An immense amount of material concerning the religious situation in China is being printed in the West just now. The efforts to secure more than fifty million dollars in a single year for Christian missions in this new Republic require this publicity. Most of it I have read: some of it I have written. And all of it leaves me with the fear that the thought of the West is not being clarified, either as to the present religious situation in China, or as to the portents now discernible. Perhaps this is because it is so easy to have a vigorous part in the religious development now taking place in this nation without ever comprehending the forces at work.
No man knows enough about the religious situation throughout China to speak dogmatically as to its details. Should I make the general assertion that Taoism is declining, witnesses will arise to declare that in certain sections it is the most flourishing form of worship. Should I tell of a Buddhist revival, other witnesses can speak at first-hand of fast-crumbling temples and derided priests. In this vast stretch of country, with its poor communications, we can know only in part and can testily confidently only in part. When one sets out to generalize, he does so at his own peril. The only consolation is that it is almost impossible to disprove any statement, for, however fantastical, it probably in accord with the facts in some part of the land.
Yet, after an experience admittedly circumscribed, I am convinced that there are certain main currents which are running through the religious life of China to-day, sweeping us toward certain goals that we may begin to see with considerable clearness, if we will but look. Some of these goals are not. ones toward which many have thought the tide would bear us.
Any discussion 0f religion in China inevitably forms itself about the three religions – Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism. Most Chinese (especially the ‘modern’ group) will strenuously deny to Confucianism the right to be called a religion. In theory they are undoubtcdly correct, but in practice it is necessary to continue to study it in the familiar category. To the three should be added at least three others – Animism, Mohammedanism, Christianity. In large measure Taoism and Animism have become inextricably intermingled.
The somnolence which seems to have befallen Confucianism should not deceive anyone as to its power. The philosophy which has moulded a civilization for 2500 years is not going to pass away in a decade. It is true that the attempted Confucian revival of 1915-1916 was not a success, and that, except in a few spots, it. has largely spent its aggressiveness. It is true that in many places the annual Confucian sacrifices are carried through in a purely perfunctory manner, or even omitted entirely. But that does not affect the fact that Confucianism, with its doctrine of the golden mean and its morality designed to bring reward in this life, underlies the thinking of every Chinese who thinks at all. The missionary who works in China to-day must reckon with Confucianism just as the early church had to reckon with the philosophies of the Graeco-Roman world. Adjustments are as inevitable as were those that gave Neo-Plalonism such an influence in moulding Christian doctrine. They will work as powerfully in what may be called the ruder aspects of Confucianism, like ancestor-worship, as in the higher realms of thought where only the scholars walk.
It is easy to write of the lack of understanding of Confucianism on the part of the masses of the Chinese. It is, of course, inevitable that a largely illiterate population should have only the haziest sort of notion of a system of thought. which has been carefully safeguarded from contact with the vulgar tongue. It is probable, however, that the average Chinese has as much knowledge of the Confucian classics as the average peasant in any one of a half-dozen Christian countries has of the Bible. And, however great the lack of literal knowledge, the fact is that the general Confucian attitude toward life is a part oft he heritage of China, and is probably the one fixed point in her civilization. Until you change that civilization, and change it fundamentally, you have Confucianism with which to deal. And any fundamental change in the civilization of a quarter of the worlds population is not an order to be lightly undertaken.
Buddhism came to China as a foreign religion, and has suffered terribly at periods during its nineteen centuries in the land. Perhaps the best thing that could happen to Buddhism to-day would be to suffer some more. For the fate has largely befallen Buddhism that awaits any religion which becomes rich in houses and lands and offers a formal substitute for a vital spiritual experience. It is impossible to deny the validity of the spiritual experiences which have come to the Buddhist saints. Even to-day the sympathetic searcher will find within the monasteries a few sweet and simple spirits, the purity of whose lives and the ardor of whose religious passion might well be copied by many Christians. And so long as Buddhism can produce such lives at all it is entitled to respectful consideration.
Unfortunately for China, such fruits of Buddhism are the exception rather than the rule. With a reputed total of two million priests, it is only here and there, and by patient searching, that men can be found who are not lazy, not. ignorant, not mercenary, and even not impure. The worship in the Buddhist temples is generally a mere formality, and while it makes its appeal to the senses, if properly conducted, it has very little to offer an inquiring mind.
