General Essay on Chinese Religions

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 1 November 2016

General Essay on Chinese Religions

Early Chinese religion belongs to the mythical and prehistoric period. Tradition speaks of the origins of Chinese culture lying in the 3rd millennium BCE with the Hsia dynasty. As of yet no historical evidence has been found for such a dynasty; all references to it are mythical. It is only with the Shang dynasty, which is traditionally dated from 1766 to 1122 BCE, that we find evidence of a developing culture and religious practices. The religion of the Shang was principally characterised by the use of oracle bones for divination and the development of the cult of ancestors.

It was believed that the cracks that resulted from burning ox bones or tortoise shells represented messages sent from the gods about a variety of matters such as illness, the weather or hunting. Belief in deities and the practice of the worship of ancestors has persisted in Chinese life, and has come to form the basis of what has broadly been termed popular religion. Popular religion in fact represents a mixture of early religion and elements of the three great religions: Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. At the heart of popular religion is the worship of deities and veneration of ancestors at shrines in the home or temples.

There are many deities associated with this form of religion, but the best known are Shang Ti, the supreme ruler of heaven, and Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy and protector of women and children. In the Chou dynasty a more structured form of religion developed. This is associated with the teaching of Kung-Fu Tzu (551-479 BCE), whose Latinised name is Confucius. Confucius sought to establish a socio-political ethical system, with theological beliefs concerned with human destiny and the conduct of human relationships in society, based on a belief in the goodness of human nature.

He believed in a providential Heaven (T’ien) and in prayer which encouraged him in his mission. He emphasised the five relationships – namely, Father-Son; Ruler-Subject; Husband-Wife; eldest son to brothers; friend and friend – to be expressed by ‘li’ (correct ceremony) to bring ‘he’ (harmony). Such relationships were rooted in family piety which came to give a prominent place to Ancestor Worship and to respect for deified men, which came to find expression in the Sacrifices of the State religion. The Confucian canon can be divided into two parts: the Five Classics and the Four Books.

The Five Classics were handed down from earlier times and emphasised by Confucius. These are the Book of Odes; the Book of History; the Book of Rites; the Book of Divination; and the Spring and Autumn Annals. The Four Books consist of The Analects (Conversations of Confucius); the Doctrine of the Mean; The Great Learning; and the Book of Mencius. Out of the teachings of Confucius emerged various schools associated with a master. Notable was the work of Meng-Tzu (c. 371-c. 289 BCE) and Hsun-Tzu (300-230 BCE).

Meng-Tzu and Hsun-Tzu formed rival schools whose doctrinal differences were based in a fundamentally different conception of human nature. Meng-Tzu taught that people were fundamentally good and that what made them bad was their environment. Consequently, Meng-Tzu emphasised the importance of education as a means for bringing out the innate goodness of people. By way of contrast, Hsun-Tzu had a more pessimistic view of human nature. Hsun-Tzu taught that people were inherently evil, and that they could only be taught to be good through training.

He also was religiously sceptical, teaching that religious ritual had no purpose except to provide moral training. It was this negative attitude towards religion that was one of the main factors behind the subsequent rejection of the teachings of Hsun-Tzu by mainstream Confucianism and the establishment of Meng-Tzu’s teachings as orthodox. At the same time that Confucianism was developing, two rival schools were active in China: the Mohists and the Legalists. Mohism was founded by Mo Tzu (c. 470-390 BCE). Mo Tzu advocated universal love and opposed the elaborate and expensive rituals that defined Chinese religious life.

This put him at odds with Confucianism in that Confucianism advocated particular love for one’s parents as well as the importance of ritual for interpersonal relations. Although during the 4th century Mohism was strong enough to rival Confucianism, it went into decline in the 3rd century, and by the time of the unification of China in 221 had virtually disappeared. It is unclear why the tradition declined so quickly. Legalism is more of a political philosophy than a religion. The various strands of legalist doctrine were systematised by Han Fei Tzu (d.

233 BCE). Han Fei Tzu had been taught by Hsun Tzu and adopted his pessimistic attitude to human nature. Unlike Hsun Tzu, Han Fei Tzu did not believe that people could be reformed, advocating instead a strong, even ruthless, form of government that could control human behaviour. Legalist principles were put into effect by the Chin dynasty, which unified China in 221 BCE, and was subsequently overthrown in 207 BCE. The brief rule of the Ch’in had a devastating impact on Confucianism, whose scholars it persecuted and whose books it destroyed.

