“Do you believe in God?”: How religion surprised me in Zhengzhou, China

This post is a remembrance of my experiences with religion during my first year in China — 1999 — when I taught English in Zhengzhou.

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It was an early week in September, just as China’s Autumn Tiger — the fierce summer heat that claws its way into September — was in full force when a college-age Chinese girl with a ponytail approached me on the streets of Zhengzhou. I had been looking for the Indian restaurant in town with my friends, and had fallen behind when this girl stepped out of a group of young people and spoke English to me.

“Hello! Are you a Christian?” the girl blurted out as naturally as if she was asking how my day was.

She had hit me with the 64,000 yuan question — religion. Of course, it was a simple yes or no question — but one about an issue that many Americans, like me, would rather not articulate to a complete stranger. “I, uh….I don’t know,” I said. Can a lapsed Catholic with Taoist and Buddhist tendencies, who still believes in God, be considered a Christian?

But the girl didn’t pay much attention to my answer. She smiled fervently, and then put something into my hand, closing it with a gentle pat. As I walked away and opened my hand, I found a little business card. It said “Jesus is your savior!” written in colored words, with the girl’s name and a phone number.

Did I just get recruited by a Chinese?

“Do you believe in God?” The question, asked by a teenage girl with a sweet boy cut and a pink clip in her hair, mentally knocked me over in front of the crowd at the first English corner I attended in Purple Mountain Park. I knew what the answer was, but I didn’t know how to say it in front of people who clung to my every word, as if it were the gospel. This was not the gospel, and I was not a saint. And if this was today’s reading, the message was this: in China, religion is a fair subject in everyday conversation.

But if you asked my students, or friends, if they believed in God, you’d get a different answer. “I believe in Marxism….I have fervently studied it like a science,” wrote Paul, in one of his essays for my class. I’m not sure how fervently Paul believed in Marxism; but most of my students were taught in school to believe in the atheism espoused by the Communist party. Ask my husband and he will say “I’m an atheist — I only believe in concrete things.”

Frank, my friend in Zhengzhou, believed in concrete things too — and had a concrete explanation of why his parents didn’t. The topic didn’t come up in a heavy conversation about spirituality. Rather, Frank mentioned it while helping me find a vegan-friendly soymilk powder in Star grocery store.

“You should try this one,” he said, pulling out a clear package with a simple brand name in dark green Chinese characters. “My parents drink it.”

“What, your parents are vegetarians?” I responded, surprised.

Frank hesitated a bit in his usual, nervous fashion. “Well…yes. They’re Buddhist.”

“Why aren’t you Buddhist?”

“Oh,” he replied, “that’s for old people.” This was also Frank’s explanation for why he shunned vegetarianism. But in Frank’s world, being Buddhist and vegetarian went together…and also meant you had a foot in the grave.

My students also put food and religion together when they wrote about the local Muslim minority, the Hui. When I thought about the Hui, I imagined what I’d seen on the streets — the men wearing white kufis (the Muslim cap) and the women with their hair swept behind a scarf. When my students wrote about the Hui, the picture looked different: “My friend is a Hui. I met with him for lunch, and he didn’t eat pork, because his religion forbids it.”

And I understood why — because the younger generation, the people who were attending college like my students, didn’t look like the people in the streets. I met one of them, a girl named Dan Dan who never wore a veil, and dressed in the same Gap-inspired pastel coats and tops and jeans, just like all the students. I only found out she was Hui because a teacher told me, but she never said if Dan Dan went to the mosque.

What has been your experience with religion in China? Have you had surprising encounters? I’d love to hear from you.

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27 thoughts on ““Do you believe in God?”: How religion surprised me in Zhengzhou, China

  • November 1, 2009 at 1:30 pm
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    I’m going to crank the discussion off with a query of my own:

    | Do you readers sense or discern a genuine affinity between Chinese people and Jewish people? |

    While I may be able to cite several key similarities between the two ancient peoples, perhaps your readers can list reasons of their own for feeling the way they do?

    Peter Hessler spoke about this at length in his seminal book, RIVER TOWN, and I was just curious what your readership thought about the matter.

