Confucius’s hometown, Qufu, knows how to market its most famous native son. Visitors to the city in eastern China’s Shandong province can savor Confucian cuisine, worship at a Confucius temple and follow the family tree of the Kong clan, which claims an unbroken lineage going back some 80 generations to the Great Sage himself. The tourist boom has only intensified as China’s communist leadership embraces homegrown traditions once derided as feudal relics by the party’s revolutionary elders.
Now, the presence of a Christian church near Confucius central is sparking debate as to whether the ancient philosopher — or, more accurately, his descendants — can handle an influx of Western spirituality in a nation yearning for fulfillment. In an online article published late this month, a prominent Confucian scholar protested the expansion of an existing church less than 2 miles from Qufu’s main Confucian temple and kickstarted a campaign against it. Such a church “towering over” the Confucian sanctuary, wrote Zeng Zhenyu, would stir up “intense controversy.” Sure enough, a torrent of digital discourse has ensued in China, with scholars and laymen alike parsing the ancient ideology’s stance towards a diversity of faiths.
“Qufu in China is like Jerusalem and Mecca,” Zeng, a professor at Shandong University’s Advanced Institute for Confucian Studies, tells TIME. “It’s the Chinese people’s spiritual home.” Christian churches, he believes, should be banned from Confucius’s birthplace. “You can build churches in other places,” he says. “But you can’t build them in Qufu, an iconic and holy spiritual place for the Chinese people.” (An ardent Confucian, Zeng also happens to be a member of Shandong province’s communist elite.)
From the beginning of the People’s Republic through the madness of the Cultural Revolution, communist cadres tried to excise religion from Chinese society, destroying places of worship — Confucian temples included — and forcing the faithful to pray in secret. But a loosening of personal freedom in recent years has led to a remarkable religious revival. Indigenous philosophies like Confucianism and Taoism have gained new adherents, while Buddhism, long practiced in China, has also surged. Ancestor worship has returned, with an increasing number of families placing altars in their homes. Even in the nation’s far northwest, ethnic minorities are exploring new strains of Islam, even as the state discourages overt symbols of the faith.
The fastest growing religion in China is believed to be Christianity, which encompasses everything from congregations in state-sanctioned churches to millennial worshippers who believe that the second coming of Jesus is a Chinese woman. Some academics estimate that a nation helmed by an officially atheist party will be home to the world’s largest Christian flock within a generation. The faith’s rapid expansion has catalyzed an official crackdown, with megachurches torn down and pastors of house churches jailed. Unorthodox Christian offshoots — labeled cults by the authorities — have been particular targets.
In some ways, the anti-Christian crusade shares roots with the government’s brutal crackdown on Falun Gong, a spiritual movement based on meditation exercises whose rapid growth in the late 1990s startled the authorities. Any force that mobilizes and unifies so many people could be viewed as a threat to the Communist Party. But Christianity’s foreign antecedents make it even more of a problem religion in China at a time when President Xi Jinping has intensified a campaign against “pernicious” Western influences. In 2014, Chinese authorities announced that they would create a “Chinese Christian Theology [that] should adapt to China’s national condition and integrate with Chinese culture.”
It is a trope in China to note that the nation suffers from a spiritual vacuum, that neither communism nor capitalism has managed to sate Chinese souls. Perhaps aware of this deficit, Xi has promoted Confucianism as a kind of unifying ideology. Academics may disagree over whether Confucianism is really a religion or merely a set of values that has been used for millennia to organize Chinese society. But the state-sanctioned push to popularize it is real. “Our government once said, ‘If people have faith, then our nation will have hope,’ but have we thought about which faith can bring hope to the nation?” asks Chen Ming, the director of the Confucianism Research Center at Capital Normal University. “It’s not a simple question but we can’t solve the problem without Confucianism.”
In 2013, Xi made a pilgrimage to Qufu, just as generations of Chinese imperial leaders once did. The next year, he attended a birthday party for Confucius, who was born in the sixth century B.C. Even though the Chinese President came of age in an era when Chairman Mao urged the youth to eradicate any sign of China’s ancient past, Xi often invokes the country’s glorious civilization in his speeches. “To solve China’s problems, we can only search in the land of China for the ways and means that suit it,” Xi told China’s Politburo. “We need to fully make use of the great wisdom accumulated by the Chinese nation over the last 5,000 years.”
There may also be a political imperative to Xi’s Confucian campaign. After all, the ancient philosopher also served as a political adviser, preaching both personal morality for leaders and public fealty to rulers from the citizenry. Since taking helm of the Communist Party in late 2012, Xi has unleashed an anticorruption campaign that demands of Chinese officials the kind of moral rectitude advocated by the Great Sage. At the same time, Xi has amassed power more quickly than his recent predecessors have. It’s safe to assume that a Confucian compliance with hierarchy fits nicely with Xi’s centralized leadership style.
On Wednesday, in a blunt expression of power, one of Xi’s top aides demanded the “absolute loyalty” of China’s party members. “Party organizations of all levels and all party members should be aligned with the central leadership of the party led by Xi Jinping in actions and thoughts,” said Li Zhanshu, who is the head of the anodyne-sounding but important General Office of the party’s Central Committee, according to China’s state Xinhua news agency.
Meanwhile, back in Qufu, not everyone agrees with Zeng’s effort to cleanse the area of Christian influence. A few years ago, a group of Confucian scholars protested what they said was a plan to renovate the same church in question with soaring Gothic spires and a giant nave. (The revamp never came to pass.) One of the signatories of that campaign was Chen, the neo-Confucian academic from Capital Normal University. This time, though, Chen says that the local pastor has promised to rebuild the church in a local architectural style and to keep the building inconspicuous. “It’s inappropriate to escalate the dispute into a conflict between Confucianism and Christianity, like a clash of civilizations,” he tells TIME. Social harmony is, of course, a very Confucian virtue.
— With reporting by Yang Siqi / Beijing