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Is Communism to be Blamed for China's Religious Policy?

Tanya Storch


     Western scholarship on East Asia and World historians generally may benefit from a fresh approach to analyzing religious policies of the People's Republic of China. Currently, they seem content to repeat familiar accusations that China's repression of religious freedom is rooted in communist doctrine. However, this approach does not give sufficient attention to the history of Chinese law which, since the Tang dynasty (618–907), aimed at preventing powerful religious movements from rising and forming competitive institutions, similar to the Catholic Church of Europe. This essay offers five comparative cases show that the Chinese government's approach to religion is differs little from that employed throughout Chinese history. It has always, as today, viewed religions as being equally in need of government regulations, specifically, when it concerns the amount of land they possess; the amount of people they attract; proselytism in public places; and anti-government messages in their teachings. Such regulations appear to most Westerners to be specifically antireligious because our societies have inherited the notion of the "sacredness" of the Church. Chinese civilization, however, is different from the Western model and is based on the notion of the "sacredness" of the government.

Reconsidering the Roots of Contemporary Chinese Religious Policy

     The People's Republic of China government has been continuously accused by the West for its violations of human rights, especially, the right to religious freedom. To mention some recent cases, on April 20, 2006, at the official welcoming ceremony of President Hu Jingtao, a reporter for the Epoch Times interrupted Hu's speech by shouting in support of the Falun Gong for more than two minutes before she was hustled away by security agents. The investigative reports that followed this incident revealed that thousands of Chinese were forced into "labor re-education" or imprisoned since 1999 because of their participation in the Falun Gong religious organization. American citizens were outraged and wrote angry protests to the press and US government officials.1

     In the spring of 2008, when the Olympic Games were played in Beijing, angry protestors stepped into the streets of European, American and Australian cities to condemn the PRC government's persecution of Tibetan Buddhist nuns and monks and demanded that Tibetans be allowed to freely engage in practicing their national religion, the Gelug School of the Vajrayana Buddhism. Western politicians, such as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, and European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering, suggested that the European Union should boycott the opening ceremony in Beijing if the persecution of Tibetans did not stop.2

     Yet, as Europeans and Americans keep busy expressing their dismay at the Chinese government, the Chinese government officials recently had their turn to look with similar dismay at the European governments. The reference here is to the international scandal that erupted in the spring of 2010 over sexual crimes committed by Catholic bishops—crimes that were covered up for many decades by the Church's highest officials, including Pope Benedict. According to Chinese officials, Western governments' inaction in this situation speaks of the real power of the Church in the face of the powerless secular governments. They find clear evidence of this in the fact that hundreds of thousands of European citizens were abused by the Church bishops, yet governments lacked the authority to press charges against them, or even investigate their crimes.

     The question we need to ask ourselves at this point is this – Is it possible that Chinese and European cultures have radically different views on how much government intervention into religious affairs of its citizens is necessary for a stable society? The author of this article believes that the answer to this question is yes. When dealing with Chinese religious policies, one must be constantly reminded that the Chinese and European societies developed differently as far as the balance between the power of the organized religion, such as the Church,3 and the power of a political government is concerned. Europeans, for many centuries, allowed the Church to dominate their lives, including most important issues of social and political governance. By the contrast, government institutions in China, having experienced the power and danger of the organized religion, committed themselves to regular preventive measures against a possibility of the rising of the Church. Using a specific analogy from world history can be helpful here.

     After the Dominican priest Savonarola (1452–1498) had seriously challenged the Medici's government in the Republic of Florence, Medici learned to respect the Church and protect the dynasty by relying on, and sometimes, usurping its power. By contrast, after the Yellow Turbans in China nearly destroyed the Han dynasty's government in the late second century, the following dynasties responded by adopting laws precluding religious organizations from becoming so powerful that they would be able to rise against the government.4 These, what might be called, anti-religious laws establishing the government as the highest moral, intellectual and social authority in the country, were developed by the Tang 618–907), Song (960–1279), Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. During the same time period in Europe, it was the Church that reigned supreme over all issues of human moral social behavior, exercising a great deal of control over its political establishments at the same time. And it is precisely because of this dramatic difference in the historical evolution of our two societies, I argue, that the problem of "religious freedom" is particularly difficult for the Chinese-Western relations.

