Politics and Religion: Politics and Chinese Religion

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Few would deny that politics has played an important role in the development of Chinese religion, yet the terms religion (zhengzhi ) and politics (zongjiao ) were not used in premodern China. Both of these words only entered into Chinese usage in the last century, as Japanese neologisms for modern Western concepts. Prior to the twentieth century, it is often difficult to distinguish between politics and religion: the imperial court drew upon religious symbolism in its displays of political authority, and religious leaders often claimed authority usually reserved for the state.

While the following discussion will use the terms politics and religion in describing the complex interactions of the secular and the sacred in Chinese history, it is worth bearing in mind how modern analytical categories do not always fit premodern conceptual landscapes. This article will address six main topics: (1) the politics of religion in China, (2) the development of the imperial cults, (3) religious conceptions of sovereignty and political power, (4) the analogy of the bureaucracy, (5) religious persecutions and rebellions, and (6) religious advisors and state patronage.

The Politics of Religion in China

Following Western models of the secular, modernized state, both the Nationalist (Guomindang, or GMD) and the Communist governments of China legislated the institutional separation of state and religion. Yet governmental policies that require the registration and monitoring of civic religious activities have complicated this claim. The constitution of the People's Republic of China (PRC) officially protects religious freedoms, but the government nevertheless monitors and controls all religious activities through the State Bureau of Religious Affairs (SBRA). All major religions in China (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity) are required to affirm their support of the Communist Party and leadership, to register with the SBRA, and to sever ties with foreign networks or organizations (including parent organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church). In return, religious organizations receive official state recognition and protection.

Yet as Stephan Feuchtwang has noted, religious organizations that maintain foreign ties, do not publicly support the leadership, or do not register with the SBRA are considered purveyors of superstition (mixin ) rather than religion. Practitioners of this so-called superstition are often seen as deceiving the people, and they may be punished for a number of economic crimes, such as fraud. Here, what is noteworthy is how the state arrogates the power to define the categories of religion and superstitionthat is, the religious forms protected by the state and those punishable by the state.

The religious policies of the PRC reflect a longstanding ambivalence between governing bodies and religious groups throughout Chinese history. Simply put, religion poses a counter-authority to that of the state, and as a result the state must seek means of controlling or neutralizing the potential threat of religious authority. The modern Communist government has chosen to do so by claiming the right to delimit the religious sphere. Yet the PRC's appropriation of religious authority is not a new phenomenon; Chinese governments of earlier periods have consistently sought to align, if not unify, political and religious concerns. Further, traditional Chinese concepts of sovereign power were founded on religious grounds or elaborated through religious language and imagery.

The Imperial Cults

One sees this most clearly in the long history of imperial cults and state rituals that date from the earliest historical period to the fall of imperial China in 1911. In general, imperial cults consisted of devotions and rituals that had to be performed by the ruler, or by an official surrogate, to ensure the continued well-being and prosperity of the empire. These included the sacrifices to the Altars of Soil and Grain and at the Hall of Light, as well as ritual observances for the cults of Laozi (fl. 6th century bce) and Confucius (Kongzi, 551479 bce). The most important of the imperial cults were those with the most ancient provenance: (1) the imperial ancestral cult, and (2) the worship of a supreme god known as variously as "Heaven" (Tian), "God" (Di), or the "High God" (Shangdi).

The imperial ancestral cult was related to other forms of ancestor worship in China. Yet whereas ordinary ancestral spirits concerned themselves only with their own descendents, the imperial ancestors watched over the dynastic house and, by extension, the entire empire. Scholars have noticed that the imperial ancestral cult often held a relatively low rank among the great sacrifices of state. Nevertheless, the ruler's ancestors possessed a significance that greatly exceeded the actual status of the sacrifice. Victor Xiong has noted how the placement of the ruler's ancestral spirit tablets within the capital city transformed mere urban space into the sacred center of the empire.

The imperial cult of Heaven provided the other crucial source of political authority. Early political theory had constructed the analogy between Heaven and the human ruler: just as Heaven asserted sovereignty over the pantheon of spirits, so the human ruler asserted sovereignty over the empire and its people. Yet at the same time, the ruler derived his (and, in the single exception, her) authority directly from Heaven. He was referred to as the "Son of Heaven" (Tianzi ), the one person charged by the "Mandate of Heaven" (Tianming ) to rule over all things. The idea of a Heaven-bestowed mandate complicated the authority of the emperor, since Heaven did not unwaveringly favor one dynastic house above all others. In fact, a dynasty that had become morally bankrupt would lose the mandate to rule. The Zhou dynasty (c. 1150256 bce) first introduced the Mandate of Heaven as justification for overthrowing the Shang (sixteenth to eleventh centuries bce), and later dynasties continued to invoke the doctrine in political rhetoric and discourse.

