Introducing Chinese Religions (1)

Anyone who wants to understand Chinese Christianity today must have some knowledge of its religious milieu. In other words, to see the tree clearly, we must study the forest; to appreciate the flower, we must survey the entire garden.Why? Many reasons, including these:

  1. The Bible employs vocabulary that existed in Chinese before the Christians arrived. Key words (such as dao, rebirth, love) carry denotations and connotations from other faiths that must be distinguished from their biblical uses.
  2. Chinese who investigate the Christian faith bring a mixed repertory of religious ideas and images that inevitably color their understanding of the Gospel.
  3. Even after conversion to Christ, they will be heavily influenced by notions that seem natural and right to them simply because they are so familiar and taken for granted, even if these ideas conflict with biblical teaching.
  4. For Christianity to penetrate and redemptively transform Chinese culture, it must engage in meaningful dialogue with the best representatives of other faiths.
  5. Love of neighbor has to include respectful listening, with the goal of understanding, before any attempt at persuasion.
  6. To make sense of the relationship between Christianity and the government, one must go back several millennia for patterns and paradigms that prevail even now.

For that purpose, Poceski’s textbook will serve admirably, and should be required reading for all students of Christianity in China.The following review will include extensive quotations from the book, mostly because the author writes with such concise comprehensiveness.

Earliest religious traditions

He begins with the earliest Chinese religious traditions, which consist of myths, perhaps ancient, but preserved only in later texts, especially starting from the Zhou dynasty. Some talk about great men who might once have been worshiped as gods but were demythologized after Confucianism began to exert influence. “Chinese myths feature numerous gods, divine heroes, and other mythical figures including strange birds and animals. Prominent examples of mythical themes include the creation of the world and the origins of humanity, the births and acts of the gods, the achievements and tribulations of the semi-divine heroes of antiquity.” The Flood myth goes back to the 8th century BC.

The Mandate of Heaven

Under the Shang, politics and religion were inseparable. The king was head of the shamanistic cult. There was a sense of “connectedness and continuity between the divine and human worlds,” in which the king was intermediary. He prayed for the people, asking for divine help, and employed divination, sacrifices, and other rituals. This later developed into the idea of the Emperor as Son of Heaven.The establishment of the Zhou dynasty was one of the seminal events in Chinese history. The new Zhou kings said they had received moral authority to rule directly from Heaven. Their conquest was “the realization of a divine plan,” which decreed that corrupt Shang rulers had to be replaced by virtuous Zhous.


The classical Confucian tradition was based on the Five Classics, focusing on the Analects of Confucius but expanding considerably with the addition of other key texts, such as the writings of Mencius. The main goal was to reestablish “the ancient Way (Dao) that was revealed and followed by the ancient sages, which echoed the norms and designs of heaven and brought perfect harmony between Heaven and humanity.” This Way “provided a blueprint for just governance and proper ethical conduct” – the two principal emphases of both Confucianism and Chinese ethics generally even today. One thinks of the current quest for “harmonious society.”Harmonious social interaction requires the fulfillment of one’s duties in the “five relationships” (father/son; ruler/subject; husband/wife; elder/younger brother; friend/ friend), four of which involve clear hierarchy. Is anyone reminded of the importance of relationships and the pervasive of hierarchy in contemporary society?The key was to cultivate yourself through strenuous moral effort based on knowledge of ethical principles, so as to earn the right to serve as a leader in society. Essentially, it came down to the right kind of education, based upon memorization of authoritative texts in a community that prized cooperation and conformity.Ideally, the state would be governed by a ruler of such moral excellence that others would follow his example, but reality clashed with the ideal, leading to the formation of other schools of thought, such as the Legalists, who believed that people must be ruled by strict laws with clear rewards and intimidating penalties. Mao Zedong considered himself a Legalist.Is human nature basically good, or bad? Confucius, Mencius and their followers posited a fundamental goodness to our being, while the Legalists saw people as essentially inclined towards evil and in need of both education and government control. Everyone agreed on the importance of education, however, either to evoke what was good or to tame what was bad.Eventually, Confucianism gained pre-eminence as state orthodoxy, and – in a “long-lasting marriage of convenience” - was used by emperors and officials to buttress their rule, with some exceptions, until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. There are calls for its re-institution as the official creed of China today.

