Before I left for China, I was informed that few Christian churches exist in China, with missionary activity banned. The main Christian churches are large Catholic cathedrals built in “concession areas” that European powers seized from weak imperial China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The exploitation of China after the Opium Wars and the national humiliation when Western governments imposed unequal treaties created a Chinese view that often equated Christianity with Western imperialism. Despite such challenges, one American scholar I met estimated that today there are about 80 million Christians in China today–out of a population of 1.3 billion.

But religion arrived in China about the 2nd century A.D. Buddhism from India made inroads in China, especially later when a number of emperors embraced the religion. For example, the lovely Lama Temple in Beijing served as a palace of one of the Qing dynasty princes, but when he became emperor he converted it into a Buddhist temple. In visiting major Buddhist temples and monasteries during my travels—while delivering Fulbright Guest Lectures on U.S. foreign policy at various Chinese universities—it became evident that often wars and fires destroyed many of these historic wooden structures and their artifacts. However, the major ones have since been rebuilt.

To officially to become a member of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a prospective member must sign a form that he or she does not believe in a religion. Nevertheless, I have been taken to Buddhist temples and lit prayer incense sticks with Party members who, while they say they don’t believe in religion, seek good luck and fortune through Buddhist prayer. I’ve even been told that privately some of the top officials in Beijing practice Buddhism—to hedge their bets against Marx’s atheism dogma! Chinese people are very pragmatic.

During the turbulent Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Chairman Mao incited the Red Guards to restore communist ideological purity, many beautiful religious temples, churches and relics were senselessly destroyed—as well as traditional Confucian teachings and statues. Zhou Enlai had to order his military forces to keep the Red Guards from destroying the Dalai Llama’s winter palace in Lhasa, Tibet, with its gold-gilded Buddha statues, religious paintings and scrolls of ancient sutras.

Since the 1978 Opening and Reform led by President Deng Xiaoping (after Mao’s death), CPC officials in all cities have grown to appreciate the ancient culture of China, no doubt recognizing its value for attracting tourist dollars. Also, I’m sure that the presence of Buddhist and Taoist temples in most major cities helps undermine Western criticism that China doesn’t enjoy religious freedom.

We Fulbrighters were warned, however, not to visit underground Chinese Christian churches or congregations. We wouldn’t be in danger, but the authorities would come down hard on the Chinese church members. Several students have told me that such underground Christian churches exist on their campuses and indicated that they are growing in popularity. One student, a committed Party member, even acknowledged that their appeal might represent a reaction to the forces of modernization, materialism and corruption so evident in China today.

The Chinese people primarily revere the traditional Confucian values and rituals built around filial piety and respect for government authority—then the Emperor. While Confucius was denigrated during China’s Cultural Revolution, the current national leadership has resurrected the important Confucian principle of “harmony” in society to discourage social dissent.

In My Country, My People (1943), Chinese writer Lin Yutang tried to explain China to Westerners. He asserted that for over 5,000 years the Chinese people have been more naturalistic, fatalistic and superstitious than religious. When Confucius talks about Heaven in the Analects, he refers to worshiping the spirits of ancestors, rather than the Greek’s conception of the gods on Mount Olympus or the Christian idea of Heaven. Chinese believe in lucky colors and numbers, propitious days for hanging prayer flags, turquoise amulets and jade jewelry to ward off evil and special Buddha statues that bring good fortune—particularly wealth in the new China.

During a recent visit to Lhasa, I learned about Tibet’s form of Buddhism, which adapted Indian Buddhism to their indigenous beliefs. I was intrigued by the Wheel of Life, which shows at the top a heaven for the enlightened good people and at the bottom hell. But for 49 days in hell the dead are evaluated for how many white stones they received in life (for good deeds, acts of compassion), as well as how many black stones they accrued (lust, greed). Lots of white stones could lead to heaven or rebirth on earth as a human in a better social status. Substantial black stones could lead to the next life as an animal or a “hungry ghost,” reserved for the greedy that showed little compassion toward the suffering of others.

The obvious parallel is the Christian story about St. Peter at the Pearly Gates judging our sins and good deeds in life—but St. Peter does not turn anyone into a goat or pig in the next life! Of course, Dante’s The Divine Comedy might be a closer match with souls in Purgatory before entering either Heaven or Hell.

I’m sure that Christianity will continue to attract more Chinese believers, but it faces serious cultural competition. Nevertheless, the break from old traditions caused by urbanization and modernization might make Christian beliefs more popular in the future, especially if the government loosens its religious restrictions.