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Religion, Revolution, and Sacrifice: Ambivalence toward Secularism in the Early 1920s

Sun, March 19, 10:45am to 12:45pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Floor: 2nd Floor, Kenora


The revolutionary parties of modern China have long been known for their anti-religious proclivity. This, however, does not mean that all revolutionaries held ultra-secularist outlooks. Throughout the twentieth century, the question of religion continued to cause discord among revolution’s most faithful followers, and, in the early 1920s, “sacrifice” surfaced to be the focal point of debate.

Founded in 1919, the Young China Study Association incorporated several province- and institution-based networks of student activists into a national forum of social and cultural reform. Many of its members later played prominent roles in the CCP-instigated Anti-Christian Movement. In September 1920, the association’s steering committee passed an anti-religious resolution and set a new policy of accepting no Christians into the group. The decision provoked strong objections from both Christian and non-Christian members.

The most outspoken critic of this anti-religious and anti-Christian policy was the future dramatist and Communist Party member, Tian Han. In a long letter, Tian mounted several arguments against the committee’s decision. Revolution, according to him, could not be accomplished without willful sacrifice from individuals. Religion, by instilling a spirit of self-sacrifice into its followers, generated ideal revolutionaries. It should be an object of co-optation instead of eradication. Tian’s defense of religion revealed a growing ambivalence towards the anti-religious outlook. The ambivalence became further evident in summer 1921, when the majority at the association’s plenary meeting voted to revoke the anti-Christian policy.