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The resilience of ancient beliefs in China, and the ability of the Chinese people to absorb new streams of thought and eventually to dominate them, has been demonstrated again and again over the centuries. While China has been periodically dominated by foreign powers, her belief systems have never been overwhelmed. Instead, conquering invaders, such as the Mongolians in the thirteenth and the Manchus in the seventeenth cen­turies, have found themselves inexorably sinicized. On this strength rests the understandable Chinese confidence in the ultimate superiority of their beliefs, a confidence that has survived through the lowest periods in Chinese history.

Yet the visitor to modern China will find few obvious indications of the tra­ditional beliefs which have underpinned the country ‘s civilization for three thousand year. Certainly, the remains of religious buildings litter the cities and the countryside, yet the appear sadly incongruous amid the furious pace of change all around them. The restored temples – now “cultural relics” with photo booths, concession stands, special foreign tourist shops and cheerful throngs of young Chinese on outings – are garish and evoke few mysteries.

This apparent lack of religion is hardly surprising, however: for decades, the old beliefs have e been derided by the authorities as feudal superstition, and the oldest and most firmly rooted of them all, Confucianism, has been criticized and repudiated for nearly a century. And in actual fact, the outward manifesta­tions of the ancient beliefs are not essential: the traditions are expressed more clearly in how the Chinese think and act than in the symbols and rituals of overt worship.

The “Three Teachings”

The product of the oldest continuous civilization on earth, Chinese religion actually comprises a number of disparate and sometimes contradictory ele­ments. But at the heart of it all, three basic philosophies lie intermingled: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The way in which a harmonious balance has been created among these three is expressed in the often quoted maxim San Jiao Fa Yi –“Three Teachings Flow into One”.

Both Confucianism and Taoism are belief systems rooted in the Chinese soil, and they form as much a part of the Chinese collective unconscious as Platonic and Aristotelian thought does in the West. Buddhism, though, was brought to China from India along the Silk Road by itinerant monks and mis­sionaries from about the first century AD onwards . Just as the mutual contra­ dictions of Confucianism and Taoism had been accommodated by- the Chinese, however, so Buddhism did not long eclipse other beliefs – as it established itself, its tenets transformed into something very different form what had orig­inally conic out of India.


China ‘s oldest and greatest philosopher, Kong Zi, known in the West by his Latinized name Confucius, was in his lifetime an obscure and unsuccessful scholar. Born in 551 BC, during the so-called Warring States Period, he lived in an age O f petty kingdoms where life was blighted by constant war, feuding and social disharmony. Confucius simply saw that society was something that could be improved if individuals behaved properly. Harking back to an earlier, m~-chic age of peace and social virtues, he preached adherence to ritual and propriety as the supreme answer to the horrifying disorder of the world as he found it. He wandered from court to court attempting to teach rulers a better way to rule, though, like his contemporary Socrates far away in Greece , he was largely ignored by men in power. In the centuries after his death, however, Confucianism, as reflected in the Analects, a collection of writings on his life and sayings compiled by disciples, became the most influential and fundamen­tal of Chinese philosophies.

Never a religion in the sense of postulating a higher deity, Confucianism is rather a set of moral and social values designed to bring the ways of citi­zens and governments into harmony with each other, and with their ances­tor,. Through proper training , in the scholarly classics and rigid adherence to the rules of propriety , including ancestor-worship, the superior man could attain a level of moral righteousness which would, in turn, assure a stable and righteous social order. As a political theory Confucianism called for the “wis­est sage”, the one whose moral sense was most refined, to be ruler. With a good ruler, one w ho practiced the virtuous ways of his ancestors and was exemplar in terms of the five Confucian virtues (benevolence, righteous­ ness, propriety. wisdom and trustworthiness), the world and society would naturally be in order. Force, the ultimate sanction, would be unnecessary. As Confucius ‘said:

Just as the ruler genuinely desires the good, the people will bee good. The virtue of the ruler may be compared to the wind and that of the common people to the grass. The grass under the force of the wind cannot but bend.

Gods play no part in this structure – man is capable of perfection in his own right, given a superior ruler whose virtues are mirrored in the behavior of his subjects. Instead of God, five hierarchical relationships are the prerequisites for a well-ordered society, and given proper performance of the duties entailed in these society should be “at ease with itself”. The five relationships outline a strict structure of duty and obedience to authority: ruler to ruled, son to father, younger brother to older, wife to husband, and – the only relationship between equals – friend to friend. The intention is to create order and stability through rule by a moral elite, though in practice adherence to the unbending hierarchy of these relationships as well as to the precepts of filial piety has been used to justify – a form of totalitarian rule throughout Chinese history. The supreme virtue of the % ell-cultivated man and woman was always obedience.

