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  • Joshua T. Mauldin (a1)


The tumult of the twentieth century had a great impact on the role of religion in Chinese society. Antipathy toward religion reached its height in China during the Cultural Revolution, one of the few times in history when religion was almost completely wiped out in a single country. Religion in China has experienced a resurgence since the beginning of the Reform and Opening Up period in 1978. With the renewal of religious practice, new proposals have been put forward for the role of religious ideas in public life. In addition to the endurance of Marxist and liberal conceptions of the place of religion in society, new voices have emerged, arguing for return to Confucianism as the source of moral vitality in public life, or advancing Christian public theology as a moral resource for individuals adrift and alienated by the rapid changes of a modernizing economy. These realities have reshaped debates about the protection of religious freedom in China. This article introduces these new social and discursive realities and sets the stage for the articles that follow.



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1 Lai, Pan-Chiu, “Subordination, Separation, and Autonomy: Chinese Protestant Approaches to the Relationship between Religion and State,” Journal of Law and Religion 35, no. 1 (2020) (this issue).

2 Sun, Lei, “The Relation between Confucianism and Chinese Politics: History, Actuality, and Future,” Journal of Law and Religion 35, no. 1 (2020) (this issue).

3 Erie, Matthew S., “Shari‘a as Taboo of Modern Law: Halal Food, Islamophobia, and China,” Journal of Law and Religion 33, no. 3 (2018): 390420.

4 Li, Songfeng, “Freedom in Handcuffs: Religious Freedom in the Constitution of China,” Journal of Law and Religion 35, no. 1 (2020) (this issue).

5 Goossaert, Vincent and Palmer, David, The Religious Question in Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 12.

6 Yang, Fenggang, Religion in China: Survival and Renewal under Communist Rule (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 119–20.

7 Yang, Religion in China, 117.

8 Goossaert and Palmer, The Religious Question in Modern China, 2–4.

9 Yang, C. K., Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of their Historical Factors (Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1991).

10 Asad, Talal, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

11 Masuzawa, Tomoko, The Invention of World Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

12 Jiping Zuo contends that a form of “political religion” continued during the Cultural Revolution in the form of the cult of Mao, so that “China has never been an atheist country.” Zuo, Jiping, “Political Religion: The Case of the Cultural Revolution in China,” Sociological Analysis 52, no. 1 (1991): 99110.

13 Yang, “Religion in China under Communism.”

14 “Document 19” [in English], accessed March 12, 2020,

15 Yang, Religion in China, 128. Philip Wickeri argues persuasively that the basic stance of Document 19 can be traced to Li Wiehan's conception of “five characteristics” for working with religion that was put forward in the 1950s. Wickeri, Philip, Seeking the Common Ground: Protestant Christianity, the Three-Self Movement, and China's United Front (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 8389.

16 For more on the dilemma faced by the Chinese state in its relations particularly with Protestantism, see Schak, David C., “Protestantism in China: A Dilemma for the Party-State,” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 40, no. 2 (2011): 71106.

17 Yang, Religion in China, 148–49.

18 Yang concludes Religion in China with the suggestion that “the Chinese religious economy is a shortage economy, where religious supply is heavily regulated, religious demand is vivaciously dynamic, and religious regulations are rendered ineffective because of the ‘invisible hand’ of market forces or economic laws.” Yang, 159.

19 See Ashiwa, Yoshiko and Wank, David L., Making Religion, Making the State: The Politics of Religion in China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009); Yang, Mayfair Mei-Hui, ed., Chinese Religiosities: Afflictions of Modernity and State Formation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Yang, Fenggang and Tamney, Joseph B., State, Market, and Religions in Chinese Societies (Leiden: Brill, 2005); Zhufeng, Luo, ed., Religion under Socialism in China, trans. MacInnis, Donald E. and Xi'an, Zheng (Armonk: M. E. Sharp, 1991).

20 See Vala, Carsten T., The Politics of Protestant Churches and the Party-State in China: God above Party? (London: Routledge, 2018); Yang, Fenggang, “What about China? Religious Vitality in the Most Secular and Rapidly Modernizing Society,” Sociology of Religion 75, no. 4 (2014): 564–78.

21 Goossaert and Palmer, The Religious Question in Modern China, 10.

22 See, for example, Yi, Wang, “The Possibility of Political Theology: Christianity and Liberalism,” Chinese Law and Religion Monitor 8, no. 1 (2012): 96118.

