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A Critique of Chinese Religious Options
by John Warwick Montgomery

We examine the spectrum of Chinese ideological commitments through history and conclude that individually and collectively, they have at best offered no support to human rights and at worst have contributed to a totalitarian mindset that continues to this day. Needed: a Saviour!

Centuries of tradition have crystallized a distinctive philosophical and religious typography in Asia's Middle Country. One of the most distinguished twentieth-century sinologists is John King Fairbank, professor of history at Harvard University, Professor Fairbank writes:

Another part of China's heritage from her past, which lies behind modern authoritarianism, was the particularly passive attitude of non-officials towards government, the apparent irresponsibility of the individual citizen toward affairs of state. Sun Yat-sen complained that his people were like 'a heap of loose sand'. Many writers used to deplore the selfish opportunism, competitive jealousy, and disregard for others which they discerned in individual conduct outside the bond of family, clan, and personal relations. It is a perennially fascinating paradox - this contrast, to the Western way of thinking, between loyalty to family and friends and disregard of the public interest, between the most meticulous sense of responsibility, when responsibility was customarily expected and clearly undertaken, and a callous irresponsibility regarding the suffering of strangers or public evils that concerned no one in particular.

Obviously this unwestern ideal of conduct springs partly from the fact that the family has outweighed the community both as an object of loyalty and a source of benefits. But the secret of the paradox undoubtedly lies also in the passive and individualistic aspects of China's religions. This passivity complements, and also conduces to, authoritarian government. (97; italics ours)

There is no doubt that an important connection exists between the present-day authoritarian Marxist regime in China and the religious history of the Chinese people. To understand the nature of this relationship, we must look both at the traditional faith of the people and at the three great religio-philosophical belief systems that have colored China's historical development (Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism).

Traditional Chinese Religion

In the West, if one excludes primitive, pre-civilised cultures (the Europe of the druids, North America before the arrival of the European), religion may most readily be studied as the history of competing doctrines or institutions: Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism. Folk religion is an interesting, but by no means central, concern. Not so in China.

Religiously the Chinese have been very eclectic. In proportion to the total population, the number of simon-pure Buddhists, Confucianists, or Taoists has been comparatively small . . . In this eclecticism the Chinese were by no means always critical. The masses particularly often held at one and the same time reciprocally contradictory views. (Latourette 523-24)

In a number of ways, the folk religion of China says more about the mentality of the people than the far better known classical religions of that land.

Perhaps the term "religion" is inappropriate for the folk beliefs so characteristic of the long history of China. "Superstition" might be a more accurate designation. Here, for example, is a descriptive summary of the prevailing religious atmosphere during the Han dynasty (202 BC- AD 220):

Many elements can be distinguished in the religious and superstitious beliefs and practices of Han China. There was a deep-seated belief in prognosticating the future; men tried to serve the spirits of their departed ancestors, to placate beings which were thought to be malevolent and to accord due reverence to personified powers of nature. There was a faith in the protecting powers extended by Heaven to the emperor and his dispensation; but at times of political intrigue, attempts were made to interfere with the imperial succession by means of imprecation. A yearning for immortality expressed itself in a number of forms. Some theorists had explained the creation of the universe and the operation of its natural cycles as the result of two overwhelming forces [Yin-Yang] and their interaction with the material elements of which the world was composed; and a faith in these doctrines persuaded some of the need to regulate their behavior and to adopt symbolic patterns so as to comply with these inescapable rhythms. In some areas, particularly in the south, there survived local practices of a dubious nature, which involved a trust in intermediaries and the contacts they made with occult powers through trance or ecstasy.

One of the nine major departments of the Han government was concerned with matters of religion, and its complement included special officials who were responsible for prayer, the up-keep of shrines or similar duties. The attention of the state to these matters was no innovation of the Han house, but came as a heritage from the pre-imperial kingdoms; for these had been no less anxious to secure earthly blessings from unseen powers . . . . The government . . . took a hand in prescribing the rites that were to be performed in honor of the spirits, or to appease those powers thought capable of making or marring human happiness. The state provided for shrines to be built to honor the lords of the rain or the winds, or the guardian spirits of certain holy rivers or mountains. Each locality in the empire was commanded to conduct its own worship and sacrifices to the local protecting spirits and to maintain the intermediaries by whose agency man could make contact with the occult. These spirits included the lords of the soil and of the crops, who were entitled to receive seasonal reverence and offerings of sheep or swine. (Loewe 108-09)

Especially noteworthy here is the early blend of gross superstition and the occult with religious practice, and the government's overall, umbrella-like influence and control over religious activity.

But, surely, it will be argued, such popular beliefs have little to do with the enlightened China of today. Remarkably, the popular religion of twentieth-century China has more affinities with that of the Han period than with the religions of the West! What are its characteristics?

First, there is de facto polytheism. A gigantic pantheon of deities has been the object of Chinese worship through the centuries. Jonathan Chamberlain discusses nineteen of the most influential-including such fascinating specimens as Kuan Yin, the "Hearer of Cries," and T'ao Hua Hsien Nii, the "Peach Blossom Girl"-but these are only a fraction of the gods who can be placated to make life more bearable. This uncritical polytheism displays itself today in the simultaneous worship of mutually inconsistent gods of the major religions:

A friend told me the following story. When she was young her family rented two rooms from an elderly woman. Every Sunday this woman would disappear to the New Territories, One day she asked the woman where she went. The woman told her of the religious group to whose ceremonies she went. They worshipped five Gods-Lao Tzu, Buddha, Confucius, Allah and Christ! (Chamberlain 40)

Secondly, Chinese folk religion yesterday and today contains the powerful element of ancestor worship. Let us hear again from Chamberlain:

Funeral services at the time of the Shang dynasty were lavish and involved the interment of horses, carriages, vessels as well as of wives. The mote important the person, the more people were buried along with him, This was done on the grounds that he would need them in the other world. Also he had to be kept happy for his powers to inflict punishments or grant favors greatly increased after death.

If we compare this with the present day burning of 'hell money', paper houses, cars etc., there is little basic difference. The dead exist and have to be accorded their due ... .

