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Chinese Religion, History Of


The ancient faith

The earliest traces of religious thought and practice in China point to a simple monotheism. There was a Divine Ruler of the universe, abiding on high, beyond the ken of man. This Power was not regarded as the Creator of the human race, but as a Supreme Being to whom wickedness was abhorrent and virtuous conduct a source of joy, and who dealt out rewards and punishments with unerring justice, claiming neither love nor reverence from mankind. If a man did his duty towards his neighbour, he might pass his whole time on earth oblivious of the fact that such a Power was in existence; unless perchance he wished to obtain some good or attain some end, in which case he might seek to propitiate Him by sacrifice and prayer. There was no Devil to tempt man astray, and to rejoice in his fall; neither was there any belief that righteous behaviour in this world would lead at death to absorption in the Deity. To God, understood in this sense, the people gave the name Tien, which in the colloquial language was used of the sky; and when, in the first stages of the written character, it became necessary to express the idea of Tien, they did not attempt any vague picture of the heavens, but set down the rude outline of a man. Perhaps about this period the title Shang Ti, or Supreme Ruler, came into vogue as synonymous with Tien. But although the two terms were synonyms, and both may be equally rendered by "God," there is nevertheless an important distinction to be observed, much as though Tien and Shang Ti were two Persons in one substance. Tien is far more an abstract Being, while Shang Ti partakes rather of the nature of a personal God, whose anthropomorphic nature is much more strongly accentuated. Shang Ti is described as walking and talking, as enjoying the flavour of sacrifices, as pleased with music and dancing in his honour, and even as taking sides in warfare; whereas Tien holds aloof, wrapped in an impenetrable majesty, an ignotum pro mirifico. So much for religion in primeval days, gathered scrap by scrap from many sources; for nothing like a history of religion is to be found in Chinese literature.

Gradually to this monotheistic conception was added a worship of the Sun, Moon and constellations, of the five planets, and of such noticeable individual stars as (e.g.) Canopus, which is now looked upon as the home of the God of Longevity. Earth, too - Mother Earth - came in for her share of worship, indicated especially by the God of the Soil, and further distributed among rivers and hills. Wind, rain, heat, cold, thunder and lightning, as each became objects of desire or aversion, were invested with the attributes of deities. The various parts of the house - door, kitchen-stove, courtyard, etc. - were also conceived of as sheltering some spirit whose influence might be benign or the reverse. The spirits of the land and of grain came to mean one's country, the commonwealth, the state; and the sacrifices of these spirits by the emperor formed a public announcement of his accession, or of his continued right to the throne. Side by side with such sacrificial rites was the worship of ancestors, stretching so far back that its origin is not discernible in such historical documents as we possess. In early times only the emperor, or the feudal nobles, or certain high officials, could sacrifice to the spirits of nature; the common people sacrificed to their own ancestors and to the spirits of their own homes. For three days before performing such sacrifices, a strict vigil with purification was maintained; and by the expiration of that time, from sheer concentration of thought, the mourner was able to see the spirits of the departed, and at the sacrifice next day seemed to hear their movements and even the murmur of their sighs. Ancestral worship in China has always been, and still is, worship in the strict sense of the term. It is not a memorial service in simple honour of the dead; but sacrifices are offered, and the whole ceremonial is performed that the spirits of former ancestors may be induced to extend their protection to the living and secure to them as many as possible of the good things of this world.

For Confucianism, which cannot, strictly speaking, be classed as a religion, see Confucius.

