Alongside China's astonishing economic boom, an almost unnoticed religious boom has quietly been taking place.
In the country's first major survey on religious beliefs, conducted in 2006, 31.4 percent of about 4,500 people questioned described themselves as religious. That amounts to more than 300 million religious believers, an astonishing number in an officially atheist country, and three times higher than the last official estimate, which had largely remained unchanged for years.
The collapse of the communist ideology created a void that has left many Chinese staring into a spiritual vacuum, looking for a value system to counterbalance the rampant materialism that seems to govern life in China.
"Chinese people don't know what to believe in anymore," says Liu Zhongyu, a professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai, who conducted the survey. "And since the political atmosphere has relaxed, they turn to religion for comfort."
One young evangelical Christian missionary travels from rural village to village in the Protestant heartland in eastern China to proselytize. She attributed her own conversion to the overwhelming pressures of China's education system.
"In high school, I felt very depressed," said the bright-eyed young woman, who gave her name as Nicole. "I felt people had no direction, and I felt life was dry and boring. I felt the pressure of school was very high. God helped me and liberated me."
Although proselytizing is still illegal in China today, she and a group of friends are openly preaching in villages, without official interference. China has come a long way from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, when all religious practice was banned, and monks and clergy were sent to prison or to perform hard labor.
Creating A 'Harmonious Society'
Since 2006, the position of China's government has been that religion can be a force for good toward the ultimate aim of creating a "harmonious society."
"What is important is that the work should be done on a legal basis," Ye Xiaowen, the official then in charge of religious affairs, told state-run Xinhua news agency in July 2006, in his first interview in a decade.
Ye, seen as a hardliner, was replaced by his deputy Wang Zuo'an in September 2009. The State Administration for Religious Affairs refused to comment for this series, and turned down repeated requests for interviews over an extended period of time.
China has a long history of peasant rebellions fueled by religious belief, and observers say the Communist government still views religion with caution, seeing it as a social issue and political issue which could affect social stability.
"It doesn't matter to the Chinese government whether you are a farmers' union, a Boy Scout troop, the Red Cross or the Catholic Church," says Sister Janet Carroll, a nun who has been active in China for decades. "If you gather people together, have authorities in place, financial means and some sort of organizational control over groups of people, the Chinese government wants to not only know about it, but also have a say about how it all functions."
To that end, after the communist revolution in 1949, the government recognized five official religions: Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Daoism and Islam. For each of them, associations were set up to supervise and monitor religious practice.
China adopted the religious policy of the Soviet Union, with a few adaptations, says the Rev. Michel Marcil, director of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau. "They had no idea of what a religious policy was," he says.
But Marcil says conversations with Chinese religious affairs officials last year have led him to believe there could be policy changes.
"They said, 'We are now trying to find something which would be much more adapted to China and its present situation than what we took from Russia back in 1949,'" he says.
Spread Of Religion Beyond Government Control
Across China, religious belief has blossomed and flourished -- far outpacing the government's framework to control it -- with a profusion of charismatic movements and a revival in traditional Chinese religions. Two-thirds of those who described themselves as religious in the 2006 survey said they were Buddhists, Taoists or worshippers of folk gods such as the Dragon King or the God of Fortune.
Another popular goddess is Mazu, who is believed to protect sailors. Although she is included in the Daoist and Buddhist pantheons, she -- and many other indigenous popular gods -- fall outside China's five official religions. However, the worship of Mazu recently has been reclassified as "cultural heritage" rather than religious practice, making it acceptable even for Communist Party members.
Academics say that model is being used elsewhere in China for other indigenous folk religions.
There are also government attempts to support traditional Chinese practices such as ancestor worship, by changing the public holidays. In 2009, the government declared the Qingming Festival -- the traditional day for sweeping graves -- a public holiday for the first time, allowing much larger numbers of people to sweep their ancestral graves.
"Now the government supports us," says Shao Longshan, his cheeks still tear-stained after bowing deeply in front of the grave of his late wife, Zhu Jiefen at a cemetery on the outskirts of Shanghai, at the Qingming festival in early April this year. "Not only does this let the people who are alive remember those who have gone, but [it allows us to] keep the Chinese traditions and culture."
The Chinese government has also given extra support to Buddhism in what scholars say is an attempt to counterbalance the explosion of Christian faith.
Faith Growing Among The Young
Another recent development is that increasing numbers of younger people are practicing religion. The 2006 survey showed 62 percent of religious believers are 39 and under.
This trend was evident at an unregistered meeting of Christians worshipping in a charismatic underground prayer meeting in the coastal city of Wenzhou, known as "China's Jerusalem." Many of the devout were young and obviously well-off. Such underground Christians have recently received surprisingly sympathetic coverage in the state-run media, raising hopes that their meetings may be legitimized.
One scholar, Liu Peng, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told the Global Times that "a huge gap" exists between the government's position on religion and Christians' needs.
"House churches also operate on a smaller scale, which means people's spiritual needs can be met more easily and they elect their own pastors. ... It's rather like the economic changes. When state-owned enterprises couldn't meet the public's needs, private businesses naturally appeared," he told the newspaper.
That link between belief and wealth is also apparent in the emergence of "boss Christians," or Christian entrepreneurs, in Wenzhou. Academics say they are helping the rapid spread of Christianity in China by building churches elsewhere to spread the "Wenzhou brand" of Christianity.
There has already been a significant relaxation of the government's religious policies over the past decade. New regulations passed in 2005 allow religious groups to send members overseas for study and to publish religious literature, among other things.
For Catholics, this has led to many clergy being able to study in the U.S. and elsewhere. They are struggling with both the theory and practice of reconciling communities who have been divided for decades: the state-sanctioned church and underground communities loyal to the Holy See.
The economic boom also is having unforeseen consequences for China's Muslims, in particular its female imams, who report difficulty recruiting new imam candidates, due to the paltry salaries. China is the only place in the world that has a tradition of independent female mosques, with their own ahong, or imams, to lead prayers and teach the Quran to women. But older female ahong report that the economic opportunities offered elsewhere mean that few women are drawn to the profession.
Beijing Rethinking Its Stance?
On a wide range of religious issues, there's clearly pressure for change in China from the grassroots, and some observers have noticed a new responsiveness from the top down.
"This is not simply something from below, but it's being met from above in constructive ways as well," says Tom Banchoff, director of Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
His organization holds annual meetings with Chinese religious affairs officials. He says this new attitude is evidenced by "the fact there are centers for religious studies arising at universities around China with public support, the fact that there's now a discourse about the positive role that religion can play in Chinese society."
This does represent a change in attitude, but at the same time, many accounts are emerging from within China of leaders of larger unsanctioned religious groups being subject to official harassment and persecution, sometimes ending up in detention and even jail.
China's Communist leaders are, it appears, still struggling with how to deal with this unruly religious boom, and their cautious steps forward sometimes end up being counterbalanced by reflexive crackdowns at a local level.
[Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]