BRIEF HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF RELIGION IN CHINA

EVOLUTION OF RELIGION IN CHINA


The Buddha, Lao Tzu and Confucius

Ancient Chinese agrarian religion revolved around the worship of natural forces and spirits who controlled the elements and presided over rivers, fields and mountains. Shaman known as wu acted as intermediates between the human and spiritual worlds and preformed rites to insure good weather and harvests and keep evil spirits at bay.

Even though China is regarded officially as an atheist state today, it is said to have had an officially recognized religion since 2356 B.C., when science, religion, mythology and government were all linked together. Taoism and Confucianism began to take shape around the 5th and 6th centuries B.C., evolving from religions that had been around in China for at least a thousand years before that.

The four centuries after Han dynasty--from the A.D.3rd to 7th centuries--were characterized by disunity and chaos, which in turn lead to a receptivity to new religious ideas. This was the beginning of the Age of Faith, when Taoism flourished, Confucianism became a philosophy of the wealthy, and Buddhism took root. In the Age of Faith, Taoists and Buddhists fought over souls for salvation. Many Buddhist converts were formerly Taoists.

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Shang Religion

Priests in the Shang period of Chinese history (1600 – 1046 B.C.) practiced an unusual form of divination that involved placing heated rods in grooves carved into specially-prepared ox scapulae (shoulder bones) and turtle plastrons (the undesides of turtle shells). The ensuing cracks were read by fortunetellers for "auspicious" and "inauspicious signs" and messages from natural spirits and ancestors. The predictions, often made by the king rather than the diviner, and answers were engraved on the bones. Over 100,000 "oracle bones" have been found, mostly in storage pits in Xiaotun in Henan.

Oracle bones appear to have held a high place in Shang culture and this would lead one to conclude that superstition held a very high place in the lives of the ancient Chinese. Animism (the worship of natural spirits), fertility rites, cults and ancestor worship were also present in the Shang dynasty. Some of these practices still have enthusiastic followings in China today. Scientists and scholars have devoted a lot of time to the study of Taoism and Confucianism, but Chinese superstition and everyday spiritual life remain little studied.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: From the oracle bones, “we learn of the divinities they recognized, from the high god Di to nature gods and ancestors, as well as the issues that concerned them, such as harvests, childbirth, and military campaigns. The king did not address Di directly, but called on his ancestors to act as an intermediary for him. Sacrifices to Di or the ancestors could include human sacrifices of war captives and others. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\]

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Shang altar
Dr. Eno wrote: “A full description of Shang religion would include many facets.We would need to explore in detail the way in which the ancestral spirits were conceived, we would need to survey all non-ancestral deities and observe their powers, as reflected in divination, we would have to examine the complex system of ritual and sacrifice that paralleled Shang religious beliefs, we would need to discuss the symbolic significance of the sacrificial bronzes that constitute the outstanding emblem of Shang society, and we would need to examine indirect evidence for other forms of religious practice. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“While this is clearly too ambitious a goal...we will at least touch upon each of these elements. The principal purpose of this section is to introduce oracle inscriptions that have generally been taken to concern non-ancestral deities. These inscriptions have, since oracle texts were first deciphered, been seen as the reflection of a tripartite pantheon of spirits and gods. After the evidence for this model has been made clear, we will note some basic features of the data that may call it into question; we’ll consider varying scholarly approaches to interpreting the Shang high deity, Di, and to construing the underlying religious forms that the oracle texts reflect. We will begin here with a description of the pantheon as reflected in the oracle texts, briefly considering issues of ancestral spirits and the ancestral sacrificial calendar. /+/

Confucianism

Although sometimes characterized as a religion Confucianism is more of a social and political philosophy than a religion. Some have called it code of conduct for gentlemen and way of life that has had a strong influence on Chinese thought, relationships and family rituals. Confucianism stresses harmony of relationships that are hierarchical yet provide benefits to both superior and inferior, a thought deemed useful and advantageous to Chinese authoritarian rulers of all times for its careful preservation of the class system.