     In order to initiate a dialogue in this area, a better understanding of the history of Chinese society by general public is required. This is where a comparative study of laws designed by the Chinese government for the regulation of its people's religious activities can be very useful for it will make us realize that the religious policies of today, which Western scholars associate strictly and almost exclusively with the Communist ideology, and religious policies observed in this country over the past fourteen hundred years are consistent in expressing the same idea about the role of government in its citizens' religious practices. I hope through this research to convince my audience that the seemingly "draconian rules" of modern China cannot be conveniently blamed on the Chinese Communist Party alone because they are, in essence, a continuation of one of the oldest traditions of civil government.

Comparative cases

     In traditional China, citizens' religious activities were regulated by the state through the local state officials who based their decisions on criminal law known to us through such collections as The Tang Dynasty Code with the Commentaries and Explanations (Tanglu shuyi), published in 653; Criminal Code of the Song Dynasty (Song xingtong), published in 963; Laws and Regulations of the Qingyuan Era Selected according to the Categories 0f Crimes (Qingyuan tiaofa shilei), published in 1202; and similar codes developed by the later dynasties.5 In the 20th century, during the Cultural Revolution, all traditional religions were abolished; thus, laws regulating them did not need to exist.6 The stated goal of eliminating all religions was maintained by the Communist leaders until 2001, despite the fact that some activities were allowed during the late eighties and early nineties. After the PRC joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and Jiang Zemin publicly declared religion to be a positive force in the life of Chinese people, capable of assisting national development, the attitude toward traditional and foreign religions changed dramatically. This change resulted in passing specific laws to regulate citizens' religious activities. Specifically, in March of 2005, the State Council adopted Regulation on Religious Affairs (RRA) which represents the first comprehensive national regulation devoted to religious issues. Although these new regulations are not as systematically organized as criminal laws in the aforementioned codes of the Tang and Song dynasties, the two sets of policies, the old and the new ones, exhibit striking similarities when we read them in comparison, especially if we concentrate our attention on the areas the government considered to be crucial to its centralized power, such as control over land and buildings ownership allowed to religious organizations, amounts of people allowed to converted to each specific religious community, as well as some other concerns, including the restriction on travel and public proselytism for the members of the clergy, young people's conversions and religious institutions' accountability to promote moral and patriotic system of education developed by the state. The following five comparative cases between the past and present policy, because of consistency in similarity between the old and new regulations, are intended to push our public and academic audiences toward reexamining the prevailing "communist" theory of the current religious policies of China.

Case I: Laws regulating land purchases and building of religious facilities

     We begin by looking at the laws regulating land purchases and building permits for religious facilities. In the old China, the government was declared to be the ultimate owner of all the land in the country and saw it as its responsibility to look after the land and ensure that it was not used against its citizens' "best interests." This position was enforced through a set of regulations which prohibited religious communities from purchasing land and building or extending their facilities without government permission. This is exemplified in the provisions found in the juan 51 of the Laws and Regulations of the Qingyuan Era: "A private person or the entire community that built a Buddhist or Daoist monastery without permission must be punished by two years of penal servitude. Whoever, without permission, built a Buddhist or Daoist altar outside the monastery should face the same punishment. Even if the construction of such facilities has not been completed but only planned for, the responsible persons should receive one year of penal servitude."7

     Comparing this to modern policies, we find that the premise of the government being the ultimate owner of all land in the country remains intact. Articles 9 and 10 of the New Constitution adopted by the National People's Congress in 2007 install property rights which apply to purchasing land for building churches, monasteries, and other religious facilities. According to these laws, land property must be registered with the government in order to be legal. This is done in a form of a land-use permission given to a religious organization that is defined in terms of the civil law concept of usufruct.8 The usufruct allows a temporary use of property by another party for as long as the property is put to a good use. In our situation, this means that the government allows religious organizations to use the land temporarily and only for as long as it sees it to be not harmful. Government remains the ultimate owner of all land used for the construction of churches, temples, monasteries and other religious facilities and retains the right to confiscate them at any moment.