From the tune of the Han dynasty (206BC-220 AD) onwards, Confucianism became institutionalized as a system of government which was to prevail in China for two thousand years. With it, and with the notion of the scholar-offi­cial as the ideal administrator, came the notorious Chinese bureaucracy. Men would study half their lives in order to pass the imperial examinations and attain a government commission. These examinations were rigid tests of the scholar ‘s knowledge of the Confucian classics. Right tip until the beginning of the twentieth century, power in China was wielded through a bureaucracy steeped in the classics of rites and rituals -written five hundred years before Christ.

The Confucian ideal ruler, of course, never quite emerged (the emperor was nor expected to sit the exams) and the scholar-officials often deteriorated into corrupt bureaucrats and exploitative landlords. Furthermore, tile Confucian ideals of submission to authority would not seem to have much of a shelf-life at the start of the twenty-first century. On the other hand, with its emphasis on community and social cohesion, Confucianism has played an enormous role in keeping China free of the bigotry and religious fanaticism that have been bringing war to Europe for two thousand years. And today it is clear that Confucius does still have a role to play, not least in his new incarnation as the embodiment of the much trumpeted “Asian values”, namely, the confrontational (and undemocratic) system of government. On the grass-roots level, too, old practices such as ancestor worship within the family are making a comeback. Non that the latest foreign religion of Marxism has been thor­oughly discredited, it appears that Confucianism is simply reoccupying its rightful position.


The Tao translates literally as the “Way” and, in its purest from, Taoism is the study and pursuit of this ineffable Way, as outlined in the fundamental text, the Daodejing (often written as T a o Te Ching) or “The Way of Power”. This obscure and mystical text essentially comprises a compilation of the wise say­ings of a semi-mythical hermit by the name of Lao Zi, who is said to have been a contemporary of Confucius. The Daodejing was not compiled until at least three centuries after his death.

The Tao is never really defined – indeed by its very nature it is undefinable. To the despair of the rationalist, the first lines of the Daodejing read:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

In essence, however, it might be thought of as tile Way of Nature, the under­lying principle and source of all being, the bond which unites man and nature.

Its central principle is Wu Wei, which can crudely be translated as “no action”, though it is probably better understood as “no action which runs contrary to nature”. Taoism was originally the creed of the recluse. Whereas Confucianism is concerned with repairing social order and social relation­ ships, Taoism is interested in the relationship of the individual with the natu­ral universe. It simply looks at human problems from another, higher plane: having good relations with one ‘s neighbors is of no use if one is not in har­mony with nature.

Taoism ‘s second major text is a book of parables written by one ideal practi­tioner of the Way, Zhuang Zi, another semi-mythical figure. Acknowledged in his lifetime as a great sage, he rejected a11 offers of high rank in favour of a life of solitary reflection. His works – allegorical tales which have delighted Chinese readers for centuries – reveal humour as well as perception; in the famous butterfly parable Zlwang Zi examines the many faces of reality:

Once upon a time Zhuang Zi dreamed he was a butterfly. A butterfly flying round and enjoying itself. It did not know it was Zhuang Zi again. We do not know whether it was Zhuang Zi dreaming that he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zi.

As it became part of Chinese Culture, Taoism offered a contrast to the stern propriety of Confucianism. In traditional China it was said that the perfect lifestyle was that of a man who was a Confucian during the day – a right­eous and firm administrator, upholding the virtues of the gentleman/ruler – and a Taoist after the duties of the day had been fulfilled. The practice of Taoism affirms the virtues of withdrawing from public duties and giving oneself up to a life of contemplation and meditation. If Confucianism preaches duty to family and to society, Taoism champions the sublimity of withdrawal, non-committedness and “dropping out”. In its affirmation of the irrational and natural sources of life, it has provided Chinese culture with a balance to the rigid social mores of Confucianism. The art and literature of China have been greatly enriched by Taoism ‘s notions of contemplation, detachment and freedom from social entanglement, and the Tao has become embedded in the Chinese soul as a doctrine of yielding to the inevitable forces of nature.


The first organized religion to penetrate China . Buddhism enjoyed a glori­ous, if brief, period of ascendancy under the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD). In the eighth century there were over three hundred thousand Buddhist monks in China . This was also a time which saw the creation of much of the country ‘s great religious art – above all the cave shrines at Luoyang ( Henan ), Datong ( Shansi ) and Dunhuang ( Gansu ), where thousands of carvings of the Buddha and paintings of holy figures attest to the powerful influence of Indian art and religion.

