Post 4: The Religious Question in Modern China

After reading chapters two and three of The Religious Question in Modern China, it appears that the Chinese experience with modernization was a rather tumultuous period of time especially due to the changing religious landscape. In any case, it seems that the Chinese at the time were influenced heavily by western conceptions of religion. Because of this, it is difficult to distinguish between religion and superstition. In fact, I was fascinated to learn that many words for western religious concepts simply did not exist in China prior to the late 19th century, including 宗教 (religion)、迷信 (superstition)and 神权 (divine authority). These terms were borrowed from the Japanese and did not exist in the Chinese lexicon before.

Another aspect that interested me was the idea that Western conceptions of religion began to make their way into China, as Confucianism was proposed as a state religion. This is interesting because many Chinese today do not consider Confucianism as a religion (宗教) but rather an ideology (思想). As one group of Chinese people attempted to create a more “Chinese” state religion, more ambitious scholars viewed maintaining a uniquely Chinese identity as shameful. Kang Youwei, a scholar and political thinker, once said, “Foreigners come in our temples, take photographs of the idols, show these photographs to each other and laugh.” This insecurity and shamefulness also appear to have led Chinese scholars and religious officials to begin to reinvent religion in China.

I found it interesting that in an attempt to do so, some Buddhist groups felt the need to alter Buddhism to be more similar to Christianity. Changing Buddhism from a more spiritual institution to one that shared similarities with Protestantism: a religion that is text-based, ethical, socially engaged, and “humanist”. This came to me as a surprise because it appeared that in an attempt to adopt a more “Christian” or “Western” model, Chinese religion lost a lot of its original identity.

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