     Although on the surface of things, this policy appears to be purposely anti-religious, it is not. The main reason behind it is to prevent religious communities from becoming influential land and property owners. During the Tang dynasty (618–907), when these laws were enforced for the first time, Buddhist and Daoist monasteries became extremely rich due to the accumulation of land and land speculation. The economic power of the monasteries transformed into a political pressure, presenting serious threat to the central government. This is why, since the eighth century, the central government has prevented monasteries, as well as other religious organizations, from becoming permanent owners of the land, as well as of the facilities that are permanently built on it. All religions spread on Chinese territory were, and still are, subject to these regulations. According to the 2005 Regulation on Religious Affairs (article 14), penalties for violating requirements to register and obtain necessary permits in China are punishable by financial fines, however, the unregistered organization can be dealt with in a much harsher manner if it is declared to be an illegal cult.

     If we choose to approach these regulations as discriminatory, we must admit that they discriminate equally against all forms of religion, including Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Christianity, or other. This needs to be appreciated within a greater global context in which some governments still hold a constitutional right to persecute against all public practices inconsistent with the state sanctioned religiosity and yet draw no criticism on that account. For instance, in the Arab Islamic countries, no religion other than the state sanctioned Sunni Islam can be publicly preached or practiced. This means that, by law, Buddhists are not allowed to buy land and build a monastery in any of the Arab Islamic countries, nor can Hindus build their temples there, or Shamans come in possession of mountain property for practicing a vision quest. And at the same time, all this is possible under the law of China, both ancient and current, provided the religious practitioners' willingness to submit to government regulations. To me, it seems unfortunate that, while China has been consistently criticized by the West for its lack of religious freedoms, it is still not recognized for being one of the earliest multi-faith societies in human history, where Hindus, Daoists, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Muslims and Shamans felt free to build their communities and practice publicly since, at least, the eighth century.

Case B: "Religious passport" and its role in controlling the religious population and securing the flow of taxes and forced labor

     Another aspect of government control over people's religious activities concerns taxes, military service and forced labor. In the past, residing in monasteries, Buddhists and Daoists were not recruited for warfare because of their religious beliefs. For the same reason, they could not be forced into building roads, walls or military fortifications. Finally, since these people were not supposed to have any property as they renounced all their worldly possessions before entering the monastic community, they were not required to pay taxes. The Chinese state found that, in times of war, people fled to the monasteries and accepted conversion in thousands just to avoid becoming soldiers, as during difficult economic times, masses of people accepted conversion in order to procure food and shelter, as well as to escape eminent criminal punishment when their property taxes were not paid.

     To deal with this sort of problem, the government established control over the number of people who were allowed at any given time to become Buddhists, Daoists or other types of monastics who vowed to renounce their social duties. Specifically, since the time of the Tang dynasty, the law required that citizens wishing to live in a monastery must obtain the dudie 9 —a "religious passport" issued by the Bureau of Religious Affairs. Those who had valid religious passports were allowed to stay in the monastic communities and avoid paying taxes. They were not required to give military service or forced labor. However, those citizens who were found in the monastic communities without a religious passport were punished by a year to three years of forced labor.

     Turning to modern regulations, and specifically the 2005 RRA, we find that similar provisions are being made, requiring that religious activists register with the local Religious Affairs Bureau and receive written permission for religious activities. This law applies equally to all religions permitted on the territory of the PRC. It also applies to both Chinese and foreign nationals. Everyone wishing to guide people in the activities of the above mentioned religions must register with the local RAB or they can be legally persecuted and punished. Fines for acting as a religious activist without legal permission are between 500 and 2,000 RMB. In serious cases, lack of registration can lead to an arrest and forced labor. 10

     Additionally, the number of people willing to renounce their social duties for the sake of religious pursuits is, as in the past, controlled through the strictly imposed age censor. According to the traditional law, people who were younger than eighteen needed their parents' permission to join a monastery or any other religious organization which required celibacy and renunciation of the family relationships as a part of their practice. The current law does not require parents' permission, but strictly prohibits people younger than eighteen from registering with RAB. Without such registration, as we already know, individuals are not allowed to publicly engage in religious worship or reside in a religious institution. If discovered, they will be persecuted with fines or labor re-education.

