Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China/The Ancient Faiths of the Chinese

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By the Rev. T. W. Pearce, London Missionary Society, Hongkong.

Writers on Chinese religion are wont to distinguish clearly three great systems — Confucianism. Buddhism, and Taoism — and it is the practice to treat of these as if all the units of a vast population, numbering not less than 350,000,000, through out the provinces and dependencies of the empire could, for the purposes of an article, like the present, be grouped as followers of Confucius, disciples of Buddha, or believers in an outward and corrupted creed, associated in its original purity with the "Old Philosopher," Laotzv.

The academic discussion of religions in China, with sharply drawn distinctions derived from the ancient books, canonical or heretical, is often the reverse of convincing to the student of "things Chinese," who has been in a position to verify allusions, to test citations, and to gauge the accuracy of much descriptive writing by daily contact with the people. To study Chinese religion at first hand is to see it everywhere in contact with life.

The general effect is fraught with complexity and singularity, aptly compared to the impression made on the mind by a group of trees, of outstanding girth, height and lateral extent, giants of the forest, that, during the decades and centuries, have grown and flourished, quickened by the spring rains, warmed into fullest life by the summer suns, strengthened by the blasts of autumn, and hardened by the frosts of winter.

They stand to-day as they have been growing during the passing of the generations of the Chinese race. Boughs are intertwined above, roots are interlaced below, a living mass grown together inextricably ; and not only so, but grown together beyond the power of the untrained observer to distinguish the smaller and more recent growths so as to assign each to its own proper tree trunk, or main branch. Such are Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in the inter-relation of their growths as trees of religion deep-rooted in the soil of China.

The illustration may be carried considerably further. Under the shadow of these trees is undergrowth of many kinds, a veritable forest, so dense as to be wellnigh impenetrable; a closed dank tangle that owes its existence to the fostering shelter of the trees, and could not survive for one moment their uprooting and downfall. Thus is it in the living inter-relation of manners and customs with the ancient faiths of the Chinese people. Religious motive determines the trend of social observance; sacred ceremonial blends with the administration of law. In the ordered and settled government of China's millions, religious factors are prominent and potent.

As are the giant trees to their undergrowth so are the religions of the land to the family and social, the political and national, life of the people. A bewildering mass of observances is knit, compacted, bound up in vital ways with religion. Herein is the twentieth century problem that lies before Christendom and China. Movements of the new time in the old empire make for an uprooting. What may one day seem the sudden is, in reality, the gradual freeing of the ground for new growths. To plant these under favouring conditions of soil and climate will be the task of the missionary Church in the hundred years period.

The greatest of Chinese religions is

The all-pervading presence and potency of Confucianism are without parallel among Oriental religions. There are those who account for its predominant position and its abiding character by denying its claim to be called one of the chief religions of the world. To them the ages return an answer, final, decisive, irrevocable. Voices of emperor and statesman, of seer and sage, assign Confucius his place among objects of worship. Adoring multitudes through the centuries have joined in "one according cry." Divine honours are paid at his shrine, and the worship of the teacher who, as a moral guide, has the pre-eminence, gives to his system the binding force of religion. To-day the religious faith of most Chinese appears to themselves inseparable from the divine sanctions which, for them, attach to the teaching of Confucius. To revert to our illustration, the growths of religious faith and practice are intermingled root and branch, but Confucianism is everywhere readily traceable by reason of its dominant vitality and vigour.

By the "law of survivals," working through all movements and changes of the new time, it is seen to be of Chinese religions the fittest. Its advocates in the native Press set forth the advantages that would accrue to the new empire from a Confucian worship-day, analogous to the Christian Sunday and occurring at the same intervals. On the Confucian rest and worship-day, assemblies convened for the purpose in temples and in public halls should, it is urged, join in hymn and prayer not less than in attending to precept and injunction; the multitudes throughout China following a form and mode of worship akin to that observed throughout Christendom, Confucius being put in the place of Christ. It is further pleaded that the new learning, having few points of contact with morality and religion, schools and colleges in all the provinces should keep a Confucian Sunday, when the regular teaching may give place to the new ritual to worship and to exhortation that centre in the person and the doctrine of the sage. These are suggestive facts that must needs count for much in any fitting record of twentieth century impressions of Chinese religion.