According to a Library of Congress description: “Confucianism is not a religion, although some have tried to imbue it with rituals and religious qualities, but rather a philosophy and system of ethical conduct that since the fifth century B.C. has guided China's society. Kong Fuzi (Confucius in Latinized form) is honored in China as a great sage of antiquity whose writings promoted peace and harmony and good morals in family life and society in general. Ritualized reverence for one's ancestors, sometimes referred to as ancestor worship, has been a tradition in China since at least the Shang Dynasty (1750---1040 B.C.). [Source: Library of Congress]

Confucianism mainly addresses humanist concerns rather than things like God, revelation and the afterlife. It emphasizes tradition, respect for the elderly, hierarchal social order and rule by a benevolent leader who is supposed to look out for the well being of his people. Named after a Chinese sage named Confucius, it contains elements of ancestor worship, which is partly why it is sometime regarded as a religion. Traditionally, Chinese who have sought a mystical philosophy or religion turned to Taoism or Buddhism. This means that it is possible and even likely that someone who is regarded as a Confucian is also a Buddhist or a Taoist or even a Christian.

Confucianism was a system of ideas developed by later philosophers out of Confucius's thoughts and its relationship to the original thoughts of the man himself is extremely debatable. The term Confucianism was coined by Westerners. In China, Confucians call themselves ju, a word of uncertain origin that refers to their beliefs as the “way of the sages” or “the way of the ancients." These beliefs are associated with the legendary founders and ancient sages of China and are thought to have existed from time immemorial. Confucius is regarded as the last of the great sages.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Confucianism is perhaps the most well-known of the textual traditions in China. The classical Confucian texts became key to the orthodox state ideology of the Chinese dynasties, and these texts, though they were mastered only by a scholarly elite, in fact penetrated society deeply. Through the interpretation of the scholar Dong Zhongshu, who lived during the Han dynasty from around 179-104 B.C., Confucianism became strongly linked to the cosmic framework of traditional Chinese thought, as the Confucian ideals of ritual and social hierarchy came to be elaborated in terms of cosmic principles such as yin and yang. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/<|>]

Confucius

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one rendering of Confucius
Confucius (551 to 479 B.C.) is regarded as the founder of Confucianism, a system of philosophical and ethical teachings that lies at cornerstone of Chinese culture and morality. Based on the little direct evidence about him that still survives, it appears that he did not view himself as the founder of the school of thought that bears his name, much less as the originator of anything. The self-conscious identity among people tracing their heritage back to him took place long after his death.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Confucius (the Latinized version of Kong Fuzi, “master Kong”) or, to call him by his proper name, Kong Qiu lived during the time when the Zhou kingdom had disintegrated into many de facto independent feudal states which were subject to the Zhou kings only in theory. Confucius was a man of the small feudal state of Lu. Like many other men of the educated elite class of the Eastern Zhou, Confucius traveled among the states, offering his services as a political advisor and official to feudal rulers and taking on students whom he would teach for a fee. Confucius had an unsuccessful career as a petty bureaucrat, but a highly successful one as a teacher. A couple of generations after his death, first. and second-generation students gathered accounts of Confucius’ teachings together, and these teachings remain influential in China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan to this day. These anecdotes and records of short conversations go under the English title of the Analects. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]

The historian Daniel Boorstin wrote: Confucius "claimed no divine source for his teachings, nor any inspiration not open to everyone. Unlike Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed, he proclaimed no Commandments... Confucius was never crucified, never martyred. He never led a people out of a wilderness nor commanded forces in battle. He left little mark on the life of his time and aroused few disciples in his day." The religious scholar A.C. Graham wrote: “He was not the founder of a religion, nor was he a philosopher; he was a gentleman whose sense of what is done and what is not done has been taken as a standard."

