Pluralism of China

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Beginning the semester we were asked a question, define religion. With my first thoughts, I scribbled down the conceptions of religion as I was taught through my Judaic background, "religion is a prescribed set of ideas and rules as given by a higher power to govern a body of people," it was almost a reflex. Caught up in the common pretenses of Western Judeo-Christian religions, I was quite ignorant to the models of the many eastern religions that exist, especially the popular religions of China. It is hard to consider something as vast as Chinese popular religion a religion, when it has neither an organized body nor a clear set of sacred scriptures. There is a distinctive clash of ideals when viewing the (commonly) exclusivist nature of Western religions compared to those of the pluralistic Eastern. Chinese secular religion is influenced greatly by its participants. By examining and analyzing notable texts and concepts of Chinese popular religion we can see that it is worldly, pragmatic, and pluralistic within itself and the context of other religions. In many societies we see culture being shaped by the religion; however, in China we see culture shaping the religion.

Confucianism, a popular Chinese religion, is arguably just a methodology of thought; most likely due to its overtly pragmatic and worldly nature. However, Confucianism none the less is the primary facet of Chinese popular religion. Confucianism is considered to be the social Dao and the Dao of right action. The foundations of Confucianism rest upon: filial piety, ancestor worship, societal structure, and education. Among the Confucian and Popular Religion ideals, filial piety and ancestor worship are most likely the most emphasized. Confucius states, "When parents are alive, serve them according to the rules of propriety. When they die, bury them according to the rules of propriety and sacrifice them according to the rules of propriety." (Shu-hsien) Though filial piety may be stressed the most heavily, all of the given aspects of Confucianism spill over into other parts of China's major religions.

Filial piety and ancestor worship, which seemingly go hand in hand, are seen in various Chinese traditions through specific rituals. There is such a strong connection between the living and the dead found in the culture. The Chinese revere their ancestors just as much or arguably even more than their living family members. Reciprocal relationships between humans and the supernatural are highly regarded. By properly treating an ancestor, the ancestor in part will reward the living family members or help them when they are in need. Offerings, sacrifices, and prayer is frequently given to ancestors at household alters. Take for example, the traditional Chinese Ching Ming festival and the Buddhist holiday of Obon. In both of these traditions, filial piety and ancestor worship are key factors, and their rituals coincide. The focus in Ching Ming and Obon is to commemorate ancestors by visiting their grave sites. Similarly, at the grave sites existing family members will give food offering and conduct prayers.

China has always been filled with a literary tradition. Ideas of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism were all recorded in their founding years. Commonly, religious aspects were incorporated into popular stories. Published in the 1590s under the Ming Dynasty, "Journey to the West" was considered to be one of the four classic novels of China and set somewhat of a foundation to the concept of Chinese religion, integrating Tao, Buddhist, and Confucian thought into one story (Berling 22). "Journey to the West" documents the travels of different characters to India in order to obtain Buddhist scriptures; sutras. The classic novel encompasses ideas such as a pantheon of gods with individual personalities and powers that actively interact with humans, the notion of enlightenment, and spiritual heightening. These concepts are frequently...
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