religious diversity and religious competition in China

For most of the past 2000 years, Chinese society has developed amid religious diversity and religious competition.  Over time, text-centric systems of ethical and spiritual beliefs supplemented or replaced local gods and personal devotions.  These text-centric systems have come to be called religions.  Chinese officials a millennium ago considered the traditional religions of China to be Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.  However, Zoroastrianism was probably nearly as ancient in China as Buddhism.  Moreover, Jews, Manichaeans, and Christians existed in China from about 1500 years ago.  China has long encompassed much religious diversity and religious competition.

Individual religions themselves encompassed differentiated and competing sects.  Buddhism, for example, divided into many different schools.  In China major Buddhist schools were Pure Land Buddhism, Tiantai Buddhism, and Huayan Buddhism.  Christians of the Roman Catholic Church distinguished themselves from Christians of the Church of the East.  Both types of Christians were in China by the fourteenth century.[1]  One can easily image that religious competition existed down to the level of neighboring temples within a particular sect of a particular religion.  Under the Mongol-lead Yuan Dynasty that ruled China from about 1270 to 1370, a Roman Catholic bishop of a Christian church in China observed:

in this vast empire there are people of every nation under heaven, and of every sect, and all and sundry are allowed to live freely according to their creed. For they {government officials} hold this opinion, or rather this erroneous view, that everyone can find salvation in his own religion.  In any case, we are at liberty to preach without obstacle or hindrance. [2]

The bishop seems to have under-estimated the sophistication of Chinese religious policy.  Considering everyone’s religious beliefs to be equally true and good would not support meaningful religious diversity and actually competing religious interests.  The view “everyone can find salvation in his own religion” surely was not widely accepted across Chinese history.  The Chinese for more than a millennium had a deeper understanding of the value of religious diversity and religious competition.

Differences between religious groups, even at a high level of belief, sometimes were not easy to perceive.  Marco Polo late in thirteenth-century China encountered a secretive group of believers that he judged to be Christians.  Chinese Buddhists claimed that those believers were Buddhists.  Modern scholars think that most of them were probably Manichaeans.[3]  In 1265 under the southern Sung Dynasty, a Confucian government official described “a fellow Confucian scholar living in a Taoist temple who was devoted to worship of the Buddha of Light.”[4]  The Buddha of Light was Mani, the founding prophet of Manichaeism.  The Confucian scholar explained to his friend the government official that Manichaeism had foundations in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.  Independently indicating the intellectual difficulty of defining religions, a fourteenth-century Chinese scholar described Manichaeans as “some kind of Buddhists.”[5]

Material comforts and institutionalization were significant forces in the evolution of Chinese religious competition.  A perceptive Chinese scholar, Chang Hsi-sheng, about 1275 became the superior of a picturesque Taoist temple at which leading Chinese scholars had resided.  Chang refurbished the temple.  It included at least two halls for study and worship, as well as a study-boat “lined with books and musical instruments.”  Chang wrote to his friend Huang Chen, a Chinese government official, asking Huang to record ethical learning that Chang apparently regarded as important.  The ethical learning was from Chang’s experience:

As my dwelling place is becoming more palatial, that which I have begun {spiritual practices and observances} has become less distinct. …  A greater degree of physical comfort also means more chance for the heart to grow lax.  The strictness of Mani’s rule is such that, although I have not practised it for a long time, it is still alive in my mind.  Therefore, I shall be grateful if you would make a record of my story as a warning to yourself and posterity.

Chang’s friend Huang, a Confucian, was a staunch opponent of Taoism and Buddhism all his life.[6]  Nonetheless, Huang wrote to Chang:

when a doctrine has been disseminated for too long, its original principles become corrupted and confused.  Lao-tze {founder of Taoism} treasured compassion and frugality. Posterity however, practised “pure conversation” {banqueting and poetry that flouted social conventions}.  Sakyamuni {founder of Buddhism} established precepts and composure but posterity laughed at those who took them too seriously.  How could this have been so at the beginning? … Your attitude {respect for original Manichaean teachings} comes close to the Confucian concept of “reverence”.  With this one can raise the spirits and the numinous forces of the hills and valleys as well as extending the knowledge of both priests and laymen!  If only the Taoist temples throughout the ages had relied on this incessantly, they would have more to offer than the ostentation which characterize them in our own age. [7]

Neither Chang nor Huang were simply religious fundamentalists.  Chang understood himself to be a Taoist-Buddhist-Manichaean of weak spirit in his attractive temple dwelling.  Huang understood himself to be a staunch Confucian, but he evidently had considerable sympathy, affection, and respect for his friend Chang’s spiritual muddle.  They both longed for more than the shallow materialism of their age.

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[1] The Christian Church of the East had a major presence in China by the seventh century.  Here’s some discussion of the spread of Christianity across Eurasia.

[2] Andrew of Perugia, third bishop (1322-1332) of the Christian Church at Zayton (present-day Quanzhou). Letter of Jan., 1326.  Yule (1913) vol. III, p. 74, English translation slightly modernized.

[3] Marco Polo, Description of the World, Z manuscript.  For discussion and source reference, see spiritual use of images in ancient Eurasia.

[4] Lieu (1977) p. 410.

[5] Id. pp. 424-5 (description of a Manichaean temple).

[6] Id. p. 423.  Huang wrote:

as a Confucian, I find that I am as irreconcilable to Buddhism and Taoism as ice to charcoal. Furthermore, Buddhism and Taoism are equally irreconcilable to each other.  Now he {Chang} is saying that Lao-tze is a Buddha and is asking me, a Confucian scholar, to record his story.

Id. p. 411.

[7] Source text trans. id. pp. 402, 423-4 (all three quotes in paragraph above).


Lieu, Samuel N. C. 1977.  “A lapsed Chinese Manichaean’s correspondence with a Confucian official in the late Sung Dynasty (1265): a study of the Ch’ung-shou-kung chi by Huang Chen.”  Bulletin of the John Rylands Library (Manchester), v. 59, pp. 397-425.

Yule, Henry and Henri Cordier, trans. and eds. 1913. Odorico, Rashīd al-Dīn Ṭabīb, Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, Joannes de Marignolis, Ibn Batuta, and Bento de Góis. Cathay and the way thither: being a collection of medieval notices of China (vol. I, II, III, IV). London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society.

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