     It should be noted that this age barrier has been selected for a reason. In the old China, people were married before or by the age of eighteen and thus were less inclined to leave the family behind and dedicate all their time to religious causes. In modern China, people do not always marry around eighteen; yet the position held by the government is that young people can be too easily affected by religious propaganda and need to be protected until they are old enough to make their own decisions.

Case 3: Religious organizations must accept names and titles approved by the government

     In imperial China, permission to buy land and build religious facilities depended on the name and title of the organization applying for it. Names and titles of all religious organizations were approved by the local Bureau for the Religious Affairs, and sometimes, by the provincial governor and the Emperor. During the Tang, Song and later dynasties, officials watched very carefully over religious organizations to ensure that their names and titles remained exactly as they were approved and additional amounts of land and facilities could not be claimed. If a particular monastery happened to change its name and title without the government's permission, persons responsible for such violations were beaten by several dozen blows with a stick and exiled.11

     This policy is also found in modern China, although the punishment for its violation no longer includes beatings with a stick. In particular, religious organizations must have their names approved by the RAB, which is the administrative equivalent to the imperial Bureau of Religious Affairs. In addition to this, all legal organizations must be recognized as the "Three Self-Patriotic" in order to be registered with the government. The title of the "Three Self-Patriotic" serves as proof of that an organization bearing such a title is fulfilling three obligations: 1) It is self-supporting, meaning it does not use Chinese, or international government financial, material and moral support. 2) It is self-administering, meaning all secretarial, business and administration work is done by the members of the organization without any help from the outside. 3) It is self-propagating, meaning it does not rely on the state controlled radio, television, press and other information media for its propaganda.

     Furthermore, all religious organizations, even as small as a Bible study group or house church, must register and receive a title within one of the three organizations: the Catholic Patriotic Association, the Christian Council, and the Buddhist-Daoist-Muslim Patriotic Association. Only five "Self-Patriotic" religions are presently recognized by the government—Catholicism, Protestantism, Daoism, Buddhism and Islam—and they are represented by the above listed three organizations. If a new organization is to be formed, it must be registered with one of these already existing associations. A religious group that is not legally a part of them must immediately disassemble or face persecution. Penalties can be charged from 2, 000 RMB to forced labor to exile.

Case 4: Religious activists need government permission to travel and proselytize

     Travel around the country, and especially travel for the sake of religious propaganda, required written government permission throughout all of traditional history. Religious activists who were discovered preaching outside of the designated parameters of the official places of worship were punished by detention inside the monastery, beating with a stick, and forced labor.12 According to the laws practiced in the 11th and 12th centuries, Buddhists and Daoists were not allowed to preach or in any form propagate their religion besides the occasions sanctioned by the local government. If they disobeyed the law, they were punished by one hundred days of detention inside the monastery. If they managed to convert new people to their religion, they and the new converts were punished by one hundred blows with a stick. Cases of unauthorized conversions were viewed as serious crimes, and even government officials were punished for that. If they failed to prevent conversions, they were beaten and exiled. Such severity of the laws was aimed at containing massive religious movements, which led hundreds of thousands of people to leave behind their normal lives and engage in, what may be called today, radical religious behavior.

     Chinese history abounds in such cases of radicalism. In recent history, the Taiping movement (started in 1853) resulted in death of twenty million people, following a proclamation by a Confucian scholar Hong Xiuquan that he was a younger brother of Jesus Christ.13 A movement ideologically similar to the Taipings also occurred in the late 1990. Its members called it the Lightning from the East (LFE) and believed that Christ had returned to earth in a form of a village woman. The LEF beliefs required that all Chinese must be purified from their sins in order for the Christ's miracles to unfold. Its members invited villagers to go out of their homes under the pretext of praying for them and purifying their bodies and their residences. In the process, they disfigured hundreds of people by cutting off their ears and breaking their legs. The LFE abducted and killed nearly a hundred of Chinese evangelists because they had warned their parishioners of this cult; the killings were blamed on the government.

