religions in China: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism

To one who is used to the more or less tidy compartments of religion in the West, and on that analogy has little difficulty in finding his way about Islam, or even Hinduism, the question of what a man's religion is in China is at first rather confusing. One is generally told that there are three religions in China: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, but one soon finds that more often than not a man cannot be labelled as belonging to one or the other, but may very well have in his make-up beliefs attributable to all three.

Treatises on Taoism, Confucianism or Buddhism are easily enough available, but anyone with an inquiring turn of mind will feel as frustrated as I did by the difficulty of discovering how the many things of a plainly religious character fit in.

One of the first things I noticed was a little shrine at the threshold of almost every shop. There you will see either a wooden tablet painted with a few characters in gold, or perhaps just a piece of paper with the characters printed on it. Before it is some small vessel with joss-sticks. Joss-sticks are always burnt in threes, and candles, so much used in temples, in pairs.

This is the shrine of the Land God, To Tei, one of the most popular gods. He sits at the door of your house to protect it. In the New Territories a larger edition of him is always to be found at the entrance to a village, and generally he is represented by a smooth stone, though sometimes in idol form. Every death of an adult in the village has to be promptly reported to him and he is often asked to protect children. Their names are written on a piece of red paper which is placed in his shrine with food, wine and incense.

To Tei is generally said to be Taoist, and as Taoism is a philosophy of nature in which man takes his place as part of the landscape with the rocks, the trees, the animals and birds and butterflies, the conception of To Tei fits into the picture well enough. I felt, however, that To Tei, like so many other features of Chinese religion, was something older than any philosopher's creed and belonged in fact to the religion of man's infancy, the almost instinctive beliefs with which primitive man is endowed.

Another god who is common to almost every Chinese home is Tso Kwan, the Kitchen God. His shrine is usually in a niche near the stove, represented by golden characters on a red tablet. He is considered to be fat and jovial as a result of good living, but is of great importance because once a year he visits the other gods to report on the behaviour of all the members of the household. Before he sets out on New Year's Eve the family regale him with a feast when large quantities of honey are given to him. This is to try and seal his lips or at least to make him utter only honeyed words. Crackers are fired to drive away demons, and on his return four days later he is welcomed with an abundance of good things. His tablet or picture is reinstated with bowings and the burning of incense.

Getting faded, worn and tattered as the year goes by, but renewed when the New Year comes along, there are to be found on many of Hong Kong's double doors the pictures of Ngai Ching and Wat Yun, the Door Gods. The former was a military man, the latter a civilian, and according to legend the Emperor Tai Tsung on being taken ill declared he was afraid to remain alone at night because of the demons, so these two offered to be his guardians. To commemorate this the Emperor had their portraits elaborately coloured and pasted on to the palace doors to ward off evil spirits.

Another very popular god is Kwan Tai, the God of War. He is particularly popular because he does not want to wage war but to prevent it. In A.D. 170, during his life on earth, Kwan Tai and three others took an oath to live or die together fighting the Yellow Turban rebels who brought about the overthrow of the Han dynasty. During the Tai Ping rebellion a vision of Kwan Tai, wearing a glittering helmet and with a fierce aspect, led armed hosts to the support of a city threatened by the rebels, who were so terrified that they fled. Kwan Tai was awarded the title of Kwan--the Sage--by the Manchus as a token of gratitude. Kwan Tai also symbolizes loyalty. He is therefore found as the patron of thieves and smugglers (to prevent their betraying one another), and because he wards off war, carpenters keep him in their shops lest any of them use the tools as weapons.

These are the gods most commonly to be found in shops and homes, but there are many others. We were told there is 'a god of almost anything--of the kitchen, of the land, of the water, of lavatories, and of keeping babies from falling off chamber-pots'!

Many Europeans buy figures as ornaments not knowing them to be gods, and about the most familiar of them are Lao Sze Shin, the god of longevity, with an amusingly elongated skull and usually represented holding an almond, symbol of long life, and the god of literature, Yuen Chong. He stands with one foot on the head of a monster (ignorance) and holds a pen in his outstretched hand. Others of this category are Chu Pat Kwai, the pig-faced god, who symbolizes man's struggle with his conscience. Chu was banished to earth for drinking to excess and by mistake entered the body of a sow. He went with a Buddhist saint to India to fetch the sacred books of Buddhism and was rewarded by admission to paradise. Shun Hang Che, the monkey god, remarkable for his ingenuity, also went to India for the sacred books and was similarly allowed into paradise on his return. Sha Chang, the black-faced one, acted as baggage carrier on the journey to India for the Buddhist books. He is regarded as symbolizing the weakness of human character.

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