The Civilization of China

Author: Herbert Allen Giles

Chapter III Religion and Superstition

The Chinese are emphatically not a religious people, though they are very superstitious. Belief in a God has come down from the remotest ages, but the old simple creed has been so overlaid by Buddhism as not to be discernible at the present day. Buddhism is now the dominant religion of China. It is closely bound up with the lives of the people, and is a never-failing refuge in sickness or worldly trouble. It is no longer the subtle doctrine which was originally presented to the people of India, but something much more clearly defined and appreciable by the plainest intellect. Buddha is the saviour of the people through righteousness alone, and Buddhist saints are popularly supposed to possess intercessory powers. Yet reverence is always wanting; and crowds will laugh and talk, and buy and sell sweetmeats, in a Buddhist temple, before the very eyes of the most sacred images. So long as divine intervention is not required, an ordinary Chinaman is content to neglect his divinities; but no sooner does sickness or financial trouble come upon the family, than he will hurry off to propitiate the gods.

He accomplishes this through the aid of the priests, who receive his offerings of money, and light candles or incense at the shrine of the deity to be invoked. Buddhist priests are not popular with the Chinese, who make fun of their shaven heads, and doubt the sincerity of their convictions as well as the purity of their lives. "No meat nor wine may enter here" is a legend inscribed at the gate of most Buddhist temples, the ordinary diet as served in the refectory being strictly vegetarian. A tipsy priest, however, is not an altogether unheard-of combination, and has provided more than one eminent artist with a subject of an interesting picture.

Yet the ordeal through which a novice must pass before being admitted to holy orders is a severe tax upon nerve and endurance. In the process of a long ritual, at least three, or even so many as nine, pastilles are placed upon the bald scalp of the head. These are then lighted, and allowed to burn down into the skin until permanent scars have been formed, the unfortunate novice being supported on both sides by priests who encourage him all the time to bear what must be excruciating pain. The fully qualified priest receives a diploma, on the strength of which he may demand a day and a night’s board and lodging from the priests of any temple all over the empire.

At a very early date Buddhism had already taken a firm hold on the imagination of Chinese poets and painters, the latter of whom loved to portray the World-honoured One in a dazzling hue of gold. A poet of the eighth century A.D., who realized for the first time the inward meaning of the Law, as it is called, ended a panegyric on Buddhism with the following lines:—

O thou pure Faith, had I but known thy scope,
The Golden God had long since been my hope!

Taoism is a term often met with in books about China. We are told that the three religions of the people are Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, this being the order of precedence assigned to them in A.D. 568. Confucianism is of course not a religion at all, dealing as it does with duty towards one’s neighbour and the affairs of this life only; and it will be seen that Taoism, in its true sense, has scarcely a stronger claim. At a very remote day, some say a thousand, and others six hundred, years before the Christian era, there flourished a wise man named Lao Tzu, which may be approximately pronounced as /Loudza/ (/ou/ as in /loud/), and understood to mean the Old Philosopher. He was a very original thinker, and a number of his sayings have been preserved to us by ancient authors, whom they had reached by tradition; that is to say, the Old Philosopher never put his doctrines into book form. There is indeed in existence a work which passes under his name, but it is now known to be a forgery, and is generally discarded by scholars.

The great flaw in the teaching of the Old Philosopher was its extremely impractical character, its unsuitability to the needs of men and women engaged in the ordinary avocations of life. In one sense he was an Anarchist, for he held that the empire would fare better if there were no government at all, the fact being that violence and disorder had always been conspicuous even under the best rulers. Similarly, he argued that we should get along more profitably with less learning, because then there would be fewer thieves, successful thieving being the result of mental training. It is not necessary to follow him to his most famous doctrine, namely, that of doing nothing, by which means, he declared, everything could be done, the solution of which puzzle of left everybody to find out for himself. Among his quaint sayings will be found several maxims of a very different class, as witness his injunction, "Requite evil with kindness," and "Mighty is he who conquers himself." Of the latter, the following illustration is given by a commentator. Two men meeting in the street, one said to the other, "How fat you have grown!" "Yes," replied his friend, "I have lately won a battle." "What do you mean?" inquired the former. "Why, you see," said the latter, "so long as I was at home, reading about ancient kings, I admired nothing but virtue; then, when I went out of doors, I was attracted by the charms of wealth and power. These two feelings fought inside me, and I began to lose flesh; but now love of virtue has conquered, and I am fat."