Fortunately for the tradition, Confucianism received official acceptance of the Han dynasty and flourished during the Han period. Under the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220CE), the T’ang dynasty (618-907 CE), and the Sung dynasty (960-1127CE) Confucian teaching was used for public examinations. In 631 CE the Confucian canon was made the sole subject for the examination of aspirants to official positions, so Confucianism came to be known as “Ju-chiao”, “the Doctrine of the learned”. During the Sung dynasty (960-1126 CE) Neo-Confucianism emerged as a distinct movement in response to Taoism and Buddhism.

Two traditions of Neo-Confucian thought emerged: the School of Principle, represented by Chu Hsi (1130-1200), and the School of Mind, represented by Lu Chiu Yuan (1139-1193) and, later, Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529). Chu Hsi sought to provide a metaphysical explanation of the nature of reality as well as an ethic for human conduct. For Chu Hsi the basis of all reality was the Supreme Ultimate (T’ai Chi). In order for people to live properly they had to purify their ch’i (vital energy) through taming their desires so that they could be united with the Supreme Ultimate.

In reaction to Chu Hsi’s dualistic perception of reality Lu Chiu Yuan presented a monistic picture of the universe. He claimed that the universe and the mind are one. Therefore, through understanding one’s own mind one could understand the nature of the cosmos. This was developed by Wang Yang-ming. Wang Yang-ming believed that individuals could perfect themselves through moral self-cultivation. This involved returning to an original mind whose principal quality was love (jen). Also of ancient origin is Taoism – whose classic text, the Tao Te Ching, is attributed to a supposed contemporary of Confucius (551-479), Lao Tzu.

This text has had many interpreters whose works have developed in various sects, some of which have been very influential. There are two streams of Taoism: Religious Taoism, which is represented by the many sects concerned with the quest for immortality, and Philosophical Taoism, which was concerned to explain the human condition. The major imported religion is Mahayana Buddhism which is believed to have entered China in the 1st century BCE. An important early Buddhist teacher was An Shih Kao who founded what came to be known as the Dhyana School, characterised by its emphasis on meditation.

Another major early school was the Prajna school whose doctrines were based on the interpretation of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita). It was, however, between the 5th and 8th centuries that Buddhist schools flourished and developed in China. Schools that were active at this time were: San-Lun, Ch’ing-tu, Ti’en-t’ai, Ch’an, Chu-she, Hua-yen, Lu, San-chieh, Fa-hsiang and Chen-yen. The great persecution of Buddhism in the middle of the 9th century led to its rapid decline, and by the time of the Sung dynasty only the Ch’an and Ch’ing-tu schools remained significant.

Incursions from the West began at an early date, mainly in regard to trade and commerce from Arabia and India, probably to Canton or Hangchow. Infiltration of a different kind took place under the Mongols (1260-1368), when the armies of Ghengis Khan spread westwards over countries occupied by the Muslims. The records of the Yuan dynasty indicate that many distinguished officials (both military and civil) were Muslims, bringing with them knowledge of Arabic science known to Kublai Khan and the use of catapults in siege warfare. In Ming times Arabic books on science came into the Imperial library.

After the Mongol period, no great influx of Muslims took place, but they spread into most provinces of China, especially in the north-west and west (the provinces of Kansu, Szechwan and Yunnan) and in the north-east (in Manchuria and Hipei). They mainly live in their own communities in their mosques and schools. Their first mosque appears to have been built in Sian in 742. Another group attracted by commerce were the Jews who traded across Central Asia, during the T’ang dynasty (618-907), whose communities have mainly been along the sea board in cities such as Shanghai and Canton.

The earliest evidence we have of a Jewish community in China derives from a letter written in the 8th century by a Jewish merchant I China. By the 9th century there was a distinct Jewish community in Kaifung, its continued presence evidenced by the construction of a synagogue in the city in 1163. From the 15th century onwards the Jews became increasingly integrated into Chinese life to the extent that by the 19th century the community had all but lost its distinctive identity.

As a result of the western colonialism of China in the 19th century and the establishment of new trading contacts with Europe Jews settled in some of the major cities of China. Christianity came to China first by the way of Nestorian Christians, after the arrival of A-Lo-Pen in 781 where it flourished for two centuries (by favour of the imperial court) until the reign of Wu Tsung who closed the monasteries and persecuted the church. It flourished again under Mongol rule in the 13th century, and in 1289 Kublai Khan established an office for the supervision of Christians.

At about this time the Roman Catholic Church came to the Mongol empire, when a Franciscan monk came to the Khan’s court of Kharatorui in 1246. Shortly after that St Louis of France sent an embassy, followed by Marco Polo in 1275; a request from Kublai Khan for a hundred teachers did not, however, bear fruit apart from a small Franciscan mission led by John of Monterovino, who was appointed Archbishop in Cantilec in 1289, and under him three bishops were appointed. Then in the 16th century the Society of Jesus became very active in China inspired by the work of Francis Xavier who had preached in India and Japan.

