After the "failed religions" of Mao and Deng, China seeks God
by Liu Peng
The widespread spiritual vacuum in China is a direct result of 30 years of the ideology of class struggle, the personality cult around Mao, of sacrifice unto death: a veritable religion. But it has failed and led to a frenzy to "get rich", creating an empty society, that is cracking under the weight of contradictions between rich and poor, urban and rural, pollution, exploitation and corruption. The third installment of the study of Prof. Liu Peng, Chinese Academic of Social Sciences.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - China is in a deep spiritual crisis because it has been withered by Maoism and Dengism. This is another thesis put forward by Prof. Liu Peng, Academic of Social Sciences in Beijing and an expert on religion, according to whom the weakness of Chinese power is the lack of faith and freedom of religion. In this third installment, Liu Peng analyzes the history of China, the discrete freedom during the feudal period and the spread of Maoism with the promises of land ownership, after having driven out the landlords, and the presentation of the class struggle as a religion and Mao as its god. The human and economic failure of Maoism has led to the openings of Deng and the emphasis on economic transformation and "getting rich" as the goal of life (another pseudo-religion). But even this fails to satisfy man's desire spiritual. To date, China is still asking: What do we believe?

The belief system in ancient China

At this point, some may contend that the above argument applies only to countries where all or a majority of the people believe in religion. They cannot be applied to China because, since ancient times church and state have not been unified and no religion has been used as a spiritual pillar or official belief.

This claim pays particular focus to Confucian Thought, which formed the spiritual pillar during China's feudal period. Whether Confucian Thought, also called Confucianism, is a religion or not remains a topic of heated discussion. Many scholars have tried to prove that Confucianism is a philosophy or a concept different from the established religions such as Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, or Islam. These arguments, with sound logic and sufficient evidence have focused on many features of Confucianism that do not belong to religion. One would think that these conclusions derived from such analysis would be unquestioned. However, these arguments are in fact built on the false premise that Confucianism is a religion similar to the established western religions. This premise stresses the external forms of religion and overlooks the commonality between the essence of Confucianism and religion from the functional perspective of faith.

During the agricultural feudal period, it was natural and in the best interests of Chinese feudal rulers to maintain Confucianism as the belief and value system, whether or not it was formally called a religion. So it is clear that even though the feudal societies in China did not adopt Daoism or Buddhism as the, ir official religions, nor did they declare their Confucian beliefs to be religion, they consolidated their rule with a systematized spiritual pillar and belief system.

Compared with the uniform belief system followed by the feudal rulers, the common people in the feudal period of China enjoyed more freedom in choosing their beliefs. Those who wished to combine their spiritual faiths with political claims and to "govern state affairs and to order the land under heaven peacefully"could enter the official circle and climb onto the political stage by passing imperial examinations. Those who were interested in spiritual pursuits rather than politics could become scholars or men of letters through writing books and establishing theories. Those who considered the official belief system insufficient for their spiritual needs could turn to established religions such as Buddhism or Daoism as supplements. The common people, except those practicing Confucian and Mencian rites, could also create various forms of folk beliefs. These beliefs gave rise to a multi-level and multi-dimensional belief system in ancient China. Confucianism, the official and orthodox belief system promoted by the emperors, was on the top. The established religions of Buddhism and Daoism were in the middle, and the folk beliefs of the common people were at the bottom.

People of different classes got along well with each other without trouble, each taking what they needed and doing what they considered right. What bound together the beliefs in these three levels was the traditional Chinese culture marked by Chinese characters. In short, although the feudal period of Chinese history witnessed the changing of dynasties and foreign invasions, it did not experience radical changes in the belief system of society. There were no conflicts between the family and the nation, the court and the public, or the individual and society in terms of faith identification and value orientation. When the dynasties and emperors changed, these remained the same. Thus, ancient China did not experience a "loss of faith."


China's beliefs in the 20th century


The 1911 Revolution overthrew the last feudal dynasty of China, declared the end of the thousand-year-old Confucian ruling system, and opened a new chapter in the history for China. At the same time, western culture entered China and brought earth-shattering changes in realm of Chinese thought and ideology. In 1919, with the progressive intellectuals shouting the slogan "Down with Confucianism,"the New Culture Movement set about a transformation of faith in contemporary China; As a result, the spiritual idol that had dominated Chinese thinking for several thousand years crumbled. The Chinese began to ask "What should we believe in now?"