     Laws aimed at curbing massive conversions in order to protect government interests are nearly identical in the traditional and modern Chinese codes. For example, according to the RRA adopted for the Jiangsu province, "All religious activities must be conducted within the confines of religious sites lawfully registered." "Preachers cannot go outside their own areas to evangelize or preach without first filing with the relevant Religious Affairs Bureau."14 Severe penalties are promised to those who cross the internal Chinese boundaries to engage in religious activities without written legal permission, or hold religious ceremonies in places not registered with the RAB. Although detention inside the monasteries or churches, or beating with a stick are no longer practiced under modern law, those who set up new religious sites and convert people to their religion without government permission and registration may be fined between 2, 000 and 20, 000 RMB. Just to understand how severe the punishment is one needs to know that 2, 000 RMB is nearly the annual wage for the rural believers. Authorities also threaten confiscation of property in some cases.

Case 5: Government is the ultimate moral authority

     Probably no other set of laws appears to Westerners to be a greater violation of religious freedom than the laws authorizing government to inspect moral qualities of the religious activists and punish them if they are found lacking. Such laws, however, existed in China for more than a thousand years and they still exist now.

     Traditionally, Daoist and Buddhist clergy were punished more severely for adultery, theft and vandalism than other citizens. The reasoning behind this was that people who dedicated their lives to cultivating moral purity must be judged by higher standards than the rest of the population. To make sure that religious people understood the principles by which government officials evaluated them, regular examinations were conducted in places of worship. These examinations were similar to the examinations the officials themselves had to pass before they were given the office. The head of the local Bureau of Religious Affairs usually selected several texts and questions for the examination, and clergy members had to write essays based on them. Officials decided who was worthy of the religious titles. In cases of suspected moral transgressions, sometimes, it was the religious community itself that reported to the government about the misconduct of one of its members. However, more often, officials from the BRA investigated the guilty and decided on the punitive measures.

     An important question that needs to be addressed at this point is—Why, in the context of the Chinese culture, is government responsible for the moral purity of religious practitioners? This unique interdependence between the religious communities and government officials stems from one of the oldest beliefs underlying the entire Chinese civilization—belief in the "Sacredness of the Government." Since the Zhou dynasty (1122–256 B.C.E.), the Emperor, and the political institutions he created, were viewed as the single most essential condition needed by human society for its survival. The Emperor's power rested on ancestral worship and worship of the "Ten Thousand Spirits" which included Heaven and Earth. It was honestly believed that if the Emperor stopped his sacred mediation between the world of humans and the world of the ancestral and natural spirits, everything would come to an end. This theocratic philosophy made the Emperor, along with his government, equal in their sanctity to the sanctity of the Roman Catholic Church, or possibly, even God himself.15

     Due to such views, all forms of human activity appeared smaller in scale. Religious movements, including Daoism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, developed their doctrines and practices within the framework of the Emperor's God-like mission on earth and adapted their missions to his. Their greatest aspiration was proclaimed to be able to assist the imperial government in maintaining the precarious balance between humanity and cosmos and do that by cultivating human nature and changing it from the violent to peaceful, from sinful to moral.

     The Chinese empire was abolished not so long ago, in the first decade of the 20th century. Chinese modern policy is a remarkable preservation of the above described ancient philosophy—the work of the government is still viewed by the government members and millions of its citizens as the most important, "most sacred" work in the world. When Jiang Zemin announced that religious practices are once again permitted, he justified this by the usefulness of religious practices for the work of the government. Religions, he said, are capable of assisting national development by developing human character in terms of lawfulness, obedience, patriotism and moral character. All regulations passed since then uphold that religions are useful for the government and their primary duty is to educate citizens in patriotism, socialism and legal system.16

     Specific provisions helping modern government assert its role of the ultimate moral authority in the country are abundantly present in the 2005 RRA: Religious workers, including foreign-born individuals, are required to have an interview and take an exam at the RAB (Religious Affairs Bureau) head-quarters in order to receive a certification. Without a certificate ("religious passport"), their practices are illegal and can be persecuted. The RAB also decides what types of activities are appropriate for the moral education of the citizens. They usually permit prayers, chanting, singing and reading of the scriptures whose contents are approved by the RAB, but forbid rituals leading to the altered states of consciousness, such as drumming circles and ecstatic dances. Those who wish to enroll in the seminaries, or other types of religious schools, must pass an examination to prove that they are endowed with the necessary patriotic and moral qualifications.17


