20080220-Temple ritual micheal turton.jpg
Inside a Chinese temple
China is a multireligious country, with a vast proportion of the population professing no religion. Some worship ancestors and/or Shens (“kindly spirits”). Many subscribe to more than one of the main religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, several major Protestant religions, and Confucianism. Taoism, as a religion, is considered a genuine indigenous religion of China in the sense that Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism were imported from foreign countries, while Confucianism is taken to be more secularly oriented in doctrine. [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D.]

The four major religions and philosophies found in China are: 1) Confucianism, 2) Taoism, 3) Buddhism, and 4) folk religion---can be looked upon as single traditions or components of a broad, nebulous and variable belief system. According to the Library of Congress: The traditional religions of China are Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Confucianism is not a religion, although some have tried to imbue it with rituals and religious qualities, but rather a philosophy and system of ethical conduct that since the fifth century B.C. has guided China's society. Kong Fuzi (Confucius in Latinized form) is honored in China as a great sage of antiquity whose writings promoted peace and harmony and good morals in family life and society in general. Ritualized reverence for one's ancestors, sometimes referred to as ancestor worship, has been a tradition in China since at least the Shang Dynasty (1750---1040 B.C.). [Source: Library of Congress]

Many Chinese pragmatically switch among Taoist, Buddhist, folk and other beliefs and practices, depending on the situation. A researcher in Taiwan told the New York Times that at least 70 percent of Taiwanese still adhere to some traditional ways.

On the ebb and flow and merging of religion in China, Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in Time: “Visions of imperial China as hermetically sealed off from the world are a myth. Foreign belief systems often made their way in and, once reaching Chinese soil, merged with some form of Confucianism (there have been many versions of that creed) or Taoism (ditto) to create hybrid schools of thought. Long before Deng Xiaoping's Marxist-inflected reboot of Lee KuanYew's Singaporean capitalist-meets-Confucian soft authoritarianism, there were equally complex homegrown fusion creations. A famous one was Chan Buddhism (known in Japanese as Zen), a mash-up of native Taoist and imported Indian elements. [Source: Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Time, January 1 2011]

Most Chinese know very little about China's religious past, namely because the government wants it that way to keep religion reigned in. Traditional Chinese religions are often much stronger in Taiwan, Macau, Hong Kong, and even Vietnam and Korea than they are in much of mainland China, where the Communists had some success stomping out traditional beliefs and many temples and monasteries are still overseen by caretakers, not monks or priests.

Good Websites and Sources: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Articles on Religion in China ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations ; Brooklyn College ; Religion Facts; Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Academic Info ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies

Buddhism, Taosim and Confucianism

The Buddha, Lao-tzu and Confucius

Buddhism developed in China through its interaction with other Chinese religions, particularly Taoism. Within Buddhism there was a great deal of flexibility in what was required of followers and it was not necessary for followers to dispense with their beliefs in other religions. Many Chinese followed Buddhism and Taoism at the same time. Even so Buddhism and Taoism were rivals. The Six Dynasties Period overlapped with the Age of Faith (A.D. 3rd to 7th centuries A.D.), a period when Taoists and Buddhists fought for dominance in China.

In some ways Taoism and Buddhism were similar. They both promised followers salvation, stressed detachment and incorporated many superstitions. But in other ways they were very different. Taoism, for example, aspired to make a person physically immortal in their own bodies while Buddhism regarded the human body as a temporary vessel that would ultimately be discarded. Buddhism was able to win many coverts from Taoism by placing a strong emphasis on moral conduct and analytical thinking criticizing the foggy cosmology and superstitious and ritualistic nature of Taoism.

Confucianism, China's oldest and most influential system of thought, is named after its founder, Confucius (Kong Qiu, 551-479 B.C.). Although sometimes characterized as a religion Confucianism is more of a social and political philosophy than a religion. Some have called it code of conduct for gentlemen and way of life that has had a strong influence on Chinese thought, relationships and family rituals. Confucianism stresses harmony of relationships that are hierarchical yet provide benefits to both superior and inferior, a thought deemed useful and advantageous to Chinese authoritarian rulers of all times for its careful preservation of the class system.

