Post-zero Covid China sees upsurge in spiritual seeking among young

Younger generations are increasingly turning to the supernatural to weather bad economic times in post-zero Covid China—from engaging in birth-chart readings, horoscopes and hexagrams to personalized advice from a psychic master—“all mediated, in true 21st-century fashion, by an app,” writes Aaron Sarin in the online publication Quillette (March 26), a publication covering free speech issues. One recent Chinese survey found that 80 percent of respondents under the age of 30 are exploring mysticism, generally in the form of astrology and tarot. “It’s a market ripe for exploitation, and sure enough, the hucksters and mountebanks are already swarming. They can smell the yuan. Last year, China’s online spiritual services market reached an estimated ¥6.68 billion,” Sarin writes. He traces the revival of divination and fortune to “uniquely desperate circumstances of young people as the number of university graduates continues to rise faster than the number of appropriate job vacancies.” Faced with financial pressures and competition around finding a partner (with 30 million more men than women) and having children (the cost of raising a single child being 6.3 times higher than China’s GDP per capita), young adults are either dropping out of society or taking to the “well-trodden avenues of the mind: those marked religion, superstition, spirituality.”

Source: Michael Chen (Beyond Science).

Even those who have dropped out are relocating to areas like Dali, China’s southwest “hippie town” frequented by artists, dissidents and digital nomads, where so-called alternative lifestyles are common and esoteric religion abounds: tantra yoga retreats, pranayama therapy, and shamanic dance healing. During the first half of 2023, according to one survey, 34 percent of respondents in their mid-20s quit their jobs in the consumer Internet sector or reported that they were making plans to do so. Places like Dali are overrun with such seekers and nomads. While the Communist Party sometimes intervenes in the town, shutting down bookshops selling works on pacifism and philosophy, the target is vague. Officials and the state media have noticed an “odd change” in the nation’s mood since the end of the “zero Covid” period, typified by the unintentional joke that “young people are becoming the main force in lighting the joss sticks in temples.” While the major faiths, especially Christianity, are seen as dangerous because of government restrictions, “smaller folk religions are safer—the Party sees no potential insurrection there. And so, such groups proliferate,” Sarin writes.

Some venerate and worship Mother Chen, slayer of the White Snake Demon, who sends the rain to drought-stricken villages, while others venerate Mazu, guardian of the sea. In the southeast, devotees parade giant effigies of “Wandering Gods” through the streets to curry the deities’ favor and protection. But most young Chinese who feel the pull of religion and spirituality eschew group identities. While surveys show that few Chinese belong to a formal religion such as Buddhism (4 percent), a large share holds to belief in the Buddha (33 percent). In short, “identity is dangerous; open practice is safer; belief behind closed doors is safest,” Sarin writes. Even those who claim to be atheists and have a “belief in science” can, at the same time, hold beliefs in ghosts, reincarnation, astrology, and feng shui. All of this spiritual variety is “reflective of the nation’s general direction. While Chinese society has never been the homogenous mass the CCP describes, it is true that a majority of citizens were, until recently, connected to one another by a strident nationalism that focuses on the Party and its achievements. This connecting element has now been severely undermined. The result is a growing diversity and atomization. Sections of society are breaking off and drifting in different directions,” Sarin concludes.