Religion and those who practised it were historically looked down upon by China’s Confucian elite, and the government actively worked to stifle or control organised religious organisations. The social position of Buddhist monks and Taoist priests was low, and as a result, regular people did not look up to them or use them as models very often. In the past, religious practise and belief were more or less equally widespread across society, and religious institutions were not as well developed as they are now. The similar tendency may be seen in current society, with the notable exception that the governing class is much less religious, and there are even fewer people actively practising their religious beliefs.
Religion, in the opinion of the party, is a remnant from the past, an indication of prescientific thinking, and something that will become obsolete as people grow more educated and develop a scientific perspective on the world. This has been the party’s position from the beginning. Religion, in general, has not been a significant source of contention. In methods that are quite similar to those of Confucian elites, cadres and party members have a tendency to see many religious practitioners as charlatans out to take advantage of naive people who are in need of protection. In the 1950s, many Buddhist monks were allowed to return to secular life, and as part of the land reform, monasteries and temples were forced to give up their properties. International missionaries were removed, frequently after being suspected of espionage, while Chinese Christians, who made up only a very tiny percentage of the population, were the focus of suspicion because of their foreign ties. Many of the foreign missionaries were expelled after being accused of spying. It was emphasised that members of these Chinese Christian groups were loyal to the state and party, and two separate organisations, one for Protestants and one for Roman Catholics, were founded in China. The authority of the Vatican was rejected by the Chinese Catholic Church, which ordained its own priests and bishops and founded its own seminaries in order to produce “patriotic” Chinese clergy. It was not so much the teaching or theology that was at stake in any of the trials as it was the acceptance of the supremacy of devotion to the state and party. This was true whether the cases included Christians, Buddhists, or members of underground Chinese sects. Superstition was used to refer to traditional folk religion. The majority of temples were repurposed for other purposes, and public celebration of community festivals was discontinued; nonetheless, the state did not devote a significant amount of effort towards eradicating folk religion.
As part of their violent attack on the “four olds,” which took place during the early phases of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and 1967, Red Guards were responsible for the destruction of temples, monuments, and home ancestral tablets (old ideas, culture, customs, and habits). During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, there was basically a complete cessation of public ritual observances. After 1978, which was the year that marked the return to power of the Deng Xiaoping reformers, the party and the state were more tolerant of the public manifestation of religion as long as it stayed within tightly specified limitations. However, this only applied to the Han religion. At addition, certain Buddhist and even Taoist practitioners were granted permission to wear their robes, train a few successors, and conduct ceremonies in the reopened temples when they were repaired and opened as historical monuments. In the same manner as the shrine at the house of Confucius in Shandong Province has been rebuilt and opened to the public, these acts on the side of the state might be viewed as a confident regime’s acknowledgement of China’s traditional history. The concepts of Confucius and Buddhism are not considered as a threat; rather, the primary motivation is a patriotic affiliation with China’s historical civilisation.
Christians in China, whose churches began to reopen in the late 1970s, are treated with a similar tolerance and even a milder kind of encouragement than Buddhists and Taoists. Since 1987, it has been illegal for foreign Catholic missionaries to enter China, and members of the Chinese Catholic clergy who have refused to acknowledge the authority of China’s “patriotic” Catholic Church and its bishops have been put in jail.
The most significant benefit that has accrued from the state’s policy of religious tolerance is the improvement of ties with China’s Muslim and Tibetan Buddhist minority groups. China’s state sponsorship of Buddhism and Islam is another factor in the country’s international relations. A significant amount of ancient ritual and religion has either been preserved or resurrected, particularly in rural areas. Around the middle of the 1980s, the official press criticised these kinds of activities as being wasteful and warned rural party members that they should neither take part in nor lead such events. Despite this, the topic was not elevated to the status of a significant concern, however. Families were free to worship traditional gods or ancestors in the privacy of their own homes; but, they were required to craft all of the ritual equipment (such as ancestral tablets, incense sticks, and so on) themselves since it was no longer available for purchase in stores. The magnitude of the public festivities was scaled down, and there was no participation from full-time professional clergy. In certain areas, traditional folk religious celebrations were brought back to life, while in other places, temples and family halls were sometimes rebuilt. Even though funerals were the ritual that saw the least amount of change in rural regions, the only people who participated in the observances were immediate family members and relatives; there was no professional priest present. These kind of inconsequential, folk religious activities that took place mostly inside households were essentially unrelated to the concerns of the government, thus they either disregarded or allowed them.