Taoism is some ways developed as a response to Confucianism. These two schools of thought are central to Chinese culture and history. The focus of Taoism is the individual in nature rather than the individual in society. It holds that the goal of life for each individual is to find one's own personal adjustment to the rhythm of the natural (and supernatural) world, to follow the Way (dao) of the universe. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian moralism, Taoism served many of its adherents as a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar on duty as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse. [Source: The Library of Congress; [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University ]

With competition from Taoism and Buddhism — beliefs that promised some kind of life after death — Confucianism became more like a religion under the Neo-Confucian leader Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi, A.D. 1130-1200). In an effort to win converts from Taoism and Buddhism, Zhu developed a more mystical form of Confucianism in which followers were encouraged to seek “all things under heaven beginning with known principals “and strive “to reach the uppermost." He told his followers, “After sufficient labor...the day will come when all things suddenly become clear and intelligible." Important concepts in Neo-Confucian thought were the idea of “breath “(the material from which all things condensed and dissolved) and yin and yang.

Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in Time, “A century ago, a broad spectrum of Chinese intellectuals criticized Confucianism for holding China back, and as recently as the 1970s, communist leaders were denouncing Confucius. China, moreover, has never been an exclusively Confucian nation. There have always been other indigenous, competing creeds. Taoism, for example, has provided an antiauthoritarian counterpoint to hierarchical models of politics for millennia. [Source: Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Time, January 1 2011]

Saniiao (the Three Teachings): Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism

Confucius, Lao-tzu and Buddhist arhat

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Most anthologies of Chinese religion are organized by the logic of the sanjiao (literally “three teachings”) of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Historical precedent and popular parlance attest to the importance of this threefold division for understanding Chinese culture. One of the earliest references to the trinitarian idea is attributed to Li Shiqian, a prominent scholar of the sixth century, who wrote that “Buddhism is the sun, Daoism the moon, and Confucianism the five planets.” [Li’s formulation is quoted in Beishi, Li Yanshou (seventh century), Bona ed. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), p. 1234. Translation from Chinese by Stephen F. Teiser, Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/<|>]

“Li likens the three traditions to significant heavenly bodies, suggesting that although they remain separate, they also coexist as equally indispensable phenomena of the natural world. Other opinions stress the essential unity of the three religious systems. One popular proverb opens by listing the symbols that distinguish the religions from each other, but closes with the assertion that they are fundamentally the same: “The three teachings -- the gold and cinnabar of Daoism, the relics of Buddhist figures, as well as the Confucian virtues of humanity and righteousness -- are basically one tradition.” [The proverb, originally appearing in the sixteenth-century novel Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi), is quoted in Clifford H. Plopper, Chinese Religion Seen through the Proverb (Shanghai: The China Press, 1926), p. 16.] <|>

“The three teachings are a powerful and inescapable part of Chinese religion. Whether they are eventually accepted, rejected, or reformulated, the terms of the past can only be understood by examining how they came to assume their current status. And because Chinese religion has for so long been dominated by the idea of the three teachings, it is essential to understand where those traditions come from, who constructed them and how, as well as what forms of religious life (such as those that fall under the category of “popular religion”) are omitted or denied by constructing such a picture in the first place. <|>

“It must also be noted that the focus on the three teachings privileges the varieties of Chinese religious life that have been maintained largely through the support of literate and often powerful representatives, and the debate over the unity of the three teachings, even when it is resolved in favor of toleration or harmony -- a move toward the one rather than the three -- drowns out voices that talk about Chinese religion as neither one nor three. Another problem with the model of the three teachings is that it equalizes what are in fact three radically incommensurable things. Confucianism often functioned as a political ideology and a system of values; Daoism has been compared, inconsistently, to both an outlook on life and a system of gods and magic; and Buddhism offered, according to some analysts, a proper soteriology, an array of techniques and deities enabling one to achieve salvation in the other world. Calling all three traditions by the same unproblematic term, “teaching,” perpetuates confusion about how the realms of life that we tend to take for granted (like politics, ethics, ritual, religion) were in fact configured differently in traditional China.” <|>

Religious Practices and Beliefs in China

Religious beliefs tend to be viewed as personal matters that each individual works out on their own. While Taoism and Buddhism are the traditional belief systems in China, many Chinese adopt them as a matter of birthright, rather than choosing to follow them as spiritual life codes. There are few religion leaders and few organized times of worship other than festivals, thus leaving individuals to worship when and how they like, picking and choosing from Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist traditions and ways of thinking. Few people label themselves as exclusively Buddhist, Confucian or Taoist. But even though it could argued that the Chinese are not very religious, religion and religious culture have had a profound effect shaping the Chinese psyche.

