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What is religion in China? A brief history

posted by Wei Zhu

The complex and ever-changing relationship between the Chinese state and the nation’s religions stretches back thousands of years. While the state never truly struggled with religious leaders for power, it governed an embedded religiosity in the population, one best described as diffused, non-exclusive, and pluralistic. As a companion to The Immanent Frame’s newly launched series of essays on the state of religion in China, this piece embarks on a brief historical survey, outlining the wide variety of beliefs and practices that religion in China encapsulates, and paying particular attention to the events and philosophies that have shaped the policies of the atheist People’s Republic of China.

Early history

Shamanic religions were among the earliest recorded religious traditions in China, dating back at least to the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC–1050 BC). Elements of these early traditions continue to form a major part of what is now called Chinese folk (or traditional) religion—an elastic term that refers collectively to the numerous local beliefs, cults, and practices that have evolved since then. Important components of Chinese religious thought emerged during this period, such as the concept of otherworldly realms, the elevated status of ancestors, the use of divination and spirit mediums, sky/heaven worship, and the offering of food as sacrifices.

The Spring and Autumn/Warring States period (771 BC–221 BC), while fraught with chaos and war, also saw a blossoming of intellectual activity known as the Hundred Schools of Thought. These hundred schools included, among others, Daoism, based on the works of the legendary sage Laozi, as well as the teachings of the philosopher Confucius, which would later form the basis for the official ideology of the Chinese imperial state. Buddhism was introduced from the Indian subcontinent via the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD); the first documented reference was recorded under the reign of Emperor Ming (58–75). Through mutual influence and interaction, these three traditions—Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism—formed the basis for the sanjiao (三教, “three teachings”), an influential model that views the three alternately as complementary or as fundamentally similar, but in either case as elements of one harmonious aggregate. Although each tradition had its own canon and leaders, none were self-contained or exclusive; most Chinese engaged with the deities, liturgies, people, and rituals of all of the sanjiao.

Besides Buddhism, other foreign religions would eventually make their way into China, such as Zoroastrianism, which entered China through Central Asian merchants. The Tang Dynasty (617-907), like the Han Dynasty before it, possessed tremendous power and territory, allowing for extensive contact with foreign cultures, and thus fostered an era of cosmopolitanism. Both Manichaeism and Islam were introduced during this time; Cao’an, in Fujian, is one of the few surviving Manichaean temples today, and the Huaisheng Mosque in Guangdong is one of the oldest mosques in the world. The presence of Christianity in China, in the form of the Church of the East (or the Nestorian Church), was first documented in the Nestorian Stele. Written in Chinese and Syriac and erected in 781 in Xi’an, the Stele relates the early history of Christianity in China and its official recognition by the emperor.

As China continued to import, interpret, and practice different religions, the state sought to manage them, as well as occasionally to promote or to purge certain traditions. For example, the early Han Emperor Wu (141 BC–87 BC) officially sponsored Confucianism in education and government, established imperial rites and sacrifices, and embraced mystics and spirit mediums at his court. Conversely, the reign of the late Tang Emperor Wuzong (840–846) witnessed massive religious persecution against foreign religions; a devout Daoist, Wuzong would single out Christianity, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and, above all, Buddhism for their corrupting economic and social influence on Chinese society. The extent and influence of these different religious traditions would wax and wane throughout different dynasties and emperors and as they evolved and adapted to Chinese culture. For instance, while Christianity, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism became major influences among the ruling elites under the cosmopolitan Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), the more isolationist Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) saw a return to nativist sanjiao primacy.

European encroachment

Interaction with European religious traditions began during the later Ming Dynasty with the arrival of Catholic orders, mostly notably the Society of Jesus. Generally tolerated and occasionally favored throughout the Ming Dynasty as well as the early Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), the Jesuits were at the center of the “Rites Controversy,” a fierce debate among Catholics over whether ancestral worship and the veneration of Confucius was acceptable for Catholic converts. Pope Clement XI’s decree in 1704 ruled against the more accommodating policy of the Jesuits, which in turn led to the banishment of Christianity by the Chinese emperor. This controversy, combined with the discussion over the correct term for “God” in Chinese, marks one of many attempts to define and understand Chinese religiosity through a Western framework.

