Maoism: More than Quasi-Religion

Portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen Gate

In “Scripting Difference,” students from Dr. Richard Newton’s Ethnicity, Gender, and Religion course, reflected on concepts from Stephen Sharot’s sociology of Religion, James W. Watt’s work on scriptures, and a variety of case studies in order to examine the discourses in the course title. In this edition, Sam Epps (Elizabethtown College ’19) considers the lasting legacy of Chairman Mao Zedong in Chinese cultural formation. Read political scientist Dr. Dan Chen’s response here.

In his 1974 essay, “”One of the Many Faces of China: Maoism as a Quasi-Religion,” Joseph M. Kitagawa acknowledges Chairman Mao’s movement to create a new culture as “Maoism.” Instead of calling this movement a “religion,” he refers to Maoism as a “quasi-religion.” In doing so, he attempts to avoid the clashing reactions that often comes along with referring to a movement as a religion. Yet, viewing the development of Maoism in terms of the sociology of religion can help us understand the way it has mapped the culture, ethnicity, and gender of today’s China.

At the peak of Mao’s movement, the peasant class of China was able to transcend the political and socioeconomic environment and become agents of change in a cultural revolution due to the performative dimension of the scriptures of Maoism. As a result of this process, the elite could advance the wider popular culture however they deemed necessary by appealing to a cultural essence that distinguishes groups in terms of ethnicity. This can be seen in China’s rapid growth as an economic power from the late 20thcentury to present day.

Mao Tse-tung - panoramio.jpg
Image of Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong), Chairman of the Communist Party of China (1964). Image from Georg Denda, Wikipedia used under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

First, it is necessary to understand where Maoism differs from China’s traditional ethnic culture. Maoism, according to Kitagawa, “can best be understood as the continuation of the humanistic-religious culture of traditional China, but with a radical re-interpretation based on the guiding inspirations of Marx and Lenin…saying ‘yes but no’ to Chinese culture while saying ‘no but yes’ to Marx and Lenin” (Kitagawa 1974, 127). It is within this set of values that Mao was able to preach to the peasantry about the need for change, specifically, “the two ‘big mountains,’ imperialism and feudalism,” while also instilling the idea into the minds of the people that, “China belongs to the Chinese people” (137). Conversely, China’s traditional religious culture, which centered on the “Will of Heaven” (T’ien) and Tao, is “understood in its cosmological setting, and not as something independent of nature.” (Kitagawa 127).

The three main “Rules for Discipline” were: “Obey orders in all your actions; Do not take a single needle or thread from the masses; and Turn in everything captured.” From Quotations of Mao Zedong, popularly known as “The Little Red Book.” Image from MaosPropaganda.wikispaces under CC-BY-SA 3.0.

In a similar manner to Sherry B. Ortner’s question, “Is female to male as nature is to culture?” one can ask, “Is traditional Chinese humanism to Maoism as nature is to culture?” Ortner asserts that woman is “something that every culture devalues…it seems that there is only one thing that would fit that description, and that is ‘nature’” (Ortner 1974, 72). The essence of nature, according to Ortner, is impurity. This concept of nature- as-purity mirrors the core religious concerns of Chinese humanists, which is stated by Kitagawa as the process of maintaining the harmony of T’ien and realizing the Tao each day (127). Conversely, Ortner claims that the primary function of culture is to, “transcend natural conditions and turn them to its purposes.”

As previously mentioned, Maoism’s success can be attributed to the way it built upon the culture of traditional China, while asserting a new interpretation of culture via Marx and Lenin. For example, Kitagawa points out that the Chinese Communist party has made, “critical appropriation of traditional historiography, while at the same time shifting the location of history’s meanings.” (131). In doing so, Mao and the Communist party seized upon what James W. Watts calls “the performative dimension of scripture” to spread the values of the new Maoist culture. It is from this vehicle that Maoism is driven forward by  the peasantry.