Individuals in China often recognize a wide range of beliefs and religions---including organized religions like Buddhism and Taoism as well as folk religions and beliefs in local deities, ancestral spirits and superstitions---in hope of making all spirits, gods and supernatural forces happy and thus ensuring good fortune. The goal for an individual is often to be in harmony with the cosmic world rather than seek one true, divine path.

None of China's religious traditions are completely independent of the others and the beliefs in one tradition rarely reject or oppose the beliefs of the others. Chinese have traditionally looked to Confucianism for moral and political guidance and lived by its code; looked to Taoist gods and animist spirits for good fortune and help harmonizing with nature and the universe; and looked to Buddhism for help answering questions of the afterlife. Shaman are still sought out as healers. Fortunetellers are sought out for advice. Sometimes the fortunetellers are Buddhist monks and the shaman also run the local Taoist temple.

Religious buildings in China are traditionally built in secluded, auspicious locales on mountains or hilltops, tucked in among trees. The aesthetics of the physical setting is of paramount importance in the placement of religious buildings in China, as the physical setting contributes greatly to the overall religious experience. [Source:]

Traditional Religious Beliefs and Practices in China

Traditional religious beliefs and practices that remained strong though Qing dynasty China (1644-1911) include and still exist toda: 1) popular religion and beliefs concerning the souls of the ancestors, the afterlife, and the pantheon of gods inhabiting the three domains of the Chinese cosmos -- Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld; and 2) the long-established institutional religions often collectively referred to as the sanjiao (literally “three teachings”) — Daoism (Taoism), Buddhism, and Confucianism. In Dynastic China, which ended in 1911, the imperial government’s involvement with religious belief and practice (often described as the “State Cult”) expressed in the civil service examination system that disseminated the Confucian worldview throughout society, the government-mandated temples for Confucius and the city gods, and the imperial ritual apparatus that required the reigning emperor to act out his role as the “Son of Heaven” (Tianzi) in annual rituals and sacrifices. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “It is important to remember that “the cosmos” as such was not an explicit much less coherent topic of discussion in traditional China; and it is impossible to define one authentic and unproblematic “traditional Chinese worldview.” Still, there were some basic principles concerning human existence and the functioning of the universe that at least informed or were in conversation with the varieties of religious practice in traditional China. These concepts included qi, the basic “stuff” of the universe; shen, expressing distinct fields of meaning surrounding the concept of “spirit”; and yinyang, the dichotomy symbolizing the at times conflictual and at times harmonious but always fluctuating forces that animate all cosmic phenomena. <|>

“During the late-imperial period, Chinese identity -- that is, the idea of being “Chinese” -- was inextricably linked to the notion of living in this cosmos, which encompassed the world of the living (society and the state) and the world of the dead (the heavens and the underworld). The cosmos also defined the world within which the three teachings -- Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism -- operated, though throughout their long histories the teachings also defined and redefined in turn how the “cosmos” itself was conceived. This “cosmic framework” increasingly came under attack toward the end of the imperial period and eventually collapsed altogether in the era of the Communists, but it is interesting to consider its significance today in light of what some have called the “reemergence” of traditional religious practices in contemporary China.” <|>

Tongi (diviner youth)

Religion Numbers

For a long time the State Administration for Religious Affairs said there were about 100 million religious believers, about half of which are Christians or Muslims, with the other half Buddhists or Daoists. This is less than 10 percent of China's population. Many Beijing officials admit the real total number of believers is probably much higher than the official estimate of 100 million. There are over 80 million members of the Communist party. In 2009, press releases suddenly began using the number 300 million. China has the potential to be the world's largest Christian nation and the world's largest Islamic nation.