The Opium Wars (1839-1842; 1856-1860) opened China anew to the incursions of European powers, which brought with them not only Protestantism, but also Western concepts that would both complicate and shape understandings of Chinese religiosity. The terms zongjiao (宗教, “religion”) and mixin (迷信, “superstition”), terms that had not really existed in Chinese discourse prior to interaction with Europeans, first appeared during this era, as well as their connotations of exclusivity, organization, and scripture. The terms were likely imported from Japan, which was dealing with similar problems in reclassifying the relationship among polity, religion, and society in the aftermath of European contact. Conversely, the word Confucianism, meaning the “religion” of Confucius, dates to this time, though it continues to be a somewhat problematic term, with no direct equivalent in Chinese. With the Qing imperial state in rapid decline, due in part to aggressive religious elements (such as the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions), these new Western notions helped shape the radical reforms of the late nineteenth century that aimed to modernize the nation. For example, Kang Youwei, one of the leaders of the Hundred Days’ Reform movement (1898), dramatically rejected traditional Chinese beliefs as backward, targeted temples and other religious buildings for appropriation, and proposed to establish Confucian ideology as a national religion.

Chaos and upheaval

Anti-traditional and anti-religious thought did not abate with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, as the intellectual leaders of the May Fourth and New Culture Movements rallied against traditional beliefs and Confucian culture as well as foreign religious influences (such as Christianity) in their efforts to create a modern Chinese society. The religion/superstition dichotomy in particular had a great influence on the policies of this period. The Nationalist government (1928–1949) recognized five religions—Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism—but deemed most other beliefs and traditions to be superstition (Confucianism, viewed as an ethical and philosophical system, was not part of this categorization). For example, Chinese folk religion, which was neither organized nor grounded in theological texts, was subject to repression, though efforts to eradicate it largely failed due to the general turmoil of the era.

The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, and its early policy towards religion can be seen as a partial continuation of Nationalist thought. Despite communist contempt for all religion, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recognized the same five religions as the Nationalists had and helped to create patriotic representative associations for each of them during the 1950s. The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) was established to engage with religion at the institutional level, while the United Front Department, a legacy of both the Second Sino-Japanese War and Chinese Civil War, dealt with religious leaders. Persecution of Chinese folk religion, however, only intensified; regarded as “feudal superstition,” halls, shrines, statues, and temples across China were either dismantled or repurposed as part of the CCP’s efforts to radically reorganize Chinese society.

Mao Zedong’s call for a renewed class struggle in 1966 ignited the Cultural Revolution, beginning one of the most thorough efforts to destroy religious and traditional life in China. Both the State Administration for Religious Affairs and the United Front Department were condemned, patriotic associations were disbanded, religious leaders and practitioners were persecuted, and all forms of religious expression were forbidden. As part of the Destroy Four Olds campaign, innumerable historical and religious artifacts, buildings, and texts were demolished and desecrated by the Red Guards, including the looting and vandalizing of the cemetery of Confucius.

Recent history

With the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Deng Xiaoping became the paramount leader of China by 1978. Deng would initiate significant economic and social reforms, and religion, effectively banned during the Cultural Revolution, slowly returned as regulations were lifted; SARA was reactivated, as were the five patriotic associations. The sanjiao, in particular, saw support from the state, as destroyed or damaged places of worship were rebuilt, but Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Chinese folk religion grew considerably as well.

In 1982—the same year in which the current constitution was adopted—the CCP formulated its current guiding philosophy on religion in what is known as Document Number 19. Taking the traditional Marxist view of religion, the CCP considers religion a negative force, and CCP members must be atheists working towards a time when “the vast majority of our citizens will be able to deal with the world and our fellowmen from a conscious scientific viewpoint, and no longer have any need for recourse to an illusory world of gods to seek spiritual solace.” Nonetheless, the document acknowledges that in the short term religion will remain a part of society, and as such should be properly managed; different sections detail the need to restore places of worship, the relationship between religion and ethnic minorities, the importance of the five patriotic associations, and the state’s protection of the freedom of religious belief.

Recent years have seen religiosity on the rise at home across all religious traditions, coinciding with politico-religious unrest in places such as Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as issues with superstitious xiejiao (邪教, “evil cults”) such as Falun Gong. This has not gone unnoticed by Chinese leaders like Hu Jintao (former General Secretary/President of China) and Wang Zuoan (current director of SARA), who recognize the role that religion plays in building a “prosperous society” but also its potential for “unrest and antagonism.” With massive domestic socioeconomic changes taking place, as well as China’s growing influence on the global stage, the pressure is on the state—whose policies on religion are arguably still reminiscent of those a hundred years ago—to engage with religion in new and constructive ways.

Many thanks to Buzzy Teiser and Vincent Goossaert for their comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this piece.

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