The Task at Hand: What is a Religion?
Religions have been in the background of many of the topics that we touched upon in the previous pages of this book: In the Introduction we saw that Brecht discovered the teachings of Mozi about brotherly love among all humans, and how Confucians rejected that as animal-like. In Chapter 1 it appeared – and be it by implication – that a religious foundation for acting in the interest of the entire human race was a convincing point of departure for saving the environment, but that Confucius-based Chinese Familism as described by Fei Xiaotong kept that from happening. In Chapter 2 about the Opium Wars, the rights of missionaries to spread Christianity in China, was described as a highly controversial issue. In Chapter 3, starting with the debate about Thucydides, Max Weber’s discussion of the Protestant Ethic was included in the part about economic interests. The implicit or explicit reference to religion in those preceding segments makes it necessary for clarification to devote this chapter entirely to the topic of religion.
In China, religious behaviour is typically imbedded in other activities in a way that makes it hard for the Western observer to even identify it as religious. For a discussion of how to define religion in a convincing way, see below, but as an illustration of implicit religiosity consider the following story:
A peasant lost his horse. It disappeared and nobody knows what happened to it. The village neighbors express their sympathy, but the peasant says: Who knows, something good may come of it. A few days later the lost horse is back in the company of another horse that none of the villagers has ever seen before. Everyone congratulates the peasant for having two horses now, but he warns: Who knows, something bad may come of it.
After a while the peasant’s oldest son decides to ride the new horse. Rider and horse are not familiar with each other; the young man falls down and breaks a leg. The neighbors again show their compassion, but the peasant tells them: Who knows, something good may come of it. This remark leaves most of them puzzled. Soon after the son’s equestrian accident, the emperor’s draft commission arrives in the village and summons all young men to serve in the military. Being a patient with a broken leg, the peasant’s son must stay behind. During the war it turns out that sadly all the other young men from
Obviously, off hand this story cannot be called religious. Nevertheless, it represents an attitude toward fate with a certain affinity toward a religious orientation. In addition, it contains an openness toward developments in the person’s life even if those were not intended and could not have been foreseen. It also widens the person’s mind and raises his or her sensitivity for alternative realities. Finally, the story shows a deep trust in fate, a trust that can look for and find religious confirmation and thus generate resilience in daily life.
Religions everywhere can only exist to the extent to which they are given credit for telling the truth, or at least a truth. Truth is not only what works but more importantly, the basis on which the believer is prepared to work or to act. Moreover, what all religions have in common is the conviction that death does not end the existence of the person and that the living may experience getting some personal attention from the beyond. How this is written into concrete articles of faith varies greatly from religion to religion.
No religion will teach that there is no life after death. In addition, all religions expect the living to get into contact with a person in the beyond by prayer, sacrifice, meditation or other ritual. The respective “person” is always immortal and may be a god, a saint, a deceased ancestor, or a benign or even an evil spirit. Thus, the religious person can be identified as being in a relationship with an immortal and feeling guided, assisted or threatened by him or her.
No religious person will believe in anything of which he or she is not convinced that it really exists: Humans of all ages seem to have given their religious ideas the status of reality. Once that ability is lost on a massive scale, the respective religion will disappear. Religions must be able to establish a living relationship between the believer and an immortal. Unless a personal relationship with some well-known counterpart in the beyond can be established, be it a god, a saint, an ancestor, or a spirit of some kind, religion has no chance of acceptance and survival (Helle 2001: 146).
If all religions share the property of establishing personal contact to one or more immortals in the beyond, then systems of faith can be distinguished according to a typology of those transcendental contacts. Some immortals are – at least for some mortals – well known because they lived on this earth at one time. That applies to Christian saints (to some extent, provided their story is still told) and to Chinese ancestors (to a more likely extend, since their descendants will remember them).
In addition, there is another distinction between China and the West that relates to the very foundations of religious convictions: In China the immortals tend to lead family lives as the ancient Greek gods did on Olympus, but the god of the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims exists by himself and is not surrounded by any relatives. This difference opens up a potential for Western culture to create a sacred realm that does not depend on family conditions and is not subject to rules of kinship life.