Around the scanty utterances of Lao Tzu or Lao-tsze (q.v.; see also CHINESE LITERATURE, § Philosophy) an attempt was made by later writers to weave a scheme of thought which should serve to satisfy the cravings of mortals for some definite solution of the puzzle of life. Lao Tzu himself had enunciated a criterion which he called Tao, or the Way, from which is derived the word Taoism; and in his usual paradoxical style he had asserted that the secret of this Way, which was at the beginning apparently nothing more than a line of right conduct, could not possibly be imparted, even by those who understood it. His disciples, however, of later days proceeded to interpret the term in the sense of the Absolute, the First Cause, and finally as One, in whose obliterating unity all seemingly opposed conditions of time and space were indistinguishably blended. This One, the source of human life, was placed beyond the limits of the visible universe; and for human life to return thither at death and to enjoy immortality, it was only necessary to refine away all corporeal grossness by following the doctrines of Lao Tzu. By and by, this One came to be regarded as a fixed point of dazzling luminosity in remote ether, around which circled for ever and ever, in the supremest glory of motion, the souls of those who had left the slough of humanity behind them. These transcendental notions were entirely corrupted at a very early date by the introduction of belief in an elixir of life, and later still by the practice of alchemistic experiments. Opposed by Buddhism, which next laid a claim for a share in the profits of popular patronage, Taoism rapidly underwent a radical transformation. It became a religion, borrowing certain ceremonial, vestments, liturgies, the idea of a hell, arrangement of temples, etc., from its rival; which rival was not slow in returning the compliment. As Chu Hsi said, "Buddhism stole the best features of Taoism; Taoism stole the worst features of Buddhism. It is as though one took a jewel from the other, and the loser recouped the loss with a stone." At the present day there is not much to choose between the two religions, which flourish peaceably together. As to their temples, priests and ceremonial, it takes an expert to distinguish one from the other.


There is no trustworthy information as to the exact date at which Buddhism first reached China. It is related that the emperor Ming Ti (A.D. 58-76) had a dream in which a golden man appeared to him, and this mysterious visitant was interpreted by the emperor's brother to be none other than Shakyamuni Buddha, the far-famed divinity of the West. This shows that Buddhism must then have been known to the Chinese, at any rate by hearsay. The earliest alleged appearance of Buddhism in China dates from 217 B.C., when certain Shamans who came to proselytize were seized and thrown into prison. They escaped through the miraculous intervention of a golden man, who came to them in the middle of the night and opened their prison doors. HsOøΩ Kuan, a writer of the Sung dynasty, quotes in his Tung Chai Chi passages to support the view that Buddhism was known in China some centuries before the reign of Ming Ti; among others, the following from the Sui Shu Ching Chi Chih: "These Buddhist writings had long been circulated far and wide, but disappeared with the advent of the Ch'in dynasty," under which (see CHINESE LITERATURE, § History) occurred the Burning of the Books. It is, however, convenient to begin with the alleged dream of Ming Ti, as it was only subsequent to that date that Buddhism became a recognized religion of the people. It is certain that in A.D. 65 a mission of eighteen members was despatched to Khotan to make inquiries on the subject, and that in 67 the mission returned, bringing Buddhist writings and images, and accompanied by an Indian priest, Kashiapmadanga, who was followed shortly afterwards by another priest, Gobharana. A temple was built for these two at Lo-yang, then the capital of China, and they settled down to the work of translating portions of the Buddhist scriptures into Chinese; but all that now remains of their work is the Stra of Forty-two Sections, translated by Kashiapmadanga. During the next two hundred and fifty years an unbroken line of foreign priests came to China to continue the task of translation, and to assist in spreading the faith. Such work was indeed entirely in their hands, for until the 4th century the Chinese people were prohibited from taking orders as priests; but by that date Buddhism had taken a firm hold upon the masses, and many Chinese priests were attracted towards India, despite the long and dangerous journey, partly to visit the birthplace of the creed and to see with their own eyes the scenes which had so fired their imaginations, and partly in the hope of adding to the store of books and images already available in China (see OøΩ Chinese Literature, OøΩOøΩ Geography and Travel). Still, the train of Indian missionaries, moving in the opposite direction, did not cease. In 401, Kumarajiva, the nineteenth of the Western Patriarchs and translator of the Diamond Stra, finally took up his residence at the court of the soi-disant emperor, Yao Hsing. In 405 he became State Preceptor and dictated his commentaries on the sacred books of Buddhism to some eight hundred priests, besides composing a shastra on Reality and Semblance. Dying in 417, his body was cremated, as is still usual with priests, but his tongue, which had done such eminent service during life, remained unharmed in the midst of the flames. In the year 520 Bōdhidharma, or Ta-mo, as he is affectionately known to the Chinese, being also called the White Buddha, reached Canton, bringing with him the sacred bowl of the Buddhist Patriarchate, of which he was the last representative in the west and the first to hold office in the east. Summoned to Nanking, he offended the emperor by asserting that real merit lay, not in works, but solely in purity and wisdom combined. He therefore retired to Lo-yang, crossing the swollen waters of the Yangtsze on a reed, a feat which has ever since had a great fascination for Chinese painters and poets. There he spent the rest of his life, teaching that religion was not to be learnt from books, but that man should seek and find the Buddha in his own heart. Thus Buddhism gradually made its way. It had to meet first of all the bitter hostility of the Taoists; and secondly, the fitful patronage and opposition of the court. Several emperors and empresses were infatuated supporters of the faith; one even went so far as to take vows and lead the life of an ascetic, further insisting that to render full obedience to the Buddhist commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," the sacrificial animals were to be made of dough. Other emperors, instigated by Confucian advisers, went to the opposite extreme of persecution, closed all religious houses, confiscated their property, and forced the priests and nuns to return to the world. From about the 11th century onwards Buddhism has enjoyed comparative immunity from attack or restriction, and it now covers the Chinese empire from end to end. The form under which it appears in China is to some extent of local growth; that is to say, the Chinese have added and subtracted not a little to and from the parent stock. The cleavage which took place under Kanishka, ruler of the Indo-Scythian empire, about the 1st century A.D., divided Buddhism into the Mahayana, or Greater Vehicle, and the Hinayana, as it is somewhat contemptuously styled, or Lesser Vehicle. The latter was the nearer of the two to the Buddhism of Shakyamuni, and exhibits rather the mystic and esoteric sides of the faith. The former, which spread northwards and on to Nepaul, Tibet, China, Mongolia and Japan, leaving southern India, Burma and Siam to its rival, began early to lean towards the deification of Buddha as a personal Saviour. New Buddhas and Bōdhisatvas were added, and new worlds were provided for them to live in; in China, especially, there was an enormous extension of the mythological element. In fact, the Mahayana system of Buddhism, inspired, as has been observed, by a progressive spirit, but without contradicting the inner significance of the teachings of Buddha, broadened its scope and assimilated other religio-philosophical beliefs, whenever this could be done to the advantage of those who came within its influence. Such is the form of this religion which prevails in China, of which, however, the Chinese layman understands nothing. He goes to a temple, worships the gods with prostrations, lighted candles, incense, etc., to secure his particular ends at the moment; he may even listen to a service chanted in a foreign tongue and just as incomprehensible to the priests as to himself. He pays his fees and departs, absolutely ignorant of the history or dogmas of the religion to which he looks for salvation in a future state. All such knowledge, and there is now not much of it, is confined to a few of the more cultured priests.