Confucius appears to have been devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, in his words, “for the sake of the self." In “The Analects”, Confucius is recorded as saying: "At 15, I set my heart on learning; at 30, I firmly took my stand; at 40, I had no delusions; at 50, I knew the Mandate of Heaven; at 60, my ear was attuned to the truth; at 70, I followed my heart's desire without overstepping the boundaries of what was right." One similarity between Confucius and Jesus is that both offered an alterative lifestyle to greed and the pursuit of power.

Confucius is considered the most influential educator of all Chinese. He lived roughly the same time as Socrates and scholars often like to compare the two in terms of influence over East and West. Confucius did not achieve his political ideals when he was alive, but his philosophy informed many later emperors. Confucius' disciples compiled “The Analects”, which represent the essence of his and their thoughts.

Confucius and the Origins of Confucianism

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Textual records of systematic thought first emerge in China during the era of the Warring States. The earliest of these appear to be the records of Confucius’s saying that were gradually compiled by his disciples during the fifth century B.C., and then expanded by second and third generation disciples in subsequent years. Once the Confucians established the genre of recorded ideas, other people began to espouse different notions and their disciples emulated Confucius’s in recording them. By the end of the fourth century, this process has moved a step further, and individuals had begun to record their ideas directly in writings. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The variety of philosophies developed during this period was such that they are often referred to as the “Hundred Schools.” The word “schools” does not imply fixed buildings, but traditions associated with master.disciple lineages. The way in which philosophies were propagated seems generally to have been by groups of men who studied for many years with a master whose teachings they adopted and preached with energy, though over time generations of disciples would elaborate the teachings of their school in new ways, these changes sometimes leading to long-term divisions within traditions tracing back to a single master. /+/

“The interests of early Chinese philosophy were far more practical than were those of the earliest systematic Western thinkers, the Greeks. Whereas Greek thought seems to have begun with highly theoretical inquiries concerning Nature, Chinese thought begins with a social problem connected with Warring States political chaos. The central issue for Chinese thinkers was, how did China fall into this state of chaos, how can it get out of it, and what is the proper conduct for individuals in times such as these? These are the background issues behind the thought of Confucius, who may be seen as the founder of Chinese philosophy. Confucius lived at the close of the Spring and Autumn period (551-479 B.C.) and his mode of free inquiry is a model for the subsequent Warring States era. It is difficult to overstate Confucius’s importance to the cultural history of China. His particular school of thought is generally seen as having dominated Chinese society for two millennia (although some interpreters would say that it became pervasive only after having been adapted beyond recognition to the contours of China’s post-Classical imperial state). But even more important, Confucius made a decisive contribution in exemplifying the notion that the socio.political issues of his time were ones that needed to be resolved by thought and training rather than by diplomatic and military intrigue. Thus the path to China’s future was one that could be created by men of any social class regardless of their access to political prestige – not any man could occupy a throne or command an army, but any man could think and equip himself with ethical skills. In this sense, Confucius, by making study and thought a path to social recognition and political influence, reinforced the social trends that were moving China away from the closed society of the patrician state.

Early History of Confucianism

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Statuette of Confucius
as a Mandarin
Although many Confucians argue that their beliefs are based on the wisdom of sages that preceded Confucius and Confucius himself gave himself no credit for being an originator or even innovator, historians give him credit for founding Confucianism because he gave the beliefs a structure.

Some of the most important principals of Confucianism were established in the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 BC), centuries before Confucius was born. They include the notion of a benevolent supreme being; the mandate given by the supreme being to a ruler to govern; and the justification of overthrow of a dynasty if the ruler double-crosses the supreme being and becomes wicked.

Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “In the 5th Century B.C., Europe had Socrates and China had just had Confucius. Both philosophers thought hard about ethics, and the right relationship between the individual and the state. We often think of Confucius as being the foundation stone of Chinese political philosophy, and so do most Chinese. But he was channelling a world view which had been crystallising over centuries. [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012]

Confucius placed more emphasis on the morality and humanness rather than the divine, sensational and legendary found in writings that preceded him. In ancient texts there is a great deal of discussion about great emperors and sages but no one talked much of their wisdom and tried to spell out this wisdom until Confucius came along.

