Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Chinese Popular Religion
Summary and Keywords
The three principal religious denominations of China, referred to in English as Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, all share a concern with self-cultivation. Of these so-called “Three Teachings” (Sanjiao), Confucianism situates the self hierarchically within a social order, Daoism attempts to free the self from society and realign it with the more fundamental natural order, and Buddhism ultimately strives to liberate the self by dissolving any and all order. The two indigenous traditions of Confucianism and Daoism have roots in the same cultural environment from which the residual category of Popular Religion also emerged, and the two have long existed in a symbiotic relationship with local cults of worship. After the introduction of Buddhism to China, it too became deeply immersed in this interactive dynamic between more unified denominations and the locally diverse forms of worship of spirits, saints, and sages. Though Popular Religion does not represent a unified ideology or a consistent corpus of self-cultivation practices, its ubiquitous rites of spirit possession similarly relate to the self: by allowing the presence of certain gods to displace individual selves, these rites play with the need to suspend socio-individual identity from time to time, instead allowing the sacred embodiment of lineages, villages, or even entire regions to take precedence.
Historical Perspectives on the Three Teachings and Popular Cults
To understand any of the Chinese traditions represented in the title of this chapter, it is important first to advance awareness of the gross distortion that they have suffered in modern academic discourse and beyond. One major problem has been the reduction of especially the textual traditions of early Confucianism and Daoism to the Western category of “philosophy.” Aside from the fact that there existed no equivalent notion of philosophy during the broad time period that most of the classical texts were written, the Zhou era (1046–221 bce), it would be a grave mistake to reduce any of the early traditions to a single modern, intellectual category. All of the early texts reveal a preoccupation with a variety of less than philosophical issues, such as ritual (often sacrificial, often self-cultivation), spiritual beings (ancestors, gods, immortals, dragons, and so on), cosmic and social order, and of course the politics within which they are situated. Clearly, these aspects in no way represent a conventional understanding of philosophy alone, and the discourse on such things as sacrificial ritual or sacred beings on mountains is too closely related to what we know about early Chinese religious culture to interpret only as philosophical metaphors.
At the same time, despite the early Chinese preoccupation with phenomena that look distinctly religious, the term “religion” is not unproblematic either. For one thing, aside from the fact that Confucianism and Daoism certainly also have philosophical value, most of the Chinese traditions never formed institutions like a unified church, nor did they require exclusive adherence to ideologies representative of one tradition only. In contrast to the lack of awareness among scholars of China about the problem with applying such terms as “philosophy” or “religion” to Chinese traditions, however, scholars in other disciplines have offered sound critiques of the term religion.1
The Two Major Zhou Era Traditions: Confucianism and Daoism
Many consider Confucianism to be the core tradition of the Sinophone world. The preeminent transmitter of this tradition, Kong Zi (551–479 bce, in the West known by the Latinized honorific “Confucius”), prioritized the position of human beings within the archaic sacrificial cults of the Zhou era. In Kong Zi’s worldview, the sincere maintenance of proper social relationships was paramount—during life and after death. His “Recorded Sayings,” the Lunyu (also Latinized as “Analects” by European missionaries in the 16th century), contain hierarchical descriptions of such relationships: sons served their fathers, fathers served their ruler, and all served their ancestors—only the king, however, would serve the mighty divinity known as Tian, “Heaven.” According to Kong Zi, whoever is capable of executing these most exalted of sacrificial rituals, such as the di sacrifice, will be able to order the world as easily as if it were on the palm of one’s hand (Lunyu 3.11).
This structure of social relationships was ritual in nature, in the sense that proper ritual performance should result in proper social order. In the first chapter of Lunyu, one of the most valuable of all the things brought about by ritual is described as social harmony (e.g., Lunyu 1.12–13). This beneficial effect of ritual is presented by Kong Zi as an almost magic effect in chapter 2 of Lunyu, where he suggests that if one wants to be successful at statecraft, the best way of structuring social hierarchy is not by means of imposing rules on the common people or meting out punishment to them; he disavows the practice of “guiding them” (dao zhi) by means of force. Instead, he says, “Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with ritual, and they will [. . .] reform themselves” (Lunyu 2.3). The crucial importance of ritual for this process is enshrined in Kong Zi’s dictum about the virtue of benevolence: “To return to the observance of the rites through overcoming the self constitutes benevolence” (Lunyu 12.1). In both cases, the primary goal of ritual is expressed as related to the individual—the self. The term “overcoming the self” (keji) is exemplary of the Confucian tendency to prioritize social order over individual preoccupations. Thus reducing the impact of individuals by situating them within a socio-ritual order, moral qualities such as “benevolence” (ren) can be achieved.
With ritual as the source of social harmony and moral order, Kong Zi naturally spent considerable effort on defining what ritual should and should not be like: a genuine ritual cannot be performed without animal sacrifice (e.g., a goat, Lunyu 3.17); a genuine ritual requires the actual and sincere presence of those who commission it (Lunyu 3.12); ritual should only be executed by those who are benevolent (Lunyu 3.3), and so on. Indeed, aside from the desire to reform oneself and the emergence of benevolence, other virtues arising from proper ritual performance are “righteousness” (yi) and “filial piety” (xiao). To the extent that Confucianism should be seen as a Chinese core tradition, it is the importance of these virtues that truly represent a moral code widely adhered to throughout all Chinese communities—even those that would not overtly identify with Confucianism. Be that as it may, if the discourse on virtue seems to justify the conventional, scholarly understanding of Confucianism as a philosophy of ethics, the primary concern remains ritual and its proper performance.2
Later spokesmen for the Confucian tradition most notably included the 4th-century bce thinker Meng Zi (latinized as Mencius) and the 3rd-century bce thinker Xun Zi. The former has come to be mostly associated with the theory of innate human goodness, whereas the latter takes the complete opposite stand and declares human nature to be inherently bad. Both Meng Zi and Xun Zi represent the notion that ritual played an important role in the human path toward self-cultivation. According to Meng Zi, while human nature is naturally good, to not educate and cultivate oneself would still result in a failed personality.3
Kong Zi’s models were laid out by the founders of the Zhou era: the legendary King Wen and King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou. Kong Zi referred to their models of statecraft with the term “the way of the ancient kings” (xianwang zhi dao). According to Kong Zi, it should be the ritual practice of the Zhou founders—their “way” (dao)—that can “guide” (dao) a state and its people toward order. Although their ritual practice has come to be mostly explained in politico-moral terms, here too the spirit world is closer than later interpreters suggest. The Zhou religious system, as imagined in key texts like “Rituals of Zhou” (Zhouli), “Records of Ritual” (Liji), and “Ceremonies and Rituals” (Yili), revolved around a meticulously described system of sacrificial observances. They describe altars for sacrifice to Heaven and Earth, sacrifice to imperial ancestors, and altars to the seasons, celestial bodies, floods and droughts, and so on. The “Records of Ritual” lists sacrificial requirements for the “hundred gods,” referring to mountains, forests, rivers, and so on—spiritual entities who could produce wind and rain, and even manifest in demonic shapes. Officials conducted worship of particular demons and spirits on behalf of the common people, a practice that lasted into the late imperial era.4 In line with the philosophical representation of “Confucianism,” modern interpreters prefer to adumbrate the fact that Kong Zi carried out many such sacrificial practices in the Lunyu.
Even further removed from modern understandings of the Chinese high tradition, in the extensive prescriptions of the “Rituals of Zhou,” purportedly a compendium that describes the early Zhou administration format, a prominent role is reserved for spirit mediums (wu). Operating alongside official “invocators” (zhu) from the Ministry of Rites such as the “Manager of the Spirit Mediums” (siwu) who were in charge of ritual technicalities, the mediums had direct access to spirits. They were employed principally for exorcistic practices, such as expelling noxious influences and the diseases their pollution would cause.5 Even within the sphere of the household, spirit possession was common, albeit not performed by professional spirit mediums, but by male family members who assumed the role of “impersonator” (shi, literally “corpse”). During ancestral sacrifices, the ancestral spirits would descend into certain individuals designated from among their descendants.
