Since Mao Zedong died in 1976 and the Cultural Revolution ended, no country on Earth has changed more dramatically and significantly than China. When I first visited Canton in 1984, crowds would gather around us every time we stopped to buy oranges in the street. We stayed in a dorm for 6 yuan a head -- less than a dollar in today's money. The streets were full of bicycles, which marked Canton as a prosperous city.
Over the past twenty years, China has followed the upward economic growth curve pioneered by Japan, then Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore before it.
Christianity has spread in China at a rapid pace as well. There has been much debate over how many Christians there are in China. The official figure is some 20 million, but popular rumors, often ascribed to some government official, often put the number at over 100 million. (Even the figure of 200 million is thrown around.) Loren Cunningham, founder of Youth With a Mission, has cited 110 million: when I challenged that figure, he said he obtained it from David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, whose numbers are often cited as authoritative. Two years ago, The Economist bandied about a figure of 130 million.
My own view, based on travel throughout China in dozens of visits, and two longer-term stays, and study of the data, has been that a figure of 50-70 million, for Protestants and Catholics combined, is probably closer to the mark.
Figures of over 100 million seem to me to fly in the face of reality. Even in cities like Wenzhou, the "Jerusalem of China," one sees about three temples for every church. When I ask people their religion, that seems about the right proportion. Even in Henan Province, thought to be quite a citadel of Christianity, most young people seem to be "hand-me-down" skeptics. And there are vast areas of China -- Sichuan, Guangxi, Hunan, some parts of Yunnan -- where Christians remain fairly rare. (Though that may be changing.)
Last year, Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion completed an exhaustive survey of religious belief in China. Sponsored by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and guided by Carson Mencken (who kindly sent me a copy of the report), Byron Johnson, and Rodney Stark. The study involved more than 7,000 respondents.
At first glance, the results yield a surprisingly low number of Christians, and a surprisingly high percentage of unbelievers. Only 2.7% of respondents described themselves as Protestant or Catholic. 17% called themselves Buddhists, and 77% claimed to have no religious beliefs. (Only 1% claimed other religions -- Daoism, Confucianism, and Islam included.)
The number of Christians appeared low to the researchers, too, so they commissioned a second survey to test the response rates of people whose religious identify they knew. They found that two thirds of Christians refused to answer the survey, while only one third of non-Christians refused.
Adjusting the data according to this bias, it appears that there are about 70+ million Christians in China today. (This includes Protestants and Catholics, also nominal believers and cultists. It may also be based on adult response, then include children in the total -- I'll have to see how they extrapolated. If so, this procedure would probably be less valid in China than in countries where children of believers generally go to church, and the true number might be a bit lower.)
I haven't had a chance to study the numbers in detail, yet, but I guess the number of Muslims here also seems too low. "Taoist" and "Confucianist" are vague terms -- often people who call themselves "Buddhist" have been as much influenced by these, or folk religions, as formal Buddhism. Most likely the number of committed and informed believers in Buddhism, in any recognizable sense, is a small percentage of the supposed 17%, while many included in that number would more accurately be described as followers of folk religion.
The survey showed that women were 2.3 times more likely to call themselves Christians than men. That seems a bit high to me, though there certainly has been a remarkable "people movement" among elderly ladies! Probably men (and young people) more often refuse to respond, since religious faith would be more of a stigma for men.
All in all, the survey confirmed what those who have been involved with China for a long time recognize: communism has had a real and lasting effect on how Chinese see the world. The country is still something of a spiritual desert. Compared to those in the West, who often convert away from Christianity and have conceived a great distaste for it, many of China's "agnostics" are conventional in their second-hand skepticism, and in many cases seem open to changing their minds. Most regions of China with few Christians (aside from Guangdong), also seem to have few "Buddhists," apparently because of the latent winter-like effect of Maoism on all spiritual shoots. It seems, though, that the winter may soon be over, and the desert about to bloom.
(photos: (1) a large rural church near Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, one of many; (2) a believer in the same area, some 20 years ago, telling me how the Gospel had spread through miracles from village to village; (3) John 3:16 in stylized Chinese, on the wall of a church in Wuhan, Hubei; (4) White Horse Temple, founded outside the capital of China near modern Luoyang, in 68 AD, the oldest official Buddhist temple in China, though the present buildings are more recent.)