Yesterday afternoon we visited one of the many Buddhist temples that are scattered throughout these hills.  As we were walkiing through the temple, we were discussing the Chinese practice of Buddhism with our friend who is serving as host/guide for this week. “Chinese Buddhism is like a giant hot-pot,” he said.  “It takes things from many religions and puts them all together. What’s more, it’s not so much a belief system to live by; rather it is more like an insurance policy.”

That reminded me of a time quite a few years ago when I was asked to join some friends for an afternoon of “temple-hopping” in the mountains outside of Beijing.  I wrote about it in a post titled “Pragmatic Religiousity.”

I am re-posting it in its entirety here:


The folks over at CNNgo recently had a chat with Petter Hessler about his new book “China Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory.” As readers of this blog know, I’m a big Hessler fan, and recently had the pleasure of reading this book (my comments and observations can be found here, here, and here).  In this interview, one particular exchange caught my eye:

CNNGo: In “Country Driving,” villager Cao Chunmei turns to religion as a way to deal with the stresses of the country’s rapid development. Do you think Chinese will increasingly turn to religion?

Peter Hessler:

I think we’ve already seen more and more Chinese taking an interest in religion. It’s going to continue, often for the same reason that Cao Chunmei turned to Buddhism — because she was overwhelmed by the incredible pace of change and the relentless materialism of this age. She wanted some deeper meaning in her life. I think that a lot of people in China feel this way, especially middle and upper class people who have already satisfied many of their fundamental material needs.

Still, it’s very different from religion in America or Europe. People in America see the statistics for numbers of Christians in China, and they envision a potentially deeply religious nation. The Chinese relationship with religion is pragmatic and fluid; people often change their faith very quickly. And I don’t see them following religion to a degree where it’s clearly not in their self-interest. Also, religion in China is very weak institutionally. It doesn’t matter so much whether a person says he or she believes in something; what matters is whether that person can become attached to a serious religious institution that has some impact on the community

I got a glimpse of this “pragmatic religiousity” a few years ago when some Chinese friends invited me to join them for a day in the mountains west of Beijing visiting Buddhist and Daoist temples.  It was a nice weekend and I always enjoy an excuse to head to the hills, so off we went.  Our ‘temple-hopping’ party included me (the only foreigner) and six Chinese in our little two-car caravan, one of which was a little yellow sports car, but that’s beside the point.

What is not beside the point is that all of these friends were thirty-something members of the Communist Party and five of them had fairly lofty positions (for their age) in either the central government or the city government.  When pressed, all would profess atheism.

So as we went from temple to temple (some of which dated back 800 or 1000 years), I became increasingly intrigued by the fact that at each alter in each temple they would buy incense to burn and stand in front of the idols doing something that looked like praying. They asked me to join them, but I politely declined.

Eventually my bewilderment got the best of me and I had to ask them what was going on.

“Wait a minute,” I said.  “You’re all members of the Chinese Communist Party, right?”

They all nodded their heads.

“But here you are burning incense and praying.  Do you really believe this?”

Practically in unison they responded “No!  We’re doing this just in case.”

Pragmatic religiousity; right there; on full display.

(Noel has put up a great post about our visit to the temple and Esther’s vacations in this region in the 1930’s, titled Come Again Next Summer.)

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