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The Economies of Temple Chanting and Conversion in China

Eric Reinders discusses the material culture of chant, the complexities of conversion, and the economics of religious “trades” in this intriguing piece. Drawing on excerpts from Christian missionary publications and other writings, Reinders highlights the subtle cultural dynamics at play when two religious traditions encounter one another, especially under conditions when one aims to supplant the other.

Originally published in: International Bulletin of Missionary Research Vol. 31, No. 4 (October 2007)

We have always found the most earnest idolaters make the best Christians; indifference is the hardest thing to combat,” said a Miss Harrison of the Church Missionary Society in 1910. [i] Active but low-ranking Buddhists and Daoists were special targets of missionaries because they were perceived as easier to convert than those who were simply indifferent to any religion. So-called heathenism was widely thought to be an expression of an inherent human impulse towards God, however misguided. So British missionaries in China spent a lot of time in and around Buddhist and Daoist temples. The public spaces in front of temples were logical places to preach. The sight of icons was a common starting point for conversations which inevitably turned to Jesus. Also, when itinerating, sometimes the only places to stay were Buddhist temples, which effectively functioned as inns. And missionaries knew well the various populations associated with temples—monks, nuns, novices, and lay activists, such as the old women in Buddhist temples who earned religious merit by chanting. The Buddhist idea of merit created by chanting scriptures and mantras is well-known, but less so is the fact that these ritual repetitions could be parlayed into hard cash. The key concept here is the “transfer of merit,” which is expressed at the end of Buddhist sutras in a short verse in which one compassionately dedicates the merit created by reciting scripture or the name of Buddhist deities for the happiness and enlightenment of all beings. Dedicating one’s deeds toward the well-being of all is the gist of the bodhisattva vow. Early on, merit was established as transferable. The prevailing mechanism seems to be that someone creates the merit and then gives it to someone else; a more orthodox explanation is that the act of sponsoring someone to chant was itself meritorious. One could hire monks and nuns, but that could be expensive. More reasonably priced, these “reading prayers women” [ii] had time-tables for chanting, and used sheets of paper to record the number of prayers, marking little red dots for a certain number of repetitions. This kind of merit-accounting sheet is still in use today, though I suspect the uses of it have changed. Now it seems to be entirely about wish-fulfillment; in late Imperial China, it functioned like that, but also much like money. It was a currency, a certificate of labor, exchangeable with the spirit-world, but also within the human economy.



Figure 1: Chanting account sheet. The instructions specify filling in one dot for every twenty repetitions of the brief ritual on the flip side of this card.



Missionary view of the practice

The Church Missionary Society of the Church of England and related organizations such as the Zenana Missionary Society published a large volume of Sinology during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: magazines, letter books, annual letters, annual reports, and circular books. This paper samples from the substantial reportage on China and Chinese religion, in publications such as: Church Missionary Gleaner (later, Outlook), India’s Women and China’s Daughters, Homes of the East, Juvenile Instructor, and Awake! Amidst this large volume of reportage were numerous stories of these “reading prayers women.” Naturally, observing this practice, many Protestant missionaries objected, in general, to the fact that these rituals praised not the True God but an idol. When contemplating this specific practice, they were reminded of the worst abuses of mechanistic salvation, the sale of indulgences, in Catholicism—or at least as they imagined Catholicism. Thomas M’Clatchie, a Church of England missionary, visiting a Buddhist temple, reported in 1845: “In front of the altar was placed a table, on which lay their books used in worship, and not one syllable of which is understood, even by the Priests themselves.” [iii] This remark may simply indicate priestly illiteracy, but more likely indicates the use of unintelligible language in scripture and liturgy. Such remarks refer to Sanskrit or pseudo-Sanskrit words in Buddhist worship, primarily in the form of mantra and dharani.

