C3S Occasional Paper 002/2017
Radical religious cults are a disturbing aspect of today’s China. Such cults are not new to China. This article surveys the beliefs, growth and conflict with the state of religious cults in China from the ancient era till the present times.
China is emerging as a great power. The one party government has meant continuity in policy. Furthermore, there has been no major social unrest in the last few decades. This has served as an attractive point for many of China’s international partners. In this light, it is important to understand various socio-political forces that can destabilize the present situation. One alarming aspect of Chinese society today is the growth of radical religious cults.These cults have a vision for China which is completely different to that of the communist party. Furthermore, many of them have anti-social doctrines (for e.g. The Church of Almighty God).The state maintains a strict vigil over cults and has been often criticized for their persecution. To understand the state’s suspicion one has to look into history. Ancient and medieval China saw a large number of religious cults which turned rebellious and posed serious threat to the imperial dynasties. This article begins by providing a survey of rebellious religious cults in ancient and medieval China, then goes on to discuss radical cults in China at present. We also briefly discuss the possible reasons for the growth of such cults.
Rebellious Religious Cults in Ancient and Medieval China
One of the first encounters of a cult with the state dates back to the 2nd Century; a cult known as “The Yellow Turban” revolted against the declining Han dynasty. The cult’s leader was Zhang Jue. There is legend that he was lead to the mystic world by an encounter with a wise old man in a forest. Luo Guangzhong and Sun Tzu narrate the story:
Zhang Jue the eldest brother among three brothers from JuluCounty once met an old man in a forest. This old man took Zhang Jue into a cave and gave him 3 volumes of the book of heaven. He narrated that the book has essential arts of peace. He suggested that with the help of this book, Zhang Jue could rescue the mankind. It was great responsibility to Zhang Jue as once assured, Zhang Jue would not be able to concentrate on this work and do his duties, and he will suffer greatly. Introducing himself as Saint Hermit of the southern land, the old gentleman disappeared in air. After reading this book, he was now able to summon the winds and command the rain. This way he now became the mystic of the way of peace.
At that time, China was hit by plague. Zhang Jue distributed remedies to people as per instructions given to him in the book of heavens. The remedies were called “Godly Remedies”. Through these Zhang became very popular and acquired large number of disciples. Zhang preached about equal rights of all and equal distribution of land. This appealed to many as in the later stages of the Han dynasty land was being controlled by a very few. As the organization grew Zhang militarized it to solidify his power. Circuits were established, each circuit having its own military chief. Zhang himself assumed the position of the general of the heavens.
Finally, in 184 AD Zhang gave the decree for a radical change. He put it in a dramatic fashion- the concept of the sky being blue was challenged and the call was made for a Yellow (Golden) Sky. The slogan “The Blue sky is down; the yellow should emerge.” was put forward. It was proclaimed that this would end the old cycle bring a new cycle beneficial to all. In reality, a rebellion against the Han dynasty was being called for. Zhang made an elaborate plan. The militia was consolidated and courtiers in the Han court were bribed. But before the final onslaught, one of Zhang’s close associates betrayed him and the Han Emperor Ling became aware of the plot. The emperor summoned Marshal He Jin to suppress the rebellion. The Yellow Turbans were a formidable force, a fierce confrontation took place for years. Towards the end of 196 AD, the Yellow Turban leadership including Zhang were killed and the Hans emerged victorious. But after two months, surviving followers revolted again. Smaller groups of yellow turbans continued to revolt in the following years. It was only in 205 AD that the rebellion was suppressed completely.
Another cult which emerged in the era of the decline of the Hans was The Five Pecks of Rice Cult. It was founded by Zhang Ling(Zhang Daoling). Jonathan Chamberlain describes its inception as: “In Szechuan a man named Chang Lingstarted a health cult which involved miracle cures. The cult grew in popularity. The charge for a cure was an annual payment of five pecks of rice.” This religious society later grew under the leadership Zhang Ling’s son and grandson. With time,an apocalyptic vision of the world crept into the sect . Zhang Liu (Zhang Ling’s grandson) established his own army and a theocratic state. One of the primary goals of the state was to sweep away sin from the society. They believed that those on the path of sin will die but the followers of the group who get right training and gain the right balance ofQi (vital energy) would survive the apocalypse. These people would be the seeds that would repopulate the earth. The state flourished for around twenty five years. It fell in 215 AD, when Zhang Liu surrendered to the Han general Cao Cao, he and his family members were positions in the court.
