The Religious Outlook in China

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M. Painlevé, French Prime Minister before M. Clemenceau, made, on the return from his recent official visit to China, a few remarks to his interviewers to this effect: ‘Everywhere I go in this great Republic, I find new forces at work. All the departments of the national life are showing change and animation. The great movements toward modernization are all but invisible; but gradually and slowly they are doing the work of transformation at the very roots of this ancient civilization, and in time they will manifest themselves in all vigor and strength. I see great promise for this great land.’

M. Painlevé had the double advantage of making a personal visit to the country upon which he made his observations, and of having a keen and philosophical mind, which is not satisfied with the veneer of things, but penetrates into their very heart and essence. His conclusions, which some will perhaps regard as over-enthusiastic, are, nevertheless, perfectly sound. We must constantly bear in mind that, with the mental habits inherited from centuries of a unitary civilization, and with an extent of territory larger than that of the United States and a population exceeding that of any other country in the world, it is no simple task for a people to adapt itself to a new environment, which is absolutely foreign to it. The new ideas which M. Painlevé saw stirring the minds of the different classes of people in China must of necessity be slow and steady in their operations; and to those who are not familiar with Chinese life must seem negligible quantities because they are invisible. But they are not negligible. Anyone will admit that if one set of forces plays in any great measure upon another set of forces, it is bound to introduce new phases of activity. Now a set of forces, visibly embodied in all the concessions, extra-territorial rights, treaty ports, and many other privileges forced from her in the last three quarters of a century, has been acting on China, with the inevitable result that she is no longer treading her ancient path; nor is it any more possible for her to do that, even if she wished, than for America to keep herself immune from the influence of European thought.

But the peculiarly interesting and fascinating fact in Chinese life to-day is that, not only is there no passive attitude toward new ideas from the West, but there is every attempt to encourage the people to partake of the discussion of these ideas to the widest extent. For twenty years already, this interchange and communion of ideas has been going on and to-day, to say the least, the complexity is bewildering. There is no branch of knowledge from the serious studies of philosophy, literature, art, religion, to the more practical problems of engineering, agriculture, and commerce – that has not been carefully examined and considered. This is a different attitude, indeed one which we seek in vain, perhaps, in the entire history of China.

It is true that there are objectors who regard this new social ferment as of dubious value, and whose philosophy of life is not in consonance with this youthful optimism. They maintain, perhaps not without reason, that the idea of progress, for which the Western peoples have shown such a predilection, is beginning to be seriously questioned; and that, instead of placing their ideal state somewhere in the future, these peoples, too, are beginning to revert to previous ages for inspiration, and the solution of current problems. This, as philosophical thinking, certainly deserves much of our respect; but the peculiar form of society that obtains in China makes it somewhat unwarrantable and unacceptable there. The immediate interest of the Chinese people to-day does not, and should not, consist in making experiments with political theories such as would make a contribution to the world-history of ideas; rather it must be a practical nature, in order that we may create a satisfactory modus vivendi in relation to the rest of the world, for the simple end of self-preservation. It is this end that is responsible for the transformation of the old society upon the basis of the West. China is still, at present, in a confused and chaotic condition; but there is every reason to hope that the intricacy will be unraveled, and the whole body of her people will march along the road of prosperity.

I.

In the construction of the new society, the leaders of the people have wisely taken into consideration the all-important question of religion. Mr. Paul Hutchinson did well to call the attention of the world to the keenness and zeal with which the religious problem in China is being taken up.’ As in other realms of thought, there is no unanimity of opinion. All the different systems of religious ideas, with which China in her past had come in contact, and the new system introduced from the West, are receiving an equally attentive hearing. There is no one that towers above all the rest. Although it is natural that those which are indigenous to the country should receive a more favorable consideration, in general the people do not embrace them uncritically merely because they are products of their own race. They realize that religion is a living force, a force perhaps even more vital than the establishment of a new government and of a new code of laws, in moulding the habits and prejudices, the motives and sentiments, the passions and activities, not only of the individual, but of the entire nation. They are aware of the fact that, inasmuch as religion and society are so inextricably bound up with each other, the religions inherited from their ancestors cannot remain as they have always been, but must be substantially modified and refashioned, if not in their essentials, at least in their details and externalities, to suit the spirit of the new society. Nor are they ignorant of the fact that Christianity is the greatest single force that has made the Western nations what they are. They realize all this and much more. It is due to the diversity of the different religions themselves, as much as to the growth of the critical faculty, that religious thinking in China to-day is so confusing. It is not likely that in the near future they will agree upon any one system which they wish to see powerfully installed for the worship of the entire nation.

Men of the Confucian school have advanced their views as to why Confucianism should continue to be the national religion. Notable thinkers have willingly attached themselves to this school; they won such support from the people that Confucianism was actually presented to Parliament for recognition as a state religion. But it failed to receive that recognition. And perhaps in this formative period, when the minds of the people are being gradually shifted from their beaten tracks to new paths of promise, it very happily failed. There are other schools which are seriously claiming the attention of the people, who, in an open-minded and unprejudiced manner, are willing to discuss their ideas, even though these schools be antagonistic to one another. Buddhism, which from 65 A.D. has been almost as much a national religion as Confucianism or Taoism, but which within the last few centuries has much degenerated, is endeavoring to revive. Mohammedanism has for a long time had worshipers among the Chinese, who perhaps would not willingly abandon it, unless driven by dire necessity.

But the most important religion that is now making itself known is Christianity. As Mr. Hutchinson sees it, this is the religion that will ultimately prevail over all the others, and will be embraced by the Chinese as their national religion. He is at liberty to express his personal views, and, for the present, I shall not engage in any controversy with him. He certainly has reason to suppose that Christianity is gaining a hold upon the people, if it has not already done so. The present predilection of certain groups of people for the new religion is the result of compulsion, however. And there is a world of difference, whether a religion – or, for that matter, anything is adopted as a result of compulsion, or accepted with the due deliberation and sanction of the cultivated and intellectual classes. In the one case, it is the work of circumstances, of forces that are imposed from without, and hence is unstable and precarious. It depends, for its survival, upon external conditions, the nature of which may at any moment be changed; and with the change of these conditions, the fruits of the labor may vanish as as they appeared. In the other case, it appeals to the most fundamental instincts and emotions of the people, because they voluntarily accept it when they have experienced its vitality and its truth; it stirs the very roots of their life; and, in short, becomes part and parcel of their existence, so that it ran no longer be dispensed with. Christianity has much to do and much to show in China before the prestige of vital attachment will be vouchsafed to it.

And one may seriously question whether this will ever come to pass. There is no doubt that, in all parts of the land to which the missionaries have for many years carried the Cross, numbers of people, among both the lower and the higher classes, have been converted. But these conversions, except in a handful of cases, have been very superficial and unconvincing. There is a large variety of motives that prompted the people to embrace the new religion; but only a very few have appreciated its essential spirit and lived according to it; in general, the less intelligent have been attracted to this new worship.

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