    I’ll be coming back to check and see how the discussion is percolating…

    Reply
  • November 1, 2009 at 6:20 pm
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    Jocelyn, hope you are doing well. I am visiting china for a short period of time till Nov 7.

    Buddhism and Taosim are the essence of Chinese culture. They are remerging after Culture revolution and captalism. I have participated in walking meditation a few times when I visited Buddhist temples. Very beautiful and touching. Yes, most of participants are older generations, but there are also younger people. I feel at home with them.

    Most of people are practicing pure land buddhism in China, which uses lots of chanting and walking meditation. Nevertherless, Chinese culture is so closely linked to Zen. I am looking forward to read your future articles on Zen, which is a losting art in China now.

    Love,

    Mei

    Reply
  • November 1, 2009 at 8:46 pm
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    Although most of the friends around me name themselves as “atheists”, there are some young Buddhists too. They never kill any life on purpose (even mosquitos), they go to the temples to pray every month, and some of them read a lot of books about the Buddist.
    Last year, I went to Mao Mountain for a travelling. The mountain is located in Qingdao, Shandong Province and famous as the Holy Land of the Taoism. When i was there, i saw Taoist everywhere and it seemed they were living a life of simplicity. However when our guide introduced me to a self-assumed “famous Taoist”, I was disappointed. He led me to a small room, which I reckoned as his office, and asked me to pick a draw from his bamboo box. I did and handled him my stick. He acted as very very surprised and said “You lucky girl, this is a great draw!” After explained the cryptic meaning of the draw, he started to make his price:“You’d better pay for your good luck to keep it. Our Taoism like 3, 6 and 9, so you can pay by the multiple of the three numbers, like 30, 60, 90 or more, and if you dont pay, you will…” …It was totally unexcepted. I mean, it’s much like a trap or rip-off. Of course i didnt pay for my “good-luck”, and he was a little bit mad and thought i was “stingy”. Funny eh
    That’s just an example. I do believe that there are many loyal religious believers here in China, but meanwhile, there are also some people who declare they are faithful to religions, but their actions illustrated only the opposite.

    Reply
  • November 2, 2009 at 8:52 am
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    Fundamentalist buddhism is not a theist religion, is it? For any serious buddhist, there is absolutely no such thing as a creator. Buddha is no god, but a philosopher and a teacher. So one can easily be both a buddhist and an atheist, no problem at all. But it would cause a real contradiction if one is a monotheist buddhist.

    Reply
  • November 2, 2009 at 10:58 am
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    Thanks for this great post Jocelyn. I’m struck by how increasingly dangerous it is to sterotype an individual’s religious identity in light of his/her national culture. Yet even those of us who deny the dominant religious orientation of our cultures are profoundly shaped by them (e.g. I’m interested in the parallels between Protestantism’s emphasis upon a work ethic vis a vis individualism and capitalism). I could go on and on but mostly wanted to thank you for your thoughtful reflections!

    Reply
  • November 4, 2009 at 5:46 am
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    Some of my (Chinese college) students are Christian. One of them invited me out to lunch one day, and while we were waiting for his friends, he asked if I was Christian. I said no, and he asked what my religion was. (I don’t have much of an answer, I guess more Jewish than anything, but my family never went to temple.) I’ve had some Americans really push me on that point, but he just left it alone. Later, as we were about to eat, his friend asked, “Do you pray?” I got really flustered and said no, so the three of them went ahead and said a prayer before they ate. I think being Christian in China, especially openly so, takes a lot of cajones. These students were saying how much they admired their leader, who had given up his job, his family, and his money to be a Christian leader.
    As for Buddhism, I don’t know too much about the religion itself, and I don’t really hear people talk about it much either. They talk about going to temples and making offerings every so often for luck and prosperity, but I don’t hear a lot beyond that.

    Reply
  • November 17, 2009 at 1:25 am
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    I have no experience on religion in China except that my mother felt recently into buddhism (and indeed became vegetarian). But I can tell about Japan which presents many similarities with China (marxism not included 😉 )
    Most Japanese go to temple or shrine for prayers and many will have shinto ceremonial for birth and most will have buddhist ceremonial at funeral. Many Japanese will marry in Christian church. But are they believers ? I don’t think so.

