CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


On Language | China Heritage Quarterly

On Language

The Religion of Names

Hu Shih 胡適

This essay, contributed to the weekly in Chinese and translated by the editors appeared in The China Critic, I:16 (13 September 1928): 308-310.—The Editor

By a few modern scholars China is regarded as a country devoid of a religion and the Chinese a race free from religious superstitions. Certain optimists rejoice over this discovery, feeling as they do that it is a glorious manifestation to believe in no religion. Some pessimists despair of this, feeling as they do that it is a sign of racial degeneracy to be without a religion.

Fig.1 Hu Shih (胡適, 1891-1962), author of 'The Religion of Names', whose calligraphy adorned the first issues of The China Critic.

The time has come, however, when the optimists may no longer indulge in unlimited exultation and the pessimists in perpetual gloom. It has been newly discovered that China after all is not a country without a religion. In fact, China has today an exceedingly powerful and magnificent religion of her own. As a religion Confucianism has long been relegated to oblivion, Buddhism has long been dead, Taoism has long been on the decline. And yet we do still have a religion of our own. What is it? This religion enjoys a great name; so it is called the Religion of Names.

What does the Religion of Names believe? Names.

What does the Religion of Names worship? Names.

This Religion of Names has only one cardinal belief: Trust and worship the omnipotence of names.

What is a name? A 'name,' according to Confucian classics, is an ancient term for words, the written words.

The Religion of Names is, therefore, a religion founded on the worship of the written words, the faith in the written words as a supernatural and mystic power or religion.

We have believed in this religion for thousands of years, and yet we are unaware of the existence of such a powerful and magnificent religion. For this religion is so all-embracing, both omnipresent and omnipotent, that it is like the air in which we daily breathe and live that has escaped our notice.

Now with the progress of science it has become possible to analyse air; likewise it has become an interesting hobby to study the true nature of this religion of words.

Actually what is this noble religion of ours? Let me discuss it step by step.

To begin with a new-born baby. In ancient times when a baby was born, an expert astrologist would be called to listen to its cries in order to determine its name. This custom has since been much simplified. All that is required is to engage an ordinary fortune teller to decide, by the study of the date and hour of birth, which of the five elements of life (i.e., metal, wood, water, fire, earth) is lacking and to give the baby a name bearing a radical that signifies that particular missing element. If two elements are lacking, then a whole word signifying both elements is required in naming the baby.

If the baby's star is unfavorable, then it has to be named after any of the monks before the Goddess of Mercy and forthwith its life is freed from all evils.

Again if the baby cries constantly and does not sleep soundly, all that is needed is a rythmatic [sic]charm posted in a public lavatory on the street. The passers-by are requested to repeat the charm, and the baby will forthwith sleep all through the night.

Great indeed is the power of the written word!

Finally, if a boy is frightened after accidentally falling down he has lost his 'spirit'. It is therefore necessary to recall it. To do this it is simply necessary for some one to go to the place of accident, scatter a handful of rice, and shout out the boy's name all the way home. To call the name is to recall the 'spirit'.

If a boy loses in a fight in school and wishes to voice his vengeance, he has only to write on the wall a few words cursing his opponent, and presently he feels amply revenged.

The same it true of his mother. If she bears a grudge against her neighbor's wife, she can simply take hold of her meat chopper, chop on the chopping board, repeat the unfortunate woman's name and experience the satisfaction that her enemy has thereby become chopped meat.

His father is also a disciple of the religion of words or names. He has been insulted by his neighbor but is too weak to challenge him to a fight. He resorts to peaceful means and swears at his neighbor, his wife, son, daughter, father, mother, grandfather, grandmother ad infinitum. Thus, he feels fully revenged of the insult.

If any one in his family is taken ill, a Taoist priest is called to write a charm. A copy of it is then posted over the main doorway, another on the bedroom door and a third on the wall of the lavatory. Immediately all evil spirits are dispersed, never to return again. Thus charm is an important procedure in the religion of words.

If any one dies, a company of Buddhist monks is engaged to recite their prayer books, so that the dead may safely cross the river to the land of eternity. Thus the recital of prayer books is another important procedure in the religion of words.

On the occasion of a funeral, condolences are expressed appropriately in words written on scrolls; likewise on the occasion of a wedding or birthday anniversary, congratulations are presented in beautiful scrolls.

A bean curd dealer wishes good luck upon himself. He has a pair of scrolls written and pasted on each side of the main door.

The name of a parent or ancestor should not be used by the offspring, and the same is true of names of emperors. Yet the name of Sun Chun-san (i.e., Dr Sun Yat-sen) is widely used in connection with schools and merchandize though one does not hear his given name 'Sun Wen' very much. All patriots should really address him as the 'Late Leader'.