As individuals, the common people could continue to believe in Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, or even Christianity, Catholicism or folk beliefs. However, for the nation or state, the old spiritual support provided by Confucianism had to be eradicated. The radical intellectuals introduced "Mr. Democracy"and "Mr. Science"to China in the hope that these concepts could replace the feudal belief system. Wave after wave of fresh ideas and new thoughts crowded in. Chinese felt lost at the smashing of the old feudal spiritual foundations while at the same time they were excited and afraid at the rapid rise of so many new 'isms.' The suffering of the common people was increased by the rise and fall of presidents of the newly established Republic of China, the shameless politicians and fighting warlords, foreign invasions, and social disorder caused by the collapse of the feudal system. "Where is China going?"became a question that every Chinese person had to consider.

It was at that moment that Marxism and Communism were introduced to China by New Youth, a magazine founded by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao which represented progressive culture. In terms of faith, Marxism, with its pursuit of social justice and an end to social oppression and exploitation, was a shining light in the bureaucratic and corrupt early 21st century China that provided hope for national independence and revival to the Chinese people.

However, the path to success for Marxism and Communism in China was not a smooth one. The social and historical contexts differed greatly from those that had birthed the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia. As an agricultural country dominated by the peasantry, China did not seem to provide the appropriate soil for fostering Marxism and Communism and starting a proletarian revolution. Mao Zedong, the great statesman who emerged at the right time, fully understood the enormous gaps that existed between Europe and China, the intellectual elites and the workers and farmers, and between idealism and the utilitarian instinct. Instead of stressing and repeating Marxist doctrines, Mao invented a Chinese version of Marxism based on the actual situation in China, assuming overall political power through motivating the peasantry, launching an agrarian revolution and depending on the rural areas to encircle the cities.

Mao's version of Marxism was later proved entirely correct by history. Through complicated and fierce struggles within the Party, the Chinese Communist Party finally reached agreement on acknowledging Mao Zedong as the most authoritative Chinese revolutionary leader. However, few had noticed the far-reaching meaning of the catchy slogan "Beat the local despots and redistribute the land"that Mao had used to motivate illiterate peasants. Even today, many people still cannot understand why learned professors failed to gain the support of the peasants while Mao succeeded in forming a revolutionary army and building revolutionary bases.

The key to Mao's success lies in his oversimplification of basic Marxist theory to such an extent that anyone could understand it and be convinced to use it in a fight for his own survival. Concepts such as surplus value, political party and state were too sophisticated for the peasants to understand. What they needed was a popular slogan that was easy to understand. "'Beat the local despots and redistribute the land"was both the political claim of the Communist Party and the goal of the peasants' participation in the revolution. This goal changed the outlook for millions of people for life, and became the spiritual belief for which they strived. As to the question of whether or not, after beating the despots the land would actually be distributed to them, and whether they would actually own this land was not a concern for the peasants who were eager to change their status. With such staunch supporters of the Chinese version of Marxism, China's revolution proceeded, and ultimately achieved success.

Of course, Mao would not allow those who had joined the revolutionary army to put their faith simply at the level of gaining a piece of land and fighting for personal revenge. This is because he understood that the established faiths needed to be continuously improved and the object of faith needed to be duly systematized and sanctified. He also understood that to distinguish itself from bandits, the Red Army must have a distinct mission which embodied the holiness of religion and would serve as a faith calling for voluntary pursuit and sacrifice.

Marxism was not a religion, but it had to be given the appearance of being a religion. Every Red Army soldier had to absolutely and unconditionally believe in the correctness of the revolutionary goal and be ready to sacrifice his life at any moment for the revolutionary cause initiated by the Communist leaders. The cause must be made to be "supremely beautiful"and "supremely magnificent"so that it would take over the lives of millions of people. When compared with such a grand goal, all of a person, including his life, became insignificant and negligible. To take part in the revolution led by Mao required a complete transformation from a common person to a loyal follower of Chinese Marxism. The transformation was a process of accepting and recognizing this new faith as a religion through which people would establish a new belief and derive meaning to their lives. "Beat the local despots and redistribute the land"was no longer a tool to serve personal interests, but part of the great "cause."The participants in this "cause"were no longer common peasants who wanted to make a fortune or exact revenge, but idealists who were directed with long-term goals and equipped with revolutionary beliefs and ideas.

