Christianity and Chinese Culture (2): Chinese Religions

“Since the reforms of the 1980s every major religion has experienced development in China,” writes Gao Shining, author of a chapter on Christianity and popular religion in China. Since her chapter was, to me, the most provocative, I shall discuss it first, though it comes later in the volume.

Chinese popular religion

Gao believes that folk religion is deeply rooted in Chinese culture, especially in rural areas. Its content is very complex, and includes polytheistic elements, such as “longing for the blessing of ancestors, preferring death to life, believing in fatalism and preordained fate (karma), test and verification of [the gods’] irritability, and yin and yang.” “Its impact is … much greater and stronger than that of “Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Catholicism, and Protestantism,” and it has absorbed elements of various religions, thus becoming very “formidable” In its own right.In recent decades, and “especially in the rural areas, the speed and scale of its development are much faster and larger than is the case with Buddhism and Christianity.” Evidence for this sweeping assessment includes: a proliferation of temples; “erection of luxury tombs”; the building of “ghost palaces and hell-buildings” to attract tourists; more and more activities centered on ancestor religion, including the revival of the power of clans and family; fondness for the use of certain “lucky” numbers, such as “8.”Folk religion is “rooted in the subconscious of the masses,” and has become an integral part of Chinese culture, along with other non-Christian religions. Gao helpfully points out that “in addition to … universality, decentralization, and spontaneity, Chinese folk religion has the two strong features of utilitarianism and pragmatism,” which influence “how Chinese people react to other religions,” including Christianity.Folk religion exerts a “many-layered impact” on Chinese Christianity. The rapid spread of Christianity in the 1980s followed upon the virtual eradication of all religious practice during the Great cultural Revolution, when the gospel filled a “void of faith” once occupied by traditional religion. One attraction of the new faith was its low cost: Christians do not have to spend so much money on lavish funerals and religious ceremonies as they did before!On the other hand, rural Chinese Christianity has been deeply affected by the utilitarianism and pragmatism characteristic of folk religion. “Thus many of them believe that God will grant everything asked for by the people, and those people who are suffering from sickness especially hope to be healed by God.” In some areas, more than “60 percent of Christians are converted … because of [healing from ] sickness.”For these folks, the Bible becomes a “protective talisman”; Jesus is a bigger “god” than the idols; “Hallelujah” has become a “magic word that can get rid of evil.” At the same time, “many rural Christians neither understand nor care about Christian doctrine…. What they are interested in is whether miracles can happen.”Second, “ all kinds of superstition influence Christianity,” such as the belief that “visible evidence” will accompany salvation; legalistic rules like setting certain days for fasting and abstinence from killing chickens or cutting one’s hair; the color yellow is banned as unlucky; etc.Third, new forms of religious practice, such as singing “spiritual hymns” on certain occasions, often with the belief that this will automatically bring the fullness of the Spirit, which can be sought also by harming oneself, it is thought. In such conditions, heresies and sects proliferate.These and other non-biblical beliefs and practices are so deep seated that they will not be easily eradicated from a church with few educated and trained pastors.Perhaps we should re-assess the high estimates of “Christians” in China. For a brief discussion of some other implications for Christian ministry among Chinese, see the series of articles, "The Greatest Threat to the Chinese Church," on the China Institute website.