Yu Dan wrote in his bestseller “Confucius from the Heart”: “The reason why these simple truths have survived down the millennia is that they have helped generation after generation of Chinese to understand the nature and the culture that formed them, and not to lose their heads, even when confronted by immense social change and almost overwhelming choice.”

Confucianism after Confucius

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “After Confucius’s death, his disciples continued to spread his teaching by taking on students of their own, and in this way the Confucian School began to perpetuate itself over the generations of the Classical period. Confucian masters spread from the state of Lu into other states, and although Confucian masters and students were never very great in numbers and enjoyed little or no success in altering the political behavior of power.holders in China, they did come to occupy a particular social niche that provided them with some degree of prestige and income. Because of their mastery of Zhou ritual forms, Confucians came to serve as the chief masters of all sorts of ceremonies in Warring States China. If a ruler or warlord wanted to increase his prestige, he might invite a Confucian and his students to settle at his court and supervise ritual ceremony there. If a noble family wanted to provide its children with elaborate ceremonies of marriage, it might hire a Confucian for the occasions. If a wealthy person died, his family marked their respect by asking a Confucian to design a full ritual funeral, with all the trappings. And of course, noble fathers continued to send their sons to Confucian Finishing Schools so that they might acquire polish. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“In this way, the Confucian School, despite a political vision that actually undermined the chaotic power structure of the Warring States era, came to represent a certain type of orthodoxy. This association with established wealth and power spurred a strongly negative reaction among people who were excluded from or who had separated themselves from the aristocracy. /+/

“Philosophically, there were two early manifestations of this reaction against Confucianism: the schools of Daoism and Mohism. The inspirations for these two schools were very different, and they are in many ways opposites of one another, but they share a common origin as rejections of Confucianism and searches for an alternative path to human excellence. We will discuss these schools in subsequent readings, but it is important to note here that an important feature that these schools shared was the fact that they both attacked the Confucian belief in the importance of Ritual and the Confucian portrait of the junzi as a sage who discovers the path to ethical righteousness through the mastery of Zhou ritual practices. /+/

“In this way, throughout the remainder of the Classical period, the feature of Confucianism that clearly distinguishes it from all other schools of thought is precisely its stubborn emphasis on Ritual. Since we today tend not to feel that Ritual is a very significant aspect of human life, and since there may be no one on earth who feels that the particular institutions of Zhou ritual are of any value whatever, the Confucian stress on Ritual tends to make early Confucian philosophy seem irrelevant to our world. One of the main ways in which the study of early Confucianism challenges us is its demand that we grasp how the Confucian celebration of Ritual could have somehow made clear sense to Confucius and his followers.” /+/

Early Chinese Political Philosophers


Mencius

Tsinghua University professor Yan Xuetong wrote in the New York Times: “Ancient Chinese political theorists like Guanzi, Confucius, Xunzi and Mencius were writing in the pre-Qin period, before China was unified as an empire more than 2,000 years ago---a world in which small countries were competing ruthlessly for territorial advantage. [Source: Yan Xuetong, New York Times, November 20, 2011. Yan Xuetong, the author of “Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power,” is a professor of political science and dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University.]

It was perhaps the greatest period for Chinese thought, and several schools competed for ideological supremacy and political influence. They converged on one crucial insight: The key to international influence was political power, and the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership. Rulers who acted in accordance with moral norms whenever possible tended to win the race for leadership over the long term.

China was unified by the ruthless king of Qin in 221 B.C., but his short-lived rule was not nearly as successful as that of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, who drew on a mixture of legalistic realism and Confucian “soft power” to rule the country for over 50 years, from 140 B.C. until 86 B.C.

According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, there were three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority won the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny---based on military force---inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic powers lay in between: they did not cheat the people at home or cheat allies abroad. But they were frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often used violence against non-allies. The philosophers generally agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny.

