Why are the Chinese atheists?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:18 pm

Sam Crane, at Useless Tree, comments on the recent study that shows that China has a higher percentage of atheists than anyplace else in the world. Sam suggests that part of the reason for this is that atheism is not really the thing to be asking about. There is a long tradition in China, going way back, of believing in things like Confucianism, which is maybe not a religion. He’s right that asking Chinese if they are ‘confirmed atheists’ is probably the wrong question. The original WaPo piece is probably also correct in saying that the Taiping rebellion and the Communists have something to do with it, which is true enough but misses a lot.

Possibly the most important reason that so many Chinese identify as ‘atheists’ is not the history of ‘Confucianism’ throughout the 5000 years of Chinese history, but the complex history of Chinese religion in the 20th century. By far the best introduction to this is Goossaert and Palmer’s The Religious Question in Modern China. It’s a really good book, that contains far more than I could ever put in this blog post, but one of its themes is how the Chinese state, and especially the party-state (KMT or CCP) tried to harness, improve, or eliminate religion as part of creating a new China. One aspect of this was the idea that traditional Chinese forms of religion were an embarrassment in the eyes of foreigners. G and P….

A particularly telling case of such sensitivity is Kang Youwei’s utterance: “Foreigners come in our temples, take photographs of the idols, show these photographs to each other and laugh.” This sentence was later copied verbatim in the introduction to the most important and famous antisuperstition law of the Nationalist government, the 1928 “Standards to determine the temples to be destroyed and those to be maintained.

So if you want to understand the problems that Chinese had in fitting their ideas about religion into a context where the word atheism would make sense, you should read the book. If all you need is a good quote on the importance of impressing foreigners with China’s religious ideas this blog post should do.




Teachers as sages. Also, Tibet

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:55 pm

Here is something wonderful from Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West1 If you have not read it, it is a very good book on what ‘Tibet’ has meant to the West, written by a leading Tibet scholar. One set of books that he deals with are the works of T. Lobsang Rampa. Rampa was a Tibetan Lama whose 1956 autobiography The Third Eye was an important part of the popularization of ideas about Tibet. Lopez points out that many professional Tibetologists first became fascinated with Tibet after reading this book. Later editions contain prefaces denying rumours that Rampa was actually a Devonshire man named Cyril Henry Hoskin who had never been to Tibet. These rumours do not seem to have hurt sales of his books to Westerners seeking Tibetan wisdom, however. Lopez, who apparently has a sense of humour as well as being a great scholar, assigned The Third Eye to his students at the University of Michigan.

.. having them read it without telling them anything of its history. (The edition currently available in the United States for some reason omits the “Statement by the Author.”) The students were unanimous in their praise of the book, and despite six prior weeks of lectures and readings on Tibetan history and religion (including classics such as R. A. Stein’s Tibetan Civilization), they found it entirely credible and compelling, judging it more realistic than anything they had previously read about Tibet, appreciating the detail about “what Tibet was really like,” giving them “a true understanding about Tibet and Buddhism.” Many of the things they had read about Tibet seemed strange until then; these things seemed more reasonable when placed within the context of a lama’s life. It is not that the things Rampa described were not strange; it was that they were so strange that they could not possibly have been concocted. When I told them about the book’s author, they were shocked, but immediately wanted to separate fact from fiction. How much of the book was true?
With the author unmasked they awoke from their mystified state, and with eyes opened turned away from Rampa and toward me for authority. Each of their questions began, “Did Tibetans really … ?” “Did Tibetans really perform amputations without anaesthesia, with the patients using breath control and hypnotism instead?” “Did monks really eat communally and in silence while the Scriptures were read aloud?” “If a monk violated the eightfold path, was he punished by having to lie motionless face down across the door of the temple for a full day, without food or drink?” “Are the priests in Tibet vegetarian?” “Did priests really only ride white horses?” “Were horses really only ridden every other day?” “Did acolytes really wear white robes?” “Did cats really guard the temple jewels?” 23 “At the New Year’s festival, did monks really dress as giant buddhas and walk through the streets on stilts?” “Were there really  man-bearing kites in Tibet?” And of course, “Did they really perform the operation of the third eye?”
The answer to each of these questions was no. But by what authority did I confidently make such a pronouncement? I had not lived in old Tibet and so could not contradict Rampa’s claims with my own eyewitness testimony. It was, rather, that I had never seen any mention of such things in any of the books that I had read about Tibet-in English, French, or Tibetan. From reading other books, I had learned the standards of scholarly evidence, the need for corroboration by citing sources in footnotes.24 And because I had read a sufficient number of such books, I was awarded a doctorate some years ago, and with the proper documents in my possession to prove my identity had been given the power to consecrate and condemn the products of others, and the power to initiate others into this knowledge. This power, the power to speak both with authority and as an authority, that is, the power to bestow value, had been passed on to me by my teachers, who had in turn received it from their teachers. It was this power that was embodied in my “no.” But this power had come at a price. For by accepting this power I had had to forever disavow any interest in the possible commercial profits that might derive from my work. It was necessary that I renounce any self-interest in the economic value of my work, exchanging such capital for something higher and more noble because it was severed from crass material interests. This was symbolic capital, which would in its own way provide for my financial security by insuring that I would never have to offer my services to a publisher as a ghostwriter in order to support my wife and my cat, as Cyril Hoskin had done. The work of scholarship, like the work of art, retains its aura only when it is not reproduced too widely. Were it to sell a million copies, its aura of authority would fade.