Other Religious Conceptions of Sovereignty

The imperial cults provided the most visible means by which rulers laid claim to sacred authority. Other religious traditions, however, played important roles in the imagination and construction of political sovereignty. The following section will discuss three traditions: (1) early immortality quests, (2) Daoist models of kingship, and (3) Buddhist models of kingship. Of course, not all Chinese emperors were equally interested in alternative sources of sacred authority to the imperial cults. Rather, these reflected the personal inclinations or aspirations of particular rulers, as well as larger trends in Chinese religious history.

The most famous of the early immortality quests are those undertaken by Qin Shihuangdi (r. 221210 bce), the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty (221207 bce). The Qin succeeded in unifying China through its superior military efficiency and rigid code of laws. The First Emperor was fascinated with the possibility of becoming an immortal in the flesh, and so he traveled throughout the empire in search of spirits or gods who might give him their secrets. He also paid vast sums of money to magicians (fangshi ) to seek out the mythical island of Penglai, upon which magical herbs of longevity were rumored to grow. The First Emperor even performed the Feng and Shan sacrifices on altars at Mount Tai (the sacred Eastern Marchmount) and Liangfu, in the hopes of achieving self-deification. For Confucian intellectuals, this was a distortion of the great sacrifices, which were supposed to announce the establishment of the age of great peace to Heaven and Earth. In the end, not only did the First Emperor fail to achieve personal immortality, but his dynasty only survived him by about four years.

The Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce) succeeded the short-lived Qin. The sixth ruler, Han Wudi (r. 141/14087/86 bce), presided over one of the longest reigns in Chinese history. Wudi oversaw the political, economic, and military stabilization of the empire, as well as the establishment of "state Confucianism" (the cultural ideology that later came to encompass a sacred canon, state academies, and the examination system). At the same time, however, Wudi imitated Qin Shihuangdi in seeking the secrets of immortality throughout the empire; he even re-performed the Feng and Shan sacrifices at Mount Tai.

Both the First Emperor and Han Wudi were heavily criticized by the Han historian Sima Qian (c. 145c. 85 bce), who saw the rulers' desire for immortality as a combination of despotism and gullibility. Sima Qian's critique did not prevent later rulers from seeking immortality, some of whom perished from ingesting large amounts of cinnabar (mercury sulfide), following the instructions of their Daoist advisors.

Generally speaking, however, the adoption of Daoist models of kingship often served more politically conventional goals. In the medieval Daoist tradition, the deified Laozi became the model of the perfect ruler. Rulers that drew upon the image and rhetoric of Laozi could secure the support of Daoist factions within the court, as well as of Daoist believers throughout the empire. This was the case for Cao Pi (r. 220226 ce), also known as Wei Wendi. As Howard Goodman has shown, Cao Pi made use of a Celestial Masters prophecy to legitimate his establishment of the Wei dynasty (220265). Daoism also played a prominent role in the legitimation of the Tang dynasty (618907 ce). Because the Tang imperial house shared the same surname (Li) as Laozi, the members of the Tang royal house could make the claim that they descended from the Daoist sage. Actual interest in Daoism varied among the twenty-one Tang emperors. The seventh emperor, Tang Xuanzong (Li Longji, r. 712756), was fascinated by Daoism and was initiated by a Highest Purity (Shangqing) Daoist master as an adept of the sect. In the Song dynasty (9601279), Emperor Huizong (Zhao Ji, r. 11011125) was even more involved in Daoist study and training, to the extent that he was deified as "The Great Emperor of Long Life." In one of the most striking examples of religious sovereignty, Huizong received cult worship as a god in his own lifetime.