Both the professionally trained spirit mediums and the improvised impersonator doubtless are reflective of that other major category of Chinese sacrificial cults, “Popular Religion.” Indeed, it would be a mistake to project into the early religious landscape any categorical boundaries between a supposed religion of the people and an entirely distinct religion of the royal courts. The content of the ritual texts of Confucianism suggests that the same spirits were worshiped by most; variation likely should be sought in the differences represented by varying geographical locations instead of denomination or social class. More poignantly, the famous Han emperor Wu (r. 141–87 bce), advocated a sacrificial system in which the Great One (Taiyi) was posited as a deity even higher than Heaven itself. Emperor Wu, representing the sacrificial authority of the Great One, would circulate throughout the empire, personally performing sacrifices to local gods, thereby linking them together in a unified system of sacrifices. This model remained relevant within later popular religious practice, no less than within the sacrificial traditions of Confucianism.6
If Kong Zi and his heirs condoned the archaic practice of animal sacrifice, this was one point of divergence with the other ancient tradition, known as Daoism. This tradition, putatively founded by Lao Zi, a senior contemporary of Kong Zi who is said to have lived during the 6th century bce, took direct aim at these archaic sacrificial rituals. Its seminal text—now known more widely as the “Classic of the Way and its Power” (Daode jing), but originally named simply Lao Zi after its putative author—contrasts the frantic and wasteful spectacle of a grand sacrifice (Tailao) with the peace and introspection of recluses in search of higher truth (Daode jing, ch. 20). The text of Lao Zi revolves around the notion of Dao, literally the highest “Way,” or the sacred “Guide.” It refers to the abstract and impersonal force that engenders the cosmos and all being in it. The Dao constitutes a sacred, natural order that eternally structures the dynamics of birth, life, and death. In Daoist thinking, even if this sacred power deserves reverence, how could the killing of animals during sacrificial ritual ever nurture such an ultimate principle?
Despite this divergence, Confucianism and Daoism clearly emerged from a shared background of “ordering” practices that aimed at producing de—a term that can mean either “virtue” or “power,” or a combination. In both traditions it is assumed that a holy person (the Confucian “sage” or the Daoist “transcendent”) possesses this de and can exude it to the environing world—in both cases, of course, through ritual practice. Indeed, this sort of outward radiation of inner virtue looks more like numinous power than like morality, though they need not necessarily be mutually exclusive either.7
The major disagreement between these two indigenous traditions, aside from the issue of sacrificial ritual, was about how to achieve order and sagehood. If Kong Zi placed the world of humans at the heart of all his efforts of self-cultivation, the text of Lao Zi seems to question that very world, as well as those who are extremely preoccupied with it, such as Kong Zi himself. In the Daoist view, humans must not impose order, as their manufactured order will only cause a disturbance of the natural order; humans must follow the natural order and cultivate the self toward proximity with the great ordering principle of the Dao.8
Indeed, if Kong Zi hinged his ideology on the “way of the ancient kings,” he thereby exemplified the exact problem that Daoists would articulate in the opening lines of the Lao Zi: “The Way that can be [used as] a Way, this is not the Eternal Way.” Kong Zi uses the term Dao in the ideological sense of “a way” or “a guideline” for ordering the world; Lao Zi advocates the view that no human way—not even the canonical “way of the ancient kings”—can be as powerful as “The Way” that structures our entire cosmos.
Early Daoist writings suggest that, as the universal “Way” of growth, this natural order is always already present in every being, often structured along a rhythm or a sequence of distinct stages: our heart “knows” how to beat, our lungs how to breathe, and no tree needs to be told when to grow leaves or shed them. Even more complex processes are at work, namely those of creative “transformation” (hua): a woman’s body “knows” how to grow a little human being inside her womb, and this process is predictably structured in different stages along a timeline. As this process can be accessed and emulated also by the male body, it is used as a paradigm for self-transformation, when accomplished practitioners may give birth to a new self.9
Because one thus need not search for the Dao outside oneself, one similarly does not require instruction in religious dogmas or orthodox teachings in order to attain it. Indeed, Daoist texts are fond of presenting Daoism with the paradox “teaching without words.”10 Some of the most famous stories in Daoism tell of humble people, such as a kitchen aide or a cripple, who have found the Dao without the help of teachers, simply by diligent practice.11 Because this sacred order is immanent, it transcends anything that humans can communicate through language.
Subsequently, language is understood as a second-order phenomenon: unlike the process of creative transformation, language is not a natural phenomenon, as humans impose it from the outside via social interaction. Therefore, it always carries other people’s views of the world and can never truly represent any single individual, let alone anything truly natural. Though humans are not usually aware of this problem, they naturally prefer to abstain from complex language at key moments in their lives, instead interjecting sounds of joy or urgency that are not very linguistic: when they copulate (coincidentally also a rhythmic, sequenced act, and deeply “natural”), when they really enjoy food, when they relieve themselves, and of course when they sing or dance. All these phenomena are either rhythmic, cyclical, profoundly natural, or all at the same time.
Language, furthermore, has a differential function: it distinguishes between things, it names them, and it “captures” them in a web of words. Daoists would thus advocate that language mostly fractures the sacred source of which all beings partake equally, and to which they are connected in equal measure: the Dao. Among the great minds of early Daoist literature, it was the 4th-century bce author known as Master Zhuang (Zhuang Zi or Zhuang Zhou) who attempted to illustrate the vexing burden of language in contrast to the freedom of natural being:
Once I, Zhuang Zhou, dreamt that I was a butterfly, a butterfly fluttering about happily, so utterly fulfilling its purpose! It was innocent of knowledge about Zhuang Zhou. Yet, suddenly I awoke and started to realize that I still was Zhuang Zhou. Now I don’t know whether it has been me dreaming that I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that it was me. Yet there must be a difference between me and that butterfly—we will call this the “Transformation of Things.” (Zhuang Zi, 2.8)
As Zhuang Zi reveals the limits of language and logic, Daoists have put great emphasis on unlearning: as a product of language, all conventional knowledge is thought to be relative and subjective. Indeed, by forgetting about conventional truths, just like Zhuang Zi’s butterfly, Daoists hoped to transcend the fissures and entanglements of worldly knowledge and return to the undifferentiated purity of the universal Dao—to become again what they once were: authentic beings of nature.
The self thus again emerges as an area toward which to aim efforts of cultivation. In Daoism, the social self (with a name, such as “Zhuang Zhou”) is distinguished from (and ranked lower than) the “authentic” or “true” (zhen) self that all humans are born with. This more fundamental self is yet unnamed, has not been distorted by social teleology, and moreover is innocent of language—this self is still naturally itself. Due to its natural being, it can intuit and relate to the self of other beings such as butterflies. And like the butterfly, which transforms from caterpillar—through a cocoon—into a being whose lightness allows it to transcend the human world, it was hoped that humans could shed their mortal husk and return to the more authentic way of being of a “true person” (zhenren).12
The Han Dynasty
By the time of the glorious Han dynasty (221 bce—220 ce), new texts revealed new developments and also allowed for a more complete understanding of the received traditions. Wang Chong’s (27–c.100 ce) diatribe against so many of the politico-religious currents of his time, entitled “Balance of Discourses” (Lunheng), contain detailed descriptions of the phenomena he fulminates against, ranging from the philosophical to the popular religious. Increasingly, indeed, the broader landscape of Popular Religion becomes discernable, for example in the “Comprehensive Meaning of Customs and Conventions” (Fengsu tongyi) by Ying Shao (2nd century ce), although it is not until the 4th century that really comprehensive records of popular cults are preserved in “Records of Investigations into Gods” (Soushen ji) by Gan Bao (d. 336)—a collection that, for a long time, has mistakenly been associated with the birth of Chinese “literary fiction.”
Confucian writings from this time onwards reveal an intense preoccupation with state ritual, particularly as they project their ideals back into the time of the early Zhou kings. Simultaneously, these strands of early Zhou ritual traditions, refracted through the lens of the Han imperial state, also became a key aspect of Daoist ritual and liturgy. The influential late Han church of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao), for instance, saw its religious authority as invested by Heaven, directly communicated with Heaven by means of bureaucratic procedures, used “imperial treasures” in the form of talismans (fu) that embodied a contractual reciprocity between Heaven and Man, or esoteric charts (tu) that revealed power over the cosmos, and so on.13
During this period the affinity between Confucianism and Daoism may have become less obvious, but at the same time it remained well represented in the mythico-historical consciousness of that time. In the biographical section of ancient sages that forms a part of his magnum opus “Historical Records” (Shiji), the eminent historian Sima Qian (c.135 bce–c.85 bce) reproduced a version of an encounter between Kong Zi and Lao Zi—a famous event of antiquity that Zhuang Zi’s stories recount in various versions. In those stories, a humble and inquisitive Kong Zi visits the imposing Lao Zi (who looks like the quintessential being of transformation: a dragon) to learn about ritual (li), and the theme of this visit is found ubiquitously depicted on tomb walls from the Han and after. Indeed, the theme of ritual thus continued to be seen as a shared concern of both the Confucian and the Daoist traditions. It was not until several centuries later that representatives of the Confucian tradition rejected this story, surely in part because it depicted them as seekers of a higher lore that Daoists supposedly possessed.
