The last installment of this series, "Spelling with Chinese character(istic)s, pt. 3" (6/30/16), contains links to many other Language Log posts relevant to this subject.
It is often difficult to fathom which English word is intended when it is transcribed in Chinese characters. John Kieschnick called my attention to an especially challenging one: ěrlílìjǐng 爾釐利景. Before going on to the next page and before googling it, try to figure out what it is meant to "spell". Scout's honor! No peeking!
This transcription was invented by an official of the Qing (Manchu) government named Péng Guāngyù 彭光譽 (b. 1844) resident in America who represented China at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Peng told the delegates to the meeting about the "doctrine of Master Kong" (Kǒngzǐ zhī jiào 孔子之教), i.e., Confucianism. When he returned to China, he reported to the Qing court about the other doctrines that were presented at the meeting, referring to them as "ěrlílìjǐng 爾釐利景". Before that moment, China did not have a specific word for "religion", referring to Confucianism, Christianity, Manicheism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. as jiào 教 ("doctrines; teachings").
Peng's account of Confucianism was published as a book in 1896; he called it simply Shuōjiào 說教 ("An explanation of doctrine / teaching"). Since Peng himself did not bother to elucidate the meaning of "ěrlílìjǐng 爾釐利景", I doubt that he himself intended to introduce it as a lexical item in Chinese, preferring instead to rely on the old standby, jiào 教 ("doctrines; teachings").
The adoption in Chinese of a term with the specific meaning of "religion" was the result of a borrowing from Japanese shūkyō 宗 教, which was calqued upon (more exactly "redefined from") Chinese zōngjiào 宗教 ("doctrine / teaching of a sect; ancestral doctrine / teaching") to match the Western term "religion". Since shūkyō 宗教 was soon transmitted back to China as zōngjiào 宗教 with the new Western, imported meaning, I refer to this as a "round-trip word", of which there are many in the modern Chinese lexicon. See "'And the greatest Japanese export to China is…'" (8/21/12), especially the penultimate paragraph, where there is a reference to a paper I wrote on this topic.
And what about "ěrlílìjǐng 爾釐利景"? I suppose that the ěrlí 爾釐 together is an attempt to approximate the "re-" of "religion". Since ěrlílìjǐng 爾釐利景 doesn't really sound much like "religion" and since Peng did not set much store by the concept anyway, there was little chance that it would ever catch on in China. This set the stage for the starring role that would be played by zōngjiào 宗教 in modern Chinese discourse on religion(s).