The adoption of Buddhist models of kingship could serve similar political ends. The perfect ruler of Buddhism was the cakravartin or "wheel-turning king." Buddhism spoke of the inevitable decline of Buddhist law (mofa ), but it also maintained that the cakravartin could arrest or even reverse the decline. Therefore, the title of cakravartin was often used to honor rulers who had been generous in their patronage of Buddhist monasteries and their activities. Exemplary Buddhist monarchs included Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (Xiao Yan, r. 501549), who received the title "Imperial Bodhisattva" for his intense devotion to Buddhist learning. Emperor Wu famously ransomed himself on several occasions to monasteries in order to channel funds to the Buddhist community. On the other hand, there is the example of the Tang Empress Wu Zetian (r. 684704). Empress Wu had her monk-lover fabricate the spurious Scripture of the Great Cloud, which prophesied the imminent appearance of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, in the form of a female deitythat is, Wu Zetian herself.

The Bureaucratic Analogy

A hallmark of Chinese religion is the way in which the world of the gods parallels the human realm of officialdom: the supernatural realm, like this one, is ordered by bureaucracy. As Peter Nickerson has shown, a fifth-century Daoist text of the Celestial Master tradition describes the registers kept by each Daoist household, so that the gods would have accurate records when supernatural intervention was required. By the seventh century, the Buddhist afterlife likewise was represented as a bureaucracy. After death, one's soul would travel through the ten courts of the underworld, each ruled by a king who sat in judgment over the deceased.

Also, documents and papers akin to those necessary for moving through government bureaucracy facilitated communication with the gods. Like the government of this world, the bureaucracy of the gods has roles and hierarchy; in contemporary practice, those seeking help from the gods should first locate the god with the appropriate jurisdiction. But the bureaucratic analogy does have its limits. As Emily Ahern notes, it is possible to appeal directly to the highest deities in a way that is not possible within government bureaucracy. Moreover, people do not relate to the gods solely on the model of supplicant and official; for believers, rank within the supernatural hierarchy may be a consideration secondary to the efficaciousness of a given deity.

While throughout much of China's history the government occasionally granted deities honorary titles, this practice increased sharply during the late eleventh century. Local elites recommended deities associated with their region and with proven records of responsiveness. The granting of titles allowed the central government to extend its reach into each locality and simultaneously to share the accomplishments of these regional supernatural powers. However, as Robert Hymes argues, the titles granted to local gods were purely honorific and based on archaic feudal titles; the government honored the gods but did not grant them functional positions or assign them specific duties. In a related way, the government throughout history also issued ordination certificates to monks and nuns and granted temples plaques that established imperial recognition. Over time, these activities served to create a national, centralized religious network administered by the state.

Suppression and Rebellion

As discussed above, religion frequently has been an alternate source of authority to that of the state. From time to time, this has led to religiously influenced rebellions and to the proscription and persecution of religion by the state. For example, Buddhism often has been perceived as a corrupting influence in times of political or cultural crisis because of its foreign origins, and it thus was a frequent target of state suppression. Anti-Buddhist attitudes among officials were exacerbated by the perceived negative economic impact of Buddhist monasteries: monks and nuns were not taxed, and monasteries also owned large tracts of untaxed land. Occasionally, these tensions resulted in attempts to limit or eliminate Buddhist institutions. Emperor Wu of the Northern Wei (Tuoba Tao, r. 423452) ordered one such large-scale suppression of Buddhism. Most monks survived in hiding, but many temples, scriptures, and works of art were destroyed.

The Buddhist persecution of the Tang Emperor Wuzong (Li Yan, r. 840846) was perhaps the most far-reaching. This suppression is usually called the "Huichang Suppression," after Wuzong's reign title. First, monasteries were ordered to purge their ranks of unregistered monks, along with those monks who failed to keep their vows, had been convicts, practiced magic, or were otherwise questionable. The government then banned pilgrimages and eliminated smaller Buddhist establishments, relocating monks to larger temples. Shortly thereafter, all Buddhist property was seized by the state. Buddhist statuary and ritual implements made of metal were melted down and made into currency or agricultural tools. The monastic population further declined as the state laicized monks and nuns under forty and set strict limits on the number of monasteries and clergy. The Huichang suppression of Buddhism was part of a larger xenophobic trend; other religions were also purged or suppressed. In 843, Uighur Manichaean priests in Chang'an and Luoyang, as well as Nestorian and Zoroastrian priests, were laicized, and their temple property was confiscated. Two months later the government ordered the execution of all Manichaean priests. The situation eased only after Wuzong's death in 846.

