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. In particular, we 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
60%Essays (3x20%: 5 page/1500 word minimum)
15%Midterm Exam
15%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. All papers should be submitted online @ Blackboard/Assignments; due dates are listed on the syllabus and your grade will go down one degree (e.g. from B+ to B) for each day that the essay is late. Please note that you must provide appropriate citations for both direct and indirect quotations using either Chicago Style footnotes and MLA brackets and bibliography. If you have any doubts regarding what does or does not constitute plagiarism, please refer to the college’s plagiarism policy in the Student Handbook. 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
Taoism became a complex, pluralistic system in the forty centuries since its legendary beginnings. It is concerned with four major areas: the philosophical (Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, for example), the ritualistic (temple worship of countless gods and goddesses), the talismanic (sorcery and magic to ward off evil), and the ascetic (the tradition of gaining immortality or spiritual enlightenment through elixirs or meditation). This is simply a rough division; most Taoist sects combine the four in varying proportions. Almost all orders, for example, maintained public temples that both served their constituencies and brought financial support for more esoteric practices. (The Wandering Taoist, xix-xxx)
Discuss these four areas of Daoist practice with regard to Saihung’s training in The Wandering Taoist. Is there a single principle that unites these four areas or is Daoism simply a general term for a collection of distinct approaches to religious cultivation? Your position should be supported by references to both the novel and at least two academic sources (which may include assigned readings for the course).

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 Guo Jun’s Essential Chan Buddhism, your experience at the “Mindfulness Meditation” Contemplative Event, your visit to Foguangshan (or another Chinese Buddhist temple), and at least two academic sources (which may include assigned readings for the course).
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.1 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 and at least two academic sources (which may include assigned readings for the course). 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.
  • Deng Ming-Dao. The Wandering Taoist. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1986.
  • Guo Jun. Essential Chan Buddhism: The Character and Spirit of Chinese Zen. Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Book Publishing Company, 2013.
  • Tu, Weiming. Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness. New York: State University of New York Press, 1989.
  • All additional readings are available online @ Blackboard/Readings.
Office Hours, Etc.
225 North Loomis Road, Room 23
Tuesday: 3-5   Thursday: 2-5 (Tea @ 4)
Phone: 630-637-5619
Home Page:


1 Mario Poceski, Introducing Chinese Religions (London: Routledge, 2009), 35-6.