Mao Tse-tung, the founder of communist China, once said that because China was ``poor and blank'' it could be shaped at will into something new and beautiful. Modern scholars too have assumed that Chinese people were a blank slate, that they don't ``believe'' in anything in the religious sense of the word, and that religion is unimportant in Chinese life.
These assumptions might appear confirmed by asking some young Chinese what they believe in.
``I believe in myself! I also believe in my country, of course, but primarily it's myself,'' says a prominent journalist for one of China's top news organizations.
``I don't believe in anything,'' a recent graduate from Peking University says. ``I'd like to know more about Hinduism and Christianity, but where can I find out about these things?''
It's a mistake to accept, however, that the world of belief is insignificant in China. Religion and belief in the supernatural have been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years and their vitality after almost four decades of communist rule hints that they are an enduring feature of modern Chinese society.
Mao himself had an interest in Buddhism and Taoism, especially during his latter years when he read Zen Buddhist texts, though scholars say it probably affected his understanding of Marxist dialectics rather than made him religious.
``Chinese don't have an interest in abstractions,'' says a Western-educated Chinese woman. ``They don't care about spiritual things but are concerned about this world, the practical life.''
It may have been this practical frame of mind that made the modern ideals of Marxism-Leninism appear so vivid to the early Chinese communists - ideals of economic justice, social equality, and material progress. But even the Communist rulers have accommodated themselves to the pervasive cosmology of imperial China, and Mao's mausoleum is located in the symbolic heart of the country, in front of the auspicious south entrance to Peking's Imperial Palace.
Questioning older Chinese about their beliefs turns up a variety of answers. Some might place their family at the center of their thoughts or mention the Confucian value placed on a good education. Others might refer to Buddha or tell of their furtive homage to local gods which are vaguely connected with Buddhism and China's native religion, Taoism. Taoism as a philosophy had its origins with the legendary Lao Tse and a collection of writings known as the Tao De Qing.
Still others might affirm their faith in the ideals of socialism and the Communist Party, which sociologists say has been the functional equivalent of religion. This was especially apparent during the the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when the worship of Mao became a national cult.
There is also a generation of urban intellectuals who were educated in Christian missionary schools before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. In the relaxed atmosphere of the 1980s they might say politely, out of respect for their teachers, that they would like to believe in the Christian God.
There have been few surveys on the subject of religion. One opinion poll in 1979 conducted by students at Fudan University in Shanghai included a question about religious beliefs.
It reported that of some 500 students who answered the poll, 33 percent said they believed in communism, 23 percent in ``fatalism,'' and 25 percent said they had no religion. Only 0.6 percent or three people professed belief in some established religion and 1.4 percent or seven people said they believed in capitalism.
The results might be different today with fewer students affirming belief in communism now that there is a national debate over what it means. Even China's top leaders have warned foreign visitors from developing countries to be wary of taking the socialist road.
But the variety of answers would remain, showing more of an affinity for political ideology and cultural values than religion and philosophy. Chinese of all generations often speak of pride of country and concern about China's backwardness, especially now that they are able to compare its material development with the outside world's.
One characteristic of Chinese thinking that has often baffled Westerners is the ability to hold several different beliefs at once. ``Three ways to one goal,'' says a Chinese proverb, referring to Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism as acceptable ways of thought which coexist and mingle.
Christian missionaries struggled against this tolerance of sometimes contradictory beliefs, often with little to show for their efforts but a handful of converts after a lifetime of work. Chinese didn't reject Christianity, wrote one British historian, but they refused to give it an exclusive title to belief which was natural to the missionaries.
Even the Communist Party has had to struggle against this inclusiveness of Chinese thinking to convince its members to have absolute faith in Marxism-Leninism to the exclusion of ``other gods.''
``Recently some party members have believed in religion,'' says Ho Tse-jin, director of director of religious affairs for Jiangsu province where Buddhism and Christianty have had a strong revival. ``But if discovered, we will speak to them and tell them they must choose between the party and religion. They can't believe in both.''
A visit to any Chinese Buddhist temple illustrates the coincidence of different beliefs and traditions. The pungent smell of burning incense and the clop-clop of wood blocks, tossed onto a concrete floor as part of a traditional prayer ritual, are the familiar sensations of Chinese Buddhist temples everywhere.
But the priests in the shadowy nooks of the worship hall, whom visitors often consult on personal matters after praying to Buddha, offer more Taoist philosophy than Buddhist precepts and the ritual itself has its origins in what scholars call ``vulgar Taoism.''
Often the distinctions among ancestor worship, Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity are impossibly blurred.
One visitor to a busy temple in Quanzhou, on China's southeast coast, was a Roman Catholic woman who lit a handful of joss sticks and propped them up in a sand-filled urn before bowing discreetly to the Buddha statue.
Afterward, she said she respected the traditions of her ancestors and felt obliged to pay homage since this was her family's hometown.
Her actions didn't contradict her Catholic faith, she insisted, they merely expressed her ``Chineseness.''