Whereas in many regions of the world there has been a sad history of intolerance, hatred and even persecution of one religion by another, one of the remarkable facts about the long religious history of China is the comparatively peaceful and open relationship during most of that time between the religions practiced there. Admittedly there have been confrontations in Chinese history between Daoists, Buddhists, and Confucians. But none of them compare to the inter-Christian cruelty of the Thirty-Years-War in Central Europe (1618–1648) or to how Shiite and Sunnite Muslims kill each other at the present time.
Still, the problem of intolerance is consistently present in China, but typically not in the way one religion is treated by another, but rather in the way this or that particular religion or religions in general are dealt with by the various levels of government and since 1949 by the Communist Party. One of the key questions of this chapter is therefore: What are the primary reasons
for antagonisms among religions, a topic comparatively irrelevant in China, or
for antagonisms between party and governments on the one hand and one or several religions on the other? The second question is of obvious importance for the situation in contemporary China.
We try to explain first why in China controversies between religions are absent or at least infrequent in history by comparison to other regions of the world. In addition, one dimension to which we pay attention is the degree of liberty granted to religious behavior in the “public sphere.” The latter, as we have seen above, has characteristics in China that are different from those in the West. While theory construction and concept formation in the sociology of religion have been geared to Western religions with monopolistic tendencies, “in China, multiple religions have coexisted for thousands of years” (Yang 2012: 33).
Shared Origins of Contemporary Religions
To account for the comparatively peaceful coexistence of distinct religions in China, numerous reasons can be cited, however, we explain the relative tolerance as due to a common origin shared by all types of faiths: Religions typically receive recognition by believers for establishing contact with the beyond. For millennia worldwide this task has been assigned to the shaman, a male or female medium who could and can to this day play a credible role in communicating with spiritual or immortal beings. In the case of the Confucian regions, i.e. China, Japan, and Korea, the immortals are particularly, but not exclusively, the ancestors of one’s own family.
A wealth of archeological finds has documented the origins of shamanism primarily in Asia. The Chinese graph for the family name Wu 巫 (Shaman) depicts the practice of “dancing down the spirits.” This priestly task can be performed all the way up to the highest hierarchical level of society: “It can be proven that rulers in China, Japan, and middle Asia were endowed with shamanistic powers…” (Findeisen and Gehrts 1983: 17). The kings of Korea during the Yi-dynasty (1392–1910) were held responsible until as late as 1910 for using their shamanistic powers to promote good weather. Accordingly, providing the country’s peasants with sufficient rainfall was the king’s solemn duty.
The Chinese character for king 王 (Wang) which has become a frequent family name, depicts the ruler as mediator between the three levels of human existence: The “inner” world in the middle is surrounded by the underworld of the dead below and the heavens of the immortals above. Relating these three realms to each other required shamanistic abilities which the Asian king needed to have in order to fulfill his “priestly” duties in the service of his people.
While Shamanism can still be observed and studied in Siberia and South-Korea today, it has been persecuted and as a consequence almost disappeared in mainland China since 1949. We shall look into the reasons for this intolerance in our next section on the relationship between religions and government. Due in part to the absence of Christianity in Asia, ancient China has taken an approach to shamanism that was different from Europe and North America.
This oldest preserved form of relating to the beyond dates back as far as the religion of the Stone Age hunters. They depended on being able in their hunt to reach the flesh of caribou or of swimming animals as food. Much later the members of the agrarian culture were and are reminded of this dependency by the Chinese dragon, often visible as sculptured divine animal. It is both caribou and fish: The dragon typically has antlers on its head like a mammal, but
Ever since the most basic levels of culture in the days of the Stone Age, life depended on the availability of an animal that would, according to primordial religious imagination, bless the starving human being by giving him or her its body to eat. Thus came about the animal deity in the form of the mammoth, the caribou, the bear, or some type of fish which the ancient shaman visibly represented in this world by wearing for instance antlers on his head or a bear hide as his coat, similar to dragon and qilin in China.
