Chinese Language

Religious Concepts in China

Zhong wen

Many different systems of belief have taken root in China. The present article looks at some of the concepts used in Chinese religions and at the connections which exist between them.

Dao (also written Tao) means 'the way', the path to be trodden, and is still used in its literal meaning in words such as renxing hengdao 'pedestrian crossing' which you can see on signs in Beijing. In religious usage it means 'human conduct', 'truth' or 'morality'; on a cosmic level it signifies the principle which creates and guides the universe. The term dao is very ancient, but was given particular prominence by the school of thinkers founded by Lao Zi (about 600 BC) and explained in the Dao De Jing 'The Way and its Power'. According to the Dao De Jing, the Way is the source of all things; it is mysterious and spontaneous in its action: all attempts to describe it in words are doomed to failure. Through the Way everything is achieved without effort; rules, exertion and interference with the natural world are contrary to the Way and lead to disaster.

Confucius also used the term dao to mean 'order' or 'morality'. Dao was felt by later generations of Chinese thinkers to be an essential part of the Chinese world-view, an ethical principle which the Westerners who rudely forced China to open its ports in the 19th century appeared to lack.

Li means 'politeness' or 'courtesy', but as used by the Confucians it included all the rules of human conduct from the proper mode of speech when addressing a superior to the performance of rituals. Rituals ('ritual' is another possible translation of li) were for the Confucian intellectuals the highest expression of goodness and righteousness, whilst for ordinary people they retained the far older significance of propitiating the spirits.

shen 'spirits' or 'gods' were associated with Heaven and the yang principle. In Chinese folk religion there were many different shen, associated with trees, rivers, rain, thunder, lightning, the household kitchen and the earth itself. The earth god was of great importance in the agricultural society of ancient China, and this is shown in the character she meaning 'society' with the altar radical next to the character for 'earth'. The communes set up in the late 1950s were called gongshe 'public she'.

gui 'ghosts' or 'devils' were associated with the Earth and the yin principle. They were seen as evil beings, wandering hungrily across the Earth. Buddhists explained them as human beings who had committed evil deeds in a previous life and so had been reborn as 'hungry ghosts'.

xian were Daoist immortals who had achieved physical immortality through the use of alchemy liandan or herbs yao. The character shows a person radical and a mountain: xian were supposed to dwell in the mountain, riding on cranes and perfecting their elixirs of immortality.

qi means 'air' or 'vapour', but it is not simply a form of gas. Joseph Needham translates it as 'matter-energy', and it is supposed to flow through the whole universe, including the human body, through which its channels are jing and luo (sometimes called 'meridians'). Acupuncturists seek to restore the flow of blocked qi by inserting their needles or by burning the herb moxa at the correct points.

Yin-Yang. Yin corresponds to darkness, coldness, dampness and Earth; yang to light, warmth, dryness and Heaven. They are in constant conflict, but neither force can ever completely vanquish the other. This is beautifully illustrated in the taijitutaijitu diagram , showing a little yin within the yang and vice versa. This theory was used to explain the existence of gui and shen, the cycles of the seasons and the nature of different foods and herbs.

ren is the perfect virtue of the Confucians, sometimes translated as 'human sympathy' or 'loving kindness'. The character ren shows a person radical with the symbol for 'two', indicating the relationship between two people, involving sympathy for others and action in accordance with li. Confucius explained ren as 'denial of self and response to li'.

tian 'Heaven' was a supernatural, ethical force seen as controlling the natural and human worlds. By the Zhou dynasty, the Emperor was called Tianzi 'Son of Heaven' and was seen as the conduit through which Earth was connected to Heaven. The morality of the Emperor was of great importance: a vicious ruler would cause Heaven to show its displeasure through earthquakes, floods and famines. Heaven gave its Mandate ming to just rulers, but withdrew it from those who proved lacking in virtue. The withdrawal of the Mandate would lead to a political upheaval ( geming , removal of the Mandate') which then resulted in the enthronement of a new, virtuous sovereign who would follow the Way of Heaven. The term geming is still used in China for 'revolution'.

Chan, better known in its Japanese form 'Zen', means 'meditation', and is probably the most famous school of Chinese Buddhism outside China. It placed emphasis on sudden enlightenment rather than gradual progress towards the goal of Nirvana. There are Zen stories of enlightenment following a chance remark in a wine-shop, a whack on the head with a teacher's sandal, and the Buddha holding up a flower. The source of enlightenment lay in everyday life, carrying water and chopping wood, not in elaborate systems of philosophy. Zen is sometimes seen as Daoist response to Buddhism, although it would be a mistake to assume that Zen is anti-intellectual despite its emphasis on meditation and 'silent identification with non-being'.

jingtu 'Pure Land', the name of the most popular form of Chinese Buddhism. The Pure Land was a kind of Heaven or Nirvana which could be achieved by repetition of the name of Amida Buddha. Chinese Buddhist temples often show aspects of several types of Buddhist practice, but the Pure Land sect was by the late Qin the most important, and the temples which still operate in China are mostly this type.

zuzong 'ancestors': worship of ancestors was always an important part of Chinese beliefs, emphasising the continuity of the family and clan, the mutual obligations of the living, and respect for the past. Sacrifices to the ancestors served to cement the relationship which defined the individual's place in society. Rich families had an ancestral hall in their house where stone tablets with the ancestors' names engraved on them were kept.

The above are merely a small selection of the many hundreds of religious terms used in China. The three main religions, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism came to be seen as in essence different aspects of a single truth, and so there were relatively few people who defined themselves as Buddhist rather than Confucian or Daoist rather than Buddhist. There were Buddhist and Daoist monks and nuns who did make such a commitment of course, and periods of religious persecution, but still nothing to compare with the bloody European wars of religion nor the burning of heretics and witches.

This relative liberality both eased the introduction of new religions (such as Islam and Christianity) and created problems for the missionaries. Chinese religious terminology was already so rich that it was tempting to use an existing terms (dao, for 'God', for instance) with all the risks of misunderstanding that might arise perhaps even the absorption of the new religion into the indigenous systems of belief. Another possibility was to coin a completely new Chinese term which is what the Roman Catholic missionaries did when translated God as Tianzhu 'Lord of Heaven', whilst the Protestants used the existing term Shangdi 'Supreme Emperor' for the Deity.

The Chinese word for 'religion' zongjido itself denotes 'ancestral teaching', reflecting the Chinese emphasis on a collective relationship with the past rather than an individual's faith in a supernatural being, although the success of Pure Land Buddhism showed the emotional power of a more personal religious experience.

See also :

A guide to Religions in China

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001 by David Wright, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 137, Page 16

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