Many Buddhist scriptures and liturgies indeed contain extended utterances with no discernible semantic meaning for the vast majority of their reciters. A few missionaries discussed mantras with Buddhists, but one would not expect most British Protestant missionaries to appreciate the complex theories behind the use of mantras, especially since they were steeped in a thorough critique of the use of “meaningless” liturgical language in Europe. Throughout Protestant Europe, the use of Latin was rejected in favor of the vernacular, as much during the Reformation itself as during the Victorian movement against Ritualism. So mantras in particular were denied full conscious meaning. In addition to their unintelligibility, mantras and Buddhist liturgy in general were also objectionable because of the fact of repetition. Davis wrote that “To the repetition of the bare sounds, without regard to the meaning, they attach the highest importance; hence they occasionally go over the same words hundreds and thousands of times.” [iv] Repetition of the same statement was rendered absurd if the semantic meaning of the words was imagined as the only worthwhile function of speech, and where meaning is conceived strictly as semantic communication. However, in the chanting of Buddhist mantras, the semantic meaning may be unimportant, so that in Buddhist terms, to point out their literal unintelligibility is to miss the point—namely, the production of the sacred sounds themselves, for the mantra is the deity, in the form of sound. Missionaries associated endless repetition with Catholic practices of liturgical repetition such as the Hail Mary. In the 1860s, many British Protestants objected not only to the fact of repetition but also the chanting style in Anglo-Catholic Ritualist worship. Objecting to “intoning” or “intonation” (also known as monotoning), many British Protestants found it aesthetically unpleasant, comparing it to dogs howling, but more importantly felt it harder to understand than a plain reading voice, or a hymn. Missionaries in China familiar with the current conflicts in England over liturgy would have found the almost-monotoned quality of Buddhist liturgy especially evocative of Catholicism and the “Romanist” tendencies in Anglican churches.

Another theme of anti-Catholic discourse, the hypocrisy and corruption of monastic institutions, was in China also tied to sponsored chanting. A missionary in 1929 tells of a young woman who is destitute after her mother dies; “Then came two Buddhist nuns to the little village, with their long robes and shaved heads, seeking to line their pockets by repeating prayers for dead or living.” She too becomes a nun. But the rituals “brought no peace to her troubled heart. Too soon she realized the futility of it all, the insincerity of the other nuns, most of whom had been taken as infants and reared to the profession. They did not pretend to keep the vegetarian vow strictly in the privacy of the nunnery, and seemed to care only for the money they could extort from the credulous, a dollar for twenty-four chants, or more if they could get it.” [v] As part of a larger industry, these chanting women also made various paper objects for ritual use. Some missionary discussions of Chinese religion focused on the economic waste, and on the threat implied by the great economic power of Chinese religion as an industry. In the popular missionary magazine Awake! Arthur Elwin, in 1895, estimated the cost of all the offerings to the dead at sixteen million pounds a year. In a fairly monotonous article, he emphasized the great expenditure of labor. He enumerated: all the trades in China which are directly interested in the continuation of idolatry, and therefore, of necessity, opposed to Christianity. … When those engaged in the trades and occupations mentioned above realize that their craft is endangered by the spread of Christianity, they are sure to rise up against it. And perhaps soon we shall find the bamboo-planters, the paper-makers, the paper-mill owners, the paper-carriers, the boatmen, the dyers, the pattern-printers, the paper-clothes tailors, the tinfoil beaters, the tinfoil-paper makers, the sham-money makers, the sham-dollar stampers, the candle-makers, the paper box, paper house, paper horse, paper sedan-chair, paper boat makers, and the keepers of the shops where these things are sold, awaking to their danger and rising up, a great army, to oppose the extension of Christ’s Kingdom.” [vi] Passages such as this show an awareness of the financial commitments that had to be broken by converts deserting that army.

The cost of converting

In that case, a Buddhist nun got a dollar for twenty-four chants. Temple women were lowlier foot-soldiers in that idolatrous army, but they could still earn a meager living. Temples were in this sense havens for old women with little financial support. When they converted to Christianity their source of income was necessarily ended. Missionaries were insistent that the idolatrous practice must end but were sympathetic to their financial plight.

For example in a 1900 account in India’s Women and China’s Daughters, a certain Mrs. Ho politely inquired of the Gospel and began to attend church, was convinced of the Christian message, but had financial problems because she had been pre-paid to chant Buddhist texts. “She was then quite convinced of the folly and wrong of idolatry” but she felt obliged to those who had already paid her. The missionary Alice M. Phillips resisted the temptation to pay off the debt. She commented “we feared to give her money, lest our motive should be misunderstood.” The rather un-ingenious solution to the immediate obligation was for Mrs. Ho to chant her non-Christian prayers as promised, but very quickly.



Figure 2: Chanting account sheet. This sheet specifies chanting the mantra fifty times per dot, and that 1,200 of these sheets are required for the certain fulfillment of your wish.



