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Exorcism in China in the 1920s
Spiritual beliefs, folk religions and superstitions still abound in China even though they are frowned upon and in some cases suppressed by the authorities. Ancient rites and customs thrive in almost every village, town and city across China, There are literally millions of ancestral shrines and temples honoring local heroes, important ancestors, and local deities, as well as important figures in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

Folk religions can vary a great deal from region to region and even individual to individual. Arguably they are strongest in rural areas, especially places left out of the economic boom, where people need something to help them deal with the frustrations of the modern world and fill the emptiness left behind by Communism's ideological demise.

World religions (percentage of practitioners in the world) : 1) Christianity (33 percent); 2) Islam (20 percent); 3) Non-religion and atheism (15.4 percent); 4) Hinduism (13 percent); 5) Chinese folk religions (6 percent); 6) Buddhism (6 percent); and 7) Other (7 percent).

Scientists and scholars have devoted a lot of time to the study of Taoism and Confucianism, but Chinese folk religion, superstition and everyday spiritual life remain little studied.

Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Society ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources ; Qi Gong Institute ; Qi Gong association of America / ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong ; Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions ; Old Book on Superstitions or Old Book PDF ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt Ancient Chinese History and Religion chinatxt ; Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death ; Death and Burials in China ; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article ; News in Science ; Symbols Chinatown Connection ; What’s Your Sign

Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979); 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961); 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4,; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971).

Traditional Chinese Beliefs and Other Religions in China

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: Chinese “folk religion has, over the years, absorbed and assimilated elements from the State Religion, Daoism, and Buddhism. Folk religion is not an independent system, since specialists trained in one or another of the elite traditions are necessary to carry out many rituals on behalf of folk believers. Magistrates and officials up to the emperor performed rituals for harmony that would prevent natural and human disasters; Buddhist monks and Daoist priests performed exorcisms, funerals, soul-retrievals, and healing rituals. Yet each of the elite traditions also has its literary, specialist side, engaged in only by the specialist practitioners or literate lay adherents. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

While Confucianism and Taoism have traditionally been popular with the Chinese upper classes, folk religion has traditionally been popular with the Chinese masses. Over the years, Chinese folk religion has absorbed and assimilated elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism and they in turn have absorbed and assimilated elements of Chinese folk religion. Each often relies on practitioners of the others to perform its rituals and organize events.

Folk religion and Taoism are intimately tied together. Taoism grew out of folk religion and incorporates shamanism, animism and many folk deities and traditions ( See Taoism). Confucianism also incorporates some folk beliefs such as ancestor worship. Buddhism has been influenced by local religion too. In some cases local Chinese gods have been transplanted on Buddhist ones.

Traditional Religious Beliefs and Practices in China

Burning joss sticks

Traditional religious beliefs and practices that remained strong though Qing dynasty China (1644-1911) include and still exist toda: 1) popular religion and beliefs concerning the souls of the ancestors, the afterlife, and the pantheon of gods inhabiting the three domains of the Chinese cosmos — Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld; and 2) the long-established institutional religions often collectively referred to as the sanjiao (literally “three teachings”) — Daoism (Taoism), Buddhism, and Confucianism. In Dynastic China, which ended in 1911, the imperial government’s involvement with religious belief and practice (often described as the “State Cult”) expressed in the civil service examination system that disseminated the Confucian worldview throughout society, the government-mandated temples for Confucius and the city gods, and the imperial ritual apparatus that required the reigning emperor to act out his role as the “Son of Heaven” (Tianzi) in annual rituals and sacrifices. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “It is important to remember that “the cosmos” as such was not an explicit much less coherent topic of discussion in traditional China; and it is impossible to define one authentic and unproblematic “traditional Chinese worldview.” Still, there were some basic principles concerning human existence and the functioning of the universe that at least informed or were in conversation with the varieties of religious practice in traditional China. These concepts included qi, the basic “stuff” of the universe; shen, expressing distinct fields of meaning surrounding the concept of “spirit”; and yinyang, the dichotomy symbolizing the at times conflictual and at times harmonious but always fluctuating forces that animate all cosmic phenomena.