China estimates it has 50 million practitioners of Buddhism and Taoism, 23 million Protestants, 21 million Muslims and 5.5 million Catholics, Independent experts put the number of practitioners of Buddhism, Taoism and folk religions at between 100-300 million. According to the World Christian Database: 1) 41.5 percent non-religious; 2) 27.5 percent Chinese folk believers; 3) 8.5 percent Buddhists; 4) 8.4 percent Christians; 5) 8.2 percent atheists; 6) 4.3 percent animists;7) 1.5 percent Muslims; 8) 0.05 percent other. According to another source: 1) non-religious and atheist, 50 percent; 2) others,32 percent; 3) Buddhists, 9 percent; 4) Christians, 8 percent); 5) Muslims, 2 percent. [Source: World Christian Database; Benjamin Kang Lim and Ben Blanchard, Reuters, September 29, 2013]

Estimates of the number of adherents to various beliefs are difficult to establish; as a percentage of the population, institutionalized religions, such as Christianity and Islam, represent only about 4 percent and 2 percent of the population, respectively. In 2005 the Chinese government acknowledged that there were an estimated 100 million adherents to various sects of Buddhism and some 9,500 and 16,000 temples and monasteries, many maintained as cultural landmarks and tourist attractions. The Buddhist Association of China was established in 1953 to oversee officially sanctioned Buddhist activities. In 1998 there reportedly were 600 Daoist temples and an unknown number of adherents in China. [Source: Library of Congress]

According to the U.S. Department of State in 2005, approximately 8 percent of the population is Buddhist, approximately 1.5 percent is Muslim, an estimated 0.4 percent belongs to the government-sponsored “patriotic” Catholic Church, an estimated 0.4 to 0.6 percent belongs to the unofficial Vatican-affiliated Roman Catholic Church, and an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 percent is registered as Protestant. However, both Protestants and Catholics also have large underground communities, possibly numbering as many as 90 million. Chinese government figures from 2004 estimate 20 million adherents of Islam in China, but unofficial estimates suggest a much higher total. Most adherents of Islam are members of the Uygur and Hui nationality people.

Surge of Religion Among Chinese in the 2000s

A Chinese government-sponsored survey on spirituality in China in 2007 found that the number of religious believers among the country's 1.3 billion people was much higher than previously thought, numbering as many as 300 million. The findings, based on a poll of 4,500 people conducted by professors at East China Normal University in Shanghai, seemed to affirm the widespread belief that many Chinese were searching for deeper meaning in life as communist doctrine was being replaced by market economics and the acquisition of wealth. "More Chinese feel unstable and harassed by the rootless lives they lead now," Liu Zhongyu, a philosophy professor who helped organize the survey, told the Washington Post. "The standards of morality are declining," Liu told Oriental Outlook magazine, which reported the survey results. "People don't trust each other anymore. They are looking for something to anchor their lives in." [Source: Edward Cody, Washington Post, February 8, 2007 ^^]

Demography of religions in China: Brown: traditional Chinese religion; yellow: Buddhism; dark green: Islam; blue: Mongolian shamanism; purple: ethnic minority religions; light green: religion of the Manchus and northeast China

Edward Cody wrote in the Washington Post: “President Hu Jintao, reacting to such sentiments, repeatedly has cited a need to reemphasize human values in China, suggesting they should be part of the "socialism with Chinese characteristics" that is the ruling Communist Party's official dogma. He has made creation of "a socialist harmonious society" a watchword of his administration. Last year, he issued a list of eight virtues and eight vices as guidance for officials and ordinary people as they go about their business in this fast-changing country. But the poll's findings indicate that many Chinese are going elsewhere in search of moral inspiration. In that light, the polling by Liu and his colleague, Tong Shijun, seemed likely to be read with interest by Communist leaders as they seek to rebuild confidence in a party apparatus often compromised by corruption and distance from common people. ^^

“The total number of believers estimated by the researchers was three times the long-standing official estimate of 100 million. Liu suggested that population growth was part of the explanation; the 100 million figure has stood since the 1960s. But he also said the survey found a remarkable surge in religious belief across the country that has not been reflected in the official estimates. Liu said the researchers did not take into account whether those queried observed religious practices, such as visiting mosques or temples to pray, but asked only whether people believed in some form of religion. Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, noted that followers of traditional Chinese religions often have a loose definition of their beliefs, sometimes following family customs without formally practicing religious rites. ^^

