Religion and Philosophy
Traditionally, the three strands in Chinese religion and philosophy are Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. An eclectic approach to religion allows the three to coexist, often within a single temple. Confucianism, the first to gain real influence, can be seen as a manifestation of the public, socially responsible self. Daoism represents a personal and wilder side; its emphasis on the relativity of things contrasts with Confucian concern for approved roles. Buddhism, a foreign import, is spiritual and otherworldly, offering an alternative to Chinese pragmatism. During the Cultural Revolution, religion was outlawed as contrary to Communist ideas. Today, people are largely able to express their beliefs.
Originated by Confucius (551–479 BC) and developed by later thinkers, Confucianism advocates a structured society in which people are bound to each other by the moral ties of the five familial relationships: parent-child, ruler-subject, brother-brother, husband-wife, and friend-friend. In Imperial China, Confucianism was the philosophy of the elite scholar-gentleman class. For much of the Communist era, it was reviled as a reactionary philosophy linked to the former ruling aristocracy.
Confucius was a thinker and teacher whose philosophy of family obligations and good government is based on the principles of ren (benevolence) and yi (righteousness). He died unknown, his disciples spreading his teachings.
The paying of respects to one’s ancestors is based on filial piety and runs throughout Chinese culture. During the Qing Ming festival in April, Chinese traditionally clean and upkeep their ancestors’ tombs.
Scholars collated the Confucian Classics including the Lunyu (Analects), a series of Confucius’s sayings, well after his death. The Classics were the basis of education until 1912.
Strongly linked with early folk beliefs, Daoism incorporates the traditional concepts of an ordered universe, yin and yang, and directed energy, qi . Over time, Daoism developed into a complex religion with an extensive pantheon. Daoist philosophy encourages following one’s intuition and following the grain of the universe by living in accordance with the Dao.
In “Peach Blossom Spring” by Daoist poet Tao Qian, a fisherman chances upon a lost idyllic world and encounters Immortals. Daoist reverence for nature led to the creation of numerous paradises.
In China the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which promises salvation to anyone who seeks it, is followed. Enlightened ones, bodhisattvas, remain in this world to help enlighten others. Through deeds and devotion believers gain merit and maintain their connections with the bodhisattvas, bringing them closer to nirvana.
The Laughing Buddha, or Milefo, is an adaptation of the Maitreya, the Future Buddha. His large belly and laughing face are signs of abundance and he is worshiped in the hopes of a happy, affluent life.
The Guardian King of the South (left) is coiled by a snake; the King of the North holds a parasol. Kings of the four directions guard the entrance to many temples protecting the main deity from evil influences.
A Buddhist supplicant burns sticks of incense in aid of prayer. Buddhist temples throb with spiritual energy, as worshipers pray and make offerings to gain merit.