How believers in China keep the faith under Xi Jinping’s watchful eye

Mother Chen

Under President Xi Jinping, China has tightened its control of religion.

Tibetan Buddhists have been arrested for displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama, The Vatican agreed to only appoint bishops who support the party, and online retailers are banned from selling the Bible.

In Xinjiang, thousands of mosques have reportedly been demolished, with documented crackdowns on the region’s Muslim Uyghur minority.

A long time ago, a severe drought was ravaging a small village in the south of China.

In desperation, a great woman left her only child at home to perform a special rain dance — and it worked! The rain came down and revived the village.

Exhausted, the woman returned home only to find that the White Snake Demon had crept in while she was away and devoured her child.

Summoning all her strength, the woman tracked the White Snake Demon to its mountain lair and straddled the snake until it died — sacrificing her own life in the process.

Are there any believers in China?

“That is the story of Mother Chen,” says Professor Mayfair Yang, Chair of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara.


White Snake Festival
A White Snake Demon looms overhead as Mother Chen worshippers in Wenzhou, China participate in a drum chant to celebrate their deity.(Supplied:Mayfair Yang)

Professor Yang came across Mother Chen worshippers while conducting fieldwork in the port city of Wenzhou in China.

“I was really struck by the place because it had so much traditional culture, a lot of religious processions, and so many temples and ancestral halls,” she says.

Mother Chen is a folk (or popular) religion in China — of which there are thousands.

“Popular religion is very localised,” says Professor Yang,

Professor Mayfair Yang
Professor Mayfair Yang is the author of a landmark study about the resurgence of popular religion in China, Re-enchanting Modernity: Ritual Economy and Society in Wenzhou, China.(Supplied:University of California in Santa Barbara)

“So popular religion in one place may differ quite a lot from a neighbouring county, with different kinds of gods and different customs and practices.”

In Wenzhou, there’s a temple dedicated to Mother Chen’s accomplishments and various traditional festivals giving thanks for her sacrifice.

“Every year, during the first month of the Lunar calendar, we visit the temple and pray for blessings,” says Ms Zhaorong Wang, a Mother Chen worshipper.

“I pay my respect from the bottom of my heart.”

Ms Wang used to go along with her mother to the temple, but says “now, we believe much more in her spirit”.

But isn’t China an atheist state?

The Chinese Communist Party is officially atheist.

“If you want to join the Communist Party, or the Communist Youth League, you have to declare that you are an atheist,” says Professor Fenggang Yang, a Christian sociologist and founding Director of the Centre on Religion and the Global East at Purdue University.

Atheism is also part of the curriculum “from elementary school to college”, he adds.

However, the Party officially recognises five religions: Taoism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam.

Ritual Pacing in Xuanling Daoist Temple:
Chinese believers participate in ritual pacing in a Taoist Temple in Xuanling, Liangxi.(Supplied: Mayfair Yang)

Folk religions like Mother Chen have strong links to Taoism — an ancient religion of China.

Freedom of religious belief is also enshrined in the Chinese Constitution.
Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, Article 36

  • Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.
  • No State organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.
  • The State protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the State.
  • Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

And while the Party acknowledges there are millions of believers in China, it’s the official party line that religions must have “Chinese characteristics” and adapt to “modern socialist society”.

“Actively guiding religions in adapting to the socialist society means guiding religious believers to love their country and compatriots … be subordinate to and serve the overall interests of the nation and the Chinese people. It also means guiding religious groups to support the leadership of the CCP and the socialist system; uphold and follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics …”

So what does religion look like in China?

Under President Xi Jinping, China has tightened its control of religion.

Tibetan Buddhists have been arrested for displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama, The Vatican agreed to only appoint bishops who support the party, and online retailers are banned from selling the Bible.

In Xinjiang, thousands of mosques have reportedly been demolished, with documented crackdowns on the region’s Muslim Uyghur minority. During a rare visit to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated the need for Islam to have Chinese characteristics, adhere to CCP values, and adapt to the modern socialist society.

A UN report released in August 2022 found evidence of human rights abuses in Xinjiang that could amount to crimes against humanity.

Before Xi Jinping became president, Professor Fenggang Yang says Muslim ethnic minorities had leverage to build more mosques citing cultural purposes.

“For some years [Muslims in China] were able to build many mosques,” he says.

“No other four recognised religions were able to do that.”

But now, “the cracking down on them is harsher than some of the other religions”.

In a visit to the region in July, President Xi emphasised that people were free to practice religion – so long as it did not conflict with CCP values.

“We must better uphold the principle of developing Islam in the Chinese context and provide active guidance for the adaptation of religions to the socialist society,” President Xi said of the Party’s responsibility to educate Chinese people on the “correct” view of religion.

Not the first time

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong tried to stamp out religion completely.

“All religious venues were closed down so there was not a single church, or temple, or mosque open for religious activities,” says Professor Fenggang Yang.

“Some resistant leaders of religious organisations were either sent to jail or to labour camps.”

But religion didn’t die out – it went “underground”.

Some Buddhist temples sent monks and nuns back to their home villages, while others converted their temples into communes — especially for monks who were ordained at a young age and didn’t have a home to go back to.

“During the daytime, [the monks] would be sent to the fields to do labour but, after dark, some of the monks would do meditation, quietly recite the Heart Sutra,” Professor Yang says.

“So Buddhism stayed alive.”

Professor Fenggang Yang
Professor Fenggang Yang has written extensively on how religion has survived under Communist rule in China.(Supplied: Purdue University)

Many Christians retreated to the mountains and gathered in caves to pray, sing hymns and share their testimonies.

On a trip to China, a local church leader pointed to a hillside and told Professor Fenggang Yang, “that’s where we used to meet in the night.”

“If the police found them out, they would simply disperse into the woods,” he explains.

After the death of Mao Zedong and the introduction of open-door policies by the Party under Deng Xiaoping, religious practice re-emerged in China.

“Authorities thought that most of the people would not need the religion anymore,” Professor Fenggang Yang says, “especially young people”.

“Only those old people who were religious before 1949 might still need religion — but after they die, religion would die out,” he says.

“What’s surprising is that as long as you open temples, or churches, or mosques — not only those who already had the faith would come.”

Chinese believers keep the faith

Yet even with the Chinese government keeping a watchful eye on religious activity, the faithful continue to worship — so long as it conforms to the Party’s values.

It also doesn’t hurt if there are economic benefits too.

“Some local officials even try to use religion for economic reasons,” Professor Fenggang Yang says, “to attract investment, or attract tourists, they would encourage certain religious activities.”

Professor Mayfair Yang saw this in Wenzhou too.


Mother Chen Festival
Locals from a village in Wenzhou, China celebrate the Mother Chen Festival.(Supplied: Mayfair Yang)

“Local officials have seen the economic rewards of having ritual processions and deity festivals,” she says.

“Think of all the money that you can bring in when people are dressed in colourful costumes and you can really sell traditional culture to tourists coming from outside the local area.”

“And local people are happy,” she adds.

But for Ms Wang, worshipping Mother Chen is more than economics.

“[Mother Chen] gives us psychological comfort, she gives us a fear-free heart with a lot of courage,” Ms Wang says.

“I really respect her spirit.”


YouTube A United Nations report says China may have committed “crimes against humanity” in its treatments of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The report also raises questions about China’s relationship with religious freedom.



Image Credits: Mayfair Yang , Mayfair Yang, University of California in Santa Barbara, Purdue University