The Religious Outlook in China

A reply

China realizes that only by raising herself to the level of Western strength and efficiency can she hope to establish the real and everlasting peace which it has always been her philosophy to foster and propagate. There was a time when she only reluctantly took to this departure from her traditional path; but there is every indication now, as M. Painlevé saw, that the people are anxiously cherishing, cultivating, and applying the ideas of the West, and that there is great hope of success.

In the attempt thus to construct a new frame of society, which will demand all the power at the disposal of the people, the real spirit of Confucianism may, for the time being, be dissipated. It may find itself unable to dominate the minds of the people; but, instead, different and antagonistic tendencies will be set in motion. A large number of the people, especially the more youthful, may enroll themselves with the atheists or with the skeptics, and all of them will belong to different schools of thought. Confucianism itself may be reexamined and reconsidered, and no doubt it will find great profit in this new analysis: for, originally possessing great vitality, its principles, through many centuries of unthinking acceptance, have become what J. S. Mill calls ‘a dead dogma and not a living truth.’

But such is the mental stage – to all intents and purposes an anarchistic and turbulent stage – which China is beginning to reach. Already, as I said, it is manifest that there is a diversity and richness of thought in the different aspects of our national life, which does not give any one set of ideas a chance to tyrannize over the rest. Unity and simplicity, which are characteristic of Chinese as of other ancient civilizations, not excluding those of Greece and Rome, were largely the work of the one Confucian influence playing over the minds of the people in a vast nation not by any means racially homogenous; and these, so far as the mental life is concerned, are not likely to be maintained. The example of the West, which certainly is different, in spirit, will again be followed.

In one of his letters from America, Matthew Arnold observed: ‘I cannot help thinking that the more diversity of nations there is on the American continent, the more chance there is of one nation developing itself with grandeur and richness. It has been so in Europe. What should we all be if we had not one another to check us and to be learned from? Imagine an English Europe! How frightfully borné and chill! Or a French Europe either, for that matter.’

This, I take it, is the secret of the suc­cess of Western nations. The lack of this diversity is what has led many to call Chinese civilization ‘stagnant.’ Diversity and unity, however, are not the inherent characteristics of the West and of China respectively: they are determined by circumstances; and in so far as circumstances can sometimes be created in defiance of fate, a nation can be diversified and unified almost according to its will. If the English people were confined to their island, without any contact with the Continent, it is perfectly conceivable to this day they would be barbarians and far from the wonderful civilization that they now possess. And yet this had for centuries been the case with China, which, through her entire history, with the solitary exception of the contact with Buddhistic India, had always given instruction and never received any. This is the one colossal example in the world’s history where one nation, for forty centuries, was always the teacher and hardly ever the student. Self-complacency, self-satisfaction, implicit belief in the superiority of her own civilization, these were the primary factors in the Chinese civilization which we had up to very recently.

But it is strange that Westerners have often failed to realize the fundamental contrast between China and their own countries in these circumstances. Men of philosophical insight have, for a long time, always emphasized ancestor-worship in accounting for the peculiarities of Chinese civilization. Their great progress in former times and their present ignorance form a contrast for which it is difficult to account. I have always thought that their respect for their ancestors, which is a kind of religion with them, was a paralysis that prevented them from following the scientific career, said Voltaire two centuries ago; and many since have agreed with him. But ancestor-worship is not the cause of that unity and simplicity; it was itself the result of the lack of contact with other civilizations. The appearance of Western ideas, on any large scale, in the nineteenth century, was a revelation of a more forceful and powerful civilization, which China is now willing enough to reckon with, and to follow in certain important aspects.

The resulting conflict of ideas accounts for the diversity of the intellectual life we have at present. It is certainly to China’s interest and to the interest of the world that this diversity should be strengthened and encouraged. This is why Christianity, even if it had been pure and really altruistic in its dealings with China, cannot be very well adopted by the nation as its religion. The people are too individualistic to accept the religion; and the exercise of its authority, the demand for implicit and unquestioned faith in its tenets, which will naturally occur, are not reconcilable with the freedom of the intellect now so much in the air in China. The critical spirit, seeking truth by one’s own power of reasoning, and individuality, accepting ideas not by authority, but with the sanction of one’s own intelligence – these are the substitution we hear every day. For the moment, things may be chaotic and tumultuous; but only with this spirit can ‘the elevation of a whole people through culture’ be developed and realized.

The lack of a completely dominating set of ideas is a feature that is likely to stand out in the history of China for the next few decades. This will be true in religion as in other branches of thought. When Chancellor Tsai of the University of Peking, to whom Mr. Hutchinson referred, expressed the opinion that China ought to substitute art for religion, it showed two things, – the present richness of ideas in China, although they may not all be original, and the influence of European thought, – for the substitution of art for religion is the cult of Wackenroder and the German Romanticists, and recalls a statement of Goethe’s: ‘When a people has art and science, it has religion.’

This then is the ‘Sturm and Drang’ period in Chinese history. ‘Although we are not in an enlightened age,’ says Kant of Germany, ‘we are in an age of enlightenment.’ This is exactly where China is at present. It is necessarily a transitional stage, giving promise of loftier achievements in the future.

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