The teachings of the Old Philosopher were summed up in the word /Tao/, pronounced as /tou(t)/, which originally meant a road, a way; and as applied to doctrines means simply the right way or path of moral conduct, in which mankind should tread so as to lead correct and virtuous lives. Later on, when Buddhism was introduced, this Taoism, with all its paradoxes and subtleties, to which alchemy and the concoction of an elixir of life had been added, gradually began to lose its hold upon the people; and in order to stem the tide of opposition, temples and monasteries were built, a priesthood was established in imitation of the Buddhists, and all kinds of ceremonies and observances were taken from Buddhism, until, at the present day, only those who know can tell one from the other.

Although alchemy, which was introduced from Greece, via Bactria, in the second century B.C., has long ceased to interest the Chinese public, who have found out that gold is more easily made from the sweat of the brow than from copper or lead; and although only a few silly people now believe that any mixture of drugs will produce an elixir of life, able to confer immortality upon those who drink it; nevertheless, Taoism still professes to teach the art of extending life, if not indefinitely, at any rate to a considerable length. This art would probably go some way towards extending life under any circumstances, for it consists chiefly in deep and regular breathing, preferably of morning air, in swallowing the saliva three times in every two hours, in adopting certain positions for the body and limbs, which are also strengthened by gymnastic exercises, and finally, as borrowed from the Buddhists, in remaining motionless for some hours a day, the eyes shut, and the mind abstracted as much as possible from all surrounding influences. The upshot of these and other practices is the development of "the pure man," on which Chuang Tzu (/Chwongdza/), a Taoist philosopher of the third and fourth centuries B.C., to be mentioned again, writes as follows: "But what is a pure man? The pure men of old acted without calculation, not seeking to secure results. They laid no plans. Therefore, failing, they had no cause for regret; succeeding, no cause for congratulation. And thus they could scale heights without fear; enter water without becoming wet, and fire without feeling hot. The pure men of old slept without dreams, and waked without anxiety. They ate without discrimination, breathing deep breaths. For pure men draw breath from their heels; the vulgar only from their throats."

Coupled with what may be called intellectual Taoism, as opposed to the grosser form under which this faith appeals to the people at large, is a curious theory that human life reaches the earth from some extraordinarily dazzling centre away in the depths of space, "beyond the range of conceptions." This centre appears to be the home of eternal principles, the abode of a First Cause, where perfectly spotless and pure beings "drink of the spiritual and feed on force," and where likeness exists without form. To get back to that state should be the object of all men, and this is only to be attained by a process of mental and physical purification prolonged through all conditions of existence. Then, when body and soul are fitted for the change, there comes what ordinary mortals call death; and the pure being closes his eyes, to awake forthwith in his original glory from the sleep which mortals call life.

For many centuries Buddhism and Taoism were in bitter antagonism. Sometimes the court was Buddhist, sometimes Taoist; first one faith was suppressed altogether, then the other; in A.D. 574 both were abolished in deference to Confucianism, which, however, no emperor has ever dared to interfere with seriously. At present, all the "three religions" flourish happily side by side.

The Chinese believe firmly in the existence of spirits, which they classify simply as good and evil. They do not trouble their heads much about the former, but they are terribly afraid of the latter. Hideous devils infest dark corners, and lie in wait to injure unfortunate passers-by, often for no cause whatever. The spirits of persons who have been wronged are especially dreaded by those who have done the wrong. A man who has been defrauded of money will commit suicide, usually by poison, at the door of the wrongdoer, who will thereby first fall into the hands of the authorities, and if he escapes in that quarter, will still have to count with the injured ghost of his victim. A daughter-in-law will drown or hang herself to get free from, and also to avenge, the tyranny or cruelty of her husband’s mother. These acts lead at once to family feuds, which sometimes end in bloodshed; more often in money compensation; and the known risk of such contingencies operates as a wholesome check upon aggressive treatment of the weak by the strong.

Divination and fortune-telling have always played a conspicuous part in ordinary Chinese life. Wise men, of the magician type, sit at stalls in street and market-place, ready for a small fee to advise those who consult them on any enterprise to be undertaken, even of the most trivial kind. The omens can be taken in various ways, as by calculation based upon books, of which there is quite a literature, or by drawing lots inscribed with mystic signs, to be interpreted by the fortune-teller. Even at Buddhist temples may be found two kidneyshaped pieces of wood, flat on one side and round on the other, which are thrown into the air before an altar, the results—two flats, two rounds, or one of each—being interpreted as unfavourable, medium, and very favourable, respectively.