    I feel that religion there is much a matter of culture and rituals than some kind of devotion as we know in Western countries.

    I would add that even many Chinese would claim being atheists (eesentially because of lack of religious education), I’m sure they are pretty superstitious though.

    Reply
  • December 24, 2009 at 3:21 am
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    I’m a native Chinese, born in Henan province. I became a Christian (not catholic) in 2003 when I was in collage in Wuhan, after 2005 I further studied in Guilin for another 3 years. During these school times, I attended family church fellowships as well as three self churches.

    I should say that in recent years, Christianity is much more popular than other religions among collage students especially when they are studying in a higher degree. Today china’s universities are becoming more and more corruption, most teachers are not focusing to academic studies and care less about their students moral and mind; also most parents of this generation are unable to educate their children because they missed collage education when culture revolution.

    When the government and family fail to educate the students, the Christian fellowships give them what they want. They have energy and want to change the corruption world, and the faith gives them vision; they need study more and know more, and in weekly fellowship they have talks with different major background; they need be loved and understand, and in fellowship they help each other……

    To me, Taoism and Buddhism are more like superstition, they focus more on meditation rather than communication, and they care less about the social system; for Maxims, my father teaches Maxims in collage for 25 years, I know it is for bureaucracy system, it is just a slogan, nobody really believe communism in their bottom heart, even my father.

    Reply
    • December 24, 2009 at 7:02 pm
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      Dear VicSion,

      Thank you very much for the comment! You definitely touch on some important points about what Christianity has brought to many young Chinese.

      While I don’t have as much experience with Chinese Christian fellowships in China, I do have some here in the US. My husband and I attended a number of these churches and talked to the adherents, including many college students. What you say about the “need [to] be loved and understand” and helping one another — that is exactly what I have seen here. I think, especially, for overseas Chinese, these churches can play a very important role in their lives, becoming as much a community center as a place of worship, which can help them deal with feelings of isolation that come with being in a foreign country.

      I can understand your feelings about Taoism and Buddhism, especially having visited a number of Taoist and Buddhist temples in China. The two faiths have become so embedded in secular Chinese life, and the way they are practiced today in China would make them less desirable, compared to what Christianity has to offer.

      As an aside, it’s always great to meet someone else from Henan Province — that’s where I spent my first year in China, so people from Henan feel like my 老乡, in a way. 😉

      Reply
  • December 26, 2009 at 8:48 pm
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    哈哈,圣诞快乐,老乡!
    有空多回俺们河南看看!

    Reply
  • January 17, 2010 at 8:56 pm
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    To VicSion,

    I disagree with your perception of Buddhism and Taoism being mere superstition. If this is the case, so is Christianity and Islam. In fact, Buddhism can be much more secular than the monotheistic religions. Faith in itself is the ultimate superstition, just because the Christian religion originated in the west (middle east to be exact) does not make it’s practitioners less “superstitious”. Case in point: A friend of mine teaches qigong for heath, and they are Christian students who sincerely believe Satan will enter their minds through the breathing process. The “solution” was to say “Jesus Christ” through the meditation. If this is not superstition, I don’t know what is.

    As for trying to change social order through faith, well, China has had a basically secular form of administration for centuries. Although the Emperor had the “Mandate of Heaven”, the entire administration of the Chinese dynasties have always been much more secular compared with the kingdoms of Europe. The Chinese government today is even more secular to say the least.

    I personally have no problems with secular governments. In fact, I think politics and religions ought to stay separate. I can give you a long list of non-corrupt secular administrations in the world, so please do not try to argue that Chinese authorities are corrupt because they do not believe in God. FYI, corruption was rampant in the Churches of the Middle Ages. The problem is absolute power, not religion (or the lack of it).

    Perhaps Christianity is catching on the China due to disillusionment with society, but as Yangxifu will know, the reverse is true of the western world. Many westerners are turning away from the religion of their childhood in pursuit of Eastern religions. In fact, I have met a lot of westerners with more enlightened views of Buddhism than my grandmother who have gone to the temple all her life.