“Historical Chinese religions, such as Buddhism, Taoism and Islam, accounted for 67 percent of those who declared themselves believers, the pollsters concluded. The number of Chinese who identified themselves as Christians also rose swiftly, however, reaching up to 40 million, according to the estimate derived from the poll. Officially sanctioned Christian organizations have said 15 million Protestants and 6 million Catholics participate in their religious practices in China. But Chinese and foreign researchers have estimated that the number of those who practice religion outside the official institutions is several times greater. The semi-secrecy in which they practice their faith makes an accurate count impossible. ^^

“Liu said one factor in the fast growth of religion is expanded freedom of belief in China. During the 1960s and 1970s, he noted, radical political orthodoxy enforced by Mao Zedong and his followers replaced religious beliefs, often under threat of imprisonment. Although the Communist Party remains officially atheist, he said, Chinese are free now to practice the religion of their choice as long as it does not challenge the party's monopoly on power. The poll was taken as part of a three-year research project on contemporary Chinese cultural life commissioned by the Education Ministry. Liu said researchers first identified those to be surveyed by telephone, then dispatched teams to interview them in person, with the help of forms to fill out.” ^^

Religious Demography of China

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.35 billion (July 2013 estimate). In its report to the United Nations Human Rights Council during its Universal Periodic Review in October, the government stated there were more than 100 million religious believers, 360,000 clergy, 140,000 places of worship, and 5,500 religious groups. Estimates of the numbers of religious believers vary widely. For example, a 2007 survey conducted by East China Normal University states that 31.4 percent of citizens aged 16 and over, or 300 million people, are religious believers. The same survey estimates that there are 200 million Buddhists, Taoists, or worshippers of folk gods, although accurate estimates are difficult to make because many adherents practice exclusively at home. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 China”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State,|\]

According to the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), there are more than 21 million Muslims in the country; unofficial estimates range as high as 50 million. Hui Muslims are concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces. Uyghur Muslims live primarily in Xinjiang. According to Xinjiang Statistics Bureau data from 2010, there are approximately 10 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Prior to the government's 1999 ban on Falun Gong, a self-described spiritual discipline, it was estimated that there were 70 million adherents. /|\

Largest religion by province: Brown: traditional Chinese religion; yellow: Buddhism; green: Islam; blue: Mongolian shamanism

The 2011 Blue Book of Religions, produced by the Institute of World Religions at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a research institution directly under the State Council, reports the number of Protestants to be between 23 and 40 million. A June 2010 the China government State Administration for Religious Affair (SARA) report estimates there are 16 million Protestants affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches. According to 2012 Pew Research Center estimates, there are 68 million Protestant Christians, of whom 23 million are affiliated with the TSPM. According to SARA, more than six million Catholics worship in sites registered by the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA). The Pew Center estimates there are nine million Catholics on the mainland, 5.7 million of whom are affiliated with the CPA. /|\

In addition to the five nationally recognized religions, local governments have legalized certain religious communities and practices, such as Orthodox Christianity in Xinjiang, Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, and Guangdong provinces. Some ethnic minorities retain traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi. Worship of the folk deity Mazu has been reclassified as “cultural heritage” rather than religious practice. /|\

Religion, Social Class and Ethnicity in China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Dividing what is clearly too broad a category (Chinese religion or ritual) into two discrete classes (elite and folk) is not without advantages. It is a helpful pedagogical tool for throwing into question some of the egalitarian presuppositions frequently encountered in introductory courses on religion: that, for instance, everyone’s religious options are or should be the same, or that other people’s religious life can be understood (or tried out) without reference to social status. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>]

“Treating Chinese religion as fundamentally affected by social position also helps scholars to focus on differences in styles of religious practice and interpretation. One way to formulate this view is to say that while all inhabitants of a certain community might take part in a religious procession, their style -- both their pattern of practice and their understanding of their actions -- will differ according to social position. Well-educated elites tend to view gods in abstract, impersonal terms and to demonstrate restrained respect, but the uneducated tend to view gods as concrete, personal beings before whom fear is appropriate. <|>

