21 March 2004

The Revenge of the Ridiculed

It is hard to say how many Christians there are in China, since most of them do not belong to officially registered "patriotic" churches. People all over the country gather in private homes, or "house churches," to pray and preach and generally share in various hybrid forms of folk Christianity. Like Falun Gong, these are often classified as "evil cults" by the government, and believers are regularly arrested. A friend from Beijing once told me that clandestine Christians were the toughest dissidents, because of their willingness to die for their faith. I wanted to meet some of them, but this was not simple to arrange.
Nevertheless, Ian Buruma finally managed, through a network of relatives, to arrange a trip into the farther reaches of Sichuan Province to interview a "house church" leader in a tiny rural village.
After we had gotten back from the village, Cindy and Aunt entertained Uncle with stories of Cindy's mother and her beliefs. The three of them were shrieking with laughter. Cindy mimicked her mother's voice and imitated her Christian pieties. Tears of mirth moistened Uncle's small, red eyes. I asked him why his sister-in-law shouldn't believe in Jesus if it made her feel happy. Still chortling at the stupidity of his rural relations, he slapped a damp hand on my leg and explained that "Marxism is based on a materialist philosophy and all religion is mere superstition."

I was aware of the danger of feeling superior to the half-educated ways of Uncle and Aunt, and yet could not help detesting them. There was so much anxiety and shame in their ridicule of the village life they had barely left behind. Hearing their laughter, I could understand the powerful attraction of egalitarian beliefs to people who felt the contempt of the educated classes, and it hardly mattered whether the peasant messiah was called Jesus Christ or Mao Zedong.

Uncle's faith in political dogma made him feel superior to his village relatives, not only because mastering some of the Marxist jargon marked him as an educated man, just as reciting Confucian texts had for previous generations. but because it sounded scientific and modern, like his giant karaoke machine; and to be "scientific" was to be out of the village, with its age-old superstitions. Perhaps the increasing popularity of many faiths in China is a kind of revenge, against the oppressive dogmas of a morally and politically bankrupt state, but also against the little mandarins who are paid to impose them. It is a case of village China hitting back.
SOURCE: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage, 2001), pp. 285, 298

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