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The Religious System of China (Volume I) (1894)

Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du texte de l'ouvrage de Johann Jacob Maria de Groot, The Religious System of China. its ancient forms, evolution, history and present aspect. Manners, customs and social institutions connected therewith. Volume I : Disposal of the Dead : Funeral rites — The ideas of resurrection. Édition originale, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1892, 360 pages + illustrations. Réimpression : Literature House, Ltd, Taipei, Taiwan, 1964. Une édition réalisée par Pierre Palpant, bénévole, Paris.


Many books, and many good books, have been written on China. Yet the state of our knowledge of the Chinese Religious System is not such as to exclude all further study in the wide field it embraces, or to render unnecessary a publication of the results of new researches made therein. Consequently no apology is needed for the appearance of this work.

From what has heretofore been written on the subject in Europe and America, it is tolerably manifest that Religion in China is but little more than a great art, or combination of arts, for promoting welfare in this present life and future salvation, by following certain lines of conduct and by propitiating or rendering harmless certain classes of invisible beings and agencies. This art is regulated by customs, rescripts, and partly also by written laws issued by the Imperial Government ; it is controlled to a certain extent by philosophy, and to a much larger extent by precedents set by the ancestors of the people. Many of these precedents have been unearthed by Western scholars, who have dished them up according to their lights and drawn from them many interesting conclusions. Some philosophical treatises have been translated in their entirety. But the present Religious System of the nation such as it lies open to the world has never been made a subject of serious study, neither has a picture ever been drawn of the Rites, Ceremonies, Rules of conduct and Discipline which are virtually practised by the people, nor have the ideas and doctrines which enforce them ever been sketched on an elaborate scale. In other words, Sinologists have never taken any serious pains to penetrate into the intimate Religious Life of the nation. Therefore it cannot be a matter of wonder that the scanty existing works which aspire at exhibiting the Religious System as a whole, are simply pictures patched together from insufficient material giving but a very poor likeness of the original, nay, sometimes even a caricature.

The present work is an attempt at depicting the Chinese Religion as it is really practised by the nation, and at sketching on a broad scale its influence on Domestic and Social Life. It is the fruit of an intimate contact with the Chinese race for several years. Since first setting foot on the wide field of Sinological studies, the author has adopted a course of systematically committing to paper whatever customs, usages and religious observances presented themselves to his view either in the Middle Kingdom or the transmarine Colonies where Chinese emigrants have settled ; no opportunity of acquiring an insight into the different phases of Social and Religious Life of the Chinese has been allowed to escape him. The liberality of the Government of the Dutch Indies placed him in a position to pursue for years this line of investigation on the Chinese soil, where he lived in close contact with the people, periodically joining their family circles and spending much time in their Convents and Temples. He had thus an opportunity of gathering a rich harvest of scientific material in an extensive field hitherto unexplored. Priests of every sect, exorcists, necromancers, men of letters, professors of geomancy, in short, whoever might be presumed to stand in any relation with religion, have been constantly consulted ; large numbers of books, tracts and manuscripts have been collected, copied and translated ; thus light has been steadily derived from the one side to elucidate the other, and vice-versa. If the results of these labours should prove to be of some little use to Science, the latter will be indebted in the first place to the assistance and protection afforded the author by the Government of the Dutch East Indian Colonies, at that time represented by Their Excellencies Dr. J. P. Sprenger Van Eyk as Minister for Colonial Affairs, and Mr. O. Van Rees as Governor-General. It is here the agreeable duty of the author to publicly express his gratitude to these Statesmen.

