The Secular Vision of a New Humanity in People’s China

by Donald MacInnis

Dr. MacInnis, director of the China Program for the National Council ofChurches, traveled in China for 22 days in 1973.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 12, 1974, pp. 249-253. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


MacInnis found the "total secularization of…society and culture" in China so that organized religion finds no parallel in the experience of China’s youth today. Yet the fruits of religion and the practice of the moral life are in many ways more evident in China than in the West.

To travel in China for the first time in 25 years, as I did last summer, is a profoundly moving experience. One returns to America with an altered vision. Our various crises are grim enough -- but so were China’s in the late 1940s. Signs in New York’s subways shock: "Dial 911 for Rape" and "Fight Drug Abuse." Why should New Yorkers be afraid to walk in Central Park without a dog? We walked the streets of China’s great cities at night alone, chatting freely with strangers -- and with no sense of fear. Young girls strolled arm in arm, children played games mothers cradled babies and talked quietly with neighbors, old men played chess by streetlight.

A Collective Sense of Purpose

We saw no private automobiles in China. Not having a car would seem a hardship in America; I would hate to give up the easy mobility and other personal options I take for granted. But we still have elbowroom in North America, surplus grain and resources, and surviving areas of frontier space and spirit. Thousands of acres lie fallow, or grow up in uncultivated forestland. China has four times the population of the U S. within a land area of roughly the same size. With intensive labor, scrupulous conservation of resources and recycling of human and animal wastes, the Chinese are feeding and supporting themselves without outside aid.

Without private cars, air pollution is minimal, bicycle and bus traffic flows smoothly, and China is self-sufficient in petroleum. If auto ownership in China were proportionate to that in the U.S., there would he 400 million cars alone, and 98 million trucks and buses. Some 72 million new cars would have to be built every year, and one-sixth of the work force would be building or servicing them. Eighty per cent of China’s people still live in rural villages; migration to the cities is balanced by the policy of sending youth to the countryside for a time -- over 10 million in the past six years.

China’s markets were stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, poultry, fish, pork, dried shrimps, peanuts and grain. The tomatoes were delicious -- at 2 cents a pound. Prices had not changed since 1958, an old friend in Peking told us. A Chinese visitor to the U.S. last year was shocked at our casual waste and self-indulgence, as well as at our prices. I, too, now see our profligacy with clarity. Current inflation should not surprise us.

Many visitors have described the contrasts between old and new China in standard of living and basic social securities for working people. Beyond that, one senses a new spirit, a collective sense of purpose that makes almost any goal seem possible. There is a new value system, a communitarian ethic summed up in the title of Chairman Mao’s best-known essay, "Serve the People." Surely in that ethic lies the secret of People’s China -- the mobilization of human muscle and spirit for building a new way of life.

Yet in China one continually wants to ask, What is the source of that spirit? The visitor is overwhelmed by the total secularization of a society and culture that once placed high value on religious shrines, festivals and symbols. During our visit we saw almost no evidence of surviving religious practice. Among the three major religious groups of pre-liberation China, the public practice of worship appears to have dwindled to little more than token observances.

If religion is seen as the dynamic for social cohesion and personal commitment, then is Maoism a religion? Not if you ask the Chinese: one bright, articulate college student told us that though the Chinese people have freedom of religious belief, "they also have the right not to believe, and the right to propagate atheism." Do any of the young people keep the old religious practices? I asked. "There’s no need to," she insisted. "With scientific materialism as the basis of the new society, the old superstitions were proved false." Only old people, if any, are seen worshiping in the temples. (Indeed, in the temple-museums we visited, no one was worshiping.)

But might not the young people want to talk with older religious believers "to learn from the past," as they often do learn from old peasants and workers? "Why would anyone want to discuss Buddhism?" the student asked. "What does that have to do with our new society? It simply would not interest young people. It’s irrelevant."

Self-Reliant Churches

The Sunday service in the former Bible Society headquarters on Rice Market Street in Peking reportedly has been since 1966 the only Protestant service in China attended by visitors. Sixteen persons were present the Sunday I was there, most of them members of the foreign diplomatic or student community. Three were African Christians. There were seats for about 50 persons in a second-floor meeting room furnished with a grand piano, an organ, and a chancel with lectern, altar table and cross. The service was in Chinese; worshipers followed the liturgy and hymns from mimeographed pages in English and Chinese. There was no sermon, but the pastor read three long Scripture passages from Old and New Testaments. The communion ritual, familiar to me, was conducted by Pastor K’an Hsueh-ch’ing, who was trained as a Methodist. (There are no denominational distinctions now in China.)

