THE mythology of modern China was formed in the course of the ages by the juxtaposition of elements of varied origin: we find in it, all pell-mell, alongside of old native divinities, certain great figures of Buddhist origin, who sometimes, indeed, play in it a strange and unexpected part: historical heroes deified in a recent epoch, Taoist personages, etc. And as there never was any body specially in charge of religion, to direct, or at any rate to codify, its development, doctrine and mythology shaped themselves without co-ordination, accepting the ideas and the personages that struck the popular imagination at different times, not without contradictions and duplications.
It is often said that the Chinese have three religions, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism; and by this it is not meant that some are Taoists, others Buddhists, and others Confucianists, but that each Chinese is individually an adherent of the three religions at the same time. That is one of the false notions so prevalent about China. The reality is quite different. The Chinese are no more capable than ourselves of believing in three distinct religious systems at once--of believing, for example, as Buddhists that there is no supreme god governing the universe, the gods being mediocre beings of limited power, subject to birth and death, inferior to the Buddhas who have attained complete enlightenment; as Taoists that the world is governed by a trinity of supreme gods, personal, all- powerful, and eternal, the Three Pure Ones; and again as Confucianists that the supreme power that rules the world is the impersonal Heaven, impersonal though endowed with consciousness. The three religions, as definite systems, have now for several centuries had only historical interest: the people neither practise all three together, nor each of the three separately. Little by little throughout the ages a popular religion has taken shape,