• Jason Tsang

What do Chinese people believe in?


In my previous article Origins of Tai Chi - Part 2. The spiritual & philosophy, I wrote about the different strands of Chinese spirituality that has influenced the development of Tai Chi. In this article, I would like to look at spirituality outside of Tai Chi, and look at what Chinese people believe in.

One of the roots of Chinese culture is filial piety, duty as well as order in the home and society. This stems from Confucianism and the effects are still felt today. You might have a friend who is Christian, but their family culture, though Westernised in some ways,


may still be traditional in many others. Whilst Confucianism is not a religion in the sense Daoism and Christianity is. It is very much about rites and rituals. Some of these are of a larger temple or local government level. Many others are small and family based. The worship of one's ancestors and honouring them is an example. This brings the clan together and remind ourselves as to where we come from and remembering past achievements. Clan dwellings such as those you see in the Hong Kong countryside often have an ancestral shrine to honour their forebears. Some of these can be very ornate and contain the tablets of many members of their clan.

Many households still have a small altar that houses the tablets of their parents and grandparents. People pray and make offerings to their ancestors, in the hope that they will protect the clans descendants. In traditional martial arts schools, we honour past masters and lineage holders in the same way. We treat our masters with as we do our parents and carry out duty as such. One of the aims of Confucianism was about order in society and everybody doing their bit. With order, comes harmony. The issue regarding sexism is another thing entirely. Had Confucius lived in the current age, equality would be emphasised. Please remember that Confucius lived in a time when women had few rights and privileges. Few philosophers or writers, in any other country back then would have been any different.

Daoism provided a contrast to Confucianism, in that Daoism was about being natural and going with the flow. To say that there are no rules in Daoism is incorrect. In order to cultivate goodness and the Dao. You do in fact needs rules and routines to guide you. Once you have mastered these, you would be more relaxed. Daoist believe in harmony with nature. The various Daoist arts such as feng shui, internal alchemy, martial arts, music, charms and divination all follow the concept of yin and yang. These concepts carry on through all aspects of life, such as cooking, managing the home and managing your career. It might seem like all Daoists are eccentric hermits, but in reality, there were never many of these. Daoist exists in all walks of life. There are many schools or sects within Daoism and unlike the Roman Catholic Church, it is not a unified religion. But this works very well for what Daoism is and how they practice. Sects like Mao Shan (茅山派) and The Way of the Celestial Masters (天師道) are very old. Whilst The Complete Reality School (全眞道) are much newer. If you would like to read about the different schools of Daoism and learn about Daoist culture, I thoroughly recommend this book, Taoism: An Essential Guide by Eva Wong. It would look like, looking at Daoist temples, the Daoist worship a lot of gods. But these are gods in the Judeo-Christian sense, that that they are dieties. Many of these are historical figures, such as Laozi (老子) or Patriarch Lu, also known as Lü Dongbin (呂洞賓) of the Eight Immortals. Others were individuals who have attained enlightenment or have performed miracle. As such there are a great many deities and some are only known locally. People pay homage to various deities, in return for protection, but also provide inspiration. The position or how dieties are viewed and worshipped differ amongst the various sects. Despite all the differences, the core beliefs are the same.

Buddhism originally started off as a state sponsored school for moral education during the Han Dynasty, but since then, they have branched to become a fully fledged religion.

Like Daoism, Buddhism developed into various schools and they are a collective as opposed to a united religion under one banner. Buddhism has never been under one religious order and there has never been a Buddhist equivalent of the Pope. Some people think of the His Holiness The Dalai Lama as the Pope for Buddhism, but this is simply not true. His Holiness only speaks for the Buddhist of his sect and other sects have their own spiritual leaders. Buddhism has a wide appeal for many Chinese people. Buddhism is not concerned about class and everybody is considered equal. The rules and rituals loved by the scholarly class, have little meaning to the common man or woman. Buddhism taught compassion for all life and rebirth via cultivation. There were once many schools of Buddhism, these concerned the different paths of practice. Some like the Huayan (華嚴宗) and the Tiantai (天台宗) schools based their practice on their main text, the Flower Adornment and Lotus Sutras respectively. The Vinaya School was based on rules, however this school no longer exists, but the rules still exists and are still practiced. Ch'an (禪宗) or better known as Zen,is the most well known school of Buddhism and is well known for a type of meditation. Pure Land Buddhism (淨土宗) is the most popular by far as it is the easiest to practice. That is to recite the name of the Buddha. However, that does not mean it is a lesser form of practice, in fact, far from it. People do not visit Buddhist temples for lucky charms, lottery numbers or material gains. They come because Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (Buddhist saints) inspire and guide us. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not gods or deities. Statues and images are there to teach and remind us of perfection or certain noble behaviours.