The 7th century seems to have been notable in the religious history of China. Early in that century, Mazdaism, or the religion of Zoroaster, based upon the worship of fire, was introduced into China, and in 621 the first temple under that denomination was built at Ch'ang-an in Shensi, then the capital. But the harvest of converts was insignificant; the religion failed to hold its ground, and in the 9th century disappeared altogether.


Mahommedans first settled in China in the Year of the Mission, A.D. 628, under Wahb-Abi-Kabha, a maternal uncle of Mahomet, who was sent with presents to the emperor. Wahb-Abi-Kabha travelled by sea to Canton, and thence overland to Ch'ang-an, the capital, where he was well received. The first mosque was built at Canton, where after several restorations, it still exists. Another mosque was erected in 742; but many of the Mahommedans went to China merely as traders, and afterwards returned to their own country. The true stock of the present Chinese Mahommedans was a small army of 4000 Arab soldiers sent by the caliph Abu Giafar [1] in 755 to aid in putting down a rebellion. These soldiers had permission to settle in China, where they married native wives; and four centuries later, with the conquests of Jenghiz Khan, large numbers of Arabs penetrated into the empire and swelled the Mahommedan community. Its members are now indistinguishable from the general population; they are under no civic disabilities, and are free to open mosques wherever they please, so long as, in common with Buddhists and Taoists, they exhibit the tablet of the emperor's sovereignty in some conspicuous position.


