Religion Is Fine, but Philosophy Is Better

By: Abigail Ulman

December 6, 2017

Although the separation of church and state is enshrined in the United States Constitution, Judeo-Christian influence is overwhelmingly clear throughout American culture and institutions. Judeo-Christian ideas of morality have influenced America’s laws, its architecture has shaped America’s towns, and Christian holidays determine American calendars. Even if you do not practice Christianity in the United States, its influence will still shape your life. The religious right plays a big role in American politics and many religious institutions have their own lobbying arms. People often associate religion in America with politics and conflicts between freedom of religion and personal liberty. Throughout Chinese history, though, religion has never been as important as “思想,” which means a way of thought or a philosophy. Before coming to China, I had of course studied Confucius’ influence and knew the powerful role he played in shaping society. But I did not have much knowledge of Chinese religion, nor its relationship with the government. So when it came time to pick my Hangzhou Studies class topic, where the requirements were to visit a different place in Hangzhou every week to better understand the city we were living in, I chose to study Hangzhou’s religions.

Over the course of six weeks, I visited two Buddhist temples, a monastery and Buddhist school, and three churches. I interviewed Buddhist monks, talked to tourists at the temples, and sat in on a service in Hangzhou’s biggest Protestant church. Experiencing these religions in China completely changed my perception of the relationship between religion and government. As a Communist country, China has no state religion. In fact, the government is explicitly hands-off in relation to religion, and it prefers Chinese families to practice their religion independently and quietly. In a country so tightly controlled by the central government, I was surprised to learn how much relative freedom churches and Buddhist temples had. Each person I talked to in each place of worship had their own opinions on the influence of religion on theirs and Chinese people’s lives. Government had very little involvement in the practice of Buddhism and Christianity. 

Yet despite these religions being such personal practices and not endorsed by the government, I was surprised to see how much influence these religions, especially Buddhism, had on people’s everyday lives. Many Chinese families still consider Buddhism their traditional religion. However, strict Buddhist disciples, who read scriptures every day and religiously adhere to Buddhist guidelines for life, are far outnumbered by those who say they believe in Buddha and burn incense sometimes. Yet despite admitting that they did not fully understand Buddhist philosophy or never had a formal conversion ceremony, every family at the temple knew how to burn incense properly, bow down to the statutes of Bodhisattvas, and not take pictures of Buddha’s likeness. In a country that prizes economic development and Confucianism as a common social philosophy, religion still played a large role. 

My teachers and textbooks often tell us how all of China’s flourishing ages were during its unification, and how periods of fragmentation only weakened the country. There is common consensus that Confucius was one of the biggest contributors to China’s unification and development, and his writings and teachings helped make Chinese society stable and great. While they acknowledge that Buddhism also appealed to many Chinese people over China’s history and greatly influenced Chinese society, this admission is more of an afterthought. However, you can find Buddhist temples in every city, and everyone knows what the three worlds and Buddhist rebirth are. In contrast to America’s noisy religious debates, which invade dinner tables and alienate politics, Buddhism and Christianity in China have quietly become parts of society.

Christianity’s history in China, too, has not always been a story of happiness and Jesus’ teachings. In the early 1900s, Christian missionaries intervened in Chinese political autonomy, and the Boxers burned hundreds of churches and killed thousands of Christians, both Chinese and foreign, during the Boxer Rebellion. But when I interviewed Chinese Christians at Hangzhou’s oldest and earliest churches, they said they had no problem practicing their religion, its development in China was not colonialist, and Chinese people easily accepted Christianity when it was first introduced into the country. The government interfered sometimes, they said, but it was mostly a personal practice. Contrary to my earlier (incorrect) beliefs, Buddhism and Christianity in China continue to flourish. They are just more aspects of China’s rich culture and family life.

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Religion Is Fine, but Philosophy Is Better