Why the Mayan apocalypse date is such a big deal in China

December 20, 2012

Chinese man Lu Zhenghai spent his life savings building this 70-foot-by-50-foot vessel powered by three diesel engines, an "ark" in preparation for the Mayan-predicted apocalypse. (AP Photo/ANPF-Chen Jiansheng)

According to some contemporary interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar, the world is supposed to end on Dec. 21, 2012. Here in the U.S., it's still the 20th, but with time zones and all, big parts of humanity have already crossed into the potential last day. And, good news: they're doing fine.

Here is New York Times reporter Edward Wong reporting from the scene:

 

New Zealand actually crossed into the day-of-days several hours ago; as of this writing, it's 5:30 a.m. there on Dec. 21. A Forbes writer based in the Pacific island nation checked in an hour ago to report no natural disasters, alien invasions, or other signs of end-times.

Even if the world doesn't end up exploding, today still has some darker meaning for China, and not just because some people seem to be taking the prediction surprisingly seriously. Wong also wrote on Twitter, "Many Chinese have been buying candles because of rumors of a 3-day power outage to start on Dec. 21." Chinese authorities recently arrested 500 members of a doomsday cult that was noisily predicting Dec. 21 as the day. The New Yorker's Evan Osnos writes that "China is more taken with doomsday talk than you might expect," something the government takes very seriously. "China has a long history of religion-infused political rebellions," he writes.

A new, award-winning book by historian Stephen Platt documents the Taiping Rebellion, a 19th-century religious insurrection that ended in tens of millions of deaths. Osnos writes, "But these days the Party is especially uncomfortable with obscure religious beliefs because, in the post-Socialist era, many in China have begun to hunt for something to believe."

The government's fear of religious groups, both extremist and non-extremist, still develops into action at times, some of it quite severe. The Post's William Wan today reports on an astounding official campaign "quietly directing universities to root out foreigners suspected of plotting against the Communist Party by converting students to Christianity." Here's Wan:

The document suggests that despite small signs of religious tolerance in recent decades, China’s ruling officials retain strong suspicion of religion as a tool of the West and a threat to the party’s authoritarian rule. And with the country’s top leadership in transition and looking to consolidate power, Chinese religious leaders worry that the stance is unlikely to change in the near future.

As in the U.S., most people in China probably do not take the Mayan apocalypse prediction too seriously. Still, if the discussion in China around the Mayan calendar and its adherents seems a bit more fraught, now you'll know why.

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Max Fisher · December 20, 2012