Subsequent dynasties never employed such drastic measures, but modernizing movements in the twentieth century led to efforts to weed out religion as a negative force. When the Communist Party came to power, Buddhist monastic holdings were decimated by land reform, and monks were expected to become productive citizens. In the Cultural Revolution (19661976), virtually all public displays of religion came to a halt; Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism were attacked part of the "Four Olds" (old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits). Temples were damaged, closed, or converted to other uses. Muslims were made to eat pork, and Christian churches were purged of their religious symbols. Much religious activity went underground during this time, reemerging only after the Cultural Revolution ended and the political mood shifted.

The state was capable of acting against religion in the kinds of suppressions discussed above, but religion often motivated or guided rebellions against the state. Perhaps the earliest such example is that of the Daoist Yellow Turban revolt at the end of the Han dynasty. Apocalyptic ideology and the desire to establish a Daoist utopia motivated this revolt, which began in 184 ce. Similarly, at the end of the Yuan dynasty (12641368), Red Turban armies grew out of millenarian White Lotus societies, drawing inspiration from their belief in messianic prophecies that Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, would soon be reborn. The founder of the subsequent Ming dynasty (13681644), Zhu Yuanzhang, was affiliated with this movement early in his rise to power.

Toward the end of the Qing dynasty, rebellions that incorporated religious elements became more frequent. The Taiping Rebellion (18511864) was one of the most destructive. Its founder, Hong Xiuquan, was a convert to Christianity who had a vision in which he was identified as God's son and charged with driving the devils (i.e., the foreign Manchu regime) out of China. He was then to establish the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace (Taiping Tianguo). Taiping forces managed to take a major city, Nanjing, which they declared the capital of their new kingdom. Around the same time, Muslim rebellions broke out in both Yunnan province and in northwest China, lasting until the mid-1870s. Key background causes included Qing discriminatory laws and tension between minority and majority communities. Ethnic and cultural identities were as much an issue as religion in these insurgencies. To varying degrees, religion also played a role in other late Qing rebellions, such as the 1813 Eight Trigram Revolt and the Boxer Rebellion of 1899 to 1901.

Religious Advisors and State Sponsorship

Religious figures often served as official and unofficial advisors to emperors, in which capacity they provided rulers with another source of personal or political power. Buddhist or Daoist adepts advised emperors on the protection of the state and personal cultivation. For example, in the Yuan dynasty, Khubilai Khan (r. 12791294) employed the Tibetan lama Phags pa (Phagpa; 12351280) as his liaison to Tibet and Buddhists; Phags pa in turn provided the emperor with religious legitimacy. The Mongol Yuan government made wide use of Muslim officials, but their employment perhaps had more to do with ethnicity than belief. During the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Jesuit missionaries worked in the service of the emperor, providing guidance on Western science and culture. While their work at court was not religious in nature, their collaboration eased the way for the continued presence of Western missionaries.

Throughout history, imperial patronage has also included the building and restoration of temples and the commission of religious art. Scriptural compilation projects were also examples of major collaborations between religious orders and the state. In both the Tang and Song dynasties, the state sponsored large-scale projects to translate Buddhist sūtras into Chinese. The Song dynasty sponsored the first printing of the entire Buddhist canon, and later dynasties commissioned reprintings. Early Song emperors ordered the collection of Daoist texts, which were then published in an early form of the Daoist canon (Daozang ); in the Ming, the Yongle emperor (r. 14021424) ordered the compilation of the present version of the Daozang.

Politics and Religion in Modern China

Such examples demonstrate that the relationship between the state and religious groups was often a trade-off: the transactions, whether intellectual or material, were most successful when both parties benefited, but the religious group did not overtly challenge secular authority. However, the negotiations between religious and political claims to authority have been considerably more difficult in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century China. For example, the state-recognized Chinese Catholic Church (officially known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association) has severed its relationship with the Vatican, bowing to pressure from the state which has frowned upon foreign influence inside China. The Roman Catholic Church does survive in China, but it has been forced underground.

The government likewise has asserted the right to administrate Tibetan Buddhism as a corollary to its claim of political sovereignty over Tibet. In 1950, the newly formed Communist government ordered the military invasion of Tibet, and in the following year, coerced Tibetan representatives to sign the "Agreement on the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet." As a consequence, central Tibet became an autonomous region within China, while other Tibetan territories were incorporated into neighboring Chinese provinces. Under this agreement, Tibetans could continue to govern according to their own traditions, leaving in place the theocracy led by the fourteenth Dalai Lama. However, land reform and other modernizations introduced by the PRC in the 1950s were met with resistance, and tensions escalated to the point of military clashes. With concern growing that Chinese forces would harm the Dalai Lama, he fled to India with an entourage of government leaders and religious followers. A Tibetan government-in-exile was established at Dharamsala, while in Tibet the Communists replaced traditional institutions with socialist ones.

