Religion in China

IN CHINA:—CONFUCIANISM, TAOUISM, AND BUDDHISM.

 

THE  creeds in vogue amongst the Chinese may be regarded as three:—Confucianism, the religion of the state; Taouism, the religion of the philosophers; and Buddhism, the religion of the people.

It has been justly said that a religion which, like Confucianism, has exercised for twenty-four centuries a potent influence over the Chinese mind, though owing its name and origin to a simple citizen, must possess in it something well worthy of consideration. There must be in it a spell which strongly attracts the popular sympathies. This spell is said to be, though possibly we ought to search deeper and farther for it, the purely practical character of its tenets, and the harmony which exists between those tenets and the patriarchal character of the government and the institutions of the country. And in fact it is not so much a religion as an ethical system,—something such as Christianity would be, if we took out of it Jesus Christ. Or we may distinguish it as “a system of ceremonies on a moral basis,” and, as such, admirably adapted to the tastes and needs of so ceremonial-loving a people as the Chinese. To this day the Ly-pou watch with jealous vigilance the maintenance of all the old traditional rites, and rigidly enforce the observance of the traditional details in the construction of the temples. Moreover such particulars as the six kinds of sceptres, the five kinds of mats, and the five kinds of stools are strictly insisted upon; and it is known thatthe innumerable prescribed sacrifices offered to the various gods of the heaven and the earth, to a man's forefathers, to the hills and the rivers, the sea and the central mount, the god of the south pole and the god of thunder, are the same now as they have been for upwards of 2,000 years.

The founder of Confucianism, Kong-foo-tse, or Confucius, (as the Jesuits latinised the name,) was born about 550 b.c. in the state Loo, within the district now called Keo-fou Hien, lying to the eastward of the great Imperial canal, in the province of Shang-tung.

Tradition asserts that his father was a descendant of the imperial family of Hoang-ty, of the dynasty of Chang (2,000 b.c.), and the chief minister of his native kingdom. At an early age, as is common with most who are destined to rise to greatness, Confucius gave indisputable proof of no ordinary mental capacity, and these budding powers were carefully developed by the training and tuition of the ablest masters. He was still young when he made himself acquainted with the literature of the period, and especially with the canonical and classical books attributed to the ancient legislators Yam Chun, and others. His amiability of temper is warmly commended, and no shadow of reproach rests upon his moral character; except in so far as he exposed himself to censure by divorcing his wife, after she had borne him a son, in order, it is said, “that he might devote himself the more absolutely to his studies.” It is some excuse for him that, at this time, he was only twenty. In the same year he was appointed “superintendent of cattle,”—not exactly the ideal office for a philosophical student. However his assiduity and fidelity soon secured the approbation of his superiors; he was promoted to a more influential position; and there seemed every probability of his attaining to the highest rank, when a sudden revolution in the state for a time obscured his prospects.

The next eight years of his life he spent in travel, assuming the role of a religious reformer, and everywhere gathering round him a crowd of ardent disciples, whom he instructed in the rules and principles of his ethical system. It is said that they numbered as many as 3,000, of whom seventy-two were specially distinguished by their devotion to their master and their rigid observance of his tenets. Returning to Loo, when he was about forty-three years old, he was again called to the service of the state, and from grade to grade rose to the post of Prime Minister, or “governor of the people.” Invested with plenary power, he proceeded, with the ardour of an enthusiast, to realise his ideas, and rapidly brought about a vast improvement in both the moral and physical condition of the country. The poor were the particular objects of his care: he provided them with plentiful supplies of cheap and good food, and released them from the thraldom in which the nobles had held them. His energy and wisdom extended to every department of the state; and with extraordinary fertility of resource, he initiated measures for the extension of commerce, the improvement of the bridges and highways, the impartial administration of justice, and the extirpation of the robber bands which infested the mountains. But the neighbouring sovereigns regarded with alarm the progress of his bold reforms. No doubt they talked about communistic and socialistic doctrines, and the advancing flood of democracy, as timid people do in our own day. At all events they contrived to put such a pressure upon the King of Loo that he was compelled to part with his great minister, who fled from his enemies northward, and found refuge in the kingdom of Tsi, on the Gulf of Petchali. For twelve, or, as some say, fourteen years he wandered from place to place, adding to the number of his proselytes; until spent with fatigue, and bowed down with years, he retired with a few favourite disciples to a quiet valley in his native land, and devoted the remainder of his life to the task of revising and improving the famous writings which for so many centuries have been consecrated by the devout acceptance of the Chinese. He died at the age of seventy-three, in 477 b.c.,[30] “on the eighteenth day of the second moon,” after a seven days' illness. Like many other great reformers, though but indifferently treated in his lifetime, he became after death the object of universal admiration, and to this day the Chinese pay homage to the memory of the “Great Master,” the “Chief Doctor,” the “Wise King of Literature,” the “Saint,” the “Instructor of Emperors and Kings.” His descendants have been loaded with honours and privileges, and now constitute the only hereditary nobility in the Chinese empire. Like the princes of the blood, they are exempt from taxation. And in every city of the first, second, and third rank, stands at least one temple dedicated to Confucius, where the emperor himself and the mandarins are bound to worship, with offerings of wine, fruit, and flowers,—with burning of fragrant gums, frankincense, and tapers of sandal wood,—and with singing of appropriate hymns. The eighteenth day of the second moon is kept sacred by the Chinese as the anniversary of his death.


