Author: Krzysztof Gawlikowski
Year of publication: 2003
Source: Show
Pages: 7-67
DOI Address:
PDF: ap/6/ap0601.pdf


The author considers “religiosity” as a universal social phenomenon, whereas “religion” constitutes its particular, cultural form. The study presents particular characteristics of the Chinese religiosity and its essential differences with the Mediterranean religions.
The five “constitutional” religions in PRC are presented (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and the Catholic and Protestant Churches), as well as the officially registered religions in Taiwan. The author outlines changing attitudes to them and their contemporary development. He indicates great variations in the estimations of their “believers”, and points out the difficulties in “counting” of so called “believers into Chinese religions”. He concludes that the majority of the Chinese practice something that is located beyond these “official”, or “institutionalised” religions, i.e. “popular beliefs”. In some respects they even more resemble our Western religions than the official Chinese “three teachings” (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism). In his opinion, all our Western categories and notions related to “religions” appear inadequate to the Chinese religiosity, although the local Westernised elite tries to apply them.
Among principal characteristic of the Chinese religiosity one can enumerate the absence of the division into sacred and profane, so fundamental to the Indo-Europeans and to the peoples of Mediterranean civilisations, and to their very concept of religion. Therefore, in China “religion” cannot be defined as “the sphere of sacredness or related to sacredness”, and distinguished from the “profane”. Émile Durkheim’s concepts, inherited by Mircea Eliade, appear inadequate to the social realities where everything is sacred-and-profane, although in different degree, and everything could possess greater or smaller, invisible, but not „supernatural” „powers”.
The author points out a particular heritage of the three Mediterranean monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) that shaped the Western notions of “religion”. Their common characteristics are outlined, such as a “community of believers”, temples as “sacred places”, “a sacred day of a seven-day week”, the struggle between forces of Good and of the Evil, particular status of “humans” as “God’s creatures”, and a particular relations between God and Man, the eternal truth of God’s words (that allows the distinction of “heretics” and “pagans”), the concept of “metaphysics”, of “spiritual beings”, of “supranatural”, and of transcendence, etc. In addition, these “religions” constituted a very noble sphere, and “priests” – a particular elite.
The author indicates that in China religious affairs enjoyed much less respect, and each community was religious-and-profane. Their heads usually maintained relations with community’s protective spirits (considered its “particular members”!) and represented it vis-á-vis the “outside world” – social-and-spiritual. From the family to the state all structures were semi-religious, and all performed similar functions: administrative, managerial, religious, and educative. Therefore even today the separation of the state from the religious affairs and from moral education of the population – is truly difficult.
The differences are even deeper. In the West believing in some revealed, sacred truths is essential, so orthodoxy is central for its religions. In East Asia, on the other hand, right practice is most essential, whereas various concepts were allowed or propagated, side by side. Therefore orthopraxy is central to its religiosity. Moreover, the followers of the monotheistic religions concentrate their attention on God, and they threat gods with a similar attention and respect, thus their worldview is theocentric. In Chinese religiosity the human beings were central, so the anthropocentric worldview predominated there. There were no “ontological gulfs” between man, God and other spiritual beings, and animals or objects. All “beings/objects” are matarial-and-spiritual/energetical, human beings are divided into numerous “ontological categories” – lower and higher. So they could reach higher forms of existence, including gods and god-type levels, or descend to “lower” forms (which not necessarily appear “lower” to the Chinese). So called “teachings” (jiao) indicate how humans could reach higher ontological forms, whereas other popular religious-type practices help them to obtain prosperity, longevity, and happiness. The Yin-Yang dualism was of complementary nature, nor antagonistic, as the struggle of Evil against God, forces of Darkness against Light. Therefor the concept of “mission” and of “holy struggle” were alien, instead the concept of harmony was presented as the main principle of the universe, and the idea of adapting to the natural order was promoted. The educated scholars and administrators constituted a Chinese elite, not noble warriors and clergy, as among the Indo-Europeans. However, some elementary Indo-European and Mediterranean influences could be detected in China, and their concepts become known to a certain degree through Buddhism, Manicheism and Islam.
The Western religious systems are “closed”, i.e. the communities of believers are “closed”, the pantheons, truths, rites, temples, etc. all are “closed”, or “restricted”. On the other hand, in China all of them are “open”: a “worshiper” could at the morning study Confucian books, at the afternoon visit a Taoist temple, and for funerals of his grandma invite Buddhist monks, a Catholic priest and a rabbi, if he resides near by. He could erect a temple to any spirit he likes, even to a hero of a novel, and he could establish particular rites to him, and such cult could be diffused and eventually approved by the state. Even a living person could be worshipped and become a “tutelary spirit”. Almost each figure could be put on an altar at every temple, so they usually are syncretic. The “temples” are not “sacred”, but could serve to various social purposes. Everybody could enter every temple, every time he liked, and for various purposes, or do not enter any of them. There was no “clergy”, nor organised “churches”, etc.
In addition to personified powers the Chinese acknowledged existence of innumerable invisible forces of the universe, belonging to its natural order. They could not be “worshipped”, but one had adapt one’s actions to them. It was the sphere of “pseudo-sciences”, like geomancy, astrology, the Yin-Yang and the Five Elements, fortune-telling, characteristics of time-space “sectors”, etc. Therefore there is no boundary between “religion” and civic or political life, hence “religion” could not be distinguished and separated there. The practices that resemble mostly our religion were disdained by the Chinese elite, and considered the “superstitions” of uneducated folk.
Gu Hongmin (1857-1928) seems to be right indicating that this elite cultivated and propagated a kind of “religion of good-citizenship” that constituted the superior level of the Chinese “religiosity” but was “religious” in its approach, not in its contents or forms.
Hence the Chinese religiosity is a very complex phenomenon, and the Western categories often obscure its nature and its multiple functions.

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