In 1949, with the support of a few million armed staunch supporters of Chinese Marxism, Mao successfully assumed national power and founded the People's Republic of China. The key words used to describe the large-scale social upheavals and transformations that took place from 1911 to 1949 can best be described as a "military revolution,"(including the national defense activities during the Sino-Japanese War). This grand military revolution which lasted over thirty years and involved several hundred million people was the best expression of Chinese political faith at that time. Its label was Marxism (including patriotism and nationalism), its content was "liberation,"and its most authoritative interpreter was Mao.

This revolution had its base in a faith that was supported by hundreds of millions of people, a goal rooted in this faith, a convincing reason for the Chinese people to unite and fight, and a strong army of ambitious idealists. The Chinese revolution led by Mao was not just a military success; it was also a success in terms of politics, spirit, and belief. These successes contributed to the overall victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. By comparison, the "Three Principles of the People"advocated by the Kuomingtang had never become the object of faith for hundreds of millions of peasants and workers, and was never turned into a religion.

The "Three Principles of the People"had turned out to be only a slogan, not a belief or religion. The Kuomingtang elites shouted the slogan aloud but they did not really believe in it and had no intention of carrying it out, even though there were a few idealists willing to sacrifice for the realization of these principles. As a result, the "Three Principles of the People"were no more than flags for the Kuomingtang on the old political stage. The basis of faith and the spiritual pillars of the Kuomingtang were in fact empty words. A party without faith is doomed to fail.

The founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 represented the success of a revolution targeted at "liberation"(class liberation, national liberation, country liberation). How to maintain people's passion for revolution, loyalty to revolutionary leaders, and faith in the revolutionary cause was a question that was uppermost in Mao's mind. To solve this question, he made "class struggle"the centerpiece of political life from 1949 to 1976, launching one political movement after another which had the result of gradually making class struggle the object of people faith. According to Mao, what the Chinese people had won with blood and sacrificed lives might again be snatched away by class enemies who were hidden among them, waiting to strike back. This so-called enemy was scheming to make the laboring people "suffer a second time."Therefore, the revolutionaries must take class struggle seriously, as "once class struggle is undertaken, all problems can be solved."

This danger posed by the enemy scheming to strike back, and the necessity of class struggle had to be stressed "every year, every month, every day."From the "Three-anti Campaign,"the "Five-anti Campaign,"the "Struggle Against Hufeng Campaign,"the "Anti-Rightist Movement,"and the "Anti-Pro-Rightist Movement"of the early 1950's, to the "Four Purges Movement"in the 1960's and the Cultural Revolution, China was caught up in a series of incessant movements and class struggle. "There are seven hundred million people, how dare we do not undertake the struggle?" As the incessant struggle needed continuous guidance, Mao became the only one with the right to interpret Chinese Marxism by continuous revision in the content of the revolutionary goal and faith.

Meanwhile, Mao launched a purge against the "revisionist anti-Party clan."This required the participation of a large number of idealists and the efforts on the part of leaders at all levels to convert the revolutionary cause into a religion, and cause the revolutionary leader be followed as a religious leader. The person who most fully understood Mao's intention was Lin Biao, the military leader in charge of the army. He was the first to push for the worship of Mao as an idol and to elevate Mao's thoughts to those of religious doctrine. He promoted Maoism fanatically in the army and was designated to be the successor of Mao (his downfall will not be discussed here).

In 1966, after the prelude of a series of political movements, Mao personally launched "The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,"pushing China's class struggle to a climax. China boiled over. It became the center of international communist movements, the red sea of the proletarian revolution. In this red sea, the bourgeoisie class and all the "old thoughts, old cultures, old customs, old habits"were overthrown. The goal of the revolution was now the "liberation of mankind."The daily routines of people's lives included singing revolutionary songs in praise of Mao, holding with religious fervor to the "three loyalties, four infinities,""struggle against a flash of selfish thought,"and "the outburst of revolution in the depth of the soul."The "infinite worship, infinite conviction"of Mao reached its peak, and the faith in Mao and Mao's thoughts became a total religion. Mao successfully ignited a "spiritual atom bomb"in China whose immense power of spirit and belief shocked the entire world.

In 1976, the death of Mao and the downfall of the "Gang of Four"put an end to the Cultural Revolution. The class struggle "to carry the revolution forward under the dictatorship of the proletariat"that had enveloped the country since its founding finally came to an end.