We have already said that the system of Confucius was ethical rather than religious. It is absolutely free from any theological strain, and, indeed, makes no mention of a Creator. “How should I know God,” he would say, “when as yet I know not man?” “His system was essentially conservative; he aimed at the correction of new vices which had crept into the body politic by endeavouring to restore the old customs of the country; and hence the high favour in which his system has ever been held by the rulers and magnates of the empire. It inculcated the most perfect subordination, the most servile obedience, and the most scrupulous adherence to ancient usage; every social, civil, and political duty is set forth in it with the greatest precision; but inasmuch as all the parts of the great machine of empire are not absolutely deprived of volition, a rebellious cog-wheel or insignificant pinion will sometimes disarrange and impede the entire machinery.”

Confucius held that the universe had been generated by the union of two material principles,—a heavenly and an earthly, Yang and Ya. He represents man as having fallen by his own act from his original purity and happiness, and asserts that by his own act he can recover that condition. For this purpose he must lead a life of obedience to the law, and he must not do unto others that which he would not have others do unto him. He made the supremacy of parental authority the basis of his political teaching, and strongly advocated that the son's submission to the father must be as complete as that of the servant to the master, of the master to the magistrate, of the magistrate to the crown, and of the crown to the law. Of course this implied that the reciprocal obligations must be observed. This rigid application of the family ideal to the administration of the government, and the consequent creation of a pure despotism, has been the cause of all that is most perplexing to Europeans in the Chinese civilisation, and explains why it has never advanced beyond the standard or mark to which it had attained in the era of Confucius.

The Confucian doctrines are set forth in Gze-Chou, “The Four Books,” and King, “The Five Canonical Works,” of which the following particulars may interest the reader.

 

The Ta-heo, or “Great Study.”

The Ta-heo, or “School of Adults,” has been translated by Dr. Marshman, in the “Clavis Sinica.” It is a treatise, in two chapters, on politics and morals, rising gradually from the government of oneself to the government of a family, thence to the government of a province, and finally to the control of the affairs of an empire. Its leading principle is self-improvement, self-culture. In one of the sections an eulogium is bestowed upon the beauty of virtue as a means of self-enjoyment. And the book closes with a fine exhortation to be just, and truthful, and honest, to those whom fortune places at the head of the state.

 

The Chung-Yung, or “The Invariable in the Mean,”

Also translated as “the Safe Middle Course,” and “the Infallible Medium,” describes the golden mean, the due medium by which a man should regulate his conduct. He is not to be lifted up by prosperity, nor cast down by adversity. Through thirty-three sections, in language sometimes clear and strenuous, sometimes obscure, the subject is pursued, and the whole duty of man inculcated. Here is a passage describing a kingly man which may be compared with one in Seneca:—

“It is only the man supremely holy, who, by the faculty of knowing thoroughly, and comprehending perfectly the primitive laws of living beings, is worthy of possessing supreme authority, and governing men; who by possessing a soul, grand, firm, constant, and imperturbable, is capable of making justice and equity reign; who by his faculty of being always honest, simple, upright, grave, and just, is able to attract respect and veneration; who by his faculty of being clothed with the ornaments of the mind, and the talents procured by assiduous study, and by the enlightenment that springs from an exact investigation of the most hidden things, and the most subtle principles, can with accuracy discern the true from the false, and the good from the evil.”

 

The Lun-Yu, or “Philosophical Conversation.”

This is the Chinese Phædo, and contains a record of the conversations held between Confucius and his disciples, but the author lacked the eloquence and imagination of Plato. It is interesting however from its anecdotes of the Great Teacher. In introducing his guests, it seems that he kept his arms extended, like the wings of a bird; that he never ate meat which had not been cut in a straight line; that he never used his fingers to point to anything; and that he would not occupy the mat spread for him as a seat unless it was regularly placed.

 

The Meng-tze, or “Mencius,”

Is a Commentary upon Confucius, written about a century after his death by his disciple Meng-tze. The subjects treated in it are of various nature. In one part the virtues of individual life and of domestic relations are discussed; in another, the order of affairs. Here are investigated the duties of superiors, from the sovereign to the lowest magistrate, for the attainment of good government. There are expounded the labours of students, peasants, traders, artisans, while, in the course of the work, the laws of the physical world, of the heavens and the earth, the mountains and rivers, of birds, fishes, quadrupeds, insects, plants, and trees, are occasionally described. The great number of affairs which Mencius managed, in the course of his life, in his intercourse with men, his occasional conversations with people of rank, his instructions to his pupils, his expositions of books, ancient and modern,—all these details are incorporated in this publication. It is a collection of historical facts, and of the words of ancient ages, put together for the instruction of mankind.