There was a university in Nanking which became the storm center on account of the change of its name.

After the fall of Peking, the disciples of this religion of names got busy and had the ancient capital renamed 'Peiping'. It is even proposed to change the name of 'The Ancient Palace Museum' (i.e., the Museum in Peking) to the 'Defunct Palace Museum'. The future holds unlimited possibilities for activities of this kind.

After the Tsinan incident in May, I traveled frequently on the Shanghai-Woosung Railway. The journey took about forty minutes, but I noticed over 1000 posters with slogans, and the organs issuing such slogans number over seventy. China has indeed become a world of slogans. Some are inclined to credit Soviet Russia with this marvelous record, but this is not so. I stayed in Moscow three days not long since, and did not notice a single poster of this kind. Slogans are after all 'native goods' and constitute a valuable heritage of the religion of words.

For instance, is there any essential difference between 'down with imperialism' and any scroll wishing oneself unbounded success?

Is there any essential difference between 'Down with Tanaka' and a boy's curse on his opponent in school?

Of course in the minds of national leaders, words and slogans are one effective way of propaganda and a political weapon. But in the minds of school children and subordinates in the army catch words and slogans are but a means to give vent to their pent-up feelings. If the slogan 'Down with Imperialism' is permissible with the leaders, then why can't the school children shout out such slogans as 'Death to all enemies'? If the slogan 'Down with Wang Ching-wei' is permissible, then why shouldn't it be permissible, the students would like to ask, to use such slogans as 'Down with Tanaka'?

From an historical standpoint, slogans are a legitimate off-spring of the religion of names. Some of the slogans are created out of the psychological complex of the authors, and others are but meaningless imitations. As every one can indulge in slogans without much effort, they become almost a hobby with certain classes of people. Thus we have slogans commemorating 1, 4, 5, 7, 9 May and 3 June. All that is needed to solemnize each of these occasions is to declare a holiday, hold a mass meeting, post numerous slogans and shout some catchwords. As a result, there is a holiday of this kind every month, every week. Everywhere on the walls are displayed slogans; every one is repeating catchwords. In consequence, our ancestors' religion of names becomes widely spread today and China is thus elevated to be a country of the religion of names.

The philosophical phase of the religion of words may be briefly dealt with here though it is shrouded in mystery beyond human comprehension.

  1. Our ancestors believed that one's 'name' was identical with one's 'spirit'. Even today we are not yet free from the influence of that belief. This superstitious conception of the identity between 'name' and 'spirit' was universal in the earlier stages of the world's civilization. The Egyptians once held that the 'eighth spirit' was the 'spirit of name'. Similar superstition may be found in many Chinese classical novels.
  2. Our ancestors believed that 'names' (i.e., words) had mystic power beyond the understanding of us mortals. The influence of this belief has directly or indirectly affected our subconscious ways of thinking, though such a belief was common with primitive people. In our own country it may be best illustrated by Buddhist literature, some of which, being phonetic rendering of Sanskrit, is to the average follower but a conglomeration of meaningless words and which is yet believed to have the power of salvation of the human soul. Thus, in our novels and even in our daily life, priests and witches have always tried to command power by the repetition of words, much in the same pious spirit with which people have resorted to the use of slogans against 'imperialism', 'militarism' and individuals.
  3. Our sages also believed in a rationalized religion of names, and this belief has contributed materially to the vitality of the religion. Even Confucius, finding himself incompetent to fight the 'traitors' and 'usurpers' of his time, resorted to editing the Books of Spring and Autumn, which is still believed to have inspired awe even in the minds of such 'traitors' and 'usurpers.' It is even said that one word of praise in that book is as great glory as the highest royal attire and a word of condemnation as effective as a sword.

Two thousand years ago a ninety-year-old man advised Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty that to govern well depends not on speech but on action. Two thousand years after him we may advise our national leaders that to save the country does not depend upon slogans but on their action.

Over a thousand years ago a certain hermit left a maxim upon his death; 'Regard ephemeral what is actual; but don't regard actual what does not exist.'

For instance, ghosts do no exist, and yet the people in olden days created the name or word 'ghosts' and later even classified ghosts into various categories; until now ghosts have come to assume practical existence in the minds of man. To the national leaders we are inclined to say: 'Regard actual what does exist, but don't regard actual what does not exist.'

Finally we may attempt to be up-to-date and compose two slogans:

Down with slogans! Down with the Religion of Names!

Up with the Republic of China!