Chinese Religion: An Overview
CHINESE RELIGION: AN OVERVIEW
This article provides an introduction to the rise and development of various religious movements, themes, and motifs over time. Its emphasis is on historical continuities and on the interaction of diverse currents of Chinese religious thought and practice from the prehistoric era to the present.
The study of Chinese religion presents both problems and opportunities for the general theory of religion. It is therefore instructive, before embarking on a historical survey, to outline a theoretical approach that will accommodate the wide variety of beliefs and practices that have traditionally been studied under the rubric of religion in China.
One indicator of the problematic nature of the category "religion" in Chinese history is the absence of any premodern word that unambiguously denotes the category. The modern Chinese word zongjiao was first employed to mean "religion" by late-nineteenth-century Japanese translators of European texts. Zongjiao (or shūkyō in Japanese) is a compound consisting of zong (shū), which is derived from a pictogram of an ancestral altar and most commonly denotes a "sect," and jiao (kyō), meaning "teaching." (The compound had originally been a Chinese Buddhist term meaning simply the teachings of a particular sect.) Zongjiao/shūkyō thus carries the connotation of "ancestral" or sectarian teachings. The primary reference of this newly coined usage for shūkyō in the European texts being translated was, of course, Christianity. And since Christianity does in fact demand exclusive allegiance and does emphasize doctrinal orthodoxy (as in the various creeds), zongjiao/shūkyō is an apt translation for the concept of religion that takes Christianity as its standard or model.
Part of the problem arising from this situation is that Chinese (and Japanese) religions in general do not place as much emphasis as Christianity does on exclusivity and doctrine. And so Chinese, when asked to identify what counts as zongjiao in their culture, are often reluctant to include phenomena that westerners would be willing to count as religion, because the word religion —while notoriously difficult to define—does not carry the same connotations as zongjiao.
Before the adoption of zongjiao, jiao itself ("teaching") came closest in usage to the meaning of "religion." Since at least the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the standard rubric for discussing the religions of China was san jiao, or the "three teachings," referring to Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Yet this is problematic too, as it excludes what today is usually called "popular religion" (or "folk religion"), which throughout Chinese history has probably accounted for more religious behavior than the "three teachings" combined. This exclusion is more than a matter of usage: jiao does not apply well to popular religion because popular religion is strongly oriented toward religious action or practice; it has very little doctrine and, apart from independent sects, no institutionally recognized canonical texts in which doctrines would be presented.
Confucianism also presents problems. Although constituting a standard chapter in modern Western surveys of Chinese religion, Confucianism is very often described as something other than a religion in the strict (yet poorly defined) sense. There was a time in Western scholarship when Buddhism was occasionally described in similar fashion, although outside the most conservative theological frameworks that is no longer the case. But the status of Confucianism, even in academic circles focused on Chinese religion, is still disputed.
The problematic nature of Confucianism vis-à-vis religion is the most compelling reason to suggest at the outset a conceptual framework in which all the varieties of Chinese religion can be understood. In effect this is a "definition" of religion, although it should not be considered an exclusive definition. It is, instead, one way of conceptualizing religion that is well suited to its subject—that is, that makes particularly good sense of Chinese religion—and that sheds light not only on the noncontroversial forms of Chinese religion but also on those forms that might be excluded by some definitions. But it should be acknowledged that, since religion is a multidimensional set of complex human phenomena, no single definition (short of a laundry list of common characteristics) should be expected to capture its essence. Indeed, perhaps religion has no essence.
The concept of religion that will be presumed here is that religion is a means of ultimate transformation and/or ultimate orientation. This is an elaboration of a definition proposed by the Buddhologist Frederick Streng, who suggested that religion is "a means to ultimate transformation" (Streng, 1985, p. 2). "Ultimate transformation" implies (1) a given human condition that is in some way flawed, unsatisfactory, or caught in a dilemma; (2) a goal that posits a resolution of that problem or dilemma; and (3) a process leading toward the achievement of the goal. This formula is well suited to Chinese religions because the concept of transformation (hua ) is in fact a highly significant element in Confucian, Daoist, and Chinese Buddhist thought and practice. The qualifier "ultimate" means that the starting point, process, and goal are defined in relation to whatever the tradition in question believes to be absolute or unconditioned. "Ultimate orientation" introduces an aspect of Mircea Eliade's theory of sacred space and sacred time: spatial orientation to an axis mundi, a symbolic connection between heaven and earth; or temporal orientation marked in reference to periods of sacred ritual time, such as annual festivals. This addition to Streng's definition accounts for certain popular practices that are not conceived in terms of ultimate transformation. Much of the contemporary practice of Chinese popular religion—such as worship and sacrifice for such mundane ends as success in school or business—can be explained in terms of ultimate orientation. And Confucianism, the most problematic strand of Chinese religion, can clearly be seen as a "means of ultimate transformation" toward the religious goal of "sagehood" (sheng ), a term whose religious connotations are suggested, for example, by the use of the same word to translate the Jewish and Christian "Holy Scriptures" (shengjing ).
The geographic scope of Chinese religions extends from mainland China to Taiwan, Singapore, Southeast Asia, and scattered Chinese communities throughout the world. Although religion in the People's Republic of China on the mainland was harshly suppressed from the 1950s through the 1970s, and indeed almost disappeared during that period, there has been considerable (although not untroubled) revitalization since the early 1980s. Our discussion of religion in Chinese history will focus on mainland China and, after the nineteenth century, Taiwan.
Contemporary Chinese religion is the product of continuous historical development from prehistoric times. In that period the area of present-day China was inhabited by a large number of tribal groups. In around 5000 bce several of these tribes developed agriculture and began to live in small villages surrounded by their fields. Domesticated plants and animals included millet, rice, dogs, pigs, goats, sheep, cattle, and silkworms. The physical characteristics of these early agriculturalists were similar to those of modern Chinese. The archaeological record indicates gradual development toward more complex technology and social stratification. By the late Neolithic period (beginning around 3200 bce) there were well-developed local cultures in several areas that were to become centers of Chinese civilization later, including the southeast coast, the southwest, the Yangzi River valley, the northeast, and the northern plains. The interaction of these cultures eventually led to the rise of literate, bronze-working civilizations in the north, the Xia (before 1500 bce) and Shang (c. 1500–1050 bce). The existence of the Xia kingdom is attested in early historical sources that have otherwise been shown to accord with archaeological discoveries. However, archaeologists are still debating whether the Xia period constituted a state-level "dynasty," as it has traditionally been described. The Shang has been archaeologically verified, beginning with the excavation of one of its capitals in 1928.
There is some evidence for prehistoric religious activities, particularly for a cult of the dead, who were often buried in segregated cemeteries, supine, with heads toward a single cardinal direction. In some sites houses and circles of white stones are associated with clusters of graves, while in others wine goblets and pig jaws are scattered on ledges near the top of the pit, perhaps indicating a farewell feast. There seems to have been a concern for the precise ordering of ritual acts, perhaps an early version of the importance of universal order or pattern in later Chinese cosmology. In the Wei River area, secondary burial was practiced, with bones from single graves collected and reburied with those of from twenty to eighty others. Grave offerings are found in almost all primary burials, with quantity and variety depending on the status of the deceased: tools, pottery vessels, objects of jade and turquoise, dogs, and, in some cases, human beings. Jade, in particular—a substance that does not break down and requires extraordinary skill and effort to carve with the simplest of tools—was associated with high-status burials and perhaps symbolized the eternity of the afterlife. The bi (a flat disk with a central hole) and cong (a tube, square on the outside and circular inside) were jade mortuary objects—apparently not used in life—whose meanings have not been determined. The bodies and faces of the dead were often painted with red ochre, a symbol of life. All of these practices constitute the prehistoric beginnings of Chinese ancestor worship. Other evidence for prehistoric religion includes deer buried in fields and divination through reading cracks in the dried shoulder bones of sheep or deer. This form of divination, attested in what is now northeast China by 3560–3240 bce, is the direct antecedent of similar practices in historical times. Buried deer suggest offerings to the power of the soil, a common practice in later periods.
Early Historical Period
The early historical period (Shang and Zhou kingdoms) saw the development of many of the social and religious beliefs and practices that continue to this day to be associated with the Chinese. Although obvious links with the earlier period persist, it is with the emergence of these kingdoms that the religious history of the Chinese properly begins.
The formation of the Shang kingdom was the result of technological innovation such as bronze casting and to the development of new forms of social and administrative control. Extant evidence provides information about the religion of the Shang aristocracy, characterized in the first place by elaborate graves and ceremonial objects for the dead. Grave offerings include decapitated human beings, horses, dogs, large numbers of bronze vessels, and objects of jade, stone, and shell. Some tombs were equipped with chariots hitched to horses. These tomb offerings indicate a belief that afterlife for members of the royal clan was similar to that of their present existence but in a heavenly realm presided over by the Shang high god Di ("Lord") or Shangdi ("Lord on High").
The major sources for our understanding of Shang religion are inscriptions on oracle bones and in bronze sacrificial vessels. From these we learn that the most common recipients of petition and inquiry were the ancestors of the royal clan. These deified ancestors were believed to have powers of healing and fertility in their own right, but they also could serve as intermediaries between their living descendants and more powerful gods of natural forces and Shangdi. Ancestors were ranked by title and seniority, with those longest dead having the widest authority. Since they could bring harm as well as aid to their descendants, it was necessary to propitiate the ancestors to ward off their anger as well as to bring their blessing. Nature deities named in the inscriptions personify the powers of rivers, mountains, rain, wind, and other natural phenomena. Shangdi, whose authority exceeded that of the most exalted royal ancestor, served as a source of unity and order.
To contact these sacred powers the Shang practiced divination and sacrificial rituals, usually closely related to each other. In divination, small pits were bored in the backs of turtle plastrons or the shoulder blades of oxen or sheep. Heated bronze or wooden rods were placed in these impressions, causing the bones to crack with a popping sound. Diviners then interpreted the pattern of the cracks on the face of the bone, perhaps combined with the sound of the popping, to determine yes or no answers to petitions. The subjects of divination include weather, warfare, illness, administrative decisions, harvests, royal births (with the preference for sons that was to continue throughout Chinese history already present), and other practical issues, but the most frequent type of inquiry was in reference to sacrifices to ancestors and deities. Sacrifices to ancestors and spirits residing above consisted mainly of burning meat and grain on open-air altars; gods of the earth were offered libations of fermented liquors, and those of bodies of water given precious objects such as jade. Sacrificial animals included cattle, dogs, and sheep. Human beings were sacrificed during the funeral rituals of kings, presumably to serve them in the afterlife. At least one powerful woman was also buried with human sacrifices, in addition to thousands of precious objects (bronze and jade objects, cowrie shells). This was Fu Hao (Lady Hao), the wife of King Wuding, around 1200 bce, who apparently commanded an army during her lifetime and was given sacrifices after her death.
The Shang had a ten-day week, and the titles of the deified royal ancestors corresponded to the day on which sacrifice was made to them. Thus, their personal characteristics were less significant than their seniority and their place in the ritual cycle. In the sacrifices themselves what was most important was the proper procedure; the correct objects offered in the right way were believed to obligate the spirits to respond. Thus, in Shang sacrifice we already see the principle of reciprocity, which has remained a fundamental pattern of interaction throughout the history of Chinese religions. In Shang theology the king played the role of intermediary between the human and heavenly realms. He was responsible for maintaining harmonious relations with his ancestors, Di, and the other deities, and so ensuring their blessings on the realm. The considerable expenditures of time and resources devoted to sacrifice and divination in the Shang court suggest that the authority of the king depended in part on his role as the pivot between heaven and earth.
There are many references in Shang oracle bone texts to a people called Zhou who lived west of the Shang center, in the area of modern Shanxi province. The Zhou, who were considered to be an important tributary state, were at first culturally and technologically inferior to the Shang, but they learned rapidly and by the eleventh century bce challenged the Shang for political supremacy. The final Zhou conquest took place in about 1050 bce. Remnants of the Shang royal line were allowed to continue their ancestral practices in the small state of Song, in exchange for pledging loyalty to the Zhou.
The Zhou system of government has been loosely called "feudal," but it differed from European feudalism in that the peasants were not bound to the land, and the local lords (gong, or "dukes") owed allegiance to the central king (wang ) based not on law but on bonds of kinship. The king directly ruled only a small territory around the capital city, Chang'an, which was located in the Wei River valley near present-day Xian. He controlled an army, which frequently was joined by armies of the various dukes. The Zhou kings were the first to call themselves "Son of Heaven" (tianzi ), a term that continued to be applied to the later emperors of China up to the early twentieth century. Corollary to their identity as Son of Heaven, they alone had the right and responsibility to make annual sacrifices to heaven. This too was a practice that lasted until the twentieth century.
The Zhou dynasty lasted nominally almost eight hundred years, making it the longest-lasting dynasty in world history. But in fact their power and their territory remained intact only until 771 bce, when the king was assassinated and the capital was moved eastward to the more easily defended Luoyang. The periods corresponding to these two capitals are called Western Zhou (1150–770 bce) and Eastern Zhou (771–221 bce). The Eastern Zhou was a period of increasing fragmentation and is further divided into the Spring and Autumn period (722–403 bce) and the Warring States period (403–221 bce). The former is named after a chronicle of the state of Lu, in contemporary Shandong province, covering these years and traditionally attributed to Confucius (Lu was Confucius's home state). The latter period, as the name implies, saw almost constant warfare, as the last seven major states (formerly Zhou fiefdoms) battled it out until only one was left standing, the Qin.
The Western Zhou period, especially the periods of the earliest kings, was regarded by later Chinese thinkers as a golden age of enlightened, benevolent rule by sage-kings. They especially revered the first two kings, Wen and Wu (whose names mean "culture" and "military," respectively), and King Wu's brother, the duke of Zhou, whose "fief" was the state of Lu. But it was the Eastern Zhou, the period of political disintegration, that witnessed the origins of classical Chinese civilization. It was during this era—sometimes called the Period of the Hundred Philosophers—that Confucianism, Daoism, and many other schools of thought began.
Unlike the sources available to us regarding Shang religion, which are limited to oracle bones and inscriptions on bronze ritual vessels, there are enough Zhou sources to allow us say something about the religion of common people as well that of the aristocracy. Both commoners and elite believed in gods, ghosts, ancestors, and omens (the significance to human beings of unusual phenomena in nature) and practiced divination, sacrifice, and exorcism. The common ground shared by the elite and the common people was much more extensive than their differences, which for the most part were differences in emphasis and interpretation. These distinctions begin to emerge in the Western Zhou and become clearer in the Eastern Zhou, or Classical, period.
The early Zhou elite, as might be expected, were chiefly concerned with their aristocratic ancestors, the powerful ruling gods, and political matters, while the common people had more interaction with lower gods, demons, and ghosts that inhabited the world and generally made trouble for people. The Zhou ancestors were believed to reside in a celestial court presided over by Tian, "Heaven," the Zhou high god, similar to Shangdi in scope and function although less personalized. The ancestors had power to influence the prosperity of their descendants, their fertility, health, and longevity. Through ritual equation of natural forces with deities, the ancestors could also influence the productivity of clan lands. In addition, royal ancestors served as intermediaries between their descendants and Tian.
Ancestral rituals took the form of great feasts in which the deceased was represented by an impersonator, usually a grandson or nephew. In these feasts the sharing of food and drink confirmed vows of mutual fidelity and aid. The most important ancestor worshiped was Houji, who was both legendary founder of the ruling house and the patron of agriculture. As was true for the Shang, Zhou rituals were also directed toward symbols of natural power such as mountains and rivers; most significant natural phenomena were deified and worshiped. The proper time and mode of such rituals were determined in part by divination, which in the Zhou involved both cracking bones and turtle plastrons and the manipulation of dried stalks of the yarrow or milfoil plant. Divination was also employed in military campaigns, the interpretation of dreams, the siting of cities, and in many other situations involving important decisions.
Milfoil divination became the method at the core of the Zhouyi, or Changes of Zhou, a divination manual that acquired philosophical commentaries and became known as the Yijing, or Scripture of Change, part of the earliest Confucian canon. The Yijing classifies human and natural situations by means of sixty-four sets of six horizontal lines (hexagrams), each of which is either broken or solid. The solid lines represent qian, or Heaven, the creative or initiating force of nature, while the broken lines represent kun, or earth, which receives and completes. The permutations of these fundamental principles, according to early Chinese cosmology, constitute the patterns or principles of all possible circumstances and experiences. Through ritual manipulation involving chance divisions, the milfoil stalks are arranged in sets with numerical values corresponding to lines in the hexagrams. One thereby obtains a hexagram that reflects one's present situation; additional line changes indicate the direction of change, and thus a potential outcome. Contemplation of these hexagrams clarifies decisions and provides warning or encouragement.
The Yijing is essentially a book of wisdom for personal and administrative guidance, used since at least the seventh century bce. However, from the sixth century bce on commentaries were written to amplify the earliest level of the text, and by the first century ce there were seven such levels of exposition, some quite philosophical in tone. The Scripture of Change was believed to reflect the structure of the cosmic order and its transformations, and hence became an object of reverent contemplation in itself. Its earliest levels antedated all the philosophical schools, so it belonged to none, though the Confucians later claimed it as sacred scripture. The polarity of qian and kun provided a model for that of yang and yin, first discussed in the fourth century bce. The Yijing 's sometimes obscure formulations gave impetus to philosophical speculations throughout the later history of Chinese thought.
A third focus of Zhou worship, in addition to ancestors and nature gods, was the she, a sacred earth mound located in the capital of each state and in at least some villages. The state she represented the sacred powers of the earth available to a particular domain and so was offered libations upon such important occasions in the life of the state as the birth of a prince, ascension to rule, and military campaigns. Beside the earth mound stood a sacred tree, a symbol of its connection to the powers of the sky. The she was an early form of the shrine to the earth-god, or tudi gong, which is a prominent part of Chinese popular religion today.
The early Zhou aristocracy carried out sacrificial rituals to mark the seasons of the year and promote the success of farming. These sacrifices, performed in ancestral temples, were offered both to the high god Tian and to ancestors. These and other Zhou rituals were elaborate dramatic performances involving music, dancing, and archery, concluding with feasts in which much wine was consumed.