    The key to understanding is through study, something that a lot of the older generations do not do a lot of. But how can they? My grandma is illiterate. If I only look at Buddhism the way grandma practices it, then yes, it’ll look like archaic superstitious rituals. Look deeper though, and this Eastern religion is full of wisdom and rich in life lessons.

    I’m not going to bore you any more on Buddhism, coz your cup is full. I just like to say that it is fine for you to pursue your faith, but please do not cast aspersions on other faiths in such a casual manner.

    Regards,
    Ming

    Reply
    • January 17, 2010 at 10:39 pm
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      Dear Ming,

      Thanks so much for the comment, and for stopping by the site. I have to echo your comments on how Christianity is catching on in China b/c of disillusionment — and vice versa in the Western world. One of my friends here who is from Sri Lanka and practices Zen Buddhism told me that the Buddhism he found here in the US was more “pure” (his words, not mine) and “true to Buddhism’s nature” (again, also his words).

      Look forward to hearing from you again!

      Reply
  • January 26, 2010 at 11:45 am
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    My default answer is: I believe in myself. I don’t like to depend on the mood of some omnipresent superpotent ghost.

    Reply
    • January 26, 2010 at 3:16 pm
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      Thanks for the comment, Junjie. That’s a good default answer — and actually, not unlike what some of my Chinese friends have said to me about their own beliefs. Everyone, truly, has to find their own answer to the question, one that reflects who they truly are.

      Reply
  • January 28, 2010 at 6:38 am
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    I also believe in Christianity(Protestantism) and was baptized in a house church when I was in college. Whenever I meet foreigners, especially those from the West, I am impulsed to ask them if they are Christians, for it is such a joyful thing to find brothers and sisters in this nation dominated by non-believers.

    Reply
    • January 28, 2010 at 3:10 pm
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      Dear thelordismyshepherd,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. You know, it makes complete sense that you would have the impulse to ask foreigners if they are Christians — no doubt you would feel heartened to find another believer, when you are still a minority in your country.

      How interesting you were baptized in a house church! My husband’s grandmother attends one in her village — I went once to see what it was like. The churchgoers all thought I was an Italian. Ha! 😉

      Reply
  • January 28, 2010 at 9:16 pm
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    Dear Ming:
    I am very sorry for my word that may give aspersions on other faiths. It’s good for you to have the experiences to talk with a lot of westerners with more enlightened views of Buddhism—which I never had, even with Chinese, so forgive me.

    When I say “To me, Taoism and Buddhism are more like superstition”, I mean a lot on my experience. But I do not against the people who have faith like many Christians. And even I am discontentment about the government; I still agree with u that it’s dangerous to have a state religion.

    And I do believe that the government problem at last is the problem of each people living in this country.

    It’s good for every one to find a place to rest his/her soul, so dose this country, isn’t it?

    Reply
  • January 28, 2010 at 10:13 pm
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    sorry, My former reply is to “Man W”.

    ps: I’d like to share another interesting story about my father, who teaches Marxism in collage, also a part-time teacher of local Party School. Once we were discussing on the social function of religions. He didn’t agree with me that PRCchina is a theocracy country, and I argued that he is more like a Father or Priest, and his department and the local Party School is playing a role like theological Seminaries……

    Reply
    • January 28, 2010 at 10:54 pm
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      Dear VicSion,

      Thanks for commenting again! Your response impressed me, because it takes a noble person to say what you did, especially:

      I am very sorry for my word that may give aspersions on other faiths. It’s good for you to have the experiences to talk with a lot of westerners with more enlightened views of Buddhism—which I never had, even with Chinese, so forgive me.

      I feel blessed to people like you weighing in on this site.

      What an interesting story as well about your father. There is something to be said for your argument about your father’s role as a “Priest” in the party — it makes you wonder about where the line between politics and religion really is.

