Maoism and Grassroots Religion

The Communist Revolution and the Reinvention of Religious Life in China

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Xiaoxuan Wang
  • Oxford, UK: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The vitality of religious life in contemporary China has been the topic of considerable popular and scholarly interest in recent times. Since the early years of China’s capitalist reforms of the 1980s and ‘90s, numerous scholars have attempted to identify various causes of China’s surging religiosities accompanying state-led marketization. Today, tired tropes of a unidirectional atheist secularism or state-persecution of religion still circulate in the popular media, but no longer hold salience as they did a decade or two ago.  

Maoism and Grassroots Religion: The Communist Revolution and the Reinvention of Religious Life in China, a revision of Xiaoxuan Wang’s Harvard dissertation, is a rejoinder to these ongoing conversations about religion in contemporary China, which centralizes the role of Maoist revolutionary campaigns (1949-1976) in the reinvention of religious life. Eschewing a linear, triumphalist narrative of suffering under Mao to revival in the Reform-era, Wang takes the case of religious life in post-1949 China to highlight the limits and unintended consequences of the Communist Party’s efforts at remolding society. By zooming into the local level—studying one county (Rui’an county) in the coastal city of Wenzhou— this book reveals the multiple tactics of resistance, negotiation, and cooperation, which shaped everyday encounters between religious practitioners and the state.

Wang’s approach to local religion relies heavily on “property issues” in illuminating the multiple, uneven experiences of religious practitioners under revolutionary socialism. For the most part, Wang gives less explanatory power to conflicts over ideology, doctrine, or theology—debates waged among an urban intelligentsia—but privileges conflicts over land ownership. In a similar vein, “Maoism,” is left undefined and functions less as an analytical framework than a stand-in for periodizing the “Mao-era” and its revolutionary campaigns. Instead, Wang focuses on the role of land reform and collectivization in undermining the economic foundations of some religious institutions, rendering them placeless. “Communal religious traditions” such as Buddhist monasteries, Daoist temples, and territorial temples which relied on landholdings for income, and as sites of ritual performance, were the most severely disadvantaged as a result of restricted access to their landholdings.

The subjects of chapters 2-3, these “communal religious traditions” did not face any militarized crackdown or systemic eradication after 1949, but rather progressively lost their communal spaces. This de-territorialization and uprooting from traditional landholdings, ironically stimulated the rapid proliferation of rural Protestantism, whose privatization and flexible re-organization into smaller units, was well-suited to adapt and even expand into areas where no churches previously existed. The travails of Christianity are explored in chapters 4-6, which traces the expansion of Protestantism, whose adherents owned little land and property to begin with. Conversely, a centrally organized Catholicism suffered a similar fate to the communal temples as access to sacred sites and clergy were restricted or prohibited. It was these legacies of the Mao era which created the architecture for the post-Mao religious revival in Rui’an county (chapters 6-7).  The Protestant community grew numerically but also fractured along denominational lines; concurrently, previously dispossessed communal religious sites returned under state-sponsorship to provide eldercare support, social, and ritual services.

One of the strengths of Wang’s study lies in how it brings to life the Communist revolution, as experienced by religious practitioners at the local level. For example, Wang’s argument that the Great Leap Forward, and not the Cultural Revolution, was ruptural to local religious communities, offers a reinterpretation of existing metanarratives of religious life under Mao. Whereas the religious suppression of the Cultural revolution was sporadic and brief, the Great Leap of 1958 was much more consequential in the privatization of Protestantism, spreading out of networks, lay-leaders, and proliferation of decentralized groups. In addition, Wang’s mining of local archives, interviews and church publications reveals an ascendant Protestantism, even as the nation was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. As Wang surmises, new eschatological messages explaining the collapse of morality and order, and the promise of imminent salvation, would have been appealing amidst the political and social tumult of the Cultural Revolution.

This is, however, a study based on empirical research in one county in one exceptional part of Southeast China; thus one might legitimately question the extent to which Wang’s conclusions can be generalized more widely. Indeed, the book’s emphasis on Protestantism reflects the anomalous religious demography in Wenzhou. Likewise, while Wang’s observations of the blurring between religion/state through Communist party cadres who were religious practitioners themselves is fascinating, they may also reflect local specificities, such as the overwhelming popularity of ritual processions and events like the dragon boating festival. In addition, Wang’s attempt to de-center the trauma of the Cultural Revolution does not sufficiently address the role of collective memory in shaping the popular tropes and narratives this book seeks to challenge. In other words, why do myths about the Cultural Revolution and persecution continue to hold captive so many religious practitioners in China and elsewhere—including interlocutors in an arresting anecdote that the book opens with—whenever perceived state-intrusion into religious affairs takes place?

Finally, Wang’s argument that Maoism created an unprecedented moment of religious de-territorialization is a compelling one, but there is little attempt to connect this to wider scholarship on religion and space, or the broader patterns of de-territorialization of diaspora religious elites who fled the People’s Republic of China in the years surrounding 1949. To what extent did both forms of de-territorialization shape the contours of contemporary Chinese religion life? Given the well-known presence of the Wenzhou diaspora in Europe and elsewhere, more than a passing nod to both bodies of literature would have even more successfully situated this intimately local story within a wider context.

Notwithstanding these limitations, which perhaps reflect the complexities and multiple contexts of Wenzhou’s religious life rather than the limitations of the empirical case studies in question, this is a well-researched, finely documented book which emphasizes the indispensable role of the Maoist campaigns in shaping the character of local religion in China today. Its detailed stories, further, provide an excellent resource for teaching about the multiple and unexpected trajectories of the Chinese Communist revolution at the local level, which insists on the Maoist revolution as both destructive but equally generative for religious life in China. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Tan is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Xiaoxuan Wang is a historian of modern and late imperial China. His research interests include communal religion, Christianity, and the Chinese diaspora in Europe and the US. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2015.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.