Religion And Mythology In Oriental China
( Originally Published 1911 )
WE have noted previously that the decoration of Oriental porcelain is largely bound up in mythology, nay, more, it is largely connected with religion. The religions of China must therefore receive some attention from those who would really understand the beauty of the decorations used by the Chinese. China possesses three principal religions, of which two are national—Confucianism and Taoism—one imported from India—Buddhism. Although Confucianism may be said to be the official religion of the Court, of the functionaries, and of the learned, it is not a religion in the sense which we attach to the word. Confucius was the reformer of the ancient national religion, which was really fetishism. It is a code of practical morality based upon the duties and obligations of mankind, and respect for both ancestors and antiquity. Idols such as images of gods and spirits are put on one side. Confucius recognised implicitly the existence of a God creator of the world—Chang-ti, the Emperor Supreme, or Thien, the Heaven ; the Emperor alone as " Son of Heaven" was, as it were, the priest, acting in the name of all his people, addressing to the Creator of the world prayers and thanksgivings, at the winter and summer solstices and at the spring equinox.
Not alone does the God of Heaven partake of these ceremonies in the Imperial worship, but the goddesses of the earth, and the various genii of the waters, of the mountains, and stars, and the Imperial ancestors. No images are made of these, and they are only represented on the altars by tablets on which are their names. Confucianism orders respect and veneration for ancestors, who ought to be cherished and treated as if they were living, so that the ancestral worship was an incessant witness of gratitude and thanks, which has become the only real religion of the followers of Confucius in China.
Confucius was born in 551 B.C. After his death the gratitude of the sovereigns and the admiration of the peoples gave him a rank almost divine. Every city built temples to him, not as a god whom they worshipped, but as a man whom they venerated as a benefactor, and as the master respected by the nation as a great saint in civil life. There are not to be found many images or pictures on Oriental porcelain of Confucius or his followers, for the reason stated that Confucius simply settled a system of morality.
Taoism differs from the doctrines of Confucius in that it is a gross religion made of superstitious local beliefs in fetishes and demons curiously amalgamated with the higher metaphysical doctrines of the philosopher Lao-tseu, who was born 604 B.C. He included nearly all of the old Chinese religions, which Confucius had reformed by taking away its superstitions. This he did in order to fight more advantageously against the reforms of
Confucius. In reality, this religion agrees with others ; we may say that all the doctrines of all the religions make a great difference between the beliefs of the common people and those of philosophers and of learned men, for in the higher sense the doctrines of Lao-tseu and his eminent disciples were able to be maintained without danger of comparison against those of Confucius or the most illustrious thinkers of ancient India. Taoism in its popular form recognised a supreme God creator of the world, similarly named to the God recognised by Confucianism, Thien, Heaven, or Tien-kong, God of Heaven, but above him he places a Trinity called the " Three Pures," really the " Three Pure Ones," of whom Lao-tseu was one, representing the spirit of knowledge or of wisdom. Below this Trinity is found a multitude of gods, genii, demons, spirits of Heaven, of the earth, of the sea, of the waters, of the mountains, of the rivers, of the provinces, of the cities, of the villages, &c., all designated under the collective name of Chens, " spirits." For the most part these are ancient heroes, literary men or philosophers deified ;hence the gods, such as the eight immortals, are often found as images, or used as decorations, upon vases and other pieces of Oriental porcelain.
The earliest history of Buddha is an account of his death written in the Pali language, four centuries B.C. Neither this, nor any of the other histories ranging through the ages to our own times is an authentic story of his life and work—it is simply a legend more or less embellished. The mythology is as follows: Gautama, named Siddhartha, the highly gifted son of a Thakur, or noble of the Rajput tribe, quitted his father's house in order to meditate upon the evil in the world—upon its origin and its extirpation. He went to ask the advice of two Brahmins who were renowned for their piety, but they were unable to satisfy his yearnings for a higher life. He rested, it is true, faithful to their doctrines—the fundamental truths which they taught—transmigration of souls with a final emancipation, but he saw that their asceticism led only to the enfeebling of the higher powers of the mind, so he decided to find some place where he might find peace in meditation. After a long period spent in reflection, he decided to quit his refuge and preach his faith. He found in Benares, in the " Woods of the Gazelles," his first disciples, and accompanied by them he journeyed through Western Bengal, during forty-five years, honoured by princes, loved by the people, in whose language he preached, till he died of old age probably about 477 B.C. You will note, later, the mille cerfs decoration of Chinese porcelain made in remembrance of this beginning of Buddhism.
Buddha taught four truths. First, of evil. Birth, sickness, and death produce pain, so does the separation from those we love and the desire to secure what we cannot obtain. These joined to the know-ledge of existence are the causes of evil. Second, of the origin of evil. The influence of the outside world—suggestion from outside—leads to covetousness and all that sensuality brings. Third, of the end of evil. This is only accomplished by the complete suppression of ardent desires—self-abnegation. Fourth, of the method of suppression. Abstention from humiliating and unprofitable self-indulgence in any form on the one side, and the renunciation of any belief in torture which is ruinous and vain as a means of spiritual growth. Every being is subject to evil, nature in each is essentially the same. Gods, demons, men, and animals are only different degrees of existence. Humanity is the best condition, for only man can attain salvation, he only can obtain deliverance. Regeneration operates only after death and is regulated by the actions done during life. The process is secret, and only step by step, higher and higher, does knowledge of truth lead onwards through the path of salvation to the place eternal—the Nirvana. Only in this blessed abode does the soul rest free from the obligation of being born again, of suffering without cessation the miseries of life.
Buddhism flourished in India during many centuries, especially in the third century B.C., when in the reign of king Acoka, it became missionary, but about 1100 A.D. it was banished from that country and spread through Eastern Asia, where it has at the present time more than four hundred millions of believers. In China there are eighteen principal sects of this religion, so that it is not surprising that the Chinese Buddhists should commemorate upon their porcelain gods, goddesses, and religious ceremonies of various types, especially as it adopted local superstitions and legends, and lent pomp and eclat to the worship of the dead. Its pliancy and activity are still marvellous.