Even after she’d stopped making merit sheets for clients, Mrs Ho had a stash of her own, which she also needed to get rid of. Mrs. Ho said a friend was keeping the papers and that they would be burnt over her coffin. Alice Phillips said it was not religiously efficacious, and getting rid of these papers would “please Jesus.” The story continues: One afternoon she called me downstairs, and to my delight I saw that, of her own accord, she had brought her basket and all it contained. It was a very solemn time for us both; she was giving up what had cost her a lifetime to make. How easy for me to take them from her, but what it must have meant for her! The old brown fingers trembled as so carefully she took out bundle after bundle of paper prayers marked with the red mark, which is the proof that so many prayers had been said; packets of chopsticks, bowls, spoons, all made of paper; packets of twisted paper, the cords to draw her soul from hell; a large paper-made ancestral tablet on which is written her life-history—the date when she was dedicated to the service of Buddha, &c., signed by her sons and herself and by other chanting women; two passports which are to frank her through the evil spirit world (on these are written the names of several devils and permission to pass through their halls); a purse made of calico, containing gold and silver money to be used in hades; numbers of shoes of gold and silver, each representing so many dollars (these, she said, are made with great labour), her rosary with a little image of Buddha and two silver characters for Buddha and happiness; four or five smaller rosaries; a paper representing a ship—this is surrounded by hundreds of little circles: each represent so many prayers, and therefore so much money …; a very pretty pair of white and blue satin shoes (real size) for her to wear after her death. Among the paper things was a large round of cardboard, and on it were fastened sold paper hair-ornaments, earrings, bracelets, &c. With all these was her idol calendar, telling when and where she must worship certain idols. It was very touching to see the old lady carefully take out these that had been most precious treasures to her. She told me what they were and slowly put them back, and then looked up brightly and said, “Now I have Jesus, that is enough; I do not want these any more.” Then they were packed up in her peculiar red basket (only used by such women), the wooden box to hold incense was also there, and later on she brought me her brown coat, grey skirt, and even her old black stick and little wooden box in which she used to take her rice to the temple. “I used all these things in the service of Buddha; I must have nothing more to do with them,” she said, and she gave them to me. [vii]

Only after all of these things were relinquished, some time later, was she baptized. Rather than just throw them away, converts gave various objects to missionaries such as icons, ritual paraphernalia, and these “Golden Baskets” [viii] of meritorious paperwork. It was part of a ritual of conversion—a repudiation of previous idolatry and a proof of sincerity for missionaries already suspicious of “rice Christians.” Churches in the mission fields had systems of education, examination, and probation, along with a series of specific measurements of commitment, which consisted of giving up all worship of the idols, and (where applicable,) polygamy, foot-binding, opium, temple employment, and vegetarian vows. Hence, it was never a simple matter for a Chinese to become Christian; just saying so was not enough. These precautions were perhaps inevitable given the notion of the “rice Christian”—the apparent convert who desires only the material benefits from association with the mission: food, employment, and legal protection. [ix] Missionaries resisted the move to make conversion profitable. Some missionaries lived in China for decades and undoubtedly got to know the Chinese intimately, but the constant doubts about the sincerity of would-be converts generated a whole hermeneutics of suspicion applied to Chinese converts by Western missionaries.

I suspect the cultural alienation experienced by missionaries as foreigners undermined their ability—and their confidence in their ability—to evaluate native peoples’ inner states. These doubts suggest uncertainty about the cultural competence to assess indigenous behavior, especially as the specifically soteriological suspicion was mingled with a wide range of negative Colonialist views of the Chinese. The well-known term “rice Christian” signaled a phenomenon—Chinese converting only for material benefit. We can never quantify such a phenomenon, but I suspect it was minimal. More importantly, the term implied a fear, and a polemical accusation. One’s own congregation were not rice Christians. It was an accusation made against others, or it was a denial that reveals an anxiety about one’s own congregation. But there was also an inverse of this: the fear and the phenomenon of Chinese failing to convert for fear of losing their income, which from a Western perspective was often a trifling amount. We might call this the “riceless Christian.” Balanced against the fear of being “misunderstood” was genuine compassion. Of a male convert, Arthur Moule wrote, “Of course, we (and our friends) helped him a little. We saw that our brother had need; and who would, from what is called the principle of not giving for fear of pauperizing, shut up a heart of compassion from him?” [x] The cost of conversion was, in one story at least, literally measured in bowls of rice: An inquirer named Toong finally converts: In becoming connected with Christianity, Mr. Toong had to give up his whole means of living. His business had been that of a geomancer and fortune-teller, and his wife and son had been engaged in the work of making paper money, which is connected with the superstitions of this people in reference to the dead. Mr. Toong was also connected with an ancestral temple, of which he had the superintendence, on behalf of those who kept tablets there. From these, and, I suppose, similar sources, he derived support for himself and his family, but, without hesitation, he relinquishes all. When reminded of the hardships that might be before him, he said that he had been used to a certain number of meals a day of good rice, but that, if necessary, he could easily abridge the number, rather than continue in sin, and peril his never-dying soul. His wife, too, who expressed her determination to walk in the same path with her husband, replied to a similar remark, by saying that discomforts here were but for a time, but that the torments of hell were eternal.” [xi] In a similar case, a Chinese girl in a missionary school in 1896 was not doing well, because the “little pupil makes idol-paper all day long, and has no time for school. Poor little girl! she does not want to make the idol-paper, but she has to work—her parents make her do it. Will you pray for her, dear friends? She has promised to ask God to make a way for her to earn some money apart from idol-paper making.” [xii]

