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San Jiao / San Chiao / Three Teachings

For more than a thousand years 'the Three Religions' has been a stereotyped phrase in China, meaning Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The phrase itself simply means 'the Three Teachings,' or systems of instruction, leaving the subject-matter of each 'Teaching' to be learned by inquiry. Of the three, Buddhism is of course the most recent, having been introduced into China only in the first century of our Christian era. Both the others were indigenous to the country, and are traceable to a much greater antiquity, so that it is a question to which the earlier origin should be assigned.

These are known in their own language as the San Chiao, and are commonly spoken of as the Ju, Shih, Tao, San Chiao, in their usual Chinese order. The first of these is the Ju Chiao, usually styled by Europeans Confucianism, so called after its founder, K'ung Fu-tzu, latinised by the early Roman missionaries as Confucius. The word Ju means cultured or learned. Hence, Ju Chiao means the cult of the learned. The second is the Shih Chiao. The word Shih is an abbreviation for Shih-chia-mu-ni, the Chinese form of Sakyamuni, one of the names of the Buddha. Shih Chiao, therefore, stands for Buddhism. The third term is Tao Chiao. The word Tao means The Way. The foundation of the Tao Chiao, that is to say, Taoism, is attributed to Lao Tzu, or Laocius.

The word Chiao does not mean either religion or a church in the Western sense of those terms. Etymologically considered, its construction in ancient times consisted of three parts, namely, "to beat," "a child," and "to imitate." From this it may infered that "to beat a child into imitation " of parental example was its meaning. The later form of the character consists of "to beat," and "filial," suggesting the idea of rigorously bringing the child into a filial condition. At any rate, "Spare the rod and spoil the child" has ancient authority in China. The significance of the word Chiao today is "to teach," and its meaning as a substantive is sufficiently covered by school, or cult, or ism.

Each of the three religions has been the recipient of Imperial recognition and favour, and the three may be considered as three aspects of the established religion of the country. Such, at any rate, was the case until the recent revolution. From time to time each has had its period of ascendancy. The Buddhists have had their periods of power; so have the Taoists; but for the most part Confucianism has been the dominant factor at Court, and indeed is generally considered to be the State religion. Toleration was the prevailing attitude of Buddhism and Taoism towards Confucianism, even during their periods of ascendancy, but the Confucianists have ever been jealous of their rivals, and even persecuted them. Such persecution, however, never attained to the severity exhibited in Europe, for its direction has rather been against temples and monastic establishments than against the persons of the occupants thereof.

Confucianism is as much a philosophy as a religion, and philosophy seldom generates sufficient heat to persecute with undue warmth. Or perhaps, more correctly, it is too wise and sees the folly of persecution. At any rate, while wars of extermination had been prosecuted by the State against the Moslems in China, as also against the Taoists chiefly on political grounds religious wars between the three religions, or the horrors of the Inquisition on account of religion, have been unknown, for intensity of religious feeling has never been sufficiently strong to produce extremities of so virulent a character.

Among the people at large the three religions were not mutually exclusive. The deficiency of Confucianism in making little or no provision, beyond a calm stoicism, for the spiritual demands of human nature was supplied by the more spiritual provision of Buddhism, and the indefiniteness of Confucius as to a continued existence after death was met by the more definite Taoist dogma of immortality. The three are complementary rather than antagonistic to each other, and together they made a fuller provision for human needs than any one of them did separately. Consequently no clear line of demarcation popularly existed between them. For general purposes the shrines of each were open to all and availed of by all.

It was impossible, therefore, to divide the Chinese into three separate mutually exclusive churches or religious communities, as is the case, say, with Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, and the Reformed branch of the Christian Church. Those writers, therefore, who speak of so many hundred millions of Chinese Buddhists have as much right to the claim as others would have who claimed the same hundreds of millions for Confucianism or Taoism. There were, it is true, a certain number of the educated who are strictly Confucianist, and who heartily despise both Buddhism and Taoism. Their number, however, was quite limited, for there were few among them who did not summon Buddhist or Taoist monks, or indeed both, to perform the rites for the dead, or consult their divinities in case of sickness or distress. The Buddhist and Taoist clergy, an unlettered class, for the most part confined themselves to their respective cults, and while a few of the laity devoted themselves, some solely to Buddhism, some solely to Taoism, the great mass of the people had no prejudices and made no embarrassing distinctions ; they belonged to none of the three religions, or, more correctly, they belonged to all three. In other words, they were eclectic, and used whichever form best responded to the requirement of the moment, or for which on any occasion they used religion.

Confucianism and Taoism did not begin to exist as separate cults until the sixth century B.c. under the influence of the contemporaneous sages Laocius and Confucius, the latter being the later of the two. The ideas promulgated by these two men represent two different strata of the old religion, the politico-religious side being emphasised by Confucius, and the asceticomystical side by Laocius. There was a third and prior stratum which neither of them propagated, indeed out of which they sought to rise, namely, the old magical and spiritualistic animism which was the principal religion of the common people. This third form has maintained itself in spite of the scepticism of Confucius, and it has taken entire possession of the cult founded by Laocius, though without a word of encouragement in his Tao Te Ching. This third, or magical form, which, strictly speaking, is neither Confucian nor Laocian, but which has an admixture of both, together with a later intermixture of Buddhist ideas, is the prevalent religion of the common people. Nor is it limited to the common folk, for even the average Confucian scholar is steeped in its superstitions, and as to the Taoist, he is altogether given over to them.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:12:20 ZULU