Characteristics of Chinese Religiosity in History and the Present Time

Zbigniew Wesołowski SVD (Wei Siqi 魏思齊)

Lecture presented to seminarians (35) from the Roman Catholic Rolduc Seminary (the Netherlands) as guests of China-Zentrum in Sankt Augustin (Germany)


Religiosity can be broadly defined as behaviors and attitudes concerned with all kinds of religious orientations and involvement. In this case, religiosity should include experiential, ritualistic, intellectual, consequential, communal, doctrinal, moral, and cultural dimensions. The latter dimension – the cultural one – is very interesting in the Chinese case. Thus, the lecturer has attempted to generalize some characteristics of Chinese culture that he discovered over the course of his extensive research. They are: 1) group thinking and insider–outsider discrimination within Chinese familism; 2) harmony; 3) face; 4) indirectness; 5) collectivity; 6) hierarchy awareness; 7) ritualization; 8) this-worldliness and 9) Sinocentrism.

After explaining these characteristics, the lecturer divided them into two groups: conducive to religious life (ritualization, harmony, hierarchy awareness, collectivity) and detrimental to it (this-worldliness, Sinocentrism, group thinking and insider–outsider discrimination [absolutizing family], face/indirectness (e.g., religiosity of shame [not of conscience]). He then examined these cultural characteristics as the background of a deeper mental structure and its characteristics (e.g., monism, bipolarity, correlative thinking, fengshui [geomancy], etc.). From the perspective of the history of religion(s) in China, he eventually made several generalizations about specific characteristics of Chinese religiosity: (1) The deepest roots of Chinese religiosity are ancestor veneration; (2) Chinese religiosity is based more on orthopraxy (concrete life-efficacy) than on orthodoxy (Christianity: dogmatically faultless formulated doctrine); (3) the basic attitude of syncretism emerges in Chinese religiosity from the above-mentioned orthopraxis; (4) Chinese religiosity includes a tendency to psychologize religious content (religiosity as the quality of the human psyche without reference to external Transcendence, and this human psyche gives comfort in suffering, some light in a time of confusion, i.e., it is a force that helps to solve all kinds of life problems); (5) in the socio-political context of lived religiosity, cultural and political dimensions such as Confucian orthodoxy (zhengtong 正統 or by some Western scholars called – “cultural imperative”), replaced in 1949 with the Sino-Marxist one, are ever present.