If anything, the cosmology that was shared by virtually all players in the religious landscape of the Han and after suggests that we should speak of “a Chinese religion,” rather than focus on the obvious divergences.14 In its most basic form, the Han cosmos and all the Myriad Beings (Wanwu) in it was divided up into three realms, namely that of Heaven and that of Earth (Tiandi, still a term signifying “cosmos”) and the realm of Man in between, each representing an aspect of cosmic order. This triad had emerged from a dyad called Yin and Yang, two aspects of being that are universally applicable to anything within the cosmos. Yin represents the female aspect, associated with Earth, quietude, and non-interference, whereas Yang embodies the male aspect, Heaven, action, and aggression. In turn, the Yin-yang dyad had emerged from a singularity, variously referred to as the unified totality of the “One” (Yi) or more poetically as the primordial chaos called “Hodgepodge” (Hundun). To be clear, despite the undesirable implications of the term “chaos” in English, the Chinese understood Hundun as a stage where all the different entities of worldly being were still intermingled, connected in harmony. Ultimately, all being originated in nothingness (wu), or the Void (xu). Taken together, these different stages represent a standardized cosmogony that became more or less commonly accepted during this period.15
The early Han dynasty was the period when the teachings of Kong Zi were finally put to the use that he had in mind: in 136 bce the influential Emperor Wu established Kong Zi’s teachings as the basis for state doctrines, a move that led to the institutionalization of an imperial system of examinations. For many centuries to come, these examinations made knowledge of the Confucian classics one basic requirement for a career as a bureaucrat (loosely referred to in Chinese as guan—“officer” or “official”). More generally, the writings associated with Kong Zi retrospectively became representative of a formal concern with ritual and ethical action by rulers and officials on the level of statecraft.
Though apparently very different in so many ways, Daoist movements of the Han, particularly the Celestial Masters during the 2nd century ce, understood themselves as having an authority and mandate similar to that of the emperor and his Mandate from Heaven—and they similarly saw themselves as officials in a heavenly bureaucracy. Indeed, because the Daoist regalia of power (their efficacious writs, secret charts, consecration registers, and so on) were based upon the imperial treasures that guaranteed the emperor’s mandate of rulership, Daoist priests could parallel the earthly bureaucracy to become “the supernatural administrators” of the Chinese people.16 Around this time, Daoists started articulating a bureaucratic discourse in which they describe their responsibilities and objectives as “officials of the Dao” (Daoguan), “efficacious officials” (lingguan), and, of course, “true officials” (zhenguan).
The Celestial Masters established a sacred empire of twenty-four parishes in the region of Shu (present-day Sichuan), a foundational act that was attributed to the legendary Zhang Daoling, who is still widely venerated as the founding father of the popular Daoist clergy. Members of this community were initiated along a graded system of ordination registers (lu), each acolyte receiving a register that listed a repertoire of spirit generals at his or her command, a martial stock that increased as members’ age advanced.17 These spirit soldiers could be deployed to, among other things, cure demonic diseases.
Though many scholars choose to focus on differences between the retrospectively imagined philosophical “thought” of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi on the one hand, and the practical religious morality encoded in precepts of the Celestial Masters on the other, the actual overlaps between them are ample and prominent. First of all in the realm of ritual. If Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi condemned ritual, their specific target was the kind of sacrificial ritual practiced by the followers of Kong Zi (mostly formulated as li) as well as the “shamanic” sacrificers (wu) that were popular throughout all social classes, both epitomized by animal sacrifices to bloodthirsty (and often demonic) spirits. The fact that Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi emphatically do not pronounce some sort of a blanket condemnation of ritual is clear for several reasons. First, the vividly described processes of contemplative visualization and body transformation—themselves also key elements of later Daoist rites, including those of the Celestial Masters—are all concretely ritual in nature. Furthermore, though the transcendent beings that become a hallmark of post-Han Daoism are not explicitly present in Lao Zi, the text of Zhuang Zi clearly refers to this environment of cults dedicated to the veneration of transcendent beings, an environment it shares with other texts predating the Celestial Masters, such as the Huainan Zi of the 2nd century bce. And in terms of ritual, the text of Zhuang Zi includes various passages that condemn sacrificial ritual or shamanic (wu) ritual, but refer only positively to the kind of rituals that have become central to Daoism, such as the “fast” (zhai). Either way, despite the apparent differences with Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi, the Celestial Masters did not invent their ideology or practices from scratch, as is obvious also from the importance they assigned both to the text of Lao Zi and to Lao Zi’s deified manifestation named Most High Lord Lao (Taishang Laojun).
From Han dynasty writings it is clear that both the followers of Kong Zi and the proponents of the Dao, moreover, understood self-cultivation in somewhat similar terms. The Confucian view of ritual as a process of self-transformation that one finds in works by influential Confucian thinkers such as Xun Zi (3rd century bce) and Han Confucian texts is very much like the practices one encounters in Daoist texts. Indeed, there are obvious similarities in the self-cultivation discourse that ended up central to both traditions, first and foremost those that relate to the need to refine the body’s “cosmic substance” (qi) in order to attain a higher level of being. Such discourses of “material virtue” constitute a link to the broader practices of self-cultivation at the time, the basic principles of which were shared between “Confucians,” “Daoists,” and other non-denominational practitioners.18 These discourses were rooted in the idea that the human body was connected within larger cosmic networks for the circulation of qi (“pneuma,” “breath”)—networks that included the bureaucratic structure of the imperial state.19
For example, even such highly esoteric Daoist practices as visualization of spirits residing in the human body’s interior (the “inner cosmos” or neijing) were built upon much of the logic of early Chinese sacrificial practice. These spirits were nourished with the correct qi, and brought together in one system under the Great One (Tai Yi), thereby transcending the fissured world and gaining immortality and divinization. Similarly, in Confucian traditions these discourses were developed into novel understandings of human nature. They associated “virtue” with specific types of qi that circulated throughout the body and in doing so tried to link demeanor and expression during ritual performance with the internal development of individual virtues.20 Although central to the Confucian self-understanding at the time, such theories later became mostly associated with Daoist practices, and once Confucian ambitions became more closely aligned with those of the bureaucratic state, such practices virtually disappeared from public discourse.
The very bureaucratic aspect of “officials” (guan) who embody the power of both Confucian functionaries and Daoist priests, crucially, also points to their profound kinship. The reverence both traditions reserve for attaining the status of an “official”—seemingly such a secular, administrative concept—is to be sought in the equivalence of this term with the organs inside the human body, also referred to in Chinese as guan. Though stereotypically Daoists have been seen as nourishing the “inner world” and its spiritual aspects, while Confucians are thought of as preoccupied with ordering the “outer world” of the ruler they served, the reality must have been more complex and less polarized.
The late Han is also the time when Buddhism was introduced to China. Roughly during the 1st century ce, merchants from South and Southeast Asia brought Buddhist practices to China, along with Buddhist clergy, material culture, and the ideas that informed all this.21 It seems that the early attraction of Buddhism lay first of all in the colorful images of the Buddha (with his disciples and protector gods), who was accepted as one among many other mighty divinities. The Chinese fascination with Buddhist images is corroborated not only by the fact that a physical statue of the Buddha received imperial sacrifices, alongside statues of Lao Zi and the Yellow Emperor, as early as the 1st century. It is also evident from one early Chinese epithet for Buddhism, namely the “teaching of images” (xiangjiao), and from the clear influence that Buddhist iconography exerted on the indigenous traditions. Indeed, in later usage the term pusa (referring to bodhisattva) had become a blanket term for religious icons, and more generally even for the concept of gods. Another obvious attraction of Buddhism lay in the promise of magic efficacy that Buddhist monks could achieve through their rituals. Major areas where this became an issue was healing of the sick and delivery of the spirits of the deceased. The latter, moreover, was formative for Chinese ideas about the afterlife in general and the concept of rebirth in particular.22
Indeed, the varieties of Buddhism that entered China overwhelmingly belonged to the Mahāyāna (“Greater Vehicle”) type. Prominently visible in this type of Buddhism was the great amount of sacred beings (Buddhas, bodhisattvas, arhats, and so on) that could simultaneously be taken to represent accomplished practitioners of Buddhist ideology and savior gods that possessed miraculous powers. In narrative records of the early medieval period, such as “records of the strange” (zhiguai), the distinct impression emerges that the most widespread popularity of Buddhism derived from the healing powers of these sacred beings. Stories abound of sick people worshiping Buddhist statues who offer immediate cures.23
When Buddhism pervaded China it had to explain its “theory”; a problem that the indigenous traditions didn’t have. But this problem was transformed into an advantage in the sense that, from the beginning, explanations were a part of the Buddhist dialectic, which ultimately gave Buddhism a competitive edge in an environment where other traditions relied on custom and convention.