He Jianming takes the religious pilgrimage of the famous 20th-century author Lin Yutang as a case study in the “dialogue between Christianity and Taoism.” Brought up in the home of a Christian pastor in a rural village, he grew up in what he called a “strict Christian family,” and imbibed the faith of his parents as a boy. Interestingly, though, what he noticed about his father was his love for his congregation; his important social role in the community; and his love for “all the new and modern things, which were called ‘new School’ knowledge.”He observed, also that his father was both a Christian and a Confucianist, with no sense of contradiction between the two. Lin was also unusually close to his mother, whom he loved very much.Furthermore, he was moved by the “beauty of the mountain and water in his home village.” Conscious of the loveliness of nature, he felt that God was “omnipresent.” “Of course, the practice of folk Taoist religion was the local custom, so “it was also natural to be influenced by local Taoist culture at the same time” as Christianity impacted his young mine.As a youth while he studied in a church school, Lin became aware that the new ideologies of the early 20th century were at odds with traditional superstitions, as well as with Christian theology. Because his teachers did not teach Chinese philosophy or folk religions, which he had come to revere, he rejected the church. He was “unwilling to give up Chinese legends and Taoist culture,” nor did he like “theology or philosophy, since both… were characterized by church or scholastic exclusiveness.”As a result, he left the church for several decades and became what he called a “gentile.” In fact, he was a humanist with a profound admiration for the simple naturalism of Daoist philosophy, which he considered to be compatible with modern knowledge.Late in life, he returned to Christianity, since humanism did not answer the hard questions. The author notes, however, that Lin never ceased being a Daoist. He believed that the teachings of Jesus about humility were similar to the ethical instruction of the Dao De Jing, and the simplicity of life taught and exemplified by Jesus had much in common with Laozi’s philosophy. In fact, he “constantly emphasized the identification between Christianity and Taoism.” Even his understanding and practice of Christianity were unusual, since attended no church, joined no denomination, and refused to try to persuade others to believe in Christ.It would seem to me, therefore, that from the standpoint of orthodox Christianity, Lin Yutang did not so much return to Christianity as to a Daoist-Christian synthesis that was more Daoist that Christian. As presented in this chapter, Lin’s re-conversion to Christianity was more a return to an idealized childhood village, where nature, Daoist simplicity, his mother’s love, and “Christian” charm all intermingled, without conflict or contradiction. On a more sophisticated and detailed scale, Lin’s approach can be seen today in Yuan Zhiming, who, in Lao Tzu and the Bible, likewise argues for the virtual identity of the Dao of the Dao De Jing and the Logos of the Bible, though, unlike Lin, he holds to orthodox theology and is a zealous evangelist.


Lai Pan-chiu offers the reader some “Reflections on the History of Buddhist-Christian Encounter in Modern China,” which consist mostly of a historical sketch of various sorts of interchange between the two faiths. He notes that there has been little real “dialogue” between the two religions, for a variety of reasons. Matteo Ricci believed that Buddhism was mostly just superstitious, and other Roman Catholics and Protestants have taken a similar view.For their part, many Buddhists have considered Christianity too shallow and superficial, with nothing to offer a true mystic.On the other hand, there have been some “constructive and open-minded dialogues,” such as those between Timothy Richard and Yang Wenhui in the 19th century; the attempts to harmonize the two faiths by Xu Songshi and Zhang Chunyi in the 20th century; and the work of Ludvig Reichelt, who founded Tao Feng Shan in Hong Kong.Meanwhile, Buddhists in the 20th century sought to modernize their religion to compete with Christianity, and even, especially recently in Taiwan, to adopt some Christian tactics in order to make it more attractive to contemporary Chinese. But this is not a real dialogue.The author believes that Buddhism and Christianity share some similarities that might foster genuine interchange, such as Nirvana and the kingdom of God as “symbols for the ultimate state.” He thinks also that Buddhists should “re-examine the prejudice that the doctrine of Christianity is naïve and defective, and that its spiritual discipline has nothing to be recommended.” In the past, all too often “each side failed to understand the thought system of the other with an open mind.”He agrees with He Guanghu that “the most fundamental barrier to communication between Christian theology and Chinese religious philosophy seems to be that they hold two incompatible views on the ultimate reality or origin,” but that “the contradiction is not absolute and it is not as serious as imagined.” Furthermore, the concept of complementarity can be found in both traditions, and that some features of Mahayana Buddhism can be useful in explaining Christian doctrines.In response, Jorgen Skov Sorensen questions whether “harmonization, ultimate unity, and synthesis evolving between the two religions” should be “an actual goal of the dialogue,” though he agrees that greater understanding and respect are worthy objectives of conversation. Jyri Komulainen adds that we must be careful to acknowledge that both religions are very complex. He calls for a recognition of two Christian principles – “the fullness of the Divine Love revealed in Jesus Christ (Col. 2:9)” and that biblical affirmation that “God has not left the world without knowledge of him (Acts 17:27-28; Rom. 1:19-20).”


These excellent chapters point out the necessity of all those who are interested in Chinese Christianity to take the relationships between it and other faiths very seriously. Obviously, the traffic has gone both ways, as Christians have, both intentionally and unconsciously, absorbed ideas and practices from outside the Bible.

ReviewsJason Truell