In discussing Chinese religion during late-imperial times we should begin with a fundamental understanding: that “religion” as it is commonly defined today in modern, secularized societies — as a domain of thinking and practice concerned only with the “sacred” or the “supernatural” — is incompatible with the way religious thought and practice were construed in traditional China, much less anywhere else in the world until recent times. There was no such thing in traditional China as “religion” in this modern sense, which is largely a product of European “Enlightenment” thinking of the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, the Chinese term for “religion” — zongjiao — is an invention coined in the late 19th century by a Japanese philosopher and later adopted by Chinese intellectuals. The need for the word zongjiao arose because scholars translating Western texts into Japanese and Chinese frequently encountered the word “religion,” a term for which they had no equivalent.
Quite apart from relegating “religious thinking” to a specialized domain, the dominant strands of thought in late-imperial China conceived of an integrated cosmos in which heaven and earth, gods and humans, the living and the dead were all interconnected. In this conception there was no clear separation or even distinction between sacred and profane, divine and ordinary, natural and supernatural; rather, all things were understood in the context of their proper place in this integrated cosmos. (This interconnection can be elaborated even further with the term shen, the various meanings of which illustrate the concept that all things in the cosmos — gods and humans, good spirits and demons — are composed of the same “stuff,” qi.)
This concept of an integrated cosmos was central to religious thinking in late-imperial China; so much so that the cosmos was understood to contain or subsume all things and all traditions, including Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This is quite different from the way many adherents of monotheistic traditions (such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in the modern world conceive of religious identity, wherein each belief system is understood to negate, supersede, or exist in contradiction to all others. In contrast, adherence to a particular religious tradition in late-imperial China did not involve a total or unitary commitment.
For example, a “Confucian” in late-imperial China — someone well-versed in the Confucian texts and deeply committed to the teachings and principles expounded therein — would not have found it problematic to also participate in ritual activities that were Daoist or Buddhist or otherwise linked to popular local practices. In fact, to not do so would have been contradictory, because that would have been akin to removing oneself from full participation in the cosmos, where Confucianism was just one tradition among many. Because all traditions fit into the larger cosmic totality, there was no sense of a person being required to choose any one tradition over another.
As the sociologist C. K. Yang has noted: “In popular religious life it was the moral and magical functions of the cults, and not the delineation of the boundary of religious faiths, that dominated people’s consciousness. Even priests in some country temples were unable to reveal the identity of the religion to which they belonged. Centuries of mixing gods from different faiths into a common pantheon had produced a functionally oriented religious view that relegated the question of religious identity to a secondary place.”
The Ming dynasty work above speaks to this unique relationship amongst the three major traditions in Chinese thought. The scroll was created for a Buddhist ritual but depicts Daoist deities and paragons of Confucian virtue. Learn more about this painting at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ online exhibition, The Art of Asia.