Beijing Wary as Religion Flourishes in China Beijing estimates that there are more than 200 million religious believers in China. But some officials worry that even sanctioned religious groups represent a challenge to communist ideology. Richard Madsen, author of China's Catholics, talks about the country's dramatic religious revival.
NPR logo

Beijing Wary as Religion Flourishes in China

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Beijing Wary as Religion Flourishes in China

Beijing Wary as Religion Flourishes in China

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Just as capitalism has flourished in China, so has another Communist apostasy: religion. Under Mao, the party declared religion poison to the people. Churches, temples, and monasteries were destroyed or boarded up, many monks and religious leaders were imprisoned. These days, officially recognized religions are permitted to worship in state-approved facilities. And there's been an explosion of underground religious groups, too - people who gather in so-called house churches - winked at in some provinces and suppressed in others.

According to government estimates, there are more than 200 million religious believers in China. Buddhists account for nearly half that number, and the ranks of Muslims, Catholics and Protestants are also growing. By that estimate, there are now more Catholics in China than there are in Ireland. But numbers only tell part of the story. Some in the government worry that even the tolerated religious groups represent a challenge to Communist Party ideology with the potential to organize opposition.

Over the past decade, we've seen government crackdowns on the Falun Gong. Earlier this year, the Vatican clashed with Chinese officials over the Pope's right to appoint its own bishops in China. And just yesterday, the Chinese government condemned Mongolia for hosting the Dalai Lama, whom they view as an enemy of the state. Today, we continue our occasional series on China and the 21st century with a look at the role of religion in China.

Later in the program, Survivor divides its next group of castaways by race. But first, religion in China.

If you've visited temples, monasteries, mosques or churches in China, if you have questions about how religion operates under communism, join the conversation. Our number here is, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. The address is - e-mail address, rather, is

Richard Madsen is professor and chair of the sociology department at the University of California at San Diego. He's also an expert on China and the author of China's Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society. He joins us today from the studios of member station KPBS in San Diego.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor RICHARD MADSEN (Chair of the Sociology Department, University of California San Diego): I'm happy to be here.

CONAN: What does religious freedom mean in the context of China today?

Prof. MADSEN: Well, officially, by the virtue of the Chinese constitution, there is freedom of religious belief. And that means that people are free to believe whatever they want religiously in their hearts. The problem is that there's no freedom of association, so people aren't free to join a church or to take part in public activities. Those all have to be done under the auspices of official government control.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And there are, as I understand it - go ahead, clear your throat. That's a boy. Now, as I understand it, there are five accepted authorized religions in China.

Prof. MADSEN: Yes. Those are - Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Catholicism and Protestantism. The Chinese make those two religions rather than one branch of a single Christianity.

CONAN: And they are permitted to have churches, mosques, whatever, as appropriate?

Prof. MADSEN: They're permitted to have churches and mosques and to worship publicly, but only in venues that are officially authorized by the Chinese government. Nonetheless, there are a lot of believers and practitioners who carry out their activities in venues that aren't registered with the government, that aren't authorized, and this is illegal. And under some circumstances, leaders of these get arrested and venues shut down.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MADSEN: But the enforcement of this is very irregular. That is, in some areas there are many of these unofficial, underground churches and mosques and temples that operate more or less with impunity. But then other times, there are crackdowns et cetera. So a lot depends on the local circumstances.

CONAN: There are also special circumstances in special places. For example, Buddhists in Tibet. Isn't that really seen as an extension of the sort of Nationalist combat between the Tibetan desire for its own independent state? And so they attack Buddhism in Tibet and the Dalai Lama as the representative.

Prof. MADSEN: Exactly. From the point of view of the Chinese government, different kinds of religions present different challenges. In some places - and Tibetan Buddhism is a good example - the religion is deeply intertwined with ethnicity, with maybe ethnic nationalism, and the Chinese government is worried that it will provide the motivation and organization for movements to try to secede from China or to assert a kind of a national identity that would be not in accord with the interest of the Chinese state.

CONAN: And that's why I think the newly appointed head - Chinese government head in Tibet has said we're at war to the death with the Dalai Lama.

Prof. MADSEN: Yes. That just happened very recently. What happens - what has happened in recent Chinese history is there's been kind of a waxing and waning of religious policy. Sometimes the atmosphere is a little more lenient; sometimes there are crackdowns. But several years ago, about two years ago, there were reports that the Dalai Lama, for example, and some of his representatives at least were engaged in dialogue with the Chinese government about easing certain restrictions on Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps even allowing the Dalai Lama to pay a visit to China.

