Chinese Religion Redux

As Cold War propaganda in the West would have it, communist states were to be despised because they were atheist and Godless. The reality, however, was quite different. In the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church never went away and popular belief was often at odds with official state doctrine. It is doubtful that the 70% of Russians who identify themselves as Russian Orthodox got their religion only after the Soviet Union collapsed. A lingering effect of this propaganda is that “communist” Chinese must also be irreligious. Although accurate statistics are hard to come by, the rich history of religion in China makes this quite unlikely.

This history is long, complicated, and fascinating. There are written records going back to the Shang Dynasty which began in 1766 BC. For Westerners accustomed to thinking that 2,000 years of Christian history is ancient and Americans who think that 1776 AD was a long time ago, the time depth of Chinese civilization and religion must be awe inspiring.

In a recent post, I touched on one of the more notable aspects of Chinese religiosity: ancestor worship. While this is a prominent aspect of Chinese religions (acknowledged in the Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions) another major theme is cosmological, involving what the Chinese call “Heaven.” There is a force or potency in the cosmos that gives rise to all things and which governs everything on earth. This potency is cyclic, and under ideal circumstances there is a balance or equilibrium that results in fertility and stability.

As Howard Smith observes in “Divine Kingship in Ancient China,” Chinese cosmological monism stands in sharp contrast to Western cosmological dualism:

The universe as a whole was referred to as “heaven and earth.” Man must assist, by means of religious ceremonies, the yang forces to overcome the yin forces in the spring and early summer, but he must help the yin to rise to ascendancy in autumn and winter.

These two forces, which permeated all natural phenomena, and by their constant interaction caused all things to subsist, arose out of a primaeval cosmic unity. Neither of these two forces were conceived of in China in personalized terms, as in Mesopotamia, and there did not develop in China the concept of a cosmic struggle between the powers of light and darkness, resulting in the final triumph of the forces of light.

Whatever dualism existed in Chinese thought was a dualism of complementary forces which worked to produce cosmic harmony, and not a dualism of antagonistic forces bent on each other’s destruction.

Although some scholars of ancient Chinese religion cite ancestor worship as being older than cosmological monism, I suspect the reverse is true. This way of conceptualizing the workings of the cosmos is quite characteristic of hunter-gatherers and shamanic naturalism; the idea is ancient and when it appears (however transformed) in post-Neolithic traditions, it is akin to a “survival.” We see examples of this in the North American Trickster traditions. The culture-hero or trickster, who is often considered to be the creator, embodies both good and bad; the two are inextricably intertwined and one cannot exist without the other.

As far as cosmologies go, dialectical monism strikes me as being more sophisticated — and consonant with evolutionary biology — than the reductive dualism which divides all things into binaries and assigns values to each. This kind of normative or Manichean dualism is of course most prominent in the monotheistic traditions.


Smith, D. (1957). Divine Kingship in Ancient China Numen, 4 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3269343

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6 thoughts on “Chinese Religion Redux

  1. Gregory Levitsky

    To the author:
    Unfortunately, your introductory paragraph employs extremely flawed logic. As a Russian who grew up in the “Diaspora” due to religious persecution in the USSR, I can tell you with certainty that the USSR was a violently atheistic state. In the Russian SFSR alone, the Orthodox Church went from 30,000 to 500 churches in the period between the Revolution and WWII. Anti-Christian propaganda continued virtually unabated from 1953 until Gorbachev.
    The reason ~70-80% of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians is because of a concerted effort by the Russian Orthodox Church to link ethnic and cultural identity with religious identity. While there is absolutely merit to this (Russian culture would be an empty shell of nesting dolls and tea if one were to remove all Orthodox influences), there are significant problems with it, as well: namely, of that ~70-80%, only 10% attend church services with any regularity, while only 2% attend weekly, observe the fasts, and can answer questions regarding their faith with any surety.
    As an Orthodox Christian myself, these statistics bring me no pride, but it is important to understand the dark and lasting legacy of Soviet Communism. The real reason so many people identify with Orthodoxy today is because they are searching for a national identity, like what they had in Marxism prior to 1991, not because they “found God.” Russians have a long, long way to go before they get to that point.

  2. admin Post author

    I certainly have no expertise in this area and will defer to you. Thank you for sharing this with us. I was simply relying on some commonly available statistics (which aren’t very good), and the widespread notion that despite Soviet repression, religiosity in the USSR was alive and well. I spent several weeks in the USSR in 1985 and saw this myself, but anecdotal evidence is never sufficient. Your points are well taken. So while my facts may have been wrong (thus flawing the premise), the logic wasn’t all bad, right?!

    In addition, I wonder whether you might send me an email so I can ask you some questions relevant to my research and which might result in some kind of a question/interview session on the blog. If you are willing, you can email me here:

  3. Sabio Lantz

    Agreeing with what I see as the main point of your post:
    My kids love the anime by Hayao Miyazaki and love making it available to them precisely because of the blur mixing of good and bad in his various characters.

    Though I must confess at loving Star Trek , Star Wars , Westerns and such Manichean plots, I can enjoy them more fully when Miyazki’s voice is clearly present also.

    Religion as a Tool
    Concerning Russia: I enjoyed Gregory’s correction (though I feel there is no god to find). For certainly one use of religion is to add identity & bonding which are very valuable in unstable settings.

    [Darn, I wish there was a “follow” option here. I will never know if someone responded to this. Sniffle. :-) ]

  4. Sabio Lantz

    I think one of the possible take home messages of this post is the voice of non-dualism. My kids hear the voice of non-dualism by watching the anime of Hayao Miyazaki whos characters are a blur of good and bad.

    I confess to loving Manichean plots of Westerns, Star Wars, Star Trek and more, but they are easier to enjoy fully with the voice of Miyazaki behind them.

    Function of Religion
    I enjoyed Gregory’s correction of the Russian history in saying that most of the religious numbers is simply the result of religion being used as a tool to garner identity and bonds in a chaotic, unstable society — this is a major function employed often by religions. I do, however, disagree with Gregory that some real god is waiting to be found Russians.

  5. Tim

    The current day Chinese seem to be happily without religion , at least from my association with students and youth from city environments….I see no longing for return to old religions…

  6. Cris Post author

    Good statistics from China are lacking, but supernaturalism seems to be thriving in rural areas. And even in urban areas, there is a big difference between public participation in formal religion and private beliefs or practices. In Europe, for example, where so many people are supposed to be without religion, more subtle measures of religiosity show that belief is quite prevalent.

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