Scholar: 'Chinese Religions are Constantly Intertwined'

Shanghai Hongde Church, the first religious establishment of the U.S. Presbyterian Mission (North) in Shanghai
1/2Shanghai Hongde Church, the first religious establishment of the U.S. Presbyterian Mission (North) in Shanghai
Peng Rui from the Department of Sociology of Nanchang University
2/2Peng Rui from the Department of Sociology of Nanchang University(photo:  Chinese Society of Social Sciences)
By Christine Lau August 24th, 2021

A scholar said that to use a metaphor of weaving, Chinese religions were constantly intertwined.

Peng Rui, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology of Nanchang University, delivered a lecture entitled "China's Pluralistic and Integrated Religious Pattern from the Perspective of Social Cooperation" at the 2021 Academic Annual Conference of the Chinese Sociological Association conducted in Chongqing in middle July. 

The sub-forum of Sociology of Religion in the 2021 conference, hosted by the Chinese Sociological Society, was held on July 17. 

"China's religious form has been controversial throughout history," Rui said. "Our common belief in China is that the three religions are harmonious and pluralistic, which is quite different from the exclusive religions in the West. Scholars with western backgrounds have been debating about this and are often left confused. For example, the earliest Jesuit missionaries in the late Ming and early Qing Dynasty thought Confucianism was a little religious but denied other religions. By Weber's time, Confucianism was recognized as a religion. After the 1960s, Western scholars regarded Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism as orthodox religions and set popular religion as a complete religious system."

He claimed that in ancient China, there was great space for different religions, resulting in a multi-religious situation.

"Yet despite this, we kept a very unified ideology. How can I explain this? It can be explained through the lens of cooperation in modern economics. For a society to exist, it needs multi-dimensional cooperation, such as cooperation between man and nature, vertical cooperation, horizontal cooperation, self-cooperation, and so on. In fact, regardless of religion, it needs to make some ethical explanations and how therefore  can it make a single unified explanation that holds true in all dimensions."

"For China's characteristics, this can be made possible by many religions in these dimensions, and finally reaching an equilibrium," Rui continued. "For Christianity, it is a religion. We need to explain why China's religion is developing like this. After Confucianism emerged as an official religion, why did Buddhism and Taoism still have so much room for development and become the mainstream religion in China? After the Tang and Song Dynasties, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism formed the harmony of the three religions. Why did the popular religion rise again and enter mainstream society? "

"Judging from the controversy of various schools of thought, Confucianism has made explanations for cooperation in many dimensions, as have Taoism and Mohism. Confucianism finally won, and its explanation of the types of social cooperation is the most extensive. Especially for China, which pays attention to intergenerational cooperation and vertical cooperation, its explanation is the strongest and most suitable. The problem is that Confucianism's explanation of man and nature is weak, and it emphasizes sociality in the cooperation between individuals and other individuals. For example, we emphasize glorifying ancestors, which is sociality. However, the orientation to individuality is relatively weak, and this is finally satisfied by Buddhism’s assertions," he added.

"After Buddhism was introduced into China, it made a lot of efforts in all dimensions, but finally, under the strong influence of Confucianism, it shrank to the ethical explanation of individual cooperation. As an institutional religion, Taoism has also made efforts in various dimensions, but in the end, it has made its main advances in the dimensions of man and nature. The final result is that Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism have together been explained in all dimensions."

"But for us Chinese, we use Confucianism from the perspective of intergenerational and vertical cooperation; Buddhism only relies on individual cooperation; Taoism is used to explain man and nature. In this sense, we have formed the harmony of the three religions."

"Why then can three-religion harmony be formed? It may be related to the ambiguity of its religion and the poor acceptability of ordinary people. In addition, due to the weak interpretation of the philosophy of supremacy, religion relies too much on the huge magical system to meet the practical ethical needs, so it finally forms an open and non-exclusive theological system for each religion to meet the needs of cooperative ethics, forming a relationship that is both competitive and integrated," the scholar explained. 

There were some theological explanations for the construction of the overall balance of the integration of the three religions: the internal and external theories, the theories of all goodness and all holiness, and the theories of all paths leading to the same goal.

"But we can see that Confucianism seeks to undertake and organize the harmony of the three religions because of the close association between Confucianism and imperial power."

"Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism lack horizontal dimensions, and the cost of the integration of the three religions is very high. In a unified society, people need a religious form that can meet all ethical needs and needs of various dimensions, and finally form popular religions, such as the worship of the general Guan Yu and Mazu."

Rui concluded, "To use a metaphor of weaving: Chinese religions are constantly intertwined."

-Translated by Charlie Li

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