The divine person in the beyond, whichever shape or imagery human imagination attributed to him or her, was worshipped as the giver of life. Religious evolution promoted this immortal being from a sacred animal to a powerful spirit. In many regions of the world it became a totem, and – in China – possibly a remote “ancestor” of one’s own clan. In many contexts the Chinese emperor was referred to as the son of the dragon. What the various levels of religious development have in common is this: The shaman is the mediator for the mortal human to stay in touch with the beyond as the source of life everlasting.3 If seen in this evolutionary continuity, the shaman is the precursor of the priests and ministers of later religions, the more subdued builders of bridges to other realities.
The shaman as religious leader in different Asian regions thus represented the continuity between lower and higher levels of cultural evolution. This has been true to some extent also in countries that became part of the Muslim world. According to Islam the beyond can be visited only by Mohammed and by a few selected prophets. Since shamans traditionally claimed to also have this ability, they were rejected by the spiritual leaders of Islam as unacceptable competitors with Mohammed.
However, according to the religious ideas prevalent in inner Asia during the 19th and 20th century, the shaman was still the mediator between mortal humans and immortal spiritual beings, but only in this world. In the context of Muslim culture, shamans were perceived as being able to do that without leaving this world, since, as we mentioned, they were believed to be barred from visiting the beyond (ibid: 215f).
Soon after the New China was founded in 1949 she was condemned to 15 years in prison for seducing the people to accept superstition. When she was released after those long years, she was without any income, but relatives took care of her. After some time, she again performed rituals in the context of her clan. Young relatives criticized her for reverting to her ritual behaviour in spite of such severe punishment and in spite of the fact that a New China had been founded. She replied: “Yes, but the souls are still here, and we must take care of them.”
About her field work in a small village in Hebei province Fan Lizhu writes in 2003: “We think that local religious practices and beliefs carried out by ordinary people in their daily life have long been the quantitative mainstream of the history of Chinese religions, and a fundamental support for traditional society, culture and moral values. Unfortunately, this significant part of Chinese culture has been ignored for a long time by academic studies. In the 20th century Chinese popular religious practices and beliefs were criticized by scholars and destroyed by wars and political movement. Despite the best efforts of half a century of Communist propaganda against religion and the violent destruction of temples and statues during the decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), devotion to local deities continues to thrive in China. Temples are being rebuilt; the sale of incense sticks and paper money is once again big business; mediums who represent these gods are to be found everywhere” (Fan 2003).
Religion today including shamanism as it impacts everyday life, can also be seen in an extended conversation I had with a member of an ethnic minority, married to a so-called “adoptive sister” of a graduate student who was then my Chinese translator and informant.4 The “sister” had become a police officer entrusted with the task of supervising the tearing down of houses that had been built illegally without a construction permit. The police woman was an attractive lady from Northern China with very light skin. Her husband’s skin was much darker as is typical of the so-called “local people,” the Li (黎族 = Lizu) on Hainan Island.
The husband is a strong and visibly healthy man in the prime of life. He first modestly tells me about some of his healing successes as practitioner of Chinese Medicine. From there our conversation moves on to Daoism. In his
So he took his wife and son back to his home on the island of Hainan where he can also make money as a business man, breeding and selling fish. He devotes much of his time to Daoism and Buddhism, and it appears that he has no difficulty combining those two religious orientations. The business activity with fish is needed, because – as he mentioned proudly – he never took any money for healing people.
While he and I dwell more on the subject of healing, it turns out, that secretly he is a shaman. He reports that he has successfully performed exorcisms. This of course implies dealing with persons from the beyond. I ask his police wife if she does not feel strange about being married to a spooky person who can be in contact with ghosts. She replies that the couple shares their Buddhist faith which creates a bond between them. The shaman confirms that, but adds that in the context of Chinese Buddhism he is regarded as the reincarnation of an ancient saint. He is also a member of the Communist Party. A truly remarkable man (and shaman)!