The most distinctive early Zhou contribution to the history of Chinese religions was the theory of tianming, the "Mandate of Heaven," first employed to justify the Zhou conquest of the Shang and attributed to the duke of Zhou. According to this theory, Heaven as a high god wills order and peace for human society. This divine order is to be administered by virtuous kings who care for their subjects on Heaven's behalf. These kings are granted divine authority to rule, but only so long as they rule well. If they become indolent, corrupt, and cruel, the Mandate of Heaven can be transferred to another line. This process can take a long time and involve many warnings to the ruler in the form of natural calamities and popular unrest. Those who heed such warnings can repent and rehabilitate their rule; otherwise, the mandate can be claimed by one who promises to restore righteous administration. In practice it is the victors who claim the mandate, as did the founding Zhou kings, on the grounds of the alleged indolence and impiety of the last Shang ruler. The idea of the Mandate of Heaven has gripped the Chinese political imagination ever since. It became the basis for the legitimacy of dynasties, the judgment of autocracy, and the moral right of rebellion. This status it owed in part to its support by Confucius and his school, who saw the Mandate of Heaven as the foundation of political morality. The corollary notion that Heaven has a moral will was the first formulation of what later became a foundation principle of Confucian thought: that human moral values are grounded in the natural world.
Commoners during the Zhou period had less reason to trust in the moral will of Heaven, as the lives they led were more subject to hardships imposed by capricious natural phenomena than those of the ruling elite. The Scripture of Odes (Shijing ), for example, contains the following verse that probably reflects the feelings of common people:
Great Heaven, unjust, Is sending down these exhausting disorders. Great Heaven, unkind, Is sending down these great miseries. (Translated by Poo, 1998, p. 37)
While such sentiments were undoubtedly not limited entirely to the common people, they are strikingly at odds with the concept of a moral, just Heaven. Commoners' beliefs were closely tied to the agricultural cycle and the negative or dangerous spiritual forces inhabiting the world. In contrast to the more abstract Heaven, these forces took the form of an astonishing variety of gods, demons, and spirits. These included the gods of particular mountains, rivers, and seas (usually depicted in hybrid animal or animal-human forms), earth gods (tu shen ), a sacred serpent, a thorn demon, a water-bug god, hungry ghosts, and the high god, called Shangdi (High Lord, the same term used during the Shang dynasty), Shang Huang (High Sovereign), or Shang Shen (High God). With the possible exception of the high god, these deities were not immortal. Nor were they concerned with human morality; unlike Tian, they responded only to properly performed sacrifices. Sacrifice by commoners was generally performed for personal and familial welfare, unlike the predominant concerns among the elite for affairs of state.
When the early Zhou political and social synthesis began to deteriorate in the eighth century and competing local states moved toward political, military, and ritual independence, rulers from clans originally enfeoffed by Zhou kings also lost their power, which reverted to competing local families. This breakdown of hereditary authority led to new social mobility, with status increasingly awarded for military valor and administrative ability, regardless of aristocratic background. There is some evidence that even peasants could move about in search of more just rulers. These political and social changes were accompanied by an increase in the number and size of cities and in the circulation of goods between states. But as warfare increased throughout this period, commoners were repeatedly conscripted into various armies, playing havoc with local agricultural economies (not to mention social morale and family life) as able-bodied men were forcibly taken away from their fields. There were numerous shifting alliances among the powerful states (as the former fiefdoms could now be called), and gradually their number decreased as the most powerful gobbled up the weaker ones. During the final century or so of the Warring States period, some of the dukes began calling themselves kings (wang ), usurping the title reserved for the central monarch under the Zhou system.
This time of social mobility and political chaos was a fertile period in the history of Chinese religion and philosophy. There began to appear a new class of intellectual elite, who would eventually produce the texts that formed the foundations of the Classical tradition. The intellectuals, like the ruling elite, were interested in the abstract notion of a moral Heaven, although they understood it less as a doctrine of political legitimation and more as a religious basis for a system of ethical thought and practice. The ruling elite, on the other hand—finding that the need for legitimation of their military takeover of the Shang (now over two hundred years in the past) was not as pressing as it once had been—seem to have lost interest in the idea and concentrated more on the older systems of worship of royal ancestors and spirits of nature. These older rituals became more elaborate and were focused on the ancestors of the rulers of the states rather than on those of the Zhou kings.
Some intellectuals in this era were led to question the power of the gods. In theory, the loss of a state was ultimately the result of ritual negligence by the ruler, while the victors were supposed to provide for sacrifices to the ancestors of the vanquished. But in practice, many gods charged with protection were deemed to have failed while their desecrators flourished. The worldviews of the elite and the commoners were not radically distinct: the panoply of spiritual beings was known to all, and to the extent that members of the elite had family roots in the agricultural tradition, they too engaged in the ritual forms of propitiation of and communication with the various gods, ghosts, and spirits. The religious worldview was a continuous whole, in which differences in emphasis corresponded to differences in the immediate concerns and interests of its participants.
By the sixth century many intellectuals had developed a more rationalistic perspective, accompanied by a turning away from gods and spirits to the problems of human society and governance. The collapse of the Zhou system persuaded the majority of intellectuals that there was a critical need for a new political and ideological foundation for the state. There were, essentially, two aspects to the intellectual problem posed by the Zhou breakdown: theoretical and practical. The theoretical problem stemmed from the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven: if Heaven indeed has (or is) a moral will, and if Heaven has the power to influence human events by replacing evil rulers with good ones, how can such violence and suffering continue? This question and the question of the nature and origin of evil, usually posed as the question of human nature, became central to the Confucian tradition by the end of the Zhou period. The practical problem, which on the whole received more attention than the theoretical one, was simply, how are social and political order and harmony to be restored? What is the proper role of government in human life, and how should society and government be organized and run? How can rulers discharge their moral responsibilities to their people and to Heaven? How can they maintain their legitimacy in light of the Mandate of Heaven?
It was in this context that we find the beginnings of Chinese philosophy. Confucius (c. 551–479 bce) was born in the small state of Lu, near the present city of Qufu, in present-day Shandong province. His given name was Kong Qiu; as an adult he was commonly known as Kong Zhongni, although many called him by the honorific name Kongzi, or Master Kong. "Confucius" is a latinized name invented by seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries in China, based on a very rarely used honorific name, Kongfuzi. Lu was a state in which the old Zhou cultural traditions were strong but that was buffeted both by repeated invasions and by local power struggles. Confucius's goal was the restoration of the ethical standards, just rule, and legitimate government—the dao, or "Way"—of the early Zhou period as he understood them. The models for the restoration of the dao were the founding kings of the Zhou dynasty, who had ruled with reverence toward their ancestors and kindness toward their people, ever fearful of losing Heaven's approval. These models had mythic force for Confucius, who saw himself as their embodiment in his own age.
The sources from which the Way of the ancient kings could be learned were ritual, historical, literary, and oracular texts, some of which later came to be known as the Five Scriptures (wujing ). ("Five Classics" is the usual translation, but they certainly were regarded by Confucius and his followers as sacred texts, so "scriptures" is more accurate.) In addition to the Yijing, the divination text discussed above, they included the Shijing (Scripture of Odes), a collection of folk and aristocratic songs allegedly collected by Confucius; the Shujing (Scripture of Documents), purporting to consist of official documents from the ancient Xia dynasty (still historically undocumented) up through the Shang and early Zhou dynasties; the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn), the terse history of Confucius's home state of Lu; and the Liji (Record of Ritual), which describes not only the formal rituals of the early Zhou but also the modes of behavior, customs, dress, and other aspects of the lives of the early kings. A sixth one, the Yuejing (Scripture of Music), is no longer extant but sections of it survive in the Liji.
Although several parts of the Five Scriptures were later attributed to Confucius, it is not likely that he wrote anything that survives. The best source of his teachings is the Lunyu (Analects ), a collection of his sayings recorded by his disciples after his death. Since the compilation of this text continued for over a century, much of it is not historically reliable. Nevertheless, throughout Chinese history until recent times it has been regarded as the definitive teachings of Confucius, so in terms of its influence on Chinese culture it can be read as a whole.
Confucius believed that society could be transformed by the moral cultivation of those in power, because virtue (de ) has a natural transformative effect on others. This inner moral power or potential was "given birth to" in the individual by Heaven, and it was this that Heaven responded to, not merely the outward show of ritual or the exercise of force. Thus, government by virtue—that is, by setting a moral example—was actually more effective in the long run than government by force or the strict application of law and punishment. De had earlier referred simply to the power of a ruler to attract and influence subjects—his charisma, in the Weberian sense—so in this and several other respects Confucius's innovation was to moralize a concept that hitherto had been ethically neutral. The moral perfection of the individual and the perfection of society were coordinate goals, for the moral perfection of the self required a morally supportive social environment, in the form of stable and loving families, opportunities for education, and good rulers to serve as models. Society as a whole could best be perfected from the top down, and in terms of the political situation it was most important to establish a government staffed by virtuous men (women did not serve in government). For these reasons Confucius directed his teaching toward local rulers and men whose goal was to serve in government. Literacy was a prerequisite of the moral cultivation that he taught, and so he did not bring his message to the masses, the great majority of whom at that time were illiterate.
He gathered a small group of disciples whom he taught to become junzi (superior men), men of ethical sensitivity and historical wisdom who were devoted to moral self-cultivation in preparation to become humane and able government officials. The term junzi had originally referred to hereditary nobility, but Confucius used it to mean a kind of moral nobility. Likewise, he expanded the meaning of li, or "ritual," to mean proper behavior and a kind of reverent seriousness in one's every action. The highest virtue was ren, "humanity" or "humaneness," which Confucius understood to be the perfection of being human. Ren described the inner moral character that was necessary in order for one's outward behavior, or li, to be authentic and meaningful. Confucius regarded ren as a nearly transcendental quality that only the mythic sages of the past had actually attained, although later Confucians claimed it was attainable by anyone.
Thus, Confucius initiated a new level of ethical awareness in Chinese culture and a new form of education, education in what he believed were universal principles for mature humanity and civilization. He assumed that the criteria for holding office were intelligence and high moral principles, not hereditary status, and so further undermined the Zhou feudal system that was crumbling around him. His ethical teachings were intended to describe the Way (dao ) of the superior or morally noble person, a way that originated in the will of Heaven for its people. Although this Way had been put into practice by the glorious founders of the Zhou dynasty, it was not presently being practiced. The absence of the Way was manifested by widespread conflict and a breakdown of ritual and propriety (li ), indicating a breach not only in the social order but also in the cosmic order. Ritual or ritual propriety, therefore, was not merely a means of enforcing social order, nor was Confucius's innovation a turn from religion to philosophy; rather, it was a philosophical deepening of a fundamentally religious worldview. Despite the fact that he urged his followers to pay more attention to human affairs than to worshiping the variety of traditional spiritual beings, he denied neither their existence nor the importance of worshiping ancestors. He redirected the religious sense of awe and reverence that had traditionally been focused on the realm of gods and spirits to the human social and political sphere.
The followers of Confucius came to be known as ru, or "scholars," signifying their relationship with the literary tradition. They were in a sense custodians of and experts in the literate cultural tradition (wen ), especially in the areas of court ritual, official protocol, and history. By the fourth and third centuries bce other schools of thought were developing. They included a school of natural philosophy based on the concept of the yin (dark, quiescent) and yang (light, active) phases of qi (psycho-physical substance); an early form of Daoism (Taoism); a school of Legalism that taught the strict application of law and punishment as the solution to the era's disorder; a school based on the investigation of names and their meanings; and several others. In the culture at large religious beliefs and activities continued unabated; divination and rituals accompanied every significant activity, and a quest for personal immortality was gaining momentum. One of the new schools of thought that reflected these religious concerns was that of Mozi.
Mozi (Master Mo, fifth century bce), a thinker from an artisan background, was a thoroughgoing utilitarian who taught that the fundamental criterion of value was practical benefit to all. He was from Confucius's home state of Lu and was educated in the emerging Confucian tradition, but he turned against what he perceived to be its elitism and wasteful concern with elaborate rituals. In his ethical teaching Mozi reinterpreted along utilitarian lines such Confucian principles as righteousness and filial reverence, focusing on the theme of universal love without familial and social distinctions. He also attracted a group of disciples whom he sent out to serve in various states in an attempt to implement his teachings.
For the history of Chinese religions the most significant aspect of Mozi's thought is his concern to provide theological sanctions for his views. For Mozi Tian, or Heaven, is an active creator god whose will or mandate extends to everyone; what Heaven wills is love, prosperity, and peace for all. Heaven is the ultimate ruler of the whole world; Tian sees all, rewards the good, and punishes the evil. In this task it is aided by a multitude of lesser spirits who are also intelligent and vital and who serve as messengers between Tian and human beings. Mozi advocated that since this is the nature of divine reality, religious reverence should be encouraged by the state as a sanction for moral order.
To protect himself from intellectual skeptics Mozi at one point allowed that even if deities and spirits do not exist, communal worship still has social value. Although his whole attempt to argue for belief in Heaven on utilitarian grounds could be understood as a last stand for traditional religion within a changing philosophical world, there is no reason to doubt that Mozi himself believed in the gods.
The fourth century bce was a period of incessant civil war on the one hand and great philosophical diversity on the other. A variety of thinkers arose, each propounding a cure for the ills of the age, most seeking to establish their views by training disciples and attaining office. Some advocated moral reform through education, others through authoritarian government, laissez-faire administration, rationalized bureaucracy, agricultural communes, rule in accord with the powers of nature, or individual self-fulfillment. Religious concerns were not paramount for these thinkers; indeed, for some they do not appear at all. The two traditions of this period that do warrant discussion here are the Confucian, represented by Mengzi (Mencius, c. 391–308 bce) and that of the mystically inclined individualists, traditionally known as the school of Dao (daojia ).
Master Meng, whose given name was Meng Ke, was a teacher and would-be administrator from the small state of Zou who developed Confucius's teachings and placed them on a much firmer philosophical and literary base. Mengzi was concerned to prepare his disciples for enlightened and compassionate public service, beginning with provision for the physical needs of the people. He believed that only when their material livelihood is secure can the people be guided to higher moral awareness. This hope for moral transformation is grounded in Mengzi's conviction that human nature contains the potential for goodness. What is needed are rulers who nourish this potential as "fathers and mothers of the people." These teachings Mengzi expounded courageously before despotic kings whose inclinations were quite otherwise.
Tian, or Heaven, for Mengzi is an expression of the underlying moral structure of the world, so that in the long run "those who accord with Heaven are preserved, and those who oppose Heaven are destroyed." Heaven's will is known through the assent or disapproval of the people—a proto-democratic aspect of Mengzi's thought. The human mind possesses an innate potential for moral awareness, a potential bestowed by Heaven at birth, so that "to understand human nature is to understand Heaven" and "to preserve one's mind and nourish one's nature is to serve Heaven." This potential is more than mere possibility; it comprises innate and concrete emotional dispositions that, when nourished or developed, become the core virtues of humanity (ren), rightness or appropriateness (yi), propriety (li), and moral wisdom (zhi). This natural course of human development, rather than a static essence, is what constitutes human nature for Mengzi. In cultivating our moral capacities we become fully human and actualize the moral potential of the cosmos. But this process requires a supportive, nourishing environment: a loving and supportive family, opportunities for education, and a humane government.
As had Confucius, Mengzi assumed that ancestor worship was a basic requirement of civilized life, but neither thinker emphasized such worship as much as did later texts like the Xiaojing, the Scripture of Filiality (third century bce). And while Confucius had relied largely upon the power of the cultural tradition—in particular the words and examples of the ancient sages preserved in the Five Scriptures—to serve as agents of individual and social transformation, Mengzi's theory could be characterized as a developmental moral psychology. Mengzi represents both a further humanization and a further spiritualization of the Confucian tradition, and his emphasis on the powers of human nature did much to shape the religious sensibilities of Chinese philosophy. In a third century bce text closely associated with the Mencian school, the Zhongyong (The mean in practice or Centrality and commonality), these tendencies were developed to a point not seen again until the eleventh- and twelfth-century revival of Confucianism:
Only that one in the world who is most perfectly authentic is able to give full development to his nature. Being able to give full development to his nature, he is able to give full development to the nature of other human beings and, being able to give full development to the nature of other human beings, he is able to give full development to the natures of other living things. Being able to give full development to the natures of other living things, he can assist in the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth; being able to assist in the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, he can form a triad with Heaven and Earth.
The third most important Confucian philosopher before the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce) was Xunzi (Xun Qing, c. 310 to c. 220 bce), a scholar from the state of Zhao who held offices for a time in the larger states of Qi and Chu. Xunzi's thought was influenced by several of the traditions that had developed before his time, including those of the Logicians, Daoists, and Legalists. Xunzi agreed with the Legalist emphasis on the need for strong centralized rule and a strict penal code. He also shared their low estimate of human nature, which in his view tended toward selfishness and competition. Nonetheless, Xunzi believed that human attitudes and behavior are perfectible by dint of much discipline and effort, so his differences with Mengzi on this point are those of degree. Both thinkers claimed that the ordinary person can become a "sage" (shengren ), one who fully exemplifies the virtue of humanity (ren ). But for Mengzi this was a developmental process, while for Xunzi it was a transformation (hua ) requiring the external leverage, so to speak, of past sages.
Xunzi's chief contribution was his reinterpretation of Tian as the order of nature, an order that has no consciousness and is not directly related to human concerns. This interpretation is parallel to the views of the Laozi (Daodejing) and Zhuangzi texts concerning the cosmic "Way" (dao ). Xunzi was concerned to separate the roles of heaven, earth, and man, with human attention directed toward ethics, administration, and culture. In this context rituals such as funeral rites are valuable channels for emotions but have no objective referent; their role is social and psychological, not theological. Ignorant "petty people" who believe in the literal efficacy of rain dances and divination are to be pitied; for the gentleman such activities are "cultural adornment."
Xunzi thus gave impetus to the skeptical tradition in Chinese thought that began before Confucius and was reinforced by later thinkers such as Wang Chong (c. 27–100 ce). Xunzi's teachings at this point provided a theoretical basis for a rough bifurcation between elite and popular attitudes toward religion and for sporadic attempts to suppress "excessive cults." Xunzi's epistemology also set up the intellectual framework for a critique of heresy, conceived as inventing words and titles beyond those employed by general consensus and sanctioned by the state. These themes had important implications for the remainder of Chinese history, including official attitudes toward religion today.
Early Daoist thought
The earliest extant writings focused on the mysterious cosmic "Way" (dao ) that underlies all things are the first seven chapters of the extant Zhuangzi, a text attributed to a philosopher named Zhuang Zhou of the fourth century bce, and a few sections of the Guanzi, another fourth-century text. Zhuang Zhou, or Zhuangzi (Master Zhuang), was convinced that the world in its natural state is peaceful and harmonious, a state exemplified by the growth of plants and the activities of animals. Disorder is the result of human aggression and manipulation, a tendency that finds as much expression in Confucian and Moist moralizing as in cruel punishments and warfare. Such moralizing in turn is rooted in a false confidence in words, words that debators use to express their own limited points of view and thus to dichotomize our understanding of the world. Indeed, all perspectives are limited and relative, conditioned by the interests and anxieties of species, social positions, and individuals. The answer to this problem is to understand and affirm the relativity of views, and thus harmonize them all. This the sage does by perceiving the constant rhythms of change within all life and identifying with them. In his view all dichotomies are unified; hence, there is no need for struggle and competition. The sage intuits the dao within and behind all things and takes its all-embracing perspective as his own. This perspective allows him to achieve a state of emotional equanimity, which even a serious illness or the death of a loved one cannot disturb. Indeed, such events illustrate the ultimate truth of the Way—change and transformation—and can therefore provide opportunities to rejoice in one's participation in what is fundamentally real.