Mencius died when he was eighty-four years of age; his memory is revered by the Chinese next to that of Confucius, and his descendants are treated with a distinction inferior only to that which is accorded to those of Confucius.

 

King; or, The Five Canonical Works.

These, which were either written or compiled by Confucius, are the most venerable existing monuments of Chinese literature, and embody the fundamental principles of the earliest creeds and customs of China.

The first is the Y-King, or “Sacred Book of Changes,” which may be termed a Chinese Cyclopædia, and contains a great variety of subjects, morals, physics, and metaphysics. It is founded on the combinations of sixty-four lines,—some entire, and some broken,—and called Koua ; the discovery of which has been attributed to Fo-hi, the traditional founder of Chinese civilisation. He found them, it is said, on the shell of a tortoise, and asserted that they were capable of explaining all things. It does not seem easy, however, to explain them, and the commentaries upon them are more numerous than even the commentaries upon Shakespeare. The Imperial Library at Peking contains no fewer than 1450.

Second in order comes the Shu-King, or “Book of History,” which, despite its imperfect and fragmentary condition, is full of interest. It contains a concise narrative of Early Chinese history, down to the eighth century before our era; including the speeches addressed by several emperors to their high officers, and numerous valuable documents of great antiquity. Reference is made in its pages to a great deluge, which some suppose to be the Flood recorded in the book of Genesis, but others, with more probability, identify with one of the early and extensive inundations of the Hoang-Ho.

The third is the Shi-King, or “Book of Sacred Songs,” a collection of 311 poems, ancient, national, and official, the best of which every well-educated Chinaman commits to memory. They range from the eighteenth to the third century before our era, and are divided into four parts: first, the Ku-fung, or songs of “the manners of different states;” second and third, songs for state occasions; and fourth, Soong, a collection of eulogies on the various emperors of the Chow dynasty. This book is described as replete with very interesting and probably authentic information on the ancient manners of China, and is frequently quoted by both Confucius and Mencius, and by them recommended to the study of their disciples.

Fourth comes the Li-King, or “Book of Rites and Ceremonies,” in which we find a mass of fragments dating from the time of Confucius downwards, and throwing a vivid light on the permanent characteristics of the Chinese civilisation, and on the causes which made it what it is in all its iron immutability. The ceremonial usages of China, as prescribed in this ritual, number about 3000; and one of the six tribunals, the Ly-pou, is specially charged with their custody and interpretation.

Fifth and last is the Chun-tsien, or Tchuntsiou, or “Book of Spring and Autumn,” so called from the seasons in which it was respectively begun and ended by Confucius. Here the Great Teacher has simply written down the earlier history of his native land of Loo; with the view of recalling the princes of his age to a conservative spirit of reverence for the customs of the past by indicating the misfortunes that took place after they fell into neglect.


Strictly speaking, Confucianism has no priests, no distinct sacerdotal order; the emperor himself is the patriarch or head, and every magistrate, within the sphere of his jurisdiction is a religious official or hierophant. “Generally, all literary persons, and those who propose to become such, in attaching themselves to it do not necessarily renounce practices borrowed from other religions. But, in fact, faith does not seem to have anything to do with the matter; and habit alone induces them to conform to ceremonies which they themselves turn into ridicule—such as divinations, horoscopes, and calculating lucky and unlucky days, all of which superstitions are in great vogue throughout the empire.”

China possesses an enormous number of pagodas, or idol-temples; Peking boasts of 10,000; every village has several, and they are distributed all along the roads and all over the fields. Some are remarkable for their splendour; but the majority do not differ in appearance, or very slightly, from other buildings. Often they are nothing more than small chapels, in which are niches containing idols and vases filled with burning perfumes, or the ashes of gilt paper on which prayers have been printed, these papers having been burnt, as a religious rite, by devotees. The worshippers, if such they may be called, display the utmost indifference of behaviour in these temples: they enter them to enjoy a rest or a sleep; or they walk about with their hats on, whistling, smoking, laughing, chattering. Round the sides are seated the vendors of the aforesaid gilt paper prayers and pastiles; ever and anon they demand attention to their wares by striking a gong; while the people incessantly burn paper models of clothing, shoes, money, junks, and the like, to assist their deceased friends on their long journey. For though the Chinese have no distinct recognition of a future state, the worship of the dead is a prominent element of their religion. Noble and peasant alike bring offerings, or send them by proxy, and kneel before the shades of their ancestors: this duty at least is always remembered, whatever other may be forgotten.