Buddhism, in fact, has come largely to trade upon the fears of the people.
The worshipers in its temples are there to avert disaster, or to repay vows made when disaster threatened, or to secure advice as to lucky and unlucky enter- Unworthy priests long ago discovered that the easiest way to extract money was to threaten with disaster, and the worship has, in many places, become as much a playing upon the fear of eternal torment as some degraded forms of Christianity.
A curious attitude toward Buddhism is to be found in many parts of China to-day. While in some cities, such as Hangchow, there is in process a determined effort to reform and revive the worship, in many others the shiftlessness and ignorance of the priests have become proverbial, and the temples are being allowed to fall into decay. In such a city as Nanking, for instance, the number of Buddhist temples has decreased in a half century from more than four hundred to about forty. (The influence of the Taiping rebellion, its fanatical hatred of idolatry, in producing such a decrease must be admitted.) The number of Buddhist priests is increasing, but their influence is diminishing. In many centres men are seldom seen in the temples, and when there, they are apt to be in an apologetic mood. Yet, in the deepest moment of life, when death enters the household, it is very seldom that the priests are not summoned to attend.
It is hard, in discussing Taoism, to distinguish between Taoism as such, and the Animism which is really the religion of masses of the Chinese The two must be considered together.
In his book on comparative religions, The Faiths of Mankind, Professor E. D. Soper has a chapter entitled, ‘Where Fear Holds Sway.’ It is impossible for the Westerner to conceive such an atmosphere until he has lived in it. In fact, he may live in it for years and never realize the hold which it has upon his native neighbors. But it is no exaggeration to say that, to the average Chinese, the air is peopled with countless spirits, most of them malignant, all attempting to do him harm. Even a catalogue of the devils, such as have been named by the scholarly Jesuit, Father Doré, is too long for the limits of this article. But there they are, millions of them. They hover around every motion of every waking hour, and they enter the sanctity of sleep. An intricate system of circumventing them, that makes the streets twist in a fashion to daze Boston’s legendary cow and puts walls in front of doors to belie the hospitality within, runs throughout the social order.
There are large parts of China where Taoism, as an organized form of worship, is disappearing. There are no regular services, and the priests are seen usually in the funeral processions of wealthy people who patronize all the creeds in order to assure the deceased the benefit which any may be able to give. But the belief in spirits upon which Taoism battens will not be gone for a long, long time. Even in student circles it is not unusual to find as real a belief in devils as among the coolies. And the missionary who reads in his home papers that the American Senate has adjourned so that it. may not be forced to (10 business on a Friday the 13th will hardly expect 10 see the power of Chinese superstition pass in this generation.
So far as can be determined, Mohammedanism is making no headway in China, although there are at least four limes as many followers of I he prophet in the country as of the Christ. ‘11)0 history of Mohammedanism in China should be pondered by Christian workers, and the present Mohammedan communities are not without their significance. In many cases they are as distinct from the life about them as would be a colony of Koreans or Japanese. Sometimes they have almost a monopoly of certain trades or forms of earning a living, and frequently they are looked upon by other Chinese with what borders on suspicion. They constitute a living proof that it is possible to will large numbers of converts and yet not make an appreciable impression upon the fundamental problem of converting China.
Finally, there is Christianity. Aggressive Christian effort in China dates from the sixteenth century, when St. Francis Xavier led the Jesuit fathers in their first attempts to enter the country. (The previous activities of Nestorian Christians are 100 speculative to warrant consideration.) Protestant missions began a little more than a century ago. There are to-day about 25,000 pastors and 400,000 communicants in the ranks of Protestantism, with an additional 6,001) foreign missionaries appointed to this field, and about 2,300 priests, foreign and Chinese, and 2,000,000 communicants in the Catholic fold. There is very little of the bitter persecution which, as recently as twenty years ago, brought the martyrdoms of the Boxer uprising. Christians, as a whole, are winning a position of respect and influence out of proportion to their numbers. When compared with the history of Buddhism after its introduction into China, the progress of Christianity, especially since the landing of Robert Morrison, seems phenomenal.