After the service the two Chinese pastors told me that weekly services were resumed here Easter Sunday 1972, after a five-and-a-half-year lapse during the Cultural Revolution. These Protestants have no contacts with the Roman Catholics of Peking, who hold services weekly in a church in another part of the city, using the pre-Vatican II Latin rite. Nor do they have ties with Protestants elsewhere in China. There are about 500 Protestants in Peking now, they said.

One of the pastors is on duty at the church daily to meet with Chinese Christians who work on Sundays, or who cannot come for other reasons. Pastor K’an and Pastor Yin Chi-tseng take turns on alternate weeks leading the Sunday service. Since the only Chinese present had been older persons, I asked about the young people. Few of them come to the church, I was told. "They are too busy on Sunday, and they have other interests now."

The building was in excellent condition, with repairs in progress on the tile roof. The pastors explained that the church has its own funds for repairs and maintenance, but that the government sometimes helps with major expenses.

In Nanking we spent an evening in the home of Bishop Ting Kuang-hsun, a former Anglican, and his wife, Hsiu-mei. Both had been in the U.S. for graduate studies in the 1940s and were working for the ecumenical church in Geneva when they decided to return to China in 1951, two years after liberation. Mrs. Ting is a teacher of English at Nanking University and an official of the Provincial Women’s Federation. Bishop Ting, now president of the Nanking Theological College and a deputy to the National People’s Congress, explained that the Anglican Church in China no longer exists. All denominations were merged into a single Protestant Christian Church in the early 1950s. This union made possible the church’s Three-Self Movement, with its emphasis on "self-support, self-government, self-propagation"

Bishop Ting verified our understanding that none of the 38 church buildings in Nanking formerly occupied by Protestant congregations is now used for religious services. The Christians prefer to meet in homes or in schoolrooms, he said, to avoid the stigma of the Western-style churches built during the period of mission expansion in China and linked to the period of foreign imperialist penetration. Four groups meet regularly for worship in Nanking.

The self-reliance of the churches, paralleling the nation’s self-reliant development model, is, in the bishop’s view, one of the two important changes in the Chinese church. "We have severed our dependence on materialism. We have a strong point of view regarding the relationship between the missionary movement and imperialism. Since the early post-liberation years our emphasis has been on severing all relationships with mission organizations."

The second change has been change itself: "Our society is not static; it is changing all the time. Our church cannot simply remain on the level of three-self autonomy. We are changing too. What we are witnessing now is the withering of organized religion. Protestantism is becoming more and more deinstitutionalized and declericalized; more and more it is a world view held by those who call themselves Christian, and the fellowship among them.

One can understand Chinese Christians’ reluctance to identify with that earlier period. Everywhere we went we saw evidence of the Chinese people’s pride in the self-reliance of their nation, neither exploited by nor dependent on other nations. We were told how the great Yangtze River bridge at Nanking -- the first of its kind -- had been designed and built entirely by Chinese.

Bishop Ting confirmed the fact that groups of Christians in Nanking continue to meet together for worship, and that the theological college, which suspended classes in 1966, is now searching for new and relevant ways to train young pastors. Probably they will not study together in a conventional five-year theological course as before, he said; they will more likely remain in the towns and villages to live and work among the people while they study, to avoid an elitist approach to education that would alienate them from the people. This theological program would correlate with the "open door" education now emphasized in the three universities we visited.

Museums for the People

Occasionally, driving through the streets of the cities, we saw church buildings, relics of former days, some of them broken and abandoned, some converted to use as schools, clinics, kindergartens or storehouses. In the midst of the rich green rice fields of the Hsin Min People’s Commune outside Shanghai we saw a huge stone building with a basilisk dome -- obviously a church. Anti-Confucius slogans had been painted in white across the crumbling masonry walls. Our local guide confirmed that this had once been a Roman Catholic church. No longer used, it appeared to be an embarrassment and a nuisance to the commune residents, for it occupied space in the fields needed for food crops. The building was now useful only to store grain.

We saw no functioning Buddhist temples. Some of those we visited had been converted to use as tea houses, hostels or assembly halls; others were maintained as museums. We knew from the reports of other recent visitors, specialists in Buddhism, that they had visited a dozen or more monasteries and temples with resident monks or nuns; still, that number is minuscule for a nation that was nominally Buddhist just one generation ago.