     Modern laws in China regulate religious activities in accordance with the traditional views, establishing government as the ultimate land-owner and moral authority in the country whose responsibility is to protect citizens against all sorts of social imbalances, including massive religious movements. The dichotomy between the power of the Church and power of the state, which dominated centuries of European history and is still effective today, is unfamiliar to this society. Manifestations of this omnipresent position of the government appear to many critics of Chinese religious policy as purposely and specifically anti-religious and arising from communist critiques of religion, but it is argued here that their origins lay in ancient patterns of Chinese authority which envision the state as the most "sacred" element of Chinese society. Viewed in this light, what often appears as Chinese anti-religious policy, past and present, is merely an expression of the need to control religious activity in the service of a higher moral authority: the state itself.

     As shown in the five comparative cases, the primary function of the current policy is the same as in the past—to ensure that a religious organization similar to the Church does not rise and create competition to the work of the central government. The legislation which has been analyzed through the comparative studies does not indicate that religions are considered evil or useless just because they are religions. It does indicate, however, that the power of massive, and overly zealous religious movements is recognized as a serious threat to the governance, and therefore, in need of limitations through the proper regulatory systems. In particular, in the past and in the present, all religious organizations must submit to regulations through the amount of land they can own and the number of people they can attract. They are also regulated through the limitations imposed on proselytism in public places, use of public resources for religious purposes and age censor. Finally, they are regulated through the limitations imposed on the types of religious rituals and contents of scriptures and prayers. If the latter contain teachings about the cosmic divine order which prohibits citizens from respecting and obeying the laws of the government, these are not tolerated.

     It might be argued, therefore, that most of the regulations, which the Western public perceives as specifically anti-religious, are aimed at a different goal—to protect the government against the rise of the Church and massive religious movements which can disrupt the social order and overturn the government. Since the time of Confucius himself (551–479 B.C.E.), the existence of central authority was justified by two functions: to satisfy people's basic economic needs, such as food and shelter; and provide people with moral education, including respect for the family and government. We may disagree on whether, from our point of view, China has the best form of leadership, but from the Chinese perspective, it does exactly what it is expected to.

Tanya Storch, Ph.D. – Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of the Pacific in Northern California. She has written more than twenty articles in the field of East Asian religion and spirituality, including contributions to Religion, Law and Freedom: A Global Perspective (Westport, Connecticut, London: Praeger, 2000) and Religions and Missionaries in the Pacific, 1500-1900. (Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2006). She can be reached at


1 The Falun Gong literally means "Mastery of the Wheel." It is a syncretistic religion based on elements of Buddhism and Daoism. Literature on the Falungong is overabundant. I recommend John Wong and William T. Liu, The Mystery of Falun Gong (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. and Singapore University Press, 1999); Li Hongzhi, Falun Gong (rev. ed.) (Gloucester, MA: Fair Winds Press, 2001); and Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices2005 (China), March 8, 2006. Online sources: and

2 To the best of my knowledge, these events have not yet been covered by an academic study. An impressive collection of newspaper and magazine articles is on http//

3 While it is difficult to give a definition of the Church in one paragraph, I will do my best as I am aware of that this may be an unfamiliar concept for some international readers. In the early Christian doctrine, Church was understood as a religious community as a whole, but eventually, it came to imply the Church of Rome. During the third-fourth centuries, scholars such as Eusebius of Caesarea (260–340) formulated relationship between the Church and the state as the one where the Emperor must submit to the spiritual leadership of the Church (he is declared to be the "son of the Church") while the Church recognized the power of the Emperor to protect the Church and preserve the unity of the faith. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Church's claim to dominion increased as it was viewed by many as the only guarantor of order in Europe. Subsequently, Roman Popes created an ecclesiastical state while proclaiming the Roman Pope to be a representative of Jesus Christ on earth. In this context, judicial pretenses of the Church continued, including a fraudulent account of Emperor Constantine's conferring upon Pope Sylvester I (314–335) the "primacy of the West" and displacing the old Rome by a "new Rome of the Church," Byzantium. Church maintained its preeminence over the worldly and spiritual powers in many countries of Europe until it has been sufficiently challenged during the age of Enlightenment.