What manner of man was Confucius? What charm of life and doctrine gave to him the place he holds among the teachers of the race? What potent forces have wrought for the diffusion of his influence and for its conserving as a prime factor of reconstruction in the sphere of Chinese religion to-day?

Reply to such an inquiry, since it can only be of the briefest, should take us at once into the heart of things. Our means of knowing Confucius, if not ample, are at least adequate. In the "Analects, or Conversations, of Confucius with his Disciples," the whole of one book, the tenth, is devoted to a delineation of the habits and deportment of the master as he was known to his immediate followers in private and in public life. With the loving hand and the earnest purpose of Boswell portraying Johnson, the disciples of Confucius have sought to picture their master. Particular details are too minute, they take from the symmetry and finish of the completed portrait. It has, however, to be borne in mind that national habits and characteristics as we see them in the Chinese to-day — their race features — are what his followers saw in the sage of China 2,500 years ago. The times are evil, there has been a falling away from pure and lofty ideals, there are none that have attained, but the seekers after truth strive to be as the perfect sage. Ceremonial observances on which Confucius set the seal of his approval, constant virtues as seen in him, their highest exponent — these are the goal and aim of the Confucian. He is concerned always with the duties arising from the great human relations. When these are fulfilled all is well with the individual, the family, and the State.

Over the Western mind the " Analects " may cast no spell ; the non-Chinese reader of the Confucian canonical books, who has no working acquaintance with the Chinese people, is not likely to discover the secret of the magician's power.

To such we say, " Live among the Chinese, be in daily touch with their modes of thought and their outlook on life, and the wonder ceases." Adaptation to the genius of the race has been carried to the farthest point, and Confucianism has held its place as a world religion, because on its own finite lines and within a limited sphere, its appeals to humanity are direct, forceful, irresistible.

The founder, Confucius, was born in what is now the Yen-chau department of the Shantung Province, a territory comprised in the ancient state of Lú. The date of his birth is placed by some writers in 552, and by others in 550 B.C. Apart from the portents that were said to herald his birth, there was, in the circumstances of his parentage, no augury of a destiny distinguished among the millions of the race. The sage could, however, trace his descent back to the imperial house of Yin, and his forefathers for more than five hundred years had been men of probity and talent. His father figures in the history of the times as a soldier of daring prowess, and from his mother's kindred came Yen-Hui, his own favourite disciple.

The budding genius of Confucius was abundantly marked by the " capacity for taking pains." His acquirements in the literature of the period seemed to his contemporaries all-comprehensive, and he eagerly drank of the spirit of the most ancient sage monarchs, whose exploits shine resplendent in the first dawning light of Chinese history. This, more than anything else, determined the trend of his character and teaching. For him the past held whatever was of greatest worth. To turn the minds of men in his own degenerate times backward to the golden age, was for Confucius the heaven-appointed means of regenerating society.

As a servant of the State from the twentieth to the fifty-seventh year of his age, when Confucius finally retired from office, he embodied those public virtues which he honoured in his chosen exemplars. As Minister of Works and, subsequently, as Minister of Justice, his praise "flew in songs through the land."

He proved the efficacy of the doctrines taught by the ancient kings to work an entire transformation in the manners of the people. Of his literary labours, after his retirement from office, the verdict of posterity is that they are invaluable. They were directed to the collocation and arrangement of the works which now form the "King," being the second portion of the Chinese canonical scriptures.

The one original work of Confucius, called the "Spring and Autumn," with reference probably to the succession of the seasons, is a chronicle of his native state. Its purpose is to make the facts of history the means of conveying principles and truths — which his countrymen in each succeeding age have agreed to call inspired.