The following may be given as an example of the prayers used upon such occasions:—

“I, Lea Kwang, second son of the third generation, presume to come before the grave of my ancestors. Revolving years have brought again the season of Spring; I sweep your tomb with reverence, and, prostrate, beg you to be spiritually present, and grant that your posterity may be illustrious. At this season I desire to recompense the root of my existence, and reverently, therefore, before your holy spirit present the five-fold offering of pork, fowl, duck, goose, and fish; with five fruits and the drink samshu ;[31]entreating that you will condescend to inspect them. This announcement is presented on high.”

Such offerings as are not accepted by the priests are generally taken home again to furnish full the worshipper's own table.


The Ritual State Worship, which concerns the Emperor and his court, but affects not the great body of the people, we must glance at very briefly. It may be defined as the ceremonial of a philosophical pantheism, unconnected with any theological doctrine. Three classes of natural objects are distinguished, to which the “Great,” the “Medium,” and the “Lesser” Sacrifices are offered. The first class, the Ta-sze, includes the Heaven and the Earth, and along with and equal to these, the great Temple of Imperial Ancestors. Among the Chung-sze, or “Medium Sacrifices,” are the Genii, the Great Light and the Evening Light (that is, the Sun and the Moon), the Gods of Land and Grain, the God of Letters, and the Inventors of Agriculture, Manufactures, and the Useful Arts. To the “Lesser Sacrifices,” or Scaou-sze, belong the Founder of the Art of Healing, as well as the spirits of statesmen, scholars, and persons of eminent virtue. They are offered also to various natural phenomena, such as the clouds, the rain, the wind, the thunder. The God of War, and Lung Wang, the dragon-king, who represents the rivers and streams, have their worshippers; nor is Tien-How, the Queen of Heaven, forgotten. There are, besides, a host of household deities, like the Lares and Penates of the ancients, who are propitiated by domestic sacrifices at the new year, when they are supposed to pay a brief visit to the Other World, and report, as it were, the doings and misdoings of the families over which they preside.

The chief sacrificial seasons are these: the winter solstice for all offered to heaven, the summer season for all offered to earth. The others have their appointed dates. Then, in the course of the year, numerous festivals of a more or less religious character are held. First among them is the Imperial Ploughing of the Sacred Field, which takes place towards the end of March. The Emperor, attended by some of the princes of the blood and his chief ministers, then proceeds to a field on one side of the central street in Peking, where fitting preparations have, of course, been made. After certain sacrifices, consisting chiefly of grain preserved from the produce of the same field, the Emperor takes the plough, and drives a few furrows. His example is followed by the princes and ministers in succession: a red tablet indicating the space allotted to each distinguished amateur. The “five sorts of grain” are then sown; and when the Emperor has seen the work completed by the attendant husbandmen, the field is committed to the charge of an officer whose business it is to collect and store the produce with a view to future sacrifices to the Gods of the Harvest.


Of the Shae-tung, or Feast of Lanterns, every traveller has spoken. There are also the Too-te-tan, or birthdays of the familiar gods of the city; the Tsing-ming-tsee, or Feast of Tombs; the festivals of all and sundry deities; and the birthdays of the living Emperor and Empress, as well as the anniversaries of the deaths of their predecessors, which, however, are observed only by the mandarins. So numerous are the festivals that were they celebrated everywhere by everybody there would be neither “time” nor “hands” for the works of agriculture or commerce, trade, science, or the arts.


We pass on to a brief account of

 

Taouism.

The founder of Taouism, the doctrine of Tao, or Reason, was a celebrated philosopher named Lao-tsze, who was born in the third year of the Emperor Ting-wang, of the Chow dynasty (b.c. 604) in the state of Tseu, now known as Hoo-pih and Hoo-nan. He preceded Confucius by half a century. His family name was Le, or Plum, and his youthful name, Urh, or Ear, in allusion to the exceptional size of his “auricular appendages.” The events of his career are so obscured in an atmosphere of legend and fable, created by admiring disciples, that it is difficult to get at any authentic particulars; but he seems to have been an assiduous student, and the historian or chronologist of a king of the Chow dynasty. Visiting, about b.c.600, the western parts of China, he gained there a knowledge of the system of Fo, or Buddha, and soon afterwards began to develope his own religious teaching. So great was his fame that Confucius went to see him; but the interview was hardly of the character that might have been expected when two religious philosophers met. Lao-tsze reproached the younger sage with pride and ostentation and vanity, affirming that philosophers loved retirement and seclusion, and made no boast of virtue and knowledge. It speaks well for the good nature of Confucius that he replied to this tirade by highly commending Lao-tsze to his followers, and describing him as a dragon soaring to the clouds of Heaven, unsurpassed and unsurpassable.