Today, ancestor worship takes a variety of forms. In some households there is a scroll with the names of the ancestors on it. This is often placed in the West hall (the hall of Autumn) and the period of worship covers the first half of the seventh month.

There are also the visits to the graveyard at the festival of Ch'ing Ming in spring and that of Chung Yeung in the late autumn. It is at the former that the bones are cleaned seven or ten years after burial. Both visits involve a meal sharing with the ancestors and traditionally the pork was divided tip between the male heirs.

The dead can provide help but they can also create problems. If the living experience bad luck or worse it may be because they have neglected their duties to their ancestors. A young boy who died some years before may now desire a wife to keep him company in the world of the spirits. A spirit marriage is arranged with a family whose daughter has similarly died unmarried.

Inevitably there are the myriads of dead who have no living family to take care of their needs and provide them with their portion on feast days. They are the Hungry Ghosts. On the seventh month they are let out of Hell to gather what scraps they can. At this time the entire community makes offerings of food and money in order to ward off the potential danger these ghosts pose.

Where do the dead reside? In Heaven? In Hell? In the Yellow Springs? In the air? In the rivers? In the earth? It depends on their status and on the believer. There is no single answer. They are everywhere. (Chamberlain 41-43)

The worship of ancestors inevitably leads to spiritualistic practices-in an effort to communicate with the dead for the benefit of the living. Colonel Burkhardt, a long-time observer of Chinese society, writes principally of life in and around Hong Kong, but his observations are by no means limited to the Cantonese region or dialect:

Chinese constantly consult the spirits of their ancestors when embarking on a new venture, such as opening a business or building a house. Where, however, the ancestral tablets are not available, owing for instance to absence from home, a medium is used to obtain contact. In this case it is essential to know the location of the grave of the person with whom it is desired to communicate.

Two sisters, employed as wash-amahs in different houses in Hong Kong, wished to get in touch with the spirit of their deceased mother, who is buried in a village near Kukong, up the North River from Canton. The journey is expensive and tedious, and letters are few and far between. The Communist censorship also takes any savour out of the gossip retailed. A third sister is working in Singapore but fails to answer letters. The idea was that a talk with the mother would clear up questions of the family welfare and solve the mystery of the sister's silence ....

The medium closes her eyes, and joins her open hands with the finger tips touching and thumbs separate. This forms the 'Eight directions', in one of which every spirit in the universe is to be found. The first communication was startling, for the spirit replied that the mother was not available, as her father-in-law wished to speak with his grandchildren instead. Being of the senior generation he naturally had precedence, and no objection could be raised to his monopolizing the conversation ....

Communication with the spirits has some resemblance to the 'over to you' of radiotelephony. The medium delivers the message to her clients, and then blows lightly into the tunnel of the Eight Directions to establish contact with the other world. As to the present conditions in the family, the grandfather stated that the Kitchen God was unhappy, the Door God disgruntled, and that even the Ancestral tablets found nothing to rejoice in. As attempts have been made to get them burned, and abolish all the old traditions in favor of pure materialism, there seems some justification in their apprehension. (Burkhardt 2:143-45)

Tied to both ancestor worship and to polytheism is the propitiation of demons and evil spirits (the kiwi). Kenneth Scott Latourette, who served as a missionary in China and later, at Yale, became the dean of American church historians, describes this belief in the following terms:

In popular belief kuei-evil spirits or demons-are all about us and are of many kinds and shapes. They may have eyes on the tops of their heads. On occasion they may take the forms of animals or even of men and women. A kuei may be in a man-eating tiger. Great numbers of stories were told of animals-kuei-who could take at will the body of a man or especially of a beautiful woman and in that guise work harm. Kuei may be in old trees, or in clothes, in objects of furniture, or in mountains or stones. Leaves driven before the wind may each be a kuei. Kuei are responsible for all sorts of evils and misfortunes. They lurk in ponds and rivers to draw people in and drown them. Indeed, one theory had it that the kuei of a drowned person remains in the place of the tragedy and can obtain release only by luring some hapless whit to a similar fate. The kuei of a mother who dies in childbirth, so it was believed, wins surcease from anguish by bringing on some other woman the same demise. Insane persons are controlled by kuei. An epidemic of kuei may visit a city-in the old days cutting queues and striking people on the streets. By committing suicide a man might. as a kuei, haunt the person whom he believed to have hounded him to the act. Kiwi might be responsible for illnesses of various kinds. They might bring bad crops and famine. (Latourette 551)

A seemingly milder form of divination ("white" as compared with "black" magic) is fortune-telling. Its principal literary device, the I-Ching, has now become a dangerous object of veneration among Western occultists. (see Montgomery 1973a 49-50) Latourette describes common divinatory practices which are still part of the Chinese folk religion:

Each individual was supposed to have his fate in part determined by the year, month, day, and hour, or simply the year, month, and day, on which he was born. Each of these was indicated by a certain combination of one of the ten 'heavenly stems' and the twelve 'earthly branches'. The result was either eight or six characters which must be consulted by the fortune-teller in determining such matters as betrothals. There were lucky and unlucky days for marriages and funerals, for commencing building operations, or for beginning a journey. Among the many factors that could be taken into consideration in determining whether and when to enter upon a particular course of action were the five elements, the animals supposed to be identified with the twelve 'earthly branches', and combinations of the two, the calendar with its lucky and unlucky days (formerly published by imperial authority), the pa kua (eight trigrams) which form the basis of the I Ching and which from prehistoric times had been utilized by diviners, and the I Ching itself. There were many ways of fortune-telling-among them the inspection of the physiognomy, the choice of a slip of paper by a bird and the interpretation of the picture or characters on the slip by the soothsayer, and the casting of lots by any one of several devices. (Latourette 555)

Then there is the tree-worship component of traditional Chinese religion. Comments Burkhardt:

