Kuz Anastasiia 2017190274
Zongjiao as the category of Religion in China
In the second half of 20th and beginning of 21st centuries people from all over the world,
many countries and their states had a great desire to return to their traditions in order to preserve
cultural identity, China is not exception and was among these countries. Despite of the great
movement to maintain cultural identity, in world society still remains historical or cultural clashes
related to religion. At the core of these political, historical and cultural clashes lies one unsettled
question — “What is religion?”
The study of Chinese religion presents both problems and opportunities for the general
theory of religion. It is therefore instructive, before embarking on a historical survey, to outline a
theoretical approach that will accommodate the wide variety of beliefs and practices that have
traditionally been studied under the rubric of religion in China.
Part of the difficulty in finding a clear-cut answer is historical. The Chinese language did
not possess an equivalent to the English term “religion” (as distinct from a corpus of teachings)
until the turn of the twentieth century. This paper examines the complexities and fluctuation in the
formation of the Chinese coinage zongjiao as the equivalent of the English “religion.” Although
the binome zongjiao was employed in early Chinese, only at the beginning of the twentieth century
was it imported back from Japanese to translate the generic Western concept “religion”.
Zongjiao – definition of Chinese religion?
The transformation of the Western concept of religion in the Chinese vocabulary has drawn
increasing attention from the discipline of religious studies. In the traditional Chinese language,
several terms have already been used in connection with what may be referred to as religion in the
modern age. One of the terms is dao, which originally means the way, or the great cosmological
principle that governs the operation of the universe; but when used in connection with religious
beliefs and organizations, it refers to a sect, such as xiantian dao (the sect of pre-birth) and taiping
dao (the sect of great peace).1 Another term zong, originally meaning ancestral worship and
ancestral tradition, has been extended to denote religious sect or faction, and is in close association
with beliefs and sacrificial activities.2
However, both dao and zong as independent words have ceased to be in active circulation
in the modern time, largely due to the vernacular movement in the early 20th century in which the
classical and literary language was replaced by the folk and colloquial language of the Chinese
population. In the traditional Chinese language, the closest equivalent to the Western term of
“religion” is jiao, as seen in the cases of rujiao, daojiao, and fojiao, or Confucianism, Taoism, and
Buddhism respectively.3 It is in this sense that jiao, as well as zong and dao, is understood as
belonging to the traditional vocabulary which in turn is believed to be unable to engage in a cross-
1 C. K. Yang, Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and
Some of Their Historical Factors (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961), p.2.
2 Hengyu, “Lun Zongjiao,” Shijie Hongming Zhexue Jikan, 1998, vol.3.
3 Yao Xinzhong, An Introduction to Confucianism (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.28.
cultural dialogue conditioned by the paradigms of modernity. Therefore, all the three terms are
deficient of what the Western concept of religion implies to the modern mind, though through
compounds they still participate in significations in connection with religious sects and doctrines.
In fact, since its introduction to China, the Western term of “religion,” coined as zongjiao in the
modern Chinese language, has superseded jiao, zong, and dao in representing the concept of
It is still not clear how the Western term of religion was specifically introduced to and
transformed in the modern Chinese language due to the shortage of research on this matter. But it
is commonly maintained that it was first translated into Japanese as shukyo, and then swiftly
adopted by Chinese intellectuals (pronounced as zongjiao).4 As a matter of fact, the compound
zongjiao had existed in the Chinese vocabulary long before it was chosen to designate the term
“religion” in the modern age. It is a traditional word renovated and stamped with a modern
meaning. According to Hengyu, zongjiao as a combination of zong (sect) and jiao (teaching) had
been in broad circulation in the Zen Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).5 In the Zen
texts Wudeng Huiyuan and Zongjing Lu, the word zongjiao appears ten times, with zong and jiao
each having different implications. While jiao means the teachings of Buddha, zong refers to the
teachings of Buddha’s disciples; zong belongs to the domain of jiao, and jiao guides the principles
of zong. When used as a combination, however, zongjiao means the teachings and doctrines of
Buddhism in general.6 As a specific designation of Buddhism, zongjiao in its original sense is
different from its modern usage as a generic term coined to translate the Western term of
“religion.” But it would certainly be mistaken to deny the semantic connection between its original
meaning and its modern connotations. To some extent, the transformation of zongjiao in the
Chinese textuality parallels the linguistic evolution of “religion” in Western languages, both
indicating a shift from a metaphysical sense of religiosity to a historical sense of institution.7
Perhaps the primary difference between the two transformations is that, while the former is abrupt
and superimposed from without, the latter is spontaneous and gradual. But both of them have
witnessed the reification of the phenomenon of “religion” as a result of the establishment of
modern academic disciplines.
