“China is warming up for its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics with an event of almost equal stature: the World Men’s Curling Championship, which kicks off in Beijing on Saturday.
The home team will have high hopes after placing fourth at the Winter Olypmics in Sochi, emerging from nowhere as a heavyweight contender with the help of Canadian coach Marcel Rocque, a former champion curler himself.
‘China has an outside chance,’ said Bob Weeks, author of ‘Curling For Dummies.’ ‘A few years ago they were very good technically, but they didn’t have the strategy. Now they’ve got that down.’”
It’s an interesting question, and, as the saying goes, “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘Atheist’ is.”
Earlier this month Pew released the results of survey that tried to determine people’s beliefs about the relationship between believing in God and morality. According to their results, 75% of respondents in China said that it is “not necessary to believe in God to be moral,” and 14% said that it is “necessary to believe in God to be moral.”
In a state controlled by the Communist Party, and in which Atheism is officially taught in the schools, this result may not seem surprising.
However, Ian Johnson, writing in the New York Review of Books, takes a closer look at these results and makes some very interesting and helpful observations. First of all, he observes that these results seem at odd with the growing interest in religion among Chinese people:
“Pew doesn’t explain its findings, but they struck me as extremely odd. If there’s one trend in China that is hard to miss, it’s the growing desire among many Chinese to find some sort of moral foundation in their lives, whether by reengaging with age-old Chinese ethical traditions, or by taking part in organized religions. In view of this widely-documented situation, how can so few Chinese believe in the link between morality and a supreme being or force?”
He notes that the 20th century did see a decline in religious belief in China (particularly in the early years of the PRC), but then wonders if that decline still exists:
“Have sixty-five years of Communist rule wiped out religion, or reduced it to such a minor role that the Chinese have done a complete about-face? This is easier to rebut; any casual visitor to China can’t help but be struck by how many new churches, temples, and mosques are being built.”
Johnson then goes on to suggest that the problem lies in the terminology for God that was used in the survey:
“According to Pew’s English-language report, the actual survey asked people to say which of the following statements came closest to their own opinion: “It is not necessary to believe in God to in order to be moral and have good values” or “It is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.” I was immediately struck by the use of the word “God” in the survey statements, capitalized as it is in the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim tradition. Was the question referring solely to the god of these faiths? But I couldn’t imagine that Pew would ask such a narrow question—after all, the study doesn’t describe itself as asking whether belief in an Abrahamic being is necessary to morality, but rather asking whether belief in any supreme being is.”
He wrote to Pew and Horizon (the company in China that did the actual survey) and discovered that he was correct; they had used the Chinese term for the God depicted in the Bible, as opposed to a more generic term for a divine being that most Chinese would be familiar with. He explains:
“I don’t know how the question was translated for other countries (especially Japan or India), but in Chinese, the question used a term for “God” that is applicable in modern China almost only to Protestant Christianity: shangdi (上帝).
In Chinese, the questions were: “不信仰上帝，也能有良好的道德和价值” and “为了有良好的道德和价值观，信仰上帝是必要的.” I would translate these questions back into English as “Even without believing in (the Protestant) God, one can still have good virtues or values” and “In order to have good virtues and values, one must believe in (the Protestant) God.”
Shangdi has a pre-Christian meaning—referring to a supreme deity—but it was appropriated by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century and since then has come to be synonymous with the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions, especially Protestant Christianity. (Catholics eventually changed their nomenclature for God to “tianzhu”; see the Rites Controversy of the early eighteenth century, the dispute among Catholics about how far to incorporate indigenous traditions into Catholic practice.)”
He then explains why the use of the term Shangdi yielded results that are probably not in line with what people in China really believe:
“This is correct in the sense that shangdi is an accurate translation of “God” in the Protestant tradition, but it excludes the religious experience of the vast majority of Chinese, who do believe in higher spiritual forces—and very often link belief in such forces to morality. An alternative way of phrasing this question is found in the 2007 book Religious Experience in Contemporary China by Yao Xinzhong and Paul Badham. It is based on a study of 3,196 people, who completed a twenty-four-page survey. The authors found that 77 percent believed in moral causality—there is a long folk tradition of Baoying (报应) which holds that you reap what you sow, that consequences for moral failure are a form or divine retribution—and 44 percent agree that, “life and death depends on the will of heaven.”