Of all Chinese superstitions, the one that has been most persistent, and has exerted the greatest influence upon national life, is the famous Wind-and-Water system (/feng shui/) of geomancy. According to the principles which govern this system, and of which quite a special literature exists, the good or evil fortunes of individuals and the communities are determined by the various physical aspects and conditions which surround their everyday life. The shapes of hills, the presence or absence of water, the position of trees, the height of buildings, and so forth, are all matters of deep consideration to the professors of the geomantic art, who thrive on the ignorance of superstitious clients. They are called in to select propitious sites for houses and graves; and it often happens that if the fortunes of a family are failing, a geomancer will be invited to modify in some way the arrangement of the ancestral graveyard. Houses in a Chinese street are never built up so as to form a line of uniform height; every now and again one house must be a little higher or a little lower than its neighbour, or calamity will certainly ensue. It is impossible to walk straight into an ordinary middle-class dwelling-house. Just inside the front door there will be a fixed screen, which forces the visitor to turn to the right or to the left; the avowed object being to exclude evil spirits, which can only move in straight lines.

Mention of the ancestral graveyard brings to mind the universal worship of ancestors, which has been from time immemorial such a marked feature of Chinese religious life. At death, the spirit of a man or woman is believed to remain watching over the material interests of the family to which the deceased had belonged. Offerings of various kinds, including meat and drink, are from time to time made to such a spirit, supposed to be particularly resident in an ancestral hall—or cupboard, as the case may be. These offerings are made for the special purpose of conciliating the spirit, and of obtaining in return a liberal share of the blessings and good things of this life. This is the essential feature of the rite, and this it is which makes the rite an act of worship pure and simple; so that only superficial observers could make the mistake of classifying ancestral worship, as practised in China, with such acts as laying wreaths upon the tombs of deceased friends and relatives.

With reference to the spirit or soul, the Chinese have held for centuries past that the soul of every man is twofold; in a popular acceptation it is sometimes regarded as threefold. One portion is that which expresses the visible personality, and is permanently attached to the body; the other has the power of leaving the body, carrying with it an appearance of physical form, which accounts for a person being seen in two different places at once. Cases of catalepsy or trance are explained by the Chinese as the absence from the body of this portion of the soul, which is also believed to be expelled from the body by any violent shock or fright. There is a story of a man who was so terrified at the prospect of immediate execution that his separable soul left his body, and he found himself sitting on the eaves of a house, from which point he could see a man bound, and waiting for the executioner’s sword. Just then, a reprieve arrived, and in a moment he was back again in his body. Mr. Edmund Gosse, who can hardly have been acquainted with the Chinese view, told a similar story in his /Father and Son/: "During morning and evening prayers, which were extremely lengthy and fatiguing, I fancied that one of my two selves could flit up, and sit clinging to the cornice, and look down on my other self and the rest of us."

In some parts of China, planchette is frequently resorted to as a means of reading the future, and adapting one’s actions accordingly. It is a purely professional performance, being carried through publicly before some altar in a temple, and payment made for the response. The question is written down on a piece of paper, which is burnt at the altar apparently before any one could gather knowledge of its contents; and the answer from the god is forthwith traced on a tray of sand, word by word, each word being obliterated to make room for the next, by two men, supposed to be ignorant of the question, who hold the ends of a V-shaped instrument from the point of which a little wooden pencil projects at right angles.

Another method of extracting information from the spirits of the unseen world is nothing more or less than hypnotism, which has long been known to the Chinese, and is mentioned in literature so far back as the middle of the seventeenth century. With all the paraphernalia of altar, candles, incense, etc., a medium is thrown into a hypnotic condition, during which his body is supposed to be possessed by a spirit, and every word he may utter to be divinely inspired. An amusing instance is recorded of a medium who, while under hypnotic influence, not only blurted out the pecuniary defalcations of certain men who had been collecting in aid of temple restoration, but went so far as to admit that he had had some of the money himself.

This same influence is also used in cases of serious illness, but always secretly, for such practices, as well as dark /seances/ for communicating with spirits, are strictly forbidden by the Chinese authorities, who regard the employment of occult means as more likely to be subversive of morality than to do any good whatever to a sick person, or to any one else. All secret societies of any sort or kind are equally under the ban of the law, the assumption—a very justifiable one—being that the aim of these societies is to upset the existing order of political and social life. The Heaven-and-Earth Society is among the most famous, and the most dreaded, partly perhaps because it has never been entirely suppressed. The lodges of this fraternity, the oath of fidelity, and the ceremonial of admission, remind one forcibly of Masonry in the West; but the points of conduct are merely coincidences, and there does not appear to be any real connexion.