Emergence of “Confucianism” During the Han Dynasty

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ It was only with the founding of the Han dynasty (202 B.C.-220 CE) that Confucianism became “Confucianism,” that the ideas associated with Kong Qiu’s name received state support and were disseminated generally throughout upper-class society. The creation of Confucianism was neither simple nor sudden, as the following three examples will make clear. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/<|>]

“1) The Classical Texts. In the year 136 B.C. the classical writings touted by Confucian scholars were made the foundation of the official system of education and scholarship, to the exclusion of titles supported by other philosophers. The five classics (or five scriptures, wujing) were the Classic of Poetry (Shijing), Classic of History (Shujing), Classic of Changes (Yijing), Record of Rites (Liji), and Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period (Chunqiu) with the Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan), most of which had existed prior to the time of Kong Qiu.Although Kong Qiu was commonly believed to have written or edited some of the five classics, his own statements (collected in the Analects [Lunyu]) and the writings of his closest followers were not yet admitted into the canon. [Note: The word jing denotes the warp threads in a piece of cloth. Once adopted as a generic term for the authoritative texts of Han-dynasty Confucianism, it was applied by other traditions to their sacred books. It is translated variously as book, classic, scripture, and sutra.] <|>

“2. State Sponsorship. Kong Qiu’s name was implicated more directly in the second example of the Confucian system, the state-sponsored cult that erected temples in his honor throughout the empire and that provided monetary support for turning his ancestral home into a national shrine. Members of the literate elite visited such temples, paying formalized respect and enacting rituals in front of spirit tablets of the master and his disciples. <|>

“3. Dong Zhongshu’s Cosmological Framework. The third example is the corpus of writing left by the scholar Dong Zhongshu (ca. 179-104 B.C.), who was instrumental in promoting Confucian ideas and books in official circles. Dong was recognized by the government as the leading spokesman for the scholarly elite. His theories provided an overarching cosmological framework for Kong Qiu’s ideals, sometimes adding ideas unknown in Kong Qiu’s time, sometimes making more explicit or providing a particular interpretation of what was already stated in Kong Qiu’s work. <|>

“Dong drew heavily on concepts of earlier thinkers -- few of whom were self-avowed Confucians -- to explain the workings of the cosmos. He used the concepts of yin and yang to explain how change followed a knowable pattern, and he elaborated on the role of the ruler as one who connected the realms of Heaven, Earth, and humans. The social hierarchy implicit in Kong Qiu’s ideal world was coterminous, thought Dong, with a division of all natural relationships into a superior and inferior member. Dong’s theories proved determinative for the political culture of Confucianism during the Han and later dynasties. <|>

“What in all of the examples above, we need to ask, was Confucian? Or, more precisely, what kind of thing is the “Confucianism” in each of these examples? In the case of the five classics, “Confucianism” amounts to a set of books that were mostly written before Kong Qiu lived but that later tradition associates with his name. It is a curriculum instituted by the emperor for use in the most prestigious institutions of learning. In the case of the state cult, “Confucianism” is a complex ritual apparatus, an empire-wide network of shrines patronized by government authorities. It depends upon the ability of the government to maintain religious institutions throughout the empire and upon the willingness of state officials to engage regularly in worship. In the case of the work of Dong Zhongshu, “Confucianism” is a conceptual scheme, a fluid synthesis of some of Kong Qiu’s ideals and the various cosmologies popular well after Kong Qiu lived. Rather than being an updating of something universally acknowledged as Kong Qiu’s philosophy, it is a conscious systematizing, under the symbol of Kong Qiu, of ideas current in the Han dynasty.” <|>

Taosim

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1785 image of a Taoist
Taoism (Daoism in pinyin) is a philosophy-turned-religion that preaches living in harmony with nature and simplicity. It began as a philosophical tradition in early China. Its most famous work is the Daodejing, attributed to a person known as Laozi, who may have existed in the 6th century B.C. It developed into an organized religion by the A.D. 2nd century. Although its practices vary widely, it generally advocates self-discipline and good living as a way to attain immortality, as well as elaborate rituals to purge individuals or communities of evil. Its ideas of harmony with nature underlie many aspects of Chinese culture, from calligraphy and painting to architecture and medicine. For generations, its formal teachings were passed down by Taoist priests as well as lay practitioners.

