SHANGHAI, China — Qin Fangyi’s religious moment came after a walk in the pouring rain two years ago to a nunnery for a ceremony that her mother had urged her to attend.
Qin’s mother converted to Buddhism two years earlier despite her husband’s open hostility to religion, and quietly nudged her daughter into having a look for herself.
“I got there at about 8 a.m. and was told the ceremony was delayed by an hour,” said Qin, a 21-year-old design student. “At about 8:55, all of the sudden the sky grew clear and the sun came out and people began cheering and screaming that the real Buddha was about to appear in the sky. Although I didn’t see the Buddha myself, I was amazed, and I began to feel the power of God.”
Qin’s story, although unique in its details, has an ending that is fast becoming commonplace, as Chinese by the tens of millions shed decades of state-imposed atheism. The phenomenon has gained momentum so fast that it appears to have taken the government by surprise.
A recent poll by East China Normal University estimated that 31.4 percent of Chinese 16 or older are religious, putting the number of believers at roughly 400 million.
In recent years, official estimates have placed the number of believers at around 100 million, but the fact that the new survey’s results were not only made public but were also reported by the government-controlled Chinese news media suggests that the survey has been given at least some official credence.
Perhaps the most popular time of the year for Chinese to engage in public worship is the traditional Chinese New Year, which began last month. Buddhist and Taoist temples, in particular, overflowed with visitors who prayed for ancestors or the health of their own households.
As Qin spoke on the eve of the holiday at the Jade Buddha Temple in central Shanghai, scores of worshipers strolled through the temple complex. Many were well-dressed office workers who often seemed uncertain about how to act as they entered the central pavilion and bowed or knelt in prayer.
Many other visitors were older Chinese who may have privately clung to their religion through decades of official hostility. Some accompanied grandchildren, tutoring them in the rituals of prayer as they worked their way around the pavilion, with its giant golden Buddha.
Others, meanwhile, burned thick clutches of incense in the temple’s large, open courtyard, bowing to the cardinal points of the compass and then depositing the burning sticks in huge iron urns.
“There was no way for me to do this with my own daughter,” said Zhang Li, 62, who escorted her smiling granddaughter through the complex, stopping here and there for prayer. “The temples were closed, and this sort of thing simply wasn’t allowed.”
Official attitudes toward religion have gradually loosened in China in recent years, enabling the resurgence of popular belief. Places of worship for the five officially recognized faiths — Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam — have been restored or built anew, and public worship allowed again amid signs that the government sees limited religiosity as a useful component of its drive to build what it calls a “harmonious society.”
Chinese experts say the growing popularity of religious belief has been driven by social crises involving corruption and the expanding gap between rich and poor.
“People feel troubled as they ponder these issues and wonder how they’ll be resolved,” said Liu Zhongyu, a professor of philosophy at East China Normal University and the principal author of the new religion survey. “People think, I don’t care what others do or what their results are, but I want something to rely upon.”
Asked about the government’s evolving attitudes toward the growing popularity of religion, He Guanghu, a professor of philosophy at People’s University in Beijing, said, “I hope the government will look at the zeal in religion positively, and see that it can help restore social order and harmony, that it helps governance and is not a threat.”
Strict limitations on religion remain, however. Beijing handpicks senior clergy for each of the authorized faiths and frequently persecutes believers in unauthorized religions, from Falun Gong to underground Protestant churches that meet in homes. The government also severely restricts religious education and prohibits proselytizing.
Membership in the Communist Party, meanwhile, remains a major avenue for individual advancement, but the party does not permit members to practice religion. Many employers and even universities also look askance at believers.
A result of these mixed signals is that many people still do not feel altogether comfortable being recognized as believers.
Many, however, say they are increasingly up front about their beliefs. “I usually make it clear to people that I’m a Catholic at the beginning,” said Zhu Zhaofeng, 27, a salesman at a French-owned luxury goods company who attends services at an unofficial Catholic church. “I don’t want other people to feel strange if I go to worship in churches or on pilgrimage. On the other hand, it is not something I promote.”
Zhu’s situation represents almost a reversal from that of his father, who spent seven years in prison and in labor camps in the 1950s because his religious beliefs were considered “anti-revolutionary.”
His father, Zhu Dafang, now 74 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, passes his days in a tiny bedroom in an old house in central Shanghai, surrounded by Catholic reliquaries.
“We don’t hate anyone, and I have no regrets,” he said, of the suffering he endured. Struggling to speak through his tremors, he added, “One must try not to focus on the hardships you endure for faith.”