23 The predominance of Calvinism among Protestant groups has led Frederick Fällman to speak of a “New Calvinist” movement: Fällman, Frederick, “Calvin, Culture, and Christ? Developments of Faith among Chinese Intellectuals,” in Christianity in Contemporary China: Sociocultural Perspectives, ed. Lim, Francis Khek Gee (New York: Routledge, 2012), 153–68, at 159–60. Alexander Chow resists this term for describing the broader urban house church movement: Chow, Alexander, Chinese Public Theology: Generational Shifts and Confucian Imagination in Chinese Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 109–11. Also see Fällman, Frederick, Salvation and Modernity: Intellectuals and Faith in Contemporary China (Lanham: University Press of America, 2008); Starr, Chloë, Chinese Theology: Text and Context (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Wielander, Gerda, Christian Values in Communist China (London: Routledge, 2013); Chow, Alexander, “Calvinist Public Theology in Urban China Today,” International Journal of Public Theology 8, no. 2 (2014): 158–75.

24 Yang, Fenggang, “Lost in the Market, Saved at McDonald's: Conversion to Christianity in Urban China,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44, no. 4 (2005): 423–41, at 427.

25 Chow, Chinese Public Theology, 94–96.

26 For more on participation in unregistered churches see Homer, Lauren B., “Registration of Chinese Protestant House Churches under China's 2005 Regulation on Religious Affairs: Resolving the Implementation Impasse,” Journal of Church and State 52, no. 1 (2010): 5073.

27 Chow deploys a model of generational cohorts to organize three basic generations of Protestant public intellectuals in China in the twentieth century and into the beginning of the twenty-first. Chow, Chinese Public Theology, chapters 2–4.

28 In English, the term “Cultural Christian” can be misleading. In English it connotes individuals who are shaped by the religious culture of their society but who themselves do not practice the religion or go to church. Wenhua jidutu, by contrast, are scholars who are interested in the intellectual and culture resources of Christianity.

29 For more on these figures, see the appendix in Chow, Chinese Public Theology, 169–74. As Pan-Chiu Lai underscores in his article, the Shouwang Church in Beijing has engaged in forms of protest against governmental interference in their religious practice. Pan-Chiu Lai, “Subordination, Separation, and Autonomy.” The Early Rain Church led by Wang Yi has also come into conflict with the government. See A Letter from Autumn Rain Church,” Chinese Law and Religion Monitor 5, no. 2 (2009): 1722; Yi, Wang, “The Ban on the Autumn Rain Church: Q&A with Radio Free Asia Correspondent,” Chinese Law and Religion Monitor 5, no. 2 (2009): 2329; Tongsu, Liu, “Significance of Nine Sundays: Analysis of the Autumn Rain Church Incident,” Chinese Law and Religion Monitor 5, no. 2 (2009): 9398.

30 In the case of Sun Yi, an individual person exemplifies this shift, as Sun early on identified as a cultural Christian but has in recent years come to exemplify the emphasis on the church characteristic of the new generation of urban house church intellectuals. For details, see Chow, Chinese Public Theology, 171.

31 Fällman, “Calvin, Culture, and Christ?,”159–60.

32 Vala, Carsten and Jianbo, Huang, “Three High-Profile Protestant Microbloggers in Contemporary China: Expanding Public Discourse or Burrowing into Religious Niches on Weibo (China's Twitter)?,” in Religion and Media in China: Insights and Case Studies from the Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong, ed. Travagnin, Stefania (New York: Routledge, 2016), 167–86.

33 Johnson, Ian, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao (New York: Pantheon Books, 2017).

34 For an example of Wang's work in English, see Yi, “The Possibility of Political Theology,” 113–14.

35 For a thorough analysis of the theological claims made in the 95 Theses, see Starr, Chloë, “Wang Yi and the 95 Theses of the Chinese Reformed Church,” Religions 7, no. 12 (2016) (article 142),

36 The 95 Theses of Early Rain Reformed Church are discussed in more depth in Pan-Chiu Lai's article. Pan-Chui Lai, “Subordination, Separation, and Autonomy.”

37 Paul Mozur and Ian Johnson, “China Sentences Wang Yi, Christian Pastor, to 9 Years in Prison,” New York Times, December 30, 2019

38 As Vala and Jianbo conclude, “until a 2014 crackdown began, the rapid expansion of Sina Weibo, alongside other microblogging services, and the active engagement of these three prominent Protestant personalities … had been unsettling party-state boundaries on religious discourse, exposing millions of Chinese to Protestant Christianity, and also challenging simplistic ideas about faith and biblical understanding among existing Christians.” Carsten Vala and Huang Jianbo, “Three High-Profile Protestant Microbloggers in Contemporary China,” 185.

