The New York Times has an excellent look at the rise of Taoism in modern China, and how that indigenous polytheistic faith is returning in the nation’s countryside.
“Now, with three decades of prosperity under their belt — the first significant period of relative stability in more than a century — the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief. In cities, yuppies are turning to Christianity. Buddhism attracts the middle class, while Taoism has rebounded in small towns and the countryside. Islam is also on the rise, not only in troubled minority areas but also among tens of millions elsewhere in China.”
The article focuses on two important people in China’s Taoism boom, Abbess Yin Xinhui, who is a favorite of the people, and travels the country playing music and raising money to rebuild temples, and wealthy businessman Zhu Tieyu, “the king of building materials.”
Until recently, Zhu mostly ignored the contradiction [between Communism and Taoism], but he has become more cautious, emphasizing how he loved Taoist philosophy and playing down the religion. Still, Zhu continues to support conventional Taoism. His staff takes courses in a Taoist form of meditation called neigong, and he has sent staff members to document religious sites, like the supposed birthplace of Laotzu, who is worshiped as a god in Taoism. He also has close relations with folk-religious figures and plans to establish a “Taoist base” in the countryside to propagate Taoism. “The ancients were amazing,” Zhu says. “Taoism can save the world.”
The whole thing is worth a leisurely Sunday read, and really does a nice job of showing that Taoism never really went away, just went underground during the height of Communist repression.
“The speeches were barely over when Abbess Yin picked up again. As the ceremony reached its climax, more and more people began to appear, seemingly out of nowhere, on the barren mountain face. Four policemen tried to keep order, linking arms to barricade the door so the nuns would have space for the ceremony. “Back, back, give the nuns room,” one officer said as the crowd pressed forward. People peered through windows or waited outside, holding cameras up high to snap pictures. “The Jade Emperor,” an old woman said, laying down a basket of apples as an offering. “Our temple is back.” Abbess Yin moved in front of the statue, praying, singing and kowtowing. This is the essence of the ritual — to create a holy space and summon the gods to the here and now, to this place at this moment.”
What the growth of these different faiths within China will mean for the country’s future remains to be seen. For now the government sees religion as a way to keep their regime in power, but that can change as the various religious leaders start having their own ideas. If China’s Communist leadership ever crumbles, what will it mean for the millions of polytheists living there?