Gradually, though, Buddhism too %-is submerged into the native belief sys­tem. Most schools of Indian Buddhism of the time taught that life on earth was essentially one of suffering, an endless cycle in which people were born, grew old and died, only to be born again in other bodies; the goal was to break out of this cycle by attaining nirvana, which could be done by losing all desire for things of the world. This essentially individualistic doctrine was not likely to appeal to the highly regimented Chinese, however, and hence it was that the relatively small Mahayana School of Buddhism came to dominate Chinese thinking. The Mahayana taught that perfection for the individual was not pos­sible without perfection for all – and that those who had already attained enlightenment would remain active in the world (as Bodhisattvas) to help others along the path. In time Bodhisattvas came to be ascribed miraculous powers, and v, °ere prayed to in a manner remarkably similar to that of conven­tional Confucian ancestor worship. The mainstream of Chinese Buddhism came to be more about maintaining harmonious relations with Bodhisattvas than about attaining nirvana.

Another entirely new sect of Buddhism also arose in China through contact with Taoism. Known in China as Chan (and in Japan as Zen) Buddhism, it offered a less extreme path to enlightenment For a Chan Buddhist it was not necessary to become a monk or a recluse in order to achieve nirvana – instead this ultimate state of being could be reached through life in accord with, and in contemplation of, the way .

In short, the Chinese managed to marry Buddhism to their pre-existing belief structures with very little difficulty at all. This was facilitated by the gen­eral absence of dogma within Buddhist thought. Like the Chinese, the Tibetans, too, found themselves able to adapt the new belief system to their old religion, Bon , rather than simply replacing it. Over the centuries, they established their own schools of Buddhism often referred to as Lamaist Buddhism or Lamaism, which differ from the Chinese versions in minor respects. The now dominant Gelugpa (or Yellow Hat) school, of which the Dalai and Panchen Lamas are members, dates back to the teachings of 7sonykhaipa (1357-1419).

Minority faiths and popular beliefs

Though Buddhism was the only foreign religion to have left a substantial mark on China , it was not the only religion to enter China via the Silk Road . Both Islam and Christianity also trickled into the country this way, and to this day a significant minority of Chinese, numbering possibly in the tens of millions, are Muslims. Unlike most of the rest of Asia , however, China did not yield wholesale to the tide of Islam – the rigid, a11-cmbraciug doctrines of the Koran never stood much of a chance with the flexible Chi­ r1 ese.

When Jesuit missionaries first arrived in China in the sixteenth and seven­teenth centuries they were astounded and dismayed by the Chinese flexibili­ty of belief One frustrated Jesuit put it thus: “In China, the educated believe nothing and tile uneducated believe everything.” For those versed in the clas­sic, of Confucianism. Taoism and Buddhism, the normal belief was a healthy and tolerant skepticism. But for the great majority of illiterate peasants, popu­lar religion offered a plethora of ghosts, spirits, gods and ancestors who ruled over a capricious nature and protected humanity. If Christian missionaries handed out rice, perhaps Christ too deserved a place alongside them. in pop­ular Buddhism the hope -,vas to reach the “Pure Land”, a kind of heaven for believers ruled over by a female deity known as the Mother Ruler. Popular Taoism Shared this feminine deity, but its concerns were rather with the sor­cerers, alchemists and martial arts aficionados who sought solutions to the rid­dle of immortality ; you may well see sonic of these figures depicted in Taoist temples

Though the Chinese are not generally religious in the conventional sense, they are often very superstitious, and you ‘ll see evidence of this everywhere you go. Wordplay is used frequently in this context: the Chinese expression for “let luck come”, fudao, happens to sound similar to “upside-down luck” – hence the inverted fu character pasted up outside homes and businesses at Spring Festival, encouraging good fortune to arrive on the premises. Other lucky sym­bols include peaches and cranes (for longevity), fish (prosperity), mandarin ducks (marital fidelity), dragons (male power), phoenixes (female power) and bats (hap­piness).

Colours are also important. Red, the colour of fire, and gold, the colour of money, are auspicious colours, used extensively for decorations, packaging, weddings and festive occasions. White traditionally represents death or mourning, though tradi­tional Western wedding dresses are becoming increasingly popular. Yellow is the colour of heaven, hence the yellow roof tiles used on temples; yellow clothing was formerly reserved for the emperor alone.