Although founded in the late eighteenth century as the headquarters for czarist Russia’s Chinese Eastern Railroad, and later serving as a refuge for White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks, Harbin has over time become a deeply Chinese city. Since it is a unique place with religious influence from both East and West, a while ago I asked my program director about the city’s complex religious character. She arranged for me to chat with an instructor at the university with a relevant background.
He began our discussion by calmly explaining the basic makeup of China’s religious population, before looking me in eye and declaring that religion was similar to opium. He recounted how powerful people in China’s history had used religion, like opium, to control the masses and subdue dissent. He also described how religion drove people to do irrational things out of devotion, similar to a drug addict. That was why, he explained, Chinese Communist Party ideology that focused on improving the life of the worker was superior and much more rational than traditional religion. Despite all the societal change in China over the last generation, here I was still listening to the Marxist refrain that religion is the opiate of the masses.
This spring break I rode China’s railroads while travelling throughout the vast northeast. On the first leg of the trip I took one of China’s newest high-speed rail lines, blasting through tunnels on routes that exposed little mountain villages once largely inaccessible in this remote corner of the world. The futuristic technology of the high-speed rail created a sharp contrast, like a shot through the still undeveloped countryside reminding people of the power and potential of the central government. Little villages nestled between rocky peaks, consisting of a few humble homes made from simple materials, paid tribute to this gleaming signal from the future with small ragged national flags waving from their roofs. For the brief few seconds that the trains emerged from tunnels and came into view, these forgotten towns were also connected to the national story of economic development.
At first glance, it may appear that the once deeply religious city of Harbin has lost its faith with its houses of Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist worship slowly becoming artifacts of history. In fact, one must only look to the new temples for the faith of economic development: the massive high-speed railway stations built in downtown and in the western outskirts of the city. Although the communist lecture the instructor gave me initially seemed like an anachronism of the Cultural Revolution, it was not. Large-scale public transportation infrastructure projects embody a similar kind of promise to China’s workers that the government can guarantee them a better future tomorrow, even if they live far from China’s new centers of finance and commerce.