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Godless China

Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky……
It’s easy if you do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too.

–John Lennon

Obama goes to China in a few days; the preparations are made and the props in place.   The Dalai Lama was pushed out of the gate early, gold robes flapping, with his visit to the disputed area of Arunachal Pradesh, scheduled as if by miracle to coincide with Obama’s visit.  He is part of a backdrop for Obama to lecture China on human rights, although the Torturer in Chief is likely to exclude extraordinary renditions and suspension of habeas corpus from the chosen items on his Chinese menu of rights.  On the professorial side, Paul Krugman chimed in some weeks back, declaring that “China’s bad behavior is posing a growing threat to the rest of the world economy” and “Something must be done about China’s currency.” (1)  One would almost think that China led us into the current global economic crisis, instead of leading the way out of it, which is the fact.  (China has in fact offered to “do something” about its currency, namely develop a basket of currencies to gradually replace the dollar as an international reserve currency – with dollar, yuan, euro, yen, ruble and others included in the basket.  This proposed solution, which slipped Krugman’s mind or at least his keyboard, is anathema to the US Imperium, which might be running on empty without the dollar as a reserve currency.)  And the BBC this morning is trotting out some material which the increasingly discredited Human Rights Watch (2) last circulated before the Olympics. In fact the anti-China din in the media might be louder were it not for some confusion about the Middle Kingdom among the architects and minders of the U.S. Empire. (3)

I learned a bit more about China on a trip there in September and perhaps some of it may be useful to CounterPunchers, and not just in the coming days.  Since Dalai seems to be leading the way in the current anti-China charge, it is worthwhile to consider the place of religion in China – much different from the West, both now and for five millennia. One of the most difficult things for my fellow American travelers to comprehend was the near absence of religion in China – in fact the near complete lack of interest in it.   When asked about religion, a Chinese woman, one of our guides, simply said that most Westerners think that Chinese are Buddhists but in fact very few are.  My fellow Americans found that very difficult to accept.  There must be religion somewhere some insisted.  However, a quick check of that mainstay of Chinese government views, the CIA World Factbook (4) supports the view of the guide.  Says our CIA:  Daoist (Taoist), Buddhist, Christian: 3%-4%; Muslim 1%-2%.  (In a related statistic the CIA lists less than 10% of the population as ethnic minorities, i.e., non-Han: Han Chinese 91.5%, Zhuang, Manchu, Hui, Miao, Uyghur, Tujia, Yi, Mongol, Tibetan, Buyi, Dong, Yao, Korean, and other nationalities 8.5%.  Not all of these are  dissatisfied, by a long shot, for example those living along the Li River, thanks in part to Chinese affirmative action programs and the exceptions made to the one-child policy for smaller minority groups.)
In fact, our guide’s reaction to religion was simply that the lack of it made life simpler; one need not worry which type of meat to consume or what to do on Friday or Sunday.  That was all the philosophical exploration it warranted.  It just did not seem real or relevant.  (Or as my mother, a devout Catholic once said in apparent contradiction to her beliefs: “If you do not teach it to kids, no one will ever believe it.”)  And from what I have experienced, almost any Chinese will tell you the same as our guide.  We did see a few Buddhist Temples, quite empty, but a few monks and a few worshippers in Shanghai, and even one Christian church.  But these were few and far between, and mostly historical sites.  Weddings are celebrated in restaurants and hotels.  Virtually every inquiry about religion elicited a bemused smile, although the same Chinese were more than ready with some extraordinarily vitriolic criticisms of their political leaders.  No inhibitions on speech – no whispers and sidelong looks of the sort found in pre-Gorbachev USSR and its clients; far from it.

In terms of religion one might say that an atheistic populace is to be expected of a country, which has passed through a revolution led by Communists.  But the interesting thing about China is that it has never, in its many millennia, had a serious, long-standing attachment to religion except in Tibet, which constitutes a significant chunk of Chinese territory but has a tiny fraction of its population. China’s culture has never had a “Guy in the Sky” in all of its recorded history.  Nor has it ever had a notion of Heaven and Hell.  (How nice that is.)   It has never had a creation myth resembling in any way that of the Desert Religions, with the Guy in the Sky assembling the whole business.  The closest thing, which comes rather late in Chinese history is the fable of Pan Gu which has various forms.  One is this:

“In the beginning heaven and earth were up like an egg.  Pan Gu was born in between.  After 18,000 years Pan Gu awoke and broke open the egg.  The bright and light part rose to become the sky while the dark and heavy part sank and became the earth.  To keep heaven and earth from coming together again, Pan Gu used his arms to hold up the sky while pressing down on earth with his feet.  After tens of thousands of years, they were finally completely separated.  Pan Gu died of exhaustion.  After his death, his eyes became the son and moon, his body the mountains, his blood the rivers, his hair the vegetation and his sweat the rain and mists.” (5)

And so the only guy with a shot at being The Guy in the Sky was gone.  God was dead before he got off the ground. But even the existence of this myth, which I relate only to be complete, is not well known among Chinese.  Some will recall hearing it once or twice in school but it is nothing like the creation myth of the desert religions drummed into the head of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim faiths.  Certainly China was burdened by ancestor worship and the idea of ancestral ghosts, but these were banished by the Revolution.  And these vague spirits were thin gruel indeed next to the Western idea of an all powerful deity ready to plunge one into the excruciating torments of eternal fire for any infraction he deemed serious.

Mao Zedong was asked by journalist Anna Louise Strong, or so the story goes, what he thought of God.  He replied that “there is plenty of God to go around.”   Asked by Strong what he meant, he explained that when there is a war, the French God is on the French side, the German God on the German side, the Japanese God on the Japanese side, etc.  “There is plenty of God to go around,” he concluded.

Today the neocon philosphers, although atheists themselves, express dismay that belief in God is passing from the scene, recognizing as they do that such belief is a mighty asset when marching young men and women off to the abyss of war.  In the cry “For God and Country,” China is missing half the call. It is one reason for a ray of optimism as China takes a central place on the world stage.

JOHN V. WALSH recently visited China and recommends the experience to one and all.  Two previous CounterPunch articles on the subject are: ”Mao’s China at 60” and “Remembering Hinton’s Fanshen.”   He can be reached at John.Endwar@gmail.com

Notes.

1.http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/opinion/

2. A“search of CounterPunch.com yields a trail of ever more disappointing stances and double standards by Human Rights Watch from Lebanon to Palestine to Latin America.  HRW is a brand name that can no longer be trusted.

3. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/07/opinion/

4.https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ch.html

5. Origins of Chinese Science and Technology (2004). Asiapac  Books (Singapore); page 25.

 

More articles by:

John V. Walsh can be reached at John.Endwar@gmail.com

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