The Guanzi is a long, composite text attributed to a famous statesman of the seventh century bce, but it was probably written or compiled from the fourth to the second centuries bce, and its actual authors are unknown. Its earliest sections focus on the cosmological and physiological bases of self-transformation according to the Way, using such concepts as qi (the psycho-physical substance of all things), jing (life-giving essence), and shen (spirit), all of which remained central to the Daoist religion in its later development.
The best-known book devoted to discussing the dao behind all things is the early third-century bce Daodejing (The Way and Its Power), also known as the Laozi, after its reputed author, a mythical sage known simply as the "Old Master," said to have been an older contemporary of Confucius. The Laozi discusses the Way in more direct, metaphysical terms than does the Zhuangzi, all the while protesting that such discussion is ultimately futile. Here we are told that the dao is the source of all things, "the mother of the universe," the ineffable cosmic womb out of which all emerges. The dao also "works in the world," guiding all things in harmonious development and interaction. As both source and order of the world the dao serves as a model for enlightened rulers who gain power by staying in the background and letting their people live spontaneously in response to their own needs. The dao is the vital force of life perceived at its utmost depth; it works mysteriously and imperceptibly, and yet there is nothing it does not accomplish. Its symbols are water rather than rock, valleys rather than hills, the female rather than the male. Although its perspective is profound, its author intended this book to be a handbook of wise and successful living, living characterized by a natural, spontaneous action that does not prematurely wear itself out.
These texts were the sources of a persistent tradition of naturalistic mysticism in the history of Chinese religions. They were the inspiration for much poetry, romantic philosophy, and meditation, all intended as a corrective for the bustle and competition of life, a means to peace of mind, and a clarification and broadening of perspective. They describe the enlightened person as living peacefully and long because he does not waste his vital powers on needless contention and aggression. In the Laozi, for example, we are told that "He who knows when to stop is free from danger; therefore he can long endure" (chapter 44), and that one who is "a good preserver of his life" cannot be harmed, "because in him there is no room for death" (chapter 50). Although in some passages of the Zhuangzi an enlightened perspective leads to acceptance of death, a few others provide poetic visions of immortals, those who have transcended death by merging with the dao. One of the terms Zhuangzi uses for these individuals is zhenren, "perfected people," a term that later became important in the fully developed Daoist religion that took shape after the second century ce. These indications of immortality in the earliest Daoist texts provided the chief point of contact between the Classical tradition and those who sought immortality by more direct means, including later practitioners of Daoist religion.
The quest for immortality
An explicit concern for long life (shou ) had already appeared on early Zhou bronzes and in poems in the Scripture of Odes. Beginning in the eighth century bce we find terms expressing a hope for immortality, such as "no death," "transcending the world," and "becoming an immortal." By the fourth century bce there is evidence of an active quest for immortality through a variety of means, including exercises imitating the movements of long-lived animals, diets enforcing abstinence from grains, the use of food vessels inscribed with characters indicating longevity, the ingestion of herbs and chemicals, and petitions for the aid of immortals residing in mountains or distant paradises. It was in this context that Chinese alchemy began. The alchemical quest became the most dramatic form of the quest to transcend death, growing in popularity during the Qin (221–206 bce) and Western Han (206 bce–9 ce) dynasties.
The goal of all these practices was to return the body to its original state of purity and power with its yin and yang forces vital and in proper balance. The fact that some of the compounds used were poisonous did not deter the experimenters; those who died were believed by devotees to have transferred themselves to another plane of existence, that of the immortals (xian ). All this effort and expense were considered necessary because in ancient China the person was understood to be a psycho-physical whole, composed throughout of one vital substance, qi, in different modes and densities. Corresponding to the yin and yang phases of qi there were thought to be two "souls," the po and hun, respectively. The po, associated with the gross physical body, would ideally remain with the body after death, or would descend to a murky underworld, the Yellow Springs. The hun, associated with the more intelligent and spiritual aspect of the person, would rise up to heaven and would retain its integrity only as long as it was ritually acknowledged and "nourished" through ancestor worship.
These forms of continuation after death were perceived by some to be tenuous and limited, so they attempted to make the entire person/body immortal by transforming its substance. There was no doctrine of an eternal, immaterial soul to fall back on as in India or the Hellenistic world, so the only alternative was physical immortality. In China this tradition continued to develop through the Eastern (Latter) Han dynasty (25–220 ce) and produced texts of its own full of recipes, techniques, and moral exhortations. As such, it became one of the major sources of the Daoist religion that emerged in the second century ce.
The other important expression of Chinese religious consciousness before the Han dynasty was shamanism, which most commonly took the form of deities and spirits possessing receptive human beings. Spirit mediums both female and male are mentioned in discussions of early Zhou religion as participants in court rituals, responsible for invoking the descent of the gods, praying and dancing for rain, and for ceremonial sweeping to exorcise harmful forces. They were a subordinate level of officially accepted ritual performers, mostly women, who spoke on behalf of the gods to arrange for sacrifices. In conditions of extreme drought they could be exposed to the sun as an inducement to rain. Female mediums were called wu, a word etymologically related to that for dancing; male mediums were called xi. In the state of Chu, south of the center of Zhou culture, there were shamans believed able to practice "spiritual flight," that is, to send their souls on journeys to distant realms of deities and immortals.
Han historical sources indicate that by the third century bce there were shamans all over China, many of whom were invited by emperors to set up shrines in the capital. This was done in part to consolidate imperial control but also to make available fresh sources of sacred power to support the state and heal illness. Sporadic attempts were also made by officials to suppress shamanism. These began as early as 99 bce and continued in efforts to reform court rituals in 31–30 bce and to change local practices involving human sacrifice in 25 ce. However, it is clear that shamanism was well established among the people and continued to have formal influence at court until the fifth century ce. Shamans were occasionally employed by rulers to call up the spirits of royal ancestors and consorts, and incidents of court support continued into the eleventh century. Owing in part to the revival of Confucianism in that period, in 1023 a sweeping edict was issued that all shamans be returned to agricultural life and their shrines be destroyed. Thus, the gradual Confucianization of the Chinese elite led to the suppression of shamanism at that level, but it continued to flourish among the people, where its activities can still be observed in China, Taiwan, and other Chinese communities.
The Beginnings of Empire
In the fifth century bce the disintegration of the Zhou feudal and social order quickened under the pressure of incessant civil wars. The larger states formed alliances and maneuvered for power, seeking hegemony over the others, aiming to reunify the area of Zhou culture by force alone. In 256 bce the state of Qin, under the influence of a ruthlessly applied ideology of laws and punishments suggested in the fourth century bce by Shang Yang, one of the founders of the Legalist school, eliminated the last Zhou king and then finished off its remaining rivals. Finally, in 221 the state of Qin became the empire of Qin (221–206 bce), and its ruler took a new title, "First Emperor of Qin" (Qin shi huangdi ). With this step China as a semicontinental state was born. There were many periods of division and strife later, but the new level of unification achieved by the Qin was never forgotten and became the goal of all later dynasties.
The Qin emperors attempted to rule all of China by the standards long developed in their own area; laws, measurements, written characters, wheel tracks, thought, and so forth were all to be unified. Local traditions and loyalties were still strong, however, and Qin rule remained precarious. After the emperor died in 209, he was replaced by a son who proved unequal to the task. Rebellions that broke out in that year severely undermined Qin authority, and by 206 one of the rebel leaders, a village head named Liu Bang, had assumed de facto control of state administration. In 202 Liu Bang was proclaimed emperor of a new dynasty, the Han (202 bce–220 ce), built upon Qin foundations but destined to last, with one interregnum, for over four hundred years.
The Qin was noteworthy both for its suppression of philosophy and its encouragement of religion. The Legalist tradition dominant in the state of Qin had long been hostile to the Confucians and Moists, with their emphasis on ethical sanctions for rule. For the Legalists the only proper standard of conduct was the law, applied by officials concerned with nothing else, whose personal views were irrelevant as long as they performed their task. The only sanctions the state needed were power and effective organization. Not long after Qin became an empire, it attempted to silence all criticism based on the assumption of inner standards of righteousness that were deemed to transcend political power and circumstance. In 213 bce the court made it a capital offence to discuss Confucian books and principles and ordered that all books in private collections be burned, save those dealing with medicine, divination, and agriculture, as well as texts of the Legalist school. In this campaign, several scores of scholars were executed, and a number of philosophical schools were eliminated as coherent traditions, including the Moists and the Dialecticians. In the early Han dynasty both Daoist philosophy and Confucianism revived, and Legalism continued to be in evidence in practice if not in theory. But a unified empire demanded unified thought, a dominant orthodoxy enforced by the state. From this perspective variety was a threat to the Qin, and furthermore, there were no independent states left to serve as sanctuaries for different schools.
Qin policy toward religion, by contrast, encouraged a variety of practices to support the state. To pay homage to the sacred powers of the realm and to consolidate his control, the First Emperor included worship at local shrines in his extensive tours. Representatives of regional cults, many of them spirit mediums, were brought to the court, there to perform rituals at altars set up for their respective deities. The Qin expanded the late Zhou tendency to exalt deities of natural forces; over one hundred temples to such nature deities were established in the capital alone, devoted to the sun, moon, planets, several constellations, and stars associated with wind, rain, and long life. The nation was divided into sacred regions presided over by twelve mountains and four major rivers, with many lesser holy places to be worshiped both by the people and the emperor. Elaborate sacrifices of horses, rams, bulls, and a variety of foodstuffs were regularly offered at the major sites, presided over by officials with titles such as Grand Sacrificer and Grand Diviner. Important deities were correlated with the Five Phases (wuxing ), the modes of interaction of natural forces, the better to personify and control these powers.
A distinctive feature of Qin religion was sacrifices to four "Supreme Emperors" responsible for natural powers in each of the four quarters. Only the emperor could worship these deities, a limitation as well for two new rites he developed in 219, the feng and shan sacrifices. These were performed on sacred Mount Tai, in modern Shandong province, to symbolize that the ruler had been invested with power by Heaven itself. Another driving force behind Qin encouragement of religious activities was the First Emperor's personal quest for immortality. We are told that in this quest he sent groups of young people across the China Sea to look for such islands of the immortals as Penglai.
The defeat of Qin forces in the civil wars leading up to the founding of the Han dynasty deposed Legalist political thought along with the second and last Qin emperor. It took several decades for the new Han dynasty to consolidate its power. Since the Legalists had developed the most detailed policies for administering an empire, many of these policies were followed in practice in modified form.
Some early Han scholars and emperors attempted to ameliorate royal power with a revival of Confucian concern for the people and Daoist principles of noninterference (wuwei ). For example, a palace counselor named Jia Yi (200–168 bce) echoed Mengzi in his emphasis that the people are the basis of the state, the purpose of which should be to make them prosperous and happy so as to gain their approval. A similar point of view is presented in more Daoist form in the Huainanzi, a book presented to the throne in 139 bce by a prince of the Liu clan who had convened a variety of scholars in his court. This book discusses the world as a fundamentally harmonious system of resonating roles and influences. The ruler's job is to guide it, as an experienced charioteer guides his team.
Both Jia Yi and the Huainanzi assume that the rhythms that order society and government emanate from the cosmic dao. The ruler's task is to discover and reinforce these rhythms for the benefit of all. This understanding of a Daoist "art of rulership" is rooted in the teachings of the early Daoist texts discussed above (Zhuangzi, Guanzi, and Laozi), which in the early Han were called the Huang-Lao school, the tradition of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) and Laozi. Four other Huang-Lao texts were rediscovered in 1973 at Mawangdui, in a tomb sealed in 168 bce. This early form of Daoism, which was adopted by the early Han emperors, is concerned with the dao as the creative source of both nature and humanity, their patterns of order, and the ontological basis of law and administration. Here we see an attempt to apply Daoist philosophical principles to the ordering of society by blending them with Legalist ideas.
Some Confucian books had escaped the flames of 213 bce, and those that did not were reconstructed or written anew, with little but the old titles intact. By this time scholars such as Xunzi had already incorporated the best thought of their day into fundamentally Confucian expositions that advocated a strong centralized state and an ethical teaching enforced by law. This expanded interpretation of Confucius's teachings served his followers well in the early Han. They occupied the middle ground between Legalism and Daoist laissez-faire. There was room in their perspective for political power, criminal law, advocacy of benevolent rule, moral suasion, religious rituals, and personal ethical development, all supported by a three-century tradition of training disciples to study sacred texts and emulate the models they provided. In addition, the philosopher Dong Zhongshu (c. 179–104 bce) incorporated into Confucianism the theories of Zou Yan and the "Naturalists," who in the fourth century bce had taught that the world is an interrelated organic whole that operates according to the cosmic principles of yinyang and wuxing (Five Phases). The Huainanzi had already given this material a Daoist interpretation, stressing the natural resonance between all aspects of the universe. In the hands of Dong Zhongshu this understanding became an elaborate statement of the relationship of society and nature, with an emphasis on natural justification for hierarchical social roles, focused on that of the ruler.
Dong Zhongshu provided a more detailed cosmological basis for Confucian ethical and social teachings and made it clear that only a unified state could serve as a channel for cosmic forces and sanctions. Dong was recognized as the leading scholar of the realm and became spokesman for the official class. At his urging, the sixth Han emperor, Wudi (r. 140–87 bce), shifted his allegiance from Huang-Lao Daoism to Confucianism. In 136 bce the Confucian classics were made the prescribed texts studied at the imperial academy. Texts of other schools, including the Daoist theories of administration noted above, were excluded. This meant in effect that Dong Zhongshu's version of Confucianism became the official state teaching, a status it retained throughout the Han dynasty. So it was that the humble scholar of Lu, dead for over three hundred years, was exalted as patron saint of the imperial system, a position he retained until 1911. State-supported temples were established in Confucius's name in cities all over the land, and his home at Qufu became a national shrine. In these temples, spirit tablets of the master and his disciples (replaced by images from 720 to 1530) were venerated in elaborate and formal rituals. As the generations passed, the tablets of the most influential scholars of the age came to be placed in these temples as well, by imperial decree, and so the cult of Confucius became the ritual focus of the scholar-official class.
Dong Zhongshu's incorporation of yinyang thought into Confucian philosophy had the unfortunate effect of legitimating and accentuating what was already a patriarchal social system. The root meanings of yin (dark) and yang (light) were not gendered, but neither did they necessarily imply a complementarity of equals. The predominant interpretation of the yin-yang polarity throughout Chinese history (with a few texts like the Laozi as prominent exceptions) understood the relationship as a hierarchical complementarity, with yin as quiescent and sinking and yang as active and rising. The general preference for yang over yin, combined with the patriarchal association of women with yin and men with yang, provided philosophical justification for the subservience of women to men. Educated women as well as men accepted this as a fact of nature. Ban Zhao (45–114 ce), the most famous female intellectual in Chinese history, wrote an influential book called Lessons for Women (Nujie ), which emphasized the propriety of women's humility and subservience, although her support of education for girls could, in its context, be considered a "feminist" position. In general, Confucians believed that women could become sages, but only by perfecting the virtues of the "woman's Way" as wives and mothers.
Han state rituals were based upon those of Qin but were greatly expanded and more elaborate. The first Han emperor, Gaozu, instituted the worship of a star god believed to be associated with Houji, the legendary founder of the Zhou royal line. Temples for this deity were built in administrative centers around the realm, where officials were also instructed to worship gods of local mountains and rivers. Gaozu brought shamans to the palace and set up shrines for sacrifices to their regional deities. He also promoted the worship of his own ancestors; at his death temples in his honor were built in commanderies throughout the empire.
These efforts to institute an imperial religious system supported by officials at all levels were energetically continued by Emperor Wu, during whose fifty-four-year reign the foundations of imperial state religion were established for Chinese history into the twentieth century. The emperor's religious activities were in turn supported by the philosophy of Dong Zhongshu, with its emphasis on the central cosmic role of the ruler. Emperor Wu revived the jiao or suburban sacrifice at the winter solstice to express imperial support for the revival of life forces. He also began to worship Taiyi, the "Supreme One," a star deity most noble in the heavens, an exalted version of a Zhou god. Taiyi was coequal with Heaven and earth, a symbol of both cosmic power and the emperor's status. In the period 112–110 bce Emperor Wu renewed the feng and shan sacrifices at Mount Tai, the sacred mountain of the east, a key place of direct communication with Heaven for the sake of the whole realm. In 109 bce he ordered that a ming tang (hall of light) be built at the foot of Mount Tai as a temple where all the major deities of China could assemble and be worshiped. Emperor Wu also toured the realm, sacrificing at important shrines along the way, all to express his religious convictions and assert his authority.
Detailed instructions for these Han rituals were provided by handbooks of ritual and etiquette such as the Liji (Record of Ritual), the present version of which was compiled in the second century bce but includes earlier material as well. Here we find descriptions of royal rituals to be performed at the solstices and the equinoxes, as well as instructions for such matters as the initiation ("capping") of young men and the worship of ancestors. The emphasis throughout is on the intimate correlations of nature and society, so that social custom is given cosmic justification. The Liji complements Dong Zhongshu's philosophy by extending similar understandings to the social life of the literate elite. In this context periodic rituals served as concentrated reminders of the cosmic basis of the whole cultural and political order. Thus did the imperial ruling class express its piety and solidify its position.
It should be noted, however, that the old Zhou concept of the "Mandate of Heaven" continued to influence Han political thought in a form elaborated and attenuated at the same time. Particularly in the writings of Dong Zhongshu, evidence for divine approval or disapproval of the ruler was discerned in natural phenomena, such as comets or earthquakes, interpreted as portents and omens. In accord with this belief, officials were appointed to record and interpret portents and to suggest appropriate responses, such as changes in ritual procedure and the proclamation of amnesties. The developing tradition of political portents recognized the importance of divine sanctions but provided a range of calibrated responses that enabled rulers to adjust their policies rather than face the prospect of rejection by Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven in its earlier and starker form was evoked chiefly as justification for rebellion in periods of dynastic decay. Nonetheless, portent theory in the hands of a conscientious official could be used in attempts to check or ameliorate royal despotism, and hence was an aspect of the state religious system that could challenge political power as well as support it.
