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Header image The Religion Factor

Drunk History (of Chinese Religions)

Date:24 April 2019
Author:Tim Swanger
Chemistry undergraduates at Stanford University sampling jiu, a fermented beverage made from sorghum, rice, or millet. © Kurk Hickman
Chemistry undergraduates at Stanford University sampling jiu, a fermented beverage made from sorghum, rice, or millet. © Kurk Hickman

What can efforts to translate “alcoholic drink” (jiu 酒) from Chinese to English teach us about the category of religion? A surprising amount, argues Tim Swanger. 

In some ways, history is like a prism. In distant places and times, we see concepts familiar to us – religion, politics, society – broken up and reflected back to us. The resulting picture looks almost the same, but not quite. Looking closely at the differences helps us understand how these familiar concepts operated in an unfamiliar setting, but also how they work in our own time.

The difference between then and now can cause all sorts of headaches for scholars tasked with translation, especially those of us whose work takes us to places or times that don’t quite map onto modern realities. The Chinese word for “alcoholic drink” (jiu 酒) is a good example. Drinking was an important part of daily life among elites in ancient China, so it comes as no surprise to find references to it in documents of all sorts – from poetry to ritual to statecraft – dating back to bone inscriptions from the Bronze Age.

But what, exactly, were they drinking? Knowing the details is the first step in providing an accurate translation. Once you have a decent grasp on what the Chinese word refers to – something that’s not always possible to the degree we’d like – you can choose an approximate equivalent in English (or French, or Italian, or Dutch…) and take a little time to explain any relevant differences. That, at least, is how translation is supposed to work. It turns out that the process of picking a word can reveal some implicit assumptions about how our world – or the one we study – works or worked.

Textual evidence, substantiated by chemical analysis of pots that contained jiu, points to a variety of beverages fermented from sorghum, rice, or millet. (The stuff has even been reconstructed, and is now routinely tasted by chemistry undergrads at Stanford. It’s also piqued the interest of modern brewers.) This makes jiu something like modern beer – but not exactly, because the stuff at your local watering hole is typically brewed from wheat and/or barley.  Regardless of this difference, Victorian translators, who hailed from the higher ranks of society, preferred the translation “wine” for jiu. The implicit reasoning behind this choice was class bias: beer was a drink of the lower classes in 19th-century England, and the translators were certain the refined poets and statesmen they studied wouldn’t have touched it. There is no way the Victorians could have known the exact chemical details behind jiu – archaeological chemistry as a discipline has only existed for about 25 years – but they knew at least that it was something like beer, and that it probably wasn’t grape wine (which wasn’t commonly drunk until the modern era).[1] But you don’t need to know the ins and outs of archaeological chemistry or Chinese literature to see the major flaw in their reasoning: an ancient Chinese intellectual would certainly not have based their choice of drink on class distinctions in 19th-century Britain.

So jiu is kind of like beer, except it isn’t. But it’s definitely not wine. The same principles that led us to these conclusions can lead us to similar conclusions about religion and politics in ancient China – and they can teach us something about how we see religion and politics, too.

The etymology of the word “religion” is disputed. The Oxford English Dictionary devotes a whole paragraph to it, tracing it to two Latin words: religāre “to tie, to restrain” (thus, “that which ties believers to God”), or relegere, “to read over and over again” (thus, for the Roman statesman Cicero, “religion” consisted of “the painstaking observance of rites”). Regardless of its origins, in the modern sense “religion” is usually taken to mean something like “Belief in or acknowledgment of some superhuman power or powers… which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, especially as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement.” For moderns, then, religion is chiefly a matter of  belief. 

We can supplement the OED’s definition with a few more common assumptions. First, religions are typically thought of as mutually-exclusive: a person can be Catholic or Protestant, Buddhist or Muslim, but they only get to choose one. Second, religions are restricted to the private sphere of individuals or groups. This is opposed to the (ostensibly secular) public realm. In the modern U.S., for example, a series of important legal cases has established, challenged, or upheld the private-religious/public-secular divide, and these cases – as well as the larger role of law in delineating the very notion of “religion” – are the focus of a good deal of scholarship.

