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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

MEIZHOU ISLAND: Religious Revival, 1999
A Godless Society Looks for Meaning

Ricky Wong for TIME
At a remote island temple, believers pray for Mazu's benevolence.

Mei Ying is a believer. The 24-year-old taxi driver, dressed in a trendy T shirt and jeans, is an ardent follower of Mazu, the sea goddess of peace. As a child she was brought regularly by her parents to a temple dedicated to the deity on Meizhou island, off the coast of China's southern Fujian province. There, despite living in an officially atheistic nation, she was taught to worship. The goddess, says Mei, "is very receptive and answers all my prayers."

Mazu's benevolence attracts millions of worshipers. As many as 10,000 come to pray each year on her birthday: the 23rd day of the third lunar month. The remoteness of the island--getting there requires a ferry ride and a steep climb in withering heat--does nothing to lessen the level of devotion. The number of visitors has grown so rapidly that a new 323-sq-m temple is being constructed nearby.

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Mazu is just one of the many deities experiencing a revival in Fujian and elsewhere in China. Despite being anathema to the teachings of the Communist Party, religion is thriving, particularly among China's 900 million rural residents. According to official statistics, there are more than 120 million believers in China: 90 million Buddhists, 18 million Muslims, 10 million Protestants and 4 million Catholics. Unofficial estimates put these numbers far higher.

Religion is helping fill the ideological vacuum that opened wide after Mao's death. China's economic reforms have improved standards of living but also brought jarring social change. Revolutionary ideals are being replaced by money-grubbing values, income gaps have widened, crime has spread and unemployment is now a reality. "Chinese communism is a system of economic development, but there is no theology to explain what people should believe in," says William Liu, an American sociologist working in Singapore. "China is very fertile ground for any religion right now."

An increasing amount of leisure time also leaves room for rumination and frustration. These days 11% of China's people are over 60 and retired; millions in their prime have been laid off; many who have jobs now enjoy a shorter work week. There is a cultural crisis, says Joseph Bosco, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "The old rules," he says, "do not work, and life has no purpose."

One religion that has thrived in the vacuum is Falun Gong. Started as a breathing exercise to cure illness and improve health, the practice has grown into a ritual with as many as 100 million followers. "The rise of religious groups like Falun Gong reflects the moral searching of Chinese and the collapse of communist ideology," says Bosco. "Many members are the very people who believed in the Communist Party's ideology in the 1950s and '60s." Within the party, reformers are seeking to restore the sense of purpose that people had in the '50s, when China was full of hope. But many Chinese are finding hope instead in religious salvation. "In a sense, the party and Falun Gong are competing for the soul of the nation," says Bosco.

When 10,000 Falun Gong members quietly surrounded Zhongnanhai, the seat of the government, for 12 hours last April to protest harsh treatment of their flock, that competition became evident. Beijing suddenly perceived the practitioners as a threat. The group was branded a cult and later banned.

Despite the crackdown, China insists that the country's constitution provides for freedom of religious belief. There are five officially recognized faiths--Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. But survival has been a struggle for each. The 1,000-year-old Mazu temple, for example, was razed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The temple reopened only in 1988. Buddhist and Taoist shrines have suffered similar fates. Catholic communities that support the Vatican have had to go underground. Unofficial Protestant churches continue to be persecuted. "For 50 years the government has fought against religion here," says Patrice Fava, a French anthropologist working in Beijing. "Religion has been almost decapitated."

But it is far from dead. Indeed, says Fava, religion is an integral part of Chinese culture. Disenchanted with society, many rural Chinese in particular are reverting to traditional beliefs. Ancestor halls and temples have sprung up around the countryside. "Life in Chinese villages again revolves around the temple, where people go to ask for things," says Fava. If the Communist Party cannot come up with quicker responses to their questions, the gods will win out. For Mei Ying, the answers come from Mazu.

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