As was true throughout China, the 1980s brought a more relaxed governmental stance toward religious and political expression. Seeking to capitalize on this change in official attitude, the Dalai Lama brought the issue of Tibet and its desire for autonomy to the global stage. Limited attempts at negotiations between the two sides took place in the early 1990s. The Chinese government also attempted to modernize Tibet, which had lagged behind the rest of China in terms of economic and social development. Part of this new approach included increased state patronage of religion, usually in the form of restoring temples; the government also hoped these efforts would attract tourists. But religious revival also needed to be kept in check, and the Communist government stepped up its efforts to control religious leaders. The contrast between traditional notions of religious leadership and Communist expectations clearly manifested itself in the controversy over the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, whose tenth incarnation had died in 1989. When the eleventh Panchen Lama was identified and approved by the Dalai Lama in 1995, Beijing not only rejected this choice, but also removed the young boy from Tibet. Beijing then installed their own candidate for Panchen Lama through a process controlled by the government. Because the Panchen Lama traditionally plays an important role in identifying and sanctioning the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama, this decision will have long-ranging effects.

In the government's stance toward both the Roman Catholic Church and Tibetan Buddhism, the Chinese state has acted from concern over alternative sources to political authority. This concern also manifests itself in the state's aggressive repression of the Falun Gong movement, also known as Falun Dafa. The group was founded by Li Hongzhi (b. 1952) in 1992. Li's teachings incorporate elements of Buddhism, Daoism, and qigong practice, though he also claims that his teachings are superior to both Buddhism and Daoism. There are three components to religious cultivation within Falun Gong: (1) members practice a simplified form of qigong ; (2) they study Falun Gong teachings; (3) they seek to develop the key moral qualities of truthfulness (zhen), goodness (shan), and forebearance (ren ). The goal of such cultivation is to cleanse oneself of bad karma, purify one's body, and eventually become a god or buddha.

The case of Falun Gong demonstrates the problem of defining religion in modern China. The government only recognizes five religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam) and thus there is no option for new religious groups to register as such. Moreover, Falun Gong has asserted that it is not a religion, but rather a scientific, rational movement based on a deep understanding of the structure of the universe. Also related to the group's claims are its promises of the health benefits of breathing exercises; these benefits may have attracted people inadequately served by the socialist healthcare system in China. Yet the government has used Falun Gong's claims of health benefits to prove the danger posed by the group, arguing that its "superstitious" practices have prevented people from seeking medical care. In the late 1990s, critics of the group began to air their concerns, causing the state to ban several Falun Gong publications. Falun Gong members began to stage demonstrations, objecting to the label of "superstition" and to state persecution. In April 1999, ten thousand Falun Gong adherents protested in Beijing's Tiananmen Square; in July 1999, the government banned the group. The state has called Falun Gong a dangerous sect that defrauds the populace, and it has used arrests, forced institutionalization, and other forms of pressure to weaken the group. For its part, Falun Gong has availed itself of new technologies, using the internet, cell phones, and pagers to organize its resistance to government pressure. While the most dramatic example of government treatment of new religious groups, Falun Gong is not an isolated case. Scores of religious groups, drawing on a range of traditions, have been banned and members subjected to harsh treatment by the government.


Throughout the history of China, religious elements have been integral to the development of Chinese political thought and discourse. Moreover, the multireligious nature of China has meant that different traditions have helped shape the sociocultural landscape. In the above discussion of the relationship between politics and religion in China, three broad positions can be identified. First, those holding political authority used religious claims to provide moral or cosmological legitimation to their rule. Second, politics and religion often existed in a state of balance or compromise, in which each side recognized advantages to cooperation or tolerance. Finally, politics and religion at times failed to recognize the legitimacy of one another's claims to authority, leading to conflict, rebellion, or suppression.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in China; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Chinese Buddhism; Chinese Religion, overview article; Confucianism, overview article; Daoism; Emperor's Cult.


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Jack W. Chen (2005)

Natasha Heller (2005)

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