Confucius died in 479 B.C. ; and it was not until three hundred years afterwards that there was any imperial recognition of his transcendent character and services. From the time that the founder of the Han dynasty offered sacrifice at his tomb, Confucius has held a unique place in the veneration alike of rulers and people. Temples to " The Saint," the "Chief Doctor," the "Great Master," are in all provincial, prefectoral and district cities ; before his tablet the youth of the nation tow in schools and colleges ; and most Chinese of every sort and condition are wont to associate the religious faith which they have received with belief in Confucius.

Yet Confucius founded no religion ; he was, he declared, a transmitter, not a maker. There had come to him

"Legends of the saint and sage,
And tales that have the rime of age,
And chronicles of eld."

In these lay the moral and religious nuclei which were to become the " power centres of a system." These he may be said to have rediscovered and to have set in their proper relations. He collocated with a view to moral and religious sanctions in common life. The result is a system, not of theology but of morals. It should be added that the instructor of emperors and kings expressly refrained from treating those subjects which lie within the special domain of the King of all Sciences.

A Confucian China means a conservative China. To eradicate from the body politic vices that have grown with its growth, and strengthened with its strength, was a grand aim of the system. To accomplish this, ancient customs and practices must be restored in their primitive purity. This idea, blending with those of entire subordination and the utmost attention to family, social and civic usages commended the sage's teachings to the rulers. For the rest, insistence on the supremacy of parental authority and, all that is implied therein will account, perhaps more than aught else, for the enduring vitality of the great national tree of religion, "whose antique root peeps nut" from a mass of habits and observances that have grown up under the tree's wide-spreading branches, and in its grateful shade.

Turning our attention to

in China as illustrated by a second "plant of stately form," standing side by side with Confucianism, so that branches intermingle and roots intertwine, we find ourselves looking at a tree that is not native to the soil.

Transplanted to China in the second century B.C., at which time there was already an extensive overland trade carried on between East and West, it found congenial conditions in which it soon flourished amain. The oft-told story of its first planting has not lost its charm, whether as myth or fact, Ming Tai (94 A.D.), the seventeenth emperor of the great dynasty of Han, had heard of the coming of the Prince of Peace, for whose advent the world had waited long, and ambassadors were despatched from China westwards to learn tidings. These fell in with votaries of Buddha and embraced their faith. Buddhist priests returned with the ambassadors to China, and Buddhism became established as one of the religions of the country. Decades have passed since Dr. Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to the empire, wrote concerning the religion of Buddha in China: "It is decried by the learned, laughed at by the profligate, and yet followed." The observation holds good to-day with a difference. The movements of the new time have been more unfavourable to this than to other ancient faiths of the people, and disintegrating processes have wrought more effectually in loosening its hold on the popular mind.

The spread of enlightenment has meant the diffusion of ideas subversive of grosser forms of idolatry which, in the course of centuries, had become accretions of Buddhism in China.

Shrines are less frequented and revenue has become more and more restricted to the endowments of temples and monasteries. These latter buildings have become objects of desire to leading promoters of the new education. Numerous, in most provinces, with surpassing advantages of situation in relation to centres of population, of extensive dimensions, and suitable in structure, it is not to be wondered at that proposals to appropriate Buddist temples and monasteries for the purposes of the new learning met with large favour in high places. There seems little doubt that a policy of confiscation, now begun, will be made thorough, for Buddhism, though a factor in the religion of most Chinese, is not a force so potent that it can resist official aggression, or inspire its votaries to any united or organised endeavour for its conservation as part of a national creed.

Of the years that lie between the two points of time thus marked as the date of the entry of Buddhism into China, and our twentieth century impressions of its corruptions, decay, and impending sacrifice to the demands of the new time, we cannot write articularly. Attention should, however, be called to certain peculiarly attractive and instructive phases of its history as one of China's religions.

To realise the power that Buddhism once had over the minds and hearts of its adherents among the Chinese let it suffice to refer to the best known pilgrimages to its holy land. Among these the story of Fa Hien, translated by Rennisat, Beale, and Legge, may be cited. Here is seen the pious outgoings, the devout aspirations of the pure soul directed to things not akin to the "dust of this world," and the self-subjugation and self-abandonment that are possible only when the heart is inflamed, and the whole nature enlightened by the presence of a great truth that wholly possesses the soul. In Fa Hien's time, 399 A.D., and for seven centuries in all, Buddhists from India " came and went in a ceaseless stream."