Early Chinese Buddhist scriptures are the fruit of an intensive process of translation from Pāli and Sanskrit into the Chinese written language. Much of the vocabulary developed during this period is rooted in Daoist concepts, and important doctrinal issues were discussed essentially in Daoist terms. It was not until the famous Kumārajīva (344–413, in China known as Jiumoluoshi) that an immense project of translation and retranslation consciously sought to promote a more nuanced understanding and representation of Buddhism.24
Perhaps the single most important scripture of Chinese Buddhism was the Lotus Sūtra (Miaofa lianhua jing, literally the “Scripture on the lotus-flower of the wondrous law”). Aside from describing several important bodhisattvas and their miraculous efficacy, like Guanyin (a savior god originally based upon the Indian Avalokiteśvara), it introduces the important unifying notion of the “One Vehicle” (Yicheng) that serves as the pathway toward Buddhahood. Indeed, one central promise of Mahāyāna Buddhism was universal Buddhahood, the possibility for anyone to obtain the spiritual status of enlightened being. The Lotus Sūtra furthermore extensively explains upāya (“expedient means,” translated into Chinese as fangbian, which has also become the modern word for “convenience”). It is used to explain apparent differences and contradictions within Buddhist teachings in terms of their suitability within diverse contexts—ultimately, of course, explaining differences as coherent within a unified body of teachings, each merely aiming at different situations.
Along with the burgeoning presence of Buddhism and Buddhists in the Chinese sociocultural sphere came skepticism and sometimes even downright hostility from their indigenous competitors. Since at least the 4th century, the followers of Kong Zi derided Buddhists for leaving their family (chujia, a severe transgression against the injunction of filial piety, xiao), shaving their head (seen as an act of damaging the body inherited from parents), and living a celibate life (a transgression against the family’s need for offspring). They, moreover, demanded that Buddhists recognized worldly authority, like the emperor or high officials, and bow to them. The Confucian condemnation culminated in the famous “Memorial on Bone-Relics of the Buddha” that the eminent official Han Yu (768–824) presented to the emperor in 819. Han Yu also authored a tract that criticized both Buddhism and Daoism, “On the Origins of the Dao” (Yuan Dao).
Daoist texts from the early medieval period similarly attempted to marginalize Buddhism by presenting it as a watered-down version of Daoism. The early 4th century saw the production of a text called the “Scripture on the Conversion of the Barbarians” (Huahu jing), which claimed that after Lao Zi departed from “this world,” he went to the alien world of Indian barbarians where he adapted his Daoist teaching in order to suit their immature levels of understanding, thus “converting” them. Another text, the “Scripture of the Inner Explanations of the Three Heavens” (Santian neijie jing) from the early 5th century, integrates this conversion story within the broader cosmological scheme of Yin and Yang, explaining cultural differences or historical causality in terms of this dyad. Perhaps also partly inspired by the Buddhist competition, the famous Maoshan revelations of the 4th century presented a more individually oriented form of elite Daoist practice that was deeply steeped in archaic metaphors from classical writers such as Zhuang Zi; it placed the “true person” (zhenren) at the summit of Daoist accomplishment.25 During the 6th century, Buddhism was also the target of political persecution, notably by Emperor Wu (r. 561–578), who nonetheless simultaneously attacked Daoist clerics. Major persecutions of Buddhism occurred around 845 under Emperor Wuzong, who supported Daoist institutions.
Buddhists learned to respond in kind, as they produced a lively body of writings that either ridiculed their indigenous competitors (such as the “Tract on Laughing at the Dao” from 570 ce),26 or tried to rubricate Confucianism and Buddhism on a lower level within the Buddhist schema of the world (such as Zongmi Guifeng’s “Inquiry into the Origin of Humanity” from the early 9th century).27
During the Tang dynasty (618–907), Daoist masters operated at the imperial court and Daoist classics were made part of the official exam curriculum. It was also the time of one of the most influential figures of the Chan tradition, Linji (d. 866), whose strand of Buddhism became predominant in Japan and since the 20th century has been known more widely by its Japanese pronunciation as the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. In the “Records of Linji” (Linji lu) that portray dialogic interactions between him and his disciples, repeated emphasis is placed on the attainment of enlightenment through non-discursive means. Examples include sudden beatings, shouting, or discourses that strike the modern reader as surrealist in their anti-logic. The idea these dialogues attempted to convey was that the ineffable Buddhist truth could not be derived from study of textual explanations, but only through immediate experiences that circumvented—or even broke through—the cognitive or discursive functions of language.28 It is in this area that Daoism clearly formed an inspiration for the Chan/Zen tradition, even providing such concepts as the “true person” (zhenren), originally advocated by Zhuang Zi. Much later, during the second half of the 20th century, the Japanese Chan/Zen tradition was emblematic of Western imaginings of what Buddhism signified, before Tibetan Buddhism took over around the beginning of the 21st century.
As can be understood from the Daoist elements in Chan/Zen Buddhism, the interaction between Buddhism and its indigenous counterparts was far from exclusively agonistic. Daoist texts are exemplary for revealing the degree to which Buddhist ideas had taken root in Chinese spheres. Esoteric (“Tantric”) Buddhism, especially, was broadly incorporated into Daoist ritual procedures.29 This pertained to language (pseudo-Sanskrit syllables became widely used in Daoist spells, invocations, and so on), but also to gods and (again) their iconography: demonic temple guardians like the Lokapālas were adopted in Daoist guises, multi-armed or multi-headed gods such as Hāritī- or Marici-inspired Daoist counterparts, but even core aspects of Avalokiteśvara—the savior bodhisattva—were mimicked by the Daoist Celestial Worthy Who Relieves from Suffering (Jiuku Tianzun).30 Later on, roughly since the 12th century, Avalokiteśvara’s direct Chinese counterpart, Guanyin, also became widely adopted within Daoism as a Daoist deity; the Daoist reformulation of his divine powers, moreover, determined Guanyin’s popular image throughout China.31 Sacrificial offerings are still given to a demonic manifestation of this god during the peak of the Ghost Festival, an occasion known as “Universal Deliverance” (pudu).
Thanks to the large volume of “records of the strange” (zhiguai and chuanqi) compiled during the Tang dynasty and after, a clearer picture emerges of Popular Religion. From the many stories about human encounters with strange phenomena, it is obvious that extensive interactions occurred between local traditions, on the one hand, and the national traditions of Buddhism and Daoism, and to a certain extent also Confucianism. In those records we find a fascination with breaking the boundaries that would normally prevent direct communication among humans, gods, and the realm of the transcendental.32 Stories describe humans entering divine realms such as heavens, hells, or paradises in caves; humans entering paintings (or paintings coming to life); animals seeking companionship of men, dragons asking men for help, or little children speaking with the voices of gods. Coincidentally, this last category reveals once more the paramount phenomenon of spirit possession.
The image emerging from such “records of the strange” is one of the incorporation of local gods into the national traditions of China, most notably Daoism, but also the other two of the Three Teachings. Stories show gods wearing animal skins and red aprons, like the ubiquitous manifestations of Sire Thunder (Lei Gong). Such descriptions reveal pervasive links with spirit possession, when local gods manifested themselves through the bodies of mediums who were clad similarly in animal skins and red aprons—the attire of mediums in southern China even today. The gods described in “records of the strange” largely represent a class of gods that belong to particular localities, often with demonifuge capacities. The interaction between them and the Three Teachings in many ways define today’s Popular Religion.
Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties
It is not until the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) that we get an exponentially more fine-grained picture of Popular Religion. By this time we start to see the limits of the conventional scheme that categorically distinguishes not only between the Three Teachings of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, but also between these three as cultural institutions with assumed merit for the lettered elites, and Popular Religion as a superstitious realm for the uneducated or the rural. There can be no doubt that clergy representing the Three Teachings would have a strong sense of identity, and might voice an often public disdain for those whose identity veered in different directions, but this neither means that clerics would radically exclude themselves from participation in (or adherence to) each other’s ideologies, nor that they would refrain from worshiping local gods without canonical status in any of the Three Teachings. Vice versa, of course, laymen without specialist training in the three received traditions could combine their membership in local cult associations with reverence for and participation in activities related to the Three Teachings. To frame it conceptually: the central point of reference for official (or empire-wide) and non-official (or local) religious traditions alike would most commonly be a sacrificial cult. Adherence to one cult of worship generally would not be to the exclusion of others. Whether this was the cult worshiping the divine figure of Kong Zi, the transcendent Dao, the Buddha, or a local warrior, group identity might be formed through sacrificial worship of an ancestor, a patriarch or any other heroic figure, but members of one sacrificial community were rarely barred from participating in sacrificial worship of another.
