The Religions of China

This course will examine the history, theory, and practice of the major religious traditions of China (Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism), as well as the folk traditions that blend all three. The course will focus on the evolution of Chinese religion through a process of mutual influence within a general atmosphere of religious tolerance for sectarian differences.

The distribution of grades for the course is as follows:

10%Class/BodhiBlog Participation
45%Essays (3x15%: 5 page/1500 word minimum)
20%Midterm Exam
25%Final Exam

You final grade will ultimately depend on my assessment of your performance in each of the above areas, though the following descriptions should provide you with a rough idea of the defining characteristics of students within particular grade ranges:

A-/A  Possesses a deep understanding of the major concepts and themes of the course.  The “A” student is able to consistently identify and explain key ideas in the readings, develop genuine insights into the broader significance of these concepts, and demonstrate a high level of intellectual engagement in class discussions.

B-/B/B+  Demonstrates a serious commitment to the course (i.e. attendance and participation) and a strong grasp of the major concepts and themes but with less depth and/or consistency than the “A” student.

C-/C/C+  Demonstrates a reasonable effort to attend class and participate in discussions as well as a basic grasp of the course material.

D  Demonstrates a minimal commitment to the course and a weak grasp of basic concepts and themes.

F  Fails to demonstrate an acceptable degree of effort in the course through low attendance, inability to discuss basic concepts and themes, missed assignments and/or plagiarized work.

Class/BodhiBlog Participation
Your participation mark will be based on attendance as well as your participation in both class and “BodhiBlog” discussions. To participate in the BodhiBlog discussion, log in to Blackboard with your NCC username and password, select “REL 260 Religions of China” and then click the “BodhiBlog” link; from here you can either reflect on an issue from the readings, expand on a theme that was discussed in class, or respond to someone else’s BodhiBlog entry. Although your mark will ultimately depend on my subjective evaluation of the quantity and quality of your comments, you may reasonably expect to receive at least a “B” if you attend class regularly and participate in both class and BodhiBlog discussions on a weekly basis; superior performance in both areas will result in an “A”, whereas inferior performance will result in a “C” or less.
There will be a 5-page (1500 word minimum) essay for each of the three main traditions covered in the course: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Please note that you are required to use a minimum of five “academic” (i.e. peer-reviewed) sources and must provide appropriate citations for both direct and indirect quotations using “Chicago Style” footnotes and bibliography. All papers should be submitted electronically at Blackboard/Assignments; due dates are listed on the syllabus, after which your grade will go down one degree (e.g. from B+ to B) for each day that the essay is late. If you have any doubts regarding what does or does not constitute plagiarism, please refer to the college’s plagiarism policy. Essays that contain significant instances of plagiarism will receive a 0 and be reported to the Office of Academic Affairs.

Essay 1: The Unity/Diversity of Daoism

The term “Daoism” can be applied to a diverse group of traditions, including early texts (Neiye, Daodejing, and Zhuangzi) that emphasize the principle of wuwei and organized sects (Celestial Masters/Tianshidao, Supreme Clarity/Shangqing, Numinous Treasure/Lingbao, Orthodox Unity/Zhengyidao, and Complete Reality/Quanzhen) that focus on the pursuit of immortality through inner/outer alchemy and ritual. While some (such as H. G. Creel) have argued that these two approaches are so fundamentally different that they should be thought of as completely distinct traditions (i.e. “philosophical” vs. “religious” Daoism), others (such as Russell Kirkland, Ronnie Littlejohn, and Isabelle Robinet) emphasize their similarities, seeing them as organically connected traditions that share a common root.1 Based on the “folk novel” Seven Taoist Masters as well as the material that was covered in class and any additional research that is required, develop your own position on the relationship between the various strands of Daoist thought and practice.


Essay 2: Self Power/Other Power in Chinese Buddhism

Although numerous schools of Chinese Buddhism had developed by the end of the Tang dynasty (618-907), most sects were seriously weakened by the collapse of the Tang … with the exception of the Chan and Pure Land traditions, which gradually merged into a generic form of Buddhism that continues to represent mainstream Chinese Buddhism to this day. Ironically, Chan emphasizes “self power” (attaining awakening through one’s own efforts), whereas Pure Land advocates “other power” (attaining awakening through the power of buddhas and bodhisattvas) — two approaches that would appear to be mutually exclusive. Discuss the relationship between “self power” and “other power” in Chinese Buddhism and explain why these two paths can — or cannot — be harmoniously integrated into a coherent and comprehensive approach to Buddhism that is consistent with the teachings of the historical Buddha. Please note that your paper must include references to both Footprints in the Snow (the autobiography of Chan Master Sheng Yen) and your experience at Foguangshan (or another Chinese Buddhist temple).


Essay 3: Is Confucianism a Religion or a Philosophy?

As Mario Poceski notes in Introducing Chinese Religions, Confucianism is “a somewhat amorphous tradition that lacked many of the trappings and institutions of organized religion,” but also includes “many aspects … that are either explicitly or implicitly religious.2 So are the teachings of Confucianism merely “philosophical” or do they represent a genuinely “religious” path of spiritual cultivation? Your essay should include a definition of religion (to help explain why Confucianism is or is not a religion), as well as references to Tu Weiming’s Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness. You may also wish to consider the significance of some or all of the following concepts: ren (humaneness), li (ritual propriety), Heaven, ancestor worship, self-cultivation, the Confucian sage, the Confucian temple, and the Confucian emphasis on establishing social, political and cosmic harmony.


Midterm and Final Exams
The Midterm and Final Exams will cover basic terms and essential concepts form the first and second halves of the course. A more detailed overview of each exam will be given in the class prior to the exam in question.
Required Texts
  • Poceski, Mario. Introducing Chinese Religions. London: Routledge, 2009. [ICR]
  • Wong, Eva (trans). Seven Taoist Masters: A Folk Novel of China. Boston: Shambhalla, 2004.
  • Sheng Yen. Footprints in the Snow: The Autobiography of a Chinese Buddhist Monk. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
  • Tu, Weiming. Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness. New York: State University of New York Press, 1989. [C&C]
  • All additional readings are available online through Blackboard. After logging in, select “REL 260 Religions of China” and then click “Course Readings”.
Office Hours, Etc.
225 North Loomis Road, Room 23
Monday: 3-5  ●  Wednesdat: 4-5   Thursday: 3-5  ●  Friday: 4-5 (tea)
Phone: 630-637-5619
Home Page:


1 For a summary of the debate, see Mario Poceski, Introducing Chinese Religions (London: Routledge, 2009), 61-3. For the individual positions listed above, see Herlee G. Creel, What is Taoism? And Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), 1-24; Russell Kirkland, Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (New York: Routledge, 2004), 172-210; Ronnie Littlejohn, Daoism: An Introduction (London: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 1-5; and Isabelle Robinet, Taoism: Growth of a Religion, trans. Phyllis Brooks (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 1-23.

2 Mario Poceski, Introducing Chinese Religions (London/New York: Routledge, 2009), 35-6.