Lao-tsze inquired of Confucius if he had discovered the Taou, the “path” or “reason” by which Heaven acts, and was informed that the philosopher had searched for it unsuccessfully. Lao-tsze replied that the wealthy dismissed their friends with presents, and sages theirs with good counsel; and that for himself, he humbly claimed to be thought a sage—an indirect way of advising Confucius to continue his quest of the Taou. Retiring to Han-kwan, he wrote there his Taou-tih-king, or Book of Reason and Virtue. He died, or as his followers say, ascended to Heaven on a black buffalo, in the twenty-first year of the reign of King-wang of the Chow or Cheu dynasty, or b.c. 523, having attained the age of 119 years.[32]

The contrast between the system of Lao-tsze and that of Confucius may be indicated in a word: the former was speculative, the latter practical, and it is no wonder, therefore that the latter, addressing itself to man's actual necessities and daily duties, prevailed over the former. But, in an abstract sense, Lao's, as originally defined by himself, was the purer and more elevated; for it aimed at securing the immortality of man through the contemplation of God , the subjugation of the passions, and the absolute tranquillity of the soul. He taught that Silence and the Void generated the Taou, the “Logos” or reason by which movement was produced; and that all beings containing in themselves the duality of male and female sprang from them.

Man, he said, was composed of two principles, the material and the spiritual: from the latter he emanated, and to it he ought to return, by throwing off the fetters and snares of the world, crushing out the material passions, the desires of the soul, and the pleasures of the body, and abandoning riches, honours, and the ties of life.

Before Lao-tsze's time, the Chinese seem to have worshipped the Shang-te, or Supreme Ruler, and the Tien, or Heaven: but Lao-tsze preached in their place the Taou, or “reason” of the Kosmos. Of a Supreme Creative and Eternal Power he had no conception. There was as little theology in his system as in that of Confucius; but its morality was not less admirable; it insisted on the practice of those virtues which form the moral code of all the higher religions,—charity, benevolence, chastity, and the free-will, moral agency, and responsibility of man. But there was an obscurity about Lao-tsze's teaching, which enabled his followers successfully to pervert it, and it gradually assumed a form which the Teacher himself would undoubtedly have been the first to repudiate. The Taossi, as they were called, professed to have discovered the drink of immortality, and practised divination, alchemy, the invocation of spirits, and other superstitious rites. These follies were gravely ridiculed by the Joo-Keaou, or sect of Confucius, and gradually were abandoned by all but the most illiterate.

Among the host of deities worshipped by this sect we may instance the San-tsing, or “Three Pure Ones,” the three-fold ruler of the assembled gods in heaven, the sun, the moon, and the stars, who delivers his name and benevolent commands to be promulgated amongst mankind, that all who see and recite that name may be delivered from all evil, and obtain infinite happiness. “It is impossible to doubt,” says a writer, “that we see here traces of a Divine revelation, corrupted though it has now become. China has her Trinity in Taouism as well as in Buddhism; as other Pagan nations have had theirs in the Orphic mythology, where there were ‘counsel, and light, and life;' in the Platonic theology, which had its ‘good, and mind, and the soul of the world,' as in the Egyptian mysteries there were ‘On, and Isis, and Neith;' and in that of Fo, ‘Brahma, Vishnu, and Seeva.'”

The Taossi, Tien-sze, or “Celestial Doctors,”—the priests of Taouism,—are outwardly distinguished amongst the Chinese by the manner in which they dress their hair. They shave the sides of the head, and coil the remaining hair in a tuft on the crown. Moreover, they wear slate-coloured robes. There are two orders; one, the keepers of the temples, vowed to celibacy; the others, who are free to marry, live in their own houses, or wander about the country selling charms and medical nostrums. In the feast of one of their deities, the “High Emperor of all the Sombre Heavens,” they assemble before his temple, and having kindled a huge fire, about fifteen or twenty feet in diameter, go over it barefoot, carrying the gods in their arms. “They firmly assert,” says Williams, “that if they possess a sincere mind they will not be injured by the fire; but both priests and people get miserably burnt on these occasions.” Escayrac de Lauture says that they leap, dance, and whirl round the fire, striking at the devils with a straight Roman-like sword, and sometimes wounding themselves as the priests of Baal and Moloch were wont to do.


Some interesting particulars of the Buddhist temples of China are supplied by Mr. Fortune. He speaks of the temple of Tien-tung as a congeries of temples, a collection of spacious structures, which occupy the site of former buildings. All of these are crowded with idols, or images of the favourite gods, such as the “Three precious Buddhas,” “the Queen of Heaven,” represented as sitting on the celebrated lotus or nelumbium—“the God of War,” and many other deified kings and great men of former days. Many of these images are from thirty to forty feet in height, and have a striking appearance as they stand arranged in the spacious lofty halls. The priests themselves reside in a range of low buildings, erected at right angles with the different temples and courts that divide them. Each has a little temple under his own roof; a family altar crowded with petty images, where he is often engaged in private devotion.

