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Faith-seeking in an unexpected place

China may have 144 million Internet users, but spend a Sunday afternoon at the multi-storey Xidan Books, and you'll discover a whole lot of Chinese folks trawling for information the old fashioned way.

Three sections in particular were jammed with people, nose deep in pages, faces set in deep concentration.

As China's economy grows at breakneck, double-digit speed, it was hardly surprising to see clusters of hopeful entrepreneurs parked in front of shelves labelled "Store Operation."

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
In search of the next big thing... at the Xidan Books Building.

Nor was it unexpected to find people crowding around books on how to invest, given the rollercoaster performance of China's stocks. The A-shares market, for instance, which is open to domestic traders and some foreign institutional investors, has surged 250 percent since 2006.

Reading one's way to spirituality?

However, my jaw dropped when I spun directly around and noticed dozens of readers crowding the aisle for "Buddhism and Taoism."

This is, after all, a country run by a government famous for its harsh views on religion and religious philosophy.

And, yet, in recent months local media have reported a growing popular interest in organized faiths like Buddhism and Christianity as well as traditional Chinese philosophies such as Confucianism and Taoism.

In fact, one could say the Chinese central government has been shilling for Taoism. The evidence? In April, China's director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Ye Xiaowen, led a promotional tour of the Tao Te Ching – Taoism's principal text, written roughly in 500 B.C. by Lao Tzu – to several Chinese cities, at an estimated cost of $1 million.

Taoism: The way to social harmony

Taoism appeals to the government here because of its emphasis on social harmony. And a "harmonious society" is one of President Hu Jintao's top goals these days as he and the rest of the Chinese leadership attempt to steer the nation's course through economic swells, all the while maintaining firm control.

And with the stock market's patchy history here – riots erupted in Shenzhen after severe stock losses in 1992 – it's no small wonder the government is looking to encourage social harmony.

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
The cavernous Xidan Books Building

But like other modernizing societies, there also seems to be enough anecdotal evidence to believe that China's burgeoning middle class – which can now feed itself and purchase the latest GM model – might also be wanting a bit of spiritual meaning to make sense of their transforming lives.

I decided to approach a middle-aged woman leafing through a book on Buddhist history. 

"Excuse me," I interrupted her. "There seem to be a lot of people in this section. Why is that?"

Adrienne Mong / NBC News
Reading one's way to becoming a better person.

She looked up from her book and said, "People are interested in Buddhism these days. We find relevance in it."

I asked her whether she was a Buddhist.

The woman stared at me closely. "It's not a religion," she answered. "It's a way of life. It teaches you how to live." 

Which – as we learned today that a man in Shanghai was shot and killed by police after holding a three-year old girl hostage at a KFC because he had lost all his money in the stock market – seems infinitely more harmonious.