It is around this time, then, that new printing techniques resulted in an enormous proliferation of texts, allowing many phenomena to emerge into historical consciousness. Stories relating to strange encounters and phenomena from earlier periods remained popular, but were augmented with a relatively new form of writing, namely vernacular narratives. If earlier texts were composed in classical Chinese, more terse and archaic, the new genres were written in a language that seems closer to the colloquial languages of the time. Emblematic are the “Plain Tales” (pinghua) that portray episodes from the sacred (“Confucian”) histories of the Chinese past, narrating the deeds of sacred heroes and their divine powers. These vernacular story-cycles, which are closely related to episodes from theatrical traditions and to exorcistic ritual traditions, stand at the basis of the famous books in one hundred chapters that became popular during the Ming dynasty: “Three Kingdoms” (Sanguo), “Journey to the West” (Xiyouji), “Canonization of the Gods” (Fengshen yanyi), and so on. The repertoire of sacred heroes whose deeds they recount narrowly corresponded to both the key actors from official histories as well as the usual suspects of late imperial Popular Religion. Whereas the “local gods” were no less important than before, they were increasingly brought into a relational framework with versions of pantheons that were of a more empire-wide standard: legends emerged where local gods interacted with regional or imperial divinities.33
Other genres that came to the fore were morality books (shanshu), containing hybrid forms of Buddhism and Daoism—of course with structural reference to Confucian morals—that instructed people to do good and improve their chances of a comfortable afterlife or desirable rebirth. Buddhist circles witnessed the rise of the genre of the “recorded sayings” (yulu), especially during the Southern Song and the Yuan dynasties. Similar to earlier texts like “Records of Linji,” these Chan texts represent dialogues of encounters between Chan masters and their disciples, expounding the masters’ statements on Chan enlightenment in all kinds of different situations. The genre of the “recorded sayings” was also used in Confucian and Daoist milieus.
Crucially for an understanding of the Chinese religious landscape as one of interconnected networks, during this time we clearly start seeing the shapes of a framework for socio-religious activities that a majority of the Chinese seemed to share, from villages up to the urban centers. This framework consisted of territorial cults of worship (she, also translated as “village worship associations”), shrines of popular religious cults, kinship institutions, and more formally Buddhist as well as Daoist institutions.34 If this framework sounds like a medley of different traditions, this is true to a certain extent: Song dynasty clerics (Daoists, Buddhists, and Confucians) in their everyday practice cooperated with (and adopted from) each other’s traditions, while at the same time preserving (and publicly emphasizing) their own religious identity.
A central role in this framework was preserved for spirit possession. If the long traditions of sacred revelations from spiritual beings in Buddhism and Daoism may seem to explain why Daoists and Buddhists frequently employed the service of trance mediums (usually young boys or girls) in their exorcist practices, the phenomenon of spirit possession was equally widespread among Confucian literati. Indeed, Song dynasty stories abound of the sons (and daughters) of literati who served as spirit mediums.35 Quite a few of the Song dynasty morality books were produced during sessions of spirit-writing, at least the Daoist and Confucian ones.
During the Song dynasty, the Confucian proclivity for adopting ideas and practices from Buddhism and Daoism is clearly visible—though not commonly acknowledged—in the new forms of Confucianism that were developed by famous ideologues such as Zhu Xi (1130–1200). Men like him obviously felt the need to rewrite Confucianism in the likeness of Buddhist and Daoist models. It was during this time that Daoist articulations of cosmogony were brought to the fore in Confucian writings, by virtue of the “Great Bourne” (Taiji, or “Great Ultimate”) theory, as well as the theory of cosmic pneumas (qi). Confucian academies (shuyuan) were modeled after Buddhist examples, and became places of strict disciplinary cultivation and devotional ritual, not unlike Chan/Zen monasteries. The importance of sacrificial ritual, however, remained undiminished, as is illustrated by Zhu Xi’s ritual manual containing prescriptions for laymen on how to offer to their ancestors, entitled “Master Zhu’s Household Rituals” (Zhuzi jiali). This text was officially adopted as a standard of ritual propriety and widely disseminated throughout the late imperial age.36
It is also during the Song dynasty that a distinctly new phenomenon arose, one that was codified during the Yuan dynasty and even imperially sanctioned during the Ming dynasty, namely the Daoist hierarchy of temples that served as a system of stewardship for local, regional, and national cults of worship.37 This hierarchy was built from the ground up, with the ubiquitous God of the Earth (Tudi, or Tudi Gong, equivalent of the she “territorial cults of worship”) serving as local inspector of all the gods and spirits in a given locality, that is, of both the more locally oriented territorial cults of worship and those cults that were more widespread throughout the empire. It was the task of the God of the Earth to record their proper or improper behavior, and report it to his immediate Daoist superior, the God of Walls and Moats (Chenghuang, also translated as City God). It appears that the majority of towns (walled or not) would have a temple dedicated to the God of Walls and Moats (Chenghuang miao). This god, who also was in charge of hordes of demonic spirits, had to report to his overlord, the Great Emperor of the Eastern Peak (Dongyue Dadi, or simply Dongyue, who is nowadays perhaps more widely known as the god of China’s most sacred mountain, Taishan). Most counties in late imperial China would have at least one Temple of the Eastern Peak (Dongyue miao), more often they had several. As the god who oversaw the judicial process in the netherworld, the Eastern Peak was also in charge of determining rebirth; it was this god who had to be petitioned by Daoist priests for the deployment of fierce spirit generals—either for the purpose of exorcism, or for defending the empire against pirates or foreign intruders.
Atop this divine hierarchy stood the True Warrior (Zhenwu) and the Jade Emperor (Yudi, or Yuhuang Dadi). The True Warrior (also known as the High Emperor of Dark Heavens, Xuantian Shangdi) resided throughout China in local branches of the Daoist Jade Vacuity Temple (Yuxu gong), whose most famous embodiment was built on Mount Wudang in Hubei. This god was the celestial commander over legions of demonic warriors, which was one reason why the Ming emperors adopted him as patron saint of their dynasty (1368–1644). Since the early 15th century the Forbidden City has comprised a shrine dedicated exclusively to worship of the True Warrior—a shrine that still exists today, though it is not open to the public.
Widely recorded in Daoist manuals, Ming emperors implemented this Daoist hierarchy in the imperial cities of Nanjing and Beijing, accompanied by a ritual calendar of sacrificial offerings. The Jade Emperor was excluded from this calendar: Though he was—and remains—seen as the god in charge of the popular pantheon, as a Daoist “true god” he did not receive conventional sacrificial offerings. Nonetheless, as the high god of the popular pantheon, his position was paramount: Daoist rituals included submission of written petitions to the Jade Emperor, and from popular story-cycles like “Journey to the West” (Xiyouji), it is clear that the Jade Emperor was widely seen as the major authority within Chinese religion.
The presence of Daoists at court was paramount throughout the Ming era: most emperors appointed Daoists as court advisors, and several emperors, imperial consorts, and other imperial family members received ordination as Daoists. Moreover, Daoist ritualists were also appointed as court ritualists, residing first in the Shenyueguan (Abbey of Divine Music) and later holding key positions at the Taichangsi (Temple for the Grand Master of Ceremonies), which was the foremost ritual institution at court.
Buddhism, too, thrived during the Ming dynasty. Although the Ming founder attempted to disrupt the existing institutional structures of Buddhism, and he as well as other Ming emperors more generally favored Daoism over Buddhism, many emperors and other members of the court continued to sponsor Buddhist institutions and rituals. Even though the dominant narrative has long been one of Buddhist decline, this may have been limited to strictly institutional decline between the mid-15th to mid-16th century; no doubt that Buddhism continued to be a prominent presence in its popular embodiments. It is clear that the late 16th and 17th centuries witnessed a vibrant Buddhist clergy with strong connections to the literati class.38 Intellectuals such as Yunqi Zhuhong (1535–1615) and Hanshan Deqing (1546–1623) drove a “revival” of Chan Buddhism. This included a revival by Miyun Yuanwu (1566–1642) of the (imagined or actual) Chan practice of beating and shouting as means for attaining immediate enlightenment—or, at least, the public performance of the process. More than a century later this practice would be imperially endorsed by the Yongzheng emperor (1678–1735).39
Yunqi Zhuhong was instrumental in merging the more popular strands of Pure Land Buddhism with the Chan traditions. He maintained that one should distinguish two levels of mind: resulting from Buddha invocation (nianfo) and universality (li yixin). Zhuhong used this concept to justify his syncretic approach to Buddhism in general and to prove the correlation between Pure Land nianfo and Chan meditation in particular. Indeed, due to the suitability for lay followers, Zhuhong regarded simple Buddha invocation as the most effective practice of Buddhism. As all Buddhists (and Daoists and Confucians), he was well trained in the performance of rituals, such as the esoteric ritual of “relieving the flaming-mouths” (fang yankou) he frequently performed.40
If Confucian thinkers like Wang Yangming (1472–1529) had paved the way for literati engagement with Buddhism and Daoism by making it the basis of his synthetic worldview, this became a widespread phenomenon during the late Ming era. Literati spent considerable time at Buddhist and Daoist monasteries, and commonly practiced forms of Buddhism or Daoism, or both. Oftentimes, also, they would dedicate themselves entirely to the pursuit of Buddhist or Daoist ideals upon retirement from their official career. It was during this time that slogans advocating the union of the Three Teachings were most popular, such as the idea that “the Three Teachings share one source” (Sanjiao guiyi).