The question of how zongjiao (religion) with its modern implications was inculcated in the
Chinese mentality deserves coordinated efforts from the disciplines of history, philosophy,
linguistics, and religious studies. Above anything else, the abrupt adoption of zongjiao by Chinese
intellectuals to designate “religion” mirrors the bitter nature of the Sino-West encounter. The
intellectual equilibrium of traditional establishments was shattered to give way to a wholesale
import of Western academic disciplines and norms. It is in this context that the traditional term
zongjiao was employed as an expedient to carry out the unprecedented mission. If it is hardly
surprising when Japanese first used the term shukyo to mean Christianity instead of religion in
general,8 then it is even less so that zongjiao went through a similar transformation in the Chinese
4 Jordan Paper asserts that zongjiao has been used as the standard Chinese translation for “religion” since
the beginning of the 20th century. See Jordan Paper, The Spirits are Drunk: Comparative Approaches to
Chinese Religion (Albany; State University of New York Press, 1995), p.2.
5 Hengyu, “Lun Zongjiao,” Shijie Hongming Zhexue Jikan, 1998, vol.3
6 Ci Yuan (Origins of Words) (Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan, 1988), p.441.
7 On the transformation of “religion” in Western languages, see Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion,
and Platvoet ; Molendijk, ed., The Pragmatics of Defining Religion.
8 See Hardacre, Shinto and the State, pp.63, 177n15.
context. Jordan Paper claims that zongjiao was primarily applied to Christianity with extension to
other religions of alien origin in China, such as Buddhism and Islam.9 This judgment is fairly
justifiable as far as the modern adoption of zongjiao is concerned. While Paper might have failed
to realize the aboriginal roots of the term zongjiao,10 his observation does touch on the significance
of its transformation in the Chinese context. In fact, it is precisely through its application to
Christianity that zongjiao is transformed from a “natural concept” to a “technical concept,”11 or
from a specific designation to a generic term. The aboriginal implication of zongjiao thus gives
way to a brand new meaning superimposed by the Western concept “religion.” From this point on,
zongjiao has been consistently used for any religion that is to some degree institutionalized.
Regardless of its obscure origin, zongjiao with its superimposed signification of “religion” has
steadily made its way into the modern Chinese vocabulary. Not only has zongjiao now been
incorporated into the Chinese semiotic system, it has also become popular and vigorous in modern
Chinese narratives. The term zongjiao in its own right can now participate in the Chinese
signifying process no less functionally than its counterpart “religion” can in Western languages.
Smith is surely right that the West is unable to answer the question of whether Confucianism is a
religion, as far as the dispute on definitions of religion is concerned. But it is rather a generic
problem entrenched in the Western conceptualization of religion, with the case of defining
Confucianism being just one particular example. On the other hand, given the modern
transformation of the term zongjiao, Smith is certainly wrong in saying that China is never able to
ask the question. Once zongjiao has been incorporated into the modern semiotic system, it can
participate in the signifying process with full integrity. Sure enough, the problem of defining
Confucianism still lingers on, but certainly not in Smith’s sense.
This having been said, there is no way to determine that the difficulty of defining
Confucianism in the Chinese context is less intimidating than in the Western context. It will
probably never be the case. To put it simply, Chinese scholars are confronted with additional
difficulty in constructing the concept of religion besides its etymological obscurity.12 That is to
say, in addition to the fact that Chinese scholars share the same problem of conceptualizing religion
with Western scholars, they have to overcome the extra difficulty that can be attributed to two
institutional factors in Chinese academies: first, the academic discipline of religious studies in
China was not created until the 1960’s, mainly because of the political and social turmoil in the
20th century; second, due to the ideological rigidity of the Chinese Communist Party, who took
power in 1949, the general attitude toward religion is still largely conditioned and prescribed by
the doctrines of Marx, Engels, and Lenin.