Taoism, the second most important stream of Chinese thought, also developed during the Zhou period (1100 - 221 B.C.) along with Confucianism. Its formulation is attributed to the legendary sage Lao Zi (Old Master), said to predate Confucius, and Zhuang Zi (369-286 B.C.). The focus of Taoism is the individual in nature rather than the individual in society. It holds that the goal of life for each individual is to find one's own personal adjustment to the rhythm of the natural (and supernatural) world, to follow the Way (dao) of the universe. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian moralism, Taoism served many of its adherents as a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar on duty as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse. [Source: The Library of Congress]

Taoism is derived from the Chinese word Tao ("The Way"), which is pronounced "dao." It is the second most important stream of Chinese thought after Confucianism. Its formulation is attributed to the legendary sage Lao Zi (Old Master), said to predate Confucius. As is true with Confucianism, it isn't really a religion in the Western sense of the word. It is more of a mystical philosophy built on a set of ethical principals for everyday living. Unlike Confucianism, which is a practical philosophy with religious overtones, Taoism is more spiritual, rooted in magic and shamanism and concerned with things like self awareness, transcendentalism, and immortality.

Francesco Sisci wrote in the Asia Times, “Tao, originally a small path in the mountains, describes the easiest way to move up and down the difficulties of life. It is a concept central to Chinese thinking and way of acting - to China's own being. The concept is vague but also precise, linked to the idea of water, which takes the shape of the object holding it without changing nature. It is the yielding of a woman. The way is the Chinese cosmic order, the closest thing China has to the god or gods of Judaic or Greek tradition. In the movement to rediscover China through rediscovery of Confucianism, the Tao had to emerge as well." [Source:Francesco Sisci, Asia Times, Asia Editor of La Stampa, September 2, 2010 /*\]

History of Taoism

Taoism is regarded as the oldest of China's three religion-philosophies (Confucianism and Buddhism are the other two). Like Confucianism it emerged during the Age of Philosophers (See Confucianism and Chinese Philosophy) and is said to have been founded by a humble, legendary Chinese mystic named Lao-tze and given some structure by influential Taoist scholars such as the Taoist master Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). Some historians have argued that Taoism it a revival of religious thought dominant in the Shang Dynasty (1558 to 1102 B.C.).

Taoism has both a philosophical and a religious tradition in China. Although philosophical Taoism flourished early in the fifth century B.C., Taoism as a religion did not develop until the first century A.D. Next to Confucianism, it ranks as the second major belief system in traditional Chinese thought. The philosophy of Taoism outlined in the Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching offers a practical way of life.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “When we speak of “Daoism” in the Classical period, we generally mean by the term the ideas of two rather mysterious texts that date from the Warring States era. They are the “Dao de jing” (Classic of the Way and of Virtue) by Laozi, and the works of the quirky recluse Zhuangzi, which appear in a book that takes his name as its title. Daoism appears to have begun as an escapist movement during the early Warring States period, and in some ways it makes sense to see it as an outgrowth of Confucianism and its doctrine of “timeliness.” That doctrine originated with Confucius’s motto: “When the Way (dao) prevails in the world, appear; when it does not, hide!” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

