Ram Madhav
July 9, 2020

Religions and Society in China

Just completed this 9-week short-lecture course being offered by the National University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. It is an easy and interesting course for those who want to understand the religious history of China and how the atheist China government and the CCP deal with religion in contemporary China.

One thing that strikes prominently is that prior to the 1949 revolution and the emergence of Red China under Red Army, China was almost like India in terms of its religions and traditions. It had its gurus, cults, customs, beliefs, scriptures, rituals, shrines and even superstitions. And what is more interesting is that many of them are identical to Indian religions and practises. Incidentally, like saffron colour for the Hindus, red is considered a sacred colour traditionally by the Chinese.

If we have Dharma here, they had their Dao, which is also called as Tao – The way. We have our religious/mythological deities, so were they. Early Chinese worshipped hundreds of gods including sun, earth, rain, mountains, rivers and clouds, like the Indians. We have our Brahma, they had Pangu – the creator of the universe. We talk of the ‘Sahasra Seersha Purushah’ – supreme being with thousands of heads. The Chinese too have the myth of a hero with thousand faces. Like us, myth is the history for the Chinese also.

China had its first organised religion in the form of Taoism. Later came Confucianism, not as a religion because it rejected other-worldly concepts and rituals, but as a way of life. Buddhism was brought in from India and Sinized. If one goes through the religious literature in China during the 5-10 centuries AD, one finds a lot of traces of Indian religious thought in it, the reason being a deliberate campaign at Sinification of many of the texts that the Buddhist monks brought in from India.

In the CPC-led China, religion is tightly controlled by the state. There are 5 official religious organisations including Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. No outside influence is allowed. Vatican or foreign missionaries are a strict no-go in China. Similarly, the islam is under tight state control so as not to allow any radicalisation.

The CPC promotes atheism in schools but undertakes to “protect and respect religion until such time as religion itself will disappear”. An interesting course to imagine what China would have looked had it not been a Communist country in the last 7 decades.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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