In the cities of mainland China, such as Peking, Shanghai, Nanking, and Tientsin, Christian congregations have been concentrated into four or five representative churches. In Peking, for example, there is the Congregational Church in the East City, the Chinese Christian Church in the West City, the Methodist Church in the South City, and the Christian Assembly in the North City. Teams of ministers totaling as many as fifteen share the duties of conduct of public worship, preaching, and oversight. But not all of the ministers are “full-time”; many of them do part-time “productive work” in offices, in factories, or on farms.
In Nanking the principal theological college reportedly has eighty-five students and twelve professors. A non-Christian journalist friend who recently dropped in unannounced on Bishop K. H. Ting found him evasive and obviously “unbriefed,” to his embarrassment. This matter of “briefing” plays a large part in Communist strategy for misleading delegations that come to visit the churches. Hsiao Feng, the non-religious former Communist official I interviewed, had had the job of conducting briefing sessions and escorting the visitors on their travels. He said that as soon as it was known that permission had been granted to persons or delegations to visit churches or church leaders, discussion meetings were begun. The ministers in charge were told to prepare a list of questions likely to be asked by the visitors. Then “suitable answers” were discussed and drafted with the political cadre in charge. By this method the ministers visited knew what they could answer “spontaneously” without having to refer to the political cadre in the presence of the delegation or to consult a written memo. This unprejudiced information throws a different light on the many favorable reports brought out of mainland China by respectable individuals or delegations.
In conclusion let me try to evaluate recent reports from mainland China against the background that has been outlined “from the inside.”
In Part I of this article I mentioned the apparent concern of the authorities in Peking at the role religion might play in the growing political disinterest. This concern stimulated a series of debates in leading Communist periodicals on the general theme of “religion, superstition, and theism.” On the ultra-Marxist side, the chief protagonists were Yu Hsiang and Liu Chun-wang, who argued that “a Marxist-Leninist is the most thorough atheist and is opposed to all religion,” lumping together “religion, theism, and feudal superstition”; on the other side, dissociating “religion from superstition,” were Ya Han-chang (New Construction, No. 2, February 20, 1964), Tseng Wen-ching (People’s Daily, April 2, 1964), and Chou Chien-jen (Kwang-ming Daily, April 2, 1964). The official definition had been given as follows (People’s Daily, April 8, 1963):
Religion and superstition have their similarities. They also have their differences. All religious activities are superstitious activities. This is their similarity. But not all superstitious activities are religious activities. This is their difference.
Thus “superstition” is, in the official view, divided into two distinct categories: “religious” superstition, and superstitious activities which are “neither the activities of any religion nor any religion in themselves.”
“Religious superstition” is divided into two further categories, originally used by Engels: one is “spontaneous religion,” which includes ancestor worship, the worship of the lords of natural objects (such as sun, earth, wind, moon, rain, water, and fire), and the worship of various other gods and ghosts; the other is “artificial religion,” which includes Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Taoism. Superstition that is outside religion includes exorcism to cure disease, fortune-telling, physiognomy, and geomancy.
The chief reason given for the official objection to the “artificial religions” was “their next life theory”:
The afflicted, if they want to free themselves from suffering, must build up happiness for their “next life” and must wait till after death for their souls to rise to the “Kingdom of Heaven” (paradise) [People’s Daily, August 8, 1963].
The third prominent intellectual to come under vitriolic attack by the Communist regime in 1964 was one Feng Ting, whose crime was stated to be “bourgeois thought” and “subjective idealism” in his writings—especially in his book Communist Way of Life, which had a reported circulation of 860,000. In it he wrote:
If happiness means living a normal life, that is, living in peace without war, eating well, dressing beautifully, living in spacious and clean quarters, and having love and harmony between husband and wife and between parents and children, this undoubtedly is correct, as it is what we all pray for.
He was wrong. This is not what the Chinese Communists “pray for.” In their view, happiness goes hand in hand with revolution, and revolutionary ardor fades in a harmonious and peaceful environment. In the words of China Youth: “Apart from class, apart from the collective, there is no revolution, no communism, nor, naturally, any happiness.”
There were those, apparently, who were saying:
Seeking comfort and ease is common human nature. I once dreamed of a summer house on the beach of a blue sea, surrounded by linden trees, with snow-white sets of sofas and the best radios and televisions within and a small silver grey car outside.… Is not such a life the happiest?
But the true attitudes, acclaimed as “dazzling and brilliant thinking,” were really displayed by those who said:
Happiness means loyalty to the cause of mankind and the sacrifice of all things personal for the collective.… The standard of our happiness and misery is not material comfort or easy work but spiritual joy when serving the people [China Youth, No. 2, January 16, 1965].
Another article in China Youth carried a letter to the editor from a young married woman, Wang Hung, complaining of parents-in-law who are “intellectuals and religious believers.” Of a family reunion she says:
Before dinner, my parents-in-law wanted to pray, and, although they knew we young people were not religious minded, they asked us to stand up with them. At that time, being unwilling to stand up, I left the table, and returned to it after the prayer was over. My husband felt that it was right for one not to believe in religion, but did it matter, he asked, if I stand up with them for a while? Why should I make the old man and old woman unhappy?
The husband’s view was condemned in the editorial reply. Not only must revolutionary youths be atheists themselves; they must also do their utmost to change believers’ views to “the thought of Mao Tse-tung.”
The most recent and enlightening article to come out of mainland China is yet another from the verbose duo, Yu Hsiang and Liu Chun-wang (Kuang-ming Daily, March 7, 1965), in continuation of their “great debate.” Summarizing Ya Han-chang’s theories in previous articles, they state:
Comrade Ya Han-chang denies that religion is an ideology. His opinion is that a religion must have tenets, church rules and professional religionists. It must be something having organized public bodies to carry out its activities.… In his opinion, the struggle to speed up the extinction of religion is aimed at the extinction not of religious ideas in the people’s minds but of religious “organizations, public bodies and activities.” In his opinion, when religions with “organizations, public bodies and activities” have died out, then—regardless of how many people still believe in the soul, in ghosts and spirits and in God—it will be time to proclaim the extinction of religion, will it not? Hence there will be no more task to fight against religion, will there …?
On the other hand, Comrades Yu and Liu argue:
To make a distinction between systematized religion and superstition is of practical significance. It facilitates our giving discriminating and correct treatment to our work in accordance with the Party and state policies.… Through our work in various fields, we should intensify atheistic propaganda so as to release the masses from the shackles of religious superstition step by step. In this regard, we should not specially tighten our grip on the masses because they believe in the kitchen god or the door god. Nor should we relax our grip because they believe in God, Buddha, or genii. We can only deal with their religious superstition by means of persuasion and education. We must not ban it by the issue of administrative orders. In so doing, we give no special or preferential treatment to the believers in God, Buddha and so on. Neither do we do anything to inflict feelings of discomfort on the believers in the kitchen and door gods.…
Either way, whatever school’s views are accepted, the future outlook is bleak for organized religion in Communist China. It would appear that the only hope for Christianity lies in developing “underground home congregations” that will be, ironically, self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing—the very goals of the government-sponsored Three-Self Movement for the churches. This is my own conclusion, but it receives unexpected support from the non-religious former Communist official Hsiao Feng, who says: “During the land reform movement all the Catholic and Protestant churches in the villages and towns were closed, but ‘underground home congregations’ still existed. I wonder if it is not possible that in the future the ‘home congregation’ will be the most developed style of religious life.”
T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.