So for us, religions are a) belief-centric; b) mutually-exclusive, and c) private. Understanding how the concept of religion operated in ancient China – or if it did at all – requires a little bit of background.

First, modern Chinese has no native term for “religion.” The word used today (zongjiao 宗教) is borrowed from Japanese, which also lacked the term until it was invented to describe the teachings of foreign missionaries. Prior to the introduction of the term zongjiao, we can’t speak of “religion” as an overarching concept, only “religions” in the plural. These existed in abundance: Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and various flavors of Christianity (including some that have now disappeared) have been part of the Chinese religious landscape for over a thousand years. But rather than tokens of a type, or examples of some larger concept (as the “religion”/“religions” split implies), these were seen as a series of more-or-less distinct entities conceptualized in a few different ways. 

The modern English word “Buddhism,” for instance (itself a relatively recent coinage), is used to translate the Chinese word fojiao 佛教. But there is nothing in the Chinese word that corresponds exactly to the English suffix “-ism;” instead, the term fojiao is better rendered as the “teachings” (jiao 教) of or about the Buddha (fo 佛). In the same way, the word we translate as “Daoism” (daojiao 道教) means “the teachings of or about the Dao.” But this places Daoism and Buddhism alongside entities that we would almost certainly not consider religions. The “teaching of names” (mingjiao 名教), for instance, emphasizes not a particular set of beliefs, but a method of social organization based on a strict hierarchy. It’s meant to shape policy.  

Other metaphors for religion found in ancient Chinese texts don’t exactly fit with our modern definitions, either. One meaning of the dao of Daoism, for instance, is “way” or “path,” and it’s the most common way of referring to religions – so, fodao 佛道, “the way of the Buddha,” is even more common than fojiao. Daos are most often paired with active verbs: one “walks” or “practices” or “cultivates” them. These activities are often predicated on a word commonly translated as “belief” (xin). But the sense here is not assent to creeds or propositions, but what one might call “faith” or “trust” that the dao in question will lead you in the right way. For the ancient Chinese, the things we now call religions were chiefly about practice, not belief.

Of course, one can only walk a single path. But it turns out that in many cases this isn’t what people actually did. They were interested in techniques that accomplished particular ends. Much apologetic literature written by partisans of various daos is written with this in mind. Take disease, for  example, which was usually thought to be caused by the malevolent actions of spirits. One Buddhist story tells of a sick man named He Danzhi who is looking to be cured. He’s been seeing a terrifying demon with a bull’s head on the body of a man. The patient first hires a Daoist priest, who contacts higher celestial officials and asks them to tell the demon to cut it out. But this doesn’t work. A friend of He’s, who happens to be a Buddhist monk, hears of his illness and comes calling. He offers a different technique: have faith in Buddhist texts and follow their instructions, and the demon will simply disappear of its own accord. The obstinate He refuses, and dies not long after. 

We have no idea whether He Danzhi’s story "really" happened, but its format tells us something about how the audience would have thought about disease and the daos: Buddhism is meant to appeal to the reader not as an abstract system, but as a concrete method of achieving certain ends. It assumes that readers aren’t tied to any particular “religion,” but instead have a variety of methods at their disposal from which they are free to pick and choose.

So we’ve established that religions in ancient China were not belief-centered, nor were they mutually-exclusive. But religion was also much more than a private affair. Rulers looked to various religious daos just like He Danzhi sought out his cures: as a means to accomplish certain ends. Sometimes these ends were personal in nature – long life or a return to health – but religious partisans also claimed their methods were useful for one purpose in particular: as tools of good government. The key term here is “transformation (hua 化) through moral instruction (jiao 教)." By promulgating certain practices or conducting himself in a manner worthy of emulation, the ruler would engender a sort of spontaneous, positive moral transformation in his subjects (and yes, it was always a "he"). His kingdom would thereby become rich, peaceful, well-fed, and protected from foreign attack. (The classic example occurs in a text associated with Confucius, wherein a virtuous ruler transforms his people “like the wind bends the grass.”)