This is a nice bit of writing that says a lot about the nature of teacherly authority. Obviously, Lopez needs to follow this up with a blazing example of his expertise, and he does.

It is not that Rampa’s claims can be dismissed because they are too strange. Had his research extended to include Evans-Wentz’s Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, he would have learned about ‘pho ba, or “transference of consciousness,” one of the six teachings of the tenth-century Indian tantric master Naropa (Na ro chos drug), whereby one can transfer one’s own consciousness into that of another being  (preferably a well-preserved corpse). The most famous case of consciousness transference in Tibetan literature is found in the biography of Marpa (Mar pa, 1012-1096), the teacher of Tibet’s great yogin Milarepa. Marpa’s son, Darmadoday (Dar rna mdo sde), after fracturing his skull in an equestrian accident, transferred his consciousness into the body of a recently deceased pigeon, since no human corpse could be found on short notice. The bird was then given directions by Marpa for flying across the Himalayas to India, where it discovered the fresh corpse of a thirteen- year-old brahman boy; the bird transferred its consciousness into the boy and then expired. The boy rose from the funeral pyre prior to his immolation and grew up to become the great yogin Tipupa (Ti phu pa). 26 Compared to this a Tibetan taking over the body of an unemployed Englishman seems rather mundane.

  1. University of Chicago Press, 1999 []


Very superstitious

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:01 pm

Above is a charm carried by a Chinese soldier in 1938, re-printed in the journal Youth Front in 1938. It seems to be a Communist publication, although this being the period of the United Front it is pretty mild in its communism, calling for the unity of all groups and parties in opposing the Japanese. In any case, both the Nationalists and the Communists were, as good children of May 4th, opposed to superstition. The article praises both freedom of religion and the contributions religious groups had made to the war effort.1 Still, given China’s long history of corrupt government and uneven education superstition (presumably meaning religious views that did not count as proper religion) was quite common. Even the Japanese ridiculed these charms.

“It is laughable that they carry these charms, showing not only that they fear death, but how badly they need to die. These charms also show why our brave soldiers kill them so easily.”

Always good to be able to cite an (unnamed) enemy source on topics like this. Of course the charms don’t work and may actually do harm. This one, like most, was to be written on paper, then burned and drunk with water. Charms like this were an old part of Chinese popular religion. The Boxers had ones that would make you immune to bullets. This one reveals something about the anti-Japanese resistance of Chinese soldiers/militia/whoever, as it will make it possible for you to go without eating for ten days. The article says that this is laughable. but I might go with tragic instead.


from 青年战线 No 1, 1938, p.20


  1. Gregor Benton has a lot of nice stuff on the Communists and religious groups in New Fourth Army []


Zhong Kui comes to Sunnydale High

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:22 pm


I try to keep my posts to this blog to at least a minimal level of scholarly-ness. At the very least I try to avoid doing too many posts on weird Chinese English. Not that there is anything wrong with them, but there is a time and a place for everything. Plus if I start making fun of people’s English then the comments may fill up with odd quotes from things I have written in Chinese.