9 Paper, The Spirits are Drunk, p.2.
10 The case of Julia Ching is a clear example of this mistake. She calims that the word zongjia
did not exist in the Chinese vocabulary until the late 19th century. See Ching, Chinese Religions,
11 On the difference between “natural concept” and “technical concept,” see Platvoet and
Molendijk, ed., The Pragmatics of Defining Religion, pp.501-503.
12 Evidently, the conceptualization of zongjiao encounters more difficulty in the Chinese
textuality than that of religion does in the Western textuality, due to the underdevelopment of
religious studies as an academic discipline in China
The cross-cultural critique of the concept of religion or zongjiao in the discussion on
Confucian religiosity also involves, though implicitly, a cross-paradigmatic critique in a certain
sense. It is not only important to investigate the etymology of zongjiao, the original meanings of
“religion” in Western languages, and how it has adapted to the Chinese vocabulary, but also
necessary to examine the “paradigm shift” of the concept of religion that is intrinsically embodied
in its cross-cultural transformation. In the Western textuality, the term of religion serves as both a
natural class concept (prototypical, prereflective) in daily life, and as a technical class concept
(heuristic, analytical, theoretical) in academic discussion. In the Chinese textuality, however, it is
not unreasonable to speculate that, when the term of religion was transformed into the Chinese
vocabulary as zongjiao, its “natural” nature had been lost in the translation, since, as has been
discussed in Chapter One, it was first used specifically to designate Christianity. It is therefore the
“technical” nature of the term that is retained in the Chinese vocabulary, by which religion is
generally understood as “a form of social ideology and a cultural and sociohistorical
phenomenon.”13 For the same reason, the word “religious” as the adjective form of “religion”
corresponds to no word in the Chinese vocabulary.
To summarize all above mentioned we can say that zongjiao was adopted to denote new
paradigm. After a century’s circulation, the term today has become part of the daily vocabulary.
The fitting of the paradigm into China’s social context, however, is still a work in progress and a
project full of glitches. But in the same time we can’t say is it right understand zongjiao like
Western religion totally, because of many misunderstanding in definition of religion and
translation it in Chinese language.
As my opinion, part of the problem arising from this situation is that Chinese religions in
general do not place as much emphasis as Christianity does on exclusivity and doctrine. And so
Chinese, when asked to identify what counts as zongjiao in their culture, are often reluctant to
include phenomena that westerners would be willing to count as religion, because the word
religion—while notoriously difficult to define—does not carry the same connotations as zongjiao.
Chinese history has probably accounted for more religious behavior than the “three teachings”
combined. This exclusion is more than a matter of usage: jiao does not apply well to popular
religion because popular religion is strongly oriented toward religious action or practice; it has
very little doctrine and, apart from independent sects, no institutionally recognized canonical texts
in which doctrines would be presented.
One way of conceptualizing religion that is well suited to its subject—that is, that makes
particularly good sense of Chinese religion—and that sheds light not only on the noncontroversial
forms of Chinese religion but also on those forms that might be excluded by some definitions. But
it should be acknowledged that, since religion is a multidimensional set of complex human
phenomena, no single definition (short of a laundry list of common characteristics) should be
expected to capture its essence. Indeed, perhaps religion has no essence.
13 Zongjiao Dacidian (Comprehensive Dictionary of Religion) (Shanghai Cishu Chubanshe,
1. C. K. Yang, Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion
and Some of Their Historical Factors (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,
2. Ching, Chinese Religions, p.2.
3. Ci Yuan (Origins of Words) (Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan, 1988), p.441.
4. Hardacre, Shinto and the State, pp.63, 177n15.
5. Hengyu, “Lun Zongjiao,” Shijie Hongming Zhexue Jikan, 1998, vol.3.
6. Jordan Paper, The Spirits are Drunk: Comparative Approaches to Chinese Religion (Albany; State
University of New York Press, 1995), p.2.
7. On the difference between “natural concept” and “technical concept,” see Platvoet and
Molendijk, ed., The Pragmatics of Defining Religion, pp.501-503.
8. Paper, The Spirits are Drunk, p.2.
9. Platvoet and Molendijk, ed., The Pragmatics of Defining Religion, pp.501-503.
10. Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion, and Platvoet & Molendijk, ed., The Pragmatics of
11. Yao Xinzhong, An Introduction to Confucianism (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.28.
12. Zongjiao Dacidian (Comprehensive Dictionary of Religion) (Shanghai Cishu Chubanshe,