The specialists in different daos who fought for the favor of various rulers each sought to present their own way as the best tool. A famous Buddhist monk, for instance, claimed that this sort of charismatic transformation was best effected by – unsurprisingly – Buddhist monks. They achieved moral perfection by cutting themselves off from the secular world; this perfection invisibly spread throughout the kingdom and generated a peaceful realm. Daoist priests, of course, tell different stories. In one account – supposedly historical – a famous Daoist prelate was allowed to instruct the emperor and his ministers in proper customs. As if by magic, this knowledge instantly spread throughout the ruler’s kingdom, transforming the degraded social mores that were responsible for myriad political ills. 

Precisely because religions were so powerful, rulers had a vested interest in controlling how they were practiced. As one scholar puts it,

"...[T]he Chinese empire was never, from its inception down to its end in 1911 C.E., conceived as anything other than a deeply (in our terms) “religious’” system in purpose and in function. Its primary mandate was nothing less than the maintenance of proper relations… between humanity and the forces and divinities of the cosmos. The emperor was a sacred figure... So the assumption that the empire should control what we would term “religious” affairs was an old, indigenous assumption in China.”[2]

This concern for proper maintenance explains the interest of the emperor and his ministers in the tools that Daoist priests had to offer.

Today, China has embraced the Western model of religion – at least, at an official level. After an initial, unsuccessful attempt to stamp out religious practice in the mid-20th century, the government reversed course and welcomed its potential as a stabilizing force (though its enthusiasm has cooled lately). Conduct is regulated and monitored through officially-sanctioned organizations like the Chinese Taoist Association and the Buddhist Association of China. But that’s not how those things we call “religions” worked in earlier times. Using the word “religion” to describe what was going on back then (all the daos, jiaos, etc.) is fine, because there are words like dao and jiao that perform almost the same function that “religion” does in English. But the differences are important, and so choosing “religion” as a translation requires a fair amount of qualification.

This is just as true when talking about China today, because the old, nonexclusive way of practice is far from gone. At the popular level, distinctions between religions tend to get blurred. Supplicants address deities associated with Buddhism and Daoism, but also local gods (officially) unconnected to either. Buddhist monks and Daoist priests perform some of the same rituals. Daoist texts long ago adopted the Buddhist language of karma and merit, while visions of the other world in Chinese Buddhist texts incorporate Daoist gods and the bureaucratic structure characteristic of Chinese religions.

Meanwhile, with the decline of the dynastic system, Chinese government now appeals to very different principles in circumscribing religious practice. In the western province of Xinjiang, members of the Uyghur ethnic minority – which is predominantly Muslim – are being imprisoned on a massive scale as part of a “de-radicalization” campaign due to their perceived threat to the Chinese state. But this is merely a new move in an old conflict: Uyghur nationalists have chafed at Beijing’s rule since the 1930s, and concerns over territorial integrity have motivated intense scrutiny from the capital. With Xinjiang’s importance in the new One Belt, One Road initiative, the central government’s incentive to retain control over the region has only increased.

The same religious boundaries and the same private/public distinction that we have come to expect in Europe and the U.S. thus take on a different cast in China today, and some of these differences are very old. Pointing out this difference should lead us to question the historical roots of our own conceptions of religion, politics, and secularism.


Tim Swanger will graduate in May from Arizona State University with a PhD in religious studies. His research focuses on Daoism of the early medieval period (220-589 CE).


[1] See H.T. Huang, Science and Civilization in China, vol. 6: Biology and Biological Technology, Part 5: Fermentations and Food Science (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 240ff.

[2] See Robert Campany, “Chinese History and Writing About ‘Religions’: Reflections at a Crossroad,” in Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe: Encounters, Notions, and Comparative Perspectives, edited by Volkhard Krech and Marion Steinicke (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 273-294.


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