The Han emperor Wu devoted much effort to attaining immortality, as had his Qin predecessor. As before, shamans and specialists in immortality potions were brought to court, and expeditions were sent off to look for the dwelling places of those who had defeated death. The search for immortality became quite popular among those who had the money and literacy to engage in it. In part this was the result of the transformation of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) into the patron deity of immortality, the earliest popular saving deity of this type in China. This transformation, fostered by magicians or "technique specialists" (fangshi) at Emperor Wu's court, included stories that the Yellow Emperor had ascended to Heaven with his whole retinue, including a harem of over seventy.
A more common expression of hope for some sort of continuity after death may be seen in tombs of Han aristocrats and officials, many of which were built as sturdy brick replicas of houses or offices, complete with wooden and ceramic utensils, attendants, and animals, as well as food, drugs, clothing, jade, bamboo books, and other precious objects. To a large extent this was a modification of Shang and Zhou traditions. However, in a few Han tombs were tightly sealed coffins filled with an embalming fluid in which even the skin and flesh of the bodies have been preserved. On top of one of these coffins has been found an elaborate silk banner from the southern state of Chu, painted with a design evidently intended to guide the occupant to a paradise of the immortals, perhaps that of the Queen Mother of the West, Xi Wang Mu.
Another destination for the dead was an underworld that was a Han elaboration of the old myth of the Yellow Springs, a shadowy place beneath the earth referred to as early as the eighth century bce. From the Han period, there are tomb documents by which living officials transferred the dead in their jurisdiction to those of their counterparts in the underworld. There are also references to a realm of the dead inside Mount Tai. The god of this mountain keeps registers of the life spans of all, and death may be referred to as "to return to the Eastern Peak." By the third and fourth centuries ce it was believed that there was a subterranean kingdom within Mount Tai, where judges decided the fate of the dead. These alternative beliefs represent the state of Chinese understandings of afterlife before Buddhist impact.
What came to be called the Former Han dynasty ended in 8 ce when the throne was occupied by a prime minister named Wang Mang (r. 9–23 ce), who established a Xin ("new") dynasty that was to last for fourteen years. Wang's chief contribution to the history of Chinese religions was his active promotion of prognostication as a way of understanding the intimate relationship between Heaven and the court. In 25 ce Liu Xiu (r. 25–57), a member of the Han royal line, led a successful attack on Wang Mang and reestablished the (Latter) Han dynasty. Like Wang Mang, he actively supported prognostication at court, despite the criticism of rationalist scholars such as Huan Tan (43 bce–28 ce), who argued that strange phenomena were a matter of coincidence and natural causes rather than messages from Heaven.
A related development was controversy between two movements within Confucian scholarly circles, the so-called New Text school of the Former Han and a later rationalistic reaction against it, the Old Text school. The New Text school developed out of Dong Zhongshu's concern with portents. Its followers wrote new commentaries on the classics that praised Confucius as a superhuman being who predicted the future hundreds of years beyond his time. By the end of the first century bce this interpretation of the sage in mythological terms was vigorously resisted by an Old Text school that advocated a more restrained and historical approach. These two traditions coexisted throughout the remainder of the Han dynasty, with the New Text scholars receiving the most imperial support through the first century ce. After Huan Tan, the best known rationalist was Wang Chong, whose Lunheng (Balanced Essays) fiercely criticizes religious opinions of his day, including prognostication and belief in spirits of the dead. Although Wang Chong was not well known by his contemporaries, his thought was rediscovered in the third century and established as a key contribution to the skeptical tradition in Chinese philosophy. An important religious legacy of the New Text school was the exalted interpretation of Confucius as a semidivine being, which was echoed in later popular religion. Its concern with portents and numerology also influenced Daoism.
We have noted the appearance of the Yellow Emperor as a divine patron of immortality and as a representative of a new type of personified saving deity with power over a whole area of activity. In the latter half of the Han dynasty the number and popularity of such deities increased, beginning with the cult of the Queen Mother of the West (Xi Wang Mu). She was associated with the Kunlun Mountains in the northwest, where she presided over a palace and received a royal visitor, King Mu of the Zhou dynasty, who she predicted would be able to avoid death. In 3 bce Xi Wang Mu's promise of immortality to all became the central belief of an ecstatic popular cult in her name that swept across North China. Although this movement abated in a few months, the Queen Mother herself is commonly portrayed in Latter Han iconography. Kunlun is described as the center pillar of the world, from where she controls cosmic powers and the gift of immortality. This goddess has continued to have an important role in Chinese religion until the present day.
Mountain-dwelling immortals constituted another source of personal deities in this period. These beings were believed to descend to aid the ruler in times of crisis, sometimes with instructions from the Celestial Emperor (Tiandi), sometimes themselves identified with the "perfect ruler" who would restore peace to the world. By the second century ce the most important of these figures was Laozi, the legendary author of the Daodejing, who appears as a deity called Huang Laojun (Yellow Lord Lao) or Taishang Laojun (Most High Lord Lao). By this time Laozi had been portrayed for centuries in popular legend as a mysterious wise man who disappeared without a trace. We have seen that the book in his name contains passages that could be interpreted as support for the immortality cult, and by the first century he was referred to as an immortal himself. In an inscription of 165 ce Laozi is described as a creator deity, equal in status to the sun, moon, and stars. A contemporary text assures his devotees that he has manifested himself many times in order to save humankind, that he will select those who believe in him to escape the troubles of the age, and that he will "shake the Han reign." It is this messianic theme that provided the religious impetus for two large popular religious movements in the late second century ce that were important sources of later Daoist religion and the popular sectarian tradition. These movements were the Tianshi dao (Way of the Celestial Masters) in the west and the Taiping dao (Way of Great Peace) in the north.
The Way of the Celestial Masters began with a new revelation from the Most High Lord Lao to a man named Zhang Daoling in 142 ce. In this revelation Zhang was designated as the first "Celestial Master" and was empowered to perform rituals and write talismans that distributed this new manifestation of the dao for the salvation of humankind. Salvation was available to those who repented of their sins, believed in the dao, and pledged allegiance to their Daoist master. The master in turn established an alliance between the gods and the devotee, who then wore at the waist a list or "register" of the names of the gods to be called on for protection. The register also served as a passport to heaven at death. Daoist ritual consists essentially of the periodic renewal of these alliances by meditative visualization, ritual confession and petition, and sacrificial offering of incense and sacred documents. Daoist texts are concerned throughout with moral discipline and orderly ritual and organization.
Under Zhang Daoling's grandson, Zhang Lu, the Way of the Celestial Masters established a theocratic state in the area of modern Sichuan province with an organization modeled in part on Han local administration. The administrative units or "parishes" were headed by "libationers," some of whom were women, whose duties included both religious and administrative functions. Their rituals included reciting the Laozi, doing penance to heal illness, and constructing huts in which free food was offered to passersby. Converts were required to contribute five pecks of rice, from which the movement gained the popular name of "the Way of Five Pecks of Rice" (Wudoumi dao ). In 215 Zhang Lu pledged allegiance to a Han warlord (Cao Cao), whose son founded the new state of Wei in 220. The members of the sect were required to disperse their self-governing community in Sichuan, but they were allowed to continue their activities and taught that Wei had simply inherited divine authority from the Celestial Master Zhang and his line. By the fourth century the Celestial Masters developed more elaborate collective rituals of repentance, retrospective salvation of ancestors, and the strengthening of vital forces through sexual intercourse. Eventually all branches of Daoism traced their origins to the Way of the Celestial Masters.
We know less about the practices of the Way of Great Peace because it was destroyed as a coherent tradition in the aftermath of a massive uprising in 184 ce. Its leader, also named Zhang (Zhang Jue, d. 184 ce), proclaimed that the divine mandate for the Han rule, here symbolized by the wood (green) phase (of the Five Phases), had expired, to be replaced by the earth phase, whose color is yellow. Zhang Jue's forces thus wore yellow cloths on their heads as symbols of their destiny, and hence the movement came to be called the Yellow Scarves (often misleadingly translated as Yellow Turbans). The Han court commissioned local governors to put down the uprising, which was soon suppressed with much bloodshed, although remnants of the Yellow Scarves continued to exist until the end of the century.
The Yellow Scarves are better understood as a parallel to the Celestial Master sect rather than as connected to it, although the two movements shared some beliefs and practices, particularly healing through confession of sins. The Way of Great Peace employed a scripture known as the Taipingjing (Scripture of Great Peace), which emphasizes the cyclical renewal of life in the jiazi year, the beginning of the sixty-year calendrical cycle. Both sects were utopian, but the Yellow Scarves represent a more eschatalogical orientation. In retrospect, both of these groups appear as attempts to reconstruct at a local level the Han cosmic and political synthesis that was collapsing around them, with priests taking the place of imperial officials.
The most important legacy of the late Han popular religious movements was their belief in personified divine beings concerned to aid humankind, a belief supported by new texts, rituals, and forms of leadership and organization. This belief was given impetus by the expectation that a bearer of collective salvation was about to appear in order to initiate a new time of peace, prosperity, and long life. From the third century on this hope was focused on a figure called Li Hong, in whose name several local movements appeared, some involving armed uprisings. This eschatological orientation was an important dimension of early Daoism, which at first understood itself as a new revelation, intended to supplant popular cults with their bloody sacrifices and spirit mediums.
In addition to such organized movements as the Yellow Scarves, Han popular religion included the worship of local sacred objects such as trees, rocks, and streams, the worship of dragons (thought to inhabit bodies of water), the belief that spirits of the dead have consciousness and can roam about, and a lively sense of the power of omens and fate. By the third century there are references to propitiation of the spirits of persons who died violent deaths, with offerings of animal flesh presided over by spirit mediums.
Feng-shui (wind and water), or geomancy, also developed during the Han as a ritual expression of the yin-yang and five-phases worldview. It is the art of locating graves, buildings, and cities in auspicious places where there is a concentration of the vital energies (qi) of earth and atmosphere. Spirits of the dead in graves so located, by virtue of being part of the natural flow of qi through the earth, are less likely to roam the world as ghosts and harm their descendants. Likewise, homes and cities harmoniously oriented with the flow of qi benefit the living directly; to be in harmony with the natural order is "auspicious." The earliest extant feng-shui texts are attributed to famous diviners of the third and fourth centuries. Chinese religion was thus developed at a number of levels by the time Buddhism arrived, although Buddhism offered several fresh interpretations of morality, personal destiny, and the fate of the dead.
The Period of Disunion
By the time the first Buddhist monks and texts appeared in China around the first century ce, the Han dynasty was already in decline. At court rival factions competed for imperial favor, and in the provinces restless governors moved toward independence. Political and military fragmentation was hastened by the campaigns against the Yellow Scarves uprising, after which a whole series of adventurers arose to attack each other and take over territory. In the first decade of the third century three major power centers emerged in the north, southeast, and southwest, with that in the north controlling the last Han emperor and ruling in his name. By 222 these three centers each had declared themselves states (the "Three Kingdoms" of the famous fourteenth-century historical novel by Luo Guanzhong), and China entered a period of political division that was to last until late in the sixth century. This is known as the Six Dynasties period, or alternatively, the Wei-Jin and Northern-Southern Dynasties periods. In this time of relatively weak central government control, powerful local clans emerged to claim hereditary power over their areas.
The beginnings of Buddhism in China
With the gradual expansion of Buddhism under the patronage of the Kushan rulers (in present-day northwest India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) into the oasis states of Central Asia, and with the corresponding expansion of Chinese influence into this same region, it became inevitable that Buddhism would be introduced into East Asia. Over a thousand-year period from the beginning of the common era until the close of the first millennium, the opportunities for cultural exchange with South and West Asia afforded by the so-called Silk Road—actually a whole network of trade routes throughout Asia and connecting it with Europe—nourished vibrant East Asian Buddhist traditions. These began with earnest imitation of their Indian antecedents and culminated in the great independent systems of thought that characterize the fully developed tradition: Huayan, Tiantai, Jingtu, and Chan.
From about 100 bce on it would have been relatively easy for Buddhist ideas and practices to come to China with foreign merchants, but the first reliable notice of it in Chinese sources is dated 65 ce. In a royal edict of that year we are told that a prince administering a city in what is now northern Jiangsu province "recites the subtle words of Huang-Lao, and respectfully performs the gentle sacrifices to the Buddha." He was encouraged to "entertain upāsakas and sramanas ", Buddhist lay devotees and initiates. In 148 ce the first of several foreign monks, An Shigao, settled in Luoyang, the capital of the Latter Han. Over the next forty years he and other scholars translated about thirty Buddhist scriptures into Chinese, most of them from pre-Mahāyāna traditions, emphasizing meditation and moral principles. However, by about 185 three Mahāyāna prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) texts were translated as well.
A memorial dated 166, approving Buddhist "purity," "emptiness," nonviolence, and control of sensual desires, further informs us that in that year the emperor performed a joint sacrifice to Laozi and the Buddha. In 193–194 a local warlord in what is now Jiangsu erected a Buddhist temple that could hold more than three thousand people. It contained a bronze Buddha image before which offerings were made and scriptures were read. During ceremonies in honor of the Buddha's birthday, thousands came to participate, watch, and enjoy free food and wine. Thus, by the end of the second century there were at least two centers of Buddhist activity, Luoyang in the north and an area in the southeast. At court Buddhist symbols were used in essentially Daoist rituals, but in the scriptures the novelty and differences of Buddhism were made clear in crude vernacular translations. Injunctions to eliminate desires, to love all beings equally, without special preference for one's family, and to regard the body as transitory and doomed to decay rather than an arena for seeking immortality were not without precedent in Chinese thought, but they did challenge the Han Confucian orthodoxy.
Although early sources mention terms for various clerical ranks, rules for monastic life were transmitted in a haphazard and incomplete fashion. Monks and nuns lived in cloisters that cannot properly be called monasteries until a few centuries later. Meanwhile, leadership of the Chinese clergy was provided first by Central Asian monks, then by naturalized Chinese of foreign descent, and by the fourth century, by Chinese themselves. Nuns are first mentioned in that century as well.
The movement of Buddhism to China, one of the great cultural interactions of history, was slow and fortuitous, carried out almost entirely at a private level. The basic reason for its eventual acceptance throughout Chinese society was that it offered several religious and social advantages unavailable to the same extent in China before. These included a full-time religious vocation for both men and women in an organization largely independent of family and state, a clear promise of life after death at various levels, and developed conceptions of paradise and purgatory, connected to life through the results of intentional actions (karma ). Many women found Buddhism an attractive alternative to the "woman's Way" supported by Confucianism, with its limited options for fulfillment as wives and mothers. Buddhism also offered the worship of heroic saviors in image form, supported by scriptures that told of their wisdom and compassion. For ordinary folk there were egalitarian moral principles, promises of healing and protection from harmful forces, and simple means of devotion; for intellectuals there were sophisticated philosophy and the challenge of attaining new states of consciousness in meditation, all of this expounded by a relatively educated clergy who recruited, organized, translated, and preached.
In the early fourth century North China was invaded by the nomadic Xiongnu, who sacked Luoyang in 311 and Chang'an in 316. Thousands of elite families fled south below the Yangzi River, where a series of short-lived Chinese dynasties held off further invasions. In the north a succession of kingdoms of Inner Asian background rose and fell, most of which supported Buddhism because of its religious appeal and its non-Chinese origins. The forms of Buddhism that developed here emphasized ritual, ideological support for the state, magic protection, and meditation.
It was in the south, however, that Buddhism first became a part of Chinese intellectual history. The Han imperial Confucian synthesis had collapsed with the dynasty, a collapse that encouraged a quest for new philosophical alternatives. Representatives of these alternatives found support in aristocratic clans, which competed with each other in part through philosophical debates. These debates, called qingtan, or "pure conversation," revived and refined a tradition that had been widespread in the period of the so-called Hundred Philosophers (sixth and fifth centuries bce), a tradition with precise rules of definition and criteria for victory. By the mid-third century these debates revolved around two basic perspectives, that of rather conservative moralists called the "school of names" (mingjiao ) and that of those advocating "spontaneous naturalism" (ziran ). By the early fourth century Buddhist monks were involved in these debates, supported by sympathetic clans, advocating a middle ground between the conservatives and libertarians, spiritual freedom based on ethical discipline. Although Buddhism was still imperfectly understood, it had gained a vital foothold.
Chinese intellectuals first attempted to understand Buddhism through its apparent similarities to certain beliefs and practices of Daoism and immortality cults. Thus, bodhisattvas and buddhas were correlated with sages and immortals, meditation with circulation of the vital fluids, and nirvāṇa with wuwei, spontaneous, nonintentional action. However, Indian Buddhism and traditional Chinese thought have very different understandings of life and the world. Buddhist thought is primarily psychological and epistemological, concerned with liberation from saṃsāra, the world perceived as a realm of suffering, impermanence, and death. For the Chinese, on the other hand, nature and society are fundamentally good; our task is to harmonize with the positive forces of nature, and enlightenment consists in identifying with these forces rather than in being freed from them. The interaction of these worldviews led Chinese Buddhists to interpret psychological concepts in cosmological directions. For example, the key Mahāyāna term "emptiness" (śūnyatā in Sanskrit, kong in Chinese) refers primarily to the interdependence of all things—that is, their lack of any independent nature or being—and to the radically objective and neutral mode of perception that accepts the impermanence and interdependence of things without trying to control them or project onto them human concepts and values. Indeed, the first discussions of this term used it as a logical tool to destroy false confidence in philosophical and religious concepts, particularly earlier Buddhist ones. All concepts, according to this doctrine, are mutually contradictory and refer to nothing substantial; hence they are "empty." In China, however, "emptiness" immediately evoked discussion about the origin and nature of the phenomenal world. "Emptiness" was equated with "nonbeing" (wu ), the fecund source of existence, and "vacuity" (xu ), the absence of concrete existence or cognitive preconception, both of which are prominent concepts in the Laozi. As their understanding of Buddhism deepened, Chinese thinkers became more aware of the epistemological force of the term "emptiness" but continued to see it primarily as a problem in interpreting the world itself. In that respect it was somewhat consistent with certain Confucian and Daoist ideas, such as the notion that persons and things are defined by their relationships with others or their positions in the overall pattern of things—the dao.
Buddhist thought was already well developed and complexly differentiated before it reached China. Likewise, Chinese culture, religion, and philosophy were mature and highly developed when Buddhism entered China. So the story of Buddhism in China was a case of two mature cultural systems, with some rather fundamental linguistic and social differences, interacting and transforming each other. But at first the Chinese knew of Buddhism only through scriptures haphazardly collected in translations of varying accuracy, for very few Chinese learned Sanskrit. Since all the sūtras claimed to be preached by the Buddha himself, they were accepted as such, with discrepancies among them explained as deriving from the different situations and capacities of listeners prevailing when a particular text was preached. In practice, this meant that the Chinese had to select from a vast range of data those themes that made the most sense in their preexisting worldview. For example, as the tradition develops we find emphases on simplicity and directness, the universal potential for enlightenment, and the Buddha mind as source of the cosmos, all of them prepared for by similar ideas in indigenous thought and practice.
