If there were just one Chinese in the world, he could be the lonely sage contemplating life and nature whom we come across on the misty mountains of Chinese scrolls. If there were two Chinese in the world, a man and a woman, lo, the family system is born. And if there were three Chinese, they would form a tight-knit, hierarchically organized bureaucracy.
But how many Chinese would there have to be to generate a religion? It could be just one—that Daoist sage in the mountains—but in reality it takes a village, according to Ian Johnson in his wonderful new book, The Souls of China. Chinese religion, Johnson writes, had little to do with adherence to a particular faith. Instead, it was primarily “part of belonging to your community. A village had its temples, its gods, and they were honored on certain holy days.” Or, traditionally, it could also take a workplace: “Almost every profession venerated a god…. The list is inexhaustible….” Chinese religion “was spread over every aspect of life like a fine membrane that held society together.”
At the outset of this account of China’s astounding religious revival since the end of the Mao era in the 1970s, Johnson explains the differences between Chinese religious traditions—Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism—and the “Abrahamic” faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: “Chinese religion had little theology, almost no clergy, and few fixed places of worship.” Confucianism was largely a moral code of what the upright person should aim to achieve by self-cultivation. In the Analects, Confucius famously advised: “Respect ghosts and spirits, but keep them at a distance.” For the Master, it was enough if he or one of his disciples could gain the ear of a Chinese ruler and sort out the problems of the visible world.
Daoists were freer spirits who refused to be bound by Confucian rules of propriety, and they had their own religious rituals. Only Buddhists used their faith, imported from India around the first century AD under the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), to build up a sizable monastic establishment with considerable political power, but it was reduced in size and influence in the later Tang (618–907). By then Buddhism had long been accepted as a Chinese religion.
Thereafter, for Chinese it was not really a matter of choosing: the three traditional “teachings” were a smorgasbord on offer to all and sundry in the community, and representatives of each would perform on demand, and for a price, their particular rituals on appropriate occasions such as funerals. According to Johnson, “for most of Chinese history, people believed in an amalgam of these faiths that is best described as ‘Chinese Religion.’”
Over the centuries, the Abrahamic faiths began to spread into China. Nestorian Christians arrived from Asia Minor in 635 after…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.