In A.D. 631 the Nestorians sent a mission to China and introduced Christianity under the name of the Luminous Doctrine. In 636 they were allowed to settle at Ch'ang-an; and in 638 an Imperial Decree was issued, stating that Olopun, a Nestorian priest who is casually mentioned as a Persian, had presented a form of religion which his Majesty had carefully examined and had found to be in every way satisfactory, and that it would henceforth be permissible to preach this new doctrine within the boundaries of the empire. Further, the establishment of a monastery was authorized, to be served by twenty-one priests. For more than a century after this, Nestorian Christianity seems to have flourished in China. In 781 the famous Nestorian Tablet, giving a rough outline of the object and scope of the faith, was set up at Ch'ang-an (the modern Si-gan Fu), disappearing soon afterwards in the political troubles which laid the city in ruins, to be brought to light again in 1625 by Father Semedo, S.J. The genuineness of this tablet was for many years in dispute, Voltaire, Renan, and others of lesser fame regarding it as a pious Jesuit fraud; but all doubts on the subject have now been dispelled by the exhaustive monograph of POøΩre Havret, S.J., entitled La StOøΩle de Si-ngan. The date of the tablet seems to mark the zenith of Nestorian Christianity in China; after this date it began to decay. Marco Polo refers to it as existing in the 13th century; but then it fades out of sight, leaving scant traces in Chinese literature of ever having existed.


The Manichaeans, worshippers of the Chaldaean Mani or Manēs, who died about A.D. 274, appear to have found their way to China in the year 694. In 719 an envoy from Tokharestan reached Ch'ang-an, bringing a letter to the emperor, in which a request was made that an astronomer who accompanied the mission might be permitted to establish places of worship for persons of the Manichaean faith. Subsequently, a number of such chapels were opened at various centres; but little is known of the history of this religion, which is often confounded by Chinese writers with Mazdeism, the fate of which it seems to have shared, also disappearing about the middle of the 9th century.

By "the sect of those who take out the sinew," the Chinese refer to the Jews and their peculiar method of preparing meat in order to make it kosher. Wild stories have been told of their arrival in China seven centuries before the Christian era, after one of the numerous upheavals mentioned in the Old Testament; and again, of their having carried the Pentateuch to China shortly after the Babylonish captivity, and having founded a colony in Ho-nan in A.D. 72. The Jews really reached China for the first time in the year A.D. 1163, and were permitted to open a synagogue at the modern K'ai-fOøΩng Fu in 1164. There they seem to have lived peaceably, enjoying the protection of the authorities and making some slight efforts to spread their tenets. There their descendants were found, a dwindling community, by the Jesuit Fathers of the 17th century; and there again they were visited in 1850 by a Protestant mission, which succeeded in obtaining from them Hebrew rolls of parts of the Pentateuch in the square character, with vowel points. After this, it was generally believed that the few remaining stragglers, who seemed to be entirely ignorant of everything connected with their faith, had become merged in the ordinary population. A recent traveller, however, asserts that in 1909 he found at K'ai-fOøΩng Fu a Jewish community, the members of which keep as much as possible to themselves, worshipping in secret, and preserving their ancient ritual and formulary.

See H. Hackmann, Buddhism as a Religion (1910); H.A. Giles, Religions of Ancient China (1905); G. Smith, The Jews at K'ae-fung-foo (1851); Dabry de Thiersant, Le MahomOøΩtisme en Chine (1878); P. Havret. S.J., La StOøΩle chrOøΩtienne de Si-ngan-fou (1895).

(H. A. Gi.)

Christian missions

[Christian missions, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, are established in every province in China. Freedom to embrace the Christian faith has been guaranteed by the Chinese government since 1860, and as a rule the missionaries have free scope in teaching and preaching, though local disturbances are not infrequent. The number of members of the Roman Catholic Church in China was reckoned by the Jesuit fathers at Shanghai to be, in 1907, "about one million"; in the same year the Protestant societies reckoned in all 250,000 church members. By the Chinese, Roman Catholicism is called the "Religion of the Lord of Heaven"; Protestantism the "Religion of Jesus." For the progress and effects of Christianity in China see CHINESE HISTORY, and MISSIONS, China. Ed.]

[1] Otherwise Abu Ja'far Ibn Mahommed al-Mansur (see CALIPHATE, C. § 2).

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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