Chinese religions: from talking foxes to Chairman Mao’s temples.
It is generally believed that the inhabitants of China professed three religions, or three teachings-Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. In fact, the Chinese religious world is a much more complex system of beliefs, teachings, religious practices and ideas, formed on the basis of principles other than those of Christianity, Islam or Judaism. This system has undergone a long evolution, during which new elements were added to it, and some of the old ones disappeared or were significantly transformed.
The religions of China have a number of features that distinguish them from the religions of Europe and the Middle East. In traditional China, the emperor was the supreme sacred figure, and religions and teachings (Confucianism is more correctly considered to be a teaching that has the features of religion) performed instrumental functions for the imperial power. This led to the fact that there has never been a dominant religion in China and, accordingly, there was no desire to convert the entire population of the country to it.
The Confucianism that prevailed in the sphere of ideology and education recognized the existence of the human soul and Heaven as the highest principle, but it was not interested in religious issues itself-it was primarily attracted by the problems of ethics and state administration.
The cultural gap between the elites and the “people” that exists in every developed traditional culture has taken on special features in China: beliefs and practices that are very reprehensible from the point of view of the bearers of a high tradition could persist and arise among ordinary people. As a result, it turned out that most of the Chinese had their own complex set of beliefs. This world of the supernatural was huge and difficult to describe, although it had its own internal logic, as well as types of supernatural beings. The Chinese usually turned to temples and priests of Buddhism or Taoism only from time to time, depending on the situation in the area where they lived.
Another feature developed in the conditions of long-term coexistence of several religious traditions was syncretism: elements of the doctrine or practices of the other two began to appear in each of the three teachings. A peculiar result of this process was the emergence of dozens of new religions, for which such a synthesis became one of the ideological foundations that allowed them to claim the role of a denomination that unites all other religions and stands above them.
The events of the twentieth century led in China, as well as throughout the world, to a crisis of religious consciousness, the displacement of religion from the life of society, the spread of secularism and attempts to replace religion with ideology. However, even under these conditions, many elements of the traditional religious system have demonstrated amazing stability, and they will remain in the foreseeable historical perspective.
Interview with the lecturer.
- Tell us why you started studying Chinese religions specifically.
— I was a graduate student and wrote a PhD thesis about what remained of the traditional Chinese society and mentality in China at the end of the twentieth century. In the 1980s, many elements of traditional practices, structures and values that seemed to have been destroyed in the previous decades were very quickly restored and quite actively functioned. A number of these phenomena were directly related to Chinese religious beliefs, and we had to understand all this. I was particularly interested in the Chinese syncretic religions that became more active during this period. At that time there was no book about their history in the twentieth century, and I had to write it myself.
— What is the place of the subject of your study in the modern world?
- Chinese religions are now very actively studied in China and Taiwan. Many specialists work in the USA and Japan, there are, of course, excellent specialists in Europe, Russia, and Israel, but there are significantly fewer of them. In the world of sinology, this is quite a lively field with its own journal and conferences, but, of course, it does not compare with the study of the Chinese economy or foreign policy in terms of the number of people employed and the scale of work. The reason for this is that the Chinese are mostly not too religious, traditional Chinese religions and beliefs are not sufficiently politicized and not sufficiently conservative. The exception is some trends of Chinese Islam, but this is a separate story.
— If you needed to quickly interest a stranger in the history of Chinese religions, how would you do it?
— I would take you to the mountains, to a Buddhist or Taoist monastery. Although perhaps more impressive will be the burning of images of objects that are sent to deceased relatives in this way, or reading stories of mediums about traveling to the local hell. It is quite different there: the Chinese hell is a huge and very clearly working office, connected to the halls for the execution of rather terrible punishments.
— If you had the opportunity to deal with a completely different topic now, what would you choose and why?
— I would study the so-called Chinese local cultures. China is very different. Peter in Merezhkovsky’s novel talks about Russia: “This is not a state, it is a part of the world.” So, this definition is even more suitable for China than for Russia. “China in general” is largely an abstraction: China consists of provinces, dialect zones, regions and territories, and all of them are sometimes inhabited by very different people who differ greatly in language and mentality.
Where to find out more.
D. L. Overmeyer. “Religions of China. The World as a Living System” (1996)
The work of a Canadian sinologist, which allows you to get an idea of the Chinese religious system as a whole. The book was published in English in 1986 and was a textbook for American students beginning the study of Chinese religions. In Russia, it was published as part of the two-volume “Religious Traditions of the World” in the mid-1990s.
Evgeny Torchinov. “Taoism. “Tao te Ching” ” (1999)
A small book by a St. Petersburg sinologist, which allows you to learn the main stages of the history and the basics of the teaching of Taoism. If after that the reader has a question about “how it all should have worked in practice”, then after it it makes sense to read another book by the same author, which is called that: “Taoist Practices” (2001).
Evgeny Torchinov. “Introduction to Buddhology. Course of lectures” (2000)
You can learn about Buddhism in China from another book by Evgeny Alekseevich, which was based on a course of lectures he gave at the Faculty of Philosophy of St. Petersburg State University in the nineties. From it, the reader will first be able to get basic information about Buddhism in general, and then about its Chinese and Tibetan schools.
“The Religious world of China”. Almanac (2003, 2005, 2013)
Articles about Chinese folk beliefs have appeared in all three issues of the almanac “The Religious World of China”in recent years. There you can find publications about the customs of the Chinese associated with pests in agriculture, about the cult of the fox, about ideas about harmful magic and other similar topics.
Exhibition for the lecture.
For each lecture of Arzamas University, the staff of the Russian State Library prepares a special mini-exhibition from their funds. The exhibition is always held in the same hall as the lecture itself.
This time, it presents editions of the sacred texts of three teachings-Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.