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The Impact Of Different Religions On Chinese Society And Culture

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Culture is defined as the social norms for human societies. What makes up a society’s culture, however, can vary. For the purpose of this paper, religion is one aspect with a large impact on culture. Religions, whether theistic or not, contain guidelines, messages, ideals, morals, and ethics which can be seen reflected within a culture. Religion has aided in the cultivation of human societies cultures, by providing the basis of a culture; social norms. Social norms -as used in the definition for culture- can translate to a variety of meanings. A social norm is an aspect seen common within a culture, and acts as an informal rule for a society. Social norms can be represented in a physical manner, for example traditional dress. However, it can also represent an aspect of culture which is un-tangible, such as ideologies and ethics. The culture of a society thus represents the majority of the population, both in a physical manner and not. For the purpose of this paper, I will be focusing primarily on the norm on ethical viewpoints, and the social and cognitive processes of individuals within a society, specifically Chinese society and culture. An analysis of the role of indigenous religions within modern Chinese culture will demonstrate the extent to which religion impacts culture, and thus individual viewpoints.

Chinese culture is a prime example of how deeply religion can impact a society and its culture. Chinese indigenous religions: Buddhism, Taoism, parts of Confucianism, and Chinese-folk each contribute to modern Chinese culture. This paper will focus on how they contribute to the Chinese people’s ecological and ethical views.

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The role of religions in China

Before understanding how China’s indigenous religions have contributed to China’s positive ecological changes and goals, it is first important to understand the role each religion plays within the culture. Each religion- Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism- have deep roots in Chinese culture, and remains prevalent within modern Chinese culture. This prevalence exemplifies the extent to which these religion’s ecological beliefs truly impact the majority of the Chinese citizen’s ethical views in regards to ecology. Thus, understanding how relevant each religion is in modern China, gives a clear idea of the impact these religions can have.

A rise in indigenous religion in China

According to data collected by the Council on Foreign Relations, the number of followers for Taoism, Buddhism, and Chinese-folk religionists have been on the rise in recent years. Chinese-Folk religion, with the highest growth, is a blend of China’s local folk beliefs as well as China’s three main religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and the religious aspects of Confucianism. Because Chinese- Folk religion contains aspects from each religion, it acts as a good representation of the overall beliefs found throughout the Chinese people. Religions faced a dark time in China in the 1970’s, as China’s communist leader, Mao Zedong, called for the Cultural Revolution. During the revolution, Taoist temples were destroyed, many religious followers were persecuted, and Buddhist monasteries faced destruction. Despite the destruction China’s religions faced during Zedong’s reign, they are now making a comeback. In Ian Johnson’s New York Times article, The Rise of the Tao, Johnson emphasizes this rise, saying, “the Chinese are in the midst of a great awakening of religious belief.”

Taoism’s relevance in modern Chinese culture

The number of followers to a religion does not completely depict the extent to which religion is prevalent within modern China. Religion can also be seen to have had a cultural impact historically, which continues to have an impact today. While many of China’s indigenous religions are booming, Taoism statistically has the least amount of followers, as seen on the Council on Foreign Relations data on religion over time in China. However, Taoism does hold an important place within Chinese culture, and this is due to the religion’s historical significance. Taoism was at one point a thriving religion within China. Alongside Buddhism, and Confucian teachings, there were periods in Chinese history in which Taoism reigned as the principal religion. Specifically, Taoism reached its peak of significance within China among the Tang Dynasty, lasting between 618-906 CE. This period proves to play an important role due to history’s impact on modern day society. As Nathan Nunn, a professor at Harvard University writes in his article, Culture and the Historical Process, “Recent research has put forth statistical evidence showing that historical events can have long-term impacts that continue to be felt today”. The Chinese people do not need to identify as Taoist, however the teachings and beliefs can be found deeply rooted in modern China, and this is primarily due to Taoism’s history, despite the fact that it has been decades since it last thrived. Through Taoism’s place in Chinese history, pieces of the religion can be found in modern China. For example, in festivals. Some of China’s most notable, and most celebrated festivals, the Lantern festival and the Dragon Boat festival, both originate from Taoism, and feature many ancient traditions.

Although originating from Taoism, many locals also conduct Buddhist practices during these occasions. China’s festivals serve as an ongoing example of how all of China’s indigenous religions, even those least practiced, continue to live on within modern Chinese culture. An expert on religion at Chengdu’s Academy of Social Sciences, Professor Li Yuanguo says, “Taoism has spread its tentacles everywhere… It defines the relationships between individual humans, and between humankind and nature. That’s still very relevant”. Despite the fact that statistically Taoism is not booming, that does not dismiss its relevance within modern Chinese culture.

Confucianism’s role in modern Chinese culture

Confucianism is not quantifiable. Since it is considered a blend of a philosophy and a religion, it is a difficult to say how many followers it has. However, its relevance in modern China and its importance is apparent. Confucianism has acted as a religion for much of Chinese history, providing guidelines, ideals, messages, establishing hierarchy and social values in Chinese culture. Confucianism also largely impacted Chinese ethics, and continues to today. The extent to which Confucianism remains prevalent within modern Chinese culture can be calculated by its impact in different aspects of the country. For example, Confucianism is widely known for its hand in Chinese politics and economics. Confucianism has been accepted by China’s current communist government. The Chinese government uses the religion, and its ideals of a harmonious society to support the communist government’s reign. However Simon Worrall explains in his National Geographic article, Why is Confucius Still Relevant Today? His Sound Bites Hold Up, that the government has interpreted Confucius beliefs incorrectly saying, “In Confucian thinking, it means something very different”. Despite the government’s misuse of the philosophy, the government’s rare support of Confucianism allows for it to spread more so within modern Chinese culture. For example, Chinese students are encouraged to read traditional Confucian texts. Furthermore, in Worrall’s article, he also mentions the Chinese people’s return to Confucius ideologies. China is currently suffering from a lack of moral and ethical practices. In the midst of China’s environmental crisis, many Chinese citizens are beginning to return to Confucianism, due to the country’s, “incredibly high levels of corruption, widespread fraud, and counterfeiting. There are incredible problems with pollution and environmental degradation”, Worrall explains. Worrall is not the only one to have acknowledged Confucianism’s significance in helping China’s current crisis. As mentioned in the newspaper, The Canberra Times, in an article by Patrick Marnhan, Nobel Peace Prize winners suggested that mankind must utilize Confucianism’s wisdom in the midst of crisis. This was cited during the international conference of Nobel peace prize winners, when talking about, “Facing the 21st Century”. In this conference, subjects that pertain to the 21st century such as AIDs, environmental issues, and human rights were discussed. The prize winners came to the conclusion that Confucianism can prove to aid in the 21st century’s issues.

Buddhism’s role in modern Chinese culture

As the largest religion in China, Buddhism impact on Chinese culture has had a lasting effect. Although difficult to calculate how many Buddhist followers there are in China, the Council of Foreign Relations has estimated a large rise in the number of followers in recent years, as seen in the graph above. Buddhist temples have began appearing in China recently at a rapid rate, allowing for a grow in the number of followers. According to the Time magazine in the article, Buddhism is growing in China, but Remains in Legal Limbo, by Yang Siqi, estimates of just how many Buddhists there are in China have been made. For example, the Pew Research Center estimates there are 245 million believers in the country, which would make up 15% of the nations population. However, whether Buddhism is widely followed in China, or not, does not dismiss its place in the nation’s culture.

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