Ancient History & Civilisation


Superstition and scepticism—Animism—The worship of Heaven—Ancestor-worship—Confucianism—Taoism—The elixir of immortality—Buddhism—Religious toleration and eclecticism—Mohammedanism—Christianity—Causes of its failure in China

Chinese society was built not on science but on a strange and unique mixture of religion, morals and philosophy. History has known no people more superstitious, and none more sceptical; no people more devoted to piety, and none more rationalistic and secular; no nation so free from clerical domination, and none but the Hindus so blessed and cursed with gods. How shall we explain these contradictions, except by ascribing to the philosophers of China a degree of influence unparalleled in history, and at the same time recognizing in the poverty of China an inexhaustible fountain of hopeful fantasy?

The religion of the primitive inhabitants was not unlike the faith of nature peoples generally: an animistic fear and worship of spirits lurking anywhere, a poetic reverence for the impressive forms and reproductive powers of the earth, and an awed adoration of a heaven whose energizing sunlight and fertilizing rains were part of the mystic rapport between terrestrial life and the secret forces of the sky. Wind and thunder, trees and mountains, dragons and snakes were worshiped; but the greater festivals celebrated above all the miracle of growth, and in the spring girls and young men danced and mated in the fields to give example of fertility to mother earth. Kings and priests were in those days near allied, and the early monarchs of China, in the edifying accounts which tendentious historians gave of them in later years, were statesmen-saints whose heroic deeds were always prefaced with prayers, and aided by the gods.76

In this primitive theology heaven and earth were bound together as two halves of a great cosmic unity, and were related very much as man and woman, lord and vassal, yang and yin. The order of the heavens and the moral behavior of mankind were kindred processes, parts of a universal and necessary rhythm called Tao—the heavenly way; morality, like the law of the stars, was the cooperation of the part with the whole. The Supreme God was this mighty heaven itself, this moral order, this divine orderliness, that engulfed both men and things, dictating the right relationship of children to parents, of wives to husbands, of vassals to lords, of lords to the emperor, and of the emperor to God. It was a confused but noble conception, hovering between personality when the people prayed to T’ien—heaven as a deity—and impersonality when the philosophers spoke ofT’ien as the just and beneficent, but hardly human or personal, sum of all those forces that ruled the sky, the earth, and men. Gradually, as philosophy developed, the personal conception of “Heaven” was confined to the masses of the people, and the impersonal conception was accepted by the educated classes and in the official religion of the state.77

Out of these beginnings grew the two elements of the orthodox religion of China: the nation-wide worship of ancestors, and the Confucian worship of heaven and great men. Every day some modest offering—usually of food—was made to the departed, and prayers were sent up to their spirits; for the simple peasant or laborer believed that his parents and other forbears still lived in some ill-defined realm, and could bring him good or evil fortune. The educated Chinese offered similar sacrifice, but he looked upon the ritual not as worship so much as commemoration; it was wholesome for the soul and the race that these dead ones should be remembered and revered, for then the ancient ways which they had followed would also be revered, innovation would hesitate, and the empire would be at peace. There were some inconveniences in this religion, for it littered China with immense inviolable graves, impeding the construction of railroads and the tillage of the soil; but to the Chinese philosopher these were trivial difficulties when weighed in the balance against the political stability and spiritual continuity which ancestor worship gave to civilization. For through this profound institution the nation, which was shut out from physical and spatial unity by great distances and the poverty of transport, achieved a powerful spiritual unity in time; the generations were bound together with the tough web of tradition, and the individual life received an ennobling share and significance in a drama of timeless majesty and scope.

The religion adopted by the scholars and the state was at once a widening and a narrowing of this popular faith. Slowly, by increments of reverence from century to century, Confucius was lifted up, through imperial decrees, to a place second only to that of Heaven itself; every school raised a tablet, every city a temple, in his honor; and periodically the emperor and the officials offered incense and sacrifice to his spirit or his memory, as the greatest influence for good in all the rich memories of the race. He was not, in the understanding of the intelligent, a god; on the contrary he served for many Chinese as a substitute for a god; those who attended the services in his honor might be agnostics or atheists, and yet—if they honored him and their ancestors—they were accepted by their communities as pious and religious souls. Officially, however, the faith of the Confucians included a recognition of Shang-ti, the Supreme Ruling Force of the world; and every year the emperor offered ceremonious sacrifice, on the Altar of Heaven, to this impersonal divinity. Nothing was said, in this official faith, of immortality.78 Heaven was not a place but the will of God, or the order of the world.

This simple and almost rationalistic religion never quite satisfied the people of China. Its doctrines gave too little room to the imagination of men, too little answer to their hopes and dreams, too little encouragement to the superstitions that enlivened their daily life. For the people, here as everywhere, brightened the prose of reality with the poetry of the supernatural; they felt a world of good or evil spirits hovering in the air about them and the earth beneath, and longed to appease the enmity or enlist the aid of these secret powers by magic incantation or prayer. They paid diviners to read the future for them in the lines of the 1-Ching, or on the shells of tortoises, or in the movements, of the stars; they hired magicians to orient their dwellings and graves to wind and water, and sorcerers to bring them sunshine or rain.79 They exposed to death such children as were born to them on “unlucky” days,80 and fervent daughters sometimes killed themselves to bring good or evil fortune to their parents.81 In the south, particularly, the Chinese soul inclined to mysticism; it was repelled by the frigid rationalism of the Confucian faith, and hungered for a creed that would give China, like other nations, deathless consolations.

