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Confounding a tenet of Marxism. Chinese interest in religion is flowering. In a six-part series, Julian Baum looks at changes that fly in the face of Marxist predictions. Mr. Baum, now in London, was formerly the Monitor's reporter in Peking.

A young convert to Christianity who attends church in Peking claims her parents do not discourage her religious interests, though they are both members of the Communist Party. ``I'm independent of my parents,'' the woman explains with a boldness that surprises her contemporaries.

Another young man says he's frustrated in trying to learn about Eastern religions.

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``Personally, I think there's something wonderful to be found in Hinduism, though I may be wrong,'' he says. ``But we should be allowed to explore this for ourselves. How can we find out what is important if we're not allowed access to publications from other parts of the world?''

A teacher at a Peking professional college wonders whether religion can contribute to China's modernization.

``How can a nation develop without a spiritual foundation?'' he asks. ``We have to believe in something.''

Like Confucius, who told his followers to avoid discussing the miraculous and the metaphysical, Chinese are reluctant to talk about religion. Concerned mainly with the prosperity and harmony of their daily lives, they often find abstract questions about theology and metaphysics to be pointless.

But in the 1980s, many have returned to the practices of their ancestors and to the supernatural beliefs and rituals that have been a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. Some are worshiping again as Buddhists and Christians, and many are curious about the role of religion in other countries.

``Compared with the period before the Cultural Revolution, the numbers of followers of every religion have been increasing,'' says Du Jiwen, director of the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the government's leading think tank on social policy.

As a Marxist, Mr. Du discounts the contribution religion could make to Chinese society, but he does not have a clear explanation for its vitality after several decades of Communist Party attempts to eradicate it.

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``Belief in religion among Chinese depends on their economic status. Many religious beliefs originate in poverty,'' he says.

Du concedes, however, that the success of the party's economic reforms, an easing of policy that suppressed traditional beliefs, and the prosperity that has swept the Chinese countryside have made the resurfacing of religion and traditional beliefs possible.

With more money to spend, rural Chinese are again enriching their lives with traditional ceremonies for weddings, house buildings, and funerals which can include consultation with geomancers, astrologers, diviners, and self-appointed priests of local folk cults.

It is a development that frustrates many officials and appears to contradict Karl Marx's prediction that religion will disappear as a society develops.

In some parts of the country local officials have taken a relaxed attitude. Especially in southern China, they often don't oppose families paying homage to ancestors, one of the most venerable of Chinese traditions.

As in Hong Kong and Taiwan, paper money - and now paper clothes, television sets, and refrigerators - are burned as spirit gifts to deceased relatives in open funerary rites. Some officials turn a blind eye, saying the practice is devoid of superstition or religious meaning.

Since 1949, when the People's Republic of China was formed, the party has sometimes waged a violent struggle against such practices. Ancestor worship, geomancy, astrology, divination, and local religious cults were condemned as ignorant and superstitious and banned as remnants of a feudal past.

For many Chinese, religion and superstition are often confused.

Neither Chinese tradition nor Marxist ideology makes a clear distinction between belief in fate and the supernatural and belief in religion as designed in the West. Like Mandarin bureaucracies in imperial times, many communist officials assume little difference between belief in one god and belief in the gods and spirits of their traditional culture.

In the 1950s, the government brought China's formal religions - Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Christianity - under state control while officially tolerating them according to the Chinese Constitution's provision for freedom of religion.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), however, all religious worship was forbidden, many believers were persecuted, and places of worship vandalized and destroyed.

But just as traditional beliefs have been almost impossible to eradicate, the formal religions too have shown a surprising vitality.

The number of worshipers has grown as people have become more confident in the official policy of religious tolerance. Protestant Christianity has grown remarkably fast, at several times the rate of China's population increase since 1949, though the total numbers remain relatively small.

With the return to a more lenient policy beginning in the late 1970s, the state has tried to restore normality to approved religious life by subsidizing recognized groups, paying the salaries of monks, imams, and clergy, and funding the restoration of hundreds of temples, mosques, and churches.

The restoration of major Buddhist and Taoist temples has been on a scale not seen since the end of the imperial Qing Dynasty in 1911, though the numbers of temples now functioning and open for worship remain much fewer than before, and there are limits on the numbers of new priests and monks that can be trained.

The policy of toleration, however, has not been easy to keep within its defined limits and has triggered an unwanted response. In rural areas, especially in China's eastern and southern provinces, temples have been built and many restored with local money and without official permission.

From the government's point of view, the trend appears out of control, and it is a topic for research at the Institute of World Religions in Peking.

``By taking advantage of implementing the [Communist] Party's religious policies and renovating cultural relics, a handful of superstitious believers have vigorously incited the people to build temples and mold statues of gods,'' the Peasants' Daily reported last year.

``Wantonly building temples and worshiping gods and ghosts has wasted money and manpower and is a major obstacle to peasants getting rich through hard work.''

Among urban and educated Chinese who once spurned formal religion after several decades of atheistic teaching in the schools, attitudes have become more tolerant.

One turning point for many young people came with a novel entitled ``When the Colors of Evening Have Vanished,'' by a young woman writer Li Ping. Published in 1981, the story told of a woman who had suffered severely during the Cultural Revolution and eventually found comfort in a church.

Miss Li argues that religion has a legitimate role in society and helps people distinguish between good and evil. Those who have tried to use scientific methods to disprove the existence of God and discredit religion, as the party has tried to do, are mistaken. She says that religion goes beyond material science and cannot be proved or disproved by it. This novel was the first time many Chinese youth had heard a reasoned argument for the existence of religion, and it made a strong impact.

``The story influenced many people of my generation and caused them to think about the value of religion,'' says Jing Zhongren, a young economist from Shanghai.

``There was so much tragedy during the Cultural Revolution and so many people had a very heavy burden in their heart and needed a way out for their spirit. Some eventually found religion was a way out,'' he says.

Throughout history, scholars say, educated Chinese have tended to regard all forms of religion as having a supernatural element and therefore as backward, uncivilized, and illiterate.

China historian Charles P. Fitzgerald once quoted a prominent Chinese writer who said, ``In China the educated believe in nothing and the uneducated in everything.''

With the loss of faith in the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism, it still may be said that many of the country's present-day mandarins believe in nothing except in the vision of a rich and powerful China. It also appears that many rural Chinese, who remain attached to the ways of their ancestors after only a 40-year brush with communism, still believe in everything.

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