In the northern suburbs of this city is a small temple to a Chinese folk deity, Lord Guan, a famous warrior deified more than a millennium ago. Renovated five years ago at the government’s expense, the temple is used by a group of retirees who run pilgrimages to a holy mountain, schoolchildren who come to learn traditional culture and a Taoist priest who preaches to wealthy urbanites about the traditional values of ancient China.
Perched atop a hillock overlooking the sprawling capital, the temple is a microcosm of a new civil religion taking shape in China — an effort by the Chinese Communist Party to satisfy Chinese people’s search for moral guidelines by supplementing the largely irrelevant ideology of communism with a curated version of the past.
This new state-guided religiosity is the flip side of the government’s harsh policies toward Islam and Christianity. Officials believe these two global faiths are hard to control because of their foreign ties, and they have used negotiation or force — diplomacy with the Vatican, arrests of prominent Protestants, internment camps for Muslims — to try to bring these religions to heel.
Yet Beijing’s recent turn to tradition may be even more significant. Even though Islam and Christianity are world religions, in China they remain minor, with the number of their combined adherents amounting to less than 10 percent of the population. Most Chinese believe in an amalgam of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and other traditional values and ideas that still resonate deeply.