4 The revolt of the "Yellow turbans" is considered to be the earliest on record anti-government protest in ancient China which had been incited and conducted by an organized religion. The uprising that lasted for nearly twenty years (184–204) contributed to the collapse of the Han dynasty. The leader of the rebellion, Daoist priest Zhang Jue commanded his followers to wear yellow headbands to represent the power of the element Earth which, according to the doctrine of the Five Elements, was rising to replace the Fire element (represented by color red) of the corrupt Han government.

5 The Tang dynasty code was translated to English in 1997 by W. Johnson (T'ang Code). Of the Song codes, only parts of the most important compendium, Qingyuan tiaofa shilei, are preserved. To the best of my knowledge, it still lacks full English translation. One can rely on Brian McKnight's Law and Order in Sung China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) for an extensive study of the policies it contains. The Ming dynasty code whose religious policies were significantly different from those of the previous dynasties is available in 2005 translation by Jiang Yonglin (Ming Code). Chinese texts are available online (KU ScholarWorks, published by Journal of Asian Legal History). A general discussion of law and religion in China is in recently published (and absolutely brilliant) work by Paul Katz. See Divine Justice: Religion and the Development of Chinese Legal Culture. London: Routledge, 2009. Also, see classic works by Patricia Eberey, Religion and Society in T'ang and Sung China (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993); Derk Bodde, Law in Imperial China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967); and T. Ch'u, Law and Society in Traditional China (Paris: Mouton, 1961).

6I like the suggestion made by Jiping Zuo that not only all traditional religions were abolished but the quasi-religious rituals were created to glorify the Communist Party and its leader. See "Political Religion: The Case of Cultural Revolution in China," Sociological Analysis, 52 (1991).

7 All references to the Qingyuan tiaofa shilei are made according to the Sibu congkan (Shanghai, 1934) edition of this text. I use the Qingyuan tiaofa shilei regulations as primary examples of the classic Chinese law in these areas. The Tang dynasty can be credited for its creation of a system of criminal laws used against the religious activists, but it was the Song dynasty that perfected it by firmly establishing most (if not all) known categories of the religious people's criminal behavior subject to state regulation and punishment. Qingyuan tiaofa shilei dealing with religious crimes have been partially translated to German by von W. Eichorn in 1968, and to Russian by Evgeny Kychanov in 1987. For this article, I use my own translations, although I am deeply indebted to Kychanov and Eichorn for their work.

8 According to the West's Encyclopedia of American Law, the usufruct is defined as "the right to use and enjoy the property and advantages of something belonging to another as long as the property is not damaged or altered in any way." West's Encyclopedia of American Law on-line.

9 A variant of this term is gaodie.

10 Full texts of national and provincial regulations have not been opened to the public. For my research, I used the leaked information, posted on Compass Direct and similar websites, along with information on development of religious policies in China available through regular public reports made by the Congressional Executive Commission on China (

11 Qingyuan tiaofa shilei, juan 51.

12 Tanya Storch, "The Past Explains the Present: State Control Over Religious Communities in Medieval China," The Medieval History Journal 3 (2000): 325–26.

13 See William James Hail's classic, Tseng Kuo-fan and the Taiping Rebellion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927) and Jonathan Spence's, God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (New York: University of New York Press, 1996) to reflect on a shift in the Western perspective on this event.

14 The Jiangsu Provincial Regulations accessed through the Hong Kong Compass Direct on May 15, 2002.

15 The Emperor was called Tian-zi, "Son of Heaven"—an expression in which one may see as a direct parallel to the title of Jesus Christ—"Son of God." As many good studies have been written about the "sacred nature" of the government in China, I recommend Roger Ames' The Art of Rulership (Albany: State University of New York) as reliable introduction comprehensible to all levels of readership.

16 "Religious bodies have the following duties: To accept administrative supervision lawfully carried out by the Religious Affairs Bureau and other relevant departments and educate citizens believing in religion in patriotism, socialism and legal system." Jiangsu Provincial Regulations, article 11. (Accessed through Compass Direct, 5/1/02)

17 RRA, article 14 states that "all registered churches must have personnel who are qualified under the prescription of the religion concerned."


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