God apparently listened to some of those prayers. Some of the temple women became “Bible women,” distributing another kind of valuable paper in the interests of religious merit. Some missionary organizations established light industrial enterprises specifically “to help poor Christian widows and others who have given up work in connection with idols” [xiii] Converts made dolls, children’s clothes, stockings, school-quilts, mosquito curtains, shoes, handkerchiefs and velvet slippers with embroidery—actually, a range of products not so dissimilar to their now-abandoned industry of idolatry, except with cloth rather than paper. A good number of converts were employed as servants. For example in the 1890s, Miss E. Onyon met Mrs Zau, “a poor widow with four children, earning her living by making idolatrous paper money, her eldest girl of twelve years old also being employed in the same way. Almost before we had thought of mentioning the subject, Mrs. Zau said, ‘I know if I become a Christian I cannot go on doing this work; I am looking out for other employment.’ We told her God would provide for her if she trusted Him and asked His help and guidance.” [xiv] She later had a job offer, working as a servant for a European lady in Shanghai, who happened to live next door to the missionaries. Later she was baptized, and eventually had a position in an English school. Still the suspicion persisted that Christian servants had converted insincerely. Moule lamented the misperception that “The Chinese, it was said, become Christians only for what they can get by such a profession, and you are much more likely to get faithful service from an honest Heathen than from a hypocritical Christian.” [xv]

The value of paper Missionaries acquired books and papers from converts, which were mostly disposed of unceremoniously. But there was an inverse phenomenon, and unintentional economic effect of Bible and tract distribution. The destruction of Christian books took place constantly, and not usually during riots. “Of the thousands of books and tracts distributed, few have ever been heard from.” [xvi] What happened to these books? Some were put to practical or profane use: “making soles for cloth shoes, employing them at the toilet, papering walls, and so forth.” [xvii] But the destruction of so much pious literature so intrigued M. T. Yates of the American Southern Baptists that he became a kind of detective: he first distributed tracts along a street; a month later there was no trace of them. Some said they had passed them on to friends to read, but Yates did not believe this. Then he got a tip-off from a Chinese friend to go to a certain temple. Hiding himself away, very early one morning, he saw seven or eight coolies bring in sacks of books, including his own. “These loads of books were to be burned before the idol, and some of the ashes distributed on the waters of the canals and rivers, to furnish the spirits of the departed with reading matter, and the balance, mixed with oil, would be used to make the paste of which the smooth surfaces of sign boards and lacquered ware are made.” [xviii] The spectacle of the Bible burnt as an offering to Buddha and distributed for watery souls to pass the time is wonderfully ironic.


Missionaries were very familiar with popular Chinese religion, and viewed “earnest idolaters” as likely prospects—for example, the old women who earned merit and money chanting, who made these account sheets. This practice brought to the surface familiar categories of anti-Catholic rhetoric. Also, it was one example of many economic practices which made heathenism not just a set of wrong ideas but a huge industry, an economic army which indeed ought to feel threatened by missions. Disengaging from the idolatrous economy was regarded as essential for conversion, but there is evidence of widespread awareness of and sympathy for Chinese who had to give up their income in order to convert. In the case of Mrs. Ho, she discarded not just cash income but her spiritual bank account and the accumulated wealth invested in her post-mortem well-being. I began looking into this topic out of curiosity about missions and Buddhist or Daoist temples as economic rivals. Missions did provide some economic assistance to converts—mainly work in small industry, handicrafts, as servants, in mission schools and hospitals. Let me reiterate that I think “rice Christian” names primarily a kind of missionary fear or alienation rather than the reality of converts, not only because of the inverse reality, the “riceless Christian” or convert who loses economically by converting, but because far more than economic hardship was often involved. All of us feel sad and embarrassed when we read old Western publications saying: “five missionaries martyred in mob violence in China,” with photographs and details, and as an afterthought, in the last paragraph:…and a couple of dozen Chinese Christians.