At the Tsu Miao temple in the town of Fo Shan, near Canton, we saw an 800-year-old temple, now maintained as a museum. Many Chinese visitors were viewing it with the curiosity of tourists. According to the museum director, the temple was built during the Sung dynasty by a local landlord who embezzled much of the money he raised from the people for its construction. The director’s explanation of the temple’s role in society was typical of contemporary views of the old religions we heard elsewhere. "Before liberation, this temple was a place for the people to worship the gods," he said, gesturing at the painted wooden idols grimacing in frozen postures. "It was also used by the ruling class to swindle the people with superstitious religious beliefs. After liberation, we opened it as a museum for the people. We show, on the one hand, how the ruling class used the gods to fool and cheat the people; on the other hand, we display the fine workmanship and hard labor of the working people of those times."

I asked the museum director if there are any who still maintain the old religious beliefs. A few old people do, he said. "But that’s unavoidable," he added. "They hold onto old ideas. But they don’t worship here any more. The young people, of course, see it all as superstition.

In a long conversation with the 61 year-old imam in charge of the Chinese Muslim mosque in Hang-chow, I asked about the religious life of his congregation. He indicated that from 30 to 50 persons attend religious services each Friday, and that larger numbers come together for the three festivals each year. But most of them are older persons, he noted. He confirmed the impression given to us by others that China’s young people have a new belief system, one that precludes religion. "They are too busy, and have new values. They believe in socialism and see no need for religion."

The Teaching of Moral Values

If this is true -- and our conversations with a number of the young Chinese reflected this view -- then what is the source of the communitarian values and ethics that seem to motivate China’s people today? We saw no evidence of new religious sects -- no Hare Krishna, no Sokka Gakai or Children of God. Yet the youth of China seem as disciplined and committed as adherents of any of these religious groups. We were told by the students and teachers in every school we visited -- kindergartens, primary schools, middle schools and universities -- that training in moral values is central in the entire educational task.

Organized religion -- defined in conventional terms as an institution with a priesthood or clergy, a doctrinal creed, a liturgy and theology, and a theistic belief with spiritual dimensions transcending this world -- finds no parallel in the experience of China’s youth today, at least among those with whom we talked. But the fruits of religion -- the practice of a moral life, particularly with respect to concern for one’s neighbor and for society -- are in many ways more evident in China than in the West.

Everywhere we went, particularly in the schools, I asked: "What are the moral values that are taught in China today, and how are they transmitted to the young people?" The response invariably began with a recitation of Chairman Mao’s instruction: "Our educational policy must enable everyone who receives an education to develop morally, intellectually and physically and to become a worker with both socialist consciousness and culture."

Said the chairman of the revolutionary committee of the Yangtze River Road Primary School in Nanking: "All our school work aims at transforming the ideology [i.e., values] of our pupils."

In responses of many persons, three themes recurred:

1. The central value is communitarian, a surrender of self on behalf of the community: "Serve the people"; "Fight self, repudiate revisionism" "Remember class struggle"; "Learn from the workers and peasants.

2. There is an eschatological dimension, a commitment to goals beyond self in today’s society and tomorrow’s history, a belief that one day the communist goals for all the people will be achieved at home -- and for all the working people of the world as well.

3. There is a vision of the whole person, a belief that the individual can be changed, transformed and converted, and that society will be changed in the process.

It was customary for the host group at each institution to answer questions from us 18 Americans. At the No. 5 district of the Shanghai dockyards, for example, six of the eight young men and women workers present responded spontaneously to our many questions. At the schools, students answered as readily as teachers. After many such conversations in schools, communes, factories and neighborhoods, it seemed clear to us that moral values are learned both in group study sessions and in practice. The mandatory physical labor of students and teachers in all schools -- up to three months out of each year -- serves to implement the instruction "Learn from the workers and peasants." This practice becomes a powerful instrument for instilling communitarian (proletarian) values.

The aim of the entire educational system thus is related to the teaching of moral values. A new selfless ethic is being stressed -- one aimed at preventing the formation of a class of "intellectual mandarins" who are isolated from the working people of China like the former Confucian-scholar bureaucrats. This goal seemed to be at the heart of the campaign against Confucius and Lin Piao.