The most important early Chinese Buddhist philosophers, organizers, and translators were Dao'an (312–385), Huiyuan (334–417), and Kumārajīva (334–413), each of whom contributed substantially to the growth of the young "church." Dao'an was known principally for his organizational and exegetical skills and for the catalog of Buddhist scriptures he compiled. His disciple Huiyuan, one of the most learned clerics in South China, gathered a large community of monks around him and inaugurated a cult to Amitābha, a popular Buddha. Kumārajīva, the most important and prolific of the early translators, was responsible for the transmission of the Mādhyamika (Sanlun ) tradition to China. His lectures on Buddhist scripture in Chang'an established a sound doctrinal basis for Mahāyāna thought in the Middle Kingdom. Another formative early figure was Daosheng (d. 434 ce), a student of Kumārajīva. He is known for his emphasis on the positive nature of nirvāṇa, his conviction that even nonbelievers have the potential for salvation, and his teaching of instantaneous enlightenment. Like the concept of emptiness, these ideas resonated well with certain Confucian and Daoist concepts, such as the goodness of human nature in Mengzi and the Daoist notion of spontaneity. Such themes helped lay the foundation for Chan (Japanese, Zen) Buddhism in the seventh and eighth centuries.
The history of monastic Buddhism was closely tied to state attitudes and policies, which ranged from outright suppression to complete support, as in the case of Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (r. 501–549), who abolished Daoist temples and built Buddhist ones, and three times entered a monastery himself as a lay servitor. However, by the fifth century Buddhism was becoming well established among people of all classes, who, to gain karmic merit, donated land and goods, took lay vows, served in monasteries, and established a variety of voluntary associations to copy scriptures, provide vegetarian food for monks and nuns, and carve Buddha images. The most important image-carving projects were at Yungang in Shanxi and Longmen in Henan, where huge figures, chiefly those of Śākyamuni, Amitābha, and Maitreya, were cut into cliffs and caves. Such major projects of course also involved large-scale official and clerical support.
It was in the fifth century as well that Chinese Buddhist eschatology developed, based in part on predictions attributed to the Buddha that a few hundred years after his entry into nirvāṇa the dharma (the Buddha's teachings) would lose its vigor, morals would decline, and ignorant, corrupt monks and nuns would appear. In addition, from its inception as a full-fledged religion in the second century, Daoism had proclaimed itself to be the manifestation of a new age of cosmic vitality, supported by pious devotees, "seed people." A combination of these motifs led to the composition in China of Buddhist scriptures saying that since the end of the age had come, more intense morality and piety were required of those who wished to be saved. These texts also promised aid from saving bodhisattvas such as Maitreya, the next buddha-to-be. In some cases the apocalyptic vision of these texts inspired militant utopian movements, led by monks but with lay membership. By the early seventh century a few of these groups were involved in armed uprisings in the name of Maitreya, which led eventually to a decline in official support for his cult, although he remained important in popular sectarian eschatology.
The first important school of Buddhist thought developed in China was the Tiantai, founded by the monk Zhiyi (538–597). This school is noted for its synthesis of earlier Buddhist traditions into one system, divided into five periods of development according to stages in the Buddha's teaching. According to Tiantai, the Buddha's teachings culminated in his exposition of the Lotus Sūtra, in which all approaches are unified. Zhiyi also systematized the theory and practice of Mahāyāna meditation. His most important philosophical contribution was his affirmation of the absolute buddha mind as the source and substance of all phenomena. In Zhiyi's teaching the old Mādhyamika logical destruction of dualities is replaced by a positive emphasis on their identity in a common source. So, in impeccably Buddhist language, he was able to justify the phenomenal world, and thus to provide an intellectual foundation for much of the later development of Buddhism in China.
In 581 China was reunified by the Sui dynasty (581–618) after three and a half centuries of political fragmentation. The Sui founder supported Buddhism, particularly the Tiantai school, as a unifying ideology shared by many of his subjects in both north and south. After four decades of rule the Sui was overthrown in a series of rebellions, to be replaced by the Tang (618–907). Although the new dynasty tended to give more official support to Confucianism and Daoism, Buddhism continued to grow at every level of society.
The rise of Daoist religion
By the fourth century Daoism was characterized by a literate and self-perpetuating priesthood, a pantheon of celestial deities, complex rituals, and revealed scriptures in classical (literary) Chinese. Although the first elements of this tradition appeared in the second-century popular movements discussed above, the tradition underwent further development at the hands of gentry scholars versed in philosophy, ethical teachings, and alchemy. These scholars saw themselves as formulators of a new, more refined religion superior to the popular cults around them. This new system was led by priests who, though not officials, claimed celestial prerogatives.
Daoism is fundamentally rooted in the concept of qi, the psycho-physical-spiritual substance out of which nature, gods, and humans evolve. The source and order of this vital substance is the dao, the ultimate basis of life in the universe. The gods are personified manifestations of qi, symbolizing astral powers of the cosmos and organs of the human body with which they are correlated. Under the conditions of ordinary existence qi becomes stale and dissipated, so it must be renewed through ritual and meditative processes that restore its primal vitality. Some of these practices consist of visualizing and calling down the cosmic gods to reestablish their contact with their bodily correlates. In this way the adept ingests divine power and so recharges his or her bodily forces for healing, rejuvenation, and long life. In others, the substances of the human body—jing (life-giving "essences," such as sexual fluids), qi ("vital breath," in a more specific sense than the general qi of which all things are composed), and shen (spirit)—are manipulated and purified through visualization and meditation. Physical exercises and dietary practices (such as abstinence from grains, which are thought to contain the dark yin power of the earth) are also parts of the Daoist regimen. The general aim of these practices is to enhance spiritual and physical health. Accomplished practice results in the purification of the psycho-physical being into the embryo of a new, immortal self. Rituals are also performed for an entire community; Daoist masters can release their cosmic power through ritual actions that revive the life forces of the community around them.
When the Celestial Master sect was officially recognized by the state of Wei (220–265) in the early third century, its leadership was established in the capital, Luoyang, north and east of the old sect base area in modern Sichuan. In the north remnants of the Yellow Scarves still survived, and before long the teachings and rituals of these two similar traditions blended together. A tension remained, however, between those who saw secular authority as a manifestation of the Way and those determined to bring in a new era of peace and prosperity by militant activity. Uprisings led by charismatic figures who claimed long life and healing powers occurred in different areas throughout the fourth century and later.
Meanwhile, in the southeast another tradition emerged that was to contribute to Daoism, a tradition concerned with alchemy, the use of herbs and minerals to attain immortality. Its chief literary expression was the Baopuzi (The Master Who Embraces Simplicity) written by Ge Hong in about 320. Ge Hong collected a large number of alchemical formulas and legends of the immortals, intended to show how the body can be transformed by the ingestion of gold and other chemicals and by the inner circulation of the vital qi, special diets, and sexual techniques, all reinforced by moral dedication. Ge Hong's concerns were supported by members of the old aristocracy of the state of Wu (222–280) whose families had moved south during the Latter Han period.
When the northern state of Jin was conquered by the Xiongnu in 316, thousands of Jin gentry and officials moved south, bringing the Celestial Master sect with them. The eventual result was a blending of Celestial Master concern for priestly administration and collective rituals with the more individualistic and esoteric alchemical traditions of the southeast. Between the years 364 and 370 a young man named Yang Xi claimed to receive revelations from "perfected ones" (zhenren, a term from the Zhuangzi) or exalted immortals from the Heaven of Supreme Purity (Shangqing). These deities directed Yang to make transcripts and deliver them to Xu Mi (303–373), an official of the Eastern Jin state (317–420) with whom he was associated. Yang Xi believed his new revelations to be from celestial regions more exalted than those evoked by the Celestial Master sect and Ge Hong. The Perfected Ones rewrote and corrected earlier texts in poetic language, reformulated sexual rites as symbols of spiritual union, and taught new methods of inner cultivation and alchemy. These teachings were all presented in an eschatological context, as the salvation of an elect people in a time of chaos. They prophesied that a "lord of the Way, [a] sage who is to come" would descend in 392. Then the wicked would be eliminated and a purified terrestrial kingdom established, ruled over by such pious devotees as Xu Mi, now perceived as a priest and future celestial official. It is perhaps not accidental that these promises were made to members of the old southern aristocracy whose status had recently been threatened by the newcomers from the north.
Xu Mi and one of his sons had retired to Maoshan, a mountain near the Eastern Jin capital (modern Nanjing); hence, the texts they received and transcribed came to be called those of a Maoshan "school." In the next century another southern scholar, Tao Hongjing (456–536), collected all the remaining manuscripts from Yang Xi and the Xu family and edited them as the Zhengao (Declarations of the Perfected). With this the Maoshan/Shangqing scriptures were established as a foundation stone of the emerging Daoist canon.
In the meantime another member of Ge Hong's clan had written a scripture in about 397, the Lingbaojing (Scripture of the Sacred Jewel), which he claimed had been revealed to him by the spirit of an early third-century ancestor. This text exalted "celestial worthies" (tianzun ), who were worshiped in elaborate collective rituals directed by priests in outdoor arenas. The Lingbaojing established another strand of Daoist mythology and practice that was also codified in the south during the fifth century. Its rituals replaced those of the Celestial Master tradition while remaining indebted to them. Lingbao texts were collected and edited by Lu Xiujing (406–477), who wrote on Daoist history and ritual.
Daoism was active in the north as well, in the Northern Wei kingdom (386–534), which established Daoist offices at court in 400. In 415 and 423 a scholar named Kou Qianzhi (365–448) claimed to have received direct revelations from Lord Lao while he was living on a sacred mountain. The resulting scriptures directed Kou to reform the Celestial Master tradition; renounce popular cults, messianic uprisings, and sexual rituals; and support the court as a Daoist kingdom on earth. Kou was introduced to the Wei ruler by a sympathetic official named Cui Hao (d. 450) in 424 and was promptly appointed to the office of "Erudite of Transcendent Beings." The next year he was proclaimed Celestial Master, and his teachings "promulgated throughout the realm." For the next two decades Kou and Cui cooperated to promote Daoism at the court. As a result, in 440 the king accepted the title Perfect Ruler of Great Peace, and during the period 444 to 446 proscribed Buddhism and local "excessive cults." Although Cui Hao was eventually discredited and Buddhism established as the state religion by a new ruler in 452, the years of official support for Daoism clarified its legitimacy and political potential as an alternative to Confucianism and Buddhism.
The Consolidation of Empire: Seventh to Fourteenth Centuries
The Chinese religious traditions that were to continue throughout the rest of imperial history all reached maturity during the Tang (618–907) and Song (960–1279) periods. These traditions included Buddhism, Daoism, neo-Confucianism, Islam, and popular religion in both its village and sectarian forms. It was in these centuries as well that other foreign religions were practiced for a time in China, particularly Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, and Judaism (one Jewish community continued to flourish until the nineteenth century). Rituals performed by the emperor and his officials continued to be elaborated, with many debates over the proper form and location of altars and types of sacrifices to be offered. During the Tang dynasty, cults devoted to the spirits of local founders and protectors were established in many cities. These city gods (chenghuang shen ) were eventually brought into the ranks of deities to whom official worship was due.
Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
The area of the Tang dynasty rivaled that of the Han, with western boundaries extending far into Central Asia. This expansion encouraged a revival of foreign trade and cultural contacts. Among the new foreign influences were not only Buddhist monks and scriptures but also the representatives of other religions. There is evidence for Zoroastrianism in China by the early sixth century, a result of contacts between China and Persia that originated in the second century bce and were renewed in an exchange of envoys with the Northern Wei court in 455 and around 470.
A foreign tradition with more important influence on the history of Chinese religions was Manichaeism, a dynamic missionary religion teaching ultimate cosmic dualism founded by a Persian named Mani (216–277?). The first certain reference to Manichaeism in a Chinese source is dated 694, although it may have been present about two decades earlier. As was true with Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism in its early centuries in China was primarily practiced by foreigners, although its leaders soon composed catechisms and texts in Chinese stressing the congruence of their teachings with Buddhism and Daoism. In 755 a Chinese military commander named An Lushan led a powerful rebellion that the Tang court was able to put down only with the help of foreign support. One of these allies was the Uighur, from a kingdom based in what is now northern Mongolia. In 762 a Uighur army liberated Luoyang from rebel forces, and there a Uighur kaghan (king) was converted to Manichaeism. The result was new prestige and more temples for the religion in China.
However, in 840 the Uighurs were defeated by the Kirghiz, with the result that the Chinese turned on the religion of their former allies, destroyed its temples, and expelled or executed its priests. Nonetheless, at least one Manichaean leader managed to escape to Quanzhou in Fujian province on the southeast coast. In Fujian the Manichaeans flourished as a popular sect, characterized by their distinctive teachings, communal living, vegetarian diet, and nonviolence, until the fourteenth century. They were called the Mingjiao ("religion of light"). They disappeared as a coherent tradition as a result of renewed persecutions during the early Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Several Manichaean texts were incorporated into the Daoist and Buddhist canons, and it is likely that Manichaean lay sects provided models for similar organizations that evolved out of Buddhism later. Manichaean dualism and demon exorcism may have reinforced similar themes in Daoism and Buddhism as they were understood at the popular level.
According to a stone inscription erected in Chang'an (present-day Xian) in 781, the first Nestorian missionary reached China in 635 and taught about the creation of the world, the fall of humankind, and the birth and teaching of the Messiah. The ethics and rituals described are recognizably Christian. Chinese edicts of 638 and 745 refer to Nestorianism, which appears to have been confined to foreign communities in large cities on major trade routes. In 845 Nestorianism was proscribed along with Buddhism and other religions of non-Chinese origin, but it revived in China during the period of Mongol rule in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In 1289 the court established an office to supervise Christians, and a 1330 source claims that there were more than thirty thousand Nestorians in China, some of them wealthy and in high positions, no doubt a result of the Mongol policy of ruling China in part with officials of foreign origin. In this period the church was most active in eastern cities such as Hangzhou and Yangzhou. The Nestorians were expelled from China with the defeat of the Mongols in the mid-fourteenth century, and no active practitioners were found by the Jesuits when they arrived about two hundred years later. So the first Christian contact with China expired, leaving no demonstrable influence on Chinese religion and culture.
There is no certainty regarding the date of Judaism's entrance into China. Two of the four surviving commemorative stelae from the synagogue in Kaifeng trace it to the Han dynasty, suggesting that the emigration might have followed the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 ce But most scholars agree that it was more likely during the Tang that Jewish merchants from Persia or Bukhara first settled in Kaifeng, on the Yellow River in Henan province. Other pre-modern Jewish communities existed in Ningbo, Hangzhou, Yangzhou, and Guangzhou, all probably established by merchants arriving by sea, but the Kaifeng community was the most successful. Kaifeng was the capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), and at some point during that period the emperor received representatives of the Jewish community at court and bestowed upon them Chinese surnames, one of which was his own (Zhao). In 1163, under the Jurchen Jin dynasty that had conquered northern China, the Jews built their first synagogue, with approval from the government. Over the ensuing centuries the synagogue was destroyed by floods, rebuilt, and expanded several times.
The Chinese first learned of Islam in 638 from an emissary of the last Sassanid king of Persia, who was seeking their aid against invading Arab armies. This the Chinese refused, but a number of Persian refugees were admitted a few years later after the Sassanid defeat and allowed to practice their Zoroastrian faith. In the early eighth century Arab armies moved into Central Asia, and in 713 ambassadors of Caliph Walid ibn Yazīd were received at court in Chang'an, even though they refused to prostrate themselves before the emperor. However, in 751 a Chinese army far to the west was defeated in the Battle of Talas by a combination of Central Asian states with Arab support. This defeat led to the replacement of Chinese influence in Central Asia with that of the Arabs and the decline of Buddhism in that area in favor of Islam. In 756 another caliph sent Arab mercenaries to aid the Chinese court against An Lushan; when the war ended many of these mercenaries remained, forming the beginning of Islamic presence in China, which by the late twentieth century totaled about thirty million people, one of the five main constituencies of the People's Republic. The eighth-century Arab population was augmented by Muslim merchants who settled in Chinese coastal cities, for a time dominating the sea trade with India and Southeast Asia.
The major influx of Muslim peoples occurred during the Yuan dynasty (1206–1368) when the land routes across Central Asia were secure and the Mongols brought in large numbers of their non-Chinese subjects to help administer China. It was in this period that Islam spread all over China and established major population bases in the western provinces of Yunnan and Gansu. Here their numbers increased through marriage with Chinese women and adoption of non-Muslim children, all converted to Islam. Although the result was a dilution of Arab physical characteristics, the use of the Chinese language, and the adoption of some Chinese social customs, for most the Islamic core remained. Muslims did not accept such dominant Chinese traditions as ancestor worship and pork eating, and they kept their own festival calendar. This resistance was the result in part of the tenacity of their beliefs, in part of the fact that their numbers, mosques, and essentially lay organization permitted mutual support.
Muslims in China have always been predominantly Sunnī, but in the sixteenth century Sufism reached China through Central Asia. By the late seventeenth century Ṣūfī brotherhoods began a reform movement that advocated increased use of Arabic and a rejection of certain Chinese practices that had infiltrated Islam, such as burning incense at funerals. Sufism also emphasized ecstatic personal experience of Allāh, the veneration of saints, and the imminent return of the mahdī, who would bring a new age, this last theme due to Shīʿī influence as well.
These reformist beliefs, coupled with increased Chinese pressure on Islam as a whole, led eventually to a powerful uprising in Yunnan between 1855 and 1873, an uprising allowed to develop momentum because of old ethnic tensions in the area and the distraction of the Chinese court with the contemporary Taiping rebellion (1851–1864). The Yunnan rebellion was eventually put down by a combination of Chinese and loyalist Muslim forces, and the Muslims resumed their role as a powerful minority in China, called the Hui people.
The chief role of Islam in China was as the religion of this minority group, although in some twentieth-century popular texts it was recognized as one of the "five religions" whose teachings were blended into a new synthetic revelation, along with Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Another aspect of Islam's historical impact was to sharply reduce Chinese contact with India and Central Asia after the eighth century, and thus to cut off the vital flow of new texts and ideas to Chinese Buddhism. And since the 1980s, mostly in the Uighur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, there has been increasing pressure, fueled by Islamic militancy, for independence from the People's Republic of China.