Among the most curious of all these institutions is the Golden Orchid Society, the girl-members of which swear never to marry, and not only threaten, but positively commit suicide upon any attempt at coercion. At one time this society became such a serious menace that the authorities were compelled to adopt severe measures of repression.

Another old-established society is that of the Vegetarians, who eat no meat and neither smoke nor drink. From their seemingly harmless ranks it is said that the Boxers of 1900 were largely recruited.

For nearly twenty-five centuries the Chinese have looked to Confucius for their morals. Various religions have appealed to the spiritual side of the Chinese mind, and Buddhism has obtained an ascendancy which will not be easily displaced; but through all this long lapse of time the morality of China has been under the guidance of their great teacher, Confucius (551-479 B.C.), affectionately known to them as the "uncrowned king," and recently raised to the rank of a god.

His doctrines, in the form sometimes of maxims, sometimes of answers to eager inquirers, were brought together after his death—we do not know exactly how soon—and have influenced first and last an enormous proportion of the human race. Confucius taught man’s duty to his neighbour; he taught virtue for virtue’s sake, and not for the hope of reward or fear of punishment; he taught loyalty to the sovereign as the foundation stone of national prosperity, and filial piety as the basis of all happiness in the life of the people. As a simple human moralist he saw clearly the limitations of humanity, and refused to teach his disciples to return good for evil, as suggested by the Old Philosopher, declaring without hesitation that evil should be met by justice. The first systematic writer of Chinese history, who died about 80 B.C., expressed himself on the position and influence of Confucius in terms which have been accepted as accurate for twenty centuries past: "Countless are the princes and prophets that the world has seen in its time—glorious in life, forgotten in death. But Confucius, though only a humble member of the cotton-clothed masses, remains with us after numerous generations. He is the model for such as would be wise. By all, from the Son of Heaven down to the meanest student, the supremacy of his principles is freely and fully admitted. He may indeed be pronounced the divinest of men."

The Son of Heaven is of course the Emperor, who is supposed to be God’s chosen representative on earth, and responsible for the right conduct and well-being of all committed to his care. Once every year he proceeds in state to the Temple of Heaven at Peking; and after the due performance of sacrificial worship he enters alone the central raised building with circular blue-tiled roof, and there places himself in communication with the Supreme Being, submitting for approval or otherwise his stewardship during the preceding twelve months. Chinese records go so far as to mention letters received from God. There is a legend of the sixth century A.D., which claims that God revealed Himself to a hermit in a retired valley, and bestowed on him a tablet of jade with a mysterious inscription. But there is a much more circumstantial account of a written communication which in A.D. 1008 descended from heaven upon mount T’ai, the famous mountain in Shantung, where a temple has been built to mark the very spot. The emperor and his courtiers regarded this letter with profound reverence and awe, which roused the ire of a learned statesman of the day. The latter pointed out that Confucius, when asked to speak, so that his disciples might have something to record, had bluntly replied: "Does God speak? The four seasons pursue their courses and all things are produced; but does God say anything?" Therefore, he argued, if God does not speak to us, still less will He write a letter.

The fact that the receipt of such a letter is mentioned in the dynastic history of the period must not be allowed to discredit in any way the general truth and accuracy of Chinese annals, which, as research progresses, are daily found to be far more trustworthy than was ever expected to be the case. We ourselves do not wholly reject the old contemporary chronicles of Hoveden and Roger of Wendover because they mention a letter from Christ on the neglect of the Sabbath.

In Chinese life, social and political alike, filial piety may be regarded as the keystone of the arch. Take that away, and the superstructure of centuries crumbles to the ground. When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples to explain what constituted filial piety, he replied that it was a difficult obligation to define; while to another disciple he was able to say without hesitation that the mere support of parents would be insufficient, inasmuch as food is what is supplied even to horses and dogs. According to the story-books for children, the obligation has been interpreted by the people at large in many different ways. The twenty-four standard examples of filial children include a son who allowed mosquitoes to feed upon him, and did not drive them away lest they should go and annoy his parents; another son who wept so passionately because he could procure no bamboo shoots for his mother that the gods were touched, and up out of the ground came some shoots which he gathered and carried home; another who when carrying buckets of water would slip and fall on purpose, in order to make his parents laugh; and so on. No wonder that Confucius found filial piety beyond his powers of definition.

Now for a genuine example. There is a very wonderful novel in which a very affecting love-story is worked out to a terribly tragic conclusion. The heroine, a beautiful and fascinating girl, finally dies of consumption, and the hero, a wayward but none the less fascinating youth, enters the Buddhist priesthood. A lady, the mother of a clever young official, was so distressed by the pathos of the tale that she became quite ill, and doctors prescribed medicines in vain. At length, when things were becoming serious, the son set to work and composed a sequel to this novel, in which he resuscitated the heroine and made the lovers happy by marriage; and in a short time he had the intense satisfaction of seeing his mother restored to health.