But those negotiations apparently have fallen apart. And now they've turned to a very hard-line, denouncing the Dalai Lama in very, very strong terms, even in, as you say, in the past few weeks. And now they've made a big complaint about the fact that the Dalai Lama was able to visit Mongolia, which, of course, is adjacent to China.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation, 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

And let's begin with Malik(ph). Malik's calling us from Virginia Beach.

MALIK (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

MALIK: Good afternoon to your guest. I - while performing pilgrimage in Mecca many years ago, I had an encounter with a Chinese Muslim, and he was very well educated Muslim. And he had told us some stories that there was a three-year oppression of Muslim practice of Islam and the holy places, such as mosques, were turned into, you know, lavatories, and all that.

So I'd like to know from your guest what is his information about how many Muslims - some say there are there are 60 million, 80 millions in southern China. And I'd liked to have his input on this question, please.

CONAN: Richard Madsen.

Prof. MADSEN: Fine. Well, I - the best estimate that I've seen is there are about 20 million Muslims in China. Islam has been a part of Chinese life for a long time, for about 13 centuries. It came via traders across the old Silk Road very soon after Islam was founded in the Middle East.

There are many different kinds of Muslims in China and there are different names for them in China. There is one group, the so-called Wei(ph), which are deeply assimilated with Chinese culture: their practices, their lifestyles, their appearances, even the appearances of their mosques are very much like Chinese temples and so forth.

Then there are other groups, especially in the western part of China, whose ancestors come from the central Asian steps from Turkestan. They don't look like Han Chinese. Their customs and so forth are different. These groups, too, are divided into various factions and understandings of Islam. There's one kind called the Govandi(ph) which are - whose traditions go all the way back about 1,300 years, and that involved a bit of assimilation into Chinese cultural practices.

Then in the 19th century and early 20th century there were movements to purify this form of Islam, and so there's a group called the Ikhwan, which were influenced heavily by Wahhabi Islam, a movement to reform and purify Islam. And they would have mosques that look like Middle Eastern mosques. They, you know, read the Koran in Arabic, whether or not they can understand the language or not, and try to adopt a more rigorous practice. They might be at adds with the old Govandi, might not want their children to marry them and so forth. So Islam is not a single unified force in china.

CONAN: Well, I just wanted to ask you a little bit more about what's going on in Sichuan(ph) province, which is where the groups we - the Muslims we generally refer to as Wigers(ph) live.

Prof. MADSEN: Right.

CONAN: There's been a huge influx of Han Chinese into the province, and there's tension that I guess is culturally and I guess to some degree religiously based as the Han now appear to be outnumbering the people who lived there in the beginning.

Prof. MADSEN: Exactly. So religion gets intertwined with ethnicity here, and with various kinds of ethnic nationalism. So there's been this tension. One focal point of the tension, of course, is Islam. There are different opinions and different ways of organizing within the Muslim community around this issue. And in the β€˜90s there was indeed some terrorist activity.

There is a group of people that want Sichuan to separate from China, to become part of East Turkestan Republic. They blew up some buses, some buildings. The government cracked down very hard on this in the 1990s; carried out a lot of summary executions and just very, very harsh crackdowns, such that it raised human rights concerns around the world.

Recently, it's a little bit unclear. The government has declared - and with the United States' agreement - a certain group of these Muslims as a terrorist organization, which has stopped the human rights complaints against them. But most Muslims are, you know, have their issues that they want to resolve basically peacefully, so it's not clear that Islam is a big hotbed of terrorism or anything like that. There are various kinds of factions and various kinds of problems. But, in general, I think most Muslims are relatively peaceful.

However, there's this issue of, you know, with globalization and with reactions to these crackdowns whether or not there might be polarization, and that could happen as we go on down the line.

CONAN: Richard Madsen is with us from San Diego. We're going to take a short break. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is We're discussing religion in China in the 21st century. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, and this is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Today we continue our occasional series on China in the 21st century with a look at religion in that country. China's communist government, officially atheist, keeps strict controls on organized religious groups. We're talking about the religion boom in China and how it shapes society there.