“During the late-imperial period, Chinese identity — that is, the idea of being “Chinese” — was inextricably linked to the notion of living in this cosmos, which encompassed the world of the living (society and the state) and the world of the dead (the heavens and the underworld). The cosmos also defined the world within which the three teachings — Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism — operated, though throughout their long histories the teachings also defined and redefined in turn how the “cosmos” itself was conceived. This “cosmic framework” increasingly came under attack toward the end of the imperial period and eventually collapsed altogether in the era of the Communists, but it is interesting to consider its significance today in light of what some have called the “reemergence” of traditional religious practices in contemporary China.”

Popular Religion in China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “To define Chinese religion primarily in terms of the three traditions (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) is to exclude from serious consideration the ideas and practices that do not fit easily under any of the three labels. Such common rituals as offering incense to the ancestors, conducting funerals, exorcising ghosts, and consulting fortunetellers; the belief in the patterned interaction between light and dark forces or in the ruler’s influence on the natural world; the tendency to construe gods as government officials; and the preference for balancing tranquility and movement — all belong as much to none of the three traditions as they do to one or all three. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]

“Popular religion includes those aspects of religious life that are shared by most people, regardless of their affiliation or lack of affiliation with the three teachings. Such forms of popular religion as those named above (offering incense, conducting funerals, and so on) are important to address, although the category of “popular religion” entails its own set of problems. In fact, it is too broad a category to be of much help to detailed understanding — which indeed is why many scholars in the field avoid the term, preferring to deal with more discrete and meaningful units like family religion, mortuary ritual, seasonal festivals, divination, curing, and mythology. “Popular religion” in the sense of common religion also hides potentially significant variation. In addition to being static and timeless, the category prejudices the case against seeing popular religion as a conflict-ridden attempt to impose one particular standard on contending groups.

Three Brothers during the Yellow Turban Rebellion

“The term “popular religion” can be used in two senses. The first refers to the forms of religion practiced by almost all Chinese people, regardless of social and economic standing, level of literacy, region, or explicit religious identification. Popular religion in this sense is the religion shared by people in general, across all social boundaries. Three examples, all of which can be dated as early as the first century CE, help us gain some understanding of what counts as popular religion in this first sense: 1) a typical Chinese funeral and memorial service, including the rites related to care of the spirit in the realm of the dead; 2) the New Year’s festival, which marks a passage not just in the life of the individual and the family, but in the yearly cycle of the cosmos; and 3) the ritual of consulting a spirit medium in the home or in a small temple to solve problems such as sickness in the family, nightmares, possession by a ghost or errant spirit, or some other misfortune.

“The second sense of “popular religion” refers to the religion of the lower classes as opposed to that of the elite. The bifurcation of society into two tiers is hardly a new idea. It began with some of the earliest Chinese theorists of religion. Xunzi, for instance, discusses the emotional, social, and cosmic benefits of carrying out memorial rites. In his opinion, mortuary ritual allows people to balance sadness and longing and to express grief, and it restores the natural order to the world. Different social classes, writes Xunzi, interpret sacrifices differently: “Among gentlemen [junzi], they are taken as the way of humans; among common people [baixing], they are taken as matters involving ghosts.”

Kinds of Folk Religion in China

Folk religion is alive in various forms of magic and sorcery, the worship of personal household gods, personalized spirits, and ancestral ghosts, and the rituals of antler-headed shaman and local holy men. Shamanism and animism have persisted, especially in the countryside. For many Chinese, Confucianism is unsatisfying because it doesn't supply answers to the questions of the afterlife. Taoism has many elements found in Chinese folk religions.

Animist and shamanist groups and cults have had large following throughout China's history. The Quietists were famous for incorporating trance and ecstacy techniques in their religious rituals. The "Yellow Turbans" roused the peasant masses in A.D. 184 into believing that world was going to end and "blue heaven" was going to be replaced by "yellow heaven."