Medieval China also saw powerful rebellious cults. The White Lotus Group was a secret society which emerged in the 14thcentury during the period of Mongol rule. In its initial phase, the primary activity of its members was to chant Buddhist sutras. This was to purify their soul and lead them to Nirvana. But later it also adopted an apocalypticview of the world. It felt that it was its duty to save the humanity by providing right guidance. Scot Lowe writes:
“According to the Gnostic myth shared by White Lotus Group, humans are children of an ancient mother goddess who sent her offspring down to earth to play. Over time the children became entangled in the world of matter and desire, forgetting their origins in pure spirit. Trapped in the realm of worldly pleasure, the children became coarse and vulgar, neighed down by progressively heavy burdens of evil karma. Soon a great period of purifying period of disaster will come. The kalpa is about to turn, brings with a black wind that will annihilate all unbelievers. The faithful few will then live happily ever after in radically transformed, depopulated and purified world. Since time is running out, it is urgent that all spiritually salvageable individuals heed the message of a new saviour. With a charismatic and suitable leader and a powerful message, White Lotus Groups were and perhaps still are, capable of explosive. Leaders of White Lotus Group usually emphasised the importance of vegetarianism and celibacy and often teach mantra recitation as an essential practice.”
Early rebellions by the group took place in the later part of the 14th century. It is believed that the first Ming Emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang was a member in his youth (before he established the Ming dynasty). The group was less active for the next centuries reemerging strongly in the Qing period. The Great Qing Legal Code has explicit mention of the White Lotus: “All societies calling themselves at random White Lotus, communities of the Buddha Maitreya, or the Ming ts’un religion (Manichaeans), or the school of the White Cloud, etc., together with all who carry out deviant and heretical practices, or who in secret places have prints and images, gather the people by burning incense, meeting at night and dispersing by day, thus stirring up and misleading people under the pretext of cultivating virtue, shall be sentenced.” A major uprising by the white lotus group against Qing government started in 1794. Although the Qing’s were able to suppress it, this took almost five years and shook the foundations of the state.
Another big uprising that took place during the Qing period was the Taiping Rebellion. The Taiping group was founded by Hong Xiuquan, a peasant who was influenced by Christianity. Hong Xiuquan proclaimed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus and claimed that he had received a vision for humanity. He preached that the Qing dynasty was an ‘evil power’ with corrupt officials and that he had been sent to earth to save China from such ‘devils’. He also criticized Confucianism. He felt that he should rid China from conservative Confucian ethos and propagate Christianity. Gradually, the group became very powerful in the leadership of and began acquiring territory. Hong Xiuquan established a new kingdom with its capital at Nanjing. The Kindom was called Taiping Tianguo (The Kingdom of Heavenly Peace). An extended civil war which lasted for fourteen years (1850-64) took place between the Taiping group and the Qing dynasty. The Qing dynasty finally won with the help of the British and French. The war is considered to be one of the biggest in human history, the death toll being 20-30 million.
Of course, the distinction between a cult and a mainstream religion depends on perspective and can be driven by politics. In this light, we would like to discuss the persecution of the Buddhists by the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th century). By the time Buddhism reached China it was a well developed religion. Its philosophy had a powerful attraction; very soon it acquired many followers and a large number of monasteries were established. The Tang dynasty felt a threat from the growing wealth and influence of the monasteries. They began to raid the monasteries and confiscate their wealth. Later, Emperor Wu Song took a very radical stance. He ordered to stamp out all the Buddhist shrines, temples and monuments, also to cease all the land owned by the monasteries. More than 4600 monasteries were destroyed which resulted in return to lay life for Buddhist nuns and monks . In spite of its deep philosophical and spiritual traditions the treatment Buddhism received from the Tang’s was no different from a religious cult. In fact the famous Tang poet Han Yu is quoted to have said:
“Buddhism is a cult of barbarians that has infiltrated China during an age of imperial decline.”