The first Tang emperor, Gaozu (r. 618–626), approved of a plan to limit both Daoist and Buddhist temples. His son Taizong (r. 626–649) agreed with the Daoist contention that the imperial family was descended from Laozi, whose legendary surname was also Li; however, Taizong also erected Buddhist shrines on battlefields and ordered monks to recite scriptures for the stability of the empire. Buddhist philosophical schools in this period were matters of both belief and imperial adornment, so, to replace the Tiantai school, now discredited on account of its association with the Sui dynasty, the Tang court turned first to the Faxiang or Weishi ("consciousness only") school, an idealist teaching known in Sanskrit as Yogācāra or Vijñanavada. Some texts of this tradition had been translated earlier by Paramartha (499–569), but it came to be thoroughly understood in China only after the return of the pilgrim Xuanzang in 645 from his sixteen-year-long overland journey to India. Xuanzang was welcomed at court and provided with twenty-three scholar-monks from all over China to assist in translating the books he had brought back. The emperor wrote a preface for the translation of one major Vijñanavada text, and his policy of imperial support was continued by his son Gaozong (r. 650–683).
However, the complex psychological analysis of the Vijñanavada school, coupled with its emphasis that some beings are doomed by their nature to eternal rebirth, were not in harmony with the Chinese worldview, which had been better represented by Tiantai. Hence, when imperial support declined at Gaozong's death in 683, the fortunes of the Faxiang school declined as well, despite the excellent scholarship of Xuanzang's disciple Kuiji (632–682). At the intellectual level it was replaced in popularity by the Huayan ("flower garland") school as formulated by the monk Fazang (643–712). This school, based on a sūtra of the same name (Sanskrit, Avataṃsaka ), taught the emptiness and interpenetration of all phenomena in a way consonant with old Chinese assumptions. Furthermore, in Huayan teaching the unity and integration of all things is symbolized by a Buddha called Vairocana who presides over his Pure Land in the center of an infinite universe. However dialectically such a symbol might be understood by Buddhist scholars, at a political and popular level it was appropriated more literally as a Buddhist creator deity.
It is no accident that the Huayan school was first actively supported by Empress Wu Zhao (Wu Zetian, r. 684–704) who took over the throne from her sons to set up her own dynasty, the Zhou. Since Confucianism did not sanction for female rulers, Empress Wu, being a devout Buddhist, sought for supporting ideologies in that tradition, including not only Huayan but also predictions in obscure texts that the Buddha had prophesied that several hundred years after his death a woman would rule over a world empire. Monks in Wu Zetian's entourage equated her with this empress and further asserted that she was a manifestation of the future Buddha Maitreya.
When Empress Wu abdicated in 704, her son continued to support the Huayan school, continuing the tradition of close relationship between the court and Buddhist philosophical schools. However, during this period Buddhism continued to grow in popularity among all classes of people. Thousands of monasteries and shrines, supported by donations of land, grain, cloth, and precious metals, were built by convict workers, the poor, and serfs bound to donated lands. Tens of thousands of persons became monks or nuns, elaborate rituals were performed, feasts provided, and sermons preached in both monastery and marketplace. Buddhist observances such as the Lantern Festival, the Buddha's birthday, and the Ghost Festival became widely practiced, while pious lay societies multiplied for carving images and inscriptions and disseminating scriptures. Wealthy monasteries became centers of money lending, milling, and medical care, as well as hostels for travelers and retreats for scholars and officials. In high literature the purity of monks and monasteries was admired, while in popular stories karma, rebirth, and purgatory became unquestioned truths. The state made sporadic attempts to control this exuberance by licensing monasteries, instituting examinations for monks, and issuing ordination certificates, but state control was limited and "unofficial" Buddhist practices continued to flourish.
An important factor in this popularity was the rise of two more simple and direct forms of Chinese Buddhism, much less complex than the exegetical and philosophical schools that were dominant earlier. These were the Pure Land (Jingtu) school, devoted to rebirth in Amitābha's paradise, and the Chan ("meditation") school, which promised enlightenment in this life to those with sufficient dedication. These traditions were universalist and nonhierarchical in principle yet came to have coherent teachings and organizations of their own appealing to a wide range of people. Both should be understood as products of gradual evolution in the seventh and eighth centuries, as a positive selection from earlier teachings, particularly Tiantai, and as a reformist reaction against the secularization of the Tang monastic establishment.
By the third century ce texts describing various "pure realms" or "Buddha lands" had been translated into Chinese, and some monks began to meditate on the best known of these "lands," the Western Paradise of the Buddha Amitābha. In the fourth century Zhi Dun (314–366) made an image of Amitābha and vowed to be reborn in his paradise, as did Huiyuan in 402. These early efforts concentrated on visualization of buddha realms in states of meditative trance. However, in two Pure Land sūtras describing Amitābha and his realm, devotees are assured that through a combination of ethical living and concentration on this buddha they will be reborn at death in his realm, owing to a vow he had made eons ago to create out of the boundless merit he had accumulated on the long path to Buddhahood a haven for sentient beings. This promise eventually led some monks to preach devotion to Amitābha as an easier way to salvation, available to all, through a combination of sincere thinking on the Buddha and the invocation of his name in faith. To strengthen their proclamation, these monks argued that in fact Amitābha's Pure Land was at a high level, beyond saṃsāra (the cycle of rebirth), and thus functionally equivalent to nirvāṇa for those less philosophically inclined.
Philosophers of the fifth and sixth centuries such as Sengzhao and Zhiyi discussed the Pure Land concept as part of larger systems of thought, but the first monk to devote his life to proclaiming devotion to Amitābha as the chief means of salvation for the whole of society was Tanluan (476–542), a monk from North China where there had long been an emphasis on the practical implementation of Buddhism. Tanluan organized devotional associations whose members both contemplated the Buddha and orally recited his name. It was in the fifth and sixth centuries as well that many Chinese Buddhist thinkers became convinced that the final period of Buddhist teaching for this world cycle was about to begin, a period (called in Chinese mofa, the Latter Days of the Law) in which the capacity for understanding Buddhism had so declined that only simple and direct means of communication would suffice.
The next important preacher to base his teachings solely on Amitābha and his Pure Land was Daochuo (562–645). It was he and his disciple Shandao (613–681) who firmly established the Pure Land movement and came to be looked upon as founding patriarchs of the tradition. Although both of these men advocated oral recitation of Amitābha's name as the chief means to deliverance, such recitation was to be done in a concentrated and devout state of mind and was to be accompanied by confession of sins and the chanting of sūtras. They and their followers also organized recitation assemblies and composed manuals for congregational worship. Owing to their efforts, Pure Land devotion became the most popular form of Buddhism in China, from whence it was taken to Japan in the ninth century. Pure Land teachings supported the validity of lay piety as no Buddhist school had before, and hence both made possible the spread of Buddhism throughout the population and furthered the development of independent societies and sects outside the monasteries.
The last movement within orthodox Buddhism in China to emerge as an independent tradition was Chan (Japanese, Zen), characterized by its concentration on direct means of individual enlightenment, chiefly meditation. Such enlightenment had always been the primary goal of Buddhism, so in a sense Chan began as a reform movement seeking to recover the experiential origins of its tradition. Such a reform appeared all the more necessary in the face of the material success of Tang Buddhism, with its ornate rituals, complex philosophies, and close relationships with the state. Chan evolved out of the resonances of Mahāyāna Buddhism with the individualist, mystical, and iconoclastic strand of Chinese culture, represented chiefly by the philosophy of the Laozi and Zhuangzi, especially the latter. This philosophy had long advocated individual identification with the ineffable foundations of being, which cannot be grasped in words or limited by the perspectives of traditional practice and morality. Such identification brings a new sense of spiritual freedom, affirmation of life, and acceptance of death. The importance of meditation had long been emphasized in Chinese Buddhism, beginning with Han translations of sūtras describing the process. The Tiantai master Zhiyi discussed the stages and positions of meditation in great detail in the sixth century. Thus, it is not surprising that by the seventh century some monks appeared who advocated meditation above all, a simplification parallel to that of the Pure Land tradition.
The first references to a "Chan school" appeared in the late eighth century. By that time several branches of this emerging tradition were constructing genealogies going back to Śākyamuni himself; these were intended to establish the priority and authority of their teachings. The genealogy that came to be accepted later claimed a lineage of twenty-eight Indian and seven Chinese patriarchs, the latter beginning with Bodhidharma (c. 461–534), a Central Asian meditation master active in the Northern Wei kingdom. Legends concerning these patriarchs were increasingly elaborated as time passed, but the details of most cannot be verified. The first Chinese monk involved whose teachings have survived is Daoxin (580–651), who was later claimed to be the fourth patriarch. Daoxin specialized in meditation and monastic discipline and studied for ten years with a disciple of the Tiantai founder, Zhiyi. He is also noted for his concern with image worship and reciting the Buddha's name to calm the mind.
One of Daoxin's disciples was Hongren (601–674), who also concentrated on meditation and on maintaining "awareness of the mind." His successor was Faru (d. 689), whose spiritual heir in turn was Shenxiu (d. 706), who had also studied with Hongren. Shenxiu was active in North China, where he was invited to court by the Empress Wu and became a famous teacher. In the earliest and most reliable sources Hongren, Faru, and Shenxiu are described as the fifth, sixth, and seventh Chan patriarchs, with Faru eventually omitted and replaced in sixth position by Shenxiu. However, in the early eighth century this succession, based in the capitals of Luoyang and Chang'an in the North (and hence retrospectively referred to as the "Northern school"), was challenged by a monk named Shenhui (670–762), who had studied for several years with a teacher named Huineng (638–713) in a monastery in Guangdong province in the south. Shenhui labored for years to establish a new form of Chan, a "Southern school," centered on recognizing the buddha nature within the self, and thus less concerned with worship, scripture study, and prescribed forms of meditation.
Shenhui's most lasting achievement was the elevation of his teacher Huineng to the status of "sixth patriarch," displacing Shenxiu. This achievement was textually established through the composition of a book entitled The Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch (platform here means the high chair on which the abbot sits while giving dharma talks) in about 820 by members of Shenhui's school. Portions of this book are very similar to the teachings of Shenhui, who did not cite any writings by Huineng, although he was no doubt influenced by his study with him. In the Platform Sūtra Huineng is portrayed as a brilliant young layman of rustic background who, although he is only a kitchen helper in the monastery, confounds Shenxiu and is secretly given charge of the transmission by Hongren, the fifth patriarch. This book teaches instantaneous enlightenment through realization of inner potential while criticizing gradualist approaches that rely on outer forms such as images and scriptures. As such it is an important source of the Chan individualism and iconoclasm well known (and often exaggerated) in the West.
Although Buddhism flourished at all levels of Chinese society in the Tang period, an undercurrent of resentment and hostility toward it by Confucians, Daoists, and the state always remained. Han Yu (768–824), one of China's great writers, campaigned against Buddhist influence and argued for a revival of the teachings of Confucius and Mengzi. This hostility came to a head in the mid-ninth century, strongly reinforced by the fact that Buddhist monasteries had accumulated large amounts of precious metals and tax-exempt land. From 843 to 845 Emperor Wuzong (r. 840–846), an ardent Daoist, issued decrees that led to the destruction of 4,600 monasteries and 40,000 temples and shrines, and the return of 260,500 monks and nuns to lay life. Although this suppression was ended in 846 by Wuzong's successor, monastic Buddhism never fully regained its momentum. Nonetheless, Buddhist ideas, values, and rituals continued to permeate Chinese society through the influence of the Chan and Pure Land schools, which survived the 845 persecution because of widespread support throughout the country.
Daoism continued to develop during the Tang period, in part because it received more support from some emperors than it had under the Sui. As noted earlier, Taizong claimed Laozi as a royal ancestor, and in 667 the emperor Gaozong (r. 650–683) conferred on Laozi the title of emperor, thus confirming his status. Empress Wu, Gaozong's wife, swung the pendulum of support back to Buddhism, but Daoism was favored in later reigns as well and reached the high point of its political influence in the Tang with the suppression of Buddhism and other non-Chinese religions in the 840s.
The most important Daoist order during the Tang was that based on Maoshan in Jiangsu, where temples were built and reconstructed, disciples trained, and scriptures edited. Devotees on Maoshan studied Shangqing scriptures, meditated, practiced alchemy, and carried out complex rituals of purgation and cosmic renewal, calling down astral spirits and preparing for immortality among the stars. These activities were presided over by a hierarchical priesthood, led by fashi, "masters of doctrine," the most prominent of whom came to be considered patriarchs of the school.
Daoism in the Song and Yuan periods
The old Tang aristocracy had begun to lose its power after the An Lushan rebellion in the eighth century. The turmoil of the ninth and tenth centuries sealed its fate and helped prepare the way for a more centralized state in the Song, administered by bureaucrats who were selected through civil service examinations. This in turn contributed to increased social mobility, which was also enhanced by economic growth and diversification, the spread of printing, and a larger number of schools. These factors, combined with innovations in literature, art, philosophy, religion, science, and technology, have led historians to describe the Song period as the beginning of early modern China. It was in this period that the basic patterns of life and thought were established for the remainder of imperial history.
During the tenth through thirteenth centuries Daoism developed new schools and texts and became more closely allied with the state. The Song emperor Chenzong (r. 990–1023) bestowed gifts and titles on a number of prominent Daoists, including one named Zhang from the old Way of the Celestial Masters, based on Mount Longhu in Jiangxi province. This led to the consolidation of the Zhengyi (Orthodox Unity) sect led by hereditary Celestial Masters. The other official Daoist ordination centers in this period were those at Maoshan and the Lingbao center in Jiangsu.
A century later, during the reign of Emperor Huizong (r. 1101–1125), the most famous imperial patron of Daoism, three new Daoist orders appeared, one with a popular base in southeastern Jiangxi, another a revival of Maoshan teachings, and the third the Shenxiao Fa (Rites of the Divine Empyrean), initiated by Lin Lingsu, who was active at court from 1116 to 1119. Lin's teachings were presented in a new, expanded edition of a fourth-century Lingbao text, the Durenjing (Scripture of Salvation). The scripture proclaimed that a new divine emperor would descend to rule in 1112, thus bestowing additional sacred status on Huizong. This liturgical text in sixty-one chapters promises salvation to all in the name of a supreme celestial realm, a theme welcome at a court beset with corruption within and foreign invaders without. The Jiangxi movement, called Tianxin (Heart of Heaven) after a star in Ursa Major, was most concerned with the ritual evocation of astral power to exorcise disease-causing demons, particularly those associated with mental illness. The first edition of its texts was also presented to Huizong in 1116.
In 1126 the Song capital Kaifeng was captured by the Jurchen, a people from northeastern Manchuria who, with other northern peoples, had long threatened the Song. As a result the Chinese court moved south across the Yangzi River to establish a new capital in Hangzhou, thus initiating the Southern Song period (1127–1279). During this period China was once again divided north and south, with the Jurchen ruling the Jin kingdom (1115–1234). It was here in the north that three new Daoist sects appeared, the Taiyi (Grand Unity), the Dadao (Great Way), and the Quanzhen (Complete Perfection). The Taiyi sect gained favor for a time at the Jin court because of its promise of divine healing. Dadao disciples worked in the fields, prayed for healing rather than using charms, and did not practice techniques of immortality. Both groups were led by a succession of patriarchs for about two hundred years but failed to survive the end of the Yuan dynasty. Both included Confucian and Buddhist elements in a Daoist framework.
The Quanzhen sect was founded in similar circumstances by a scholar named Wang Zhe (1113–1170) but continues to exist. Wang claimed to have received revelations from two superhuman beings, whereupon he gathered disciples and founded five congregations in northern Shandong. After his death seven of his leading disciples continued to proclaim his teachings across North China. One of them was received at the Jin court in 1187, thus beginning a period of imperial support for the sect that continued into the time of Mongol rule, particularly after another of the founding disciples visited Chinggis Khan at his Central Asian court in 1222.
In its early development the Daoist quest for personal immortality employed a combination of positive ritual techniques: visualization of astral gods and ingestion of their essence, internal circulation and refinement of qi, massage, ingesting elixirs of cinnabar, mica, or gold in suspension, all accompanied by taboos and ethical injunctions. During the Song and Yuan periods, the ingestion of elixirs, called waidan (external alchemy), was replaced by forms of meditation and visualization in which the bodily substances and meditative exercises were expressed in alchemical terms. This new form of practice, called neidan (internal alchemy), is well expressed in the writings of Zhang Boduan (983–1082). Under Confucian and Chan influence the Quanzhen school further "spiritualized" the terminology of the older practices, turning their physiological referents into abstract polarities within the mind, to be unified through meditation. Perhaps in part because of this withdrawal into the mind, Quanzhen was the first Daoist school to base itself in monasteries, although celibacy to maintain and purify one's powers had been practiced by some adepts earlier, and some Daoist monasteries had been established in the sixth century under pressure from the state and the Buddhist example.
The Quanzhen sect reached the height of its influence in the first decades of the thirteenth century, and for a time it was favored over Chinese Buddhism by Mongol rulers. Buddhist leaders protested Daoist occupation of their monasteries and eventually regained official support after a series of debates between Daoists and Buddhists at court between 1255 and 1281. After Buddhists were judged the winners, Kublai Khan ordered that the Daoist canon be burned and Daoist priests returned to lay life or converted to Buddhism. In the fourteenth century the Quanzhen sect merged with a similar tradition from South China, the Jindandao (Golden Elixir Way) also devoted to attaining immortality through cultivating powers or "elixirs" within the self. The name Quanzhen was retained for the monastic side of this combined tradition, whereas the Jindandao continued as a popular movement that has produced new scriptures and sects since at least the sixteenth century. The older Daoist schools continued to produce new bodies of texts from the eleventh century on, all claiming divine origin, powers of healing, exorcism, and support for the state.
The revival of Confucianism
Confucianism had remained a powerful tradition of morality, social custom, and hierarchical status since the fall of the Han, but after the third century it no longer generated fresh philosophical perspectives. There were a few Confucian philosophers such as Wang Tong (584?–617), Han Yu, and Li Ao (fl. 798), but from the fourth through the tenth centuries Buddhism and Daoism attracted a great many intellectuals; the best philosophical minds, in particular, were devoted to Buddhism. However, in the eleventh century there appeared a series of thinkers determined to revive Confucianism. In this task they were inevitably influenced by Buddhist theories of mind, enlightenment, and ethics; indeed, most of these men went through Buddhist and Daoist phases in their early years and were "converted" to Confucianism later. Nonetheless, at a conscious level they rejected Buddhist "emptiness," asceticism, and monastic life in favor of a positive metaphysics, ordered family life, and concern for social and governmental reform. With a few exceptions the leaders of this movement, known in the West as neo-Confucianism, went through the civil service examination system and held civil or military offices.
