Keyword: Civil Religion in Chinese History

This is one in a series of lexical entries, or keywords, written by the “Religion, Secularism and Political Belonging” project. To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here.

Before discussing civil religion in the Chinese historical context, in accordance with the theme of the Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging project, a look at the concept of “civil religion,” as propagated by Rousseau, should be of some help, since this concept intercepts with all the three key terms.

It follows that it is up to the sovereign to establish the articles of a purely civil faith, not exactly as dogmas of religion but as sentiments of social commitment without which it would be impossible to be either a good citizen or a faithful subject…. While the State has no power to oblige anyone to believe these articles, it may banish anyone who does not believe them. This banishment is not for impiety but for lack of social commitment, that is, for being incapable of sincerely loving the laws and justice or of sacrificing his life to duty in time of need. As for the person who conducts himself as if he does not believe them after having publicly stated his belief in these same dogmas, he deserves the death penalty. He has lied in the presence of the laws.
These are the required dogmas: the existence of a powerful, intelligent Divinity, who does good, has foreknowledge of all, and provides for all; the life to come; the happy rewards of the just; the punishment of the wicked; and the sanctity of the social contract and the laws. As for prohibited articles of faith, I limit myself to one: intolerance. Intolerance characterizes the religious persuasions we have excluded. _(Book IV, Chapter VIII)
  • From Jean ­Jacques Rousseau, Contrat social ou Principes du droit politique, transl. by Henry A. Myers, Paris: Garnier Frères (1800), p. 332, passim.

With Rousseau’s statement as point of departure, we shall see in which ways we may conceive of a kind of civil religion in the context of Chinese history.

Scholars of religion have long been debating whether the term “religion” is a suitable one in discussing the various forms of belief systems found in diverse human societies. By qualifying religion as, say, “Chinese” religion, one is in the risk of creating some misconceptions. First of all, by qualifying “religion” as “Chinese” or “Roman” does not make the question about the meaning of “religion” go away. When terms such as “Chinese religion,” “Roman religion,” or “Japanese religion” are used, are we referring to the same kind of phenomenon that occurred in different regions or cultures, or are we talking about some very different forms of belief systems? There is probably no clear cut answer to such questions, but it is enough to remind us that when considering the use of the term religion, especially in the context of comparing different regions and times, it would be most beneficial if we could always keep a watchful eye, for even the term “belief” could also generate different perceptions.

To give a simple definition that could serve as guideline to our discussion, I propose to see religion as a form of activity and mental attitude that helps the human beings to deal with real or imagined extra-human forces that influence human life. In ancient China, such activities and attitudes left their traces in various forms: archaeological remains, artifacts, and texts. There was, however, no single “Chinese religion,” but a number of different forms of religious activities and beliefs. Prehistoric ritual altars, cult statues, and burials point to ritual activities as a means of communicating with the extra-human forces and expressions of beliefs in life after death. Into the historic period, heavenly bodies, natural phenomena, mountains and rivers, deities, and deceased ancestors, were all considered as having the power to influence human life. Rituals were developed to propitiate these powers, and relationships between human beings and the powers were articulated through various texts.

When states were formed, rulers and elites dominated the worship of heavenly bodies, the earth, the mountain, and the river. Thus there was the “official religion,” which means those forms of religious activities such as performing rituals at the correct time, and building temples and shrines at certain auspicious locations, were supported by government expenditure. The aim of the official cults was to ensure the smooth operation of the regime, peace and prosperity in the country, and of course the wellbeing of the rulers.

At the local, or private level, people engaged in various activities that dealt with numerous spirits and ghosts, including their ancestors. Their concerns were geared toward issues of daily life, with the objective of gaining personal or family welfare. These activities, whether divination, exorcism, offering, prayer, or witchcraft, all operated under the assumption that it was possible for human beings not only to communicate but also to influence the will of those extra-human forces, be they called gods, ghosts, or demons.

