A yet different facet of the Chinese religious scene are underground or house churches, spiritual organizations not officially registered with the state that yet attract large numbers of followers. The Bureau of Religious Affairs not only requires formal and detailed registration, comparable to applying for non-profit status in a Western country, but it also imposes various rules and regulations, including political and doctrinal guidelines that would impact organizational structure and change the fundamental tenets of the groups’ direction.
As a result, many opt to operate outside official parameters, which makes them underground but not secret, active but not incorporated. Rather than hiding them from the official eye, it puts them on the list of suspicious organizations, prevents them from buying land or build a proper church, and alerts the security police, who routinely come by to request a list of members and otherwise make their presence known every so often.
Most underground churches are Christian, serving about half of China’s 100 million believers. An example is the Early Rain Reformed Church in Chengdu, literally the Chengdu Church of Happiness Like Autumn Rain (Chengdu qiuyu zhi fujiaohui 成都秋雨之福教会) under the leadership of Wang Yi 王怡 (b. 1973), a former civil rights lawyer. Renting a space in a modern high-rise, it holds services and sponsors activities all week long, from Bible readings and prayer groups through charities for the poor and dispossessed (such as earthquake victims) to campaigns against certain government policies. Its doctrines are thoroughly Christian, with a strong focus on personal responsibility and social justice, and—supported by donations from members without any help from abroad—it operates also a nursery school, day care center, elementary school, and seminary, reaching ever deeper into civil society.
Another, less noble, example is the Central Church in Shanghai, whose members, as Rob Schmitz notes, come from all walks of life to meet in a private apartment home, praying and chanting together in support of Christ, the Bible, love, community, and career. Highly modern in outlook and performance, the Church uses flat-screen televisions, amplified sound, and rock music together with min-skirted hip-hop dancers to encourage “Jesus to come into my heart.” Their leader, Preacher Jiang, used to be career criminal in one of the more notorious Shanghai triads and remains highly critical of the Party. He whips his congregation into a frenzy, praising God, Jesus, and the Bible, then suggests that all make monetary offerings in gratitude and to receive additional grace lest they be struck by disease and misfortune.
A case from a different section of the religious spectrum, as also described by Rob Schmitz, is the unauthorized Buddhist temple in an unnamed, remote farming village several hours outside of Shanghai, run by a young meditation master, also unnamed, together with several apprentices. Consisting of five interconnected red-tile-roofed buildings that hold meeting rooms, living quarters, a canteen, and two worship halls, it grows gradually as donations come in. Spiritual seekers from the city, often in need of healing, visit there for a weekend pilgrimage, prostrate themselves multiple times, repent their sins, and sit together in meditation. The master, when he appears, exudes great authority and pronounces judgment on questions from the congregation, interpreting dreams, suggesting karmic cleansing for cases of disease, and giving advice on business matters. He then holds a special prayer ceremony, complete with chantings and prostrations, where everyone can pursue their particular issues, laying them at the foot of the Buddha in hope for resolution.
As far as Daoism is concerned, there are also underground groups, but they tend to remain rather well hidden. Typically associated with practices that even mainstream Daoists dismiss, such as sexual techniques and operative alchemy, they show up on occasion in internet blogs or are mentioned at conferences, but there is no clear reporting to date.
Johnson, Ian. 2017. The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao. New York: Pantheon Books.
Schmitz, Rob. 2016. Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams along a Shanghai Road. New York: Crown Publishers, chs. 4, 13.