Our guest is Richard Madsen. He's a professor of the sociology department in University of California at San Diego, and the author of China's Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society.

Of course, you're welcome to join us. If you've visited a temple, church or place of worship in China or if you have questions about how religion works under a communist state, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail is Let's get another caller on the line. And this is David(ph). David's calling us from Vancouver, Washington.

DAVID (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, David.

DAVID: I just spent three weeks in Jiangxi(ph) Province in a little valley called the Lion Valley, which is about 180 kilometers south of Zheniang(ph). And I lived in a monastery there - or stayed in a monastery. I'm writing a book about the valley and I do marketing for a number of the monasteries in the valley. And what I observed while I was there was that, you know, there was - I think the second day we were there, five carloads of Communist Party officials showed up at the monastery and came in and, you know, did their Buddhist practices in going into the temple and spinning the prayer wheels. And the government is spending an awful lot of money helping the monasteries in the valley there get restored. I mean there is a tremendous amount of money being poured into rebuilding and updating the monasteries.

CONAN: Richard Madsen.

Prof. MADSEN: Sometimes...

CONAN: Yeah, just a second. Go ahead, Richard.

Prof. MADSEN: Sometimes the government uses a carrot and stick approach for monasteries and other kinds of religious organizations that are willing to register themselves with the government and ready to - able to comply with government regulations and so forth. They've been doing rebuilding. One problem was a lot of these monasteries and churches and mosques were destroyed or suffered lots of damage during the Cultural Revolution, or property was confiscated from them. And so now that's been given back and the monasteries and temples, et cetera, are being rebuilt, sometimes with government money. But this of course is only for groups that comply with the basic government framework for regulating religion.

CONAN: And, Mike? I'm sorry, David.

DAVID: Yeah, yeah. There, you know, what I've seen is that - I think they're using a lot of this to boost the tourist trade. I know like at Ronwu(ph) Monastery, which is a teaching monastery - about 2,300 monks - and they've put up this huge parking lot so, you know, the buses and cars and everything can get in there. And this has all developed in the last year and a half. When we first started marketing for the monasteries, the government was blocking -censoring access inside of China to our Web site, and now they've turned around and they're allowing local access to our Web site.

And yeah, there are some restrictions I think, but mostly these have to do with the China versus Tibet thing, where you can't use any of the Tibetan names for the towns or the monasteries. Everything's got to be the Chinese name.

CONAN: All right. Interesting. David, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

DAVID: You're welcome.

CONAN: I wonder, Richard Madsen, how is it that - there seems to be a dichotomy here that if the state allows - tolerates official religion, some people say look, they allow religion, they allow capitalism; they don't believe in anything anymore.

Prof. MADSEN: Well that's a problem, and that's one reason I think that you're getting this resurgence of religious belief and practice. There's kind of an ideological moral vacuum in China. A lot of people will talk about it. People only believe in money. They, you know - morality has gone down the drain and so forth. And I think in reacting to this, at least some people are returning to religion to give them a sense of ultimate meaning and a way to kind of organize and get some focus to their moral life.

CONAN: Yeah, 200 million believers sounds - it is an awful lot of people, but out of a billion or more it's a pretty significant minority.

Prof. MADSEN: That's the government's figure - estimates about 200 million. There could probably be more than that. The government's figure doesn't actually count the so-called underground groups, which probably are larger than the officially recognized believers. And then, of course, it doesn't count -and I think later on you'll be talking about this - this sort of indigenous folk religion.

There's one scholar I know at the university - the Chinese University of Hong Kong - who estimates that if you count as religious everybody who says some prayers when their relative dies or burns some incense on special occasions and carries out rituals like that, if you count all that as religion, probably 90 percent of the people in China practice some form of religion at least sometimes in their lives.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Mike(ph). Mike's calling us from San Francisco.

MIKE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hello, Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

MIKE: Okay. I just disagree with a lot of things that, you know, your guest is saying. Virtually, there's a lot of prejudice and a bias against Chinese government. You know, especially after, you know, the β€˜80s, after Deng Xiaoping's open policy. Virtually - if you take a tour to China today, you're going to be amazed to see how many Catholic church, you know, Christian church and a Maoist with, you know, traditional Buddhist temple and Muslims' mosque flourish in China.