Some scholars have estimated that Daoist alchemy or other forms of matter transformation was practiced by 70 or 80 percent of literati during the Ming, including famous Confucians like Fang Yizhi (1611–1671).41 At the same time, a backlash had come into being, with Confucian literati returning to more orthodox learning, some of what might today be labeled as fundamentalism. It led also to the famous “search for evidence” (kaozheng), a textually based form of new Confucian learning that aspired to shed the interpretive crust that had become attached to the classics by figures like Zhu Xi or Wang Yangming, instead trying to retrieve the supposed original meaning.42
Despite all this cross-fertilization within a shared cosmological framework, the clerical members of the Three Teachings had no doubts about their religious identity. Each tradition had a distinctive clergy, canon of sacred texts, liturgy, as well as their own monastic training centers: Buddhist monasteries (si and yuan), Daoist temples (gong and guan), Confucian academies (shuyuan). At these centers their respective canons were kept and the clergy was trained and ordained. Most of their training was applied in the service of environing communities, to whom they provided ritual services ranging from exorcism and other therapeutic rites, to masses for the dead.43
Yet the bulk of Daoist priests and Buddhist monks dwelt outside these centers, and their numbers far exceeded the monastic clergy. All regions in China would have their own non-monastic Daoist tradition, where ordained members mostly belonged to the same family and constituted a lineage that could go back many generations. As a consequence, these lineages developed distinct liturgies that incorporated traditions of local spirits, often differing from village to village. Their ritual services addressed virtually every social need imaginable. Aside from the all-important exorcisms and funerary rites, they would take care of all major lifecycle rituals, prayers for rain, curing of diseases, sacrificial festivals to celebrate local gods, and so on.
Similarly, such “secular” Buddhist traditions also developed outside major monastic centers. One tradition that is still widespread throughout large parts of China is the one founded by Master Pu’an (1115–1169). His efficacious writings (talismans, fu) became so important that most local traditions, including Daoism, seem to have included them in their repertoire.44
Confucian priests were mostly visible during rituals related to the ancestral cult. The Confucian ritualist known as lisheng (“ritual master”) would perform services like sacrificial rites to local gods, or the dotting ceremonies—the first consecration of ancestral tablets at funerals.45 More generally, Confucian ritualists of the Ming dynasty were predominantly involved in a broad range of sacrificial rituals dedicated to an immense repertoire of spirits and gods.46 Since the Confucian tradition is the only one that ceased to have an ordained clergy after the collapse of the empire in 1911, some regional Daoist and Buddhist traditions have incorporated the rituals of the lisheng in their own procedures.
Qing Dynasty and the Modern Era
The religious landscape that had gradually evolved into a more or less coherent framework since the Song dynasty was profoundly altered during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). The Manchu rulers were hostile to Daoism and to those forms of Buddhism that had long taken root among the indigenous traditions of the Chinese Empire. Possibly in part due to concerns over competition for authority and control, they banished Daoists from the Forbidden City (and its broader sphere of power), and sought to substitute Tibetan forms of Buddhism (“Lamaism”) for the overwhelmingly Chan Buddhist traditions that had come to prevail throughout China.
While the kaozheng movement inspired a tide of textual scholarship that profoundly changed the Confucian tradition of the Qing, it seems that the scriptural and ritual traditions of both Daoism and Buddhism had already reached more or less stable formats during the Ming era. This legacy is still predominant at the beginning of the 21st century.
At the same time, the realm of unofficial religion had become even more vibrant in many ways, and downright explosive in others. Millenarian religious movements had formed a visible presence in the Chinese religious landscape since the Ming. Often demonized by imperial authorities, Buddho-Daoist-inspired communities like the White Lotus sect attracted large followings and met with deep distrust from officials and clerical institutions alike.47 Although much of the institutional bias may have been unfounded, several of these movements did eventually instigate rebellions during the Qing dynasty, such as the Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813. This movement had originated during the Ming era as the religion of the Unborn Venerable Mother (Wusheng Laomu), which drew upon Chan Buddhist and Daoist ideology, but organized itself entirely outside the influence of monks or priests from either tradition. Able to galvanize various small communities into a movement of about 100,000 members, the Eight Trigrams started an attack on the Forbidden City in Beijing. Although it was quelled within a few months, it revealed the powerful potential of popular movements.48 In what was perhaps the largest and most violent episode of a popular religious uprising, the Christian-inspired Taiping rebels wreaked havoc on the mid- and lower Yangzi Valley for a decade from 1850 onwards. It was not until 1864 that the uprising was completely vanquished, leaving much of the city of Nanjing and its environing towns in ruins, with disastrous consequences for local communities.49
The last of the big religious-inspired uprisings was the Boxer Rebellion from 1899 to 1901, fought by many thousands of local troops known as “Militias United in Righteousness” (Yihetuan). Targeting foreign colonial powers like the Russians, British, Americans, Germans, Dutch, and many others, thousands of so-called “Boxers” attacked foreign colonizers and missionaries. The name “Boxers” was rooted in what foreigners perceived to be the rebels’ main military skill, namely “shadow-boxing.” This term could be used for a variety of martial arts, but during this occasion it referred specifically to the phenomenon of spirit possession: invoking warrior gods into their bodies, the “Boxers” believed themselves invulnerable to the weapons of colonial armies. The gods they asked to take possession of their bodies were the same that one would find in popular temples, popular story-cycles, and local theatre: Sun Wukong (from Xiyouji), Guan Yu (from Sanguo), Li Nezha or Jiang Taigong (from Fengshen yanyi), and many similar figures. Even the imperial court ended up supporting the rebellion: by the end of June 1900, the Empress Dowager issued a decree to declare war on the foreign powers.50
The defeat of the Boxers also symbolized the defeat of traditional China; soon after, the empire collapsed and the ideology of modernity was imposed on a large scale. Roughly during this period the mainstay of Chinese religion was severely challenged: various governments agreed with modernist reformers (as well as Confucian and Buddhist intellectuals) that local temples needed to be abolished and repurposed as schools. Famously proposed by Zhang Zhidong in 1898, and memorialized to the throne in the same year by Kang Youwei, the idea to destroy local temples and build something entirely new on their ruins was enthusiastically received by the emperor and endorsed the same day. This religious reform, effectively attempting to rid China of the organizational linchpins of village communities and urban neighborhoods, targeted not just the physical structures of temples but also their entire social context of religious specialists: Buddhists, Daoists, and of course spirit mediums. Clearly, if these modern reformers had learned anything from the turbulent events during the past century, it was that religious structures formed powerful organizations that could rival the authority of the state.51
The modernization of China predictably exacerbated the demise of religious phenomena, at least as articulated in the official discourse of politics and the newly formed institutions like academia. Reformers such as Liang Qichao (1873–1929) condemned anything that had to do with religious festivals and with mantic arts like fengshui. According to him these vestiges of a backward China were the greatest obstacles to modernity, with its scientific truths, technological advances, and economic prosperity.
With the advent of communism, these anti-religious trends only further increased, culminating in the massive destruction of religious heritage during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Statues of the gods were taken from temples and burned or smashed in a public celebration of the “Spirit of the Revolution” (geming jingshen), temples were often destroyed or repurposed in desacralizing ways (such as for use as abortion clinics or headquarters of the secret police). Monastic institutions were largely vacated, and village priests forced to suspend their ritual activities, effectively robbing them of their livelihood. Many abandoned their professions.
During the approximately thirty years between the early 1980s and late 2000s, a relaxation of religious policies allowed people to return to their gods, priests, and sacred sites. Great numbers of temples were rebuilt in eastern provinces like Fujian, new acolytes in various Buddhist, Daoist, and local traditions were trained and ordained in large parts of China, ranging from northern provinces like Shanxi to southern provinces like Hunan. Spirit mediums resurfaced, providing divinatory and therapeutic services to their local community, and lay pilgrims again made long journeys to famous sacred sites such as Putuo (a famous island precinct of Guanyin off the coast from Shanghai), or Meizhou (the island that has produced the cult to Mazu, the “Celestial Consort” who helps fishermen and other mariners).
The broader heritage of the Three Teachings has been vibrant enough to survive into the 21st century, although the same can most certainly not be said of the overwhelming majority of local spirits, gods, and immortals that once pervasively populated the Chinese religious landscape.