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Throughout Chinese history there have been heterodox traditions of popular religion that could at times come under attack from the government. Drawing on inspiration from local tradition, or from the mythologies of Buddhism, Daoism, and (in the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s) Christianity, these religious groups sometimes broke into waves of violence and provoked government sanctions. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]“Any religious movement that claimed inspiration from a source beyond the traditional Chinese cosmos or that had a social structure (monkhood, parish organization) that claimed independence from the Chinese state risked being labeled by the state as a licentious cult or a heterodoxy. Once that happened, government response and suppression occurred swiftly. The Chinese government today keeps careful watch over any organized group, religious or otherwise, not under state control. The Falun Gong movement, which began as a traditional form of mental and physical training and faith healing, was identified by the government in 1999 as an unlicensed religious group. It therefore became subject to government control and was ultimately outlawed, as were many sects in the history of Chinese popular religion.”

Traditional Concept of Religion in China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In discussing Chinese religion during late-imperial times we should begin with a fundamental understanding: that “religion” as it is commonly defined today in modern, secularized societies — as a domain of thinking and practice concerned only with the “sacred” or the “supernatural” — is incompatible with the way religious thought and practice were construed in traditional China, much less anywhere else in the world until recent times. There was no such thing in traditional China as “religion” in this modern sense, which is largely a product of European “Enlightenment” thinking of the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, the Chinese term for “religion” — zongjiao — is an invention coined in the late 19th century by a Japanese philosopher and later adopted by Chinese intellectuals. The need for the word zongjiao arose because scholars translating Western texts into Japanese and Chinese frequently encountered the word “religion,” a term for which they had no equivalent. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]

Tablet of Confucius

“Quite apart from relegating “religious thinking” to a specialized domain, the dominant strands of thought in late-imperial China conceived of an integrated cosmos in which heaven and earth, gods and humans, the living and the dead were all interconnected. In this conception there was no clear separation or even distinction between sacred and profane, divine and ordinary, natural and supernatural; rather, all things were understood in the context of their proper place in this integrated cosmos. (This interconnection can be elaborated even further with the term shen, the various meanings of which illustrate the concept that all things in the cosmos — gods and humans, good spirits and demons — are composed of the same “stuff,” qi.) “This concept of an integrated cosmos was central to religious thinking in late-imperial China; so much so that the cosmos was understood to contain or subsume all things and all traditions, including Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This is quite different from the way many adherents of monotheistic traditions (such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in the modern world conceive of religious identity, wherein each belief system is understood to negate, supersede, or exist in contradiction to all others. In contrast, adherence to a particular religious tradition in late-imperial China did not involve a total or unitary commitment.

“For example, a “Confucian” in late-imperial China — someone well-versed in the Confucian texts and deeply committed to the teachings and principles expounded therein — would not have found it problematic to also participate in ritual activities that were Daoist or Buddhist or otherwise linked to popular local practices. In fact, to not do so would have been contradictory, because that would have been akin to removing oneself from full participation in the cosmos, where Confucianism was just one tradition among many. Because all traditions fit into the larger cosmic totality, there was no sense of a person being required to choose any one tradition over another.

As the sociologist C. K. Yang has noted: “In popular religious life it was the moral and magical functions of the cults, and not the delineation of the boundary of religious faiths, that dominated people’s consciousness. Even priests in some country temples were unable to reveal the identity of the religion to which they belonged. Centuries of mixing gods from different faiths into a common pantheon had produced a functionally oriented religious view that relegated the question of religious identity to a secondary place.” [Source: “Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors” by C. K. Yang, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), as quoted in Richard J. Smith, China’s Cultural Heritage: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912, 2nd ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1994), p. 174]

Concept of Heaven and Monotheistic in China

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““The word " heaven" is often used in the Chinese classics in such a way as to convey the idea of personality and will. But if is likewise employed in a manner which suggests very little of either, and when we read in the commentary, that " heaven is a principle," we feel that the vagueness of the term is at its maximum. To this ambiguity in classical use corresponds the looseness of meaning given to it in every-day life. The man who has been worshipping heaven, upon being pressed to know what he means by " heaven," will frequently reply that it is the blue expanse above. His worship is therefore in harmony with that of him who worships the powers of nature, either individually or collectively. His creed may be described in Emersonian phrase as " one with the blowing clover and the falling rain." In other words, he is a pantheist. This lack of any definite sense of personality is a fatal flaw in the Chinese worship of "heaven." [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 –1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, Chinese Characteristics was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there]