Mr. Fortune, after inspecting the various temples and the belfry, which contains a noble bronze bell of large dimensions, was conducted to the house of the principal priest, where dinner was already spread upon the table. The Buddhist priests are not permitted to eat animal food at any of their meals. The dinner, therefore, consisted entirely of vegetables, served à la Chinoise, in numerous small round basins, the contents of each—soups excepted—being cut up into small square bits, to be eaten with chopsticks. The Buddhist priests contrive to procure a quantity of vegetables of different kinds, which, by a peculiar mode of preparation, are rendered very savoury. “In fact,” says Mr. Fortune,[33] “so nearly do they resemble animal food in taste and in appearance, that at first we were deceived, imagining that the little bits we were able to get hold of with our chopsticks were really pieces of fowl or beef. Such, however, was not the case, as our good host was consistent on this day at least, and had nothing but vegetable productions at his table. Several other priests sat with us at table, and a large number of others of inferior rank with servants, crowded around the doors and windows outside.”

During dinner, Mr. Fortune learned that about a hundred priests were connected with the monastery, but that many were always about on missions to various parts of the country. A considerable portion of land in the vicinity belonged to the temple, and supplied its revenue: large sums were raised every year from the sale of bamboos, which are here very excellent, and of the branches of trees and brushwood, which are made up in bundles for firewood. Many rice and tea farms also belong to the priests and are cultivated by them. In addition to the sums thus raised, a considerable revenue must accrue from the contributions of the devotees who frequent the temple, as well as from the alms and donations collected by the mendicant priests of the order, who are sent out on begging excursions at stated periods of the year. There are, of course, all grades of priests; some being merely the servants of the others, both domestic and agricultural.

The temple forms the centre of a fine landscape. It stands at the head of a fertile valley, with green hills all around it; this valley echoes with the music of several bright mountain streams, and yields abundant crops of rice. On the lower slopes of the more fertile hills grow masses of tea shrubs, with dark green leaves, lending a fine background to the picture. A long avenue of Chinese pine trees leads up to the temple. At first it is straight, but near the temple it winds picturesquely round the edges of the artificial lakes, to end at a flight of stone steps. Behind, and on each side, the mountains rise in irregular ridges, from 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the sea level; not bare and desolate like the mountains of the south, but clothed to their tops with a dense tropical-looking growth of brushwood, shrubs, and trees. Some of the finest bamboos of China flourish in the ravines, and the sombre-coloured pine attains to a large size on the acclivities.

A quaint account of the origin of the monastery was given by one of the head priests:—

“Many hundred years ago a pious old man retired from the world, and came to dwell in these mountains, giving himself up entirely to the performance of religious duties. So earnest was he in his devotions that he neglected everything relating to his temporal wants, even to his daily food. Providence, however, would not suffer so good a man to starve. Some boys were sent in a miraculous manner, who daily supplied him with food. In the course of time the fame of the sage extended all over the adjacent country, and disciples flocked to him from all quarters. A small range of temples was built, and thus commenced the extensive buildings which now bear the name of ‘Tien-tung,' or the ‘Temple of the Heavenly Boys;'Tien  signifying heaven, and tung, a boy. At last the old man died, but his disciples supplied his place. The fame of the temple spread far and wide, and votaries came from the most distant parts of the empire—one of the Chinese kings being amongst the number—to worship and leave their offerings at its altars. Larger temples were built in front of the original ones, and these again in their turn gave way to those spacious buildings which form the principal part of the structure of the present day.”

Mr. Fortune remarks that a large number of Buddhist temples are scattered over all this part of the country. Their architects have shown as keen a sympathy with nature as the Cistercian founders in Europe, always building them in the most lovely and picturesque situations, amongst the green hills, and in the shelter of spreading woods—the leafy enclosures that in England indicate the presence of an old manor house, or “ancestral hall.” Poo-to, or the Worshipping Island, as foreigners call it, is one of the eastern islands in the Chusan Archipelago, and seems to be one of the great Buddhist centres. The principal group of temples is situated in a fine romantic glen, and from the high ground above it, seems like a town of considerable size. As the traveller approaches nearer, he finds the view of great interest. In front extends a large artificial pond, filled with the broad green leaves and noble red and white flowers of the nelumbium speciosum,—a plant in high favour with the Chinese. Access to the monastery is obtained by a very ornamental bridge thrown across this piece of water.

The temples or halls containing the idols are extremely spacious; many of the idols are thirty or forty feet high, generally made of wood or clay, and then richly gilt. In a temple of far less pretentious character than any of the others Mr. Fortune met with some exquisite bronze statues, of undoubted value.

Having examined these temples, our traveller made his way towards another group of them, about two miles to the eastward, and close on the sea shore. Entering the courts through a kind of triumphal arch, which looked out upon the sapphire sea, he found that these temples were constructed on the same plan.

On the following day he inspected various parts of the island. In addition to the larger temples just noticed, about sixty or seventy smaller ones are built on all the hill sides, each containing three or four priests, who are all under the abbot, or superior, residing near one of the large temples. “Even on the top of the highest hill,” he says, “probably 1,500 or 1,800 feet above the level of the sea, we found a temple of considerable size and in excellent repair. There are winding stone steps from the sea-beach all the way up to this temple, and a small resting-place about half-way up the hill, where the weary devotee may rest and drink of the refreshing stream which flows down the sides of the mountain, and in the little temple close at hand, which is also crowded with idols, he can supplicate Buddha for strength to enable him to reach the end of his journey. We were surprised to find a Buddhist temple in such excellent order as the one on the summit of the hill proved to be in. It is a striking fact, that almost all these places are crumbling fast into ruins. There are a few exceptions, in cases where they happen to get a good name amongst the people from the supposed kindness of the gods; but the great mass are in a state of decay.”

