Thoughts on Religion in China

Hey everyone, here’s another article by my coworker Leo on spirituality in China.

Tanning on the Roof

My housemate in Berkeley once told me that if possible, she would tan on the roof of our apartment building every day. Although NorCal weather would never allow her to do so, I still inquired why and found her answer rather surprising. She insisted that in the same way college guys go to the gym not just to be attractive on beach days but simply to feel more manly, she tans not to seduce boys campus-wide but simply to feel more, well, womanly. I think she clearly misjudged the common truth, a bit more so for the guys’ side of the story.

In all seriousness though, she is right in a way. Perhaps two seemingly very different activities—tanning on the roof and going to the gym serve similar purposes for two different groups of people. However, when a man asks a woman whether she pumps iron at the gym, the conversation usually doesn’t last too long. He is “caught up with form and missing essence and purpose”. Confucius said that, and although he is very famous and talked about on television like a celebrity, I do believe he was a smart guy.

So when a westerner asks whether Chinese people have a religion, or whether Chinese people believe in God, he or she is making the same mistake. He is caught up with form and missing essence and purpose. Spiritual believe can take different forms across cultures and this article will not be about what kind of religion is practiced in China, but rather what form religion itself takes here.

Where’s Religion?

While most Chinese people don’t believe in God, we do believe in some form of supernatural deity, and there is a strong and distinct belief that this deity will reward good deeds and punish wrongs. It’s called Lao Tian. Translated literally, it means Old Sky. You can already see that this name is much more ambiguous and implies a much less personified image than does God. The closest concept in western culture is simply, moral justice. Interestingly enough, different deities can govern specific areas of this moral justice.

The good news is, it’s a whole lot easier to point out elements of religion as Westerners know it that AREN'T in mainstream Chinese culture.
Master Guan, a real general 1800 years ago who has been elevated to divinity throughout the ages, is worshipped by businessmen particularly in southern China. Expectedly as the de facto god of business, he rewards honesty, loyalty and brotherhood. As far as I know, Master Guan has no Western equivalent not only because the religious culture is different, but also because the business culture is different. In the West, ideas of loyalty and brotherhood are far less tied to commerce than they are here. In fact, what Master Guan really represents is Yi, a concept that actually has no direct translation in English and roughly means being righteous and remembering the good others did for you. Holy moly, religion, business culture and actual history—it’s all mixed up and very complicated.

Guanyu, religion in China, Chinese spirituality, worship, temple

A statue of Master Guan in his temple.

What is the extent of worship in the particular case of Master Guan? Most typically, business owners who worship Guan put up a foot-tall statue of him in their office or shop. In should be mentioned that over here only a minority of businessman worship Guan and of those that do only a minority truly follow his code of honesty and loyalty in practice. That is part of the reason why Berkeley Sourcing Group exists, of course! The point though is that different forms of belief and worship all serve the purpose of providing moral guidelines for people to live by.

The Good News

Hang in there! The good news is, it’s a whole lot easier to point out elements of religion as Westerners know it that aren’t in mainstream Chinese culture. Here is a list: in mainstream Chinese culture, there is no Unitarianism or a single absolute deity; there is no messenger sent by said deity for the salvation of man; and there is no work equivalent to The Holy Bible or the Qur’an to serve as divine guidance. Then again, looking for specific equivalents like these usually don’t work all that well across cultures. At the end of the day though, it turns out people all over believe in many of the same ideas and values. Some say Confucianism is a religion in China, and my housemate’s take on tanning, gym, form and essence would have made Confucius proud any day. Go figure!

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