Primordial Chaos by the Yuan Dynasty paiter Zhu Derun

“It is often supposed that the Emperor is the only individual in the Empire who has the prerogative of worshipping heaven. The very singular and interesting ceremonies which are performed in the Temple of Heaven by the Emperor in person are no doubt unique. But it would be news to the people of China as a whole that they do not and must not worship heaven and earth each for themselves. The houses often have a small shrine in the front wall facing the south, and in some regions this is called the shrine to heaven and earth on the first and fifteenth of each moon, or in some cases on the beginning of each new year. No prayer is uttered, and after a time the offering is removed, and as in other cases, eaten What is it that at such times' the people worship? Sometimes they affirm that the object of worship is " heaven and earth." Sometimes they say that it is "heaven," and again they call ti " the old man of the sky" (Jade Emperor). The latter term often leads to an impression that the Chinese do have a real perception of a personal deity. But when it is ascertained that this supposed 'f person" is frequently matched by another called " grandmother earth" (Queen Mother of the West) the value of the inference is open to serious question.

In some places it is customary to offer worship to this "old man of the sky," on the nineteenth of the sixth moon, as that is his " birthday." But among a people who assign a " birthday" to the sun, it is superfluous to enquire who was the father of the Jade Emperor or when he was born, for on matters of this sort there is absolutely no opinion at all. It is difficult to make an ordinary Chinese understand that such questions have any practical bearing. He takes the tradition as he finds it, and never dreams of raising any enquiries upon this point or an/ other. We have seldom met any Chinese, who had an intelligible theory with regard to the antecedents or qualities of Jade Emperor, except that he is supposed to regulate the weather, and hence the crops. The wide currency among the Chinese people, of this term, hinting at a personality, to whom however, so far as we know, no temples are erected, and to whom no worship distinct from that to " heaven and earth" is offered, seems to remain thus far unexplained.

There is another analogous phenomenon which also invites investigation. This is the existence in China of tablets inscribed to the " True Ruler of Heaven and Earth, the Three Boundaries, the Ten Directions, arid the Ten Thousand Spirits." Sometimes these tablets are found in small brick shrines without any image. In some places these characters are stamped upon pictures of "All-the-gods". In districts where these "heaven and earth tablets" are current, they are bought by the people toward the close of the year, like a kitchen-god, worshipped until the fifteenth of the first moon, and then burned. The only explanation of the matter which we happen to have heard, was given by certain Roman Catholic Chinese. They affirm that this tablet was introduced into China in the Qin dynasty (221 to 206 BC.), from Persia, by teachers who called their instruction "The Ten-character Doctrine." The separate phrases of which the inscription is composed, have been traced in different works of Chinese literature, from the very ancient time downward. The combination of these phrases would seem to lead naturally to monotheistic conceptions. But Chinese religions have such an unbounded capacity of absorption, that, as we have seen, the practical result appears to be simply to add one more to the already, sufficiently numerous expressions denoting a power wholly vague and indefinite. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

Nature and Sun Worship in China

Hungry ghost offering table

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: ““That there is a tendency in man toward the worship of nature is a mere truism. The recognition of irresistible and unknown forces leads to their personification and to external acts of adoration, based Upon the supposition that these forces are sentient. Thus temples to the gods of wind, thunder, etc., abound. In China the north star is an object of constant worship. There are temples; to the sun and to the moon in Beijing, in connection with the Imperial worship, but in some regions the worship of the sun is a regular act of routine on the part of the people in general, on a day. in the second month, which they designate as: his "birthday." Early in the morning the villagers go out to the east to meet the sun, and in the evening they go out' toward west to escort him on his wayi This ends the worship of the suri for a year. " [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“An exceedingly common manifestation of this nature-worship is in the reverence for trees, which in some provinces (as for example in north-western Henan) is so exceedingly common, that one may pass hundreds of trees of all sizes each of them hung with bannefets, indicating that it is the abode of some spirit. Even when there is no external symbol of worship, the superstition exists in full force. If a fine old tree is seen standing in front of a wretched hovel, it is morally certain that the owner of the tree dare not cut it down, on account of the divinity within.