It is unnecessary to go further than a mile from Tai Po to find an instance in every Hakka hamlet. Primitive man detected spirits in rocks, trees, and rivers, and, in spite of the shortage of fuel which has led to the deforestation of large areas of China, and impoverished the country through soil erosion, a prejudice persists against felling a large tree. In southern Fukien, their spirits are regarded as dangerous to offend. Many of the trees, however, are occupied by friendly spirits, who grant petitions, and are especially efficacious in case of sickness. These are garlanded with paper scrolls inscribed by grateful clients, or brightly colored rags, accompanied by the same characters 'Honor the Spirit' which crown the reredos of the well altar. In one case a semicircle of rocks forms a sort of open-air chapel, whilst a large flat stone serves as an altar. The incense burner bristled with half-burned red sticks, and two or three libation cups were a mute testimony to the generosity of the congregation. (Burkhardt 1:122-23)

Finally, Chinese folk religion embraces beliefs and practices termed fêng shui (literally: wind and water). These also are by no means of uniquely historical interest:

Feng shui was based upon the belief that in every locality forces exist which act on graves, buildings, cities, and towns, either for the welfare or the ill of the quick and the dead. The object of feng shui, therefore, was to discover the sites where the beneficent influences predominated, or so to alter, by artificial means, the surroundings of existing sites that the same happy results could be achieved, To attain these ends advice was sought from specialists feng shui ....

Fêng shui was especially used in determining the locations for interments. Stories abounded of families that had been ruined because the grave of an ancestor had an unfavorable fêng shui and of others that prospered because of a fortunate location of ancestral remains. Whole cities, too, were said to have had their fortunes improved by the construction of a pagoda on expert advice. (Larourette 554-55)

What is the significance of this superstitious popular religion in today's China? To be sure, it is far less influential in the cities than in tile countryside, and the Marxist regime has done all within its power to root it out. But, ironically, folk religion has probably done more to help the autocratic reign of Deng's gerontocracy than it has hurt it. Latourette suggests a connection when he writes that Chinese folk beliefs

may leave the impression that the religion of the majority was chaotic, uncritical, and an inconsistent jumble of beliefs and practices of varying origins. This is in part correct. Along with all the diversity, however, went a widespread feeling of unity-that the world, both seen and unseen, is after all a universe, and that there is one Power or Being who ultimately controls it and to whom appeal may be made. In the will of this One, conceived of as righteous, there was a good deal of quiet trust. This One was believed, in the long run, to even up the inequalities of life, in an individual or group, averaging the bitter with the sweet. For example, the High God of the people, known and revered all over China as T'ien Lao Yeh, or Lao T'ien Fo Yeh, or Lao T'ien Yeh, personalized Heaven, God, or Providence. Moreover, there was a good deal of determinism in the popular mind, a kind of fatalism which bowed calmly to the inevitable, conceived of more or less dimly as the will of the inscrutable Power which governs the affairs of men. (Larourette 553-54; italics ours)

In point of fact, the amorphous, theologically undefined, and essentially personal nature of Chinese folk religion offered no obstacle to centralized, totalitarian power; indeed, its fatalistic "bowing to the inevitable" might even be said to encourage it. The Cult of Mao and his orthodox Marxist successors could well be understood, from such a viewpoint, as an earthly reflection of "the inscrutable Power which governs the affairs of men."

One can go deeper. Sociologist C.K. Yang has observed "the organizational weakness of Chinese religions that helps to keep religion in a subordinate structural position among social institutions, thus preventing any successful attainment by religion of structural dominance." He sees this weakness as

rooted partly in the constant political suppression and control of religious organizations, and also possibly in some of the characteristics of Chinese religions, such as interfaith polytheism and magic. But perhaps the most important factor lies in the dominance of diffused religions in Chinese social life, since diffused religions possess no independent personnel and organization of their own and are under the constant control of the secular leadership of social institutions into which they are diffused. (C.K. Yang 290)

"Interfaith polytheism and magic" does indeed constitute a "diffused religion" incapable of any kind of organized, prophetic counterweight to political oppression. At best, folk religion may offer personal solace in a mysterious universe. At worst, it bows to "the constant control of the secular leadership," thereby allowing the latter to do whatever it wishes without religious reproach. We shall soon see that it is not only traditional folk religion in China that has taken the flaccid line of least resistance,


Moving now to the classical religions of China, we begin with the oldest and the most related to traditional folk religion. Taoism takes its name from the Tao or universal principle, and Appeared in the sixth century BC, a century before the golden age of Greek philosophy.

The most important name in the early history of Tãoism is that of its founder, Lao-tze, who can best be characterized as a mystic. (When we discuss Confucianism, we shall see how different in personality were Confucius, the practical moralist, and Lao-tze, the mystic.)

Little is known of the life of Lao-tze. The chief source of information is a 248-word biographical sketch written some five hundred years after the death of its subject-an interesting contrast with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all recounted by eyewitness testimony within little more than a generation of the events themselves. (see Montgomery 1971; Montgomery 1972) In that biography of Lao-tze (by the "Chinese Herodotus", Sma Chien), we are told that "When he foresaw the decay of Chou, he departed and crossed the frontier:" One commentator has observed:

Instead of resolutely facing the evils and attempting to apply his principle[s] concretely, as Confucius did, Lao-tze only talked some sage advice; and then he resigned from his government post into convenient irresponsibility, as many another Chinese official has done even to modern times. (Hume 131)

But by the eighth century AD, he was canonized as the "Great Sage Ancestor" and subsequently was made a member of the Taoist trinity.

The Taoist scriptures consist of a tractate attributed to Lao-tze, the Tao-Teh-King, for which, however, there is no evidence to link it to its supposed author. It has some remarkable parallels to the Bible (a German treatise by I. Hesse on "Lao-tze: A Prechristian Witness to Truth" lists 268) (Hesse), but it is so dry that the Emperor Ming Ti (third century AD) declared that punishment would come upon "any official who either stretched, yawned, or expectorated" during his public reading of it. Another important Taoist holy writing is the later Tai-Shang Kang-Ying Pien. It contains high ethical sentiments, but also long lists of questionable moralistic trivia such as "Don't listen to what your wife and concubines say"; "Don't sing and dance On the last day of the month, or on the last day of the year"; "Don't weep or spit toward the north"; "Don't point at a rainbow."