“In the social sciences and humanities in general there has been a clear move in the past forty years away from studies of the elite, and scholarship on Chinese religion is beginning to catch up with that trend. More and more studies focus on the religion of the lower classes and on the problems involved in studying the culture of the illiterati in a complex civilization. In all of this, questions of social class (Who participates? Who believes?) and questions of audience (Who writes or performs? For what kind of people?) are paramount.” <|>

“In theory the fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minorities in China are guaranteed the right to practice their culturally distinctive traditions, including the exercise of religion. Often, however, the government asserts that such rights are subsidiary to the need to maintain public order and to register any large social movement. Islam is practiced in China primarily by non-Han ethnic minority groups within China, such as the Uygurs in Xinjiang province. The fact that these Islamic minorities sometimes constitute the majority population of China’s western provinces and autonomous regions (some of which also share a border with other Muslim-majority countries) increases the tendency of the Chinese government to suppress the activities of these Muslim populations and perceive them as a threat to the stability of Chinese governmental control. <|>

“Religious and political activities of Tibetan Buddhists residing in the Chinese autonomous region of Tibet, as well as those residing in neighboring Chinese provinces and regions, are similarly monitored and suppressed by the Chinese government because of the conflict between governmental control, ethnic identity, and religious organization.” <|>

Chinese lineage religion (ancestor worship) in the 2010s

Popular Religion in China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “To define Chinese religion primarily in terms of the three traditions (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) is to exclude from serious consideration the ideas and practices that do not fit easily under any of the three labels. Such common rituals as offering incense to the ancestors, conducting funerals, exorcising ghosts, and consulting fortunetellers; the belief in the patterned interaction between light and dark forces or in the ruler’s influence on the natural world; the tendency to construe gods as government officials; and the preference for balancing tranquility and movement -- all belong as much to none of the three traditions as they do to one or all three. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

“Popular religion includes those aspects of religious life that are shared by most people, regardless of their affiliation or lack of affiliation with the three teachings. Such forms of popular religion as those named above (offering incense, conducting funerals, and so on) are important to address, although the category of “popular religion” entails its own set of problems. In fact, it is too broad a category to be of much help to detailed understanding -- which indeed is why many scholars in the field avoid the term, preferring to deal with more discrete and meaningful units like family religion, mortuary ritual, seasonal festivals, divination, curing, and mythology. “Popular religion” in the sense of common religion also hides potentially significant variation. In addition to being static and timeless, the category prejudices the case against seeing popular religion as a conflict-ridden attempt to impose one particular standard on contending groups. <|>

“The term “popular religion” can be used in two senses. The first refers to the forms of religion practiced by almost all Chinese people, regardless of social and economic standing, level of literacy, region, or explicit religious identification. Popular religion in this sense is the religion shared by people in general, across all social boundaries. Three examples, all of which can be dated as early as the first century CE, help us gain some understanding of what counts as popular religion in this first sense: 1) a typical Chinese funeral and memorial service, including the rites related to care of the spirit in the realm of the dead; 2) the New Year’s festival, which marks a passage not just in the life of the individual and the family, but in the yearly cycle of the cosmos; and 3) the ritual of consulting a spirit medium in the home or in a small temple to solve problems such as sickness in the family, nightmares, possession by a ghost or errant spirit, or some other misfortune. <|>

“The second sense of “popular religion” refers to the religion of the lower classes as opposed to that of the elite. The bifurcation of society into two tiers is hardly a new idea. It began with some of the earliest Chinese theorists of religion. Xunzi, for instance, discusses the emotional, social, and cosmic benefits of carrying out memorial rites. In his opinion, mortuary ritual allows people to balance sadness and longing and to express grief, and it restores the natural order to the world. Different social classes, writes Xunzi, interpret sacrifices differently: “Among gentlemen [junzi], they are taken as the way of humans; among common people [baixing], they are taken as matters involving ghosts.”<|>

Folk religion sects' influence by province

Traditional Concept of Religion in China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In discussing Chinese religion during late-imperial times we should begin with a fundamental understanding: that “religion” as it is commonly defined today in modern, secularized societies — as a domain of thinking and practice concerned only with the “sacred” or the “supernatural” — is incompatible with the way religious thought and practice were construed in traditional China, much less anywhere else in the world until recent times. There was no such thing in traditional China as “religion” in this modern sense, which is largely a product of European “Enlightenment” thinking of the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, the Chinese term for “religion” — zongjiao — is an invention coined in the late 19th century by a Japanese philosopher and later adopted by Chinese intellectuals. The need for the word zongjiao arose because scholars translating Western texts into Japanese and Chinese frequently encountered the word “religion,” a term for which they had no equivalent. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