39 Chow, “Calvinist Public Theology in Urban China Today,” 173.

40 Pan-Chiu Lai, “Subordination, Separation, and Autonomy.” See also, Xie, Zhibin, Religious Diversity and Public Religion in China (Burlington: Ashgate, 2006); Chow, Alexander, Theosis, Sino-Christian Theology and the Second Chinese Enlightenment: Heaven and Humanity in Unity (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013); Carpenter, Joel A. and den Dulk, Kevin R., eds., Christianity in Chinese Public Life: Religion, Society, and the Rule of Law (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014).

41 Fällman, “Calvin, Culture, and Christ?,” 160.

42 Fällman, 161.

43 Richard Madsen, “Signs and Wonders: Christianity and Hybrid Modernity in China,” in Lim, Christianity in Contemporary China, 17–30, at 19. See also, Sun, Anna, Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013); more broadly, see Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions.

44 Madsen, “Signs and Wonders,” 20.

45 Madsen, 19.

46 Madsen, 20.

47 Daniel Bell, introduction to Qing, Jiang, A Confucian Constitutional Order: How China's Past Can Shape its Political Future, ed. Bell, Daniel A. and Ruiping Fan, trans. Ryden, Edmund (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 124, at 1.

48 Bell, introduction, 4–5.

49 Sun Lei, “The Relation between Confucianism and Chinese Politics.” For more on this movement, see Angle, Stephen C.Contemporary Confucian Political Philosophy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012); Angle, Stephen C., Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Lai, Chen, Tradition and Modernity: A Humanist View, trans. Ryden, Edmund (Leiden: Brill, 2009).

50 Xianfa article 36 (1982) (as amended), All quotations are to the official English language translation.

51 Xianfa article 36.

52 As I discuss later in this section, the debate also hinges on the distinction in Chinese between freedom of religion and freedom of religious belief. The Chinese government protects freedom of religious belief (zongjiao xinyang ziyou), not freedom of religion (zongjiao ziyou).

53 Songfeng Li, “Freedom in Handcuffs.” This raises larger questions about the legal status of the Constitution in the governance of China and about whether China adheres to the rule of law, as opposed to rule by law. For more, see Peerenboom, Randall, China's Long March toward Rule of Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). Chow observes that rule by law (fazhi 法制) and rule of law (fazhi 法治) are “homophones and a pun in the Chinese language.” Chow, Chinese Public Theology, 101–02.

54 See Palmer, David A., “Heretical Doctrines, Reactionary Secret Societies, Evil Cults: Labeling Heterodoxy in Twentieth-Century China,” in Chinese Religiosities: Afflictions of Modernity and State Formation, ed. Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 113–34. Citing Palmer, Chow refers to “Confucian binaries of ‘orthodox’ (zheng) and ‘heterodox’ (xie), the latter of which has resulted in polemics around what is a xiejiao—meaning ‘heterodox teaching,’ or, in modern usage, ‘evil cult.’” Chow, Chinese Public Theology, 151n13.

55 For an analysis of religious liberty in the United States that focuses on the secular character of government, grounded in the Establishment clause, rather than primarily on religious rights grounded in the free exercise clause, see Lupu, Ira C. and Tuttle, Robert W., Secular Government, Religious People (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

56 Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

57 For more on Sullivan's critique of religious freedom, see Mauldin, Joshua T., “Contesting Religious Freedom: Impossibility, Normativity, and Justice,” Oxford Journal of Law and Religion 5, no. 3 (2016): 457–81.

58 Alexander Chow, Chinese Public Theology, 161.

59 Important works include Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers et al. , eds., Politics of Religious Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman, Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Mahmood, Saba and Danchin, Peter, “Politics of Religious Freedom: Contested Genealogies,” in “Politics of Religious Freedom: Contested Genealogies,” ed. Mahmood, Saba and Danchin, Peter G., special issue, South Atlantic Quarterly 113, no. 1 (2014): 18. For a response to the new critics of religious freedom, see Decosimo, David, “The New Genealogy of Religious Freedom,” Journal of Law and Religion 33, no. 1 (2018): 341.

60 John P. Burgess, “Spiritual Freedom,” First Things, February 2017,



  • Joshua T. Mauldin (a1)


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