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Parallels Between Maoism and Pre-Modern Religion in China

Updated on August 4, 2017
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Justin Aptaker graduated from the University of Tennessee with a major in psychology and a minor in comparative religious studies.

Portrait of Mao at Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) in Beijing
Portrait of Mao at Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) in Beijing | Source

Gods and Lineages

According to Rudolf Wagner, secular movements like the communist movement in China attempt to “match the religious structure with revolutionary institutions” (Wagner 378). In the case of communism in China, I would say that this was done quite successfully, with the establishment of revolutionary analogues to gods, patriarchs/heroes, temples, sacred texts, asceticism, immortality, liturgy/sacred music, community rituals, mummification, virtues, pilgrimage, orthodoxy, and even inner transformation. This paper will outline examples of these secular parallels during the Maoist/communist era to traditional religion in China.

Central to any theistic religion, of course, are its gods or God. Communist China was not without its gods. Mao Zedong “set out to deify himself” (Chinese Religion 309), and judging by the level of adoration given to him by many people—Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, shows in her memoirs that she was once such a person—, he succeeded. This meshing of political and religious authority is nothing new in China, as “the religious feelings which people in other parts of the world have toward a god have in China always been directed toward the Emperor” (Chinese Religion 312). For example, the Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty identified themselves as incarnations of buddhas and bodhisattvas (Lecture 10/28). In communist China, there developed a sort of “post-revolutionary trinity” (Chao 509) of Mao, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping.

The trinity mentioned above points to the importance of lineage in the new “secular religion”. This emphasis on lineage was shared historically by Chan Buddhism, which, not surprisingly, had other similarities to the communist “religion”. For example, Hiu-neng, the sixth patriarch of Chinese Chan, was preserved and displayed post-mortem (Lecture 10/03), much as Mao Zedong would later be (Wagner 412). Chan also had mythicized heroes, such as Boddhidharma. Concerning the legend that grew around such heroes of Chan, John McRae said, “It's not true, and therefore it's more important” (Lecture 09/28), meaning that its legendary nature made it capable of revealing what was most important in the Chan tradition. This may apply to propaganda in communist China as well, such as the mythicized character of Lei Feng, a fallen soldier whose “good deeds were miraculously recorded by an official photographer” (Chinese Religion 312). While many of Lei Feng's deeds may not have been historical fact, they were, therefore, all the more important; they illustrated the ideals and cherished values of the communist order, setting an example for all to follow.

Flag of the People's Republic of China
Flag of the People's Republic of China | Source

Transformation, Virtue, and Indoctrination

Other Buddhist traditions had parallels in the “secular religion” of Red China. One of these parallels was the goal of self-transformation. Just a few of the Buddhist routes to self-transformation include sudden realization of innate enlightenment (Chan), visualizing and identifying with a deity (Tantric Buddhism), and following the eightfold path to the extinguishing of craving. In communist China, the female worker Wei Feng-ying was praised for “remodeling her thinking and soul” (Wagner 381). Wagner even refers to Wei's self-transformation as “magical transformation” (382), calling to mind the personal transformations of external and internal alchemy. Personal transformation was also of primary importance in the Neo-Confucian tradition (Lecture 10/12).

Self-transformation within the communist paradigm, as in Chinese religion, was to result in the personal cultivation of virtue. Confucianism emphasized education and study for the cultivation of virtue. A similar focus on education—although, from a different perspective, one might call it “indoctrination”—for the instilling of communist virtues could be found in Maoist China. The Confucian virtues of loyalty, filial piety, and humanity were retained, but with modifications. The definition of filial piety was expanded so that it was best expressed by devotion to Mao himself. This was expressed in a song that said, “Father is close, Mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao” (Chinese Religion 313). The essence of filial piety, perhaps, is reciprocity. As one has received all things from one's parents, it is one's duty to give back. Thus, the Neo-Confucians were able to expand the principle of filial piety to include one's devotion to Father Heaven and Mother Earth (Chinese Religion 188). If one has received from human parents, how much more from Heaven and Earth, which cover and bear up all things, respectively? Reciprocity, therefore, demanded that filial piety be expanded to include these cosmic “parents”. In communist China, children were taught that China had received all good things from Mao. Since they had thus received, it was their filial duty to give back to Mao their complete devotion. The Confucian virtue of loyalty was similarly retained, but loyalty was, above all, owed to Mao, the communist party, and the peasants/workers.