Today, looking back on those crazy days, those who survived that "revolution"have mixed emotions. The fanatic and irrational "revolution"destroyed the youth, life, and the families of many people, and devoured countless young men and women who were loyal to it. The so-called "revolution"was undoubtedly a catastrophe in the history of the Chinese nation. Yet, no matter how wrong the "revolution"was, the participants were sincere and pious in their faith. This piety reached to the level of absurd, and finally led to disastrous consequences. It is correct to say that the abuse and excesses of such absolute faith to communism, leader, Party, and nation resulted in the later loss of faith and[J7] defiance of conventions.

Having suffered from a political fever for too long, the people were fed up and exhausted and wanted a rest. Despite the legacy of Mao (it has been more than 30 years since Mao's death, but there are still people making efforts to restore the religious-like faith in Maoism, and Maoism is even the guiding principle for the Nepalese Communist Party in their assumption of power), the yearly political movements and incessant class struggles had driven the national economy to the edge of collapse, wrecked the productive workforce, and left China with a severe shortage of goods and materials. The fever towards Mao was brought down and in his worshippers' hearts Mao was removed from the altar.

In 1978, conforming to the will of hundreds of millions of people, Deng Xiaoping changed the vernacular of Chinese political discourse from "class struggle"to "reform and opening up"and led China into a new era. This has been a historical transformation in contemporary China. In 1992 Deng went on an inspection tour of southern China and once again trumpeted the call for reform. Hundreds of millions of Chinese, who remembered the market reforms of fourteen years earlier, embraced the reform and opening up. "Among the population of one billion are nine hundred million businessmen" was a common saying. People from all walks of life were busily engaged in commerce. If asked about his faith, anyone at that time would have replied, without hesitation that they believed in "making a fortune."Everyone in the country shared a common goal, namely benefiting from the reforms and making a fortune.

During the 1980's and 1990's people in China were encouraged and excited about the prospect of reform. Though traditional Marxism was no longer the core belief of the people, the Chinese people did not lack a belief; rather the true reflection of what the Chinese people believe can be summed up in this slogan: "undertaking reform and opening-up, pursuing the rise of China, and uniting for a well-to-do life."

However, since reform is after all, the redistribution of interests, the faith that was founded on the pursuit of material interests was bound to be short-lived. Unlike Maoism, which caused the people's pursuit of "revolutionary cause"to become a religious-style faith, Deng's reform and opening up did not become a religious-style faith for the whole nation. This is not to say that people were not longing for worldly belongings; on the contrary the fact that their life pursuit was now "making a fortune"deprived the cause of "holiness."After all, the devotion to "making a fortune"is not a sacrifice that offers moral and spiritual sustenance. Material pursuits without the support of noble motivations and charity acts are nothing but "worshipping a golden calf."

Since Deng passed away, the Chinese Communist Party has twice changed its national leaders. The hope and yearning of millions for this new era have been smashed by the cruel reality of unfair profit distribution. Some influential officials work in collusion with the emerging wealthy class to appropriate capital resources and confiscate the properties that belong to the people and nation. The polarization between the rich and the poor is accelerating and official corruption is a growing problem.

The main features of China's economic development are GDP growth, resource exploitation, environmental pollution, conflicts of interest, and some people making incredible fortunes. Those who are wealthy suddenly find themselves facing a huge deficit in spirit and belief as they come to the realization that "money is not omnipotent"and happiness is not entirely endowed by wealth. Material abundance cannot solve the problem of spiritual poverty. Many wealthy people even make the complaint that "I am so poor that I have nothing but money."People are beginning to realize that money is not the only purpose for living."Getting rich may be necessary, but what they really desire is a meaningful life on the basis of wealth.

So the question then becomes, "what is the true purpose of living?" The answers offered in the textbooks fall short because of the violent ups and downs of the past. The question of faith then quietly presents itself to everyone. For an individu, al, he must consider which religion o, r thought or theory should be his personal spiritual pillar. The nation must consider which belief system has the ability to bind the will and confidence of 1.3 billion people to an extent that they will be devoted to it and willing to sacrifice for it.

Clearly, the age of violent revolution and class struggle that Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism stressed has gone. With the dissolution of the USSR and the disappearance of Eastern European Communist countries, the goals of a "supremely magnificent international Communist cause"to "deliver mankind as a whole from bitter sufferings"have fallen by the wayside. Yet at the same time "worshipping a golden calf"is corrosive in nature and is not sustainable as a belief system. In 2009, thirty years after the reform and opening up, China is once again faced with the question of "what do we believe in?"

For the first two installments see:

25/07/2012 The Achilles' Heel of China's Rise: Belief

31/07/2012 Liu Peng: Chinese have "lost faith" in Party ideals