Mr. Denby to Mr. Bayard.
Peking , January 9, 1889. (Received March 12.)
Sir: I have the honor to send the following slight account of the three great religions of China.
An intimation from you that essays on subjects disconnected with diplomatic questions are not desired will put an end to this species of writing; but if some account of the laws, customs, and religions of China does no appreciable good, at least it can do no harm.
The subjects treated would require the writing of books; I can only generalize a little and supplement my reading by my own personal observation.
The three great religions of China are Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Of these the adherents of Buddhism are the most numerous. There are singular resemblances between the miraculous occurrences which signalized the birth of Christ and the births of Confucius and Buddha. The Christian explains this similarity by the statement that some of the apostles of Christ traveled into Asia and there spread an account of the birth of Christ, which was afterwards incorporated into the biographies of the other two founders of religions. Confucius was born B. C. 551. His father was Llangho, an old man, a great soldier, a descendant of the Shang Dynasty. His mother was a daughter of the Yen family. At his birth ten dragons appeared above the cottage. Five sages came from afar. Music and heavenly voices were heard. A unicorn came and presented a tablet on which was inscribed, “The son of the essence of water shall succeed to the withering Chow and be a throneless king.”
Buddha was born 624 B. C, in Kapilavaster, a city in Benares. It is curious that Buddhism barely exists in the country of its origin. Buddha was the son of King Saddhodana and Queen Maya. The heavenly Buddha came riding on a white elephant and entered her side, which became transparent. The child came forth from his mother’s side beneath a Palassa tree, with the four regents of the skies present as assistants.
The usual phenomena appeared—the illumination of the heavens, a rainbow, singing in the air, showers of roses, and nine dragons came and spouted water. A chariot from heaven conveys the babe to the court, and gods, men, and maidens walk in the procession.
In spite of the supernatural events which signalized the births of the two founders of these religions, they are not accounted gods, but men. Herein lies a great difference between these creeds and Christianity. Confucianism is the creed of the literati. Tested by the articles which form the creeds of modern religions, it is scarcely a religion. It has no scriptures but the classics. It deifies no creator. It has no system of theology. It sets no day apart for worship.
The Chinese holidays are about two weeks at New Year and an occasional feast day. The world admits that the moral code of Confucius is nearly perfect. Christ says. Do unto others what you would that they should do unto you. Confucius says, do not do unto others what you would not that they should do unto you. I have heard learned arguments to the effect that the Christian maxim is positive and the Confucian negative. But plainly the sense is identical. One would not wish that another should neglect him, maltreat him, or pass him by in distress. He is therefore commanded not to do these wrongful things, and the effect is the same as if he were commanded to do acts of kindness or charity.[Page 91]
Confucianism is the religion of the State.
Letters and religion are so combined that scholarship and Confucianism are identical. I have inquired of several educated Chinese what the religion of China is. The only definite answer is the worship of ancestors. All classes, from the Emperor in the Temple of Heaven to the peasant in his hut, worship their ancestors. But the educated Chinaman does not admit that he worships his ancestors in the sense that deities are worshiped. He regards the sentiment as the extension of filial piety after death. Confucius canonized the love and reverence of children for their parents and made filial piety the fundamental duty of men.
He adopted this cult irrespective of the question whether the dead have knowledge of the observances of the living.
I find ancestral worship and fung-shuy or geomantic superstition the two principles that all Chinese profess to revere and believe in. A notable example of the influence in the government of ancestral worship occurred in 1874. The Emperor Tungchi died at the age of nineteen, leaving no child. There were princes of the blood, brothers of Hien-lung, the father of Tungchi. But the imperial successor must worship his ancestors, and to do this he must come from a later generation than the princes. So the present Emperor, Kuang Hsü, then three years old, was selected as the emperor.
During his life Confucius was simply a teacher. After his death temples were erected to him. His grave at Kewfoo is the most sacred place in China. All classes make pilgrimages to it. Sacrifices of beasts are offered on his altars. Yet in popular belief he is not divine but holy only. But the respect and honors shown to his memory are scarcely to be distinguished from worship and adoration. The Confucian gods are very numerous. Their list would be a reproduction of the gods of ancient mythology. There are gods of literature, war, the household, the door, agriculture, tides, classics, writing, etc.
At the age of thirty Buddha abandoned the court and pleasure and betook himself to the wilderness. For six years he did the severest penance. He is surrounded by temptations. He is attacked by legions of devils. I have seen some monuments on which the spears of the devils as they are about to touch Buddha change into roses at their tips.
At the end of the six years of seclusion he started out to save suffering creatures, to teach men not to live for self. His system comprehended the emancipation from sorrow not only of men but of animals. Broader than our own declaration of independence Buddha declared “all the animal kingdom are born free and equal.” Buddhism does not acknowledge a creator. It has innumerable gods but no one being by whose fiat the universe was made. Its system of creation is one of evolution. The Buddhist temples abound in moral precepts displayed on boards and hung on the walls. Self-denial and asceticism are inculcated. One of its tenets is transmigration, and therefore meat cannot be eaten. Men are sinners all and redemption comes by good works. Salvation is received by meritorious conduct. Sometimes the Buddhist keeps a debtor and credit account of transgressions and good deeds.
The symbol of Buddhism is the wheel. As it revolves it carries all sentient creatures with it and changes them from insect to bird, from animal to man, and the reverse.