Discussion of the Literature
Research on Chinese religious traditions has been determined by concepts and underlying assumptions that are derived from Christian backgrounds, revolving most of all around the kind of sectarian thinking normally associated with a monotheistic religion and its reference to the truths of a single sacred scripture. Early translators of Chinese traditions, such as the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), have played a role in manufacturing images of the Three Teachings as autonomous and unrelated religions that can be measured along the lines of Christianity. Later missionaries have reified these images and defined them in essentialist terms. In The Dragon, Image, and Demon, or, the Three Religions of China, by the Presbyterian missionary Hampden C. DuBose (1886), Confucianism is described as an imperial religion on an equal footing with European philosophy, Buddhism is described as a form of idolatry reminiscent of Catholicism (which was no compliment, coming from a Presbyterian priest), and Daoists are understood as an uncouth bunch of demon-worshiping pseudo-sorcerers. This ranked hierarchy of the Three Teachings was accepted by Western researchers and Chinese modernist reformers alike. For most of the 20th century, scholars have assigned the highest importance to Confucianism and reinvented it as a secular tradition that promoted rational statecraft. Among the best of the early scholars is the English orientalist Arthur Waley (1889–1966), whose translation of the Lunyu, entitled The Analects of Confucius (1938), remained popular for decades. American sinologists like William Theodore de Bary (1919–2017) were influential in proposing Zhu Xi’s brand of “Neo-Confucianism” as a politico-philosophical orthodoxy, exemplified in his 1981 book Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-And-Heart. It was not until the 1990s and 2000s that a new wave of scholars broke free from these traditionalist fetters and started to review Confucianism from religious, historical, and otherwise sociocultural perspectives. Lionel Jensen was among the first to significantly challenge the continued acceptance of Confucianism as the highest intellectual tradition, in his Manufacturing Confucianism (1997). Both Mark Csikszentmihalyi in his Material Virtue, and Michael Puett in various publications, reassess the importance of body cultivation within early Confucianism, and the links bodily discourses have with other early Chinese traditions, including Daoism. John Makeham has offered the cautionary critique that Confucianism is nowadays redefined through the secular and philosophical lenses of the academic world of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States (and nowadays the People’s Republic of China): see his Lost Soul: “Confucianism” in Contemporary Academic Discourse (2008). Thomas Wilson has embarked on a project to reassess the importance of sacrifice and spirit worship as central concerns in Confucian discourse and practice, see “Culture, Society, Politics, and the Cult of Confucius” (2002) and “Spirits and the Soul in Confucian Ritual Discourse” (2014).
Texts from the canon of Daoism were studied by French scholars like Henri Maspero (1883–1945), but his work had limited circulation outside of France and his life was cut short when he was killed in a German concentration camp. After the war, his legacy became representative of one of two major lineages of Daoist Studies. His foremost student (and transmitter of his work) was Max Kaltenmark, who in turn trained Kristofer Schipper, the first scholar to combine serious textual scholarship with intensive fieldwork on living Daoist traditions. Schipper’s book The Taoist Body (1994) is a landmark in the field, combining insights from fieldwork on Taiwanese Daoism with classical textual scholarship. Schipper’s project on Daoist texts culminated in a three-volume compendium called The Taoist Canon (2006), which describes the historical background and content of all 1,500 texts included in the Ming dynasty Daoist Canons (1445 and 1607). His students include John Lagerwey, Vincent Goossaert, Catherine Despeux, and David Palmer. Another student of Kaltenmark’s, Anna Seidel, became a major authority on early Daoist traditions, most notably through her “Imperial Treasures and Taoist Sacraments” (1983). Similarly, Isabelle Robinet (Taoist Meditation, 1979) was a major authority on interiorized forms of Daoism, such as visualization and meditation. The other lineage of Daoist Studies was founded by Michel Strickmann, whose work was steeped in the textual study of early medieval Daoism as well as esoteric Buddhism. This is exemplified by his study of the Shangqing revelations entitled “The Mao Shan Revelations: Taoism and the Aristocracy” and works on the common ground between Daoism and esoteric Buddhism like Daoist Magical Medicine (2002). His students include Terry Kleeman, whose work Celestial Masters (2017) is a thorough study of the texts and ideals of early organized Daoism, and Stephen Bokenkamp, whose work on medieval Daoism, Early Daoist Scriptures (1994), refines both Strickmann’s research on the Shangqing revelations (translating very complex Chinese into flowery English) and his work on Buddhist-inspired forms of Daoism, such as Lingbao.
Buddhism, more than Daoism, better suited the evolutionary philology advocated by famous 19th-century scholars like Max Müller in his project on the Sacred Books of the East, though it was not until after World War II that systematic scholarship took place, with Erik Zürcher writing his classic The Buddhist Conquest of China (1959). Since then, a steady stream of scholarship has offered increasingly fine-grained analysis of Chinese Buddhism. Stanley Weinstein studied the institutional forms of Buddhism in his Buddhism under the T’ang (1987). Bernard Faure offered a cultural critique of Chan/Zen Buddhism in his Rhetoric of Immediacy (1991). Stephen F. Teiser studied the Ghost Festival from the perspective of Buddhist and Daoist sources: The Ghost Festival in Medieval China (1988). Similarly, Teiser’s Scripture on the Ten Kings (2003) studied Buddhism less as a “pure” Indian tradition, and more as a Buddhism reinvented within Chinese parameters. A similar approach characterizes Robert Sharf’s book Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism (2002), and Paul Copp’s monograph The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism (2014).
For Confucianism, a seminal text is Kong Zi’s legacy of recorded sayings, the Lunyu, with the translation by D. C. Lau still remaining the most widely used. The same translator also produced a translation of Meng Zi that has yet to be displaced. The texts of Lunyu and Meng Zi constitute two of the “Four Books” (sishu) that were so ranked by Zhu Xi, the other two being Daxue (“Great Learning”) and Zhong Yong (“Doctrine of the Mean”), each of these two being a chapter taken from Li Ji ( “Records of Ritual”). The commentarial tradition attached to Confucian classics has been formative for its historical transformations.52 The text of Xun Zi was translated into English by Burton Watson.53 However, the three ritual classics of Confucianism, the Zhou Li, Yi Li, and Li Ji have not yet been comprehensively translated into English. Zhu Xi’s legacy includes the Zhu Zi yulei (“Classified Sayings of Master Zhu”), translated by Daniel Gardner.54 Late imperial thinkers like Wang Yangming left large quantities of writings that were later compiled into annotated and punctuated editions such as Wang Yangming Quanji, parts of which have been translated.55
The foremost Daoist classic was attributed to Lao Zi, originally named Lao Zi and later elevated to the status of a “classic” (jing) with the now more commonly known title “Classic of the Way and its Power” (Dao De Jing). The text has been translated into Western languages many times (though many versions are fanciful retranslations from English). A similar historical trajectory has been traversed by the other classic of early Daoism: originally named Zhuang Zi after its putative author, the text later was elevated to the status of a classic, Nanhua zhenjing (“True Classic of the Southern Splendor”—a title that is not used much today). Other important texts for understanding Daoism are Huainan Zi (“The Prince of Huainan”), translated by John Major. Of the formative early imperial and medieval texts, the Celestial Masters’ Lao Zi xiang’er from the 2nd century ce has been translated by Stephen Bokenkamp, as have the Inner Explanations of the Three Heavens (Santian neijie jing), the Purple Texts, and Scripture of Wondrous Salvation (Durenjing). Most of the almost 1,500 different texts in the Daoist Canon of 1445 and its supplement of 1607 have not been translated, though these two compendia remain crucial for textual study of Daoism and an increasing number of them have been studied recently.56
For Buddhist sources the situation is more complicated. Many of the major texts are translations from Sanskrit or Pāli, with some surviving only in Chinese, and some alleged “translations” being entirely new creations in Chinese. Two influential texts have been the Heart Sūtra (Xin jing, or Bore boluomiduo Xin jing) and Diamond Sūtra (Jingang jing). The former ranks among the most important texts in Chinese Chan/Zen Buddhism, expounding what Buddhist “wisdom” entails, and has also been widely used in Tibetan Buddhism. The latter is a cornerstone text of Mahayana Buddhism, summarizing core concepts of Buddhism. Both scriptures have been translated into English by Edward Conze.57
Similarly, the two scriptures that describe Buddha Amitābha are central to the Chinese tradition. The longer Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra was one of the earliest translated into Chinese (Da Amituofo jing), describing the paradisiacal realm of Pure Land. The shorter Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtra (Xiao Wuliangshou jing) treats a similar topic and explains how to reach Pure Land. Both have been translated from Sanskrit into English by Luis Gomez.58 The Lotus Sūtra, already described in the main article, was translated by Leon Hurvitz.59 Other seminal scriptures include the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra and the Avataṃsaka Sūtra.60
Aside from various sacred scriptures, the Chan/Zen Buddhist tradition has produced an extensive literature of “recorded sayings” (yulu) and gongan (“public cases,” better known by the Japanese pronunciation of kōan). These are commonly written dialogues between masters and disciples. A famous example is the “Records of Lin Ji” (Lin Ji lu), translated by Burton Watson.