However…. When I was in Pingyao, Shanxi (which is worth visiting, by the way) I went to the city-god temple. They had a shrine to Zhong Kui, the demon queller, which was not much of a surprise.

The statue is undistinguished, and does not look very old. The sign, however, is great. In English it identifies him as

“Zhong Kui, the popular beliefs of the Han ethnic areas folk,1 is one of the Taoist God solely primarily of Buffy the governance ghosts, evil spirits exorcism of God….”

The Chinese text does not mention Buffy, so I’m guessing this is a Google translate error of some sort.




  1. It is interesting that the more recent signs at Chinese sites treat the Han just like any other ethnic group. []


Tonghak and Taiping

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:45 pm

I was struck, preparing for class yesterday, that the Tonghak and Taiping faiths were surprisingly similar and arose nearly simultaneously: Syncretic monotheistic faiths drawing on Confucian, Christian and indigenous magical traditions, with anti-foreign reformist programs and a counter-cultural ethos of equality.1 There are obvious differences, too, in teachings and in the leadership, but the structural similarities raise some interesting possibilities for research and teaching.

I’m not the first person to have this insight apparently, though it doesn’t look (from what little I can tell from these links) like there’s any hint of direct connection between them. I’m a little surprised, frankly, that World History textbooks (which love those kinds of parallel moments) haven’t picked up on it. Of course, Korea’s place in World History textbooks overall is pretty pitiful at the moment and the Taiping movement rarely gets more than passing mention in an already busy and traumatic Chinese 19th century. With the rise of religious history, it seems likely that these issues might come closer to the forefront, though, and I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there does something with this confluence.

  1. The Japanese “New Religions” of the 19th century are very heavily Shinto-influenced, with some Buddhism and almost no Christianity, nor did any of them become political movements. It’s not the same. []


What do you really think Mr. Jiang?

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 2:50 am

Chinese museums are one of the best places to look at the changing interpretation of historical figures and events. Last weekend I went to Famen temple outside Xian. This was a fairly major temple in the Tang, being much visited by emperors, but by the Song they were supporting themselves by offering baths in a pool that seated up to 1000 and holding tea parties. The main pagoda was rebuilt in the early Ming, but the place seems to have declined a lot by then.

That all changed in 1981,when half of the Ming pagoda collapsed.Collapse

When digging out the foundation to re-build the pagoda they found the relic the temple was originally built around, a bone of the Buddha, inside a series of ornate caskets and accompanied by a bunch of other neat stuff. It is a really magnificent find, and it was nice to see some of these things in person.


Of course this changed the temple’s position in the Buddhist world radically. In addition to re-building the pagoda a huge new Buddhist center was built next to it. You need a better camera than mine to do it justice. You come in through a massive golden gateway, which makes you expect to see Cecil B. DeMille around somewhere.


It is a long walk to the main hall, and most people take the trolley. You whiz past a series of 3-story tall golden fiberglass1 Buddhas that represent the different sects of world Buddhism, and get to the main hall, which is in the shape of a pair of praying hands, and was designed by a Taiwanese architect. I suspect a lot of Taiwanese and Japanese money went into this place. They bought out an entire village to get the land, and the villagers mostly work in the temple cleaning up or whatever. The one I talked to got 600 yuan and 3 days off a month. The place is not entirely finished yet, and when it is done there will be a Buddhist retreat center and they hope to rival the Terracotta Warriors as the biggest tourist draw in the province.


What really interested me, of course, were the relics and the museum. The presentation was a little schizophrenic, perhaps because current policy is a little schizophrenic. On the one hand China is still officially more or less atheist. On the other hand, Buddhism is part of China’s 5000 glorious years of glorious culture. How to deal with this?