The Chinese believe in metempsychosis.
The Buddhist heaven is called Nirvana. It is a place of absolute repose. The temples and priests of Buddha are very numerous. The [Page 92] priests shave their heads and wear yellow robes. Their ceremonies are ordinarily few and simple. At dawn and dark they beat a gong and wooden dram. The priest makes a few genuflections in front of the altar, on which tapers are burning, and repeats some prayers, fingering his rosary. The temples contain many images of Buddha, of all ages and colors. These images are made of clay and are painted or gilded.
On great occasions the temples are crowded with worshipers and with priests who walk around in a circle shouting in a monotonous voice. Incense is offered, gongs are sounded, and paper money is burnt. The Buddhist priests undergo great physical suffering to secure charitable donations. They confine themselves many days in cages filled with projecting nails which are bought and removed by the pious. Censers are fastened through the flesh and borne in processions.
There are gods for all conceivable natural objects, earth, sun, moon, stars, thunder, lightning. Some of the temples have a thousand images of gods in one vast hall. All over China, on the wayside, in the gates in country and in towns, are idols. Many are in decay. One often sees a deserted shrine with its row of gods falling to pieces.
The tendency of Buddhism is to elevate woman. One of the greatest deities is Kwanyin, the Goddess of Mercy.
The Buddhists, like some Christian religions, use pictures, candles, and incense. At the great temple, Pie-en-sur, ten miles from Peking, can be seen a faithful representation in wood and clay of the Buddhist hell. There are seen the instruments and the modes of torture, the mill, the chopping knife, the mortar, the operation of pulling out the tongue and sawing the body asunder, the lake of blood, the caldron of oil, the hell of knives, the burning cylinder, the gallows entwined with snakes, the bridge from which men are falling to be devoured by wild dogs, with demons pursuing culprits with knives and pitch-forks. There is a mirror in which men see their transmigration into dogs, reptiles, asses, and cows. There are figures of men carrying their heads in one hand and dragging with their other a cruel mandarin to punishment. Every species of torture is here portrayed.
The Buddhist heaven is also represented in another hall. It is a great orderly place where many well-dressed people sit in seraphic happiness in complete repose.
Taoism is the third great religion of China. It seems to be a congeries of the ancient superstitions of the people. Its founder, Laotze, was born B. C. 604. Taoism has been variously defined as “reasoned,” “method,” “nature.”
Its founder called Tao heaven, or a divine principle which moulds and sways material and spiritual nature. Its tenets are wisdom, purity, humility, compassion, frugality, and modesty. It returns good for evil. It teaches the existence of a Trinity, the “Three Pure Ones,” and immortality. The great monad represents the two germs of life. The hades of the Taoists corresponds in ranks and dignities with actual life. The gods hold office, marry, and are appointed by the Emperor with the advice of Pope Chang, who is the head of the sect and the vice-regent on earth of the Pearly Emperor. This deity is the chief god of Taoism. Mount T’ai is the chief shrine of this sect. Each part of the body and every disease has its god. The gods are innumerable.
Death has few terrors for the Chinese. The dead are still in the hands of the living. Provisions are furnished them, tea is poured out for them, sycee supplied to them. The manufacture of sycee out of leaden sheets is one of the great industries of China. The value of [Page 93] many hundreds of thousands of dollars is consumed every year in the use of sycee.
Fung-shuy means literally wind and water. It is an almost universal superstition. Houses are built with reference to warding off evil spirits. On every roof there are at the angles five small images of animals resembling dogs, which are intended to catch the evil spirits as they come to the house.
Chinese houses are never on a line. One always projects beyond or recedes from the others. This superstition regulates the digging of graves and the construction of all buildings. It was claimed as an excuse for the Chung-king riots that the Americans had violated the rules of fung-shuy in building.
There are three principles or practices which stand in the way of the foreign missionary. First, the doctrine of the worship of ancestors; second, fung-shuy third, the necessity of working every day and disregarding Sunday.
Foreign religious teachers have sometimes dallied with the doctrine of ancestral worship and have sought to tolerate it as not a belief but a sentimental practice similar to our decoration of the graves of the departed. But missionaries generally have recognized no middle ground and have insisted on the abandonment of the doctrine by converts. So with fung-shuy and Sabbath observance. Thus the evangelization of China has been and will be slow.
The poor and needy come to the Christian for charity, for bread, raiment, and medical aid. The rich and learned hold aloof. The hospital and the school win their way to tolerance. There are conversions, but compared with the vast population they are not numerous. The Catholics have been most successful. I was told by a priest that last Christmas 30,000 converts in this province went to the confessional. They probably number 1,200,000 in China. The Catholics here, as elsewhere in the world, were the pioneers.
Among the Protestant denominations, one sees with sympathy all over China churches filled with worshipers as respectful and earnest as in any part of the world. The native preacher occupies the pulpit, and every head is bowed in prayer. The non-religionist can not forbear to wish that, for the material good of the people, Christianity should supplant the polytheism which is scarcely any religious belief.
But the missionary repudiates mere materialistic benefits. He came to China to save human souls, not to improve the material condition of the people. He uses human methods to accomplish spiritual ends. He is not the apostle of progress, but the follower of Christ. His avocation is to give eternal life, not to ameliorate mundane life.
On these conditions the battle will never end, but as it progresses it will insensibly evolve a better, stronger, and purer civilization.
I have, etc.,