Notes and References

  • [i] Miss Harrison, Church Missionary Gleaner (CMG), June 1910, 92.
  • [ii] Kate Gardner mentions one site where “there were about eighteen ‘reading prayers women’ (Nang-geng) in the temple. They spend their time saying prayers to the idols” Kate E. Gardner, “Kien-ning Village Work.” India’s Women and China’s Daughters (IWCD), 1902, 213-214. Alice M. Phillips describes “a class of women” called “those who read the holy books.” 16. “Buddhist Chanters in Kien-Ning.” IWCD, 1900, 16-17.
  • [iii] “Visit to a Buddhist Temple in China,” CMG, June 1845, 70. On missionary views of non-Christian religious language, see Eric Reinders, Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies (University of California, 2004), 71-88.
  • [iv] William C. Milne, quoted in John Francis Davis, The Chinese: A General Description of the Empire of China and Its Inhabitants (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1840), vol. II, 98.
  • [v] Mrs. Marshall, “The Story of a Buddhist Nun.” CMG March 1929, 52.
  • [vi] Arthur Elwin, “Trades in Other Lands. Stories of Working Men and Women in Heathen Countries. VIII.—The Paper Clothes and Sham-money Makers of China.” Awake! August 1895, 92. See also O. M. Jackson. “A Far Western Station.” Awake! Nov 1900, 126-128; H. Barton, “Making Paper-money.” Awake, March 1910, 34; and “Work at Zah-Ky’i; or, The Church Begun in a Boat.” Awake! August 1903, 95.
  • [vii] Alice M. Phillips, “Buddhist Chanters in Kien-Ning.” IWCD, 1900, 16-17. There are similar stories in “Work at Zah-Ky’i; or, The Church Begun in a Boat.” Awake! Aug 1903, 94-95; “‘Papers of Merit’ given up.” Awake, July 1911, 77; Kate E. Gardner, “Kien-ning Village Work.” IWCD, 1902, 214; Mary E. Darley, “Two Seekers,” IWCD, 1908, 28-30.
  • [viii] Mary E. Darley, “Two Seekers,” IWCD, 1908, 28-30.
  • [ix] On the mood of distrust of any material reward for converts, see Irwin T. Hyatt, Jr., Our Ordered Lives Confess: Three Nineteenth-century American Missionaries in East Shantung  (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), 25-62.
  • [x] A. E. Moule, “Chinese Stories: I.—The Patience of Hope.” Awake!, July 1911, 75.
  • [xi] J. S. Burdon, “Break of Day at Shaouhing, China.” CMG, Jan 1862, 5-6.
  • [xii] Miss Barber, “A Day in Fuh-Chow.” Awake! Dec 1896, 136.
  • [xiii] [Name illegible], “Industrial Work in Foochow City” IWCD, 1905, 17.
  • [xiv] Miss E. Onyon, “At Work in Shanghai City.” Awake! Nov 1897, 128-129.
  • [xv] A. E. Moule, “Chinese Stories. IV.—A Chinese Servant’s Witness.” Awake, Oct 1911,117. He adds, “This uncharitable libel died out, I believe absolutely, after the Boxer rising.”
  • [xvi] Charles P. Bush, Five Years in China: or, The Factory Boy made a Missionary. The Life and Observations of Rev. William Aitchison, Late Missionary to China (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1865), 97.
  • [xvii] Lutz, Jessie G. Lutz & Rolland Ray Lutz, Hakka Chinese Confront Protestant Christianity, 1850-1900: With the Autobiographies of Eight Hakka Christians, and Commentary (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998), 74.
  • [xviii] M. T. Yates, Records of the General Conference of the Protestant Missionaries of China, Held at Shanghai, May 10-24, 1877 (Shanghai: Presbyterian Mission Press, 1879),112. Bush, Charles P., 1865. Five Years in China: or, The Factory Boy made a Missionary. The Life and Observations of Rev. William Aitchison, Late Missionary to China, Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication. Davis, John Francis, 1840. The Chinese: A General Description of the Empire of China and Its Inhabitants, New York: Harper & Brothers. Hyatt, Irwin T., Jr., 1976. Our Ordered Lives Confess: Three Nineteenth-century American Missionaries in East Shantung, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Lutz, Jessie G. & Lutz, Rolland Ray, 1998. Hakka Chinese Confront Protestant Christianity, 1850-1900: With the Autobiographies of Eight Hakka Christians, and Commentary, Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe. Reinders, Eric, 2004. Borrowed Gods and Foreign Bodies, Berkeley: University of California. Yates, M. T., 1879. Records of the General Conference of the Protestant Missionaries of China, Held at Shanghai, May 10-24, 1877, Shanghai: Presbyterian Mission Press


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