“Chinas Religionen als Ausdruck der chinesischen Suche nach Transzendenz”

(The Religions of China as an Expression of the Chinese Search for Transcendence)

Summer Vacation Academy of the Cusanuswerk in Lingen (Germany), 24 August 2021

The Cusanuswerk was founded in 1956 by the German Bishops’ Conference. The name giver of this sponsorship organization is the medieval German philosopher, theologian, jurist, mathematician and astronomer Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464). The aim of the Cusanuswerk is to support gifted Catholic students in form of scholarships and educational as well as spiritual programs.

The present coronavirus pandemic, which has had a tremendous impact on societies and economies worldwide, put a spotlight on the relations between Western countries and China. The pandemic has strengthened a more critical approach towards China by the USA, the EU and most EU member states. In the context of present-day controversies over China, it seems a good idea to look at the search for transcendence in Chinese history and to understand it more deeply.

This year’s summer academy of the Cusanuswerk offered, among others, China-oriented workshops for students. The workshop on “The Religions of China as the Expression of Chinese Search for Transcendence” had 16 participants. It was a challenge for the speaker Zbigniew Wesołowski to present Chinese religions and religiosity within the limited time of five hours. The workshop began with the question “What do I (not) know about China?” and moved on to discuss the concept of transcendence and its various and different kinds, as well as the etymology of the term “religion.” It was important to state that in Chinese no evenly matched equivalent of the European term “religion” exists. Moreover, Chinese religions are rather based on perception and experience of the world than on mythology. Another important aspect of the Chinese worldview is monism. Besides, three types of regularities are of paramount importance in the early Chinese understanding of the world: (1) cyclical processes, i.e., the cycle of day and night and the seasons; (2) the regularity of growth and decay, or increase and decrease, such as that of the moon, and (3) the bipolarity of nature, i.e., the Chinese perceive the world in oppositions: opposing things are necessary for each other and complement each other, opposite things even tend to merge into one another and become the opposite of their former selves: in the form of yin and yang, the bipolarity of nature became a characteristic of Chinese thought.

Research into Chinese mythology has shown that the “older” the myth, the later it appears in Chinese literature. For example, the mythological creature Pan Gu is understood as the beginning of creation, but only appears in texts of the 3rd century AD. The fragmentary and episodic nature of Chinese myths shows that these were not homogeneous creations, but rather mixtures of temporally different regional and ethnic sources. The existing myths were mostly used and historicized by their compilers as parables to illustrate their philosophical theories. The most important cause of the humanization, historicization, chronologization or reverse euhemerization of Chinese mythology lay in the aristocratic families’ interest in the “real,” historically secured and as genealogies with a long tradition. Chinese mythology stands in tension between euhemerism (folk religiosity), which nowadays leads to personality cult in China, and reverse euhemerism (Confucianism), which tends to “bring gods back to the earth.”

Besides, shamanism, as one of the constant elements of human religiosity, stands in tension between ecstasy and entasis in China. The first mystic-philosophical tradition of Daoism (6th-5th centuries) appeared during the crisis of faith in Tian, who was the highest god during the Zhou dynasty (11th–3th BC) and during the Eastern Han (25 AD – 220 AD). The rise of the so-called “religious Daoism” occurred in the context of the entrance of Buddhism into China. At the center of Chinese religiosity is the worship of ancestors (ancestor worship) and local deities. However, honoring the ancestors does not necessarily have to be religiously justified, but can also simply be done out of respect, as it is practiced nowadays. In many Chinese households, especially in rural areas, a table or cupboard is placed in a central position, displaying pictures or statues of ancestors, deities or important public figures.

The workshop then provided a historical sketch of religious life in the early dynasties of China, Shang (ca. 16th – 11th c. BC) and Zhou, when polytheism was prevalent, the highest deities being Shangdi and Tian. In the second period of the Zhou dynasty the three great Chinese philosophic traditions emerged, i.e. Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism. As far as religious life is concerned, the arrival of Buddhism marked a very important event in Chinese religious history. With this event at the turn of the ages (during the Han dynasty), the Chinese were confronted for the first time with foreign religions. Of all foreign religions that entered Chinese soil (Buddhism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism / Mazdayasna, Judaism, Christian missions [starting with Nestorianism], and Islam, only Buddhism has successfully adopted to Chinese culture. One could even put it the other way around: Chinese culture completely permeated Buddhism and vice versa, so that Buddhism acquired a new face in China.

In Chinese religious history, another remarkable phenomenon can be observed, the gradual amalgamation of the “three teachings/religions” (sanjiao 三 教) into one. The three teachings/religions that complement each other are Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. This process of amalgamation began after the fall of the Han dynasty, i.e., from the 3rd century to the 6th century. The saying “the three teachings/religions are one” (sanjiao heyi 三 教 合一) goes at least back to the Mongolian Yuan period (1279–1368). To this day one can easily discover a synthesis of elements of the three teachings/religions in the lives of many Chinese. The three teachings/religions in China have influenced, fertilized and complemented each other also on an intellectual level, much beyond their merging in everyday life.

From the perspective of the history of religion(s) in China, Z. Wesołowski eventually made several generalizations about the specific characteristics of Chinese religiosity as features of the Chinese search for transcendence: (1) The deepest root of Chinese religiosity is ancestor worship; (2) Chinese religiosity is based more on orthopraxy (concrete life-efficacy) than on orthodoxy (a dogmatically faultless formulated doctrine, e.g., Christianity); (3) in Chinese religiosity, the basic attitude of syncretism emerges from the above-mentioned orthopraxis; (4) Chinese religiosity includes a tendency to psychologize religious content (religiosity as a quality of the human psyche without reference to external transcendence, the psyche giving comfort in suffering and light in times of confusion, i.e., it is a force that helps to solve all kinds of life problems); (5) within the socio-political context of lived religiosity and as religious policy in imperial China, Confucian orthodoxy (zhengtong 正統, also called “cultural imperative” by some Western scholars) was always at work, which was replaced by the Sino-Marxist orthodoxy in 1949 by the Chinese communists.

On the whole, the workshop was a successful exchange between the lecturer and his student participants who raised many questions, also concerning Xi Jinping’s present-day project of “Sinicization” (Zhongguohua) of the religions in China.