Comparison of Religion in Japan and China

Nowadays, the study of Chinese and Japanese cultures is not only of academic interest. The Far East has a special and unique place in today’s world permeated by the processes of globalization and modernization. The technological civilization of the West has penetrated the East, changed a lot in the cultural sphere, and realigned social relations that have been taking shape for thousands of years.

However, the East remains a bastion of tradition in opposition to the totality of modernization. These transformations have affected mostly external aspects of life such as the sphere of science and technology, but they are unable to shake the depth of culture, namely paradigms, laws, and principles underlying the human existence in the East. China and Japan have not lost their identity while borrowing the Western achievements. The diversity of the Chinese and Japanese cultures manifests itself mostly in the variety of religions of these countries. The comparison of the traditional religious systems of China and Japan shows that they both are based on similar religious and philosophical paradigms.

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Japan as an Independent Culture

Japan was initially treated as a carrier of the Chinese culture and did not stand out as an independent cultural-historical type and civilization. This point of view existed in the cultural sciences until the second half of the 20th century. It appeared not only in the early historical and typological concepts, but also in the works of the later researchers. For example, Arnold Joseph Toynbee described the Japanese culture as a “filial” in relation to the Chinese culture, but he did not pay attention to the identity of the Japanese culture (Earhart). However, modern science recognizes the ethnic identity of Japan and comes close to the recognition of its cultural identity. The research thought has moved from trying to ignore the uniqueness of the Japanese culture to the recognition of the ethnic autonomy of China and Japan. The basic religions of China and Japan – Taoism and Shinto – are the basis for arguing that both countries are autonomous in the religious and cultural way.

Taoism and Shinto as the Original Religious Paradigms

Both Taoism and Shinto are national religions. However, if Shinto is inalienable from the Japanese culture, then Taoism has a certain missionary enthusiasm, through which it has spread in most countries of the Far East region.
Shinto is characterized as a more archaic religion than Taoism. There are certain obvious manifestations of its archaism. Firstly, it is the lack of philosophical and theoretical formation. Secondly, Shinto has no formations at all, i.e. it has an immensely large integrity as compared with Taoism (Aston). The latter is a religion as well as a philosophy, but Shinto is a religion only. However, the division of religions into more or less archaic implies existence of some general timeline that is common to all phenomena of this kind. The phenomena, which are preserved as archaic or primitive ones, are usually compared with the early stages of the existence of complex phenomena. If one speaks about Shinto’s archaism based on the absence of theoretical constructs in this religion, then it would assume existence of some common law, according to which every traditional religion is obliged to give rise to its own philosophy sooner or later.

The next significant difference is a distinction not only between Taoism and Shinto but also between Chinese and Japanese mentalities as a whole. It is about a phenomenal disinclination of traditional Japanese thinking towards abstraction and speculation. When it comes to comparing Eastern and Western thinking, rejection of abstract constructions is considered as the prerogative of the East. However, with regard to the Chinese culture, it would be correct to speak of unity and indivisibility of the theory and practice, the abstract and the concrete, the speculative and the empirical (Mou).

Such integrity of the Chinese traditional thinking, which has been observed by the generations of Western thinkers since the 19th century, makes the Far Eastern mentality so different from the West (Mou). Even sciences in traditional China represent a relatively holistic and amorphous body of knowledge, which combines quite heterogeneous and diverse ideas and facts in the most direct way. Mythology, astrology, alchemy, and magic are inseparable from cosmology, astronomy, chemistry, and medicine respectively and so on. The treatise, which tells of common categories of the ontological character, may simultaneously be a tool to achieve physical immortality with the help of certain quite specific practices (Mou). In contrast, Japan just has borrowed similar categories from China since the period of antiquity, namely the Asuka and Nara periods (Aston). However, such categories have never acquired importance and significance they had in China.

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As a manifestation of the above regulations, the ancient texts have played an important role in Taoism and Shinto. One of the manifestations of the detachment of traditional Japanese thinking from theory is a pure practicality of all Old Japanese texts. Shinto religion has a collection of myths, ritual prayers, and even secular literature and poetry, which date back to ancient ritual chants (Aston). However, it has no similar persons to Lao-Tzu, Ge Hong, or Zhang Boduan. It means that Shinto is not familiar with a genre of the theoretical and practical treatise, which is very characteristic of Taoism and combines the ideas of ontological, anthropological, and ethical character. Neither Taoism nor Confucianism has a single kind of Bible, but both Chinese religions worshiped a number of books that make up a more or less universally recognized canon (Mou). As for the Shinto religion, it has no similar or any other canon (Aston).