But when you talk about something like those unregistered, going underground, you know, to preach at home, something like that, I don't have empathy for that. Because you can register as a non-profit organization, and that is fully recognized by the government. Why you want to go underground? The motive is suspicious. Besides, people - especially Westerners - they always mistaken the concept as Tibet is separate from China. You have to remember, Tibet is part of China. Everything's Tang(ph) Dynasty. The Tang Dynasty, we married the two Chinese princesses: Princess Win Chang(ph) and Princess Ding Chang. Okay.

CONAN: Without getting into dynastic politics, Mike, we'll accept that...

MIKE: I understand that.


MIKE: I'm just saying Tibet is part of China just like (unintelligible) is part of China...

CONAN: Well, Mike, I just have to say that a lot of Tibetans don't think so.

MIKE: You don't think that's aggression, right?

CONAN: I'm sorry, what?

MIKE: I think Mike has left us. Anyway, he argues that there is a lot of religious freedom in China and these underground groups could organize over ground and be legitimate.

Prof. MADSEN: Well, I think people practice religion in this underground or non official way for a number of reasons. In some cases, there are really ideological reasons. That is they simply won't tolerate being part of groups that have to register with the government and it be under auspices or a communist government. They disagree with the theology of such groups and so forth.

In other cases, people are worshiping and practicing religion underground or non officially because the government won't officially register enough venues for them. So there would be cases I think where if there was a church open that the official government sponsored, that people might go to it. But the fact of the matter is the government isn't too keen on their being a lot of religion, you know? And they're not bending overboard - bending backwards to open as many churches and so forth as possible.

So there is more demand than meets the supply, and so sometimes people worship in the underground just because there's no other option available. And then there are various kinds of gray areas in between. So it's very complicated and very mixed. But I think there a lot of people practicing religion without a license, if you will, without being officially approved, and that activity is officially seen as illegal.

CONAN: Let's get Chris on the line. Chris calls from Winter Haven in Florida.

CHRIS (Caller): Hello, sir.

CONAN: Hi, Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

CHRIS: Yeah. I'm a Falun Gong practitioner. I've been to China. I've been arrested in China for supporting the practice of Falun Gong. My understanding is that it's exceedingly widespread in China. And the gentleman previously was talking about unregistered Christian churches and they just want to basically practice Christianity as they see fit and not under the state auspices, not the CCP Bible.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CHRIS: Falun Gong I believe is similar, and these people wish to practice truth, compassion and tolerance, basic ancient Chinese values, and they cannot get registered with the government; they cannot be accepted. And, in fact, hundreds of thousands of them have been thrown into labor camps and countless have been killed. Now they're being harvested for their organs.

I was just wondering how you feel about...

CONAN: Allegedly. But let's hear from Richard Madsen.

Prof. MADSEN: Well, in the 1990s, this group called the Falun Gong, which practices a mixture of Daoist and traditional Chinese medicine and Buddhist beliefs, became very popular. There'd be different estimates about how many. I think some Falun Gong leaders said that there were maybe 50, 60 million. The Chinese government said there were fewer.

But there were some millions of people practicing. It was very, very popular in some areas. The Falun Gong leadership staged a big protest in 1999 protesting what they thought were government slurs against the movement. The Chinese government was totally shocked that they were able to organize such successful protests. This was a peaceful protest. They brought about 20,000 people together in front of the Chinese government's leadership compound in Beijing.

And in reaction to that, the Chinese government began a very, very harsh crackdown on the movement, and indeed have arrested many people, have worked very hard to shut it down. So it's difficult to tell actually how many people are still, you know, practicing Falun Gong in underground way in China now. It's very, very difficult to tell. Although, indeed there are people still doing that.

And as the caller indicated, Falun Gong is now a worldwide movement. There are practitioners around the world. And they, of course, are trying to advocate for better treatment of the Falun Gong. I think the government was against Falun Gong not because of its belief system in itself but because they had such a wonderful - such a great capacity to organize themselves in very sophisticated ways, in ways that the government could control. And the government's very, very afraid of any groups organizing themselves in any (unintelligible) in ways that the government can't supervise or control.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call.

We're talking today about religion in China, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Here's an e-mail from Laura in Boston: I lived in the rural areas of Yunnan(ph) Province of China, populated by ethnic minorities. The vast majority of foreigners I found living in the area were evangelical Christian missionaries. They were actively trying to convert those of rural ethnic minority populations who practiced their own religions by holding regular, secret prayer meetings in their homes.

