The Religious Outlook in China

A reply

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.


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.

All this is, of course, not without reason. The success of Christianity, if it has been a success, has been due to extraneous causes. Christianity has the fortune – or the misfortune, according to the different points of view – to be associated with those Western ideas and institutions which have exerted such a potent influence upon all branches of Chinese society. The people had gazed with awe and horror at the conflict between what is their own heritage and what had been introduced from the Western nations, and had been taken aback by the efficiency of the foe, which ultimately compelled them shamefully to yield and surrender many of their rights and privileges. This is the side of Westernism that will continue to have its appeal – its merciless onslaught, its temendous might, its terrible ruthlessness is this glamour that has completely dominated their minds. They may have a very hazy idea of what the Western nations really are; but one thing is palpable to them – that their country is impotent when it strives to complete with the foreigners in science and mechanical inventions.

To them, of course, it makes very little difference what Christianity really means. They are not interested in all the intricacies of its theology, in the meaning of its different denominations and sects, in its historical relations, or lack of relations, with the development of Europe and America: in short, they are not interested in the religion as a religion. They are interested in the fact that Christianity is the religion of those powers which have humiliated them in their wars and their political struggles. It is very doubtful, therefore, whether, unaided by these favoring circumstances, Christianity would ever have gained the foothold that it has at present. In any fair competition with all the different religions that China has already embraced in her long history, – Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Mohammedanism, and others, Christianity could probably, at best, hope to win an equal position with the rest. But the fact that it happens to be the Western religion has, of course, given it an added impetus. It is by virtue of this prestige that it is turning out ‘converts’ in different parts of China; but it is difficult to say that these converts have really been won for the cause of Christianity, for the principles which Jesus had in mind. The merits of the religion itself have scarcely been apprehended, but its relations have very tellingly influenced the minds of the converts. It is as if a lady is chosen for wife, hardly upon the strength of her own endowments and qualifications, but upon the strength of her having affiliations with millionaires and successful business men, whose worldly honors and glory will always have a universal appeal to the masses of the people. A union of this type does not, however, ensure future happiness to the husband. The fascination of her relations and a possible support, from their resources are not likely to develop his personality and procure him a truly happy life. These have to depend upon the fascination and the inward beauty of the lady herself. She may have them; but the man, his attention fixed upon the shining gold of her relations, has not taken the trouble to discover them and appraise their value. This may be the source of future unhappiness.


It may be objected that I have done injustice to the Christian religion in treating the results of Western civilization and its religion as two independent entities, between which I have found apparently little connection. The objecter would say that it is impossible to conceive the one without at the same time thinking of the other. I readily admit that Western civilization is the product of the Christian religion, and not an independent development; but I admit this only with reservations and limitations, especially as I find that Christian ideals have so far failed to influence the political actions of the different powers in their relations with my country.

Everyone will admit that, without Christianity, at the time when the ancient world collapsed, the beginnings of the new European civilization would have been very different. Society was then steeped in barbarism, people were incessantly engaged in merciless slaughter, and all was chaos. It was Christianity, and that alone probably, that supplied the moral stimulus, elevated the feelings of the tribes above their mutual antipathy and hatred, and brought them together in a bond of peace and brotherhood. With the progress of the centuries, the religious influence became so strong that for all practical purposes it had the entire control of the greater part of Europe. Culture and civilization were almost wholly the results of Christian beneficence. Art, literature, philosophy, and all the finer elements of human life were fostered and encouraged, and Christianity was such a potent factor that everything was regarded as ancilla theologiae.

But after the days of the Augsburg Confession and the subsequent separation of Church and State, so that the affairs of everyday life were no longer subject to the spiritual power, is it not true that the spirit of religion and of practical matters concerning the state began to diverge from one another? Is it not true that Church and State made laws unto themselves, which were sometimes in no way reconcilable? Is this not tantamount to saying that Christianity, in its collective and corporate sense, and Western civilization, as we know it for the last four centuries or so, became two independent entities? Nay, more than that. When the Church saw that it no longer enjoyed the prestige and power that it once had, did it not resign from the high seat of the Areopagus, and, instead of compelling everything to obey its commands, condescend to make itself the ancilla rei publicae? Further, is it not true that, because the Church ceased to exert its autocratic influence over the affairs of the State, the scientific developments, the intellectual diversity and conflict of succeeding ages, and the political expansion and the acquisition of power in distant lands by European countries, especially in the nineteenth century, were made possible?

Speaking of the pathetic position into which the Christian religion has fallen, Mr. George Santayana has this to say: ‘Religion [he is speaking of Christianity in particular] no longer reveals divine personalities, future rewards, and tender Elysian consolations; nor does it seriously propose a heaven to be reached by a ladder or a purgatory to be shortened by prescribed devotions. It merely gives the real world an ideal status and teaches men to accept a natural life on supernatural grounds.’

The eighteenth century in Europe, in the judgment of another writer, a historian, was the most unchristian of all centuries. Of the nineteenth century, he says: ‘The characteristic of political life was its gradual penetration by the principles of democracy proclaimed by the French Revolution, which make the nineteenth century the age of constitutionalism and parliamentary government in its various modifications. In its intellectual life, the idealistic philosophy of the beginning of the century did not permanently prevail, nor did any definite conception of the universe, to the exclusion of all others; it was dominated the empirical-positivist, rational-naturalistic tendencies of thought, which make it the century of the natural and historical sciences. In the field of morals, the striving for the complete autonomy of the individual personality asserted itself far more strongly, and as a necessary consequence, the rejection of the idea of authority, and resistance to the authoritative regulation of the individual’s inner life. Finally, social life was marked by the full development of national­ism, which brought the differentiation of the Occidental peoples to a kind of conclusion, and raised to a hitherto unknown pitch the national sentiment, the consciousness that each nation has in it certain special endowments and conditions, and has a right to demand its place in the concert of peoples. There can be no doubt that all these factors were necessarily unfavorable to the religious life.’ (Italics mine.)

