Contextualizing heterodox sects in China

Has anyone else been following this story?
NY Times: 5 Sect Members Go on Trial in Killing at McDonald’s in China

I first heard about this sect, Eastern Lightning or the Church of Almighty God, when I was in Taiwan last year. Since this murder in May earlier this year, they have been getting far more press in Western media as well. The sect presents itself as a variety of Christianity, but with a special twist. According to the NY TImes, the sect proselytizes that Jesus Christ has returned to earth in the form of a Chinese woman who will save all the sect’s followers from the coming apocalypse. The way it was described to me in Taiwan was that the sect believes that there are actually two saviors, not just one. The male savior was born in the West – Jesus – and the female savior has now been born in the East, in China. There are also seven leaders who are supposed to be different incarnations of God, and then there’s the leader himself, who had to flee China in 2000. Either way, the group has called the Communist government a Great Red Dragon that must be killed to save the nation, and is known for recruiting widely and aggressively.

This group’s parallels with the Taiping millenarian movement of mid 19th century China are too strong not to call attention to. Hong Xiuquan, charismatic leader of the 19th century movement, believed that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. The Taipings believed that in order to bring about a Kingdom of Heavenly Peace, China must be purged of the devils of Manchu rule, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. As the movement gained followers among the marginalized, impoverished Hakka of Guangxi prefecture, it first defended itself from local strongmen and bandit troupes before it then began to clash with local government forces in late 1850. By mid 1853, it had swept across the south eastern quarter of the empire and taken over Nanjing as its new capital, which it would defend until 1864. As a consequence of the religious war, twenty to thirty million Chinese died. The killing in McDonalds is an extreme act of violence on the part of potentially unstable members of the banned sect, but the group already has an established reputation for overly forceful recruitment methods and has been widely condemned by churches within and without China.

Western press often notes how the Communist government has a deep fear of organized religions that are beyond its control. What it fails to note is that this fear has deep roots in Chinese history that extends much further back than the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 when the atheistic Communist party took national control.

Whomever is in power in China, be it in Ming, the Qing, or the early 21st century, has had to contend with such apocalyptic religious movements. Aside from the Taiping Civil War in the mid 19th century, examples that come to mind include the Boxer Uprising of 1899-1901 (which appealed mostly to young men dispossessed by the calamities of the 19th century) and the White Lotus Rebellion of the late 18th century (which started among economically disadvantaged believers in the mountains of Sichuan). And it’s questionable whether this is something that the PRC will be able to stomp out when regimes for hundreds of years have thus far failed. For example, since the 1990s, the government has been actively repressing the Falun Gong sect, yet I took this photo of pro-Falun Gong graffiti scrawled on a wall in Beijing in 2012.


This is not to say that the Chinese government is correct in its handling of followers of sects it deems counter to its interests, particularly when they have done nothing truly criminal. I don’t sanction religious persecution of any kind. But the justifiable prosecution of five members of this heterodox sect who committed murder in the sect’s name has brought the Chinese government’s attitude toward non-approved religious organizations back into people’s consciousness and it’s important to contextualize that attitude within the longer span of Chinese history. We can’t fully understand the intensity of the Chinese government’s religious persecution until we look beyond the simplistic answer, Communism, and see it in the history of the past few hundred years.

Keep in mind, however, that it’s not just China where religion with an apocalyptic flavor remains an appealing option to religious seekers. Earlier this week, another NY Times article analyzed the difference between predominant web search terms (from a decade of data) in economically well off areas of the US and terms searched for in economically fragile areas of the country, once search terms common across all areas had been removed. The data indicates that in places where life is easier, common search terms include high end cameras and technnology, whereas in areas where life is harder, common searches cluster around diabetes, firearms, and millenarian religious themes – the antichrist, the rapture, and heaven/hell.

I’m not drawing a direct line between unapproved religions in China and millenarian Christianity in the US. Rather, it illustrates even more clearly how religious ideas are tied to a multitude of factors, not bound by nation or state but linked with class, politics, and social status, among a whole host of factors. Paying attention to the dynamics of religious concerns on one side of the world can grant perspective to understanding religion on the other side as well.

Further Reading:
Heterodoxy in Late Imperial China, edited by Kwang-Ching Liu and Richard Shek
God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquanby Jonathan Spence
The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History, by B. J. ter Haar.
“Campaign to Crack Down on Fringe Sects in China Worries Mainstream Churches” NY Times, June 12, 2014.
“5 Sect Members Go on Trial in Killing at McDonald’s in China” NY TImes, August 22, 2014.
“Inequality and Web Search Trends:In One America, Guns and Diet. In the Other, Cameras and ‘Zoolander.’” NY Times, August 19, 2014.

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