They were quite successful because they offered free English lessons as part of the meetings. Though the Chinese government outlaws missionaries from my perspective, they don't seem to be having much success.

Prof. MADSEN: The Chinese government does outlaw missionaries, but there are many missionaries going into China actually, sometimes in the auspices of teaching English, as you say. And above and beyond the actions of these missionaries, there is a great number of activity just among Chinese themselves spreading in this case Christianity.

Probably one of the most rapidly growing forms of religious faith in China actually is evangelical Protestant Christianity, in fact, a kind of evangelical Protestant Christianity that you here would call Pentecostalism. It involves peoples - you know, having these ecstatic experiences, speaking in tongues and so forth.

These groups are organized in loose networks. Often the faith is carried forward by just ordinary laypeople, Chinese laypeople. They've had some help from foreigners sometimes, but it's pretty much a homegrown phenomenon; and growing very, very rapidly.

It's quite amazing, you know, as Protestants basically numbered less than a million before 1949, before the communists took over China. And then religion of all kinds was suppressed pretty heavily during the Maoist era.

But now, especially Protestantism, especially these unregistered Pentecostal kinds of Protestants have grown extremely; maybe 20, maybe 30 million. Some of them would claim maybe as much as 80 million today. I don't - I think that's exaggerated. But enormous growth in the past 20 years.

Which is also consistent with the growth of this kind of Christianity around the world, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, in underdeveloped countries.

CONAN: We just have a couple of minutes left with you, and I wanted to get an assessment from your vantage point. The Chinese government, as you said, sees at least some of these groups as potentially threatening to its control. And any institution, any organization that is outside its control is seen as potentially a threat. Given that, does this tolerance - and, again, behavior is spotty in different places, but does this tolerance of religious organization represent a challenge to the Communist Party and to the Chinese government?

Prof. MADSEN: I think it does represent a challenge. I myself would argue that by trying to suppress this in the heavy-handed way that they sometimes use, I would argue that that's counterproductive. It makes martyrs; it increases determination of people of religion to spread the faith more, besides causing all sorts of international censure.

So I think from the point of view of the government, there's legitimate concern that some of these groups could get out of control and they could then transform themselves into political organizations.

CONAN: The example I've seen cited is the Catholic Church in Poland during the solidarity times.

Prof. MADSEN: Right. And there are some Catholics in China, some of the underground Catholics at least, that were really inspired by what happened in Poland and thought that they could contribute to bringing down the, you know, the communist government in China.

The Catholic Church in China is much too small for that. You know, it's one percent of the population, no more than that. And it simply wouldn't have the numbers to do that. But some of those Catholics were inspired by the example, would like to do that. Other Catholics, of course, in China see themselves as very patriotic and want to support the government. So it's a mixed kind of thing. In any case, the Chinese government, though, doesn't want to take any chances.

CONAN: Richard Madsen, thanks very much for your time. Appreciate it.

Prof. MADSEN: My pleasure to be here.

CONAN: Richard Madsen is a China expert and chair of the sociology department at the University of California at San Diego. The author of China's Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society. He joined us from our member station in San Diego, KPBS.

More on this after the break. We'll also be talking about Survivor and race. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News.

The so-called morning-after pill can now be sold to women over the counter. The Food and Drug Administration decided today that the emergency contraception is available to those who can prove they're at least 18. Those younger still need a prescription. Today's ruling ends a three-year effort to loosen restrictions on the pill known as Plan B.

Also, it's official: Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Leading astronomers meeting at the International Astronomical Union in Prague stripped Pluto of its planetary designation after changing the definition of the word planet. Pluto's oblong orbit overlaps that of Neptune, and by that criterion, Pluto is now reclassified in a new category called Dwarf Planets.

Details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY and Ira Flatow will be here with a look at dark matter. Scientists say they now have proof that this mysterious stuff exists. Plus, the benefits of eating locally grown food, and Pluto's demotion. That's all tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Monday at this time, it's the anniversary of the Gulf Coast hurricane. We'll talk about the diaspora of Katrina. Many residents left their homes and never went back. We'll talk with them and with you. If you fled the Gulf Coast because of Katrina, e-mail us your story. Where are you now? What's your life like a year after the storm? The address is, and just put Katrina in the subject line.

We've been talking today about the growth of religion in China, and so far primarily about the five faiths officially recognized by the communist government: Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism.