The island of Poo-to is nothing but a residence for Buddhist priests, and no other persons are allowed to live there but their servants and attendants. No women are admitted, as the principles of Buddhism insist upon sacerdotal celibacy. There are about 2,000 priests, many of whom are constantly absent on begging expeditions for the maintenance of their religion. On certain high days, at different periods of the year, many thousands of both sexes, but more particularly females, visit these temples, clothed in their gayest attire, to pay their vows and engage in the other practices of heathen worship. In the temples or at the doorways stand little stalls, for the sale of incense, candles, paper made up to resemble ingots of Sycee-silver, and other holy things, which are regarded as acceptable offerings to the gods, and are either consumed in the temples or carried home to bring, it is supposed, a blessing upon the homes and families of their purchasers. The profits of these sales go, of course, to the maintenance of the establishment. Whatever we may think of the superstitious character of Buddhism, it is impossible to doubt the sincerity of its disciples, when we find them sometimes travelling a distance of several hundred miles to worship in their temples.

“I was once staying,” says Fortune,[34] “in the temple of Tien-tung when it was visited for three days by devotees from all parts of the country. As they lined the roads on their way to the temple, clad in the graceful and flowing costumes of the East, the mind was naturally led back to those days of Scripture History when Jerusalem was in its glory, and the Jews, the chosen people of God, came from afar to worship in its temple.”

Mr. Gutzlaff, the missionary, is of opinion that the priests and devotees of Buddhism entertain no sincere conviction of the truth of their creed. Describing a visit to Poo-to, he says: “We were present at the vespers of the priests, which they chanted in the Pali language, not unlike the Latin service of the Romish Church. They held rosaries in their hands, which rested folded upon their breasts. One of them had a small bell, by the tinkling of which their service was regulated; and they occasionally beat the drum and large bell to rouse Buddha's attention to their prayers. The same words were a hundred times repeated. None of the officiating persons showed any interest in the ceremony, for some were looking round laughing and joking, while others muttered their prayers. The few people who were present, not to attend the worship, but to gaze at us, did not seem, in the least degree, to feel the solemnity of the service.” But to condemn the whole Buddhist sect from this solitary instance would be as reasonable as to pronounce all Protestants insincere because a West-end congregation in London may have shown signs of frivolity and indifference! Mr. Fortune, on the contrary, declares that he was much impressed by the solemnity with which the devotional exercises of the Buddhists were generally conducted. “I have often walked,” he says, “into Chinese temples when the priests were engaged in prayer, and although there would have been some apology for them had their attention been diverted, they went on in the most solemn manner until the conclusion of the service, as if no foreigner were present. They then came politely up to me, examining my dress and everything about me with the most earnest curiosity. Nor does this apply to priests only; the laity, and particularly the female sex, seem equally sincere when they engage in their public devotions. Whether they are what they appear to be, or how often they are in this pious frame of mind, are questions which I cannot answer. Before judging harshly of the Chinese, let the reader consider what effect would be produced upon the members of a Christian church by the unexpected entrance of a small-footed Chinese lady, or a Mandarin, with the gold button and peacock feather mounted on his hat, and his long tail dangling over his shoulders. I am far from being an admirer of the Buddhist priesthood; they are generally an imbecile race, and shamefully ignorant of everything but the simple forms of their religion, but nevertheless there are many traits in their character not unworthy of imitation.”

The superstitious credulity of the Chinese is demonstrated by the nature of their various religious ceremonies. In all the southern towns every house has its temple or altar, both within and without. In the interior the altar generally occupies the end of the principal hall or shop, as the case may be; is raised a few feet from the ground, and adorned with an effigy of the household god, enveloped in gaudy tinsel paper. By the way, of what we call “taste,” the Chinese do not seem to know even the rudiments; nor do they appear to have any feeling for harmony of colour or proportion. On the first day of the Chinese month, and other festivals, candles and incense flare and smoke on the table in front of it. The altar outside the door is like to a small furnace, and here the same ceremonies are regularly performed.

The traveller, as he passes in the neighbourhood of small villages, or in even more sequestered localities, comes upon little joss-houses or temples, all glaringly decorated in the same style with paintings and tinsel paper, and stuck round about with bits of candles and sticks of incense. Shops for the sale of idols of all kinds and sizes, but of unvarying ugliness, at prices varying from a few pence to many pounds, are found in all the large towns. Some are evidently very ancient, and have passed through the hands of a long succession of proprietors. It is a capital custom—is it not?—when you are tired of your god, because he does not fulfil your wishes, to purchase another and a more powerful at a slight increase of price! A deity who would really gratify all  our petitions would be worth—so far as this world is concerned—a heavy sum!