At other periods it was under a ban, as in the middle of the ninth century A.D., when wellnigh fifty thousand monasteries and smaller shrines were destroyed, and about two hundred and fifty thousand inmates, male and female, had to find a way back into lay society.

It is still true that, throughout the land, Buddhism is the religion most in evidence. Its temples and pagodas stand among the fairest scenes, compelling the admiration of travellers on the inland waterways. On the upper slopes of mountains at commanding view-points, or by belts of charming woodland in the valleys, are the temples and altars of this religion. In the cities and towns its shrines are the most frequented, and its priests are constantly met with in contact with the people.

It became what it was to the Chinese, and what it might have continued to be, by processes of selection in the sphere of dogma and worship. Its leading doctrines changed their significance. The essential features of Guatama's teaching were discarded. China, in accepting Buddhism, held to its belief in a supreme God and in many lesser deities, good and evil. As an example, it may be noticed that in South China, and probably throughout the empire, every Buddhist temple has its shrine to Kwan Yin, concerning whom the story is told that she had merited Nirvana and was about entering heaven, when she was drawn back to earth again from the very threshold by the thought of the woes and miseries of men. Heaven was not for her until she had seen the sin-stricken and toil-worn sons of earth safely gathered there.

Buddhism, like Confucianism, is an example of the law of survivals. The chief strength of its creed lay, however, for the Chinese in its borrowed elements.

In his fine fragment, " Hyperion," Keats lays down a law which is ever in operation —

" First in beauty should be first in might."

Nothing noble in religious faiths is allowed to die. The " noble blends with noble things," and it thus serves to awaken in many that restless, unsatisfied longing which is met by a response of the soul to the highest truth in the revelation of the Son of God.


Taoism is a third tree of religion that has retained some of its earlier vitality, though it has long been marked by signs of decay, tending to downfall. Laotzv, its founder, was born half a century before Confucius. A probable, certainly a credible, part of his life-story is that he held the high office of keeper of the archives at the imperial court of the Chan dynasty. The leading doctrine taught by Laotzv, the venerable philosopher was that of abstraction from worldly cares. His chief speculations were concerning reason and virtue. There is a tradition that Confucius obtained an interview with the unorthodox teacher, but could find nothing to profit in his bold flight of imagination, "soaring like the dragon above the clouds of heaven."

On retiring from office, and whilst in the act of leaving his native state, Laotzv was prevailed upon to write the " Canon of Reason and Virtue," a short treatise containing rather more than five thousand words.

This book has long been one of the chief puzzles of translators, and the mass of lore written for its elucidation has not sufficed to make clear some of the more abstruse utterances of its author.

A key to the part understanding of the To Tok King on the transcendal side is found in the following comprehensive definition of the Tao by a modern European writer : —

Tao is "I.— The Absolute, the totality of being and things. 2.— The phenomenal world and
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The Temple of Confucius.
The Sleeping Buddha.
The Temple of Heaven.
Pi Yung Su Temple.
its order. 3.—The ethical nature of the good man and the principle of its action."

On the practical side the path of Laotzv lies before him plain and straight. It leads back from the complex to the simple; from the disorders and vices of corrupt society to primitive conditions. Our philosopher would have all things as they were at the beginning, when men could live their lives on the highest plane of virtue, and the "onward march" of the race had not carried it from its proper goal. To attain this, the one means is self-abnegation, a sacrifice on the part of the individual that "puts away" losing, that it may gain; denying, that it may acquire … itself.

The student of Chinese religions will inquire what the teaching of Laotzv has to do with the magic arts of the present day priests of Tao, their charms and spells and senseless incantations; and he will seek to know, further, how the "Canon of Reason and Virtue" is related to the pantheon of gods and godesses in Taoistic worship.