Dan Overmyer says that's only part of a bigger picture. One of the most significant cultural changes in Chinese society today, he says, is the rebirth of indigenous religious traditions. Dan Overmyer is professor emeritus in the department of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, and the author of Religion in China Today. He's with us from Manzanita in Oregon. Thanks very much for being with us.

Professor DAN OVERMYER (Professor of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia; Author, Religion in China Today): I'm happy to help out.

CONAN: Aside from the so-called official religions, you see growing influence of China's older indigenous religions. How is this happening?

Prof. OVERMYER: Very much so. The basic religious traditions of belief and ritual for ordinary people of China, the overwhelming majority of the population, have been worship of local protective gods believed to be represented by the images housed in temples in towns and villages all across China.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. OVERMYER: These deities are believed to be the deified spirits of heroic people in the past in some cases or manifestations of powerful forces of nature like rain and thunder and wind. And the people have prayed to them for help, for healing, for good harvest, for success in life and business for many, many hundreds of years. This tradition of local community religion has involved the great majority of the people of China for all those hundreds of years.

And it's now, since the early 1980s, begun to revive as the religious policies of the Chinese state have somewhat relaxed. The most important distinction to keep in mind that your earlier speakers on this program have not mentioned is the distinction between policies carried out by the central government and the local government.

At the local level, the officials are part of their home communities. And such officials from past and present have always taken pride in promoting the prestige and activities and economies of their home communities, a key symbol of which is the local protective god. He represents the community and his temple is the focus of community life and activities.

CONAN: Well, that's local officials. Does the party see this as a threat?

Prof. OVERMYER: Well, the party, these people are the party. I mean they represent - they're communists - they represent the Communist Party at the local level. And at the official level, these activities may be seen as illegal - in fact, they are seen as technically illegal - but on the whole, prohibitions against them are not enforced or only sporadically enforced, depending on the local situation.

CONAN: And would local officials be happy to be seen at various festivals?

Prof. OVERMYER: Yes. They participate in them. I've walked in processions like this myself in Fujian Province side by side with a representative of a judicial branch of the local county government who, himself, was a member of the party; and I was cold, so he lent me his PLA army coat to keep me warm. And I mean -and he was walking beside the Daoist priest at the head of this procession in honor of this local protective deity.

So at that level, what we've got here is a revival of the traditional practices, values, and ideas, beliefs of a huge swath of the Chinese population of ordinary Chinese people. It's a far larger phenomenon than any of the traditions you've discussed so far on this program, such as Protestantism, Roman Catholicism - far larger even than Daoism and Buddhism as defined in official orthodox ways. This is the religious tradition of the vast majority of the people whose gods to them function in some ways similar to saints in Roman Catholic Christianity in Medieval Europe.

CONAN: And from your description of it and the way it interlaces with the Communist Party and other levels of society, it's not necessarily the kind of challenge to the government that Richard Madsen was talking about these other religions to some degree represent.

Prof. OVERMYER: No, it's not seen as a challenge. These kinds of local traditions, community ritual traditions and the huge festivals involved with them have always been seen as part of what you can call loosely orthodox local culture. They are not sectarian. You are a participant because you are born and live in a particular community. You don't have to profess a certain kind of belief. Your belief is basically that the god exists and has power to respond to your prayers if you offer them with a sincere heart.

And so - and they're concerned with values of community solidarity, loyalty to members of the family, loyalty to social superiors. There's nothing fundamentally subversive about it except in the modern context. These are traditions. These community rituals are organized by good, old-fashioned Chinese principles and values.

They have fundamentally nothing to do with communism. So what we've got here is a revival of traditional Chinese culture on the part of millions of ordinary people who are re-establishing, re-affirming their identity as members of that community and their identity as Chinese in the face of these several decades of suppression - attempted suppression by the Communist government. It hasn't worked. I mean the Cultural Revolution, so-called, lasted 10 years, '66 toβ€˜76. The traditions we're talking about took their present form back in the Song(ph) Dynasty in the 1100s and 1200s AD. They've been around for 1,000 years.

CONAN: Dan Overmyer, thanks very much. Appreciate your time.

Prof. OVERMYER: You're welcome.

CONAN: Dan Overmyer is a professor emeritus in the department of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, the author of Religion in China Today. He was with us from Manzanita in Oregon.

When we come back, it's Survivor with a difference.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.