      Reply
  • January 28, 2010 at 11:53 pm
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    We were just having the discussion tonight at dinner, before I read this. My husband who is a Christian says that there are no true atheists in China. He was saying that even before he became a Christian, he believed there must be some organizing power out somewhere because of all he had seen and experienced. The people who call themselves atheist usually are very superstitious, they believe is spirits, ghosts and will go to temples and make offerings. He said even Jiang Zemin would make offerings at temples when ever he could.
    I am not Chinese and its hard to say any absolute statements about the hearts of people. One thing I found to be true among Chinese Christians is that they are truly dedicated to helping one another and others. I don’t know if its because they face persecution or demotion for being Christian, so it kicks the nominal Christians out. But you really see them working hard. Many that I have met are taking care of disabled orphan kids in their homes and helping neighbors whenever they can. It was a truly refreshing to me that they have really good hearts, the world has become a cynical place. With China taking off economically, most are so focused on making money and how to cheat or swindle money to increase their profits, I hope more do embrace the Christian faith more.

    Reply
    • January 29, 2010 at 11:38 am
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      Dear Laura,

      Thanks so much for the comment — and how funny that you were just talking about this before finding my post!

      You know, your husband’s comment:

      The people who call themselves atheist usually are very superstitious, they believe is spirits, ghosts and will go to temples and make offerings. He said even Jiang Zemin would make offerings at temples when ever he could.

      Reminds me of a conversation I had with my husband not long ago. My husband doesn’t believe in God. But then I asked him about laotian (老天, or as he says, 老天爷). I said “Do you believe in laotian?” He said yes. So then I asked him who he thought laotian was, and he didn’t really know, but thought maybe he represented an ancestor. It was all so vague, but there was this hint of some sort of “god” in there. I found it interesting, anyway.

      I have had similar experiences with Christians in China — that they are very kind and helpful. It is indeed refreshing in a country that has become, as Ted Koppel named his series, the People’s Republic of Profit.

      Reply
  • January 29, 2010 at 11:16 pm
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    You’re right about Laotianye being quite vague but real to many people’s minds. I’ve heard of several theories by scholars and non-academic realms, so far there’s no dogmatic definition. In my opinion, if any type of non-Abrahamic monotheistic faith emerges from the Chinese world, it will be center around this figure. The Christians have tried it with Shang-di.

    Hopefully, given the location, history and magnitude of China, the people there can be more free in exploring many different religions rather than just the status quo of Islam, Christianity or Buddhism, etc.

    Reply
    • January 31, 2010 at 11:17 pm
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      Thanks for the comment, Friend! Interesting response on Laotianye. Well, whatever happens, it will be interesting to see how religious exploration plays out in China.

      Reply
  • May 7, 2010 at 5:33 pm
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    I am an American woman with a daughter born in China. I consider myself a Buddhist, I was raised a Christian and still believe some of it too.. We attend a Chinese Christian Church for Chinese School and I have Buddhas in my home which I consider very spiritual… not as decorations. I am a Guanyin follower. My daughter attended Hebrew Jewish preschool where she learned all the Hebrew songs in the temple and loved them.
    Why do we have to decide?

    Reply
  • August 28, 2010 at 8:41 am
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    I believe in God and what is written in the Bible. I have found a lot of truth in the scriptures, especially where it talks about one true religion and it basically says to “Love One Another” and be uncontaminated from the world. I believe that it all comes down to where are heart is and what we practice on a daily basis. Are we living for worldly things that are only temporary or are we giving of ourselves in trying to show love towards our fellowman? Love is creation and Hate is destruction. God Bless Us All

    Reply
  • September 14, 2011 at 2:44 am
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    I’m teaching in Zhengzhou right now (English). I had someone approach me after getting off of a bus. They didn’t speak English but the Chinese girl with me told me that they asked, “Do you believe in Jesus?” I said, “Yes.” I mean do I believe that he lived? Yes. Do I believe in his teachings? Yes. Do I believe in an exported evangelical concept of ‘do this or you’ll go to hell’? No. Do I believe that everyone that doesn’t do what evangelical religion says will ‘go to hell?’ No. Do I believe in hell? Yes. Its in Africa where millions are starving to death and dying from disease and hunger. Do I believe in an ‘after life place’ called ‘hell’? No. Do I meditate daily? Yes. Do I pray? Yes. I mean, I’m not sure what they’re asking me. (And I WAS an ordained minister for many years. Just not of the hellfire, turn or burn, persuasion.)

    Reply

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