The heart of Taoism is the concept of the Tao itself. Etymologically, the word means "Way," "Path," "Road." In its highest sense, it designates the philosophical Absolute, the Supreme Being. It is sometimes rendered "Reason" (i.e., the rational principle of the universe). In translating the Gospel of John into the Chinese, the Logos-the Word that was from the beginning with God and was God-is invariably rendered Do.

Proper religious conduct is to live in accord with the Tao. But what does this mean? In the appendix to his Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis uses the term to represent the sum total of the high moral teachings of the world's religions. (Lewis 51-61; Cf. Montgomery 1995 122 if.) This, however, is not what the Taoist understands by Tao; indeed, the absence of any objective standard of morality in Taoism makes the distinguishing of good conduct from bad largely a subjective affair. The most common ethical phrase in Taoism is wu-wei, which translates as "non-striving," "doing nothing," "inactivity." Dutch ambassador, polymath, sinologist, and mystery writer Robert Van Gulik translates a poem of Ch'ang-tzu (fourth century BC) on the subject as follows:

You can't say Tao exists
You can't say Tao does not exist
But you can find it in the silence,
in wu-wei (deedlessness). (Van de Wetering 13-14; quoting from Van Gulik's manuscript)

The idea may be, as has been suggested by some interpreters, that perfect conduct consists of placid contentment-a sublime indifference toward everything and everybody, even as Aristotle's Supreme Being contemplated only himself, thereby avoiding all other concerns which would necessarily disturb his perfection. If so, it stands 180 degrees removed from Christianity, where God, seeing the human race dead in trespasses and sins, so loved us that he came to earth to die for our miseries and raise us to glory: the very antithesis of "inactivity." But the undefined vagueness of the concept opens it up to a plethora of interpretations, certainly justifying ethical indifferentism. Without a "Tao made flesh"-to give personal and revelational substance to metaphysical and ethical ideals-one is left in a never-never land of ambiguity and amorality.

And, in fact, this has been the sad modern history of the Taoist movement. In practice, Taoism has taken on most of the worst features of Chinese folk religion as discussed earlier, Thus Hume:

The actual outworkings of the system have been quite different from the high theories of its founder. Yet the Tao-Teh-King itself presents some basis for all of the later developments of Taoism except the hierarchical papacy. Taoists have lost almost totally their founder's original protest against social disorders and his measure of ethical idealism. Taoism has always been mystical, but through most of its history it has interpreted the mysterious mostly in magical and anti-scientific terms. Taoism presents a pathetic history. It started with some admirable features, but it has degraded fearfully into polytheism, demonolatry, witchcraft, and occultism...

The social morality of the Taoist priests is in general ill repute. The easiest approximation to the unperturbed condition of the immortal Tao is now conceived to be accomplished through the method of retiring into a monastery or a nunnery, and there living inactively so as to produce prodigious longevity. Every one of the authorities who deals with Taoism from personal knowledge of it, utters condemnation. (Home 143-44)

Taoism blends with Chinese folk religion ideologically in its use of the traditional categories of the Yin and the Yang-the male and female principles that represent the perpetual interaction of opposites in the universe. This constantly unfolding flux of Yin and Yang characterizes both the uncreated macrocosmic universe and the microcosmic world of the human body. In Needham's phrase, the Taoist cosmos is "the web that has no weaver." (Needham 1956 556; Cf. Needham 1981) A third century BC Taoist philosopher put it this way:

The operations of Heaven are profoundly mysterious. It has water-levels for levelling, but it does not use them; it has plumb lines for setting things upright, but it does not use them, It works in deep stillness...

Thus it is said, Heaven has no form and yet the myriad things are brought to perfection. It is like the most impalpable of featureless essences, and yet the myriad changes are all brought about by it. So also the sage is busied about nothing. and yet the thousand executives of State are effective in the highest degrees.

This may be called the untaught teaching, and the wordless edit.

Comments Kaptchuk on this passage, in his effort to understand and evaluate Chinese medicine:

The Chinese description of reality does not penetrate to a math; it can only be a poetic description of a truth that cannot be grasped For the Chinese, this description of the eternal process of Yin and Yang is the only way to try to explain either the workings of the universe or the workings of the human body. And it is enough, because the process is all there is; no underlying truth is ever within reach. The truth is imminent in everything and is the process itself...

New ideas in Western science, ideas that point toward an awareness of the totality of being, have arisen as a direct result of the Western urge to penetrate phenomena and to find the transcendent truth behind them. Western thought, at its most noble and honest, is nourished by the constant tension between unknown and known, imperfect and perfect. Western humanity is quickened by a metaphysical dilemma-on the one hand, it was created in the image of the Almighty, and on the other, it was created from dust. Western human-kind is enmeshed in creating and becoming; it labors in growth and development. Perhaps this is a consequence of Judeo-Christian emphasis on an omnipresent, transcendent God making impossible the attainment of human perfection... . In any case, it is an idea altogether missing in China. (Kaptchuk 257-58, 264-65)1


The second of the officially recognized San Chiao or classical "Three Religions" of China is Confucianism. It appeared shortly after the beginnings of Taoism; indeed, Confucius amid Lao--tze were contemporaries.

There is no better way to understand the difference in style and approach of these two religions than to listen to the encounter Confucius had with Lao-tze when the former, at age thirty--four, visited the latter owing to his official position as archivist at the court of the dynasty of Chou and his reputation as the "Venerable Philosopher."

Lao-tze chided that historian-to-be and busy young reformer, who desired to search out the ancient history of China and to restore its passing glory by a scheme of social properties.

'The men about whom you talk are dead, and their bones are moldered to dust. Put away your proud airs and many desires.'

Instead, Lao-tze urged Confucius to search quietly and personally for the Tao, which is the mystic principle of the universe, and which alone can furnish the key to religion and life. When the young man asserted that he had been studying diligently in books for twenty years past, Lao-tze replied:

'If the Tao could be offered to men, who would not wish to offer it to his Prince? If it could be presented to men, who would not wish to present it to his parents? If is could be announced to men, who would not wish to announce it to his brethren? If it could be transmitted to men, who would not wish to transmit it to his children? Why do you not obtain it? This is the reason: Because you do not give it an asylum in your heart.'