Nothing in China is more remarkable than the periodical offerings of a Chinese family to its gods. The traveller already cited witnessed such a ceremony in a house at Shanghai. The principal hall was duly set out at an early hour in the morning; a large table was placed in the centre; and shortly afterwards covered with small dishes filled with the various articles commonly used as food by the Chinese. All these were of the very best description which could be procured. After a certain time had elapsed numerous candles were lighted, and from the burning incense rose columns of fragrant smoke. The inmates of the house and their friends were all clothed in their best attire, and came in turn to ko-too, or bow lowly and repeatedly in front of the table and the altar. “The scene,” says our authority, “although it was an idolatrous one, seemed to me to have something very impressive about it, and whilst I pitied the delusion of our host and his friends, I could not but admire their devotion. In a short time after this ceremony was completed a large quantity of tinsel paper, made up in the form and shape of the ingots of Sycee silver common in China, was heaped on the floor in front of the tables, the burning incense was then taken from the table and placed in the midst of it, and the whole consumed together. By-and-by, when the gods were supposed to have finished their repast, all the articles of food were removed from the tables, cut up, and consumed by people connected with the family.”

On another occasion, Mr. Fortune, when at Ning-po, having been abroad all day, did not return to the city until nightfall. The city gates were closed, but, on knocking, he was admitted by the warder. Passing into the widest and finest street in the city, he observed a blaze of light and a general liveliness very unusual in any Chinese town after dark. The sounds of music fell upon his ear, the monotonous beat of the drum and gong, and the more pleasing and varied tones of several wind instruments. On approaching nearer he discovered that a public offering was being made to the gods, and it proved to be a more striking scene than he could have anticipated. The table was spread in the open street, and all the preparations were on a large and expensive scale. Instead of small dishes, whole animals were sacrificed. On one side of the tablewas placed a pig, on the other a sheep; the former, scraped clean in the usual fashion, the latter skinned; of both the entrails had been removed, and on both were placed flowers, an onion, and a knife. The other parts of the table “groaned” with the delicacies in vogue among the more respectable Chinese, such as fowls, ducks, numerous compound dishes, fruits, vegetables, and rice. At one end of the table, when the gods were supposed to sit during the meal, chairs were set; and chopsticks were laid in order by the side of every dish. The whole place glared with light, and wreaths of incense filled the air with sweet odours. At intervals, bands of musicians struck up the favourite national airs, which are all of a plaintive cast, and altogether the scene was a strange and curious revelation of human superstition.[35]


Processions in honour of the gods are of frequent occurrence. Mr. Fortune speaks of one which he saw at Shanghai as at least a mile in length. The gods, or josses, arrayed in the finest silks, were carried about in splendid sedan-chairs, in the centre of a long train of devotees, all superbly dressed for the occasion, and all bearing their different insignia of office. The dresses of the officials exactly resembled those of some of the attendants who figure in the suite of the higher mandarins. Some wore on the sides of their hats a broad fan, composed of peacock-feathers; others strutted in gaudy theatrical costumes, with two long black feathers stuck, like horns, in their low caps. The scowling executioners carried long conical black hats on their heads, and whips in their hands, for the prompt chastisement of the refractory. Bands of music, in different parts of the procession, played at intervals as it marched along.

On arriving at a temple in the suburbs, it came to a halt. The gods were taken out of the sedan-chairs, and with a great exhibition of reverence, replaced in the temple, from which they had been removed in the morning. Then their worshippers bent low before their altars, burning incense, and depositing their gifts. Numerous groups of well-dressed ladies and their children were scattered over the ground in the neighbourhood of the temple; all were kneeling, and apparently they conducted their devotions with great earnestness. A large quantity of paper, in the shape of the Sycee silver ingots, was piled up on the grass by the different devotees, and when the ceremonies of the day were being brought to a conclusion, the whole was burned in honour of, or as an offering to, the gods.


[30] Others say in 479 b.c., at the age of seventy.

[31] A strong spirituous liquor, distilled from wine.

[32] In Rashiduddin's “History of Cathay” we read: “In the reign of Din-Wang, the twentieth King of the eleventh dynasty, Tai Shang Lao Kun  was born. This person is stated to have been accounted a prophet by the people of Khita; his father's name was Han; like Shak-muni (Buddha) he is said to have been conceived by light, and it is related that his mother bore him in her womb no less a period than eighty years. The people who embraced his doctrine were called ش ش Shan-shan  or Shin-shin.” The title used by Rashiduddin signifies “the Great Supreme Venerable Ruler.”

[33] Robert Fortune, “Three Years' Wanderings in the Northern Provinces of China,” p. 170, et sqq.

[34] “Three Years' Wanderings,” p. 185.

[35] Fortune, pp. 190, 191.