Cults in Modern China
Before discussing the various religious cults in today’s China, we first discuss the state’s stance on religion and various factors that led to the growth of cults. Article 36 of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China grants religious freedom to its citizens:
Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion, nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.
But, one of the central goals of the 1949 government established by Chairman Mao was to eradicate superstition and blind faith in all its forms. Driven by the influence of Lenin, even religion was not spared. Religion was seen as superstitious, unscientific and a tool used by upper classes to controlled the oppressed; an ideological justification for preserving social inequality. Therefore the state established bodies to overview the practice of each religion. For many religions, these bodies imposed regulations in contradiction with some of the basic spiritual foundations of the religion.For example, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association was established as the official body for Roman Catholicism. The body does not acknowledge the authority of the Vatican or the Pope, regarding their roles as foreign interference. This put Roman Catholics in China in a very difficult position, most of them decided to practice their religion secretly. Such activities increased during the Cultural Revolution, as a result of the campaigns with the objective to eliminate religion and build a pure socialist society. The Protestant and Catholic churches were regarded as agents serving the interests of western imperialism. This perception was reinforced by the Korean War, in which China was in a proxy conflict with the west.
These policies had a back reaction, secret cults mushroomed. With time, many of them degenerated and adopted antisocial doctrines. In the first few decades, the Chinese government tried to handle the situation within the existing legal framework. But, by the late 1990s it was clear that special provisions would be needed to handle the situation. The concept of evil cults was explicitly adopted into Chinese criminal law. In article 300 of Criminal Law, under the section entitled “Crimes of Disturbing Public Order” there is explicit mention of evil cults with necessary provisions:
Whoever organizes or utilizes superstitious sects, secret societies and evil cult organizations or sabotages the implementation of the state’s laws and administrative regulations by utilizing superstition is to be sentenced to not less than three years and not more than five years of fixed term imprisonment; when circumstances are particularly serious, to not less than seven years of fixed term imprisonment.
Whoever organizes and utilizes superstitious sects, secret societies, and evil cult organizations or cheats others by utilizing superstition, thereby giving rise to death of people is to be punished in accordance with previous paragraph.
Whoever organizes and utilizes superstitious sects, secret societies, and evil cult organizations or has illicit sexual relation with women, defrauds money and property by utilizing superstition is to be convicted and punished in accordance with the regulations of articles 236, 266 of the law.
We now begin our discussion of specific cults in today’s China. Our discussion shall mostly be centered around the most notorious – The Church of Almighty God. We shall also briefly discuss other cults.
The Church of All Mighty Godis reported to have millions of members, with majority of its members from the central provinces Henan and Anhui. The cult has found large appeal among Chinese Protestants, especially in the “house churches”. Because of its anti-social and violent practices, authorities have dubbed the cult as a social cancer and plague on humankind. The cult was founded by Zhao Weishan in the 1990s. Zhao Weishan was a member of another radical cult, the Shout from which he split and declared himself as “The powerful one.” The cult believes that God has revealed himself as a second Christ in the form of an Asian woman to salvage the Chinese nation. For the belief that Christ has been reborn in the East, the cult is also known as The Eastern Lightening. In spite of its claim of its connection with Christian God, many of its beliefs are against the basic tenets of Christianity. The cult divides God’s work into three stages:
1-The Era of the Law. At this time God was called Jehovah. God worked through His Spirit and revealed Himself to man in different ways: what He said was the Law, and He spoke to men through prophets. Man’s responsibility was to observe the Law, but man failed in keeping the Law, and couldn’t overcome sin.
- The Era of Grace. Then God’s name changed to Jesus. He revealed Himself to man through the incarnation, and spoke and worked in His physical body. Man’s responsibility was to know and believe in Jesus, but instead of believing in Jesus, people who lived in that era condemned and rejected Him.