Matteo Ricci came to Canton in 1610 and then to Peking, where he founded a Christian community and gained prominence as an outstanding astronomer. From that time the Roman Catholic Church has continued despite periods of persecution. Protestant missions date from 1807 with W. Morrison’s arrival in Canton for the London Missionary Society. Other missions soon followed – with the Presbyterians in 1847, the Anglicans in 1849 and the Methodists in 1850. Also prominent have been the China Inland Mission, under Hudson Taylor – an interdenominational missionary society.

In the twentieth century house churches have been prominent, often associated with such evangelists as Watchman Key. These Protestant activists have contributed greatly to educational and medical developments as well as political and social influences from the West; these were often backed by military force and, therefore, deeply resented. Recent changes under Communist influence, led by Mao, have been profound, strengthening agnostic tendencies for many in the population. Traditional religious practices are still continued in many homes in China and among overseas Chinese.

In recent times relaxation of restriction has given fresh opportunity for religious activity. Many Taoist and Buddhist temples, as well as mosques and churches, are being renovated and reopened. Greater openness to the West has been accompanied by renewed conversion to Christianity; the demise of communism has encouraged the rediscovery of traditional religious values. Taiwan has provided an important haven for traditional Chinese religions, as well as the establishment of new religions, since the Nationalist government established itself on the island in 1949.

A number of syncretic movements such as San-I-Chiao (“Three in One Religion”), were suppressed in China following the Communist victory, but have found a haven in Taiwan. Other interesting traditions that have been transplanted to Taiwan are those which are collectively designated the Hsien T’ien Tao (“Way of Former Heaven sects”). Five of the best known of these are the I-kuan Tao, the T’ung shan She, the T’ien-te Shang-chiao, the the Tao-yuan, and the Tz’u-hui T’ang. These are characterised by a belief in a creator deity (usually a cosmic Mother figure) from whom humanity has strayed.

These sects also claim to transcend all other religions and, therefore, provide a way by which all these religions can be united. All but one (the T’zu-hui T’ang) were founded in mailand China, later moving to Taiwan. The T’zu-hui T’ang was itself founded in Taiwn in 1949. Also originating from the mainland are the spirit-writing cults. These are cults which derive religious beliefs and practices from a deity mediating through an entranced medium. The practice of spirit writing has been a part of Chinese life probably since the T’ang dynasty (618-907).

In the 19th century a spirit-writing movement developed in China and entered Taiwan in the same century. This continues to be part of the Taiwanese religious landscape to the present day. There are, of course, a number of recently emerged distinctively Taiwanese movements. Xuan Yuan Jiao (“Religion of the Yellow Emperor”) was founded in Taiwan in 1957. Xuan Yuan Jiao represents the attempt to recapture the spirit of pre-Han Chinese religion through incorporating Taoist, Confucianist and Mohist teachings and interpreting these as emanating from a tradition that derives from the Yellow Emperor.

The religion is highly political in character since its purpose is to revive China’s national spirit following the “loss” of the mainland to communism. Buddhism continues to flourish in Taiwan. Following the Communist victory in mainland China in 1949 a further wave of Buddhist monks arrived in Taiwan from the mainland. This has strengthened the presence of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism in the island and influenced the character of earlier traditions. Since 1950 the Buddhist Association of the Republic of China has been the focal point of Taiwanese Buddhism.

This is responsible for ordination ceremonies for Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people. In more recent years Taiwanese Buddhism has adopted a more missionary approach both within Taiwan and abroad, particularly in North America. In the 1960s two important Buddhist organizations emerged: the Tzu Chi Compassion Relief Foundation and Fo Kuang Shan. The first of these was founded in 1966 by a self-ordained nun named Cheng-yen. This organization has sought to introduce a strong degree of social concern into Taiwanese Buddhism.

Fo Kuang Shan’s origins can be dated to 1967 when when a Chinese monk, the Ven. Hsing-yun, opened a temple at Fo Kuang Shan in Southern Taiwan. Like the Tzu Chi Compassion Relief Foundation, Fo Kuang Shan emphasizes social action as a means to promote Buddhist values. More recently, Ling Jiao Shan in the north of Taiwan has become a centre of Buddhist activity. Founded by Master Hsin Tao, Ling Jiao Shan has acquired prominence within Taiwan and beyond on account of its establishment of a museum of world religions with branches in Taiwan and the United States.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 1 November 2016

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