Therefore some popular theologians took the misty doctrine of Lao-tze and gradually transformed it into a religion. To the Old Master and to Chuang-tze the Tao had been a way of life for the attainment of individual peace on earth; they do not seem ever to have dreamed of it as a deity, much less as a price to be paid here for a life beyond the grave.82 But in the second century of our era these doctrines were improved upon by men who claimed to have received, in direct line from Lao-tze, an elixir that would confer immortality. This drink became so popular that several emperors are said to have died from pious indulgence in it.83 A mystagogue in Szechuan (ca. 148 A.D.) offered to cure all diseases with a simple talisman to be given in exchange for five packages of rice. Apparently miraculous cures were effected, and those who were not cured were told that their faith had been too weak.84 The people flocked to the new religion, built temples for it, supported its priesthood generously, and poured into the new faith some part of their inexhaustible superstitious lore. Lao-tze was made a god, and was credited with a supernatural conception; he had been born, the faithful believed, already old and wise, having been in his mother’s womb for eighty years.85 They peopled the world with new devils and deities, frightened away the one with firecrackers exploding merrily in the temple courts, and with mighty gongs called the others out of slumber to hear their importunate prayers.

For a thousand years the Taoist faith had millions of adherents, converted many emperors, and fought long battles of intrigue to wrest from the Confucians the divine right to tax and spend. In the end it was broken down not by the logic of Confucius, but by the coming of a new religion even better suited than itself to inspire and console the common man. For the Buddhism that began its migration from India to China in the first century after Christ was not the hard and gloomy doctrine that the Enlightened One had preached five hundred years before; it was no ascetic creed, but a bright and happy faith in helping deities and a flowering paradise; it took the form, as time went on, of the Greater Vehicle, or Mahayana, which Kanishka’s theologians had adapted to the emotional needs of simple men; it presented China with freshly personal and humane gods, like Amitabha, Ruler of Paradise, and Kuan-yin, god-then-goddess of mercy; it filled the Chinese pantheon with Lohans or Arhats—eighteen of the original disciples of Buddha—who stood ready at every turn to give of their merits to help a bewildered and suffering mankind. When, after the fall of the Han, China found itself torn with political chaos, and life seemed lost in a welter of insecurity and war, the harassed nation turned to Buddhism as the Roman world was at the same time turning to Christianity. Taoism opened its arms to take in the new faith, and in time became inextricably mingled with it in the Chinese soul. Emperors persecuted Buddhism, philosophers complained of its superstitions, statesmen were concerned over the fact that some of the best blood of China was being sterilized in monasteries; but in the end the government found again that religion is stronger than the state; the emperors made treaties of peace with the new gods; the Buddhist priests were allowed to collect alms and raise temples, and the bureaucracy of officials and scholars was perforce content to keep Confucianism as its own aristocratic creed. The new religion took possession of many old shrines, placed its monks and fanes along with those of the Taoists on the holy mountain Tai-shan, aroused the people to many pious pilgrimages, contributed powerfully to painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, and the development of printing, and brought a civilizing measure of gentleness into the Chinese soul. Then, it, too, like Taoism, fell into decay; its clergy became corrupt, its doctrine was permeated more and more by sinister deities and popular superstitions, and its political power, never strong, was practically destroyed by the renaissance of Confucianism under Chu Hsi. Today its temples are neglected, its resources are exhausted, and its only devotees are its impoverished priests.86

Nevertheless it has sunk into the national soul, and is still part of the complex but informal religion of the simpler Chinese. For religions in China are not mutually exclusive as in Europe and America, nor have they ever precipitated the country into religious wars. Normally they tolerate one another not only in the state but in the same breast; and the average Chinese is at once an animist, a Taoist, a Buddhist and a Confucianist. He is a modest philosopher, and knows that nothing is certain; perhaps, after all, the theologian may be right, and there may be a paradise; the best policy would be to humor all these creeds, and pay many diverse priests to say prayers over one’s grave. While fortune smiles, however, the Chinese citizen does not pay much attention to the gods; he honors his ancestors, but lets the Taoist and the Buddhist temples get along with the attentions of the clergy and a few women. He is the most secular spirit ever produced, as a type, in known history; this life absorbs him; and when he prays he asks not for happiness in paradise, but for some profit here on earth.87 If the god does not answer his prayers he may overwhelm him with abuse, and end by throwing him into the river. “No image-maker worships the gods,” says a Chinese proverb; “he knows what stuff they are made of.”88

Hence the average Chinese has not taken passionately to Mohammedanism or Christianity; these offered him a heaven that Buddhism had already promised, but what he really wanted was a guarantee of happiness here. Most of the fifteen million Chinese Moslems are not really Chinese, but people of foreign origin or parentage.89 Christianity entered China with the Nestorians about 636 A.D. The Emperor Tai Tsung gave it a sympathetic hearing, and protected its preachers from persecution. In 781 the Nestorians of China raised a monument on which they recorded their appreciation of this enlightened tolerance, and their hope that Christianity would soon win the whole land.90 Since then Jesuit missionaries with heroic zeal and lofty learning, and Protestant missionaries backed with great American fortunes, have labored to realize the hope of the Nestorians. Today there are three million Christians in China; one per cent of the population has been converted in a thousand years.*

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