- Now is the Era of the Kingdom. God’s name is now “The Almighty One” and “the Practical God.” Their teaching is that God is a spirit. Although Jesus had been a man, He has already been resurrected and has ascended to Heaven, so He is also vague and distant. Therefore, it is not “practical” to rely on them. The female Christ, however, is here on the earth, doing practical work such as speaking, judging, condemning etc. She exists in real world whom you can approach therefore she can be called “Practical God.” Thus, in the female Christ, God is dwelling in the flesh for the second time. Her work is to reveal God’s righteous nature, to speak to mankind, to speak judgments to God’s house, to conquer the whole universe, to bring destruction to the world, and to reign over all the earth.
The Church of the Almighty God has replaced Jehovah the true God with the “Practical God”, Jesus has been replaced with the female Christ. Only if man forsakes his faith in Jesus and follows the female Christ that he can enter the Kingdom that will be established on the earth by the female Christ.
Of the cult’s social practices the most shocking are its views on family. The followers believe that their parents are descendants of monsters, and thus it is necessary to abandon them. For followers, the cult does not recognize a marriage which took place before he/she joined the cult, thus each member should abandon his or her own family. They match people up with new spouses once they are indoctrinated.
The cult tries to recruit very aggressively. The church handbook puts special emphasis on networking and personal connections for growth:
“In the past, several styles of evangelism have been used with success. Methods such as following people in the know, establishing connections, making friends, kindly persuasion, building affection using both hard and soft tactics, and a mix of all kinds of different styles have all been used to good effect in evangelism …….At the moment there are many materials for evangelism; giving copy’s of God’s words and hymns on CD and also testimonies is very beneficial. Lots of new people are coming in; we must use good use of newcomers’ guanxi networks so as to bring even more people in. we must conscientiously research and attend to each newcomers gunaxi network, and use our experience to achieve the highest success rate-this is the main tactic for evangelism. In fact, most new members are sourced from gunaxi network.
Apart from the guanxi (meaning making a connection in Mandarin) network method the cult uses some highly unscrupulous methods to increase membership. There has been large number of incidences in which Photoshopped photographs have been used to blackmail people to join the cult. More violent methods such as kidnapping and imprisonment have also been used to break the will of people. One of the most horrifying incidents is the one on 28th May 2014 in a McDonald’s outlet in Shandong.A few diners were approached by cult members with the goal of recruitment. The cult members asked the diners to give them their phone numbers. Upon refusal by one of the diners they declared her a ‘demon’ and beat her to death. Surprisingly even after the arrest the person showed no sign of remorse.
The cult’s organization is very hierarchical. All members have to vow allegiance to and completely submit to their “Powerful One” – Zhao Weishan. The cult is also very secretive, this has made crack down by the government difficult. Cult members have instructions on how to act and what to say under police interrogation; they give away very little evidence under custody. Furthermore, the cult has won over police and government officials in many areas. Once indoctrinated into the cult they offer protection to its members in secretly. The cult was banned by government in 1996. Zhao moved to USA is 2000, it is believed that he now lives in China Town, New York; and directs the cults operations from there. The cult is also gaining members from Chinese diaspora in USA.