Not all the relics were there, but those that were were mostly presented as examples of the exquisite craftsmanship and high technology of China. There is also a fair amount about Buddhism. In discussing the Tang emperor’s worship of the bone the text mentions that it had the beneficial effects of solidifying state power, (always an unalloyed good), 凝聚人心 (which they translate as “increasing the cohesive force of the Chinese nation”) and spreading culture. On the other hand it also led to a great waste of society’s resources, and also increased the people’s religious fanaticism. These critiques sound eerily similar to Han Yu’s criticism of the finger bone when it was first brought to Chang-an. As a good Neo-Confucian Han Yu thought Buddhism complete nonsense that deluded the people

Of course Han Yu was not reckoning with the power of the tourist dollar, and he also had a somewhat different view of what is worth preserving in Chinese culture than the current government does. The Nationalist general who restored the temple in 1939 is praised in the exhibit, as is the monk who burned himself to death to protect it during the Cultural Revolution. The monk probably had a religious view of the place, and the general a cultural one. The latter seems more of a fit with the current interpretation. There is, of course, an inscription by Jiang Zemin, done when he came here in 1993. He encourages them to use the cultural relics that have been unearthed to expand Chinese culture and strengthen the spirit of patriotism. Apparently as long as religion is subsumed in culture and culture is put in the service of the nation, the Buddha is just alright.Jiang

  1. I assume []


Male and female lightly engaged in erotic excess

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 1:12 am

The behavior of the people, the cosmic order, and the stability of the state were all linked in traditional Chinese political theory. Disorder in one would lead to disorder in the others. This cosmology had been pretty much worked out by the Han Dynasty. A good illustration of this principle comes from Commands and Admonitions for the Families of the Great Dao dating from 2551

Formerly, during the latter generations of the Han house, strong men began to carve up the empire. The mighty encroached upon the weak, and the people became deceitful and shrewd. Male and female lightly engaged in erotic excess. The government could not relieve the situation and families did not impose prohibitions. Cities were plundered and the common people were victims of injustice, even to the extent of being made slaves. The people were being devoured )ust as mulberry leaves are consumed by silkworms, and because of their grievances they began to consider revolt.

The pneumas [emanating from) their resistance blocked the heavens. This caused the five planets to depart from their measured movements, aphelial and parhelial comets to sweep the skies, and the fire star to depart from its position as adjunct. Then powerful ministers began to fight among themselves and hosts of treacherous people led one another [in rebellion].

After more than a hundred years, the Wei house received the mandate of Heaven and eradicated all of these evils. Calendrical signs showed that this was so. Their ascension was-recorded in the River [Chart} and the Luo [River Writings} and in other portents suspended in the heavens.  Conforming to the celestial dispensation and the propitious times, I received the mandate to be Master of the Kingdom. The Martial Thearch [Cao Cao] launched the empire.

If anyone is wondering, the reason I keep posting all these little quotes and stuff for use in class is so that future teachers of Chinese history will know where to find them. The main future person I want to be able to find them is me, since the web seems a better place to keep ones notes than a hard drive.

  1. translated Stephen Bokenkamp in Early Daoist Scriptures,  p.179 []


Heartland Mandala

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:01 pm

I was surprised to learn, about ten days ago, that PSU was going to be hosting a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala. This is a touring company, but somehow they ended up in Pittsburg, Kansas in the run-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s uprising. There was no political commentary around it, as near as I can tell. The school newspaper and city paper reported on it, but didn’t make a big deal about the anniversary. It wasn’t entirely apolitical: The Pittsburg Morning Sun did quote the monks on the subject of the Chinese takeover and subsequent Tibetan cultural endangerment. But the opening invocation, which I attended, included no mention of that; there was a prominent altar with a picture of the Dalai Lama, though.

Unfortunately, I fell ill a few hours after the opening ceremony on Monday1 so I only got pictures of the very first moments of creation — I love the traditional-style plumb-line — and of the nearly-completed mandala on Thursday. I haven’t seen these up close before, and if I’d been healthier I would have gotten more pictures, but I was struck by the texture of the mandala. I’m used to seeing these as two-dimensional images, but the sand is actually laid out in little piles and walls (see here for a detail shot), in a very intricate fashion.

It was, apparently, a variation on the Amitayus Mandala (see also), centered on Amitabha (aka Amida), and emphasizing healing and wisdom. Here are some of the better pictures I did manage under the fold:

  1. I hope my students don’t make the connection between the “driving out of evil forces” and my absence! []

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