Taoist and Shinto anthropological ideas are also different. In the majority of Taoist traditions, a person is thought of as a psychophysical unity. The existence of the spirit depends on the existence of the body and the vital energy (or qi) acts as an intermediary between the two (Mou). Accordingly, improvement, the ultimate goal of which is achievement of immortality, means the change of moral and ethical qualities of the individual as well as transformation of the body. Classic religious Taoism understands transformation of a human being into the immortal as the preservation and improvement of corporeality (Mou).

Other Taoist traditions represent the final stage of the transformation relating to the release from the corpse (or shijie) and the transformation of a person into a pure spirit (or shen) (Mou). It is important to emphasize the role of corporeality in both cases. In the first case, a man acquires immortality in the flesh, but in the second case the body acts as a stepping-stone to achieve immortality. In Shinto, the body and the spirit are related somewhat differently. On the one hand, the spirit (or kami) is not always the phenomenon of non-physical nature. For example, kami can be a bizarre wood or stone (Aston). The Japanese have borrowed an idea of the ki energy (or qi in the Chinese culture) from China (Aston). As a consequence, a man is thought of as a unity of the spiritual and the corporeal. On the other hand, a person becomes kami after death and the body does not matter in the process. Paradoxically, Shinto does not imply the bodily immortality at all. Every person becomes kami after death according to Shinto religion (Aston). In contrast, immortality is a destiny of the few in Taoism. Immortality in Taoism is achieved only by individual efforts in both the field of ethics and mystical practices. Thus, one can assume that Shinto is a religion that regulates the life of the community. In turn, Taoism is a religion, which regulates the life of the community on the demotic level and allows one to achieve individual immortality on the elitist level (Mou).

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The main virtues of Taoism are the naturalness (or tzu-jan) and the non-action (or wuwei) (Mou). The meaning of these concepts varied through the ages. The concept of naturalness meant detachment and depersonalization for ancient Taoists. However, it could mean the following to passions and emotions since the Han era (Mou). The first interpretation aims at not only perfection of the individual, but also the benefit of the society. The second interpretation is essentially antisocial. As for Shinto, the ethics of this religion is not so much religious as magical; it is a kind of a set of taboos (Aston). The belief in the divinity of the ruler and the sanctity of the social hierarchy are among the foundations of the Shinto religion, but they are not the subject of a special ethical reflection.

Features of Confucianism in China and Japan

The fundamental principles of Confucianism in both China and Japan are patriotism, sacralization of the ruler, rigidity of the social hierarchy, conservatism, and the holiness of tradition. The essential difference between the Chinese and Japanese conservatism is that Confucianism is focused on the development, education, and improvement of the human society, but the autochthonous ethics of Japan is only aimed at preserving the existing order (Yang & Tamney). In addition, it does not imply either individual ethical responsibility or transformation of the society and the individual. The ideas of self-cultivation began to be formed in Japan only under the Chinese influence (Earhart).

Ethics in Confucianism as a unified system is inseparable from epistemology, theoretical knowledge, and development of specific literary, philosophical, historical, and poetic monuments. This unity of ethics and epistemology is expressed in the category of wen (Yang & Tamney). The latter includes appropriate social behavior, appropriate creative-ordering principle, and familiarizing with the literary heritage and a set of books of the Confucian canon in the narrowest sense. As noted above, the Japanese thinking is less inclined to the theory than the Chinese one. Japan had neither “philosophical explosion” like the one that happened in China in the era of Zhou, nor ideological struggle of various schools of ethics (Kitagawa,1990). Studying of such Confucian literature as canonical books, treatises, chronicles, and poetry for didactic purposes in Japan was local in nature. Actually, the Japanese ethics remained much less connected with epistemology than the Chinese one, even absorbing a number of Confucian ideas and categories (Earhart). The role of the theoretical and didactic text remains insignificant in Japan.