Mao’s steadfast belief in the power of the peasantry was much different than the emphasis placed on the proletariat in Soviet Russia’s communist system. His belief in the peasant masses, which was questioned and rejected by his peers in the Communist Party, is what Kitagawa points to as the key factor in recognizing Maoism as a quasi-religious or religious movement.The peasantry functions as what Kitagawa calls, “the revolutionary vanguard of the new culture and society” (135). In this role, Mao functions as a virtuoso, delivering a message to the masses that opens their eyes to the potential of a new socioeconomic and political culture – a system that would place power in the hands of these people that have long been mapped to the edges of culture and society.

The performative dimension of scripture was the key to unlocking the transcendent potential of the peasantry. When describing the power of scriptures, Watts claims that the performative dimension, “exhibits and conveys a sense of inspiration.”(Watts 2013, 22). It is in this vain that Mao took on a thaumaturgical-like persona. In China today, Mao is still respected by the general populous, more so than many ancient rulers, according to Kitagawa (1974, 129). His ability to transcend the intrinsic nature of China, as agents of culture so often do, allowed him to become more than just a leader political reform. Mao was a human, just as you or I am, but in mapping a new way of life in China, he became a symbol for a culture and ethnicity. This is why Kitagawa states that, “the Cult of Mao,” (1974, 141) will last beyond his life, even if his policies are no longer in play.

In the same way that Mao mapped a new ethnicity and culture throughout China, the succession of leaders following Mao mapped China into becoming a present day economic superpower. Following the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, China reversed course under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and became a market economy in 1978 (Kamrany and Jiang 2014). Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, the economy was “opened up” with farmers allowed to sell their surplus yields at a profit. This further lead to the privatization of state-run businesses, China entering the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and a rapid increase in foreign direct investment (CNNMoney 2015). With economic growth occurring at a rate of nearly 10% annually throughout the 1990’s, China once again experienced a dramatic shift in cultural values.

Under the current leadership of president Xi Jinping, China looks much different than it did over 40 years ago when Mao was in power. China has the second-largest economy in the world, with thriving economic ties to silk route countries (Kamrany and Jiang 2014), and a military that is trumped only by the United States in size and force. A recent development in the political structure of China’s Communist party has seen the presidential term limit abolished, and party members have been told to, “follow their sovereign in thought, word and deed.” (Phillips 2018). With Xi Jinping moving forward as the termless president of China, comparisons have been drawn between his current status and the status held by Mao during his reign as sovereign leader of China. The Communist party’s official media outlet, The People’s Daily, used verbiage that was used in the past when referring to Mao, calling Xi, “helmsman of the country” (Reuters 2018). It is becoming increasingly likely that Xi will attain a mantle similar to that of Mao, albeit Xi may not reach the heights that Mao did as a symbol of cultural reform. However, it is clear that Xi’s emphasis on economic growth and development has signaled a new era for China, one in which China is mapping itself as a world leader in both culture and economy.

Overall, it is clear that the future of China will be rooted in the work of Chairman Mao and President Xi Jinping, and whoever rises to become a member of the Chinese virtuosi. Their ability to influence the popular, via the performative dimension of scriptures, has shown the lengths at which culture and ethnicity can be mapped and remapped. Ultimately, this points to a future full of both certainty and uncertainty.



Kamrany, Nake M, and Frank Jiang. “China’s Rise to Global Economic Superpower.” Huffington Post.2014. (accessed March 27, 2018).

Kitagawa, Joseph M. “One of the Many Faces of China: Maoism as a Quasi-Religion.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 1974: 125-41.

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Woman, Culture, and Society, 1974: 67-87.

Phillips, Tom. “China Told to Follow the Leader Xi Jinping in Thought, Word and Deed.” The Guardian.March 5, 2018. (accessed March 27, 2018).

Reuters. “The New Helmsman: Xi Jinping’s Re-election Brings Comparison with Mao.” The Guardian.March 18, 2018.  (accessed March 27, 2018).

Watts, James W. “The Three Dimensions of Scriptures.” In Iconic Books and Texts, 9-32. London: Equinox, 2013.


Sam EppsSam Epps ’19 is a student at Elizabethtown College. He is a Business AdministrationInterfaith Leadership Studies double major. Follow him on LinkedIn.


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