China’s Astounding Religious Revival

by Roderick MacFarquhar / June 8, 2017 / ChinaFile

If there were just one Chinese in the world, he could be the lonely sage contemplating life and nature whom we come across on the misty mountains of Chinese scrolls. If there were two Chinese in the world, a man and a woman, lo, the family system is born. And if there were three Chinese, they would form a tight-knit, hierarchically organized bureaucracy.

But how many Chinese would there have to be to generate a religion? It could be just one—that Daoist sage in the mountains—but in reality it takes a village, according to Ian Johnson in his wonderful new book, The Souls of China. Chinese religion, Johnson writes, had little to do with adherence to a particular faith. Instead, it was primarily “part of belonging to your community. A village had its temples, its gods, and they were honored on certain holy days.” Or, traditionally, it could also take a workplace: “Almost every profession venerated a god…. The list is inexhaustible….” Chinese religion “was spread over every aspect of life like a fine membrane that held society together.”

At the outset of this account of China’s astounding religious revival since the end of the Mao era in the 1970s, Johnson explains the differences between Chinese religious traditions—Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism—and the “Abrahamic” faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: “Chinese religion had little theology, almost no clergy, and few fixed places of worship.” Confucianism was largely a moral code of what the upright person should aim to achieve by self-cultivation. In the Analects, Confucius famously advised: “Respect ghosts and spirits, but keep them at a distance.” For the Master, it was enough if he or one of his disciples could gain the ear of a Chinese ruler and sort out the problems of the visible world.

Daoists were freer spirits who refused to be bound by Confucian rules of propriety, and they had their own religious rituals. Only Buddhists used their faith, imported from India around the first century AD under the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), to build up a sizable monastic establishment with considerable political power, but it was reduced in size and influence in the later Tang (618–907). By then Buddhism had long been accepted as a Chinese religion.

Thereafter, for Chinese it was not really a matter of choosing: the three traditional “teachings” were a smorgasbord on offer to all and sundry in the community, and representatives of each would perform on demand, and for a price, their particular rituals on appropriate occasions such as funerals. According to Johnson, “for most of Chinese history, people believed in an amalgam of these faiths that is best described as ‘Chinese Religion.’”

Over the centuries, the Abrahamic faiths began to spread into China. Nestorian Christians arrived from Asia Minor in 635 after disputes over doctrine with both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches. They flourished under the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty and again under Mongol rule but then effectively disappeared. Muslim traders also arrived under the Tang, but in far larger numbers under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) when Islam was spreading throughout Central Asia. Jews settled in Kaifeng when it was the capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), and flourished for a while, but gradually the community seems to have faded. Under the Ming (1368–1644), considerable pressure was put on the adherents of non-Chinese religions to assimilate.

Of all those professing foreign faiths, it was the Jesuits who had the greatest impact in premodern China. Arriving in the late 16th century, Matteo Ricci emerged as their most prominent leader. He and his colleagues impressed the Confucian elite with their knowledge of science in general and astronomy in particular, for the emperor had to demonstrate to his people a satisfactory relationship with heaven.

The Jesuits flourished particularly after the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) supplanted the Ming. The emperor Kang Xi (r. 1661–1722) put the Jesuits in charge of the royal observatory, and even more significantly issued an edict permitting the practice of Christianity throughout the empire:

The Europeans are very quiet; they do not excite any disturbances in the provinces, they do no harm to anyone, they commit no crimes, and their doctrine has nothing in common with that of the false sects in the empire, nor has it any tendency to excite sedition…. We decide therefore that all temples dedicated to the Lord of heaven, in whatever place they may be found, ought to be preserved, and that it may be permitted to all who wish to worship this God to enter these temples, offer him incense, and perform the ceremonies practised according to ancient custom by the Christians. Therefore let no one henceforth offer them any opposition.

Unfortunately for the Jesuits they became embroiled in a decades-long dispute with the Dominican and Franciscan orders, which accused them of doctrinal sins for their permissiveness about Confucianism. Despite Kang Xi’s support, the pope backed the Jesuits’ critics in what became known as the “Rites controversy,” and in 1742, the church definitively declared Chinese rites incompatible with Christianity. In 1724, Kang Xi’s successor proscribed Christianity as heterodoxy: Christianity thereby lost its best chance of emulating Buddhism and becoming accepted as a Chinese religion.

Christian missionaries returned, however, if not under auspicious circumstances. John Fairbank, the great expert on 19th-century Western trade along the China coast, used to regale his Harvard students with tales of merchants selling opium from one side of their boat while missionaries were handing out Bibles on the other side. Missionaries were not welcomed at court any longer; their most prominent 19th-century “convert” was Hong Xiuquan, who proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus and led the midcentury Taiping rebellion, which lasted 14 years, cost an estimated 20 million lives, and almost brought down the Qing empire.

Missionaries persisted, and though the rate of conversion was disappointing, their influence grew through the establishment of schools, colleges, and hospitals. Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who led the struggle that brought down the Qing dynasty in 1912, was converted, as was his successor Chiang Kai-shek. But they were infused with a modernizing zeal that held that traditional Chinese faiths, particularly folk religions, were superstitions and had to be suppressed; hundreds of thousands of folk temples were destroyed. Only the most important Buddhist and Daoist temples survived. Read more…


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