It is scarcely necessary to say that it is impossible for any man to extend his researches in the boundless field of Ethnography and Religion over the whole area of the Chinese Empire. He would naturally find himself confined to a small part of it. For such purpose the writer has selected the south-eastern departments of Fuhkien province, and in particular the town and island of Amoy. However, whenever the subject demanded it, his investigations have been pushed much farther. Thus lengthy references will be found in this work to matters personally inquired into in the provinces of Kwangtung and Kiangsi, in the cities of Nanking and Peking and their environs, and in many other parts of the realm ; the data on the monastic life of the Buddhist clergy have all been collected in the northern districts of Fuhkien, because in the south of this province large Convents are now-a-days conspicuous by their absence. The exiguity of the field wherein the researches have been chiefly pursued, cannot be a drawback. Observations made in different parts of China having only proved that, throughout this empire, the Customs and Manners in the Social and Religious domains are remarkable for their great uniformity on the more important points, consequently any part of the nation may safely be taken as a type of the whole, and local deviations do not seriously diminish the value of a picture drawn from such a type. On the other hand, there certainly is a great advantage in limiting the field of one’s researches within narrow confines. It allows of an opportunity to check the correctness of each observation over and over again by repeated observations, thus ensuring exactitude and affording a valuable safeguard against serious errors and misinterpretations. The method hitherto so generally pursued of wildly grasping about for facts in different sub-divisions of the empire and presenting a compendium thereof as a picture of the whole nation, has rendered no good service to Science. On the contrary, Science has been led astray by being thus entangled in a mass of confused information, much of which had to be cast aside as utterly unfit for use, no one knowing to what part of the country it referred. Suppose for a moment that Spanish, Swedish, Greek and British customs were grouped together without any reference to the particular country in which a peculiar custom prevails, and presented to the world as a sketch of European life in general, would not every European immediately condemn the work as a ridiculous caricature ? Yet, books on China are written in this way, and no single word of protest is heard ; they meet with the general approval of the world, run through several editions, and Science is thrown back upon them as authorities, nay, as standard works !

The plan of this work being essentially different from that hitherto followed by most writers on Chinese Religion and Ethnography, very little material collected by them can enter into its composition. In one respect this is very satisfactory to the author, as this will stamp the present work as an entirely new production, drawn up independently of all previous writers.

The question has long occupied the mind of the writer whether it would not be preferable to confine himself strictly to a description of the Religious System in its narrowest sense, and thus considerably reduce the bulk of the work. This idea, however, has had to give way to the consideration, that such would entail a renunciation of the chief article in his programme, which is to depict the influence of Religion upon Society in its several degrees. The reader will soon become aware that, as with semi-civilized peoples in general, so in China religious ideas and usages pervade social life to its inmost recesses, that these are, so to say, the backbone of the manners and customs, of the domestic and political institutions of the nation, and to a large extent of its legislation. Whoever is acquainted with its religion, knows the people. It may be asked whether it is not too venturesome to undertake a work embracing such an extensive field. The answer to this is that the author’s store of materials will enable him to complete it, if life and health be granted him. And should the present writer not finish his task, others may thereby be encouraged to take it up and complete it.

All the Manners, Customs, Religious and Social institutions are founded upon the past and are the embodied ideas of earlier generations. So, rightly to understand them, a knowledge of Antiquity is necessary. For this reason, the Manners, Customs, Practices and Rites dealt with in this work are as far as possible traced back to their fountain head, such as they are described in the literary remains of Ancient and Mediæval China. Native books which throw light on the actual state of things, are also made to serve as safeguards against misstatements and as useful guides to prevent our swerving from the path of truth and rectitude.

This method has one great drawback. It swells considerably the bulk of the work and renders the contents less attractive to the general reader. But, considering that the high stand-point which modern Science has attained, implicitly demands light from every reliable source from whence light may be drawn, no other plan was open to the writer. Moreover, nobody will deny that, apart from the plain facts gleaned from actual life, nothing is at present so much needed with regard to China as the translation of the treasures buried in the native literature. Giving due weight to this point, the author has not scrupled at quoting even more texts than were strictly necessary for the elucidation of his subject. Nine at least out of every ten of these extracts it will be found have never been unearthed before. Where the length forms no impediment, the original Chinese texts are quoted at foot, that Sinologists may judge for themselves of the correctness of the English translation.

In thus describing the Religious and Social Institutions of China in both their ancient and modern form, the present work, when complete, will be found to present a picture of the growth of culture on yonder side of the globe. It will also be found to give a synopsis of the Philosophy of the empire, in so far as this has virtually struck root in the mind of the nation and operated upon its Religious and Social Life. It will review a great part of the domain of the Mythology of China ; legends, popular tales and even childish superstitions will be reproduced in its pages in considerable numbers, as useful materials for attaining a knowledge of the conceptions and ideas of the people and of the true condition of their mental culture. By facts produced from both Chinese literature and actual life it will confirm as well as refute many conclusions arrived at by Western authors in the field of Ethnology, Sociology and the Science of Religion. China may, in fact, be considered a valuable touchstone for many of our theories in these branches of science, this being greatly due to its spirit of conservatism, now proverbial, which scarcely ever allows the nation to drop a custom bequeathed to it by former generations. Many rites and practices still flourish among the Chinese, which one would scarcely expect to find anywhere except amongst savages in a low stage of culture.

