A recent Global Times article states that the disciplinary authority of the Xiamen Communist Party branch will pursue members who believe in ghosts and supernatural beings rather than Marxism-Leninism or who belong to religious groups, attend religious ceremonies, or solicit advice from fortune tellers. Such persons are to undergo education to correct their beliefs with those who fail to do so being urged to withdraw their Party membership.
Why, in spite of seven decades of advocating atheism and scientific thinking, from time to time accompanied by forceful suppression campaigns, do some still hold and act on supernatural beliefs? Why have such beliefs persisted? In this short essay I will address this question discussing the persistence of superstition.
A distinction between religion and “superstition” was created in the 1920s with the Kuomintang government’s recognition of five religions, Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism (the latter two being distinguished because their Bibles use different words for God or Christ). It deemed all other religions and supernatural beliefs and practices to be superstition. The PRC government inherited this policy, creating “patriotic” supervisory bodies for each religion and demanded that worship take place only in officially sanctioned groups. While the KMT government’s objection to so-called superstitious behavior was based on its seeing it as backwards and embarrassing for China and itself as a modernizing force, the CCP’s objections to “feudal superstition” are based on its adherence to “scientific socialism,” its official position of atheism, and its desire for control. It also sees geomancers, fortune tellers, spirit mediums, funerary specialists and the like as frauds who make their livings by cheating people and whose activities are potentially disruptive. And while the KMT government tried to persuade people not to engage in superstitious activities, the PRC government took a harder line, especially during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. However, beginning with Reform and Opening Up, it has from time to time updated relevant statutes, but despite periodic local crackdowns it has been relatively tolerant of the behavior of the masses, though insisting on strict compliance by Party members.
As is often the case with Chinese laws and statutes, what comprises superstitious behavior is not spelled out. At the discretion of local officials it can include fortune telling, divination, spirit mediumship, and aspects of geomancy or fengshui and funerary practices such as the manufacture of paper objects to be burned and sent to the deceased in the nether world. However, there is a good deal of inconsistency in application. In fortune telling, for example, 8 is regarded as a lucky number and 4, homophonous with ‘death,’ is unlucky. Yet, the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics began on the evening of 8/8/08 precisely at 8:08 and 8 seconds. In 2003, Sichuan Airlines paid 2.33 million yuan for the phone number 86 28 8888 8888. Many Chinese buildings do not have a fourth floor or any floor number containing 4. The China Daily occasionally contains articles spelling out, month by month, for career, health, love and wealth, how the year will turn out. Local papers also carry horoscopes. Doing research in Dongguan, on several occasions I saw young men telling fortunes, in plain sight on the footpaths of the commercial district, using laptop computers. There are an estimated 5 million fortune tellers in China, about half as many as there are technician and scientists.
Geomancy is also quite common. In rural areas it is often used to site graves to ensure that the “vital energy” (qi) that flows through the earth enriches the descendants. Geomancers are also called in to suggest auspicious days for weddings, launching business ventures etc. or to diagnose the causes of untoward happenings, e.g. deaths, illnesses, business downturns, negative performance reports that can be caused by evil influences and to suggest remedies by changing the natural or built environment. For example, Levin reports that an office of the China Tobacco Company placed stone lions in front of their building, perhaps to ward off evil currents, but officials in the building across the road found this threatening and potentially harmful for their career progress, so they erected a stone wall in the parking lot to ward off the harmful energy of the lions. He also notes two other examples of officials employing geomancy to ward off perceived evil. One dragged a decommissioned fighter plane to the middle of a road opposite his headquarters. The other spent $732,000 to have a 369 tonne boulder transported to the county seat, and during the consecration ceremony, he walked over 100 meters toward the rock, kowtowing every three steps (2013).
Belief among the masses in fortune telling and geomancy is strong. While the government blamed food shortages during the Great Leap Forward on bad weather, peasants blamed them on the anger of the gods and ancestors caused by the destruction of graves and temples on the orders of the cadres. In the mid-1990s, Bruun found that, on average, the 5600 households in a Sichuan township call in a geomancer once every two years.
Such beliefs have persisted despite criticism and varying degrees of periodic official suppression. They are probably stronger in rural areas and among the less educated but are also found throughout society. Many businesses proprietors consult fortune tellers and regard them almost as orthodox businesses consultants. According to a 2007 Chinese Academy of Governance report, 52 percent of county-level civil servants believed in divination, physiognomy, astrology or dream interpretation. The leader of the research team, Professor Cheng Ping, associated such beliefs with corruption: “Find a corrupt official and he’ll probably be superstitious” (Levin 2013). Moreover, at their trials for corruption, two members of the upper elite, former Railways Minister Liu Zhujun, and former domestic security boss, Zhou Yongkang, consulted fortune tellers.
The government has several objections to superstitious behavior. First, is not modern and brings a loss of face to the Chinese nation. Second, regards practitioners, those who make their living through superstition, as frauds and parasites. Third, it prefers cremation over burial because it saves resources, including land, and is more ecologically-friendly. However many insist on interment because they believe it brings peace to the dead (ru tu wei an), and it preserves the links between ancestors and descendants. Moreover, some elderly are so fearful of being cremated that in 2014, 6 people in Anhui committed suicide in order to die before the implementation of a mandatory cremation ruling. Finally, some practitioners not only tell fortunes but also prophesy, predicting what will happen in society as a whole. This can cause panics, disrupt production, and cause social unrest with unpredictable but potentially dire consequences. As Mao said, “A single spark can cause a prairie fire.” Xi Jinping, in particular, is obsessed with control.
Why does superstitious behavior persist? During the dynastic period, fortune telling, geomancy and associated customs were widely accepted and practiced. China abandoned its Confucian classics-based education only at the very end of the 19th Century, and the institution of a modern system was delayed by the chaos of revolution, civil war and WWII in the first half of the 20th Century. So PRC efforts at implementing universal education have had only 70 years, minus ten for the Cultural Revolution. China has a huge population and is very large in area with some very remote regions. It can be safely assumed that when the universal education process began, the superstitious behavior the government opposed were still part of the shared knowledge and practice throughout most of China. Education in much of the country was hampered by a paucity of resources and qualified personnel. As superstition persists in urban areas, even among high officials, it is no wonder that it does so among the masses, especially those living in or having relatively recently migrated from the countryside.
Bruun, Ole, 1996, “The Fengshui Resurgence in China: Conflicting Cosmologies Between State and Peasantry,” The China Journal 36:47-65).
Levin, Dan, 2013, “Chinese Officials Seek Career Shortcut with Feng Shui,” New York Times May 10, 2013.