chapter  12
Saints, secrets, and salvation: emergence of spiritual–religious groups in China between 1978 and 1989
Pages 22

Introduction Starting in 1978, spiritual-religious life in China has manifested a strong and diverse awakening due in large part to the weakening ideological and organizational control of the Communist Party. Christianity has recorded the most dynamic growing number of followers, especially among the mostly autonomous ‘house churches’.1 These churches often mix aspects of both Western charismatic revival and Pentecostal movements. Under the influence of folk religion and Protestantism, spiritual-religious groups like ‘Teachings of the Soul’ (Linglingjiao) or ‘Society of Disciples’ (Mentuhui) have mushroomed within the countryside. A systematic analysis of Christian-inspired, spiritual-religious groups in China after 1978 is still missing. Existing studies present contradictory interpretations of the phenomenon: while the Chinese government and some scientists portray these groups as harmful and dangerous ‘heretical teachings’ (xiejiao), other studies present these groupings as harmless and oppressed victims of the Chinese authorities.2 Hence, this chapter aims to contribute to a better understanding of these groups by exploring their emergence. The adjective ‘spiritual’ is added to the term ‘religious’ to capture the more fluid conceptions of the supernatural of the groups which are not linked to only one particular tradition. Spiritual-religious groups are defined as having a charismatic founder or leader, a sophisticated, mostly hierarchical organizational structure, as well as teachings of healing and salvation. The adjective ‘Christian-inspired’ points to a relationship with Christian precepts and practices – these groups draw on terms, concepts, rituals, and organizational forms of Protestantism. The spiritual-religious groups analyzed here are understood as belonging to a ‘religious social movement’. Building on related literature, religious social movements in this study are defined as collective and sustained efforts to create and develop a system of beliefs and practices concerned with ultimate meaning and the existence of the supernatural challenging or changing of dominant beliefs and practices (Kniss and Burns 2004: 711f.). Individual groups are understood as organized units within this Christianinspired, spiritual-religious movement.