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Christianity in China

Introducing Chinese Religions (3): Conclusion and Implications

A review of Mario Poceski, Introducing Chinese Religions. New York: Routledge, 2009. ISBN13:978-0-415-43406 (paper). 288 pages, including appendix, glossary, bibliography, index.

e continue our review (Part 1, Part 2) of Mario Poceski’s Introducing Chinese Religions with his discussion of “Later transformations of Confucianism.”

Lest that sound too abstruse, we should note that these developments in Confucianism created “the official orthodoxy in late imperial China, a position it occupied until the early twentieth century.” This “Neo-Confucianism,” in turn, forms the background and basis of the “New Confucianism” of our own time, which is a powerful movement among some key intellectuals.


During the medieval period of Chinese history, Buddhism and Daoism mounted a powerful challenge to the former hegemony of Confucianism, though “Confucian learning continued to flourish within a cosmopolitan culture that fostered religious pluralism.” In particular, Confucianism developed theories and rites that lent powerful legitimatization to the government. Beginning in the Song era, a major reformation in Confucianism took place, and eventually it became the officially-sanctioned state orthodoxy.

Drawing upon non-Confucian traditions, Zhu Xi’s grand synthesis strengthened Confucianism’s position against Daoist and Buddhist philosophy by adding a metaphysical component, along with trenchant criticisms of Buddhism as a “foreign” faith. The concept of principle (li) stood at the center of Zhu Xi’s system, along with the ancient idea of “vital force” (qi); these two combined to explain the nature of all reality, including the relationship between universals and particulars (the problem that engaged Plato and Aristotle so much). Zhu’s stunning achievement rivals that of the similar effort by Aquinas in the West.

Especially significant was Zhu’s shift in emphasis from preparation for public service to self-cultivation with the goal of attaining sagehood. Self-mastery would be pursued by a vigorous “investigation of things and the extension of knowledge,” a “process of extensive learning and reflection,” concentrating particularly upon the realm of human affairs, to comprehend the basic principle (li) that underlies all of reality, both human and cosmic.

Zhu Xi’s transformation of Confucianism included a re-casting of the canon to concentrate on the “Four Books” (Analects of Confucius, Mencius, The Great Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean), which became the focus of both scholarly research and personal reflection and meditation. (As late as 1979, these “Four Books” were listed in a newspaper poll as the most-read and admired works in Taiwan.) Over time, these classics, and Zhu Xi’s commentaries on them, formed the essential ingredients of the official examination system, success in which was virtually the only path to prestige, power, and wealth for aspiring men. Sadly, these examinations became, in time, an arena of “cut-throat competition” with a narrow emphasis upon rote learning and formulaic essays. They also cemented a symbiotic relationship between the government, the educated elite, and Neo-Confucianism.

This official Confucianism did not go unchallenged, however. Wang Yangming’s “School of Mind” (Xin Xue), propounded “reflection and illumination of the mind within,” which was thought to lead to the purification of the mind and “the elimination of selfish desires.” By contrast, the School of Han Learning (Han Xue) “was firmly anchored in scholarly study and canonical exegesis.” Its proponents engaged in careful philological research in order to recover the real teachings of the ancient sages.

Regardless of which system of Confucianism we consider, each held a traditional view of the role of women in the family and in society, which included the conviction that widows should not remarry. Still, there is evidence that Confucianism sometimes softened the treatment of women, and that “in some instances they treated women well.”

Christianity, Islam, and other ‘Western’ Religions

Though his treatment is brief, Poceski at least escapes the usual restricted paradigm of “Chinese” religions by including Christianity and Islam in his study, acknowledging – correctly – that both are “integral parts of the Chinese religious landscape.”

He begins by reminding us that “foreign” religions were welcomed during the cosmopolitan Tang era. “Western” religions which gained entry to China included Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

“Nestorian” missionaries arrived at the Tang court in 635, and were accorded the same warm reception as did emissaries of other faiths. (Actually, this branch of Christianity is now more correctly called by scholars the Syrian Church of the East (Jing Jiao), since the reputation of their founder, Nestorius, has been rehabilitated.) The church spread for a while, mostly among non-Chinese, but was “decimated in 845 during the persecutions instigated by emperor Wuzong and disappeared from China by the tenth century, although it revived during the Mongol period,” only to cease to exist altogether when the Ming overthrew the Yuan rulers. Scholars have suggested that one reason for its demise was that “its teaching and practices adopted syncretic tendencies,” but Poceski insists that “they retained their distinctive Christian character.”

