In the last centuries of imperial rule in China, religious life was omnipresent, with a proliferation of temples, shrines, door gods and protective house deities. Life-cycle rites and festivals peppered the lives of ordinary individuals.
For such people, religious life was a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and local beliefs and practices. Neither Taoism nor Buddhism had much organizational influence, and Taoism had been only minimally an institutional facet of Chinese religion.
But alongside the proliferation of religious beliefs came western influence in the nineteenth century, and a decline in the functions of both Taoism and Buddhism monasteries and temples.
With the post-Mao years came changes in policy with regard to religion. After a few unsettled years, Teng Hsiao-p’ing / Deng Xiaoping took over the Communist leadership in 1979, and opened China to greater western influence and greater freedom of religion.
Five religions were accepted as official – Buddhism, Taoism, Protestant Christianity, Roman Catholic Christianity and Islam, though Taoism is not now regarded as having any eminent position in China.
Confucianism came under great persecution in the twentieth century, and was blamed for the antiquated ideas of the Chinese more than other religions, so it is absent from the list. It is tolerated only as a subject for scholastic study.
What is not tolerated is superstition, and therefore, “popular religion” continue to be regarded as illegal.
The revival of religions in China is permitted politically mainly because of the tourist attraction of the old temples and monasteries, so the state is investing in their reconstruction.
Yet, there is a good deal of support from outside China to reinstate other religious practices once again, and encouragement for the training of priests, monks and nuns. The number of priests in China is now increasing.
Limited tolerance of religion is giving support to the setting up of religious seminaries, some religious ceremonies, and salaried religious personnel. However, there is still careful control and monitoring of religious movements and bodies, and a Religious Affairs Bureau oversees practices.
Local Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, and Christian Religious Associations, control the practices in a locality, making sure that they are in line with state policies. Special permission is required to hold large-scale religious festivals, though celebration of festivals is now very much in evidence. Religious ritual in life-cycle rites is also more acceptable.
Yet in China itself, Confucianism has gained less ground. It cannot exist there in institutional form or with any focus in society. Its rituals are dead and it has little practical meaning for modern life.
Many of the moral ethics of Confucian humanism – inner virtue, trust, respect, humaneness, sincerity, a learning spirit, family stability, education, working for the common good, and so on – are no less needed in the post-modern world than in the distant or near past. Projected into social interactions, these are the kinds of ways in which New Confucians believe Confucianism can make a valid contribution as a world philosophy.
Confucian rituals are no longer extant in China, but in Hong Kong, the 28th of September is celebrated as the birthday of Confucius, with events taking place at his temple there.
Any visitor to China today is unlikely to see a profusion of Taoist temples, with perhaps more tourists than pilgrims. But great temples like the White Cloud Monastery, the largest in North China, are now functional and training monks.
Thus, Taoism is far from dead in China, as was once thought it would be. From the field studies undertaken in recent years, it can certainly be claimed that Taoism is alive in China, particularly so in the coastal provinces of Fujian and Canton in the South. The cult of Ma-tsu / Mazu is especially popular now in south-east China.
At first glance, there is the temptation to dismiss Buddhism is China as a thing of the past.
The profusion of schools is nowhere to be seen, and some have disappeared all together, though there are still monks in China today, who have studied under the guidance of the T’ien-t’ai and Hua-yen lineages.
Buddhism in China today is not generally considered to be an answer to the problems of the twenty-first century, but it would be wrong to minimize its contribution to Chinese thought and culture.
Buddhism’s long-lasting legacy is to be seen in the architectural landscape, felt in the literacy genres, and expressed in the ritual practices and religious beliefs of the nation.
Popular religion is thriving in China! Research today demonstrates that it is in rural areas that it is most evident. Even young people are fascinated enough with religion to go on pilgrimages to temples.
However, daily rituals seem to have been abandoned, and incense is only burned at the altars on festival days. But door gods have returned to guard the entrances of homes, usually two at the front door and one at the rear.
Religious drama and marionette theatre have re-emerged also, in conjunction with the old priestly rites in the temples.
Influences of Chinese religions in the West
We live in a time of considerable excitement and interesting challenges on the one hand, and heightened stresses and conflict at so many levels on the other.
More and more today, people are turning towards non institutional spiritual pathways in order to ease the stresses on mind and body, and a diminished state of well-being that seems to plague our times.
Such factors are surely behind the attraction of eastern concepts and practices. The Tao Te Ching / Daodejing unknown to the vast majority of people half a century ago is now often found in bookshops.
Many westerners now believe in karma and reincarnation, and many seek alternative eastern therapies when they are ill or ill at ease.
Chinese religion has now had impact in the West.
Most people today are familiar with the visual expression of T’ai Chi Ch’uan / Taijiquan, or simply T’ai Chi / Taiji, as it is more familiarly known. While we do not see groups of people practicing T’ai Chi / Taiji in the parks and towns or city squares of the West – it is a common sight in China. Classes in T’ai Chi / Taiji are now very popular in leisure centres of the western world.
Few people realize when watching or practising T’ai Chi / Taiji that there is a wealth of Chinese and Taoist culture that have contributed to its present expression.
Another facet of Chinese religion and culture that has found its way to the West is geomancy or feng-shui a practice that is at least three thousand years old. The art of divination, so long a facet of Chinese philosophy and practice, was extended also to the patterns of the earth itself.
The Chinese term means “wind and water”, and just as wind and water shape the contours of the earth, it refers to the vibrant and changing energies of the land itself.
Today, feng-shui is becoming popular in the West, where home designers ascertain the best lay-out of a room, the right situation for a study, a bedroom, a kitchen and so on, and also the best places in which to put furniture. The layout of a garden, especially, is becoming influenced by the principles of feng-shui.
Balance and harmony are essential ingredients in the many dimensions of human existence. It is important to be sensitive to the interrelatedness in life’s energies that makes one action, one thought part of a wider matrix.
Yin and Yang
If there is one theory emerging from China that is widely known in the West it is surely that of yin and yang, the theory of complementary opposites.
Perhaps this is because, as a writer says, it is a concept that is “one of the most fruitful and useful ever devised by the mind of man for making sense out of the infinite multitude of diverse facts about the universe”.
Its appeal thus has a good deal to do with our commonsense observations about the world around us, our understanding of which is based on relationships between opposites. We know what darkness is, for example, because we know what its opposite is, and vice versa.
The Chinese view of the cosmos, of the heavens, Earth, human beings, the rhythms of day and night, the seasons, the phases of the day indeed all life, came under the dynamic power of yin and yang in all phenomena.
The Chinese were from antiquity people who felt deeply about the rhythm of the seasons and the expression of nature in rhythmic patterns. Their whole existence depended on their ability to harmonize their society, agriculture and religion with the deeper rhythmic patterns of the cosmos.
Even Chinese history seemed to follow the natural swing of the pendulum from one polarity to its opposite. The waning and waxing of dynastic rule, of war and peace, of upheaval and stability are the yin and yang of Chinese historical patterns.