Daoism particularly, can be studied as an example for religious evolution based on shamanistic foundations. Anna Seidel in her chapter in an edited volume (first published in 1987) on the Daoist resurrection of the body considers the Daoist approach to death an “innovation over the traditional Chinese attitude” (Miller 2003; 30). While it had long been assumed that the souls of the departed reside in the underworld but can be comforted there by their relatives in this world, according to Daoism not only that is possible and advisable, but in addition they can even be freed from confinement to the underworld altogether (ibid.).
The power to deliver ancestors from the underworld (which only later due to Buddhist influence became hell) rests primarily with the Daoist priest who, as successor of the shaman, is – as it were – the guarantor of religious advancement. In addition, this implies that a devoted follower of Daoism can practice techniques for becoming an immortal even without having to die first. Daoist immortals are “an entirely different class of spiritual beings than the ordinary ancestor…” They traditionally included “emperors, ancestors, and worthies” (ibid: 29). A more detailed discussion of Daoism can be found here in the next chapter.
The many millennia of religious history of China include this shamanistic tradition in combination with the firm belief in an Imperial Mandate of Heaven
The duration of the rule of one dynasty was admirably long in the history of China. But sometimes the ruling king turned out to be positively incompetent. This was interpreted by the people as having lost the mandate of heaven. It frequently resulted in rebellion and military confrontations until finally the old ruling dynasty was replaced with a new one. The role religions usually played in such dramatic events was consistently taken into consideration by emperors and parties who feared religious influences, because they perceived them as a threat to their intention to stay in power.
Governmental Interference with Religious Affairs
Since during the millennia of imperial rule the monarch was seen as a quasi-sacred figure, the respective ruler felt empowered also to make decisions and interfere in matters of faith. Here is one example from the early history of the empire. During the time between the 3rd and the early 5th century after Christ China entered a state of severe crisis. Centuries prior to that in the year 221 bce it had been united for the first time under its first emperor. His tyrannical rule over a large region resulted in significant economic, military and cultural advantages in comparison with not so well organized neighboring countries.
But his son’s rule meant the end of that Qin dynasty. Succeeding the Qin, the Han emperors stayed in power for more than four centuries. Then the empire broke up into three separate parts. A brutal civil war started resulting in massive movements of refugees. Pressured by aggressors from outside China, the regions on the North and the North-West were lost.
During such difficult times, when it would have seemed normal for the ruler to concentrate on something more mundane, the emperor of the Eastern realm, Sima Rui, in the year 318 ce condemned a religious ritual as heretical because it seemed aimed to putting not the body but the soul to rest in a grave. The emperor’s edict contains the statement: “The grave is for the
The catastrophic conditions at the time and the brutality with which fighting and mass killing was carried out, resulted in the loss of bodies of persons, whom their families wanted to bury but could not find. A traditional funeral was not possible in the absence of a body. Thus the only solution seemed to be to resort to a “soul-summoning burial” (Bokenkamp 2007: 61). In a truly shamanistic manner the soul of the deceased person had to be summoned from wherever it may have been hiding.
At that time people in their religious belief followed a complicated concept of multiple “souls” as different kinds of spiritual components of the living person. Of those components the one which comes closest to the Western idea of a soul was referred to as “hun.” Accordingly, the experts on this period of Chinese religion call the ritual the “hun-summoning burial” (ibid: 70). But why was it condemned by the emperor Sima Rui? What exactly was it that he condemned?
The task of finding and calling back the soul of the dead person was assigned to a “summoner.” He climbed onto the roof of the house with a piece of clothing in his hands the deceased used to wear. He there performed a ritual which included exclaiming the name of that person three times. It was then expected, that the hun-soul would come and enter into the piece of textile that had been part of its former attire and that it reside in it as in a substitute body.
Next the piece of clothing, now supposedly containing the soul that had been summoned into it, would carefully be handed down from the roof of the building (ibid: 69). If the corpse of the deceased was present, it would be deposited on it for a while. But the great significance of this burial rite must be seen in the fact that it could be performed even in the absence of the corpse.