After this interview Confucius, who later was to be recognized as the most famous scholar and teacher of all China, said to his disciples:

'I know how the birds fly, how the fishes swim, how animals run. But there is the Dragon. I cannot tell how it mounts on the wind through the clouds, and flies through Heaven. Today I have seen Lao-tze, and I can only compare him to the Dragon [i.e., supra-mundane and unintelligible mystery].'

Lao-tze must have appeared to Confucius like an other-worldly dreamer, soaring among the clouds of his own speculations. And Confucius must have seemed to Lao-tze like a busybody, meddling in everybody's affairs. The two most influential men of China were indeed different from one another in their interests, aims, methods, and general systems. (Hume 129-30)

Confucius spent his life as a teacher (the private school he started reached an enrollment of 3,000 students) and as a state official (ultimately becoming a chief justice). He devoted his final years to editing and writing works which became the sacred scriptures of Confucianism-though he never claimed any kind of divine inspiration for them. These include the Canonical Classics (one of which is the I-Ching, referred to earlier in our discussion of Chinese folk religion), and the Four Books, most notable of which are the Analects (Confucius' collected sayings) and the works of Mencius, Confucius' great disciple and expositor.

Some have argued that Confucianism should not be treated as a religion at all, but rather as a philosophy. True, Confucius was indifferent to metaphysical questions, and did not concern himself at all with the issues of God's existence or the worship of him." While you cannot serve men," he answered an inquirer, 'how can you serve spirits?" When the same inquirer asked about life after death, he received a similar reply: "While you do not know life, what can you know about death?" (Analects ix. 11:1) However, the final section of the Analects2 contains such passages as "The Master said, 'Without recognizing the ordinances of Heaven it is impossible to be a superior man,"' and ultimately the veneration and temple worship of Confucius himself (including extensive animal sacrifice) became an integral part of the imperial state religion. In the name of Confucianism, government officials during the empire served as priests of Heaven conducting what amounted to nature-worship. And the practice of ancestor worship, which we have seen to be one of the most important elements in Chinese folk religion, became central to Confucianism through its emphasis on filial piety.

But what was the core of Confucius' own teaching? Y.C. Yang has said that "Confucianism is a one-word religion." (Y.C. Yang 63) The word he refers to is Jen, a composite character made up of the two simple characters man and the number two.


The idea here is that a person is never alone, for there is always a "second man" to be taken into account. If the underlying powerful Christian theology were to be removed from John Donne's famous aphorism, much the same would be conveyed in his words: "No man is an island unto himself" Probably the best translation of Jen is simply "altruism."

And here we arrive at Confucius' ethic of Shu or reciprocity, amid his famous negative statement of the Golden Rule: "What you do not want done to yourself do not to others" (Analects xv.23). This so-called "Silver Rule" (not Golden because it is framed negatively) was put in more positive terms by Confucius' disciple Mencius when he exhorted his followers to "treat with due consideration and regard the aged ones of our own and extend the same to the aged of others; in the same way, treat the younger ones of our own and extend the same to the younger ones of others." (Mencius, Bk. 1, Pt. 1, vii. 12).

Since this altruistic principle of reciprocity has no theological underpinnings, it really functions as little more than a philosophical or ethical proposal. When Confucius says, "If this is where you would like to stand, then let him stand here also" (Analects vi.23:2), one thinks inevitably of Kant's categorical imperative: "So act that your action may become a universal rule." But, as I have argued elsewhere:

The reply of the thoroughly self-centered person, the fanatic, the revolutionary, or the anarchist may well be: "I'll act without regard for others (or the other side) if I can get away with it." Experientially, we all know that others do not or cannot always give the actor tit for tat, so in the absence of a final accounting (a Last Judgement) the unprincipled person may well choose to disregard the rights of others when he has the power to get away with it. The condottieri of Machiavelli's time, Burkhardt tells us, enjoyed the game of rolling boulders from their castles down onto their peasants working in the fields; since they feared neither God nor man, they did what pleased them, in total disregard of any principle of universalization. Human rights violations of our day have the same shape, and the violators continue to say, 'So what?' (Montgomery 1995 97)

That which a critic wrote of Kant could apply equally to Confucius:

In the end, we must conclude that Kant failed to discover a way to deduce objective, obligatory ends from the mere analysis of what it is to be a rational agent. He was therefore unable also to establish the unconditionally universal validity of any substantive principles of practical reason. (Wolff 111)

Is it any wonder that the Confucian ethic has done little to restrain imperial autocracy through Chinese history or the present-day manifestations of centralized governmental power in that land?

Confucianism has maintained unflappable confidence in human nature. True, the third century BC Confucian philosopher Hsun Tzu asserted that some men were "incorrigibly evil" and in general had a low view of man. But though he has been called "the moulder of ancient Confucianism," Hsun Tzu's views in this respect did not prevail. (Creel 98ff.) Confucius himself was convinced that men are perfectible through education. (Sadly, Confucius never had Plato's experience. After writing of the ideal "philosopher-king" in The Republic, Plato had the opportunity to educate the prince of Syracuse, who turned out to be a dunderhead. Plato then revised his previous view that a sovereign should stand above the law.)

Of what, specifically, does the Confucian educative process consist? What particular virtues are to be inculcated? Professor Yang sets these forth with admirable clarity:

While Jen is declared to be the root and measure of all virtues in human relations, in order to be more explicit and specific we have laid down for us the five cardinal virtues to which we should particularly pay attention. These are Jen or Benevolence, Yi or Righteousness, Li or Propriety. Chih or Wisdom, and Hsis or Fidelity, that is, faith and faithfulness. The first three belong to the realm of theory, and the second two belong to the realm of action. The First three are objects to be comprehended, and the second two are objects to be demonstrated or practised in conduct.

The relationship of the first three can perhaps be best explained by using a tree as an analogy. Jen or Benevolence (in the larger Confucian sense) is the root of all moral, good and proper, action. Yi or Righteousness is the trunk of the tree, the manifestations of Jen in its applications to life and living. Ii or rules of Propriety (including etiquette and ceremony but larger than both) are the various branches of the trunk, or the concrete detailed rules of conduct based upon the idea of Righteousness which springs from Benevolence (comparable to the laws of the Pharisees). Chih or Wisdom is the apprehension of Truth. Hsin or Fidelity is faith and faithfulness in the application of the knowledge of Truth thus apprehended. If we should continue further the use of the figure of the tree, we could say that Wisdom is the flower, and Faith the fruit, on this tree of virtue.

