Chinese spirituality [Part two]: The sacred is in the mundane

Spirituality helps individuals cope with severe trauma and aids their growth and psychological well-being in the aftermath of a crisis. Such ballast is something humanity badly needs in the face of a pandemic. Dr Chang Weining, visiting psychologist of the Institute of Mental Health, ponders China’s search for spirituality in times of distress. In part two of her article, she toggles between past and present as she takes a look at how the Chinese quest for solace has evolved.
A woman wears a face mask as she burns incense and prays at the Wong Tai Sin Temple to mark the Lunar New Year of the Rat in Hong Kong on 24 January 2020. (Philip Fong/AFP)
A woman wears a face mask as she burns incense and prays at the Wong Tai Sin Temple to mark the Lunar New Year of the Rat in Hong Kong on 24 January 2020. (Philip Fong/AFP)

The recent rapid economic development in China has brought Chinese people to all corners of the world. Not all of them behave in the civilised and polite manner befitting a culture with five thousand years of continuous civilisation. A stereotype is that the Chinese are materialistic and competitive; much less spiritual. 

“To feed the people” was a basic goal of the government.

No doubt, China has suffered more than 200 years of external invasion, internal corruption and more than her fair share of natural and man-made disasters. Amid widespread starvation and death by the tens and thousands, “to feed the people” was a basic goal of the government. To flourish in creativity or live a life with meaning and civility were not high priorities.

Not to mention a devastating Cultural Revolution that reduced the country’s cultural landscape to a spiritually bleak wasteland, the promotion of economic development that followed reinforced the Darwinian jungle rule of surviving for the fittest — success or even survival can only be achieved through savage competition.

The search for soul 

Chinese spirituality is embodied in the normal daily life of the people as opposed to being an organised institution separate from or above the normal life.

With increasing wealth and prosperity, however, there has been an awakening of the pursuit of life beyond economic survival and material wealth. As Guanzi (管子),  a scholar and advisor to the king of Qi in the Spring and Autumn period (770-481 BC), was famously recorded in Shiji (《史记》) to have said: “When people have enough clothing and food, they can then understand proper behaviours and manners; when the food storage is sufficient [to feed the people] then one can comprehend benevolence and justice!” (仓稟足然后知礼节,衣食足然后知荣辱!)

Many Chinese are beginning to reflect again — what is the meaning of life? But as Professor Liu Zhongyu of East China Normal University laments, the Chinese people “don’t know what to believe in anymore”. In a spiritual vacuum, the Chinese people are vigorously embarking on a search for spirituality in established religions, new teachings by foreign gurus and even more fervently, within themselves and the culture of the Chinese. 

Chinese spirituality as secular humanism

The universal human need for spirituality is manifested in different ways in different civilisations. Chinese spirituality, for instance, differs from Western spirituality. The terms 灵 (spirit), 灵性 (spirituality) and 精神生活 (spiritual life) are Chinese constructs of spirituality.

In what sinologists call “secular humanism”, Chinese spirituality is embodied in the normal daily life of the people as opposed to being an organised institution separate from or above the normal life — known as the church, the temple or the mosque — that has social and political power over their followers.

Lao-Tzu also taught a worldview of “oneness” (天人合一) that suggests the individual, as well as all things big and small, is an organic part of the universe. (iStock)
Lao-Tzu taught a worldview of “oneness” that suggests the individual, as well as all things big and small, is an organic part of the universe. This photo shows the Li River in Guilin. (iStock)

This is because traditional Chinese culture, as a way of life, is centred around a coherently integrated universe, where the person is a combination of the three essential domains of the human being: 身 (the body), 心 (the heart or mind) and 灵 (the spirit or the soul). To the Chinese, spirituality is an essential part of what makes a person a human. Compared to Western notions of spirituality, the Chinese also show much less emphasis on the supernatural. Instead, it focuses much on the natural world and the interaction of the human being with nature.

...well-being and happiness is about accepting this life, this world with everything in it, and to live one’s life as nature intended.

Taoism is one form of traditional Chinese spirituality. Lao-Tzu’s The Book of the Way (《道德经》tao te ching) organises the beliefs and myths of the time into a philosophy or teaching that firmly places life in its natural context. This gives rise to a meaning of life that suggests nothing transcends the natural phenomena of life and death and seasons of the year. The sacred is in the mundane.

Lao-Tzu also taught a worldview of “oneness” (天人合一) that suggests the individual, as well as all things big and small, is an organic part of the universe. With this worldview, the Chinese see the world with a holistic perspective and a cyclical view of alternating life and death, good and bad fortune and misfortune: therefore, well-being and happiness is about accepting this life, this world with everything in it, and to live one’s life as nature intended. Nature, in turn, is made of interconnected parts of humans and other living creatures and non-living objects. To achieve harmonious unity with the world would be following nature’s way and fulfilling the meaning of life.

