As China continues its march towards more development and wealth, its people are turning and returning to the temples and churches across the country. Half a century of religious repression is a difficult thing to forget though, and while some are looking for spiritual enlightenment, many are just there to pray to be included in the boom.
People come to China for numerous and diverse reasons, but exploring the country’s Buddhist and Daoist culture is a popular draw. More often than not, what is found upon arrival are an abundance of temples subscribing to a number of beliefs that frequently point to the ultimate enlightenment: the almighty yuan. This may seem a little harsh, especially for those visitors that are hoping to add a tangible element to what has become part of their core spiritual values in the West.
Let’s be clear. China does have a large collection of temples (in old locales, but with wet paint) well populated by robed monks. To the two-week visitor, this just might be the taste of old-world China they’re looking for — regardless of whether it’s sincere.
Religion was for a long time outright banned in China, and while now it is tolerated, it still must operate under the ever-present gaze of the powers that be. This tends to mean that temples are little more than tourist attractions and official churches are frequently bypassed by believers in preference for private churches where worship goes unwatched.
That said, lets break down the more relevant religions that are found in China:
Daosim: The Way
Daoism (often Romanized as Taoism) is the ideas and ideologies of one of China’s great thinkers – Laozi (often Romanized as Lao-Tzu). Though many contemporary scholars believe that Laozi was never actually a single person but rather a collective of intellectuals over time, history tags him as a record-keeper in the courts of the Zhou emperor (somewhere around the 600-500 B.C.E.).
There are few theologies that are as widespread as Daoism. In fact, written by Laozi, Daoism’s primary source book – the Dao De Jing (Tao-te Ching) – loses out only to the Holy Bible as the most translated piece of literature. However, it is not the only tome of Daoist thought. Another Daoist philosopher and contemporary of Laozi, was Zhuangzi (4th century B.C.E.), who wrote the second seminal book of classic Daoist reading – simply titled Zhuangzi.
The Dao, or ‘Way’, is a concept that relays that all things adhere to a simple principle or force that guides naturally and without effort. The crux of Daoism is Wu Wei, or non-action, the idea that through letting nature flow the way it is intended, and ourselves flowing with it, we can reach a harmonious and balanced life.
Longevity is an important practice in Daoism and it is the Daoists that the world can thank for traditional Chinese herbal medicine and the extremely popular Tai Ji Quan (or Tai Chi).
Buddhism: The Middle Way
Extremely popular throughout all of Asia, Buddhism came to be about 2,500 years ago when Guatama Siddhartha left the comforts of being son to a chief in Northern India (modern day Nepal) to discover the “middle way” – halfway between being an ascetic and an average person – while meditating under a tree in the city of Varanasi. After this he donned the title “Enlightened One” or “Buddha” and began teaching the cornerstone of the religion, the Four Noble Truths:
- All human life is suffering.
- All suffering is caused by human desire, particularly the desire that impermanent things be permanent.
- Human suffering can be ended by ending human desire.
- Desire can be ended by following the “Eightfold Noble Path”: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Though no one is sure, Buddhism is thought to have come to China via the same route as many other imports from the West – the Silk Road. In the first few centuries B.C.E. there was a blending of China’s borders in the western Indo-China regions, and as such many Buddhists found themselves living under Chinese rule. Then in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), with its religious-tolerant Daoist Emperors, Buddhism spread and flourished for nearly three centuries. At the end of the Tang Dynasty the competition between the two paths of thought became too much and many Buddhists were persecuted or killed, with their texts and temples burned and destroyed.
This didn’t stop Buddhism in China though, it continued to spread, incorporating many ideas of the more indigenous Daoism, and in turn most notably formed Chan Buddhism – better known as Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism focuses more on meditation and reflection over deep religious belief, but it still adheres to the core principles of Siddhartha’s original thoughts and Truths.
Confucianism: The Other Way
Confucianism is more a system of thoughts and ideas for living a moral and just life than giving belief to a higher or supernatural power – but a ‘Chinese Religion’ section certainly wouldn’t be complete without mentioning perhaps the most influential teacher on Chinese culture and the Chinese mind.
Kongzi (Confucius, 551-479 B.C.E.), was born in what is modern day Qufu, a small city in Shandong province. In his life he rose through the ranks of politics in the State of Lu, but eventually lost favour and was forced to travel in exile for many years. He eventually returned home and shared his wisdom with a group of disciples. It was then that he passed on his ideas for a better world.
It is thought that Kongzi’s ideas grew to such popularity due to their compatibility with common Chinese sensibilities. Firmly based on the value of relationships, strong ethics and high morals; he promoted strong family ties, respect for elders, ancestor worship, and public obedience of civil authority.
Kongzi’s ideas permeated from one dynasty to the next – most notably being modified about a thousand years ago (Song Dynasty) into what is now known as Neo-Confucianism. The changes blended parts of both Buddhism and Daoism into Confucianism for a metaphysical milkshake of ideology. It worked out, and successive generations of educated Chinese all held well the thoughts of Kongzi. In fact, near every corner of Chinese culture was impregnated with Confucianism until the mid-20th century, when the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war and outlawed all religious activities, including Confucianism. Slowly in the 1970s and 80s, the reigns on religion were loosened, and once again Chinese are turning to Kongzi for moral guidence.
It may surprise some that Islam has a strong hold in China, and has been present in the Middle Kingdom for quite some time. It is said that in the 7th century C.E. a delegation of Muslims led by the Prophet Muhammad’s maternal uncle, Sa’ad ibn Waaqas, came to China to ask the Emperor to espouse the followings of Islam.
Throughout the subsequent dynasties, Islam continued to flourish in China, but not always having an easy time with it. Particularly during the Manchu rule of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when there were no less than five wars fought between the two groups. After the fall of China’s long imperial rule, and the rise of the current communist system, the Muslims allied themselves with Mao’s Red Army, and in turn were offered a level of religious freedom despite the Party’s official line of it being banned.
Though largely concentrated in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Autonomous Region, you can find mosques in most major cities, including the largest in Xi’An and the oldest in Guangzhou. Ten of China’s 55 minority groups follow Islam, they are: Hui, Uygur, Kazak, Uzbek, Kirgiz, Tajik, Tatar, Dongxiang, Sala and Baoan.
Figures vary, but it could be guessed that there are in between 30 and 80 million Christians in China; however, a large share of those are practicing somewhat “underground” (more like ‘in their living rooms’, but ‘underground’ makes it sound more exciting).
Though earlier missionaries likely existed, most credit is given to Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci with bringing Catholicism to China in 1600 C.E. It was also through Matteo and those that came after him that most of the major ideas of the West were first introduced to China – including European mathematics and astronomy.
Christianity’s Chinese flock has swayed with the times, and in the mid-19th century it was used as a launching pad for one of the largest insurrections in human history. The Taiping Revolution began when a 23-year-old Hong Xiuquan happened across a Chinese-language Protestant pamphlet. From this he developed the idea that he had taken a celestial journey to heaven and then further realized that he was, in fact, the Son of God and little brother to Jesus. For whatever reason, this attracted a good number of followers and very nearly overturned the rapidly destabilizing Qing Dynasty. Though the Christian church dubbed the whole movement heretical, it made evangelism a tougher sell.
The Boxer Uprising in 1900 gave Christians in China another challenge as it promoted direct contempt, hate and violence towards all things foreign. When the communists took power of the country in 1949 they also took control of the church and have yet to release their hold. Presently, there are two officially recognized and tightly controlled Christian organizations in China – the Chinese Christian Council (Protestant) and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which refuses recognition of the Pope.