How did Yao and Badham end up with results so different from the Pew survey’s? The crucial difference was that they were framed in a much broader way. One term the authors used was “heaven,” or tian (天), which literally means “sky” or “heaven” but also the idea of a supreme deity or force. It also included fo (佛) or “Buddha.” This is why their findings directly contradicted the Pew poll, which uses an Abrahamic paradigm to survey cultures with completely different religious traditions.”
In other words, if you are trying to determine beliefs about a divine being among the Chinese people, it is important to use the correct term.
Are most Chinese Atheists? Perhaps, but maybe it’s best to say “Atheism with Chinese characteristics.” I remember teaching on a university campus in China and being surprised that most of my students admitted to being afraid of ghosts. As one of them suggested to me, “we are Atheists during the day, but when the lights go out it’s a different story.”
What happens when you find yourself with 20 American university students in a pricey Shanghai office tower and in need of a quick and cheap meal before heading to the next appointment? Find a Muslim noodle shop and persuade them to set up tables and stools on the sidewalk and serve us delicious plates of freshly made noodles.
I used to have a colleague who suggested that one of the main roles for foreigners in China was to provide entertainment for the locals. We certainly did our fair share of that today!
And as an added bonus, we got to watch the chefs making fresh noodles right beside us.
I’m back in China for three weeks, traveling with a group of university students from Minnesota. They arrived yesterday, and now we are safely ensconced in what I would describe as a 2.5-star hotel; not quite nice enough to be a 3-star, yet not quite dumpy enough to be a 2 star. It calls itself a Days Inn, and uses the familiar logo, but I’m thinking that might just be a bit of brand piracy.
If you’ll excuse the imagery, last night when I sat on the toilet, it rocked a bit, which immediately brought back memories of the Great Rocking Toilet Incident of Changchun (circa mid-1990’s).
I was living in a university “Foreign Experts Guesthouse,” something that only exists in China. The cement holding my toilet to the floor was wearing out, causing it to, shall we say, rock back and forth when in use. I called the management office and asked them to send a plumber to fix it.
Ten minutes later there was a knock on my door and I opened it to find not one plumber, but a housekeeper and 4 plumbers, all puffing away on cigarettes. I’m guessing that they needed to calm their nerves before having to deal with a foreigner. Even though one was carrying a wrench and another was carrying a plunger, I couldn’t tell if they were really plumbers or some poor saps who were hauled in off the street.
They all filed into my tiny bathroom and huddled over the toilet smoking and talking loudly. Eventually they summoned the housekeeper to join the huddle, and after a few minutes and much sucking of teeth, they all stepped out into my entryway. The poor housekeeper was deputized to give me their assessment of the situation, as the ‘plumbers’ huddled around proudly puffing on their cigarettes
“They say,” she said, “that you need to sit more lightly.”
Once I recovered from the physical exertion of NOT falling on the floor laughing, I politely responded: “No. THEY need to fix the toilet.”
Deflated, they sent for the man with the cement.
He eventually showed up, smoking of course, and cemented my toilet to the floor while the others watched (and smoked). By the time they were done, there was a blue haze of smoke in my apartment and cement all over the bathroom; but hey, the toilet didn’t rock anymore.
If you’re getting ready to move to China, it is my belief that taking a course in basic plumbing might be considered a good use of your time.
There is a post-script to this story. A few years later, at a skit-night during an organizational conference in Thailand, I and a friend acted out this drama in the style of a Beijing opera, screeching and twirling plungers and all! Unfortunately I don’t have any photographic record of the performance.
Perhaps some of you reading this post were in attendance that night, and have a photo, or perhaps a video of the performance. If so, leave a comment or drop me an email.
In the meantime, I’m back in Beijing, sitting lightly!