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TIIE MESSAGE OF CHINA.
The various attempts to trace the historical development of religions have for the most part been distinguished by the diversity of their starting-point. There has been no general agreement as to their order of precedence, as to which has gone before and which followed. No universal consent has established any religion in a position of superior antiquity. Each in turn has claimed the priority in time, and each in turn has found supporters and advocates of its claim. Some have placed China in the front as regards ancientness;1 some have given the palm to India ; some have bestowed the laurel on Persia; some have claimed the crown for Judea. My own opinion is that there are no facts to establish any of these claims, or, to speak more correctly, that there are equal facts for and against all of them. Every one of them has in it elements that point to a remote antiquity; every one of them has in it elements that indicate a comparatively late stage of the world's development. I believe that the relation of these religions to one another is not the relation between the steps of a ladder but the relation between the branches of a tree. They seem to me to be not successive but simultaneous, radiating at one moment from a single trunk. I have already indicated my conviction that the trunk itself has been produced by a process of historical sequence. I have pointed out in the introductory chapter what seem to me to be the successive steps of that development by which religion passed from a germ into an actual existence. But when religion has become an existence, there is no reason in the world why its progress should be only that of succession. No man holds that in the tree of human life the development of the plant must be completed before the development of the animal can begin. Is there any more reason for holding that in the tree of religious life two different phases of intellectual growth should not be contemporaneously existent? Is it not consistent with all analogy, that when once the common basis of religious life has been formed, the different branches of that life should break forth almost simultaneously, and should exhibit at one moment the graduated fruits of a higher and a lower culture ?
1 There seems to be evidence for the statement that portions of Chinese territory were the seat of organised communities two thousand years before Christ. See Prichard's Researches, iv. 476. 480 ; Gutzlaff, Chinese History, i. 75, English translation. Renouf inakes China the oldest civilisation (Hibbert Lectures, 1879, p.
Adopting, then, this standpoint, and waiving all questions of precedence, let us allow each branch to stand for itself. Instead of considering the place which one religion occupies in relation to another, let us try to find that feature in each religion which is distinctive, and that in each distinctive element which is of greatest significance. If by this course our work shall be less philosophical, it shall be less speculative and more on a level with experience. What we want to find is not a frame but a picture; not a theory into which we can get things to fit, but a portraiture of the things themselves. Let us look, then, at this branch of the religious tree which we call “China.” The question for us is not, What is its nature ? but, What is its distinctiveness? What is that which makes the branch “China” different from the branch “India” or “Persia” or “ Egypt” ? I may be reminded that this is a very wide question. I may be told that there are three distinct twigs in the branch “ China," and that these are distinguished from each other by strong marks of opposition. It is quite true; but beneath the opposition there is something common to them all, something which makes each of them Chinese, and not Indian, Persian, or Egyptian. What is this distinctly national characteristic? It certainly does not lie in the branch itself. There is nothing peculiar in any
Chinese doctrine, nothing that may not be easily paralleled in the creeds of other lands. What, then, is that element which has given to the religion of China an aspect almost special, and has impressed upon its features the mark of something approaching very near to originality ?
To resume the metaphor, let us look at the branch again. As we have said, there is nothing peculiar in its nature; but is there nothing peculiar in its attitude ? Yes; if we examine it carefully we shall find that it differs from the surrounding branches in its direction. All the surrounding branches shoot forwards; the Chinese branch is bent backwards towards the tree. The peculiarity of this religion in all its forms is one and the same—its regressiveness. It would not be correct to say that it is a religion without desire, but, in the strict sense of the word, it is a religion without aspiration. The bird that sits on this branch is not tuneless, but it is wingless; it does not want song, but it wants the power of upward flight. The religions of surrounding nations are all movements towards the future; they seek rest by the wings of a dove that can lift them beyond the seen and temporal. The religion of China is also in search of rest, but it seeks it in the opposite quarter. It sees the home of its spirit not in the future but in the past; not in the attempt to fly away from the seen and temporal, but in the effort to reach the origin of the seen and temporal. Its hope to find rest lies not in looking up to the heights of heaven, but in contemplating and in seeking the foundations of the earth.
I have said that this description applies to the whole of China. I wish to emphasise the fact, because there is a popular notion that this nation exhibits rather a conflict of religions than one uniform faith. It is true that it does exhibit a conflict of religions, but my contention is that in spite of their diversity they are united by one common element which makes them distinctively Chinese. That common element is regressiveness; in all of them the branch is bent backwards. The truth of this will appear if we glance for a moment at the different forms of Chinese faith. I wish to avoid all technical language and to present above all things a lucid exposition. Accordingly, while I shall make use of only the old facts, I shall try to put them rather in an English than in a Chinese dress. I shall say, then, that, excluding the form of faith called Chinese Buddhism, which is not a native growth of the country, there remain three religious parties in China. The first and the furthest back are the worshippers of the ancestral dead, those who keep their reverence for the spirits of the departed. We have seen in the introductory chapter
1 The whole character of the Chinese mind is in keeping with this tendency, being essentially prosaic. See Pauthier, Chine, p. 43 : Paris, 1839.