Confucianism recognizes live fundamental relations in society. These are those between sovereign and minister (or between the state and the citizen), between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder brother and younger brother, anti between friends. Between father and son there should be family affection; between sovereign and minister, righteousness; between husband and wife, differentiation of functions (or division of labor); between elder brother and younger brother, a proper order of precedence; between friends, fidelity . . .

These live fundamental relations involve ten different parties, giving rise to ten different principles or attitudes which, by analogy, may be called the 'ten commandments of Confucian philosophy.' These ten principles, as stated in the classics, are that the father should he kind; the son, filial; the elder brother, good; the younger brother, respectful; the husband, righteous; the wife, listening; the elder, gracious; the junior, complaisant; the ruler or king, benevolent (Jen); the subjects or officials, loyal. (YC. Yang 80-83)

The Confucian social ethic is based on an underlying philosophy of the body politic. Just as Confucius assumed that the universe was fundamentally harmonious (he had no conception of a fallen world) and that man was basically good (for him, sin had no meaning at all), so Confucianism's social principles assume a stable, hierarchically organized society.

The ethics of Confucianism are the ethics of a dignified aristocracy which prided itself on a long-established social order, and which despised outlandish barbarians. No other ethical system in the world has so emphatically prescribed to rulers duties for the welfare of the people in the state. The ethics of Confucianism were clearly formulated in an age self-contained and self-satisfied. They do not contain provisions for problems of industrialism, democracy, and internationalism. (Hume 119)

True, Munro has tried to argue for a fundamental egalitarianism in Confucian thought, claiming that "previous commentators on classical Chinese philosophy have been misled by the Confucian assertion that a hierarchical society is justified by the hierarchical character of nature itself, and that men are of unequal merit." (Munro vii) But even he only attempts to show (minimalistically) that Confucianism believed all men at birth shared common attributes; he does not even try to disprove the overwhelmingly well established fact that for Confucians are of unequal merit and cannot therefore legitimately claim equal treatment economically or politically. Even if Munro is right that Confucianism held to a form of "natural equality;' this is of little practical importance, for social structures inevitably mould us in different and unequal ways as we grow up and Confucianism tells us that we are to subordinate ourselves to those structures, since they represent the will of Heaven.

Professor Yang states flatly that the Confucian social ethic deals with "duties and obligations, and not rights and interests." (Y.C. Yang 83) Confucianism nowhere addresses the civil and political liberties of the subject: rather, all emphasis is placed on the duty of the ruler to treat the subject fairly. But suppose he doesn't? The subject's duty is to obey the sovereign, and he is in no position to insist upon his rights (which, in any case, are left undefined-indeed undiscussed). It should be painfully clear that such a philosophy easily justifies autocratic rule, and can hardly be appealed to in opposition to totalitarian affronts to human dignity.

And without an eternal reference point for the value of the human being and his God-given rights, what could we expect? James Legge of Oxford, perhaps the greatest nineteenth-century authority on Chinese thought in general and Confucianism in particular, concluded his analysis of Confucius' teachings with these sobering words:

His teaching was thus hardly more than a pure secularism. He had faith in man, manned made for society, but he did not care to follow him out of society, nor to present to him motives of conduct derived from the consideration of a future state. Good and evil would be recompensed by the natural issues of conduct within the sphere of time, - if not in the person of the actor, yet in the persons of his descendants. If there were any joys of heaven to reward virtue, or terrors of future retribution to punish vice, the sage took no heed of the one or the other. Confucius never appeared to give the evils of polygamy a thought. He mourned deeply the death of his mother; but no generous word ever passed his lips about woman as woman. Nor had he the idea of any progress or regeneration of society. The stars all shone to him in the same heavens behind; none beckoned brightly before. It was no doubt the moral element of his teaching, springing out of his view of human nature, which attracted many of his disciples, and still holds the best part of the Chinese men of learning bound to him; but the conservative tendency of his lessons…is the chief reason why successive dynasties have delighted to do him honor.3


The third of the classic "Three Religions" of China originated in India but reached China about AD 70, contemporaneously with the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans. Buddhism became thoroughly acclimated to Chinese civilization and its temples are found everywhere. All varieties of Buddhism are represented in China, though Mahayana Buddhism predominates. There are some ten Buddhist sects in the country; two are Hinayana and the other eight belong to the Mahayana school, and among the Mahayana variety are representatives of both Pure Land Buddhism and Zen.

The founder of Buddhism, Guatama (his Sanscrit name) is supposed to have lived from 560 to 480 BC. But accurate historical facts about him are virtually non-existent. In the definitive modern life of Buddha we are told that

in the present state of our knowledge we cannot in any instance declare that Buddha said so and so. The fact that we start from is that we have a collection of documents, which were held some two centuries after Buddha to contain his utterances. (Thomas 251)

The most striking event in these questionable accounts of his life is the story of his so-called "Great Renunciation" at the age of twenty-nine.

While out pleasure driving Prince Guatama was deeply impressed by four passing sights, viz.: a decrepit old man, a loathsomely sick man, a corpse, and a calm religious ascetic unperturbed by any suffering. He became distressed at the thought that lie himself and all mankind were liable to the miseries of oncoming old age, sickness, and death, And he became convinced that only resolute sell-sacrifice and search would win triumphant peace. Therefore, despite a fierce temptation, he renounced his wife, a new-born son, and the inheritance of his father's throne. Cutting off his hair, he assumed the garb of a monk. (Hume 61-62)

Upon recognizing what philosophers have come to term the "human predicament," Guatama endeavoured to find a solution for it. He followed the Hindu path of metaphysical speculation and the Jainist route of bodily asceticism, but found no peace. Finally, one night, while sitting cross-legged under a bo-tree (the tree subsequently became the prime object of Buddhist pilgrimage), he arrived at enlightenment (in Sanscrit, Buddha, Gaurama's name from that point on). Enlightenment came through his discovery of the "Four Noble Truths" and the "Noble Eightfold Path:' by the application of which one could be freed from the burden of karma or guilt which necessitated continual rebirths (the Hindu doctrine of the transmigration of souls) and enter the blissful state of Nirvana or non-existence - "as the candle's flame is reabsorbed into the sun and as the droplet of rain re-enters the ocean whence it came."