Stephen R. Bokenkamp, on whose research our remarks are based, sees in the hun-summoning ritual “an archaic, shamanic survival in the ritual canons of sober Confucians” (ibid: 62). We have here an example for government interference on the side of progress: In comparison to relicts of shamanism the Confucian burial rite was seen as the more advanced and generally accepted religious orthodoxy. According to Confucian teaching the hun-soul was expected to ascent to heaven at death and could not be summoned back by a shaman (Miller 2003: 29).
However, the Confucian burial required the presence of the corpse. The reason why parts of the population reverted back to the less highly developed level of religious culture was the military and political crisis in the country
As was mentioned above after the founding of the New China in 1949 the persecution of religion in general and shamanism in particular started with a new and unprecedented determination. Astounding in comparison with other regions is how late this happened there. The Christian tradition with its witch-hunts in Europe and North America and the almost complete rejection of any shamanistic elements in the context of Islam resulted in a much earlier demise of this wide-spread precursor of later religions.
The reason why political representatives of Christianity, Islam, and Communism felt shamanism to be intolerable was apparently this: We, the persecutors of shamans, must impress upon their potential followers that our orientation as Christian faith, Muslim faith, or Marxism-Leninism is far more progressive. As spokespersons for a new alternative we cannot tolerate any comparison or even competition with the ancient ideas and practices of shamanism. Therefore, that form of spirituality must be forcibly suppressed as outmoded and as a harmful hindrance on the way toward a new stage of cultural evolution. The condemnation of the hun-summoning burial by emperor Sima Rui in the year 318 a.d. was a precursor of later persecutions. The most radical and violent attitude toward relics from shamanism has not appeared in China till after 1949; centuries later than in other parts of the world.
What potentially makes the Chinese case of governmental interference with religious affairs an interesting topic for historical and sociological research is its multi-dimensionality. On the surface the controversy rests on the assumption of being a sincere defense of the belief in progress as expressed by party members and other followers of the atheist European ideas of the 19th century that were developed by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) and Karl Marx (1818–1883) in Germany. But in the background of contemporary progressivism there was the traditional concern, which the Communist Party of today shares with the emperors in Chinese history: Will a particular religious conviction challenge and question the mandate to power given to the mighty by heaven or, in the case of Communism, by history?
But the relationship between Western religious influences and the Chinese leadership has not always been tense. The Jesuit mission was possible only with the consent and support of the emperor. Missionary activities propagating Christianity started in China early in the 17th century (Neuner 2015).5
Father Ricci and his brethren, learned monks from Europe, lived in China like Confucian scholars wearing the appropriate attire and hats and conducting themselves in polite Confucian ways. They did not consider Confucianism a religion and as a consequence treated its teachings as compatible with Christianity. “Matteo Ricci, an Italian missionary, translated the Four Books into Latin in 1594 (Wanli 22,6 Ming Dynasty). It was the first foreign language version of the Confucian works” to be published (Yang and Yu 1995: 3).
Among them was Father Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666), a nobleman from Cologne, Germany, who was an expert in astronomy and in contact with Johannes Kepler. Schall was highly regarded by the emperor because in 1629 he successfully predicted a solstice. In 1632 Kepler sent part of his research results to Schall in Beijing to help him revise the Chinese calendar, a task that the emperor had ordered the priest from Cologne to devote himself to.
In the course of the 17th century the missionaries in Confucian disguise increased their influence even at court, and in 1692 Christianity was given the same rights as Daoism and Buddhism. Christian church buildings were placed under the protection of the emperor. Upon the monarch’s orders additional churches were built. There was then a sound foundation for the hope to open China for Christianity from the top down.
That did not happen, however, largely due to severe set-backs the Catholic Church inflicted upon itself. Initiators of the conflict were two other groups of Catholic monks, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, who took a negative view of the Jesuits’ success in China. They resented the adoption of Confucian outer appearance by Father Ricci and his associates, and they denounced their using the Chinese word Shang Di (上帝) for the Christian god. Whereas the Jesuits translated those two sings as “the highest power in heaven,” the two other organizations of Catholics monks claimed it to mean “highest emperor.” The Catholic church embarked upon one of its more embarrassing episodes in church history by forcing its missionaries to only use the Latin word deus as name for god.
