A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations/Chinese

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CHINESE. The religion of this great and ancient nation was certainly patriarchal, and supposed to be derived from Joktan, the brother of Peleg. (Gend.x. 29, 30.) This had degenerated to Paganism, which among their literati may be refined to a sort of philosophical atheism; but among the vulgar is gross idolatry as that of the other heathen nations. The grand Lama, or Pope of the Chinese and Tartars, who resides in Thibet in Tartary, is their visible deity, and treated with more distinction than the Pope himself, in the zenith of his power and glory, and attended by 20,000 priests or lamas. In addition to this general system of religion, which is founded on their sacred books, said to have descended from the skies, there are three grand sects, of which we shall give a brief account; and those three are again subdivided into as many as the Christian world itself.

1. the sect of Tao-se, or the followers of Laokium, who lived as they pretend, 500 years before Christ, and taught that God was corporeal. They pay divine honours to the philosopher, and give the same worship, not only to many emperours who have been ranked with the gods, but also to certain spirits, under the name of zamte, who preside over all the elements. Their morality consists in calming the passions, and disengaging themselves from every thing which tends to disquiet the soul, to live free from care, to forget the past, and not be apprehensive for the future. There are also magicians, -some of whom pretend that they derive from their founder the secret of making an elixir, which confers immortality.

2. The most predominant sect is that of Foe, who (according to their chronology) flourished 1000 years before our Saviour, and who became a god at the age of 30 years. This religion was transmitted from India to China 65 years after the birth of Christ. A large number of temples, or pagodas, are reared to this deity, some of which are highly magnificent, and a number of bonzes, or priests, consecrated to his service. He is represented shining in light, with his hands hid under his robes, to show that he does all things invisibly. The doctors of this sect teach a double doctrine, the one external, the other internal. According to the former they say, all the good are recompensed, and the wicked punished, in places destined for each. They enjoin all words of mercy and charity; and forbid cheating, impurity, wine, lying, and murder; and even the taking of life from any creature whatever. For they believe the souls of their ancestors transmigrate into irrational creatures; either into such as they liked best, or resembled most, in their behaviour; for which reason they never kill any such animals.[1]

They build temples for Foe, and monasteries for his priests, providing for their maintenance, as the most effectual means to partake of their prayers. These priests pretend to know into what bodies the dead are transmigrated; and seldom fail of representing their case to the surviving friends as miserable or uncomfortable, that they may extort money from them to procure the deceased a passage into a better state, or pray them out of purgatory, and which forms a part of their system.[2]

The internal doctrine of this sect, which is kept secret from the common people, teaches a philosophical atheism, which admits neither rewards not punishments after death; and believes not in a providence, or the immortality of the soul; acknowledges no other god than the void , or nothing; and makes the supreme happiness of mankind to consist in a total inaction, an entire insensibility, and a perfect quietude.[3]

3. A sect which acknowledge for its master the philosopher Confucius, (or Kung-fut-si,) who lived about 500 years before our Saviour. This religion, which is professed by the literati, and persons of rank in China and Tonquin, consists in a deep inward veneration for the God, or King of Heaven, and in teh practice of every mortal virtue. They have neither temples nor priests, nor any settled form of external worship: every one adores the Supreme Being in the way he likes best.[4]

Confucius, like Socrates, did not dive into abstruse notions, but confined himself to speak with the deepest regard of the great Author of all beings, whom he represents as the most pure and perfect essence and fountain of all things; to inspire men with greater fear, veneration, gratitude, and love of him; to assert his divine providence over all his creatures; and to represent him as a being of such infinite knowledge, that even our most secret thoughts are not hidden from him; and of such boundless goodness and justice, that he can let no virtue go unrewarded, or vice punished.

Mr. Maurice, the author of Indian Antiquities, asserts, that Confucius strictly forbade all images of the Deity, and the deification of dead men; and that in his dying moments he encouraged his disciples, by predicting that in the west the Holy One would appear !

The Chinese honour their dead ancestors, burn perfumes before their images, bow before their pictures, and invoke them as capable of bestowing all temporal blessings.[5]

It is remarkable, that "None of the different systems of religion," above mentioned, "can be said to be prevailing creed in China; or what is more remarkable, can be found existing pure and distinct from the rest. The greater part of the Chinese have no decided opinion whatever on the subject, and are either complete atheists, or, if they acknowledge a Supreme Being, utterly ignorant in what view he ought to be regarded; while they all combine with their peculiar sentiments the multifarious superstitions of the more popular sects. Of all these tolerated and established religious persuasions the emperour is the supreme head; without whose permission not one of them can enjoy a single privilege or point of pre-eminence; and who can diminish or increase, at his pleasure, the number of their respective temples and priests."[6]


Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Osbeck's Voyage to China, vol. i. p. 280.
  2. Modern Universal History, vol. viii. p, 112-114.
  3. History of Don Ignatus, vol. ii. p. 102.
  4. Kaimes, vol. iv. p. 230.
  5. Maurice's Ind. Antiq. vol. v. p, 458.
  6. American edition of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, vol. vi. part I. p. 91.