The Four Noble Truths are: (1) All existence is suffering; (2) Desire is the cause of suffering; (3) All suffering will therefore cease when we suppress all desires; (4) To eliminate desire one must adhere to the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path, in turn, consists of right belief, aspiration, speech, action, livelihood, endeavour, thought, and concentration.

Buddha spent the remainder of his long life in preaching this message and in making and training disciples. After his death he was first venerated and later deified. The Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") branch of Buddhism ultimately declared that when Guatama delayed his entrance into Nirvana after enlightenment, he did it as an essential model: the bodhisattva (enlightened disciple) will compassionately refuse the state of full blessedness until others are led into that state as well, The "Pure Land" variant of Mahayana Buddhism is often said to proclaim salvation by grace through faith.

But these seeming parallels to Christianity are only skin deep. Sparks notes that Buddhism and Christianity relate history to eternity in two different, incompatible ways:

Whereas Buddha "enters" history to exhibit compassion and to reveal a saving truth which is independent of history, Christ "enters" history in order to accomplish and confirm by his death and resurrection a salvation which is incomplete without such historical involvement. (Sparks 195)

As for the Buddhist sect of Pure Land (known in Japan as Jodo and Jodo Shin-shu), the claim is that salvation allegedly attained by complete commitment to the grace of Amida-Buddha is equivalent to the central Christian doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let us hear from three specialists on the question.

Fumio Masutani, professor at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and himself a Pure Land Buddhist, asserts:

Fundamentally speaking, Buddha is the ideal which man aims to attain. is undeniable that there is a fundamental difference between Christianity and Buddhism. Buddhism starts with the idea that man is an existence, while Christianity says that man is a creature. Christianity teaches that in the very beginning; there was a God from whom all things are derived and that this God is the fundamental fact and not merely a simile or an expedient. On the other hand, Amida Buddha is more or less in the nature of an expedient (hoben-setsu) because it is made by the consciousness, that is, it is a creation of the mind (tshiki-shozo no mono). (Tamura 49)

Steinilber-Oberlin interviewed several bonzes of the Pure Land persuasion.

What essential difference do you see between your doctrine and Christianity, which also comprises a Saviour, a Paradise and only requires of men-Faith? I asked curiously. 'In Christianity, God is all, man is nothing. According to the Jodo and Shinshu sects, man escapes from suffering and reaches the supreme goal, not, it is true, by his own merit, which is too weak, but thanks to the compassionate intervention of Buddha. But Buddha is a man. As I was saying to you a moment ago, Amida-Buddha can be compared to lunar light. This light is everywhere present, but it only exists for those who look at it. If humanity did not exist, Amida-Buddha would not exist either. Amida-Buddha exists in function to human life, and his beneficent activity is in function of men's desire to reach a refuge-salvation. In Christianity everything goes from God to man; the two terms apply to two entirely different personalities, the one being the creature of the other. The one is All-the other nothing. In the Jodo and Shin doctrines a human ascent towards the Pure Land takes place. We all become Buddha, and we are so already in a certain degree, since Amida-Buddha is space, Time, Eternal Life'...

I next asked the two bonzes [Kenryo Kawasaki and Fujioka of the Shinshu sect] the question I had previously asked the bonze Kanei Okamoto, of the Jodo sect. "Since, according to your sect, Buddhism exacts from the believer faith in an adored Saviour, what essential difference do you establish between Christianity and your doctrine?" I received the same answer-i.e. that Buddhism does not recognize any omnipotent God exterior to the creature, to whom He dictates his duties. Buddhism is exclusively a human, moral and philosophical system. Amida-Buddha, the Saviour, is in function with humanity which needs to be saved. And Mr. Fujioka resumed this in the following impressive formula: 'It is not because there is a Buddha that Humanity exists. It is because Humanity exists that there is a Buddha.' (Steinilber-Oberlin 190-91, 202; italics ours)

Tucker Callaway, in a doctoral dissertation involving extensive research in printed sources (50 pages of notes) and interviews with Japanese Buddhist leaders, shows that Pure Land Buddhism actually reduces to monistic idealism:

When considered in terms of hooben [a teaching device, an accommodation to language; Sanskrit: upaya], Shin seems theistic. . . . It should be noted, however, that even when set forth in terms of personality, there are fundamental differences between the concept of Amida and that of the Heavenly Father of Christianity. For instance, when viewed realistically, Amida must be conceived as a human being who attained his divinity by his own efforts.... Amida is, after all, like all other particular entities-merely a thought-image in the busshin [the ultimate Buddha Reality]. . . The Shin concept of Amida seems theistic only when superficially viewed. Ultimately, Shin is pantheistic. . .. Ultimately, Shin is atheistic in the same sense that Zen is atheistic. The Absolute with which both sects are concerned is the same. Amida and the busshin are one. . . . To seek Amida beyond the empirical self is, after all, no different from seeking the busshin within. The quest of Shin and the quest of Zen differ only in terminology, not in fact. (Callaway 104-10)

The sacred scriptures of Buddhism consist of the Tripitaka (the "Three Baskets" of Wisdom- the Discipline Basket, the Teaching Basket, and the Metaphysical Basket or Higher Doctrine) in the Pali dialect, together with a large body of non-canonical, traditional literature in Sanskrit. The Tripitaka itself consists of some 10,000 pages, and only part of it has been translated into other languages, including Chinese. Some of the most fetching literature of China (such as the tales of Monkey) recount the partly historical, partly imaginary travels of Buddhist monks who bring scripture from India to China. Yet

the canonical scriptures of Buddhism contain no complete biography of the founder, no report of any later leader continuing the work of the founder, no historic application of the highest Buddhist principles to the regeneration of society, no intimation of a creative purpose or power in the world, and no prophetic vision of a glorious abundant life here or hereafter. (Hume 75)