“I do not know this life well, how do I understand death?” - Confucius

The Chinese focuses much on the natural world and the interaction of the human being with Nature. (iStock)
The Chinese focus much on the natural world and the interaction of the human being with Nature. This photo shows the Imperial Pen Peak of Zhangjiajie. (iStock)

Another example of traditional Chinese spirituality is the most prominent Chinese school of thought — Confucianism. Confucianism is characterised by a focus on this current world and rationalism. The great sage conceded that he was ignorant of spirituality when he said, “ I do not know this life well, how do I understand death?” But the great master attributed Lao-Tzu for his spiritual guidance, and focused most of his teaching on the proper ways of being a human and managing a country.

He taught that the meaning of being a human is to be a benevolent and morally righteous human being. This is the secular humanism that provides the meaning and the purpose of being a human being.

So far as the religion advocates and promotes social harmony, the government is tolerant towards spiritual pursuits, though it is wary about organised religion and its potential to destabilise the regime.

The teachings of Confucianism, Taoism, and later Buddhism have been embedded in the daily interactions of Chinese people and are a source of solace for the people in times of difficulty. 

Modern takes on Chinese spirituality

To go a step further, nowadays, the hunger for spirituality in China is not only expressed by the renewed fervour in traditional religious communities, but also in the thousands flocking to churches and temples of different persuasions, and in the many who follow the teachings of various guru or spiritual teachers.

From the mountains of the Himalayas to the islands of Hawaii, the Chinese are discovering a new universe of spirituality. So far as the religion advocates and promotes social harmony, the government is tolerant towards spiritual pursuits, though it is wary about organised religion and its potential to destabilise the regime.

It is impossible to say how many Christians there are in China. A government White Paper entitled "China's Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief" said in 2018 that 44 million Chinese identify themselves as Christians, 38 million as Protestants and six million as Catholics. And the numbers are rapidly growing. But many China observers agree that this is a gross underestimation. A popular but conservative estimate puts the figure closer to 60 million; this is a figure higher than the number of people who attend churches in all of Europe. (Note)

Worshippers attend a Christmas eve mass at the Xishiku Cathedral in Beijing on 24 December 2019. (Noel Celis/AFP)
Worshippers attend a Christmas eve mass at the Xishiku Cathedral in Beijing on 24 December 2019. (Noel Celis/AFP)

In another sign of a spiritual revival, works by Buddhism scholar-philosopher Nan Huai-Chin (南坏谨) that re-interpret health and philosophical classics for a modern audience have been read by tens of thousands. Retreats and workshops have also been organised around Nan’s writings that propose to facilitate self-cultivation in order to attain the well-being of mind, body and soul.

There has also been a resurgence of various folk “religions” and Shamanism, featuring major and minor deities, such as Mazu (妈祖),Daibogong (大伯公) and Caishen (财神, the God of money). These folk religions often co-exist with the major traditional Chinese teachings.

For instance, there have been many re-enactments of religious or semi-religious rituals such as pilgrimages to the holy mountains and sacred lakes to seek divine blessings and self-enlightenment. The procession of Mazu (妈祖) of Meizhou (湄州) island of Fujian province is followed by tens of thousands of worshippers. This event mirrors the age-old Mazu procession in Lugang (鹿港) and Tainan of Taiwan, where celebrating the birthday of Mazu — the much-beloved guardian of seafarers, women and children of the southern China and Chinese communities of Southeast Asia — unites in spirit the Chinese people across different political regions.

In this photo taken on 11 April 2020, worshippers are seen worshipping Mazu at Chao Zong Gong (朝宗宫) in Xiamen, Fujian. (CNS)
In this photo taken on 11 April 2020, worshippers are seen worshipping Mazu at Chao Zong Gong (朝宗宫) in Xiamen, Fujian. (CNS)

And after almost two hundred years of denouncing and prohibiting traditional Chinese cultural beliefs and institutions, in a spiritual vacuum, the Chinese are now turning inwards to re-examine the beliefs and practice within the traditional culture. Filial piety has regained its popularity and is taught by the government in schools and the public arena.

I applaud the vitality and dynamism in Chinese people’s search for spirituality and their creativity and expressions of the “matter of the heart”. Great psychologist Carl Gustav Jung mentioned in Modern Man’s Search for a Soul that when people have spirituality, they have hope, when they have hope, they will live life with vitality and autonomy that brings satisfaction and happiness. Individual well-being, in turn, constitutes the core of Confucius ideal of a harmonious society. It is certainly comforting to see the flourishing of soul-searching and the diversity and vitality of spirituality in the Chinese communities.

Note:

There are many variations of the figure. According to US-based NGO Freedom House, as of 2014, the number of Christians going to official and unofficial churches (including underground "house churches") could be as high as 100 million. Of these, about 60 to 80 million are Protestant and 12 million Catholic. Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology and the director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University tells Time magazine in a recent interview that there are about 116 million Protestant Christians in mainland China in 2020.

Related: Chinese spirituality [Part one]: Reawakening of the heart after traumaThe Chinese ghost stories we tell ourselves | A matter of life and death in the US, China and Japan