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5th century Bodhisattva from Yungang
Birgitta Augustin of New York University wrote: “Indigenous to China, Daoism arose as a secular school of thought with a strong metaphysical foundation around 500 B.C., during a time when fundamental spiritual ideas were emerging in both the East and the West. Two core texts form the basis of Daoism: the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, attributed to the two eponymous masters, whose historical identity, like the circumstances surrounding the compilation of their texts, remains uncertain. The Laozi—also called the Daodejing, or Scripture of the Way and Virtue—has been understood as a set of instructions for virtuous rulership or for self-cultivation. It stresses the concept of nonaction or noninterference with the natural order of things. Dao, usually translated as the Way, may be understood as the path to achieving a state of enlightenment resulting in longevity or even immortality. But Dao, as something ineffable, shapeless, and conceived of as an infinite void, may also be understood as the unfathomable origin of the world and as the progenitor of the dualistic forces yin and yang. Yin, associated with shade, water, west, and the tiger, and yang, associated with light, fire, east, and the dragon, are the two alternating phases of cosmic energy; their dynamic balance brings cosmic harmony. [Source: Birgitta Augustin Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Buddhism in China

Buddhism was first introduced into China in the first century A.D. from India. Chinese Buddhism was of the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) school, so named to distinguish it from the earlier form of Buddhism known as Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle). Among Tibetan peoples, it is distinguished by its emphasis on the Buddhist Tantras.

Buddhism in China has gone through cycles of rising, flourishing and declining. Over the centuries it has been shaped by the tensions between the Indian-influenced traditions and Chinese traditions. In the eyes of many scholars the tension is what kept Buddhism alive and relevant. When the tensions waned so too did the religion. At its peak Buddhism had hundreds of millions of followers and deeply shaped Chinese culture and thought.

Buddhism entered China mostly in the Mahayana form as it was going through many changes in India. Each major change resulted in a new school in China. Chinese Buddhism evolved through the study of sutras in Chinese. Doctrinal issues were addressed using different sutras than those used in India. The various schools tended to differ from each other and from those in India based on the sutras they emphasized as being truest.

Buddhism is regarded as the largest religion in China today, with 100 million followers, or about 8 percent of the Chinese population, including Tibetans, Mongolians and a few other ethnic minorities like the Dai. There is roughly around the same number of Christians and Muslims. According to the State Administration for Religious Affairs there are about 13,000 Buddhist temples and about 200,000 Buddhist monks and nuns. Still, it can be argued that Buddhism is not embraced with the same ethusiasm amd devotion as it is in other Asian countries and in Tibet. Many Buddhist temples in China are watched over by caretakers not monks. In Japan and Korea, many people are buried according to Buddhist rites, but that is not usually the case in China.

When Buddhism reemerged after the Cultural Revolution it was simpler and more influenced by the West. While Tibetan Buddhism encourages lamas to counsel students individually, Chinese Buddhism puts more emphasis on teaching monks in groups in monasteries.

European Encroachment in Ming- and Qing-Era China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Qing dynasty in the 19th century saw the undermining of the prosperity, peace, and stability of earlier times. Qing China was already suffering from an internal economic crisis at the turn of the century, but perhaps even more important to the collapse of the old was the increasingly aggressive encroachment of Europeans in the economic and cultural spheres. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]


European depiction of Confucius

“Significant contact between China and Europe began during the latter half of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). China officially began to trade with the Portuguese in 1557, and soon after, European Jesuits began to establish a presence in Macao and eventually entered China in the early 1580s. The Jesuits were curious about and generally respectful of Chinese culture and customs (including religious rites and Confucianism, in particular), and the imperial governments of the Ming and Qing generally regarded the presence of these Catholic missionaries favorably (though with some significant exceptions) and retained Jesuits as advisers at court. The Qing emperor Kangxi (b. 1654; reign, 1662-1722) even issued an imperial edict in 1692 supporting Chinese converts to Catholicism. <|>

“Problems arose, however, when other Catholic orders began to enter China in the 1630s, and an internal controversy developed over whether the Jesuits, in the interest of winning converts, had gone too far in their attempts to make the Catholic faith more compatible with indigenous Chinese beliefs, especially on the question of the veneration of Confucius and the ancestors. The Jesuits insisted that these were civil rites and therefore acceptable practices for Chinese converts to Catholicism. Missionaries of the Dominican and Franciscan orders thought otherwise, and this disagreement (which later came to be known as the “Rites Controversy”) set off a fierce debate amongst European Catholics that would persist for nearly 100 years, from the 1640s to 1742, when Pope Benedict XIV reaffirmed an earlier (1715) decree by Pope Clement XI that sided with the Dominican-Franciscan position. Benedict XIV then declared that this matter was no longer open to debate, effectively closing the book on the issue. A leading intellectual of his time, Kang Youwei drafted for the Qing dynasty government a drastic program of reform, now known as the “One Hundred Days of Reform.”“<|>