'Why is there "no application of the highest Buddhist principles to the regeneration of society"? The answer is that at its very heart Buddhism takes its adherent away from society. In the final analysis, all is maya (illusion). Professor Yang characterizes Buddhism as "the path of escape," and observes that

to the Buddhist the world is purely subjective. To him there is no objective reality in the outside world, Life is but a dream; the world is but a make-believe phenomenon. (121)

The object of personal existence is to separate oneself from all desire-including a desire to alter the nature of society-so as to avoid the round of transmigrations/reincarnations and pass from this illusory world of phenomena into the blissful non-existence of Nirvana. Quite obviously such a world-view, even if one leaves aside its analytic, epistemological meaninglessness (see Montgomery 1973b 145-55), is utterly incapable of responding to questions of social justice. Hume, after quoting the standard Buddhist aphorism "Let him [the disciple] wander alone like a rhinoceros", makes the devastating but accurate judgement: "The main trend in Buddhist ethics is negative, repressive, quietistic, individualistic, anti-social." (Hume 69)4

Indeed, it may well be asked whether Buddhism has any defined ethic at all. After a frustrating decade in Marxism, novelist Arthur Koestler went on a year's pilgrimage to drink at the founts of Buddhist wisdom. He found gurus whose messages were totally ambiguous and Zen monks who had no difficulty in volunteering as kamikaze pilots. (Koestler especially 236-41, 268-75)5 Koestler concluded that the absence of any objective standards of right and wrong in Buddhism makes the religion a social liability. This is of course particularly the case when, as in Tiananmen Square, good and evil meet each other head on, and the interests of justice cry out for support and principled commitment.

Some Concluding Generalizations

Latourette, speaking of the overall Chinese religious scene, notes what he calls "a kind of slovenliness in the temples and in the carrying out of the ceremonies." Our first-hand contact with Chinese life in June of 1989, twenty-five years after Latourette wrote on the subject, brought us to exactly the same conclusion.

Even before the anti-religious wave of the 1920s and after, a large proportion of the temples seemed to be in a state of chronic neglect, and a visit between important occasions would often find courts weed-grown and the great halls dusty and festooned with cobwebs. While ceremonies were supposed to conform to prescribed forms, and correct posturing, costuming, and utterances of phrases were emphasized, yet, as in the case of funerals where beggars were employed to fill out the procession, the wearers of the elaborate clothing might be unwashed, and in the less obvious corners of the shrine dust and debris might lie undisturbed. (Latourette 526)

"Chronic neglect" as a characteristic of Chinese religion certainly reflects the efforts of Marxism and particularly its cultural revolution to extirpate the "opium of the people:' But it is also a commentary on the debility both of Chinese folk religion and of the three classical Chinese faiths to meet the deepest needs of the people.

Tiananmen Square is a symbol of the inevitable confrontation between autocratic, dictatorial, totalitarian power and the personal longings of the citizenry for civil rights, freedom of communication, and government free from nepotism and corruption. But what does Chinese religion offer in this conflict? Ironically, it aligns itself much more naturally with the Marxist leadership that would eliminate it than it does with the protestors of 3-4 June 1989!

Chinese folk religion totally neglects social justice in its preoccupation with the superstitious satisfaction of personal and familial needs. Taoism and Confucianism have always allied themselves with the aristocratic, autocratic, imperial status quo. Buddhism's unworldliness offers no opposition to social evils in general or to totalitarianism in particular.

One last general characteristic of Chinese religion that needs mention is state control. As far back as the Chou and probably earlier, religion was a function of society as expressed in such institutions as the state and the family. When, under the Ch'in, the Empire was organized, the authority of the state in religion was rigorously exercised. In theory the state remained supreme in such matters down through the Ch'ing. The control of the state was not always vigorously asserted. A good deal of practical toleration existed. Yet the right was always there and from time to time was emphatically exercised. No great religious organization has ever made an effective bid for superiority over the state in the loyalties of the Chinese. (Latourette 528)

But by far the greatest single weakness of Chinese religion vis-à-vis societal needs-and the chief source of its slovenliness and flaccidity-is the absence from it of any clearly defined. justifiable standards of personal and social ethics.

Whether one looks at the impossibly vague Tao and the deedless wu-wei of Taoism, or at the naïve altruism and formalistic categorical imperative of Confucianism, or at the escapism and ethical simple-mindedness of much of Buddhist thought (the Eightfold Path, for example, has a compelling force roughly equivalent to that of the Boy Scout Law), one is not surprised at the inability of these viewpoints to present any meaningful case for human rights or against a leadership that would slaughter unarmed student protesters.

Moreover, not one of these traditional or classic religions provides a way to change the heart so as to arrive at genuine concern for one's fellow man. All of Chinese religion either considers man basically good and not requiring redemption (folk religion, Taoism, Confucianism) or sees him capable of saving himself through a consciously chosen renunciation of both the world in which he lives and the people with whom he has contact (Buddhism). Another route entirely must be sought if China is to rise above its autocratic past, a past which is reflected as much today as in the imperial dynasties of yesterday. In a word, China has never had a "last emperor"-and desperately needs the biblical King of kings.6


1. Kaptchuk is a Doctor of Oriental Medicine and of the - Jewish persuasion. On the important contribution of Reformation theology to the rise of science in Western Europe in the 17th century, see Montgomery (1973c).

2. The most helpful recent edition is The Analects. Ed. and Translation by D.C. Lau (1986).

3. James Legge. (1910 - 11) Confucius." in Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th ed. 5:912. Legge wrote, inter alia: The Life and Teaching of Confucius (1867), The Life and Teaching of Mencius (1875), and The Religions of China (1880).

4. Buddhists themselves have been sadly incapable of rehabilitating their religion from such criticisms; see, for example, Suzuki (1936). On the human-rights failings of Eastern religions, see Montgomery (1995) 112 ff.

5. Tragically, Koestler's personal search for truth never brought him to the Cross of Christ; he and his wife ultimately died in a suicide pact.

6. For a discussion on the subject of this essay in a wider context, see the author's book Giant in Chains: China Today and Tomorrow (1994).

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