The task of comparing the Religious and Social customs of China with those prevailing elsewhere on the globe must, however, be left to others. For many years the author regularly noted down in his manuscript whatever parallels he came across in the course of his readings, but in the long run he had to discontinue this method, which proved too great a demand upon his time and encroached too much upon his studies of Chinese works. Moreover, if he had pursued such a course to the end, his manuscript would have swollen so enormously as to render its publication an impossibility. Therefore, in carrying this first volume through the press, all references to other tribes and nations, with the exception of a few brief notes, have been eliminated, and the same rule will be observed in all subsequent volumes. The reader will, however, soon become aware that those references have left a distinct mark upon this work, a mark chiefly manifested by the fact that the author has followed the beaten track of Science for the study of Religions and Sociology in general.

So far for the general scope of this work. A few words now remain to be said on its arrangement.

It will be subdivided in Books, each Book dealing with a separate part of the Religious System of China. Each succeeding Book will depend on the data supplied by the previous Books, so that the whole will form one catena, from which, however, any link may be detached and freely made use of separately. The two first parts of Book I are now before the reader and they may serve to convey a general idea of the method to be pursued to the end of the work.

The reason why the Usages connected with Deaths have been made the starting-point of this work, is set forth in a few introductory sentences on page 1. The third part of Book I is now going through the press and will be soon be ready for publication in two volumes. It embraces the whole series of Customs, Practices and Institutions relative to the Tomb and the Body, after the latter has been placed therein. Besides suggesting a theory which may explain the origin of burying the dead, it deals with the ancient custom of depositing property, inclusive of wives and slaves, in the grave and depicts the profound influence this practice has exercised over society ever since, as also the customs which it has created in course of time, such as mourning, fasting, sacrificing the semblances of men, animals and things to the deceased, and the like. It contains elaborate descriptions of Tombs and Burial grounds of both ancient and modern times, and of the Imperial Mausolea of the late Ming dynasty, the oldest among the Chinese monuments of the kind which have escaped the ravages of time and the hand of man. It reviews the public and private protection which in China is awarded to the dead and their resting places, as also the legislation on this point. Many pages are devoted to the prevailing system of placing the graves under the beneficent influences of nature, in order that they may be rich sources of happiness to the survivors, a system which, while passing for the outcome of the profoundest wisdom and the most sublime science, has, under the name of Fung shui, ever exercised a most tyrannical sway over the mind of the nation. Besides numerous other subjects, the same volume elaborately treats of the exceptional methods of disposing of the dead, such as by cremation, water-burial, partial burial, and so forth.

The Second Book will deal more especially with the Soul. After reviewing the Chinese theories, ancient and modern, about the human duplicate, it will expatiate on Spirit-lore and Demonology, on the influence exercised everywhere by disembodied spirits upon the fate of man, on the numerous methods of rendering such influences harmless, methods which to a certain extent form the groundwork of Chinese medical science, if science it may be called. Much attention will be bestowed on the superstitions connected with names and the avoidance of the use thereof with a view to deceiving evil spirits, which practice has given rise to an elaborate system of conferring titles and honorary names on both the living and the dead. Some chapters will treat specially of benevolent spirits and the part they play in the Universe, showing the various methods, ancient and modern, of consulting these beings with a view to being guided by their revelations and so ensuring success to undertakings of any importance. Several chapters will be devoted to the systematic propitiation of the deceased ancestors by sacrifices and acts of worship both in the family circle on their graves and in temples dedicated to them, with which the soil of the empire is studded in incredible numbers.

Taoism was originally a compendium of customs and practices framed upon the prevailing ideas concerning the human soul. Adopting these as its own, it cast them into a system of Philosophy, Alchemy and Religion. This system is accordingly first dealt with after the Soul, in a separate Book. Under Taoist influence the primitive notions of a future existence developed into well defined doctrines about Paradises and Hells, which will consequently form one of the principal subjects of the Third Book.