It is also important to notice that one should not automatically assume that there was a correspondence between religious beliefs and morality. Ancient Chinese political thinkers indeed developed a certain idea of correlation between human behavior and divine sanction, thus the “mandate of heaven” became known as a sort of divine sanction toward those rulers who acted in accordance to universal justice. This idea would become a most enduring explanation for the vicissitudes of dynastic changes. Yet besides this political theology, there was little in the various pre-Buddhist and pre-Daoist belief systems that connected personal morality with religious activities. What matters was how to perform correct rituals, not to nurture personal virtue. Confucianism may be singled out as representing a belief system built on moral rectitude, yet being an elite philosophy Confucianism could hardly represent the large population and complicated social reality of early China. Thus a distinct character of ancient Chinese religions is the general lack of the idea that the divine powers or spirits are the guardians of human moral behavior.

One very important difference between the belief systems of early China and that of the Western religious traditions, from early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is the general lack of creation mythology and a creator god. (The story of the fashioning of human beings by the goddess Nüwa was late in coming and probably of non-Han Chinese origin.) That is to say, the existence of the world was assumed as autochthonous but not explained as the result of creation, and this had profound implication in the development of the Chinese world view and the position of human beings in the world.

After the Coming of Buddhism at around the 1st Century CE, and the rise of Daoism at the end of the 2nd Century, the religious landscape underwent some important changes. For a long period of time Buddhism, which originated in India and was imported to China, tried to build an autonomous regime outside of the rule of the secular government. They claimed that since the doctrine that they propagated was the ultimate “nothingness” or “illusionary” nature of the material world, they did not belong to this world, thus should not subject to the rule of the secular sovereigns. Yet the effort never succeeded, and over the centuries Buddhist temples were more or less under the nominal protection of the emperor. Several times Buddhists were persecuted by the regime for one reason or another; their eventual acceptance by the Confucianistic secular regime was on the condition that they would not cause any detriment to the government.

Daoism, a native religion developed during the first and second centuries CE, had its roots in ancient Daoist philosophy of Laozi and Chuangzi, and combined with exorcistic practices and beliefs in the existence of ghosts and spirits, and the idea of immortality. It gained the trust of the people for its alleged ability to cure diseases and expel evil spirits, and the promise of a blessed immortality. Yet being a system that grew out of the culture milieu of the empires of Qin and Han, it also received a bureaucratic outlook in that it developed a concept of the heavenly court populated by an increasingly complex set of deities that simulated the secular regime. Thus Daoism was happily in accord with the secular regime, and the secular rulers were usually happy to cooperate with Daoism, letting Daoism to develop its imagined heavenly court, only to receive the blessing and investiture from the emperor. In sum, both Buddhism and Daoism were subject to the control of the secular government, until today.

As for those religious activities that pervaded in society, which Buddhism and Daoism sometimes tried to incorporate and often risked losing their own identity in the process, constituted probably a major portion of the religious life of the common people in traditional China. People were concerned with some specific matters: a good and prosperous life, and a good burial after death. Whatever divine or extra-human forces, including the ancestors, that could help achieve these goals would become the object of worship.

It can be argued that goal of the Chinese religious activities, though not without certain aspiration for a paradise in the west as Buddhism claimed, or an immortal life in Heaven as Daoism propagated, was basically for this worldly happiness, thus for secular reasons. This basic character makes it difficult for these religious establishments to compete with the secular government, which could be described as based on the Confucian premises, that is, it also vowed to protect and enhance the welfare of the people, and was far more powerful than the religious orders.

Throughout Chinese history, from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) onward, when Confucian elites gradually gained access to and control of the right to hold government offices, and the central political ideas of Confucianism were adopted as the major ideological foundation of the government, there was always a tension between the Confucian official-elites and the various religious orders.

From the stand point of the Confucian officials, it was acceptable if people worshiped certain deities and made sacrifices to them, as long as the actions would not disrupt the regular process of economic production and exhaust people’s family fortune, and, of course, not jeopardize public security. But when the religious activities were performed in excess so that normal life and economic activities were affected, the Confucian officials, representing the will of the state, would often try to intervene and curtail the scale and expenditures of these local cults or even to abolish the cults altogether.