With respect to both cultures, one can talk about the top-down dissemination of the Confucian ideology, from the aristocracy and intellectual elite to the lower strata of the population (Yang & Tamney). However, there is one important difference. The officialdom was the ruling class throughout the history of China. In Japan, the power was in the hands of the military class, namely the samurai, since the 12th century and until the collapse of the traditional way of life in the 19th century (Earhart). Thus, Japanese Confucianism was primarily a military ideology. The perception of cultural and military principles is different in China and Japan. They were called wen and wu in China and ben and bu in Japan accordingly (Yang & Tamney). Chinese Confucianism gives an unconditional preference to wen, suggesting wu is a necessary evil. The point of view of the Japanese varied between the recognition of the equivalence of the two principles and the condemnation of the cultural activity as detrimental to the service and fulfillment of duty.

One of the key ideas of the Chinese social philosophy is the idea of the “Mandate of Heaven” (or tianming), which has never been accepted by the Japanese. Chinese Confucianism, despite its conservatism, admits the possibility of insurrection and rebellion even against the supreme power (Yang & Tamney). This aspect is alien to the Japanese mentality. If the Chinese ethical ideal implies submission to a ruler as long as he himself is a carrier of proper ethical qualities, then the Japanese ideal implies absolute submission (Kitagawa, 1990). Hence, it may explain the unity of the Japanese imperial dynasty and the uniquely small number of uprisings of the lower classes throughout the Japanese history. Thus, Chinese Confucianism allows one to climb the social ladder. In turn, the kinship actually does not allow upward mobility in the traditional Japanese society.

Both Chinese and Japanese ethics prescribes service and obedience to elders (Yang & Tamney). The immediate environment as family or clan is on the first place for the Chinese. However, the ministry to a lord or a ruler is of higher priority for the Japanese even if it is to the detriment of the family. The specifics of the Chinese prioritization is due to both geographical conditions (large spatial extent of China) and Taoist-Confucian paradigm (Yang & Tamney). Priorities of the Japanese ethics are due to, respectively, the small size of the inhabited territory and the specifics of the Japanese Confucianism, namely the cult of unconditional obedience and self-sacrifice (Kitagawa, 1990).

Chinese and Japanese Buddhism

Buddhism has had a much greater impact on the formation of statehood in Japan than in China. Buddhism entered China after the reunification of the country around the middle of the Han Dynasty. After the adoption of Buddhism as a state religion in China, it was periodically becoming closer to the authorities, alternating with the periods of disgrace (Schlütter). On the contrary, Buddhism played a special role in Japan at the stage of the country’s emergence as a political entity. Buddhism in Japan was a way to substantiate claims of the imperial house to the throne. The Buddhist community had the greatest political influence in the early stages of the Japanese history, namely the Nara and Heian periods (Schlütter).

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There are also the phenomena of Chan and Zen Buddhism, which are also different. Chan Buddhism is one of the peripheral components of the Chinese traditional culture, but its Japanese equivalent is one of the main paradigms of the Japanese culture. This is due to the fact that Chan Buddhism remains a relatively elitist phenomenon, which has affected only some principles of art on the general cultural level (Schlütter). In contrast, Zen Buddhism has become the ideology of the samurai, which were the ruling class in Japan (Schlütter). Thus, it has penetrated almost all levels of human activity in the Japanese culture.

The Chinese and Japanese religions not only rely on largely similar religious-mythological and philosophical paradigms, but also differ extensively. The ideas of close connection of physical and spiritual components of human beings and the possibility of achieving bodily immortality are characteristic of the Chinese religions. In turn, the Japanese religions are characterized by an acute experience of the short duration of human existence and, consequently, the lack of practices to achieve individual immortality.

The basis of social and ethical ideas of both religions and cultures is unified within the Confucian paradigm. However, Chinese Confucianism gives people the possibility to make assessment of the superior and, as a consequence, the right to an ideologically justified protest. Japanese Confucianism is characterized by humility and submissiveness to a lord or a ruler.

Finally, a traditional Chinese religious, social, and ethical ideal is a scientist, scholar, poet, or writer who is capable of climbing the career ladder due to personal talent and knowledge or to go in search of the immortality. Not only Taoist mysticism, but also rationally oriented Confucianism recognizes immortality as an attribute of an ethically perfect person. In turn, a Japanese religious, social, and ethical ideal is a samurai or warrior who is loyal to his lord unreservedly regardless of the moral qualities of the latter.

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