“Quite apart from relegating “religious thinking” to a specialized domain, the dominant strands of thought in late-imperial China conceived of an integrated cosmos in which heaven and earth, gods and humans, the living and the dead were all interconnected. In this conception there was no clear separation or even distinction between sacred and profane, divine and ordinary, natural and supernatural; rather, all things were understood in the context of their proper place in this integrated cosmos. (This interconnection can be elaborated even further with the term shen, the various meanings of which illustrate the concept that all things in the cosmos — gods and humans, good spirits and demons — are composed of the same “stuff,” qi.) <|>

“This concept of an integrated cosmos was central to religious thinking in late-imperial China; so much so that the cosmos was understood to contain or subsume all things and all traditions, including Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This is quite different from the way many adherents of monotheistic traditions (such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in the modern world conceive of religious identity, wherein each belief system is understood to negate, supersede, or exist in contradiction to all others. In contrast, adherence to a particular religious tradition in late-imperial China did not involve a total or unitary commitment. <|>

“For example, a “Confucian” in late-imperial China — someone well-versed in the Confucian texts and deeply committed to the teachings and principles expounded therein — would not have found it problematic to also participate in ritual activities that were Daoist or Buddhist or otherwise linked to popular local practices. In fact, to not do so would have been contradictory, because that would have been akin to removing oneself from full participation in the cosmos, where Confucianism was just one tradition among many. Because all traditions fit into the larger cosmic totality, there was no sense of a person being required to choose any one tradition over another. <|>

As the sociologist C. K. Yang has noted: “In popular religious life it was the moral and magical functions of the cults, and not the delineation of the boundary of religious faiths, that dominated people’s consciousness. Even priests in some country temples were unable to reveal the identity of the religion to which they belonged. Centuries of mixing gods from different faiths into a common pantheon had produced a functionally oriented religious view that relegated the question of religious identity to a secondary place.” [Source: “Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors” by C. K. Yang, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), as quoted in Richard J. Smith, China’s Cultural Heritage: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912, 2nd ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1994), p. 174] <|>

Common Features of Chinese Religions

20080219-joss sticks peace of mind com.jpg
joss sticks
The concept of living ancestors and honoring them is important in all Chinese religions. The Chinese have no concept of original sin or inherited original sin.

Supernatural beings are sometimes organized into hierarchies with heavenly beings like the Lord of Heaven at the top, followed by the spirits of humans beings that have transcended the human cycle of life and death, such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Taoist immortals. Next are the spirits of human heroes. Below them are earth spirits and gods regarded as protectors.

Different religions often times honor the same gods. Guanyin (Kuanyan), the Goddess of Mercy, for example, is found in Buddhist and Taoist temple and family altars at home. She is associated with both purity and compassion and has traditionally been sought by expectant mother for help with child birth. Often depicted with multiple heads and arms, she is closely linked with Avalokitesvara, the eleven-headed and the multi-armed Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.

Chinese temples---whether they be Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian---have a similar lay out, with features found in traditional Chinese courtyard houses and elements intended to confuse or repel evil spirits. Temples are usually surrounded by a wall and face south in accordance with feng shui principals. The gates usually contain paintings, reliefs or statues of warrior deities intended to keep evil spirits away. Through the gates is a large courtyard, which is often protected by a spirit wall, a another layer of protection intended to keep evil spirits at bay. The halls of the temple are arranged around the courtyard with the least important being near the entrance in case evil spirits do get in.

Chinese show their respect by bowing three times even for revered secular leader such as Sun Yat Sen. Offerings of food, drink and incense (joss sticks) have traditionally been made on family alters on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month. Offerings are also made to the Lord of Heaven, select gods and spirits

Religion and Communism

Communism denounces organized religion. Marx called religion the "opiate of the people" and promoted a belief in dialectical materialism over God. Communist countries have traditionally been atheist states, with the Communists attempting to substitute the study of Marxism for religion. Children are encouraged to take part in antireligious activities and schools emphasize antireligious aspects of science. The belief has been that if succeeding generations were taught to reject religion, religion would eventually die out.

