Spiritual-Religious Groups in the PRC after 1978


A review of Emergence and Development of Spiritual-Religious Groups in the People’s Republic of China after 1978, by Kristin Kupfer.

December 2012 witnessed a seemingly curious case of convergence of Mayan civilization, Christianity, and Chinese popular religion. Many members of a group called “Church of the Almighty God,” believing the Mayan prophesy that the end of the world was imminent, began to organize mass demonstrations exhorting the Chinese people to repent their sins, to prepare for the coming apocalypse, and to overthrow the ruling Communist Party. What happened next was highly expected by most watchers of China’s affairs: the authorities initiated a crackdown on the group by arresting its many members, and stepped up their surveillance over unregistered religious groups in the country. Many people inside and outside of China have heard about the Falungong, the previous high profile case that involved a so-called “evil cult.” But who are the Church of the Almighty God? When Kristin Kupfer defended her dissertation on the emergence and development of “spiritual-religious groups” in China, she probably had not anticipated the events of 2012 and the Mayan connections. But for those who wish to gain further understanding of groups such as “Church of the Almighty God” and the Falungong, Kupfer’s research will be an excellent source.

Kupfer’s dissertation investigates the emergence and development of spiritual-religious groups employing the theoretical framework of social movements, particularly new religious movements. Kupfer wishes to see if theories of social movement that have developed out of the Western experience can be applied to the Chinese context. Hence, chapter 2 of the dissertation provides a review of the literature on social and new religious movements that is both broad-ranging and detailed. For example, Kupfer provides a good discussion on why in this study she prefers to use the term “spiritual-religious” instead of “religion” to describe the groups under study. She argues that “spiritual-religious” better expresses the groups’ “less organized and ritualistic [and more] flexible and fluid relationship with otherworldliness,” and the fact that, for the members, faith is less dogmatic and “more open to new ideas and a myriad of influences, and more pluralistic than the doctrinal faiths of mature religions” (p. 5). Further, Kupfer points out that she prefers “spiritual-religious groups” as a more neutral term to “sects” or “cults,” as the latter terms have strongly negative connotations in China, often used to designate groups which are either not legally recognized or considered by members of mainstream religious groups as “heretical” and “schismatic.”

In China, such types of “spiritual-religious groups” are mainly Christian-inspired, Qigong-based, Buddhism-based, and traditional secret societies. Spiritual-religious groups tend to be founded or headed by charismatic leaders overseeing a sophisticated hierarchical structure, and emphasize methods of healing and paths to salvation. As Kupfer shows, many of the founders of these groups are formerly active members of more mainstream, albeit mainly unofficial, religious groups (such as the “house churches”) who split from their former organizations. Are these groups as “harmful” as alleged by state authorities and critics? Or have they been discursively constructed as “evil cults” mainly because they do not neatly fit into the party-state’s definition of “religion,” tend to reject the party-state’s leadership over religious matters, and dissociate themselves from mainstream religious groups that claim “orthodoxy”?

Kupfer’s dissertation addresses four main questions: 1) Have these spiritual-religious groups emerged in times of crisis, as has happened in the past? 2) To what extent are these groups new? 3) To what extent are they the results of change in China? and 4) To what extent have they fostered new change? Hence, while the specific focus of Kupfer’s research is on these spiritual-religious groups, it is also aims to say something about China’s general social and political transformations in recent decades.

The dissertation analyzes interactions between three groups of actors, namely, the party-state, societal actors (e.g. members of the media, scientists, intellectuals), and the spiritual-religious groups themselves. Methodologically, Kupfer examines these interactions through a dynamic, multi-level, and multi-directional model based how each group’s marshaling of their organizational, ideational, and action resources in turn shape their interactions with one another. Kupfer divides the period of her study into three phases.

In what Kupfer classifies as the “phase one” (1978-89), the development of Christian-inspired and Qigong-based groups seemed to have evolved along different tracks. The party-state regarded the former as far more of a threat to society and its political dominance, and hence instigated a series of crackdown on groups such as the “Group of Shouters” and the “Full Scope Church” via labeling them as “non-religious,” “counterrevolutionary,” “huidaomen” (secret societies), or “hostile foreign forces.” An important reason that Christian-inspired groups faced the wrath of the state’s suppressive effort was that many of these groups were ideologically opposed either to the officially atheistic party-state and/or the official churches. In fact, many of the founders were former members, or had some experience with, the autonomous “house churches” that refused to acknowledge the leadership of the party-state in religious matters.

In comparison, the Qigong-based groups developed in a less hostile environment, partly due the ambiguity surrounding its status as a “religion,” and partly the relatively close ties between the party-state actors, Qigong masters and practitioners, and societal actors (e.g. scientists, culture brokers, intellectuals, and members of the media). In the period known as “Culture Fever” in the 1980s, Qigong was considered by many of those involved, including high-ranking officials in the military and other organs of the part-state, as an important part of Chinese culture and as a showcase of a uniquely Chinese “science.” The second half of the 1980s witnessed the founding of important state-sponsored Qigong-related institutions, such as the China Qigong Science Research Society, the China Sports Qigong Society, and the China Somatic Science Society. In the domain of Qigong, however, there was also intense debate over “real” and “legitimate” qigong, versus “false qigong” (wei qigong), the latter a label that the party-state and scientists tended to use to describe those practices of remarkable “extraordinary abilities” (teyi gongneng) who could not be proven by science.

