Chinese Religion in Malaysia, pt. 2

More excerpts from Chee-Beng Tan’s 1983 essay “Chinese Religion in Malaysia: A General View.” Here is Part 1, which dealt with “Chinese Religion” as a concept and the reasons why Confucianism should be considered a philosophy rather than a religion.


The first thing to know about Taoism or Daoism is the following:

The term “Taoism” is misleading because it does not distinguish Taoism as a school of philosophy from Taoism as a system of religion. Chinese scholars normally refer to the former as daojia 道家 and the latter as daojiao 道教. (Tan 228)

Next, it is important to note that the first two lines of the Daodejing can be roughly interpreted as “The tao that can be told/is not the eternal Tao./The name that can be named/is not the eternal Name” (Mitchell 1). That said, Tan does provide a good overview of how different people have conceived of the Dao:

Dao (or tao in the Wade-Giles system) is a crucial concept in Taoism, and is usually translated in English as “Way.” While the dao of Confucianism refers to the way of righteousness and benevolence, the dao in Taoism is rather abstract. It refers to the attainment of non-differentiation and identification with nature. When one has achieved this dao, one is eternal and there is no place in him for death, since dao the unnameable is eternal.

Taoist philosophy is rather abstract but its metaphysics facilitates religious reinterpretation. Thus the eighty-one chapter Daode Jing became the first sacred book of Taoist religion, with of course much reinterpretation.

A main concern of the early Taoist followers was to find ways to avoid death and become immortals called xian 仙 (hsien in the Wade-Giles system). This goal of physical immortality and craving for life is certainly against Taoist philosophy, which teaches men not to work against nature. (229)

Tan proceeds to suggest reserving the term “Taoism” for the philosophy while referring to the system of religious and spiritual practice as “Taoist religion” (229).

Incidentally, the character for xian consists simply of the radical for “man” on the left, and the character for “mountain” on the right.

Tan describes one particularly interesting school and its philosophy of how to attain longevity/immortality:

In order to attain longevity and immortality, the early Taoists not only practiced alchemy, but also breath and dietary observances, and observed the art of sexual activities. […]

A branch of this school was what Welch (1966: 105-112) describes as the interior gods hygiene school. According to this school, the human body has three vital centers, one in the head, one in the chest and another one in the abdomen. These centers are called dantian 丹田, or “fields of cinnabar.”

The body is conceived of as a microcosm of the universe, for the deities of the universe also inhabit the body. The deities must be prevented from leaving the body if one wishes to attain longevity and immortality. (23)

Also, for those interested in the Paleolithic Diet and other diets which call for the reduction of the consumption of grains:

As the body is also inhabited by three worms, one in each field of cinnabar, a serious follower should also avoid eating grains, for these worms, which cause disease and death, survive on them. (231)

All of this is interesting as a general overview of Daoist religion, of course, but according to Tan, “In Malaysia, there is no distinct Taoist sect although Taoist beliefs and practices exist in Chinese Religion […] The Taoist priests in Malaysia are religious practitioners within this general system of Chinese Religion, and not practitioners of separate Taoist sects” (233).


Tan writes that organized Buddhism in Malaysia is in a similar situation as the Daoist religious sects, though it retains slightly more of an independent existence:

“Pure” Buddhist temples are few in number. There are, however, many temples which house a large number of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist deities, but whose patron deity or deities are of Buddhist origin.

These temples have been described by various people as “Buddhist” temples, and the Chinese word si 寺, which refers to Buddhist temples, is normally used to describe them.

The main (patron) deity in these marginal Buddhist temples is usually Guanyin, and so worshipers often refer to these temples as “Guanyin temples.” (237)

Tan describes how Buddhist and Taoist deities are worshiped in the same temple:

Cheng Hoon Teng (Qingyun Ting 青云亭) in Malacca is a good example of this kind of temple. There are three altars in the main hall of the temple. The main altar in the center is for worshiping Guanyin, the patron deity of the temple.

In front of this altar, there are two statues of Skyamuni Buddha but they are smaller than the statue of Guanyin. The other two altars are at the left and right of the main altar and at these altars the Taoist deities [Mazu] and Tai Su […] are worshiped. (237)

Tan outlines the general guidelines for how to behave at different temples:

Each Chinese temple, be it of Buddhist or non-Buddhist origin, is distinct according to the patron deities it worships. The worshipers have to adjust their religious behavior according to the traditions of these patron deities. Thus meat dishes are not offered to Buddhist deities, just like pork is not offered to deities of Malay [Muslim] origin. (238)


There are also several sects that attempt to syncretize the “three teachings” or san jiao with Christianity and Islam, which results in a total of “five teachings.”

Tan writes, however, that “this boils down to the addition of Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammad as deities in the Chinese religious system rather than any incorporation of Christian and Islamic theology” (241).

Tan points out, too, that these inclusions are rather uncommon:

While Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammad are incorporated as “Chinese” deities in Dejiao, they are not so significant as deities, but are more honored as founders of religions.

Outside Dejiao and other “syncretic” sects, the Prophet Mohammad, who is not considered a deity in Islam, is regarded by many Chinese Religion followers as merely a Muslim deity, not worshiped by the Chinese.

Jesus Christ is also not treated as a deity in Chinese Religion other than by those sects that base their doctrines on the “five teachings.” (242)

There is one major exception, however:

The Peranakan Chinese (Baba) in Melaka, however, treat Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mother, represented by the statues at Saint Peter’s Church, as efficacious Christian deities […]

Once a year on Good Friday, when the church is open to the public, the non-Christian Baba visit the church to pray to these “christian deities” to ask for blessing, especially in their children’s education.

That the “Christian deities” are associated with education may be due to the “traditional” stereotype that colonial masters were well educated and these “Christian deities” were regarded as the deities of the Europeans. (242)

Tan notes that “the ideology of polytheism means that many deities exist in the universe and therefore the existence of deities in other religions must also be accepted. Hence, polytheistic religions are tolerant of other faiths” (241). He elaborates:

While the more exclusive religions may deny the existence of Chinese deities, Chinese Religion does not deny the existence of the deities of other religions, but treats them as belonging to the religions of other ethnic groups.

This also means that Chinese Malaysians do not see it inappropriate to worship at, say, certain Hindu shrines which are known to be very efficacious.

This does not mean that the Chinese worshipers have incorporated the Hindu deities into the Chinese religious system. Only persistent and widespread worship of certain non-Chinese deities may eventually lead to the incorporation of these deities into Chinese Religion, such as in the case of Nadugong worship [earth gods of Malay origin]. (241-2)

Features of Chinese Religion

Tan points out certain characteristics of Chinese Religion as it exists in Malaysia:

Neither dogma nor clergy presides over the religious life of the Chinese. Compared to Christianity and Islam, Chinese Religion worshipers are more concerned with material welfare than life after death.

Even funeral rites are performed not only for the deceased but also for the prosperity and general welfare of the living. This is not a case of man serving the supernatural as much as it is of the supernatural serving man.

When Chinese worshipers give offerings to deities, they expect them to reciprocate by protecting them and fulfilling their requests. Except in special cases, Chinese Malaysians are not bound to worship any particular deity. They worship those that are popular and can serve them most. […]

Furthermore, Chinese Religion in Malaysia had been shaped by the experience of the immigrants who sought divine protection and blessing in their worldly ventures. In fact, folk religions grow out of the experience of the masses and therefore reflect their worldly concerns for peace, prosperity and security. (242-3)


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