The bodhisattva Guanyin, who strives ceaselessly to aid those in distress. Her many arms represent her power to help all those who need it.
The bodhisattva Guanyin, who strives ceaselessly to aid those in distress. Her many arms represent her power to help all those who need it. | Source

Selective Altruism

The virtue of humanity in Maoist China is expressed in Lei Feng's poem, The Four Seasons: “Like spring, I treat my comrades warmly . . . I eliminate my individualism” (Chinese Religion 311). This sort of selfless devotion is reminiscent of the vow of the bodhisattva to labor until all people have been saved. Such “selflessness” in communist rhetoric, however, did not indicate universality. This was not the universal love of the bodhisattva or of Mo Tzu, but the very sort of partiality that ran deep in Confucian tradition—a tradition charged by Ch'en Tu-shiu with justifying and rationalizing a long history of despotism in China (Hu Shih 5)—, much to Mo Tzu's dismay (Chinese Religion 51). This is evident as the poem continues, “to the class enemy, I am cruel and ruthless like harsh winter” (Chinese Religion 311). So humanity in Maoist China was a selective humanity. One was to feel no commiseration for the “class enemy”.

This clear demarcation of “us” and “them” leads to the religion in Chinese history that bears perhaps some of the most striking resemblances to communism: Celestial Masters Daoism. This form of Daoism was revolutionary, millenarian, and community oriented. It focused on sacred texts and the communal chanting of these texts, fused religious and political authority, espoused egalitarian attitudes towards women, and established clearly defined boundaries for orthodox teachings and practices (Poceski 72 – 75). Celestial Masters exclusivism created a clear sense of “us” and “them”, as did communist rhetoric. Their liberal stance towards women was echoed by Mao Zedong's “ideological assault . . . [against] the domination of women by men” (Chinese Religion 303). Their use of sacred texts has its parallel in the “Maoist canon” (Wagner 382). While this canon, including Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, was important for establishing doctrine, it was perhaps equally important for its use in communist ritual and “liturgy”. Emily Chao, speaking of a Naxi village during the Cultural Revolution, says, “Loudspeakers roused the villagers every morning with the inevitable revolutionary songs . . . which echoed through the village . . . Quotations from Chairman Mao, recited like daily mantras, spoke of . . . the very meaning of life” (Chao 509). Like the communal chanting of the Celestial Masters Daoists, this communist “liturgy” functioned to reinforce a strong sense of community cohesion focused on the central values of the “theocratic” Maoist state.

There are too many parallels between Maoism and traditional Chinese religions to even begin to fully cover in a paper of this scope. Mao's mummification represents a new kind of symbolic immortality, as expressed by his words, “The people's heroes will be eternally handed to posterity without decaying” (Wagner 397). Immortality was one of the most ancient concerns of Chinese religion, dating back at least as far as the fangshi and the Zhuangzi (Poceski 72). The memorial hall that holds Mao's body has the design of “buildings with the authority of the eternal like Buddhist temples. . .” (Wagner 403 – 404). Pilgrimage was also a longstanding theme in Chinese religion, as evidenced by the theme of pilgrimage in its most popular folk novel, Journey to the West (aka Monkey) (Wagner 379). Pilgrimage in the communist sense was at times idealized as an ascetic practice by which one aimed to spark one's revolutionary fervor by “willingly [incurring and enduring] hardships and fasting” (Wagner 380). Asceticism and fasting were well-established in China by the Buddhist Sangha. Immortality, temples, pilgrimage, asceticism/fasting... The list could go on and on. There were indeed many similarities between Communism/Maoism and premodern forms of religion and philosophy in China.

The Ancient and Enourmous Land of China

© 2011 Justin Aptaker


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    • vrajavala profile image

      vrajavala 5 years ago from Port St. Lucie

      If you examine Buddhism, you will see that it is actually a form if atheism.

      Ref: Caitanya Caritamrita

      You see, Krsna is the Supreme Personality if Godhead and he manifests Himself to everyone, even the atheists.