Chinese belief in spirits can be categorized as animism. Animism refers to the collective worship of spirits and dead ancestors rather than individual gods.Animism emphasizes a reverence for all living things. Many animists believe that every living thing and some non-living ones too — mountains, special rocks and landscape formations — have a spirit. Commonly these spirits merge with other spirits such as a common river or forest spirit and a general life spirit. Some spirits are conjured up before a tree is chopped down or food is eaten to appease them. Others are believed to be responsible for fighting disease or promoting fertility. Animist spirits are often associated with places or objects because they were thought to live close by.

The nineteenth-century Dutch scholar Jan J. M. de Groot emphasized this interpretation of the Chinese worldview, claiming that “animism” was an apt characterization of Chinese religion because all parts of the universe — rocks, trees, planets, animals, humans — could be animated by spirits, good or bad.” As support for that thesis he quotes a disciple of Zhu Xi (1130-1200; Song dynasty scholar): “Between Heaven and Earth there is no thing that does not consist of yin and yang, and there is no place where yin and yang are not found. Therefore there is no place where gods and spirits do not exist.” [Source: Jan J. M. de Groot, The Religious System of China: Its Ancient Forms, Evolution, History and Present Aspect, Manners, Customs and Social Institutions Connected Therewith, 6 vols. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1892-1910), 4:51; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

Worship of Snakes and Hedgehogs in China

Many Chinese believe in animals spirits. The fox spirit is particularly well known. So too are the rabbit and snake. Some people protect their house from the fox's influence with a circle of incense. Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “ All the lofty maxims of Confucianism have been wholly ineffective in guarding the Confucianists from fear of the goblins arid devils which figure so largely in Taoism. It has often been remarked, and with every appearance of truth, that there is no other civilized nation in existence which is under such bondage to superstition and credulity as the Chinese. Wealthy merchants and learned scholars are not ashamed to be seen on the two days of the month set apart for that purpose, worshipping the fox, the weasel, the hedgehog, the snake, and the rat, all of which in printed placards are styled "Their Excellencies," and are thought to have an important effect on human destiny. It is not many years since the most prominent statesman in China fell on his knees before a water-snake which some one had been pleased to represent as an embodiment of Lung Wang, the god of floods, himself supposed to be the incarnation of an official of a former dynasty, whose success in dealing with brimming rivers was held to be miraculous.

This habit of worshipping a snake, alleged to be a Lung Wang, or a Tai Wang, whenever floods devastate China, appears to be a general one. In districts at a distance from a river, any ordinary land serpent will pass as a Tai Wang, and " no questions asked." If the waters subside, extensive theatrical performances may be held in honour of the god who has granted this boon, to wit the snake, which is placed on a tray in a temple or other public place for the purpose. The district magistrate, and' all other officers go there every day to prostrate themselves and to burn incense to the divinity, In a case of this kind, in the sub-prefecture of Kao-Tang in Shandong, occurring during the great floods of 1890, a small serpent said to have been found hanging from the city wall, was announced as the Tai Wang, and was worshipped with nine days of theatricals, and by all the city officials. Immense quantities of paper were burned in his honour, and as the paper was placed on the tray in which the Tai Wang was confined, the unfortunate divinity was either smothered, or starved, and at the end of his ceremonial was found to be quite dead ! It was then given out that he had gone to visit the Emperor, and the corpse of the late Tai Wang was escorted to the river in an elegant official sedan chair. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