The Future of Religion

Will religion survive in China? We were told repeatedly that the constitution of the People’s Republic guarantees freedom of religious belief. We knew that Chairman Mao had spoken against the use of coercion on a number of occasions. His most frequently quoted guideline is taken from his landmark speech of 1957, "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions": "We cannot abolish religion by administrative decree or force people to give up idealism, any more than we can force them to believe in Marxism. The only way to settle questions of an ideological nature or controversial issues among the people is by the democratic method, the method of discussion, of criticism, of persuasion and education, and not by the method of coercion or repression."

At the National Minorities Institute in Peking, and in other exhibitions, we saw photographs and displays of superstitious and oppressive practices of the old religions, particularly Tibetan Buddhism. To the young Chinese, nothing could be further from the spirit and style of the new China than the traditional indigenous religions. Christianity is castigated for its role in the period of imperialist penetration of China. We saw an exhibition in the Shanghai Workers’ Cultural Palace of the history of foreign imperialism, beginning with the Opium War and the "unequal treaties." One panel contained photographs documenting ways in which former Christian mission institutions purportedly practiced cultural imperialism.

Some Chinese with whom we talked were curious about religion. They were amazed to learn that educated persons in the West continue to believe and practice religion. For them, they said, the study of scientific materialism had exposed the logical fallacies and absurdities of religion.

Nonetheless, fundamental religious questions remain. How do the Chinese understand the meaning of life and death? Death is seen in materialist terms, as the termination of one’s time of service for the people. Traditional funeral rites and customs are "vestiges of the feudal superstructure." I asked the chief engineer at the Hsing An Hydroelectric Project how the question of ancestors’ graves was handled when 250,000 peasants from 40 villages were moved from the site of the new reservoir. This was a matter of political education, he said; people had to learn that bones and graves are meaningless material remains. In most cases the graves were excavated and the bones ground up for fertilizer. For those uneducable elderly people who insisted, he said, the graves were moved to new sites. The entire reservoir floor, an area of 580 square kilometers, was scraped clean before it was flooded.

We asked three doctors at the Hsin Hua Hospital in Shanghai how they dealt with cases of terminal illness. Do they practice euthanasia if such patients do not want their lives prolonged? "In China the situation is different," they explained. "Few people do not wish to live, because our social system is different from yours. We try by every means to save the patient. We do ideological work with them to raise their will to live."

What about a hopeless case, in a terminal coma? "Even for these, we do all we can to save them. Medical science keeps advancing; sometimes ‘incurable’ cases become curable. We understand the problem of the suffering of patients and family. But doctors can’t think this way. We’ll try, if there is only 1 per cent of hope.... We once saved a patient whose heart had stopped for 23 minutes. Before the Cultural Revolution we never would have tried. But we saved him by the collective efforts of all our staff, old and young."

Resolving the Contradictions

Life and death, love and grief, human sin and finitude, ultimate mysteries -- I asked the Muslim imam in Hangchow whether or not religious needs will persist in a socialist society. With regard to understanding death and coping with grief, he affirmed that religious faith is, for him, essential. He agreed that there are basic religious needs in any society, but hastened to add that, having been raised in the old society with a firm religious training, he is "half new, half old." His faith provides strength, comfort and meaning in times of personal loss or grief. But for those who have grown up under socialism, "there are contradictions."

He does not believe, however, that there is an insoluble contradiction between religion and socialism. "The integration of religious faith with social reality can be resolved by an understanding of social and scientific progress and development. We acknowledge God as omnipotent. Our religious teaching will confirm, then, that the progress and development of society is also under God’s guidance. The history of social development is inexorable. You can’t turn it around; you must comply with what God has set in motion.

The secularization process for China was, in part, a rejection of primitive superstition and social irrelevance in the traditional religions, and a repudiation of Western cultural imperialism and sterile pietism in the Christian churches. Secularization is a rejection of religious solutions for China’s human and social problems, an affirmation that in humanity alone can be found the source of salvation. This secularizing trend in China, based in the Confucian tradition, can be found in all the reformist and revolutionary movements that followed the collapse of the Manchu dynasty in 1911.

On the other hand, there were significant new movements in both Chinese Buddhism and indigenous Christianity in the three decades prior to 1949. A religious dynamic was at the heart of peasant movements throughout Chinese history, based in chiliastic Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity (in the case of the Taiping Rebellion). Groups of believers still practice their faith in China, under the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religious belief, and the presence of these communities sustains a religious dimension that can enrich an increasingly secularized culture.