In addition, the Franciscans and the Dominicans took the case of the China mission of the Jesuits to the Catholic Divinity Faculty of the Sorbonne
That papal decision became known to the Chinese emperor who thereupon asked the Jesuits to either ignore the pope or else get out of China. They obeyed Rome, their mission collapsed, and henceforth Christian missionaries were seen as representing a foreign culture or even a repressive European colonial nation, as we have seen in the context of the Opium Wars. The resulting evaluation in China was captured in the saying: One Christian more means one Chinese less.
Still to this day, modern holders of power in China see the church as a political entity worldwide. The contribution of the Catholic Church toward ending Communism in Poland led some party leaders in China to perceive that church as a serious threat to their rule. This appears absurd in light of the fact that the Catholic population of China is lower than one percent of the total number of inhabitants. Yet a conspiracy theory was created within the party, claiming that the Vatican in Rome and the United States conspired to bring a native Pole to power as Pope with the goal to end Communism in Poland.
A comparison between Poland on the one hand, and Italy or Spain on the other may be meaningful in light of the fact that they share a long history of Catholic Christianity as a characteristic trait of the large majority of the respective population. However, to expect what happened in Poland to repeat itself in China is utterly unrealistic. The unfounded fears within the party shed a light on how far the orientation on religious affairs there has strayed from historical and empirical reality (Yang 2012: 22).
There are ups and downs in the way party and government in China have dealt with religion, but a general tendency or trend can also be discerned. Fenggang Yang distinguished between three forms of atheism in China since 1949: He called them militant atheism, enlightened atheism and mild atheism (ibid:46). Obviously the orientation of the ccp (Communist Party of China) by itself cannot be called religious, regardless of what definition of religion one prefers.
However, from a purely formalistic perspective some rigid behavior that party members display in public can be compared to the fear members of religious bodies sometimes have, to be identified as straying from the orthodox
Marx wrote: “It (religion) is the fantastic realization of the human essence, because the human essence does not have any true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the struggle against that world, the spiritual smell (aroma) of which is religion. The religious misery is at the same time the expression of the real misery, and also the protest against the real misery. Religion is the moan of the oppressed creature, it is the mental disposition of a heartless world, it is the mind of a mindless condition. It is the Opium of the People” (Marx 1964: 208). The last few words of this quotation are famous, but few people know the context, in which they appear: “Toward a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, Introduction” which Marx published in the German-French Yearbooks in 1843/1844 (Marx 1964).
If Communist orthodoxy wants to follow Marx in this early text it must first consider the struggle for a true reality as essential. One of the claims voiced frequently by spokespersons of the party against religion is the demand, not to get orientation out of dogmas and dreams but instead “to seek the truth in facts” (Yang 2012: 4). The instruction to look into the nature of things is part of ancient Chinese wisdom. Now Yang turns this demand against those, who launched it with respect to pious behavior, in light of “the obvious fact of religious change in China is not decline but resilience” (ibid: 4). In his attempt to explain religious vitality in contemporary China, Yang Fenggang points out that we must try to “understand the resilience of religion in a society with one-fifth of the world’s population” (ibid: 3).
Adapted from: http://www.bigear.cn/news-59-39662.html.
Wikipedia: “The qilin (Chinese: 麒麟; pinyin: qílín) is a mythical hoofed chimerical creature known in Chinese and other East Asian cultures….”
About shamanism in ancient China see: Arthur Waley (1973), The Nine Songs. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Adapted from my diary entry of Wednesday, January 26, 2011.
Neuner, Peter (2015):. See also: Kaltenbrunner, Gerd-Klaus, (1992): 190f.
Wanli 22 identifies a particular year within the Ming Dynasty according to ancient Chinese time.