Early neo-Confucianism had both rationalistic and idealistic tendencies; the aim of both was to actualize the inherent sagehood of every human being by realizing and acting upon the ultimate principle (li) of the natural/moral order. The more rationalist school believed that this order or principle was present in humans as their fundamental, metaphysical nature (xing ), but that the physical nature of the mind (xin ) obscured the metaphysical nature and hindered our awareness of it. This line of thinking was developed by Cheng Yi (1033–1107) and Zhu Xi (1130–1200) and became known as the Cheng-Zhu school. The idealistic approach, which later became known as the Lu-Wang school after Lu Jiuyuan (1139–1193) and Wang Yangming (1472–1529), said that the fundamental natural/moral order was fully present to awareness in the active, functioning mind and so did not require intellectual learning to be known. Thus, both schools focused on the mind; their differences concerned whether li was already present in the mind and needed only to be acted upon, or whether it first had to be intellectually induced through the rational investigation of human nature and the natural world. Interaction between these poles provided the impetus for new syntheses until the seventeenth century. But Zhu Xi's version—synthesizing the teachings of not only Cheng Yi but also his brother Cheng Hao (1032–1085), their former teacher Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073), their uncle Zhang Zai (1020–1077), and their friend Shao Yong (1011–1077)—was made the basis of the civil service examinations in 1313 and hence came to have a powerful influence throughout literate society that lasted until the examination system was abolished in 1905.
In the history of Chinese religions, the impact of neo-Confucianism is evident at different levels. The intellectual and institutional success of this movement among the Chinese elite led many of them away from Buddhism and Daoism toward a reaffirmation of the values of family, clan, and state. While the elite were still involved in such popular traditions as annual festivals, geomancy, and funeral rituals, the rational and nontheistic orientation of neo-Confucianism tended to inhibit their participation in ecstatic processions and shamanism. These tendencies meant that after the eleventh century, sectarian and popular forms of religion were increasingly denied high-level intellectual stimulation and articulation. Indeed, state support for a new Confucian orthodoxy gave fresh impetus to criticism or suppression of other traditions. Another long-term impact of neo-Confucianism was the Confucianization of popular values, supported by schools, examinations, distribution of tracts, and lectures in villages. This meant that from the Song dynasty on the operative ethical principles in society were a combination of Confucian virtues with Buddhist karma and compassion, a tendency that became more widespread as the centuries passed.
All of these developments were rooted in the religious dimensions of the neo-Confucian tradition, which from the beginning was most concerned with the moral transformation of self and society. This transformation was to be carried out through intensive study and discussion, self-examination, and meditation, often in the social context of public and private schools and academies, where prayers and sacrificial offerings to former Confucian "sages and worthies" accompanied study and discussion. Through the process of self-cultivation one could become aware of the patterns of moral order within the mind and in the cosmos, an insight that itself became a means of clarifying and establishing this cosmic order within society. So Confucianism became a more active and self-conscious movement than it ever had been before.
Song Buddhist activities were based on the twin foundations of Chan and Pure Land, with an increasing emphasis on the compatibility of the two. Although the joint practice of meditation and invocation of the Buddha's name had been taught by Zhiyi and the Chan patriarch Daoxin in the sixth and seventh centuries, the first Chan master to openly advocate it after Chan was well established was Yanshou (904–975). This emphasis was continued in the Yuan (1279–1368) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, so that by the late traditional period meditation and recitation were commonly employed together in monasteries as two means to the same end of emptying the mind of self-centered thought.
During the Song dynasty Buddhism physically recovered from the suppression of the ninth century, with tens of thousands of monasteries, large amounts of land, and active support throughout society. By the tenth century the Chan school was divided into two main branches, both of which had first appeared earlier, the Linji (in Japanese, Rinzai), emphasizing gongan practice and dramatic, spontaneous breakthroughs to enlightenment in the midst of everyday activities, and the Caodong (in Japanese, Sōtō), known for a more gradual approach through seated meditation, or zuochan (in Japanese, zazen ). The most prominent Song representative of the Linji lineage was Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163), a popular preacher to laypeople as well as a meditation master. In the Caodong lineage the most prominent teacher was Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157), who taught meditation as "silent illumination" (mozhao ).
Although the Tang dynasty has traditionally been called the Golden Age of Chan Buddhism, it was actually during the Song that Chan became firmly established and developed the styles today associated with it. Notwithstanding its often colorful and iconoclastic teaching methods, Chan has always been characterized by disciplined communal living in monasteries, centered on group meditation but with a strong emphasis on traditional Buddhist ethics. The hallmarks of Chan monasticism have traditionally been ascribed to Baizhang Huaihai (749–814). These include the rejection of a central Buddha hall containing images in favor of a dharma hall, where the abbot would lecture and conduct services; a saṃgha or monks' hall, with platforms along the sides for sleeping and meditation; private consultations with the abbot; and shared responsibility for manual labor, including agricultural work to reduce dependence on outside donations with the reciprocal obligations they involved. Evaluating this traditional view, historians have noted that the earliest extant text containing Baizhang's rules dates from the late tenth century, and the earliest extant detailed code of monastic conduct is dated 1103 or 1104; thus, we have Song dynasty texts purporting to describe Tang dynasty monasteries. Research has also found that the allegedly unique features of Chan monasteries were also found in Tiantai monasteries and that the claim of a distinct style dating back to the Tang, a style actually common to the majority of monasteries, served as support for the Song policy by which all publicly supported monasteries were designated as Chan and their abbacies restricted to monks in a Chan lineage. This policy took effect during the Northern Song. After Chan thus became the "established" sect, agricultural labor was reduced as Chan monasteries received donations of land and goods from wealthy patrons.
During the Song Chan produced new genres of Buddhist literature that eventually became more central to its teaching than the older Mahāyāna sūtras. The "recorded sayings" (yulu ) of patriarchs and abbots with their disciples were an adaptation of an older Chinese form whose most notable example was the Analects (Lunyu ) of Confucius. From these were extracted shorter sayings and conversations demonstrating the struggle to attain enlightenment. These records, codified as "public cases" (Chinese, gongan; Japanese, kōan ), were meditated upon by novices as they sought to experience reality directly. And "Lamp Records" (denglu ) were compilations of the saying of various lineages, demonstrating what Chan teachers called the "mind-to-mind transmission" that connected them with Śākyamuni Buddha. This doctrine also supported the Chan claim to represent a more authentic form of Buddhism than the other major Chinese schools (Tiantai, Huayan, and Pure Land), each of which focused on a particular sūtra (the Lotus, the Avataṃsaka or Huayan, and the three Pure Land sūtras, respectively). Thus, Chan Buddhism constructed what we might call a mythic history of itself that had important "political" ramifications.
One of the most important developments in Song Buddhism was the spread of lay societies devoted to good works and recitation of the Buddha's name. These groups, usually supported by monks and monasteries, ranged in membership from a few score to several thousand, including both men and women, gentry and commoners. In the twelfth century these societies, with their egalitarian outreach and congregational rituals, provided the immediate context for the rise of independent popular sects, which in turn spread throughout China in succeeding centuries. The Song associations were an organized and doctrinally aware means of spreading Buddhist ideas of salvation, paradise and purgatory, karma, and moral values to the population at large, and so they contributed to the integration of Buddhism with Chinese culture.
The other major tradition that took its early modern shape during the Song period was popular religion, the religion of the whole population other than orthodox Daoist priests, Buddhist monks, Confucian scholars, and state officials in their public roles (although elements of popular religion overlapped with these more specialized vocations). Zhou and Han sources note a variety of religious practices current throughout the population, including ancestor worship, sacrifices to spirits of sacred objects and places, belief in ghosts, exorcism, divination, and the activities of spirit mediums. Many of these practices began in prehistoric times and formed the sea out of which more structured and focused traditions gradually emerged, traditions such as the state cult, Confucian philosophy, and Daoist religion. Each of these emerging traditions was associated with social elites who had to define themselves as different from their peasant and artisan surroundings. In the process they often came to criticize or even suppress cults active among common folk devoted to local spirits and concerned primarily with efficacious response to immediate needs. Since the Chinese state had always claimed religious prerogatives, the most important factor was official authorization by some level of government. Unauthorized cults were considered "excessive," beyond what elite custom and propriety admitted. Nonetheless, such distinctions were of importance primarily to the more self-conscious supporters of literate alternatives; to their less theologically inclined peers, "popular religion" was a varied set of customs that reflected the way the world was.
Popular religious practices were diffused throughout the social system, based in family, clan, and village, at first devoted only to spirits with limited and local powers. By the Han dynasty personified deities of higher status appeared, along with organized sects such as the Way of the Celestial Masters, with ethical teachings and new myths of creation and world renewal, all reinforced by collective rituals. These developments were produced by literate commoners and minor officials at an intermediate level of education and status, and show remarkable resemblance to the first records of such middle-class thought in the writings of Mozi, six hundred years earlier. This level of Chinese religious consciousness was strongly reinforced by Mahāyāna bodhisattvas, images, offering rituals, myths of purgatory, and understandings of moral causation. By the fourth century, Daoist writers were developing elaborate mythologies of personified deities and immortals and their roles in a celestial hierarchy.
During the Song period all these various strands came together to reformulate popular religion as a tradition in its own right, defined by its location in the midst of ordinary social life, its pantheon of personified deities, views of afterlife, demonology, and characteristic specialists and rituals. Its values were still founded on pragmatic reciprocity, but some assurances about life after death were added to promises for aid now.
This popular tradition is based on the worship or propitiation of gods, ghosts, and ancestors. The boundaries between these categories are somewhat fluid. Under ideal circumstances, when a person dies the hun, or yang soul, rises to heaven and becomes an ancestor (zu or zuxian ) and the po, or yin soul, remains with the body in the earth—provided that the death was normal, the body was buried in a proper funeral, and subsequent memorial services or ancestral sacrifices are properly made by blood or ritually adopted descendants. If these conditions are not met, either the hun or the po (depending on local beliefs) can become a ghost (gui). Ghosts can be ritually adopted or—in the case of unmarried women—posthumously married, thereby becoming ancestors; they can even be enshrined and worshiped as minor gods. Although scholars differ on whether the propitiation of ancestors should be called worship or veneration (since they are not gods), the basic ritual actions performed for gods and ancestors (burning incense, praying, offering food or "spirit money") are virtually identical. The status of the particular recipient is indicated by certain variations, such as offering uncooked food for a god but cooked food for an ancestor; cooked food implies a meal being shared, and ordinary people do not presume to invite gods into their homes for meals. Phenomenologically, the difference between a god and an ancestor is that the former has more numinous power (ling ) and can therefore exert influence on a circle of the living wider than his or her own family.
Beyond the household popular religion is practiced at shrines for local earth-gods and at village or city neighborhood temples. Temples are residences of the gods, where they are most easily available and ready to accept petitions and offerings of food and incense. Here, too, the gods convey messages through simple means of divination, dreams, spirit mediums, and spirit writing. The most common forms of divination are the use of "moon-blocks" (shengbei) and divinationslips (quia ). Divination usually accompanies sacrificial offerings to ascertain whether they are pleasing. Great bronze incense burners in temple courtyards are the focal points of ritual communication, and it is common for local households to fill their own incense burners with ashes from the temple. All families residing in the area of the village or the city neighborhood are considered members of the temple community.
Most of the deities characteristic of this tradition are human beings deified over time by increasing recognition of their efficacy and status. Having once been human they owe their positions to veneration by the living and hence are constrained by reciprocal relationships with their devotees. Many of the deities of popular religion are responsible for specific functions such as providing rain or healing diseases, while others are propitiated for a wide variety of reasons—sometimes simply for general good fortune, or to maintain a harmonious relationship with the unseen world (an example of "ultimate orientation"). Under Daoist influence the pantheon came to be organized in a celestial hierarchy presided over by the Jade Emperor, a deity first officially recognized as such by the Song emperor Zhenzong in the beginning of the eleventh century. The Jade Emperor is called Yuhuang dadi (Jade Emperor Great Lord) or Yuhuang shangdi (Jade Emperor High Lord)—the latter incorporating the name of the high god of the Shang dynasty.
Gods are symbols of order, and many of the gods of Daoism and popular religion are equipped with weapons and troops. Such force is necessary because beneath the gods is a vast array of demons, hostile influences that bring disorder, disease, suffering, and death. Although ultimately subject to divine command, and in some cases sent by the gods to punish sinners, these demons are most unruly and often can be subdued only through repeated invocation and strenuous ritual action. It is in such ritual exorcism that the struggle between gods and demons is most starkly presented. Some demons are ghosts (gui), or the spirits of the restless dead who died unjustly or whose bodies are not properly cared for; they cause disruption to draw attention to their plight. Other demons represent natural forces that can be perceived as hostile, such as mountains and wild animals. Much effort in popular religion is devoted to dealing with these harmful influences.
There are three different types of leadership in this popular tradition—hereditary, selected, and charismatic—although of course in any given situation these types can be mixed. Hereditary leaders include the fathers and mothers of families, who carry out ancestor worship in the clan temple and household, and sect leaders, who inherit their positions. Hereditary Daoist priests also perform rituals for the community. Village temples, on the other hand, tend to be led by a village elder selected by lot on a rotating basis. Charismatic leaders include spirit mediums, spirit writers, magicians, and healers, all of whom are defined by the recognition of their ability to bring divine power and wisdom directly to bear on human problems.
Popular religion is also associated with a cycle of annual festivals, funeral rituals, and geomancy (feng-shui). Popular values are sanctioned by revelations from the gods and by belief in purgatory, where the soul goes after death, there to be punished for its sins according to the principle of karmic retribution. There are ten courts in purgatory, each presided over by a judge who fits the suffering to the crime. Passage through purgatory can be ameliorated through the transfer of spirit money by Buddhist or Daoist rituals. When its guilt has been purged, the soul advances to the tenth court, where the form of its next existence is decided. This mythology is a modification of Buddhist beliefs described in detail in texts first translated in the sixth century.
The period of Mongol rule
The Mongols under Chinggis Khan (1162–1227) captured the Jin capital of Yanjing (modern Beijing) in 1215 and established the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368).
From China they ruled their vast domain, which extended all the way to central Europe. For the next several decades the "Middle Kingdom" was the eastern end of a world empire, open as never before to foreign influences. In the realm of religion these influences included the Nestorians, a few Franciscan missionaries in the early fourteenth century, the growth of the Jewish community in Kaifeng, and a large number of Tibetan Buddhist monks.
The first Mongol contact with Chinese Buddhism was with Chan monks, a few of whom attained influence at court. In the meantime, however, the Mongols were increasingly attracted by the exorcistic and healing rituals of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet, the borders of which they also controlled. In 1260 a Tibetan monk, 'Phags-pa (1235–1280), was named imperial preceptor and soon after chief of Buddhist affairs. Tibetan monks were appointed as leaders of the saṃgha all over China, to some extent reviving the Tantric (Zhenyan) school that had flourished briefly in the Tang.
By the early fourteenth century another form of popular religion appeared, the voluntary association or sect that could be joined by individuals from different families and villages. These sects developed out of lay Buddhist societies in the twelfth century, but their structure owed much to late Han religious associations and their popular Daoist successors, Buddhist eschatological movements from the fifth century on, and Manichaeism. By the Yuan period the sects were characterized by predominantly lay membership and leadership, hierarachical organization, active proselytism, congregational rituals, possession of their own scriptures in the vernacular, and mutual economic support. Their best known antecedent was the White Lotus sect, an independent group founded by a monk named Mao Ziyuan (1086–1166). Mao combined simplified Tiantai teaching with Pure Land practice, invoking Amitābha's saving power with just five recitations of his name. After Mao's death the sect, led by laymen who married, spread across south and east China. In the process it incorporated charms and prognostication texts, and by the fourteenth century branches in Guangxi and Henan were strongly influenced by Daoist methods of cultivating the internal elixirs. This led to protests from more orthodox leaders of the Pure Land tradition, monks in the east who appealed to the throne that they not be proscribed along with the "heretics." This appeal succeeded, and the monastic branch went on to be considered part of the tradition of the Pure Land school, with Mao Ziyuan as a revered patriarch.
The more rustic side of the White Lotus tradition was prohibited three times in the Yuan but flourished nonetheless, with its own communal organizations and scriptures and a growing emphasis on the presence within it of the future buddha Maitreya. During the civil wars of the mid-fourteenth century this belief encouraged full-scale uprisings in the name of the new world Maitreya was expected to bring. The Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398) had for a time been an officer in one of the White Lotus armies, but after his victory he tried to suppress the sect. It continued to multiply nonetheless under a variety of names.
The first extant sectarian scriptures, produced in the early sixteenth century, indicate that by that time there were two streams of mythology and belief, one more influenced by Daoism, the other by Buddhism. The Daoist stream incorporated much terminology from the Golden Elixir school (Jindandao) and was based on the myth of a saving mother goddess, the Eternal Venerable Mother, who is a modified form of the old Han-dynasty Queen Mother of the West, a figure mentioned in Quanzhen teachings as well. The Buddhist stream was initiated by a sectarian reformer named Luo Qing (1443–1527), whose teachings were based on the Chan theme of "attaining Buddhahood through seeing one's own nature." Luo criticized the White Lotus and Maitreya sects as being too concerned with outward ritual forms, but later writers in his school incorporated some themes from the Eternal Mother mythology, while other sectarian founders espousing this mythology imitated Luo Qing's example of writing vernacular scriptures to put forth their own views. These scriptures, together with their successors, the popular spirit-writing texts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, constitute a fourth major body of Chinese sacred texts, after those of the Confucians, Buddhists, and Daoists.
The number of popular religious sects increased rapidly during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all part of the same general tradition but with different founders, lines of transmission, texts, and ritual variations. Such groups had been illegal since the Yuan, and some resisted prosecution with armed force or attempted to establish their own safe areas. In a few cases sect leaders organized major attempts to overthrow the government and put their own emperor on the throne, to rule over a utopian world in which time and society would be renewed. However, for the most part the sects simply provided a congregational alternative to village popular religion, an alternative that offered mutual support and assurance and promised means of going directly to paradise at death without passing through purgatory.
Popular religious sects were active on the China mainland until the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, and they continue to multiply in Taiwan, where they can be legally registered as branches of Daoism. Since the late nineteenth century most sectarian scriptures have been composed by spirit writing, direct revelation from a variety of gods and culture heroes.
Ming and Qing Religion
Mongol rule began to deteriorate in the early fourteenth century because of struggles between tribal factions at court, the decline of military power, and the devolution of central authority to local warlords, bandit groups, and sectarian movements. After twenty years of civil war Zhu Yuanzhang, from a poor peasant family, defeated all his rivals and reestablished a Chinese imperial house, the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Zhu (Ming Taizu, r. 1368–1398) was an energetic ruler of strong personal religious beliefs who revised imperial rituals, promulgated strict laws against a variety of popular practices and sects, and recruited Daoist priests to direct court ceremonies. For him the Mandate of Heaven was a living force that had established him in a long line of sacred emperors; his ancestors were deemed powerful intermediaries with Shangdi. He elaborated and reinforced the responsibility of government officials to offer regular sacrifices to deities of fertility, natural forces, and cities, and to the spirits of heroes and abandoned ghosts.