The Fourth Book will be devoted to the widest ramifications of the Religious System of China : the Worship and Propitiation of Human Souls beyond the circle of their own family or tribe, by the whole nation or a considerable part of it. Souls which are the objects of so much attention, whether they be identified with the powers of Nature and the constituent parts of Cosmos, or with animals, plants or lifeless objects, may be said to have been raised to the dignity of Gods and Goddesses, and indeed they have been generally so denominated by European authors ever since China was opened to them as a field of study. Important and comprehensive though this expansion of the Ancestral Worship be, but very little attention has hitherto been paid to it by Sinology ; scarcely any pains have as yet been taken to study the rites and ceremonies, by which the people uninterruptedly propitiate those divinities within their domestic circle and in the numberless temples sacred to their worship throughout the realm. The writer of this work has therefore been especially careful in collecting, during many years, whatever fell within the sphere of his personal observations on this point. Besides detailed accounts of the people’s every day practices with regard to their Gods, the Fourth Book will contain descriptions of the Yearly Festivals instituted in their honour, of the Sacrifices, Masses, and Ceremonies to conjure epidemics, droughts and conflagrations. Much will be said about the Priests connected with this peculiar branch of the Religious System, as also about the Exorcists and Physicians who make it their vocation to be at times possessed of the gods and to act as the mouthpieces of their will. Large portions of the Book will consist of detailed monographies of all the principal Deities who actually perform a part in the field of Religious Life.

Buddhism, being an importation from a foreign country, must in turn be treated of next after the Religion of the native soil. While studying this Church in China, the writer followed the same plan which he had adopted with regard to the other branches of the Religious System, always directing his attention in the first place to the actual state of matters. He spent certain periods of time in the principal Convents of Fuhkien province, and long notes on the daily life and the religious performances of the Monks were committed to paper. The many unknown facts thus collected may probably be found useful to Science, information as to the actual monastic life both in China and other Buddhistic countries being, it is well-known, scanty in the extreme. Translations of the Laws of this Church, and of such of its Sacred Writings as really play a part within and without its pale, will also be inserted in the Fifth Book at considerable length, by far the greater part of such writings never having been rendered into any European tongue before. Much pains will be taken to define the place which the different branches, sects or schools of Buddhism occupy in China at the present day, as also to show the influence of this Church over the laity, an influence which is chiefly manifested by the creation of Vegetarian Sects with strongly pronounced eclectic tendencies, about which scarcely anything is as yet known, only hazy references based on mere hearsay evidence having got into print.

The Sixth Book will describe the State Religion, which is an official combination of such rites and ceremonies as are mentioned in the ancient Classics and consequently believed to have been practised by the first dynasties. It is quite an artificial religion standing apart from that professed by the bulk of the nation. Hence it is best to treat it last of all. The work will be completed with a history of the Taoist and the Buddhist Churches.

Each volume will be illustrated by zincographical figures and phototypical plates, all of which have been reproduced from photographs taken by the author himself in China, or from objects collected by him and now in the possession of several Museums, the greater part being at the Musée Guimet at Paris. The author much regrets that this comprehensive collection, made methodically so as to form one unbroken chain illustrating the most important pages of the religious life of China has had to be broken up into several parts, thus depriving it of much of its scientific value. And he deplores yet more that it has been lost for ever to his native country, in consequence of the behaviour of the Director of the National Ethnographical Museum at Leyden, for which institution he had destined it.


And now it only remains to request the reader’s indulgence for the many defects in this work. No one can be more sensible of them than the writer himself. The book is intended less as a scientific production than as a store-house of facts, carefully gleaned from actual life and expounded by data collected from the literary relics of bygone ages. Many of the explanations given of Practices, Rites and Customs may at first sight seem rash and venturesome. But let the reader in such cases suspend his judgment for a while, as these explanations will afterwards be found to be perfectly justified by facts adduced in other volumes. If notwithstanding all its imperfections this work should prove useful to Science as a leaf in the great book of human life, the author will feel himself amply rewarded for the hardships he endured on Chinese soil in collecting data during some of the best years of his life.

LEYDEN, February 1892.

Retour au texte de l'auteur: Jean-Marc Fontan, sociologue, UQAM Dernière mise à jour de cette page le dimanche 21 octobre 2007 15:48
Par Jean-Marie Tremblay, sociologue
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