In phase two (1989-1999), the most important event that impacted on the interaction between the party-state and the spiritual-religious groups was the Tiananmen Incident. This phase witnessed an intensification of state-surveillance of spiritual-religious groups, and even the qigong-based groups faced severe headwinds in trying to gain a stronger footing in society. Many Protestant house churches, in their desire to draw a clear line between themselves and the Christian-inspired groups, echoed the party-state criticism of such groups as “heretical” or “evil cults” (xiejiao). Meanwhile, many members of the house churches, from a theological perspective, continued to attack the Three Self church as being political tool of the party-state. The party-state persisted in its effort to eradicate the Christian-inspired groups, and the authorities executed the leaders of “Established King” and the “Teachings of Supreme God.” Despite the intensification of suppression, however, some of these groups managed to survive, and even to expand their membership bases. What complicated matters for the party-state was that, in certain localities, some party cadres were members of these groups, with the broader social uncertainties that had fostered the attractiveness of these groups’ messages continuing unabated. Hence, groups like the “Church of the Almighty God” (also known as the “Eastern Lightning”) could grow despite crackdowns.

Meanwhile, critical voices of the qigong movement grew louder with some societal and party-state actors attacking the claims of certain qigong masters, especially those who claimed divine status. Critics began to charge claims of teyi gongneng as “superstition,” and the party-state became very wary of charismatic leaders who managed to gather large numbers of supporters. Some Qigong masters claimed strong links with political and military authorities, and continued to enjoy high levels of support from them. Many qigong groups, such as Zhinenggong, loudly acknowledged the “leadership” of the party. A critical turning point was reached in 1999, when thousands of Falungong members encircled the political centre of Zhongnanhai in Beijing, in what their leader, Li Hongzhi, called the “protection of Dharma.” Apparently this was the last straw for the party-state, and the ghost of Tiananmen seemed to have been revived. Jiang Zemin considered the incident as the largest collective action since 1989 and ordered a wide-scale crackdown on Falungong and other qigong groups such as Xulinggong and Zhonggong.

Kupfer classifies the period since 2000 as phase three. It would be obvious to the reader by now that the party-state has not completely eradicated or suppressed groups which it considered “evil cults.” The reader would also be aware by now the main reason why this is the case. As Kupfer has analyzed in admirable detail, the so-called “religious field” in China is not structured by the party-state alone, but has developed through the ways in which various groups of actors in the party-state, spiritual-religious groups, and other social organizations mobilize their available resources as part of their mutual interactions. Kupfer’s analysis also strongly suggests that, despite a common view regarding the omnipotence of China’s party-state, no single group of actors is able to determine the actual contours of the religious field, and by implication, the overall development of society. Thus, in this third phase, we continue to see the emergence, and in some cases, the strengthening, of these spiritual-religious groups. Some, like the “Society of Disciples” and “Church of the Almighty God,” continue to attract significant number of followers—even local officials—and persist in their opposition against state oppression and the more mainstream religious groups.

With regard to the relationship between qigong groups and the party-state, the interactions between the Falungong and the authorities seem to offer a paradigmatic picture. Kupfer argues that both sides tend to use similar ways of framing. For example, in response to the authorities’ charges of the “harmful” effects of practicing Falungong, members of the group highlighted the party-state’s alleged atrocities, such as torture, inflected on those under detention. Furthermore, the Falungong affair has taken on an international dimension, with foreign governments such as the United States, as well as certain international human rights NGOs, taking an interest in the affair, and chastising China for its disregard for human rights and religious freedom. In China itself, some rights activists and scholars of religion are highly critical of the party-state’s religious policies, both in relation to officially recognized religious groups as well as those who refuse to come under the umbrella of the various national religious associations.

The general thrust of analysis highlights how the transformation of China from a previously totalitarian state to an authoritarian one post-1978 has resulted in a transitory society where the increasing marketization of the economy, the gradual retreat of the state in the provision of social welfare, the erosion of socialist values and ideology, and the heightened sense of personal insecurity provide a fertile environment for new spiritual-religious groups to sprout and grow. A key argument of the dissertation is that the groups’ attraction to certain segments of the population lies partly in their ideologies (i.e. ideational resources), which seem to offer solutions to issues related to social security and harmony, suffused with a nostalgic vision for the paternalism and communalism of the Maoist era. Hence, Kupfer notes that these groups “reconstructed individual nostalgic feelings from the Mao era as collective memory and community” (p. 478). Ironically, many of these Christian-inspired and Qigong-based groups tend to appropriate and utilize concepts that the party-state is jettisoning, to appeal to disaffected segments of the population – those who felt left behind in China’s headlong thrust towards a market economy.

For those who wish to gain in-depth understanding of both the Christian-inspired and Qigong-based groups in China, Kupfer’s dissertation offers a sophisticated analysis of their emergence and development over the last few decades. This is a valuable piece of research that offers a fascinating comparison between two types of spiritual-religious groups in China, providing a good analysis of how their developmental trajectories converge with and depart from each other under shifting contexts, and how they are themselves significant agents that shape China’s social transformation in recent times.

Francis Khek Gee Lim
Associate Professor
Division of Sociology
Nanyang Technological University

Primary Sources

Renmin ribao (People’s Daily)
Periodical Literature, including Shijie zongjiao yanjiu (Research on World Religions); Zhongguo qigong (Qigong in China); Zhongguo zongjiao (Religion in China); and Zongjiao (Religion)

Dissertation Information

Ruhr-Universität Bochum. 2009. 555 pp. Primary Advisors: Xuewu Gu and Karl-Heinz Pohl.


Image: Five Exercises of Falun Dafa. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like