The Mongol rulers adopted “an amicable policy of religious tolerance” that allowed, foreign Christians once again to spread their faith in China. Missionaries from both the Church of the East and the Roman Catholics entered China at this time, and gained some success, again mostly among non-Han people. By the end of the Yuan dynasty, however, all forms of Christianity had once again disappeared.

The third wave of foreign missionaries came with Western colonial expansion by sea in the 16th century. The Jesuits managed to gain admission even to the court in Beijing by their impressive mastery of Confucian classics and possession of modern technology. Franciscans and Dominicans worked among the masses. The so-called “Rites Controversy” led to the proscription of all Roman Catholic activity when the Qing emperor, responding angrily to the Pope’s “Interference” in internal matters, issued a decree in 1724. Like most other modern scholars, Poceski admires Jesuits’ “willingness to acculturate and adapt Catholic teachings in light of prevalent Chinese norms and conditions” in order to counter the charges of the literati that this new religion was not only foreign, but fundamentally de-stabilizing to society. (While applauding the superb linguistic and cultural attainments of the Jesuits, this reviewer agrees with those who believe they veered dangerously towards unnecessary compromise and even syncretism.)

When Protestant missionaries arrived in China in 1807, they had to live under the same harsh restrictions that had been imposed on Roman Catholics since the 1740s. After the Opium Wars, the first of which took place in 1842, however, they gained the legal right to propagate the Gospel in a few cities, and then the entire empire. For most of the 19th century, they focused their efforts upon evangelism, coupled with medical work and education. Later, they sought both to benefit China and to win favor by introducing “modern” Western thought and technology, founding colleges and printing presses as part of their strategy. Usually, however, they were regarded with contempt and fear by the mandarins whose social position depended upon the retention of Confucian orthodoxy, and the Christians could not escape the taint of gunboats and the opium trade which Western powers forced upon a crumbling Qing dynasty.

Interestingly – and quite pertinent to today’s situation – the author spends considerable time describing the Taiping Rebellion, led by Hong Xiuquan, who considered himself to be a Son of God, Jesus’ younger brother, and God’s anointed agent to deliver China from paganism and idolatry. This semi-Christian sect wrought horrible havoc for ten years, laying waste vast tracts of land and resulting in the death of millions, before the uprising was finally quelled. No wonder modern Chinese rulers, whose memories are keen, view Protestant Christianity with some suspicion!

Islam also entered China during the Tang dynasty, brought by Persian and Arabic merchants in the seventh century. A few of them settled and established communities in the South and West of China. Another wave of Islamic growth in China took place in the Mongol period, when Mongol rulers employed Muslims in their administration. Over time, Muslims gained both acceptance and some limited prominence, as the career of Admiral Zheng He illustrates. Islamic educational institutions were established, and Islamic teachings were expressed in Chinese.

Over time, Islam in China took on a varied character, with different sects, ethnicities, and emphases, some of which were “militant, separatist, or revivalist tendencies” – a development relevant to today’s tense situation. Though Muslims accommodated their faith at some points, they were unwilling to compromise in areas like ancestor worship and filial piety, and thus “a lingering sense of dissonance and disconnect from mainstream Chinese culture and institutions, felt by many Muslims,” persists to the present.

In the 19th century, bloody uprisings, and even attempts to establish of an independent Islamic state, resulted in harsh crackdowns by the Qing government and mutual ill-will that has not gone away.

Religion in Modern China

The last chapter of the book surveys the twentieth century, and especially the period since the establishment of communist rule. Without going into detail, we need merely note several major developments.

