The Future of Religion in China

"What is Christianity in China today? To some, a regeneration. To some, a newer and better doctrine. To some, merely one faith among many. To some, one more insidious Western influence. But to all, the fruit and symbol of a civilization."


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.


Here, then, are the religions that are struggling for the spiritual allegiance of the Chinese. The Japanese demand in 1915 of the right to send missionaries may foreshadow the entry of another element, but it is doubtful if any effort with Japanese support stands a chance for favor. What lies ahead?

I am convinced that Confucianism will live on – the philosophy of the Chinese. It is a wonderful philosophy, and much better adapted to the practical working out of a Kingdom of Heaven on earth than most of the philosophy that has come from the so-called Christian lands. It is materialistic, to be sure, but its materialism is enlightened, and can easily be ‘fulfilled’ by the elements which Christianity offers.

There need be no bitter conflict between Christianity and Confucianism. The rites which seek to deify the Great Sage, which seek to transform a philosophy into a religion, are an excrescence, the result of the demand of the human soul for an object of worship. With the spiritual need satisfied elsewhere, Confucianism can, and will, become what its founder intended that it should be, the system of thought by which the Chinese orders the affairs of his daily life. The teachings which do not conform to the demands of the present – and no system can stand with. out change for twenty-five centuries – will be modified by the words if later disciples. And a century hence the Chinese leader will be as proud or being the offspring of a race that has nurtured a Confucius as of being the disciple of that other Master.

Many Christians have been deeply disturbed over the question of ancestor worship, which is one of the popular rites connected with the Confucian system. There is no question that ancestor-worship has led to abuses, just as has the adoration of the saints. But it is a restricted vision which does not see behind ancestor-worship a feature of Chinese life which has contributed mightily to the stability of these centuries, and is therefore in its essentials to be conserved. Too many Christians have gagged at the word ‘worship’ without looking at the facts. The point made by leading Chinese Christians, that originally the custom was merely one of veneration, is, on scholarly grounds, incontrovertible. And the (lay will cone when the Christians will find some way of carrying on this same recognition of the contribution of their forefathers without compromising their allegiance to the One True God. In. fact, in some Christian churches the memorial tablets to deceased members already mark a beginning in this direction.

The rapidly decreasing reputation of the Buddhist priesthood points to its eventual disappearance. No faith can finally survive whose servants do not exhibit elements of moral strength greater than those possessed by the run of men. But it will not be in this generation nor in the next that idolatry, which is the popular expression of Buddhism, ceases. There may come spasms of idol-destruction here and there, such have been indulged in by the Mohammedans, and such as marked the bloody trail of the Taiping rebels. But idolatry goes too deep into the life of Chinese society as a whole to be eradicated in a day or in several days.

Not long ago, a teacher in the city of Foochow began to investigate the relation of idolatry to the industries of that city. Foochow contains approximately 700,000 inhabitants. Such a survey as has been possible, using student investigators, has shown that at least 80 per cent of the population is, to some degree, dependent for its livelihood upon the popularity of idol-worship. Thirty per vent of the people were found to be entirely dependent upon it. Some day the manifold ramifications of idolatry through Chinese society will be adequately discussed. Here it can only he said that it has its economic stakes set where oven many of the missionaries never suspect them to be. Mohammedanism and Christianity combined have scarcely begun to affect idolatry.

Closely linked up with idolatry as an abiding force goes superstition. Taoism is as surely in the grip of death as Buddhism. But superstition will not pass in a year. It will be a long time before the air is purged of its terrors, even for those who may embrace such a faith as Christianity.

At the reassembling of a class in a Christian college, the absence of a certain student was noted. It was reported that he had been drowned while on a launch trip, returning from a vacation. His small brother had been with him at the, time; the boy had been pushed overboard from the crowded deck; a strong swimmer, he had been able to reach the side of the boat, but not to clamber aboard; but the pleas of the puny younger brother could not avail to move a single person to lift a helping hand, and the other passengers had looked on while the lad drowned, rather than move to save him. The teacher heard the tale in horror, but the student accepted it as a matter of course, explaining that the drowning devil, -who had been after the student, would certainly have taken possession of any person who attempted to rescue him. And these men, in the closing years of a Christian education, had no word of censure for people who had calmly watched a fellow drown rather than incur the wrath of a devil!

As religions, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are on the down grade in China. Certain elements that they contain will persist long after the religions themselves have passed. Some elements will form a permanent part of the life of the country. But the Chinese will demand some religion in place of these three. What will it be?

Mohammedanism is at a standstill, and has no hope of winning the nation.

Materialism has its proponents, principally among those who have studied in Japanese schools. The affinity of Confucianism and materialism is emphasized. Chinese transcriptions of Japanese translations of the works of European rationalists and skeptical scientists are on the markets in large numbers. And, in the swing of the pendulum from the past, there is a tendency to thrust out any belief in the spiritual as unworthy of the present.

The element which works most mightily against materialism, outside the grip of the old order, is the example of what it has done to other nations, especially Japan. Modern Japan is a materialistic state. On no other basis can it be explained. The Chinese see its fundamental failure as clearly as its remarkable achievements, and they say, ‘If that be the fruit of materialism, we want something better.’