All religions in China teach followers to be good and do no evil. But different people are attracted to different paths. There is no write or wrong in this. Established temple complexes or monestories are not always found in every town. In many homes, you may find a shelf or a small altar dedicated to a Buddha, Bodhisattva, Daoist deity and a tablet to honour their ancestors. So if you do not have time to visit your temple or that you live far away from your clan. You can fulfil your spiritual duties at home. At certain festivals such as the Chinese New Year or the Birthday of the Buddha, Bodhisattva or deity you are devoted to. Family and friend will meet up.

In virtually all traditional villages, clans have a dedicated ancestral hall to remind the clan of their forefathers and the past glories they had achieved. This hall is sacred and whilst visitors are permitted to have a look around, they are expected to be respectful. This tradition is one that is influenced by Confucianism.

In most towns and villages, there is usually a shrine or a small temple that is usually dedicated to Buddha, Bodhisattva, Daoist deity or somebody of note. Usually a general or somebody who has performed miracles. In terms of generals, Guan DI (關帝) was a historical figure who was better known as a character from the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Guan Di was worshiped as a Daoist deity and a Buddhist Bodhisattva. Confucians hold him in high regard. Guan Di embodied the virtues of righteousness, loyalty and bravery. He was also skilled in literature as he was a warrior. In terms of miracles, there is Mazu (媽祖), often called Goddess of the seas. Mazu is also know as Tian Hou (天后), or Empress of Heaven, is the patron deity of seafarers, fisherman and coastal people. Mazu is widely followed along coastal areas of South China. In my native Hong Kong, there are over a hundred temples dedicated to Mazu. These are normally found in settlements by the coast or near water. But many are also found further inland. When Chinese people emigrated to other parts of Asia, they built temples dedicated to Mazu on land they settled on. Such temples exist in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Japan. Temples dedicated to Mazu also exists in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In China, anybody who has done good deeds and have been recognised are often treated with respect. It is therefore, not unusual for temples to be built in their honour. If miracles occur, they will attract more followers and visitors. One such example was a Japanese pilot Sugiura Shigemine (杉浦茂峰), who got shot down over Taiwan, during the World War Two. He knew he was going to die and knew that being in a built up area, if he crashed there and then resources the locals depend on will be lost. He used up the last of his energy to ditch his plane on an empty field. Such noble acts inspired the locals to build a temple in his honour. He is not just honoured in that part of Taiwan, but also became a deity in his home town in Japan. Deities in China are not all Han Chinese and nor do they have to be Daoists and Buddhists. Daoists who have reached enlightenment are also worshipped in this manner. They might be called a God of something, but they are not God as in the Judeo-Christian sense. They do not rule a heaven or a kingdom, but they are a deity amongst many. As Chinese people emigrate or have contact with people of other cultures. Islam is the most popular religion in China amongst people who aren't Daoists or Buddhist. Islam has been in China longer than Christianity and at one time, there was also sizable community of Chinese Jews.

Whilst temples are usually Buddhist or Daoist, they sometimes tend to combine the two

under one roof. These temples are often run but the a layperson or a priest and would be knowledgeable on general spiritual matters and local traditions. People will worship who they wish and local traditions will vary. Writers in the West often call this kind of arrangement folk religions or a cult, but this is both patronising and ill-informed. Worship and devotion to a deity is based on affinity, conviction and fate. The practice is really not far removed from the worship and devotion to certain Catholic saints in Italy and Southern Europe. Be it the patron saint of a village, town or city, or patron saint of anything else. There are no rules that cut down the line as to who one wishes to believe in or what to believe in. Where can there be harmony if that was the case? Daoism is not about that and Buddhism fits in nicely in this arrangement.

Thank you for reading.

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