Of what Christianity is doing for the twentieth century, we have seen not a little; and if observations do not lead us to Nietzsche’s conclusion, that the Gospel died on the Cross, they ought to convince us that the spirit of the Christian religion is none too powerful, particularly if we keep our eyes on the political actions of the European nations on the East. I use the word European advisedly, because America, so far as China is concerned, may well be proud of the example she is setting to Europe in trying to observe the elements of morality.

But even with Europe I am not confusing the morality of the nation with the morality of the individual; for although I find nothing in the history of Chinese relations with the so-called Christian powers that would recommend the Christian religion to our attention and appreciation, I can testify that there have always been individuals who lived up to the principles of Jesus. However, if Christianity hopes ever to win a respectable position in China, individual morality will do little to achieve the desired end; for it is always those actions which are performed in the name of the nation that produce the greatest effect upon the destiny of our people; and so long as these are irreconcilable with the teachings of the Bible, it is useless to think that sensible Chinese will take account of the Christian religion.

The missionary will immediately re­ply that he and his colleagues have certainly done much to carry out in China, on a large scale, the altruistic ideas of the Founder of their religion. The establishment of schools, the erection of hospitals, and the numerous other ways in which they have helped the Chinese People – are they not proof enough that they are working with a disinterested love for the welfare of the country? They have, perhaps. with their knowledge of science and their superior power of organization, alleviated the pain and suffering of many wretched people, and enlightened many young men as to the splendor of the West; but do they realize the many abuses that have sprung in the trail of the missionary and as a result. of missionary work? It was in connection with missionary work that Kiaochow was taken by Germany – a wrong for which the European powers at the Peace Table have not seen the necessity of apologizing. It was because of this example, set by Germany, that the other Christian nations of Europe sought the lion’s share, and wrought evil which as yet has shown no sign of diminishing.

The missionaries are usually proud of the schools and colleges which they have helped to establish; but they should spare a little pains to find out what the intellectual Chinese think of their educational projects and undertakings. It is only natural to accord to the missionaries the warmest welcome and appreciation if they are doing things in their proper directions. But the fact remains that missionary educational institutions have always been looked on with suspicion by men of perspicacity and insight, and sending students to their care has never been encouraged. The missionary may wonder why the Chinese have shown such insolence in maintaining an indifferent attitude to what seem to them positive benefits to the nation. The reason is simple. The missionary school, in its anxiety to vindicate the principles of Christianity and the ‘superiority’ of Western civilization, gives the young men a one-sided education, consisting of a smattering of things European or American, which makes them fit for little more than to become intermediaries between Chinese and foreigners in business transactions. The missionary school has never endeavored sufficiently to make useful citizens of the young men whom it takes into its custody; for, instead giving them a wholesome education, with due recognition of their national tradition, it has filled their minds with the superficialities of Western civilization, which neither assist them to appreciate its intrinsic value, nor stand them in good stead in their struggle for a respectable position in Chinese society.

The products of the missionary instruction, the missionary would say, have not been so despicable; for many of the leading public men in China to-day have partaken of the benefits of missionary education. They have become responsible persons, however, not because of this education, but in spite of it. And the fact that they escaped from the effects of their unhealthy education speaks well only for their own intelligence. The missionary has no reason to claim the honor of the result, he who had arranged their educational plans in such a way that they might know as little as possible of the grandeur and dignity of their own national genius, the force and beauty of their own civilization, and the splendid character and discipline of their own great men, to whom the noble and sublime elements of that civilization are due – their accomplishments in literature, art, music, and morals.

This is the reason why I said that Christianity has much to do and much to show before it will appeal to the Chinese intelligence, and be seriously considered. We have always observed a strange gap between the teachings of Christ and the spirit in which the Christian nations do their work in China. The two have not seemed to us to be congenial companions, for what the one professes, the other hastens to contradict in its actions.

James Legge, one of the noted sinologists, once recounted a personal experience with his Excellency Kwo Sung tao, Chinese Ambassador it at the Court of St. James’s in 1877. “You know,” the ambassador said to me. “both England and China. Which country do you say is the better of the two?” I replied, “England.” He disappointed, and added, “I mean looking at them from the moral standpoint — from the standpoint of benevolence, righteousness and propriety, which country do you say is the better?” After some demur and fencing, I replied again, “England.” I never saw a man more surprised. He pushed his chair back, got on his feet, look a turn across the room, and cried out, “You say that, looked at from the moral standpoint, England is better than China? Then how is it that England insists on our taking her opium?

This little anecdote is significant in many ways; but for our purpose it is a crude example of what I mean by the gap. China may be ‘stationary’ and ‘stagnant’; but, as a nation and as individuals, the Chinese people, as the case of the ambassador shows, desire to live according to the spirit of those moral principles which, through Confucius, have been handed down to the present day. Nor will it ever be the intention of the people to cast away that invaluable ethical heritage, which has elevated the soul of China and formed the one great discipline for so many centuries. The present upheaval in the different parts of the country – the clamor for reform, for modernization largely in the fashion of the West does seem to promise a new society, which is likely to leave little room for religious and moral tradition. But the far-sighted leaders of the people realize the importance of adopting, above all, those mechanical devices of organization, of invention, of management, which have given so much power to the West. The spiritual force, the bond of life will remain substantially as it has been in the history of China. It is to this task, forced upon them by the iron hands of necessity, that the great multitude of thinking men are dedicating their lives. Japan has succeeded, with great credit, and China is doing the same thing in building up a material civilization adequate to cope with the forces from without.


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.