Other forms of filial piety, which bear no relation whatever to the fanciful fables given above, are commonly practised by all classes. In consequence of the serious or prolonged illness of parents, it is very usual for sons and daughters to repair to the municipal temple and pray that a certain number of years may be cut off their own span of life and added to that of the sick parents in question.

Let us now pause to take stock of some of the results which have accrued from the operation and influence of Confucianism during such a long period, and over such swarming myriads of the human race. It is a commonplace in the present day to assert that the Chinese are hardworking, thrifty, and sober—the last-mentioned, by the way, in a land where drunkenness is not regarded as a crime. Shallow observers of the globe-trotter type, who have had their pockets picked by professional thieves in Hong-Kong, and even resident observers who have not much cultivated their powers of observation and comparison, will assert that honesty is a virtue denied to the Chinese; but those who have lived long in China and have more seriously devoted themselves to discover the truth, may one and all be said to be arrayed upon the other side. The amount of solid honesty to be met with in every class, except the professionally criminal class, is simply astonishing. That the word of the Chinese merchant is as good as his bond has long since become a household word, and so it is in other walks of life. With servants from respectable families, the householder need have no fear for his goods. "Be loyal," says the native maxim, "to the master whose rice you eat;" and this maxim is usually fulfilled to the letter. Hence, it is that many foreigners who have been successful in their business careers, take care to see, on their final departure from the East, that the old and faithful servant, often of twenty to thirty years’ standing, shall have some provision for himself and his family. In large establishments, especially banks, in which great interests are at stake, it is customary for the Chinese staff to be guaranteed by some wealthy man (or firm), who deposits securities for a considerable amount, thus placing the employer in a very favourable position. The properly chosen Chinese servant who enters the household of a foreigner, is a being to whom, as suggested above, his master often becomes deeply attached, and whom he parts with, often after many years of service, to his everlasting regret. Such a servant has many virtues. He is noiseless over his work, which he performs efficiently. He can stay up late, and yet rise early. He lives on the establishment, but in an out-building. He provides his own food. He rarely wants to absent himself, and even then will always provide a reliable /locum tenens/. He studies his master’s ways, and learns to anticipate his slightest wishes. In return for these and other services he expects to get his wages punctually paid, and to be allowed to charge, without any notice being taken of the same, a commission on all purchases. This is the Chinese system, and even a servant absolutely honest in any other way cannot emancipate himself from its grip. But if treated fairly, he will not abuse his chance. One curious feature of the system is that if one master is in a relatively higher position than another, the former will be charged by his servants slightly more than the latter by his servants for precisely the same article. Many attempts have been made by foreigners to break through this "old custom," especially by offering higher wages; but signal failure has always been the result, and those masters have invariably succeeded best who have fallen in with the existing institution, and have tried to make the best of it.

There is one more, and in many ways the most important, side of a Chinese servant’s character. He will recognize frankly, and without a pang, the superior position and the rights of his master; but at the same time, if worth keeping, he will exact from his master the proper respect due from man to man. It is wholly beside the mark to say that he will not put up for a moment with the cuffs and kicks so freely administered to his Indian colleague. A respectable Chinese servant will often refuse to remain with a master who uses abusive or violent language, or shows signs of uncontrollable temper. A lucrative place is as nothing compared with the "loss of face" which he would suffer in the eyes of his friends; in other words, with his loss of dignity as a man. If a servant will put up with a blow, the best course is to dismiss him at once, as worthless and unreliable, if not actually dangerous. Confucius said: "If you mistrust a man, do not employ him; if you employ a man, do not mistrust him;" and this will still be found to be an excellent working rule in dealings with Chinese servants.


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Chicago: Herbert Allen Giles, "Chapter III Religion and Superstition," The Civilization of China, ed. F. N. Maude and trans. Giles, John Allen, 1808-1884 in The Civilization of China (London: 1911, 1909), Original Sources, accessed July 20, 2024,

MLA: Giles, Herbert Allen. "Chapter III Religion and Superstition." The Civilization of China, edited by F. N. Maude, and translated by Giles, John Allen, 1808-1884, in The Civilization of China, London, 1911, 1909, Original Sources. 20 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Giles, HA, 'Chapter III Religion and Superstition' in The Civilization of China, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, The Civilization of China, 1911, London. Original Sources, retrieved 20 July 2024, from