Under the Communists many temples, churches and monasteries have been converted into archives of the state, museums, hospitals, schools, and insane asylums. Building a new temple, monastery or church under was the Communists is a problem, not so much because of money, but because is was difficult to secure the necessary building permits. Religion, particularly Christianity and Islam, have traditionally been seen as vehicles for foreign ideas and misguided loyalties to find their way into Chinese society.

In the early years of Communist rule, organized religion was ruthlessly oppressed and infiltrated by informers. Strict limits were placed on what was allowed and what wasn't. Priests were arrested, exiled, killed or forced to renounce their profession. Monks were expelled from their monasteries.

Religious worship retreated into the homes, family groups and small communities. Rituals and ceremonies were performed in secret in back rooms or outdoors on makeshift altars. Religious activists traveling as tourists quietly set up prayer circles in other communities and countries.

Religion and the Chinese Government

Mao and the founder of patriotic Chistianity, Y.T. Wu

China officially recognizes five religions — Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Christianity and Catholicism — and supervises and to varying degrees controls them through state-run associations. The officially atheist government has traditionally been wary of any organization with the potential to challenge its moral authority, especially those with connections to foreigners.

Until Communism came along religion and the state were often closely linked. In the imperial era, the emperor was regarded as divine; political institutions were believed to be part of the cosmic order; and Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism were incorporated in different ways into political systems and social organizations.

These days religion is something the officially atheist Communist government tolerates but insists on having control over. The Chinese constitution promises religious freedom but requires that "religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination" and insists that no religious leader have more authority than the Communist party. These views partly explain why the Communists take a such dim view of Chinese Catholics and Tibetan Buddhist holding the Pope and the Dalai Lama in such high esteem.

Religious matters are overseen by the Office of Nationalities, Religion and Overseas Chinese Affairs. According to the U.S. State Department: The Chinese constitution states citizens enjoy “freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities." The government applies this term in a manner that is not consistent with China's international human rights commitments with regard to freedom of religion. In practice, the government restricted religious freedom. The constitution also proclaims the right of citizens to believe in or not believe in any religion. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant), however, are permitted to register with the government and legally hold worship services. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 China”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, ]

When making decisions that seem wrong, repressive or unfair to the West on human rights issues China in many ways is acting on lessons it has learned from its long history. It is reluctant to grant too much religious freedom and cracks down on Christians and groups like Falun Gong because of the trouble caused by religion-based rebellions, cults and quasi-religions in the past like the Taipeng Rebellion. See Taiping Rebellion, 19th Century History.

Patriotic Religions and Atheism

Religious institutions in China are required to operate under the control of official “patriotic” religious organizations. There are five officially-recognized “patriotic” religions in China: Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism and Taoism. Judaism isn't recognized.

Religious activity must be registered with the Religious Affairs Bureau of the State Council and the Communist Party's United Front Work Department. Religions associated with China such as Buddhism and Taoism tend to be tolerated more than Islam and Christianity because they do not have an independent hierarchy or follow a foreign spiritual leader.

Officially Communist China is an atheist country, God does not exist, there is nothing after death and only atheists are allowed to be members of the Communist Party. Mao said that religion is a "base superstition" and a "counter-revolutionary" relic of old China that kept the ruling classes in power. In 1949, after the Communist take over of China, all religions were banned and the Chinese were officially forbidden from talking about ghosts. As late as the early 2000s, the Chinese leader Jiang Zemin expressed his puzzlement that so many Western scientists believe in God.

In many ways Communism has replaced religion. Some have even argued that Communism is a religion. The director of the State Council's Religious Affair Bureau told Time, "The sincere advocacy of freedom of religion belief is based on our understanding of the dialectical materialistic theory. It is our concept of God."

As an alternative to religion, the government has launched the God-free jingshen wenming ("spiritual civilization") program, which teaches values such as family, loyalty and diligence. The atheist party line continues to be promoted by the Research Institute of Marxism-Leninism at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, which continues to give out an annual Hero of Atheism award (the winner in 1999 was a television personality who exposed quack shaman).

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Inside Temple, photo Micheal Turton ; joss sticks, Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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