What is that something better to be? Chancellor Tsai Yuan-pei, of the National University of Peking, a few years ago came forward with a proposal to substitute a sort of ethical culture, with emphasis upon esthetic values. Chancellor Tsai is the leader of the most influential group in the intellectual life of China to-day. From the university over which he presides have gone forth the publications of the New Thought, or Renaissance, movement which has taken hold upon the students to an un-precedented extent. Much that is in the movement is of the highest value; and when such a man as Chancellor Tsai dismisses religion in any form as superstition, his words are bound to have a profound effect. If they would, teachers in Christian institutions could testify that the young men of China have adopted a severely critical attitude toward Christianity as well as toward other faiths, largely as an effect of the New Thought agitation.

But ethical culture can hardly be expected to prove the final spiritual resort of such a nation as China. If it could not suffice for a compact state such as Greece, what chance has it in this colossus? And when you study the situation you are forced to the belief that the future religion of China provided that China has a religion – must be Christianity, profoundly affected by the civilization of that. ancient land.

What is Christianity in China today? To some, a regeneration. To some, a newer and better doctrine. To some, merely one faith among many. To some, one more insidious Western influence. But to all, the fruit and symbol of a civilization.

Let no man think that the struggle between Occidental and Oriental civilization is finished. There are signs that the civilization of the Occident will he, in its essentials, vindicated and adapted in the making of a New East. But there are still plenty of Chinese leaders, men of good education and large ability, and of undoubted patriotism, who reject Western civilization entirely.

Thinking Chinese long ago discovered that Western civilization has been largely formed by Western religion. The pragmatic test, which is the characteristic test of Confucianism, shows a civilization better fitted to grapple with the modern world than is the old individualistic and fatalistic civilization of the East. The conclusion is obvious.

But it is this fundamental premise in this line of reasoning that must now en­gage the attention of the foreign missionary. In truth, it is this premise which constitutes the present raison d’être for the foreign missionary, He is in China to vindicate the civilization from which he has come.

Does he practise medicine? He does so to prove that his Western hygiene and medical practice contribute more to health and happiness for the people as a whole than the medical systems of the East.

Does he teach school? He does so to prove that his civilization has a hind of education which fits more people better for the tasks of life than the education of the Orient.

Does he seek to introduce new methods of agriculture? He does so to prove that. more food can be produced and more stomachs filled with less labor than by the methods which the Chinese have followed for forty centuries.

Does he go about seeking converts? He does it to prove that he knows of a spiritual force which is able to purge society of those fundamental weaknesses which have made the doctrine and the doing in China so glaringly different.

In every aspect of his work the foreign missionary is really, to the Chinese, seeking to vindicate the civilization of which he is a product. And when that vindication is complete, the work of the foreign missionary is done.

The day is coming when the spiritual needs of the Chinese people will find their satisfaction in a widespreading talking to a missionary in New York acceptance of Christianity. But that one day last summer acceptance will come only after the civilization  which Christianity breeds has been thoroughly vindicated, the missionary has withdrawn, and the Christian church in China has become an organization of and by, as well as hr, the Chinese. So long as foreign influence is apparent, the masses of Chinese will hold off. Even that advisory relation which we are told will follow die present will prove a sufficient handicap to discourage any sweeping movement toward Christianity. But when Christian civilization has been so thoroughly vindicated that the Chinese can assume, with assurance and unassisted, the propagation of the religion that lies at its foundation, a marvelous ingathering within the acknowledged Christian fold is sure to occur.

That day is closer than many missionaries realize. Already Christian civilization is so nearly vindicated that Chinese Christians are moving out to assume the leadership in the Christian enterprise in their native land. The church papers of America have told of the spontaneous response on the part of the Chinese church to the projected missionary enterprise in the province of XUflflal1, an enterprise that is Chinese in conception, support, and execution. Even more significant is the recent call for a National Missionary Conference to be held in 1921. Fourteen years ago such a conference was held, one hundred years after the landing of Robert Morrison. It contained not a single Chinese delegate. The conference of 11)21 is to contain Chinese delegates in numbers at least equal to the foreigners. During this year the Chinese have demanded, and obtained, equal representation on the China Continuation Committee, which binds together the work of the various denominations.

A brilliant Chinese Christian was ‘You missionaries make me tired!’ he exclaimed. ‘You are not honest with yourselves or with your constituents. I have heard dozens of missionary speeches on China since I came to America, and react articles galore. Again and again and again I hear you talking about C. T. Wang and Chang Po-ling and Fong P. See, and David Z. T. Yui, and pointing to them as examples of Chinese Christians. Of course they are Christians. But I have yet to hear a missionary say, or read a missionary’s admission, that not one of them is connected with your foreign-controlled churches! Every one of them has come U through your churches and schools, and when they felt their powers pressing for worthy expression, every one has been forced off into some line of independent effort. It is practically impossible for the Chinese to have real leadership in the churches as long as they remain under foreign direction.’

The days of foreign direction of Chinese Christian churches are numbered. The civilization of the West is too nearly vindicated. Just a little bit of Christian practice in the realm of international politics will finish the test; and the radical movements in all Western lands indicate that that practice will not be long delayed. It is, for example, conceivable that the formation of a Labor government in England would transform the outlook for Christianity in China in ten years.

With that final proof oft he superiority of the West, the case for the Christian proponent in China will be complete. But it will be a Chinese Christian, under Chinese direction, with Chinese support, who goes out to set his religion above all others in China. Before the end of this century he should be fairly launched upon his task.