Increasing European Aggression and China’s Defeat

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Following the 1742 degree of Benedict XIV the Qing government regarded Catholics, with the possible exception of some Jesuits who were already favored by the imperial court, with suspicion and strictly contained their activities. Meanwhile the Qing’s economic relationship with Europe did not abate, though here also the Qing made every effort to contain their encroachment. When opium entered the picture in the early 1800s, however, the situation deteriorated significantly for the Qing. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]

“By the mid-1800s, following Qing China’s defeat in the so-called “Opium War” (1840-42) against the British and the resulting Treaty of Nanjing, European soldiers, merchants, and missionaries (both Catholic and Protestant) were establishing a presence in China and moving into cities all along China’s coastline and into interior regions of the country. This influx of Europeans represented an absolute and dramatic threat to China in many ways. The Westerners’ beliefs and customs were vastly different from that of the Chinese, and their ongoing presence represented not only a military disaster but a cultural disaster as well, for it undermined the centrality of the Chinese emperor, as well as the centrality of the Chinese civilization itself. “<|>

New Nationalism and the Rejection of Traditional Beliefs

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Qing China at the close of the 19th century saw the emergence of a new intellectual elite that increasingly perceived the political situation of the day as proof that the Chinese system did not work and that traditional Chinese beliefs were no longer relevant. China’s physical survival as a nation became the overriding concern of these new intellectuals, for their fear was of not only China’s cultural destruction but China’s political destruction at the hands of imperial powers. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]

In a desperate urge to strengthen China so that it could resist the ongoing imperialism of the West (and increasingly, of Japan), these Chinese intellectuals developed a new kind of nationalism defined by a dramatic rejection of traditional beliefs, which were seen to have “failed” China. Even the imperial government recognized that some degree of what was called “Western learning” was necessary if China was to survive this new crisis. In 1898, the Qing emperor Guangxu (b. 1871; reign, 1875-1908) appointed Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a leading intellectual of the time, to draft and implement a drastic reform program for the Chinese government. Kang’s program, now known as the “One Hundred Days of Reform,” only had a brief trial period before political pressure brought about a coup and reinstated the Empress Dowager, who favored a more conservative approach. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos <|>]

“Kang’s ideas for reform were not abandoned altogether, however, and wide-ranging reforms in education, the military, the economy and the government were implemented throughout the early 1900s, culminating in the elimination of the civil service examination system in 1905. But the reforms could not in the end save the Qing dynasty, which eventually collapsed in 1911. The political vacuum was filled by new anti-imperialist and nationalistic military and intellectual groups that shared an increasingly fierce anti-traditionalism -- a powerful rejection of the very traditional patterns that had guided Chinese life and beliefs during the Qing and earlier periods.” <|>

Anti-Religion Forces in the Early 20th Century

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 the anti-traditionalism of the Chinese intellectual elite was embraced by the iconoclastic Chinese Nationalists and led to the widespread destruction of religious and ancestral temples in the 1920s. This very powerful internal assault on traditional beliefs characterized the first half of the 20th century in China. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

When the Communists came to power in 1949, they combined the anti-traditionalism already developed among the Chinese intellectual elite with Marxist-inspired contempt for all religious beliefs. This anti-traditional/anti-religious stance of the early Communists was in a sense a “double blow” to traditional Chinese religious practices. The destruction of ancestral temples, village temples, city god temples and every other vestige of traditional practice was carried on with even greater enthusiasm and more thoroughness by the Communists after 1949, compared to what had been attempted by the Nationalists in the 1920s and early 1930s. <|>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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