Alongside China's astonishing economic boom, an almost unnoticed religious boom has quietly been taking place.
In the country's first major survey on religious beliefs, conducted in 2006, 31.4 percent of about 4,500 people questioned described themselves as religious. That amounts to more than 300 million religious believers, an astonishing number in an officially atheist country, and three times higher than the last official estimate, which had largely remained unchanged for years.
The collapse of the communist ideology created a void that has left many Chinese staring into a spiritual vacuum, looking for a value system to counterbalance the rampant materialism that seems to govern life in China.
"Chinese people don't know what to believe in anymore," says Liu Zhongyu, a professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai, who conducted the survey. "And since the political atmosphere has relaxed, they turn to religion for comfort."
One young evangelical Christian missionary travels from rural village to village in the Protestant heartland in eastern China to proselytize. She attributed her own conversion to the overwhelming pressures of China's education system.
"In high school, I felt very depressed," said the bright-eyed young woman, who gave her name as Nicole. "I felt people had no direction, and I felt life was dry and boring. I felt the pressure of school was very high. God helped me and liberated me."
Although proselytizing is still illegal in China today, she and a group of friends are openly preaching in villages, without official interference. China has come a long way from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976, when all religious practice was banned, and monks and clergy were sent to prison or to perform hard labor.
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