This Lung Wang is generally regarded as the rain god, in regions adjacent to waterways, but at a little distance in the interior, the god of war, Kuan Ti, is much more likely to be worshipped for the same purpose, but sometimes both are supplanted by the Kuan Yin P'usa or goddess of mercy. To a Chinese this does not seem at all irrational. In connection with these prayers for rain, another curious and most significant fact has often been brought to our notice. In the famous Chinese novel called the Travels to the West, one of the principal characters was originally a monkey hatched from a stone, and by slow degrees of evolution developed into a man. . In some places this imaginary being is worshipped as a rain god, to the exclusion of both Lung Wang and Kuan Ti. No instance could put in a clearer light than this the total lack in China of any dividing line between the real and the fictitious. To a Western mind, causes and effects are correlative. What may be the intuitions of cause and effect in the mind of a Chinese who prays to a non-existent monkey to induce a fall of rain, we are not able to conjecture.

Saniiao (the Three Teachings): Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism

Confucius, Laozi and The Buddha

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Most anthologies of Chinese religion are organized by the logic of the sanjiao (literally “three teachings”) of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Historical precedent and popular parlance attest to the importance of this threefold division for understanding Chinese culture. One of the earliest references to the trinitarian idea is attributed to Li Shiqian, a prominent scholar of the sixth century, who wrote that “Buddhism is the sun, Daoism the moon, and Confucianism the five planets.” [Li’s formulation is quoted in Beishi, Li Yanshou (seventh century), Bona ed. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), p. 1234. Translation from Chinese by Stephen F. Teiser, Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/]

“Li likens the three traditions to significant heavenly bodies, suggesting that although they remain separate, they also coexist as equally indispensable phenomena of the natural world. Other opinions stress the essential unity of the three religious systems. One popular proverb opens by listing the symbols that distinguish the religions from each other, but closes with the assertion that they are fundamentally the same: “The three teachings — the gold and cinnabar of Daoism, the relics of Buddhist figures, as well as the Confucian virtues of humanity and righteousness — are basically one tradition.” [The proverb, originally appearing in the sixteenth-century novel Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi), is quoted in Clifford H. Plopper, Chinese Religion Seen through the Proverb (Shanghai: The China Press, 1926), p. 16.]

“The three teachings are a powerful and inescapable part of Chinese religion. Whether they are eventually accepted, rejected, or reformulated, the terms of the past can only be understood by examining how they came to assume their current status. And because Chinese religion has for so long been dominated by the idea of the three teachings, it is essential to understand where those traditions come from, who constructed them and how, as well as what forms of religious life (such as those that fall under the category of “popular religion”) are omitted or denied by constructing such a picture in the first place.

19th Century View of the Blending of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: “After the Yellow River emerges from the mountains of Shanxi and Shaanxi, it continues its way for hundreds of miles to the sea. In successive . ages it has taken many different routes, ranging through six or seven degrees of latitude, from the mouth of the Yangtze^kiang, to that of the Peiho. But wherever it has flowed, it has carried ruin, and has left behind it a barren waste of sand. Not unlike this has been the materialistic current introduced by the commentators of the Song dynasty into the stream of Chinese thought, a current which having flowed unchecked for seven centuries, has left behind it a moral waste of atheistic sand, incapable of supporting the spiritual life of a nation.

Taoism has degenerated into a system of incantations against evil spirits. It has largely borrowed from Buddhism, to supplement its own innate deficiencies. Buddhism was itself introduced to provide for those inherent wants in the nature of man, which Confucianism did little or nothing to satisfy. Each of these forms of instruction has been greatly modified by the others, and as at present found in China, they may be likened to three serpents. The first serpent swallowed the second up to its head, beyond which it could not go. The second serpent in 'like manner swallowed the third to the same extent. But the third serpent having a mouth of indefinite capacity, reached around and finding the tail of the first, also swallowed this serpent up to its head, leaving only three heads visible, and an exceedingly intimate union between all three of the bodies ! Buddhism swallowed Taoism, Taoism swallowed Confucianism, but at last the latter swallowed both Buddhism and Taoism together, and thus " the three religions are one ! "[Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“It is always difficult to make a Chinese perceive that two forms of belief are mutually exclusive. He knows nothing about logical contradictories, and cares even less. He has learned by instinct the art of reconciling propositions which are inherently irreconcilable, by violently affirming each of them, paying no heed whatever to their mutual relations. He is thus prepared by all his intellectual training to allow the most incongruous forms of belief to unite, as fluids mingle by endosmosis and exosmosis. He has carried " intellectual hospitality" to the point of logical suicide, but he does not know it, and cannot be made to understand it, when he is told.

