusing world, to experiment with new ways of living, and to give meaning to their tumultuous lives. Some call for intense social activism, others for drop-out hedonism. All are helping to give a young, awkward country a spiritual underpinning--the soul of a new superpower.
The Religious Question of China
One of the best books on the subject is Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer's The Religious Question of China, which I used as the basis of a 2012 essay in The New York Review of Books. They write that Chinese live in 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.” Read the essay here.
The Missionary's Curse
Another remarkable book is Henrietta Harrison's The Missionary's Curse, a look at a Catholic village in Shanxi province. As I write in The New York Review of Books, "Harrison writes that Christian ideas have not been Sinicized as much as many imagine. On the contrary, the first foreign conceptions that were adopted were the ones most acceptable to Chinese, and over time people strove to add foreign content, not subtract it. Thus ideas in China have tended more toward international norms, not Chinese versions of them. The trend is slow—frustratingly so for many who argue that China over the past decade has moved further away from international standards, especially in the field of human rights, or even economic regulation. But Harrison has a long view. Her story starts in the sixteenth century, and with that perspective she describes a clear shift away from localism and toward international engagement." Read the full essay here.