To such inquiries the answer, covering long stretches of history, is that Taoism, as interpreted by the disciples of Laotzv, has gathered to itself during the centuries all manner of superstitious beliefs. The "elixir of life," "pills of immortality," and "the philosopher's stone," became, in the course of time, articles of its creed. She Wang Ti, that great emperor who founded a united China on the ruins of the old feudal system (B.C. 259–210), was an ardent patron of this already debased and degenerate religion.

The affinities which Taoism, as it exists to-day, has for the mind of man in dark ages is shown by its multitude of willing followers.

The dawn of enlightenment, through the new civilisation and education, must needs have far-reaching results on the future of Taoism. Like all grosser forms of error, it is destined to fall as the forces of truth win their widening way through the land.

Thus far attention has been occupied with the more striking and permanent features of Chinese religion, illustrated by three gigantic growths that overshadow lesser forms of life. It remains to be added that certain of these latter were in existence in the soil before they became what we have seen fit to call undergrowths. Most ancient among these lowlier religious plants is


No one can point with assurance to a time when China was free from fetish worship. Mountains, stones, plants, and trees are among the objects that have for the present generation of Chinese an awesome potency. In its most intense form this power is centred in the holy mountain, Tai Shan.

Animals are tokens. Among tokenistic animals the dragon holds the first place. The dragon of the sky is indissolubly linked in the minds of the masses with the emperor who sits on the dragon throne, and who, after death, ascends upon the dragon "to be a guest on high."

The right relation of celestial influences, over which the dragon presides, with terrestrial influences that work for good or ill in human life is a vital principle of geomancy—a pseudo-science, and at the same time a most flourishing and widely extended religious undergrowth in the soil of China.

Last, but far from least, is the

Worship of Ancestors.

There is a true sense in which ancestral worship may be said to be both the root and the flower of Chinese religion. It is above and it runs through other forms of faith and worship which derive much of their efficacy from the ancestor-worship with which they are interpenetrated.

The Chinese believe that man has three souls, for which after death the tomb, Hades, and the ancestral tablet are the appointed abodes. As are the needs of men in this life, so are the needs of their disembodied spirits in the after-world. There, however, the spirits of the dead are clothed with a fearsome power to inflict calamities on their living posterity. From this view it follows that sacrifices to the dead are propitiatory; and, also, that they are the outcome of a faith unfeigned, an ardent hope, and a fervent desire, on the part of the worshipper. Its connection with the family and social life of the nation gives to ancestral worship in China a position which is probably unique in the history of non-Christian religions.

The worship of departed heroes who have been deified by imperial decree may here be mentioned as an extension of the worship of ancestors.

Finally, it should be stated that the worship at the Altar of Heaven in Peking, which the Emperor, as the high-priest of his people offers, periodically, with solemn sacrifices, in other words, the

State Religion of China,

is also to be regarded as in closest association with ancestral worship. We are not here concerned with the degree of personality attaching to the name "Heaven" and "God." It is, at least, strongly probable that the Supreme Ruler, often called "Heaven," was regarded by the early fathers of the Chinese race as a personal Supreme Being.

This survey of "impressions" may fitly conclude by quoting the first reference to religious worship found in Chinese history, where it is said of the Emperor Shun (2736 B.C.); "He sacrificed specially, but with the ordinary forms, to Shang Ti; sacrificed with purity to the Six Honoured Ones; offered appropriate sacrifices to the hills and rivers, and extended his worship to the host of spirits."

Here, in the first ages of the world, are the plants of Chinese religion. These helped to enrich the soil and to prepare it for the seeds and roots sown and planted in after times.

The whole as we see it to-day is tangled and intermixed in such a way that clearing must mean uprooting over large spaces. This is a work of time to be brought to pass by forces irresistible in their silent, ceaseless energy. The action of such forces in China to-day may well recall the lines of a poem already quoted in these impressions of Chinese religion:—

"We fall by Nature's law
… On our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty
…… fated to excel us …
We are such forest trees."

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