Under the Ming, such factors as the diversification of the agricultural base and the monetization of the economy had an impact on religious life; there were more excess funds for building temples and printing scriptures, and more rich peasants, merchants, and artisans with energy to invest in popular religion, both village and sectarian. Sectarian scriptures appeared as part of the same movement that produced new vernacular literature of all types, morality books to inculcate neo-Confucian values, and new forms and audiences for popular operas. More than ever before the late Ming was a time of economic and cultural initiatives from the population at large, as one might expect in a period of increasing competition for resources by small entrepreneurs. These tendencies continued to gain momentum in the Qing period.
Ming Buddhism showed the impact of these economic and cultural factors, particularly in eastern China, where during the sixteenth century reforming monks such as Yunqi Zhuhong (1535–1615) organized lay societies, wrote morality books that quantified the merit points for good deeds, and affirmed Confucian values within a Buddhist framework. Zhuhong combined Pure Land and Chan practice and preached spiritual progress through sparing animals from slaughter and captivity. The integration of Buddhism into Chinese society was furthered as well by government approval of a class of teaching monks, ordained with official certificates, whose role was to perform rituals for the people.
Buddhism also had a synergetic relationship with the form of neo-Confucianism dominant in the late Ming, Wang Yangming's "learning of the mind." On the one hand, Chan individualism and seeking enlightenment within influenced Wang and his disciples; on the other hand, official acceptance of Wang's school gave indirect support to the forms of Buddhism associated with it, such as the teachings of Zhuhong and Hanshan Deqing (1546–1623).
Daoism was supported by emperors throughout the Ming, with Daoist priests appointed as officials in charge of rituals and composing hymns and messages to the gods. The Quanzhen sect continued to do well, with its monastic base and emphasis on attaining immortality through "internal alchemy." Its meditation methods also influenced those of some of Wang Yangming's followers, such as Wang Ji (1497–1582). However, it was the Zhengyi sect led by hereditary Celestial Masters that had the most official support during the Ming and hence was able to consolidate its position as the standard of orthodox Daoism. Zhengyi influence is evident in scriptures composed during this period, many of which trace their lineage back to the first Celestial Master and bear imprimaturs from his successors. The forty-third-generation master was given charge of compiling a new Daoist canon in 1406, a task completed between 1444 and 1445. It is this edition that is still in use today.
By the seventeenth century, Confucian philosophy entered a more nationalistic and materialist phase, but the scholar-official class as a whole remained involved in a variety of private religious practices beyond their official ritual responsibilities. These included not only the study of Daoism and Buddhism but also the use of spirit-writing séances and prayers to Wenchang, the god of scholars and literature, for help in passing examinations. Ming Taizu had proclaimed that each of the "three teachings" of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism had an important role to play, which encouraged synthetic tendencies present since the beginnings of Buddhism in China. In the sixteenth century a Confucian scholar named Lin Zhao'en (1517–1598) from Fujian took these tendencies a step further by building a middle-class religious sect in which Confucian teachings were explicitly supported by those of Buddhism and Daoism. Lin was known as "Master of the Three Teachings," the patron saint of what became a popular movement with temples still extant in Singapore and Malaysia in the mid-twentieth century. This tendency to incorporate Confucianism into a sectarian religion was echoed by Zhang Jizong (d. 1866) who established a fortified community in Shandong, and by Kang Youwei (1858–1927) at the end of imperial history. Confucian-oriented spirit-writing cults also flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, supported by middle-level military and civil officials and producing produced tracts and scriptures of their own. These "Phoenix Halls" (luantan ) spread to Taiwan in the second half of the nineteenth century and continue to exist in the twenty-first.
During the sixteenth century Christian missionaries tried for the third time to establish their faith in China, this time a more successful effort by Italian Jesuits. In 1583 two Italian Jesuits, Michael Ruggerius and Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), were allowed to stay in Zhaoqing in Guangdong province. By their knowledge of science, mathematics, and geography they impressed some of the local scholars and officials; Ricci eventually became court astronomer in Beijing. He also made converts of several high officials, so that by 1605 there were two hundred Chinese Christians. For the next several decades the Jesuit mission prospered, led by priests given responsibility for the sensitive task of establishing the imperial calendar. In 1663 the number of converts had grown to about one hundred thousand. The high point of this early Roman Catholic mission effort came during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722), who, while not a convert, had a lively curiosity about European knowledge.
Nonetheless, Chinese suspicions remained, and the mission was threatened from within by rivalries between orders and European nations. In particular, there was contention over Jesuit acceptance of the worship of ancestors and Confucius by Chinese Christian converts. In 1645 a Franciscan obtained a papal prohibition of such "accommodation," and this "rites controversy" intensified in the ensuing decades. The Inquisition forbade the Jesuit approach in 1704, but the Jesuits kept on resisting until papal bulls were issued against them in 1715 and 1742. Kangxi had sided with the Jesuits, but in the end their influence was weakened and their ministry made less adaptable to Chinese traditions. There were anti-Christian persecutions in several places throughout the mid-eighteenth century; however, some Christian communities remained, as did a few European astronomers at court. There were several more attempts at suppression in the early nineteenth century, with the result that by 1810 only thirty-one European missionaries and eighty Chinese priests were left, but church membership remained at about two hundred thousand.
The first Protestant missionary to reach China was Robert Morrison, sent by the London Missionary Society to Guangzhou in 1807. He and another missionary made their first Chinese convert in 1814 and completed translating the Bible in 1819. From then on increasing numbers of Protestant missionaries arrived from other European countries and the United States.
Christian impact on the wider world of Chinese religions has traditionally been negligible, although there is some indication that scholars such as Fang Yizhi (1611–1671) were influenced by European learning and thus helped prepare the way for the practical emphases of Qing Confucianism. Zhuhong and Ricci had engaged in written debate over theories of God and rebirth, and even the Kangxi emperor was involved in such discussions later, but there was no acceptance of Christian ideas and practices by Chinese who did not convert. This is true at the popular level as well, where in some areas Chinese sectarians responded positively to both Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Christians and the sectarians were often persecuted together and shared concerns for congregational ritual, vernacular scriptures, and a compassionate creator deity. Yet nineteenth-century sectarian texts betray few traces of Christian influence, and even when Jesus speaks in later spirit-writing books, it is as a supporter of Chinese values.
Chinese Judaism thrived, at least in Kaifeng, through the Ming and part of the Qing dynasties. The Ming, in fact, has been called a "Golden Age" of Judaism in Kaifeng. Many members of the community achieved success in the civil service examinations and were appointed to relatively high government positions; good relations with Chinese officials helped the community to rebuild its synagogue after floods six times during the Ming.
In 1605, a Kaifeng Jew named Ai Tian visited the capital at Beijing and, having heard that there were westerners there who worshiped one god but were not Muslims, paid Matteo Ricci a visit, thinking that these westerners might be fellow Jews. After some awkward conversation, in which Ai thought Ricci was a Jew and Ricci thought Ai was a Christian, the truth emerged and the Chinese Jews came to the attention of the Western world for the first time. During the Rites Controversy the Jesuits consulted with the Kaifeng Jews on their practice of honoring ancestors in the synagogue and used that as part of their argument for toleration of the custom.
There were unsuccessful missionary efforts to convert the Jews to Christianity, but the Jews suffered neither discrimination from Chinese society nor repression from the Chinese government, except for a few slightly restrictive decrees concerning kosher slaughter during the Yuan dynasty. Nonetheless, the high level of involvement of Kaifeng Jews in the civil service examination system, which required a heavy investment of time in the study of Chinese classics, history, and literature, resulted in fewer educated Jews studying Hebrew. This eventually contributed to their complete assimilation in Chinese society and the disappearance of Jewish practice in China. Another factor was the expulsion of the Christian missionaries after the Rites Controversy, as they had been the Chinese Jews' major link to the world outside China.
The Manchus, a tribal confederation related to the Jurchen, had established their own state in the northeast in 1616 and named it Qing in 1636. As their power grew, they sporadically attacked North China and absorbed much Chinese political and cultural influence. In 1644 a Qing army was invited into China by the Ming court to save Beijing from Chinese rebels. The Manchus not only conquered Beijing but stayed to rule for the next 268 years. In public policy the Manchus were strong supporters of Confucianism and relied heavily on the support of Chinese officials, but in their private lives the Qing rulers were devoted to Tibetan Buddhism. Most religious developments during the Qing were continuations of Ming traditions, with the exception of Protestant Christianity and the Taiping movement it helped stimulate.
Before their conquest of China the Manchus had learned of Tibetan Buddhism through the Mongols and had a special sense of relationship to a bodhisattva much venerated in Tibet, Mañjuśrī. Nurhachi (1559–1626), the founder of the Manchu kingdom, was considered an incarnation of Mañjuśrī. After 1644 the Manchus continued to patronize Tibetan Buddhism, which had been supported to some extent in the Ming as well, in part to stay in touch with the dominant religion of Tibet and the Mongols. In 1652 the Dalai Lama was invited to visit Beijing, and in the early eighteenth century his successors were put under a Qing protectorate. In 1780 the Panchen Lama paid a visit to the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–1795) on his seventieth birthday at the imperial retreat of Rehe (formerly written Jehol, now called Chengde), northeast of Beijing. At Rehe the earlier Qing emperors had built a dozen Tibetan Buddhist temples (in addition to a Confucian temple and school), including a smaller replica of the Potala Palace in Lhasa.
Early Qing emperors were interested in Chan Buddhism as well. The Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723–1735) published a book on Chan in 1732 and ordered the reprinting of the Buddhist canon, a task completed in 1738. He also supported the printing of a Tibetan edition of the canon, and his successor, Qianlong, sponsored the translation of this voluminous body of texts into Manchu. The Pure Land tradition continued to be the form of Buddhism most supported by the people. The most active Daoist schools were the monastic Quanzhen and the Zhengyi, more concerned with public rituals of exorcism and renewal, conducted by a married priesthood. However, Daoism no longer received court support. Despite repeated cycles of rebellions and persecutions, popular sects continued to thrive, although after the Eight Trigrams uprising in 1813 repression was so severe that production of sectarian scripture texts declined in favor of oral transmission, a tendency operative among some earlier groups as well.
The most significant innovation in Qing religion was the teachings of the Taiping Tianguo (Celestial Kingdom of Great Peace), which combined motifs from Christianity, shamanism, and popular sectarian beliefs. The Taiping movement was begun by Hong Xiuquan (1814–1864), a would-be Confucian scholar who first was given Christian tracts in 1836. After failing civil service examinations several times, Hong claimed to have had a vision in which it was revealed that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ, commissioned to be a new messiah. Hong proclaimed a new kingdom upon earth, to be characterized by theocratic rule, enforcement of the Ten Commandments, the brotherhood of all, equality of the sexes, and redistribution of land. Hong and other Taiping leaders were effective preachers who wrote books, edicts, and tracts proclaiming their teachings and regulations and providing prayers and hymns for congregational worship. They forbade the worship of ancestors, Buddhas, and Daoist and popular deities. Wherever the Taipings went they destroyed images and temples. They rejected geomancy and divination and established a new calendar free of the old festivals and concerns for inauspicious days.
In the late 1840s Hong Xiuquan organized a group called the God Worshipers Society with many poor and disaffected among its members. They moved to active military rebellion in 1851, with Hong taking the title "Celestial King" of the new utopian regime. Within two years they captured Nanjing. Here they established their capital and sent armies north and west, involving all of China in civil war as they went. Although the Qing government was slow to respond, in 1864 Nanjing was retaken by imperial forces and the remaining Taiping forces slaughtered or dispersed. For all of the power of this movement, Taiping teachings and practices had no positive effect on the history of Chinese religions after this time, while all the indigenous traditions resumed and rebuilt.
The Qing also witnessed the decline of Chinese Jewish religious life. By the mid-nineteenth century in Kaifeng there were no Jews left who could read Hebrew. Without a rabbi there was little reason to keep the Kaifeng synagogue in repair, so the community sold the property to the Canadian Anglican mission. Today on the site is a hospital, behind which is "South Teaching the Torah Lane" (Nan jiaojing hutong ), formerly the heart of Kaifeng's Jewish quarter. Two or three hundred Jews still live in Kaifeng, and others are spread throughout the country, but aside from the their ethnic self-identification they have little knowledge of or contact with Judaism. Since the 1980s there has been a revival of interest in this tradition, both among Chinese Jews themselves and in the academic world. Since the 1990s several institutional centers of Judaic studies have been established at major universities in China.
The End of Empire and Postimperial China
In the late nineteenth century some Chinese intellectuals began to incorporate into their thought new ideas from Western science, philosophy, and literature, but the trend in religion was toward reaffirmation of Chinese values. Even the reforming philosopher Kang Youwei tried to build a new cult of Confucius, while at the popular level spirit-writing sects proliferated. In 1899 a vast antiforeign movement began in North China, loosely called the Boxer Rebellion because of its martial arts practices. The ideology of this movement was based on popular religion and spirit mediumship, and many Boxer groups attacked Christian missions in the name of Chinese gods. This uprising was put down in 1900 by a combination of Chinese and foreign armies after the latter had captured Beijing.
The Qing government attempted a number of belated reforms, but in 1911 it collapsed from internal decay, foreign pressure, and military uprisings. Some Chinese intellectuals, free to invest their energies in new ideas and political forms, avidly studied and translated Western writings, including those of Marxism. One result of this westernization and secularization was attacks on Confucianism and other Chinese traditions, a situation exacerbated by recurrent civil wars that led to the destruction or occupation of thousands of temples. However, these new ideas were most influential in the larger cities; the majority of Chinese continued popular religious practices as before. Many temples and monasteries survived, and there were attempts to revive Buddhist thought and monastic discipline, particularly by the monks Yinguang (1861–1940) and Taixu (1890–1947).
Since 1949 Chinese religions have increasingly prospered in Taiwan, particularly at the popular level, where the people have more surplus funds and freedom of belief than ever before. Many new temples have been built, sects established, and scriptures and periodicals published. The same can be said for Chinese popular religion in Hong Kong, Macao, and Singapore. The Daoist priesthood is active in Taiwan, supported by the presence of hereditary Celestial Masters from the mainland who provide ordinations and legitimacy. There are also several large and prosperous Chan organizations with branches all over the world. Another rapidly growing Buddhist sect in Taiwan is the Buddhist Compassion Relief (Ciji) Foundation, founded by the nun Cheng Yan in 1966 to mobilize social work and education from a Mahāyāna Buddhist perspective.
The constitution of the People's Republic establishes the freedom both to support and oppose religion, although proselytization is illegal. In practice religious activities of all types declined drastically there after 1949 and virtually disappeared during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. In official documents and state-controlled media religion was depicted along Marxist lines as "feudal superstition" that must be rejected by those seeking to build a new China. Nonetheless, many religious activities continued until the Cultural Revolution, even those of the long-proscribed popular sects. The Cultural Revolution, encouraged by Mao Zedong and his teachings, was a massive attack on old traditions, including not only religion but also education, art, and established bureaucracies. In the process thousands of religious images were destroyed, temples and churches confiscated, leaders returned to lay life, and books burned. At the same time a new national cult arose, that of Chairman Mao and his thought, involving ecstatic processions, group recitation from Mao's writings, and a variety of quasi-religious ceremonials. These included confessions of sins against the revolution, vows of obedience before portraits of the chairman, and meals of wild vegetables to recall the bitter days before liberation. Although the frenzy abated, the impetus of the Cultural Revolution continued until Mao's death in 1976, led by a small group, later called "the Gang of Four," centered around his wife, Jiang Qing (1914–1991).
This group was soon deposed, a move followed by liberalization of policy in several areas, including religion. Since 1980 many churches, monasteries, and mosques have reopened and religious leaders reinstated, in part to establish better relationships with Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim communities in other countries. There has been an accelerating revival of popular religion as well, spurred in part by the return of market capitalism under Deng Xiaoping (1905–1997). This occurred primarily in the southeast at first; since the early 1990s Taiwanese have been allowed to travel to the mainland, and many have financially supported the reconstruction of local temples, especially in Fujian province, from which most mainland Taiwanese emigrated. But the revival of popular religion is occurring throughout China, most notably in rural areas.
The official line on religion has moderated, the government now acknowledging that some aspects of China's traditional culture are worth preserving; also that religion will eventually disappear on its own when the perfect socialist state is realized, so it is unnecessary to forcefully hasten the process. Along with the booming capitalist economy that developed in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, "socialism with Chinese characteristics"—a popular slogan of Deng Xiaoping—allows the state to tolerate and support religion, within limits.
The religious revival includes many groups devoted to various forms of qigong, the "manipulation of qi ", which has roots in Daoist self-cultivation. In 1999 the government began a severe crackdown on one such cult, Falun Dafa (Great Law of the Dharma Wheel), commonly referred to in the West as Falun Gong (Exercise of the Dharma Wheel), which more accurately denotes their Buddho-Daoist-inspired form of mental and physical cultivation. Founded in 1992 by Li Hongzhi (b. 1951), Falun Dafa attracted practitioners in the tens of millions in part because of its claims to improve health and lengthen life in the context of the aging of the Chinese population and the collapse of state-supported cradle-to-grave health care. In April 1999 the organization, largely through the medium of e-mail, secretly organized a silent demonstration by more than ten thousand practitioners outside the residence compound of China's top leaders in Beijing to protest what they said was a slanderous magazine article and the refusal of the authorities to let them register as a voluntary association, as required by law. The group's ability to mobilize such large numbers and the fact that Li Hongzhi had emigrated to the United States in 1998 apparently motivated the repression.
Other sensitive areas of religious life in China include illegal Christian "house churches," Buddhists in Tibet (an "autonomous province" of China), and Muslims in the far-western autonomous province of Xinjiang. The latter two cases are related to the government's fear of forces that could support independence movements. The Christian churches, given the long and problematic history of missionary activity and colonialism in China, are suspect for their potential ties to the West. Although Catholicism is one of the five officially recognized religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestant Christianity, and Catholic Christianity), the Roman Catholic Church is outlawed because of its allegiance to the Vatican; only the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association is recognized. The other four religions likewise have government-supported associations as the means of government control. Popular religion and Confucianism are not officially designated as religious in China: popular religion is considered "superstition" (mixin ), and Confucianism is considered an "ideology," although not necessarily (any longer) a "feudal" ideology. There is in fact renewed interest in Confucianism among intellectuals, many of whom sense a moral vacuum in China since Marxist/Maoist thought ceased to exert any influence outside government. A modernized, less patriarchal form of Confucianism, they believe, might provide a set of moral principles better suited to Chinese culture than one imported from the West. Although China was once thought by westerners to be a "timeless" realm in which nothing changed, the story of religion in China, as far back as we can see, has been one of constant change.
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