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Copp, Paul. The Body Incantatory: Spells and the Ritual Imagination in Medieval Chinese Buddhism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.Find this resource:
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Goossaert, Vincent, and David Palmer. The Religious Question in Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.Find this resource:
Kleeman, Terry. Celestial Masters: History and Ritual in Early Daoist Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2017.Find this resource:
Meulenbeld, Mark. Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2015.Find this resource:
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Schipper, Kristofer. The Taoist Body. Translated by Karen C. Duval. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.Find this resource:
Sharf, Robert. Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism: A Reading of the Treasure Store Treatise. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2002.Find this resource:
Teiser, Stephen F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.Find this resource:
Teiser, Stephen F. Reinventing the Wheel: Paintings of Rebirth in Medieval Buddhist Temples. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Ter Haar, Barend J. Guan Yu: The Religious Afterlife of a Failed Hero. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.Find this resource:
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(1.) Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); and Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 269–282.
(2.) Michael Ing, The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
(3.) Mark Csikszentmihalyi, Material Virtue: Ethics and the Body in Early China (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004).
(4.) Thomas Wilson, “Spirits and the Soul in Confucian Ritual Discourse,” Journal of Chinese Religions 42, no. 2 (2014): 185–212. For early China, see the introductory work by Mark Csikszentmihalyi, “Confucianism,” in Introduction to World Religions: Communities and Cultures, ed. Jacob Neusner (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 251–263.
(5.) Lothar Von Falkenhausen, “Reflections on the Role of Spirit Mediums in Early China: The Wu Officials in the Zhouli,” Early China 20 (1995): 279–300.
(6.) Michael Puett, “Becoming Laozi: Cultivating and Visualizing Spirits in Early-Medieval China,” Asia Major 23, no. 1 (2010): 223–252. Also see Terry Kleeman, “Licentious Cults and Bloody Victuals: Sacrifice, Reciprocity, and Violence in Traditional China,” Asia Major 7, no 1 (1994): 185–211.
(7.) Max Kaltenmark, Lao Tzu and Taoism, trans. Roger Greaves (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969). Here, too, see Csikszentmihalyi, Material Virtue.
(8.) Kaltenmark, Lao Tzu and Taoism.
(9.) Gil Raz, “Birthing the Self: Metaphor and Transformation in Medieval Daoism,” in Gendering Chinese Religion: Subject, Identity, and Body, ed. Jia Jinhua, Kang Xiaofei, and Yao Ping (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014), 183–200.
(11.) Robert Eno, “Cook Ding’s Dao and the Limits of Philosophy,” in Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi, ed. Paul Kjellberg and Philip J. Ivanhoe (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1996), 127–151.
(12.) Mark Meulenbeld, “Daoist Modes of Perception: ‘Registering’ the Living Manifestations of Sire Thunder, and Why Zhuang Zi is Relevant,” Daoism: Religion, History and Society 8 (2016): 33–89.
(13.) Anna Seidel, “Imperial Treasures and Taoist Sacraments: Taoist Roots in the Apocrypha,” in Tantric and Taoist Studies in Honour of R.A. Stein, ed. Michel Strickmann (Brussels: Institut belge des hautes études chinoises, 1983), 291–371.
(14.) This is a debate that has been unresolved since Maurice Freedman, “On the Sociological Study of Chinese Religion,” in Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, ed. Arthur P. Wolf (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974), 19–41.
(15.) Isabelle Robinet, Taoism: Growth of a Religion, trans. Phyllis Brooks (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).
(16.) Seidel, “Imperial Treasures and Taoist Sacraments.”
(18.) Csikszentmihalyi, Material Virtue.
(19.) Nathan Sivin, “State, Cosmos, and Body in the Last Three Centuries B.C.,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 55, no. 1 (1995): 5–37.
(20.) Csikszentmihalyi, Material Virtue.
(21.) Erik Zürcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1959); and John Kieschnik, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).
(22.) Stephen Bokenkamp, Ancestors and Anxiety: Daoism and the Birth of Rebirth in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
(23.) Robert Campany, “The Earliest Tales of the Bodhisattva Guanshiyin,” in Religions of China in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 82–95.
(24.) Zürcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China.
(25.) For an introduction and translation of these texts, see Stephen Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
(26.) Livia Kohn, Laughing at the Dao: Debates among Buddhists and Daoists in Medieval China (Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Press, 2008).
(27.) Peter N. Gregory, Inquiry into the Origin of Humanity: An Annotated Translation of Tsung-mi’s Yüan jen lun with a Modern Commentary (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995).
(28.) Burton Watson, trans., The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).
(29.) Michel Strickmann, Chinese Magical Medicine (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).
(30.) Christine Mollier, Buddhism and Taoism Face to Face: Scripture, Ritual, and Iconographic Exchange in Medieval China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009).
(31.) Mark Meulenbeld, “Death and Demonization of a Bodhisattva: Guanyin’s Reformulation within Chinese Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84, no. 3 (2016): 690–726.
(32.) Robert Campany, Strange Writing: Anomaly Accounts in Early Medieval China (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1996).
(34.) Joseph McDermott, “The Village Quartet,” in Handbook of Oriental Studies, ed. Pierre Marsone and John Lagerwey, Modern Chinese Religion 1 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014), 167–228.
(35.) Edward Davis, Society and the Supernatural in Song China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001).
(36.) Patricia Ebrey, “The Liturgies for Sacrifices to Ancestors in Successive Versions of the Family Rituals,” in Ritual and Scripture in Chinese Popular Religion: Five Studies, ed. David Johnson (Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1995), 104–136.
(37.) Meulenbeld, Demonic Warfare.
(38.) Timothy Brook, Praying for Power: Buddhism and the Formation of Gentry Society in Late-Ming China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1993).
(39.) Jiang Wu, Enlightenment in Dispute: The Reinvention of Chan Buddhism in Seventeenth-Century China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
(40.) Chün-fang Yü, The Renewal of Buddhism: Chu-hung and the Late Ming Synthesis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981).
(41.) Willard Peterson, Bitter Gourd: Fang I-chih and the Impetus for Intellectual Change (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1979).
(42.) Benjamin Elman, From Philosophy to Philology: Intellectual and Social Aspects of Change in Late Imperial China (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph, 1984).
(44.) Tam Wai Lun, “Exorcism and the Pu’an Buddhist Ritual Specialists in Rural China,” in Exorcism in Religious Daoism: A Berlin Symposium, ed. Florian Eiter (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2011), 137–150.
(45.) Liu Yonghua, Confucian Rituals and Chinese Villagers: Ritual Change and Social Transformation in a Southeastern Chinese Community, 1368–1949 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013).
(46.) Wilson, “Spirits and the Soul.”
(47.) Barend Ter Haar, The White Lotus Teachings in Chinese Religious History (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1992).
(48.) Susan Naquin, Millenarian Rebellion in China: The Eight Trigrams Uprising of 1813 (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1976).
(49.) Tobie Meyer-Fong, What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).
(50.) Joseph Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); and Paul Cohen, History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
(51.) Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); and Goossaert and Palmer, The Religious Question in Modern China; Rebecca Nedostup, Superstitious Regimes: Religion and the Politics of Chinese Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009).
(52.) Daniel Gardner, Zhu Xi’s Reading of the Analects: Canon, Commentary, and the Classical Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
(53.) Burton Watson, trans., Hsün Tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963).
(54.) Daniel Gardner, Learning to be a Sage: Selections from the Conversations of Master Chu (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
(55.) Wu Guang, ed., Wang Yangming quanji (Shanghai: Guji, 1992); and Wing-tsit Chan, Instructions for Practical Living and other Neo-Confucian Writings by Wang Yang-Ming (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963).
(56.) See Kristofer Schipper and Franciscus Verellen, The Taoist Canon: A Historical Companion to the Daozang (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
(57.) Edward Conze, trans., Buddhist Wisdom: The Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra (New York: Vintage Books, 2001).
(58.) Luis O. Gomez, trans., The Land of Bliss, the Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light: Sanskrit and Chinese Versions of the Sukhavativyuha Sutras (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996).
(59.) Leon Hurvitz, trans., Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (New York: Columbia, 2009).
(60.) Burton Watson, trans., The Vimalakirti Sutra, rev. ed. (New York: Columbia, 2000); and Thomas Cleary, trans., The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Boulder, CO: Shambala, 1993).