Religion in general, including Confucianism, was criticized as “feudal,” superstitious, and anti-modern by Chinese intellectuals who longed for a strong nation. They directed special anger towards Christianity, which was seen as a willing tool of foreign imperialists. In defense, both Confucianists and Buddhists tried to “modernize” their faith and practice. “New” Confucianists, with support from the nationalist regime, presented their movement as a humanistic world view thoroughly capable of helping China adapt to modern times. Buddhists tried to reform their religion by philosophical reflection, renewed educational efforts, and even political involvement.

All religion came under criticism, then attack, during the Mao period. Religious venues were closed, and a cult of Mao developed, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). China’s new ruler even assumed the status of a deity, honored by many even today, in the tradition of leaders of utopian and millenarian movements “promoted by different religious groups throughout Chinese history.”

Since the opening and forms begun by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, a general revival of religion has taken place in China. Buddhists, Daoists, practitioners of popular religion – all have seen their numbers grow, their temples rebuilt and refurbished, and their acceptance in society renewed. Confucianism, too, has returned as a major force, advocated especially by academics looking for an alternative to any “religion” as the national orthodoxy. The rapid growth of Christianity must be seen as part of this overall trend.

Likewise, the government has reverted to its traditional policy of official toleration of world religions, of which five are recognized: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Protestant Christianity. “Patriotic” associates operate under government control to regulate the activities of these communities, while unregistered groups – including Roman Catholics who remain loyal to the Pope and Protestant “house” churches – evoke the same sort of suspicion and restrictions that have historically been directed towards groups not authorized by the state. As always, the chief concern is for social stability.

The author pays special attention to “Christianity and Buddhism, two traditions that are perhaps best positioned to shape the religious future of China.” He accepts an estimate of about fifty million Roman Catholics and Protestants, with the latter outnumbering the former “by a ratio that is close to three to one.” “The position and fortunes of Catholicism … are to a large degree shaped by a longstanding conflict between the Roman Curia in the Vatican and the Chinese government,” while the situation with the Protestants is very similar.

Quite correctly, he points out similarities between popular Protestant Christianity and popular Chinese religion, both of which feature “the prevalence of healing practices, utilitarian concern with the procurement of this-worldly benefits, pervasive sense of anti-intellectualism, and focus on dramatic conversion experience.”

The book closes with a description of Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, which is rapidly growing, both on the mainland and in Taiwan, as well as overseas Chinese around the world.

Conclusion and some Implications

In Buddhism and Confucianism (both “Neo-“ and “New”), Christians face philosophical and religious systems of surpassing sophistication and subtlety, brilliance and beauty, containing not only metaphysical constructs of a very high order but also intricate and almost comprehensive ethical teachings worthy of the utmost respect and consideration. Well-schooled adherents of these complex faiths will not be impressed with simplistic appeals to “believe in Jesus.” Only a comprehensive worldview based on the Bible, speaking not only to the concerns and concepts of these great rivals, but also supplying the divine revelation and transforming power which they lack, will earn the respect of thoughtful Chinese.

Similarities between popular Chinese religion and popular Christianity should lead us to be a bit skeptical about the depth of much of “house church” Protestantism and even some Roman Catholicism. Large numbers of “converts” do not necessarily represent true faith, consistent “Christian” conduct, or thoughtful application of biblical principles to all domains of life.

Christians who do not join the “patriotic” associations, and especially if they offer even hints of opposition to the regime, will be distrusted and perhaps even feared by the government, which remains aware of the revolutionary potential of popular religious movements.

While judicious and comprehensive interaction between Christianity and Chinese culture is imperative, history shows that this process is also fraught with the danger of fatal compromise.

The growth of religious faith and practice in China has often occurred during periods of change and instability, while restoration of nationalistic rule has often been followed by fierce persecution.

While marked similarities – “points of contact,” if you will – exist between Christianity and other religions in China, there are also major differences, which will provide opportunities for what Christians (in my view, rightly) consider to be the superior elements of their faith, which comes as “good news” to those who have “tried everything.” On the other hand, these same points of conflict will inevitably spark resistance, resentment, and perhaps even renewed persecution.

At any rate, Christians must face the facts of both history and a current situation which is very complex – rather like China itself!

Let me repeat my belief that Poceski’s balanced text should be required reading for all who want to understand religion in China.