Religion words

In traditional Chinese religion, people worship gods and ancestors.

For those who know their way around East Asian religious studies, it seems like an uncontroversial statement. But the deeper I get, the more it seems fundamentally incorrect. Two terms seem especially problematic (though you could quibble about pretty much all of them): worship and gods.

We can start with the latter. According to Myron Cohen, scholars of Chinese religion decided to reclaim the term “god” from the Judeo-Christian context in which it was most often used. And there are ways in which the Chinese gods resemble the gods of India or classical Greece and Rome. But the differences loom large. “Gods” can be both guei and shen, or (for lack of better terms) ghosts and spirits, although my ancestors might be your ghosts and vice versa.

But East Asians don’t necessarily treat their “gods” with the kind of respect and veneration — in a word, worship — that a Westerner might expect. When a local god wouldn’t provide rain, officials were known to take it out and leave it in a hot field to suffer, thrash it with sticks, even smash it if no rain came. You can’t do that to Yahweh or Jesus or Allah, or even Zeus or Odin, although maybe you could with some minor god.

And from the problem with gods, we can see the problem with worship. Even if we set aside such cases of spirit abuse, more orthodox ancestor veneration or propitiation is simply not the same as what we usually think of as worship. For one thing, ancestor rituals very closely resemble the respect paid to living ancestors, and no one thinks East Asians are actually worshipping their living parents or grandparents. If your dead parent is being fed and bowed to the same way he was when he was alive (with minor differences), why is it now worship? Care or propitiation or veneration seem like better terms.

It is never easy to find the right balance between translation and obscurity. To say that Koreans engage in god and ancestor worship and that shamans perform exorcisms is misleading in all sorts of ways, but to say that Koreans perform kut and chesa for shin and gajok is difficult for the layperson. I haven’t got a satisfactory solution to this problem, but I think it’s worth noticing that the problem is there.