Other prominent cults which are under the government’s radar areThe Disciple Society, The Unification Church, The Guanyin Method, The Bloody Holy Spirit, The All Ranges Church, The Three Grades of Servants, True Buddha School and The Chinese Mainland Administrative Deacon Station. The Disciple Society was established by Li Sanbao, a peasant from the Shanxi province in 1989. This cult considers itself a Christian sect. It believes that the world will be destroyed in a great flood. The Unification Church was Established in Bussan, South Korea in 1954. The cult establishes “Ideal Households” of members; followers are paired for marriage by elder members of the cult. Since its founding, the church has expanded throughout the world. It has engaged in interfaith activities with mainstream religions such as Christianity and Islam,despite theological differences. The Guanyin Method was founded by a woman Shi Qinghai, in Taiwan in 1988. She styles herself as the “supreme teacher” at par with Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ. The founder is a self-published writer and entrepreneur who heads the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association; a business group with worldwide interests in restaurants, fashion and jewellery design. The cult entered mainland China in the early 1990s and spread without notice for several years. It came to notice of the authorities in 1996, when they found a list containing the names of several thousand practitioners. The list included many high ranking officials of the Chinese Communist Party. At the time of the ban on heterodox religions in 1999, it was estimated that the cult had around 500,000 followers spread across 20 provinces. The Bloody Holy Spirit was founded by Zuo Kun, who is currently based in Taiwan.In recent years, this cult has been aggressively recruiting new members and accumulating property and wealth in mainland China. The source of its finances are unknown. The All Ranges Church is built on three key concepts: big (大), wide (广), and deep (深), by which all people should be brought to Christ and live in a Godly nation. Meetings of this cult are marked by loud wailings to confess sins.Three Grades of Servants was established by Xu Wenku in 1986. Calling himself the servant of God, Xu went to preached extensively in north-eastern China, making extensive use of the Gospel of Matthew. This cult is considered extremely dangerous; it is responsible for twenty one murders. Its membership is believed to be in millions; mostly from Anhui, Sichuan, and northeast provinces.Chinese Mainland Administrative Deacon Station was established by Wang Yongmin in 1994. Wang considers himself to be The One True Deacon. The cult aims at expanding the Kingdom of God and inhibiting the Kingdom of Satan. It adheres to an apocalyptic view of the world.
At present, radical cults are among the most disturbing features of Chinese society. Many of their doctrines are anti-social. The number of people who have fallen prey to cult membership is alarming; the number of members of some of the cults runs in the millions. Given the role that radical cults have played in the history of China it is important to keep an eye on them and the state’s policy towards them. It is also important to look into the possible reasons behind the growth of radical cults in today’s China. The first could be the state’s attitude towards religion. Although the state grants religious freedom to its citizens, it maintains a strict control over the religious practices; many a times in contradiction with some basic spiritual aspects of the religions. This leads to the formation of underground organizations such as house churches. With time, many of these organizations degenerate into cults or fall prey to existing cults.
Another factor which has probably played a role is China’s economic boom. In the last two decades China has made remarkable economic progress, this has meant that there has been a major change in the lifestyle and aspirations of people. The middle class now leads a more individualistic lifestyle driven by capitalistic desires. There is a spiritual vacuum in the society. There are also other social aspects. China’s one child policy and excessive parental pressure and the lack of distinct attributes in Han culture may lead to a void in people’s lives. This too contributes to the growth of radical cults.
To keep China’s radical cults under control, the government has taken various legislative and executive steps. These have been in keeping with Confucianism, where there is no concept of punishment in the after life, which leads to belief in the concept of harsh punishment in life itself. But, to solve the problem serious social introspection might also be necessary.
See for e.g. Cult and Christianity in China, Chinese Church Voices, China Source (2015)
Romance of Three Kingdoms, Luo Guangzhong and Sun Tzu, (Illustrated English-Traditional Chinese Edition) Google E Book.
Chinese Studies in Philosophy, E. Sharpe, 1978
 In Chinese spelled as Sichuan
 In Chinese spelled as Zhang Ling
Chinese Gods: An Introduction to Chinese Folk Religion, Jonathan Chamberlain, Blacksmith Books, 2010, pg. 65
Global Connections, John Coatsworth, et. Al. Cambridge University Press, 2015, pg. 140
China and New Religious Movements, Scot Lowe, Nova Religio, The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, Volu.4,No 2(April 2001), pp. 213-224
 The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study, Cambridge University Press (2010). Victor Purcell
Critical Moments in Religious History,KennethKeulman,Mercer University Press, 1993, page 69
R.C.Bush, Religion in Communist China( Nashville: Abingdon Press,1970, and D. Mclnnis, Religious Policy and Practice in Communist China: A documentary History( new Work: McMillan C;1972) Source-Religion in China, Chan-Kim-Kwong, China Review 1994,pp 19.1-19.23
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 “The Development and Beliefs of the Eastern Lightning Cult”. China for Jesus
Jiaohuigongzuoyuanze shouce,2006,chapter 4
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B.Fulton, Cults in China; China source quarterly, Vol 17, No. 1 (2015)
(Dr. Swati Mishra is an Assistant Professor at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, UP. The views expressed in this article are her own.)