Religious Daoism

The “Dao” has many meanings, such as “the impersonal creative force of the universe that is perpetual and engenders yin and yang, from which emerge the myriad things. Within a Confucian context, the main thrust of Dao’s meaning revolves around the proper patterns of human behavior – encompassing formal rituals and everyday activities – that accord with the principles of Heaven.”Within Daoism, “the fundamental realm of Daoism is the world of nature – which encompasses additional supernatural or transcendental dimensions – in contrast to Confucianism’s preoccupation with the social realm.”Daoism can’t be neatly defined, but there are continuities among its stages and schools, including “a pervasive belief in the lack of permanence and solidity.” The Dao De Jing has been treated as a “philosophical and religious classic, with prominent mystical dimensions.” But it “has also been approached as a political work, a treatise on military strategy, or a manual of longevity practices.” In this work, the Dao “is an impersonal natural principle, operating constantly and spontaneously, irrespective of purposeful human action and impervious to pious supplication.”Like Confucianism, Daoism envisions “an idealized vision of a perfect world, albeit of a different kind…This vision is part of a non-theistic understanding of the universe which is conceived as constantly changing and evolving, naturally going through stages of growth and decay, without the presence or intervention of an anthropomorphic creator or controlling deity. The sage who has realized harmony with the Dao is situated in a serene realm, which possesses an unstructured quality and is in tune with the spontaneous flow of nature.”“The best approach to realizing such a harmonious state, according to Laozi, is the cultivation of wuwei (lit., “non-action”), a key term that implies uncontrived or effortless behavior that is free from grasping and fixation.” This is also “a potentially effective method of sagacious governance that adopts a laissez-faire approach.”In the writings of the immensely-influential Zhuangzi, “The main focus of attention… shifts to the inner world and the various states of consciousness, especially those engendered via mystical experiences. That is accompanied with an unconcealed aversion to involvement in the sociopolitical arena.”“The wise person avoids intellectual and moral rigidity, adopting a relativist standpoint that allows for viewing the world from a potentially limitless variety of angles and perspectives.”Later, Daoism developed not only as a philosophical school, but a complex religious community with distinctive traditions and practices, including elaborate rituals and various means for attaining eternal life.


“Within the broad sweep of Chinese history, Buddhism was undoubtedly the most significant and influential among the religious traditions that originated outside of China.”Spreading from India to the rest of Asia, “Buddhism underwent profound changes as it adapted to local cultural norms and responded to changing sociopolitical predicaments, developing an astounding variety of teachings and traditions.”“Buddhism came to encompass diverse and at times seemingly conflicting theoretical templates, rich arrays of ritual expressions, comprehensive ethical systems and monastic institutions, innumerable texts written in a variety of languages and genres, and a lush tapestry of popular beliefs and practices.”“Buddhism developed interlinked assemblages of doctrines, practices, traditions, and artistic expressions, and exerted far-reaching influence on various aspects of Chinese society and culture… The Chinese adoption of Buddhism opened up new intellectual horizons, distinct avenues of spiritual engagement, and novel esthetic sensibilities that enriched Chinese civilization and substantially expanded its contours.”At the beginning, this alien religion was criticized for “being primarily concerned with individual salvation and transcendence of the world of everyday affairs, at the expense of an ingrained Confucian emphasis on human interactions and the fulfillment of social obligations.” It was also too “foreign.” With its own ancient sages, why did China need a new religion or god?There were also formidable “linguistic and cultural barriers,” including the language gap, especially between Chinese and Sanskrit (an Indo-European language). This “necessitated experimentation with ingenious translation strategies and… the gradual formation of highly technical Chinese Buddhist vocabulary.”These languages represented different cultures, too: Chinese was “humanistic, this-worldly, and family focused.” Indian culture had “exuberant flights of religious imagination…” It “set transcendence of the everyday world as the final goal of spiritual life.” Real integration into Chinese idiom and culture required “an extensive intercultural translation and negotiation,” which took many centuries.As Buddhist monasteries grew in number, size, and influence, they became an important part of the economy. The state extended limited patronage and support, and “the clergy compensated by bolstering the reigning regime and offering a veneer of religious legitimacy to imperial rule and ideology.” Not surprisingly, “The support extended to Buddhists by the imperial state was accompanied by efforts to control the religion. Various emperors and government officials were eager to harness the power and prestige of Buddhism to bolster their authority and achieve specific political ends.”

We are introduced to the different “schools” of Buddhism, including the immensely popular Pure Land school, with its promise of a Western paradise, to be gained by simple faith in the name of Amitabha. The Chan (Zen) tradition prized meditation leading to immediate illumination, but all Buddhists stressed the primary obligation of universal compassion.“Buddhism was integrated in some way into the lives of most people, even if many of them did not claim exclusive allegiance to it in the manner we encounter in the contexts of other faiths…” Mostly, however, “the main expressions of Buddhist faith took the form of public and private rituals that were infused with heartfelt devotional sentiments.” These were “primarily geared towards the fulfillment of utilitarian objects such as the securing of good health or long life.”Various gods inhabit the Chinese Buddhist pantheon: Buddha (Shijia mouni); Amitabha (Emituo); Medicine Master (Yaoshi); the Buddha of healing; and Maitreya (Mile). Even more popular, however, because they were considered more approachable and responsive, were the bodhisattvas, the most important of whom was Guanyin, the goddess of mercy.

So what?

Three decades ago, we might have relegated all this to history, since Mao and the communists had seemed to eradicate all traditional religious beliefs and practices. No more. The government itself acknowledges a phenomenal rise in the number of “believers,” especially “Buddhists.” Temples have proliferated, initially fueled by money from overseas Chinese tourists, but now supported by local believers.For all the reasons noted above, plus others, we need to familiarize ourselves with this religious landscape, lest we seriously misconstrue the recent rise, nature, and problems of Chinese Christians today. The alert reader will have noticed, also, a variety of potential points of contact between these religions and the Christian faith, which represent both opportunities for creative evangelism and openings for syncretism. Effective Christian communication will require a great deal of hard work.(To be continued)

ReviewsJason Truell