Meeting of Confucius, Laotze and Buddha

According to old story, Confucius, Laotze and Buddha met one day in the land of the Immortals, and were lamenting the fact that in those degenerate times their excellent doctrines did not seem to make any headway in the Central Empire. ' After prolonged discussion, it was agreed that the reason must be that while the doctrines themselves are recognized as admirable, human nature is inadequate to live up to them without a constant model. It was accordingly decided that each of the founders of these schools of instruction should materialise himself, go down to earth; and try to find some one who could do what it was so necessary to have done. This plan was at once carried into effect, and in process of time, while wandering about the earth, Confucius came on an old man of venerable appearance, who however .did not rise at the approach of the sage, but inviting the latter to be seated, he soon engaged him in a conversation on the doctrines of antiquity, and the degree to which they were at that time neglected in practice. In his discourse the old man shewed such profound acquaintance with the tenets of the ancients, and displayed such vast penetration of judgment that Confucius was greatly delighted, and after a long interview retired. But even when the sage took his leave, the old man did not rise. Having found Laotze and * Buddha, who had been altogether unsuccessful in their search, Confucius related to them his adventure, and recommended that each of them should in turn visit the sitting philosopher, and ascertain whether he was as well versed in their doctrines as in those of Confucius. To his unmixed delight, Laotze found the old man to be almost as familiar with the tenets of Taoism as its founder, and a model of eloquence and fervour. Like; Confucius [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

“Laotze was struck by the fact that although maintaining a most respectful attitude the old man did not rise from his place. It was now the turn of Buddha, who met with the same surprising and gratifying success. The old man still did not rise, but he exhibited an insight into the inner meaning of Buddhism, such as | had not been seen for ages.

“When the three founders of religion met to consult, they were unanimously of the opinion that this rare and astonishing old man was the very one, not only to recommend each of the "three religions," but also to demonstrate that' "the three religions are really one." Accordingly they all three once more presented themselves before the old man, in company with each other. They explained the object of their previous visits, and the lofty hopes which the old man's wisdom had excited, that through him all three religions might be revived, and at last reduced to practice. The old man, still seated, listened respectfully and attentively, and replied as follows : " Venerable sages, your benevolence is high as heaven and deep as the seas. Your plan is admirably profound in its wisdom. But you have made an unfortunate selection in the agent through whom you wish to accomplish this mightly reform. It is true that I have looked into the books of Reason, and of the Law, and into the Classics. It is also true that I have a partial perception of their sublimity and unity. But there is one circumstance of which you have not taken account. Perhaps you are not aware of it. It is only from my waist upward that lam a man; below that point, I am made of stone. My forte is to discuss the duties of men from all the various points of view, but I am so unfortunately constituted that I can never reduce any of them to practice." Confucius, Laotze, and Buddha sighed deeply, and vanished from the earth, and since that day no effort has been made to find a mortal who is able to exhibit in his life the teachings of the three religions. .

“A comparison has often been made between the condition of China at the present time and that of the Roman Empire during the first century of our era. That the moral state of China now is far higher than that of the Roman Empire then, scarcely admits of a rational doubt, but in China, as in Rome, religious faith has reached the point of decay. Of China it might be said, as Gibbon remarked of Rome, that to the common people all religions are equally true, to the philosopher all are equally false, and to the magistrate all are equally useful. Of the Emperor of China, as of the Roman Emperor, it might be affirmed that he is "at once a high-priest, an atheist, and a god"! To such a state has Confucianism, mixed with polytheism and pantheism, brought the Empire 1

Image Sources: Exorcism, Bucklin archives, Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/ Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; 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 2021

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