The historical development of religion in China was that there was no single church or religious system that had ever obtained enough power that could sway the political or theoretical foundation of the state/dynasty, which was based on a rather stable bureaucracy staffed with an ideologically rather homogeneous group of intellectuals/literati/Confucians/officials. There was therefore never any issue of the church(es) causing problems or competing for power with the state (except occasional “rebellions” by religious groups).

Thus what concerned the state was not so much the content of the religious activities, but the social and economic consequences that they could have brought about. Here one could detect certain similarities with Rousseau’s idea of civil religion, such as social commitment and loving the laws and justice. Most important of all, as Rousseau puts, “it is up to the sovereign to establish the articles of a purely civil faith.” Thus the civil religion as Rousseau sees it has to be first approved by a “secular authority,” unless the sovereign is considered as a divine figure. The Chinese “Son of Heaven” actually fits this double role.

It has been argued that China was, and perhaps still is, a religious state. That is to say, the traditional Chinese government, with the emperor as the Son of Heaven, with the privilege of worshiping Heaven reserved for the emperor, with all the ritual paraphernalia, and most of all, with the power to give and take, could be seen as a religious organization. It controls the major ideology that all under heaven should follow. It demands the absolute loyalty of its people, with the emperor as the supreme head who had absolute power. The emperor is in fact a divine being in action. The state, after continuous imprint of its authority in the mind of the people for over two thousand years, had acquired certain sanctity and irreplaceable importance in the Chinese psyche. The state, therefore, assumed a double identity. On the one hand, it is a secular regime when perceived as an organization and power source for all the worldly activities: economic, political, military, etc. On the other hand, it is also a religious organization, for it is the most revered and obeyed authority in the life of the people, and it provides the most widely accepted center of identity for the people. In a broad stroke, we could say that the Chinese religions, whether Buddhism, Daoism, or the so-called Popular Religion, are secular in that most of their concerns are focusing on this worldly happiness. On the other hand, the Chinese state, although a secular organization in essence, had acquired a religious status in that it commands almost unconditional devotion from its people.

This interpenetration between the secular and the religious—if these two terms could still have some interpretive power—might provide us with some new understanding of the term “civil religion.” It could be understood as a belief system that was initiated by secular authorities for the benefit of protecting civil order and security, yet required or inspired unconditional devotion by the people. It may not exclude other forms of belief systems so long as they do not impinge upon the authority of the civil religion. We could therefore see the Chinese state ideology as a form of civil religion.

This understanding might also lead us to some understanding of the nature of modern nationalism in China. I suggest that modern Chinese nationalism, developed more rigorously after mid-nineteenth century as a reaction to the repressive status that China was subject to after the Opium War, inherited a large share of the sentiment or need for an abstract ideal of the “state” as an object of devotion with religious fever that could substitute the disintegrated Dynasty. Thus nationalism took on a sacred aura that preceded all other kinds of identity markers, religious or not. In this sense, modern Chinese nationalism could be seen as a form of civil religion that occupied a supreme significance above any other forms of religion.

The concept of civil religion, invented by Rousseau as part of his construction of an ideal society, is intimately related to the concept of “civic,” therefore its main concern was about the welfare of the civil society. There has been numerous discussions on this subject, among which Robert Bellah’s seminal paper is most often cited. Bellah defined the religious dimension of American politics thus: “This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling the American civil religion.”[1] Bellah and others had emphasized the political and social aspects of the concept of civil religion, mostly in the context of American history and society, and they see “civil religion” as a one-size-fits-all vague expression of the reverence toward a “Lord-Creator” without specifically mentioning whether this Lord refers to any particular religions. Yet this qualification could not escape the fact that it is still a concept based on the Judeo-Christian understanding of religion, which might not be applicable to other societies in other times and places. The Chinese case discussed above gives us a chance to reconsider the concept of civil religion, and its usefulness in the study of history and society, ancient or modern.


  1. Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus, 117.3 (Summer, 1988), pp. 97–118.  ↩