In the early 20th century, after the fall of the last imperial
dynasty, traditional Chinese religion came under attack from patriotic
intellectuals like Sun Yat-sen, who thought it had impeded the country’s
progress toward modernity. Temples were demolished and statues smashed.
In 1949, the Communists established an atheist state and sought to
purge the country of its superstitious ways.
“It is as if a raging tidal wave has swept away all the
demons and ghosts,” Mao Zedong said in 1955. By this time, “ghost” had
been repurposed as a word for any malign influence, especially a
Nonetheless, in rural areas, private rituals to venerate
ancestors or ward off ghosts were often tolerated. And in 1982, the
liberal reforms of China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping permitted
religious gatherings to take place again.
“The idea was that it was just for old people, and, with time, it would die out,” Ian Johnson, author of The Souls of China,
a recent book on the resurgence of religious belief in the country,
tells me. Religion did not die out, but, as Johnson explained, the
decades of prohibition had eroded most people’s understanding of