Monday, 18 March 2013

Chinese religion and syncretism

Syncretism may not be an idea which has cemented itself into our every day thinking. Until today.

As Chinese religious concepts go, few pack as much of a punch as syncretism. If that word doesn’t leap right to mind, you are not alone. Anabolism and photosynthesis probably have better chances of popping into our conversation than syncretism. 

The four-character Chinese phrase: 三教合一, 'the three teachings merge into one' is instructive. It is a common saying that speaks to something that has been going on in Chinese religious life for centuries, even millennia, and it has enormous implications for today’s world. In a nutshell, the idea is that what we think of as Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism are experienced by people in blended forms that resist doctrinal barriers. They cohere.

My first experience of the concept came while living in Taiwan, just after college. Full of energy for taking ethnographic fieldnotes, and just itching to use my spoken Mandarin skills (albeit in an area of southern Taiwan in which almost no one spoke Mandarin as a first choice), I chanced upon a temple that looked interesting. Even before I could orient myself to the surroundings, I was struck by a sight for which my Norwegian Lutheran upbringing had not prepared me. There, on an elaborately carved stone wall outside of the main hall, were a series of animal figures, including several distinctive tigers. One of these little stone tiger heads served as the storage location for a green, upturned plastic oil funnel. I was taken aback, as though I had seen communion vessels used for a quick snack.

I hesitated, but then asked a companion what to make of it. She just shrugged her shoulders. "Someone needed a place for the funnel, that’s all" was her reply. While this was not quite syncretism, it certainly signaled a difference in concern for sacrality than I had experienced in my own past. The bigger surprise was to come when, cranking up my ethnographic Mandarin, and in preparation for jotting down a 'serious' fieldnote, I asked one of the attendants a question that most Westerners would find straightforward, even obvious - the first thing that we would usually ask of any place of worship if the outward signs didn’t just give it away (St. John’s Lutheran Church, First Baptist Church, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, and so forth). "What kind of temple is this?" I asked, proudly taking out my notebook to record the response. I was certain that it would be either Buddhist or Daoist (that I knew, even then, that it wasn’t Confucian is part of another story). 

Instead, I got a long, quizzical stare. I was sure that I had misspoken—that the problem lay in my pronunciation or syntax. Maybe the attendant only spoke Taiwanese. Maybe I had hacked up the rich and evocative tones so badly that I had committed the apocryphal error whispered among beginners in the Chinese language - that I had mixed up the words 'pig' and 'god' and boy was I in trouble. I took a deep breath and asked again. "What I mean…is…is this a Buddhist or a Daoist temple? Which one is it?" Again, blank stares, and finally a shrug. I never got an actual answer, but rather a wave of the hand. I have come to understand in the following manner the attendant’s wordless reply (directing my eyes toward a bustling combination of general reverence and fateful inquiry) - it was a working temple, and a busy one, at that. It blended elements of Chinese religiosity into various physical and conceptual outlets that could not be separated neatly from the activities going on. It was syncretism at work.


Nine Flowers Mountain, China
Throughout Chinese history, various images have been used to explain how syncretism unfolds in a person’s life. What is fascinating about these images is that they describe a movement from one to the next, almost in the way that the five phases (earth, metal, water, wood, fire) move relentlessly from one to another. As we have seen, my own experience was that they merged all at once into a kind of 'working temple' of the soul. The popular images tell the story in sequence, however. The first describes a lifetime. The young person strives, studies, toils, and takes examinations. She/he is a hardworking, resolute, goal-driven Confucian. As the decades accumulate toward middle age, however, a growing sense of 'whatever for?' begins to seep in, and a budding Daoism - with dreams of idly fishing at streamside - takes over. As the life spirit begins to ebb in advanced age, even the relative mildness of the Daoist critique (don’t work so hard, take it a little easier) gives way to deep reflections on the toil in human life, tempting one to give oneself over to an entirely different form of Buddhist contemplation.

The little example also works in terms of the day itself, and with a little bit more levity than the Heideggerian seriousness of life and death. We tend to be, in this version, strivers by morning. We work at our tasks (from getting the kids off to school, hoeing the garden, and rushing off to work) with concentration and focus, powering through our tasks right up until a well-deserved late-lunch. The afternoon is different, though. We struggle to maintain the fervor that seemed so natural in the morning. Our thoughts drift to football matches, card games, and, well, fishing by the side of a stream. After dinner, with the hard work of a long day behind us, we doze, wake, reflect, fade, and sleep in a personal engagement with nothingness.

Syncretism. Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism merge together into one. @sima1085

Robert Andre LaFleur is a professor of history and anthropology at Beloit College, USA. He is currently writing a series on Chinese religion exclusively at He will be expanding on the above themes in the coming weeks.


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