The Buddha, Lao Tzu and Confucius

Ancient Chinese agrarian religion revolved around the worship of natural forces and spirits who controlled the elements and presided over rivers, fields and mountains. Shaman known as wu acted as intermediates between the human and spiritual worlds and preformed rites to insure good weather and harvests and keep evil spirits at bay.

Even though China is regarded officially as an atheist state today, it is said to have had an officially recognized religion since 2356 B.C., when science, religion, mythology and government were all linked together. Taoism and Confucianism began to take shape around the 5th and 6th centuries B.C., evolving from religions that had been around in China for at least a thousand years before that.

The four centuries after Han dynasty — from the A.D.3rd to 7th centuries — were characterized by disunity and chaos, which in turn lead to a receptivity to new religious ideas. This was the beginning of the Age of Faith, when Taoism flourished, Confucianism became a philosophy of the wealthy, and Buddhism took root. In the Age of Faith, Taoists and Buddhists fought over souls for salvation. Many Buddhist converts were formerly Taoists.

Good Websites and Sources: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de; Chinatxt Ancient Chinese History and Religion chinatxt ; History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Shang Religion

Priests in the Shang period of Chinese history (1600 – 1046 B.C.) practiced an unusual form of divination that involved placing heated rods in grooves carved into specially-prepared ox scapulae (shoulder bones) and turtle plastrons (the undesides of turtle shells). The ensuing cracks were read by fortunetellers for "auspicious" and "inauspicious signs" and messages from natural spirits and ancestors. The predictions, often made by the king rather than the diviner, and answers were engraved on the bones. Over 100,000 "oracle bones" have been found, mostly in storage pits in Xiaotun in Henan.

Oracle bones appear to have held a high place in Shang culture and this would lead one to conclude that superstition held a very high place in the lives of the ancient Chinese. Animism (the worship of natural spirits), fertility rites, cults and ancestor worship were also present in the Shang dynasty. Some of these practices still have enthusiastic followings in China today. Scientists and scholars have devoted a lot of time to the study of Taoism and Confucianism, but Chinese superstition and everyday spiritual life remain little studied.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: From the oracle bones, “we learn of the divinities they recognized, from the high god Di to nature gods and ancestors, as well as the issues that concerned them, such as harvests, childbirth, and military campaigns. The king did not address Di directly, but called on his ancestors to act as an intermediary for him. Sacrifices to Di or the ancestors could include human sacrifices of war captives and others. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=]

Tang altar
Dr. Eno wrote: “A full description of Shang religion would include many facets.We would need to explore in detail the way in which the ancestral spirits were conceived, we would need to survey all non-ancestral deities and observe their powers, as reflected in divination, we would have to examine the complex system of ritual and sacrifice that paralleled Shang religious beliefs, we would need to discuss the symbolic significance of the sacrificial bronzes that constitute the outstanding emblem of Shang society, and we would need to examine indirect evidence for other forms of religious practice. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/ ]

“While this is clearly too ambitious a goal...we will at least touch upon each of these elements. The principal purpose of this section is to introduce oracle inscriptions that have generally been taken to concern non-ancestral deities. These inscriptions have, since oracle texts were first deciphered, been seen as the reflection of a tripartite pantheon of spirits and gods. After the evidence for this model has been made clear, we will note some basic features of the data that may call it into question; we’ll consider varying scholarly approaches to interpreting the Shang high deity, Di, and to construing the underlying religious forms that the oracle texts reflect. We will begin here with a description of the pantheon as reflected in the oracle texts, briefly considering issues of ancestral spirits and the ancestral sacrificial calendar. /+/


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.

According to a Library of Congress description: “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]

Confucianism mainly addresses humanist concerns rather than things like God, revelation and the afterlife. It emphasizes tradition, respect for the elderly, hierarchal social order and rule by a benevolent leader who is supposed to look out for the well being of his people. Named after a Chinese sage named Confucius, it contains elements of ancestor worship, which is partly why it is sometime regarded as a religion. Traditionally, Chinese who have sought a mystical philosophy or religion turned to Taoism or Buddhism. This means that it is possible and even likely that someone who is regarded as a Confucian is also a Buddhist or a Taoist or even a Christian.

Confucianism was a system of ideas developed by later philosophers out of Confucius's thoughts and its relationship to the original thoughts of the man himself is extremely debatable. The term Confucianism was coined by Westerners. In China, Confucians call themselves ju, a word of uncertain origin that refers to their beliefs as the “way of the sages” or “the way of the ancients." These beliefs are associated with the legendary founders and ancient sages of China and are thought to have existed from time immemorial. Confucius is regarded as the last of the great sages.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Confucianism is perhaps the most well-known of the textual traditions in China. The classical Confucian texts became key to the orthodox state ideology of the Chinese dynasties, and these texts, though they were mastered only by a scholarly elite, in fact penetrated society deeply. Through the interpretation of the scholar Dong Zhongshu, who lived during the Han dynasty from around 179-104 B.C., Confucianism became strongly linked to the cosmic framework of traditional Chinese thought, as the Confucian ideals of ritual and social hierarchy came to be elaborated in terms of cosmic principles such as yin and yang. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/]


one rendering of Confucius
Confucius (551 to 479 B.C.) is regarded as the founder of Confucianism, a system of philosophical and ethical teachings that lies at cornerstone of Chinese culture and morality. Based on the little direct evidence about him that still survives, it appears that he did not view himself as the founder of the school of thought that bears his name, much less as the originator of anything. The self-conscious identity among people tracing their heritage back to him took place long after his death.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Confucius (the Latinized version of Kong Fuzi, “master Kong”) or, to call him by his proper name, Kong Qiu lived during the time when the Zhou kingdom had disintegrated into many de facto independent feudal states which were subject to the Zhou kings only in theory. Confucius was a man of the small feudal state of Lu. Like many other men of the educated elite class of the Eastern Zhou, Confucius traveled among the states, offering his services as a political advisor and official to feudal rulers and taking on students whom he would teach for a fee. Confucius had an unsuccessful career as a petty bureaucrat, but a highly successful one as a teacher. A couple of generations after his death, first. and second-generation students gathered accounts of Confucius’ teachings together, and these teachings remain influential in China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan to this day. These anecdotes and records of short conversations go under the English title of the Analects. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

The historian Daniel Boorstin wrote: Confucius "claimed no divine source for his teachings, nor any inspiration not open to everyone. Unlike Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed, he proclaimed no Commandments... Confucius was never crucified, never martyred. He never led a people out of a wilderness nor commanded forces in battle. He left little mark on the life of his time and aroused few disciples in his day." The religious scholar A.C. Graham wrote: “He was not the founder of a religion, nor was he a philosopher; he was a gentleman whose sense of what is done and what is not done has been taken as a standard."

Confucius appears to have been devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, in his words, “for the sake of the self." In “The Analects”, Confucius is recorded as saying: "At 15, I set my heart on learning; at 30, I firmly took my stand; at 40, I had no delusions; at 50, I knew the Mandate of Heaven; at 60, my ear was attuned to the truth; at 70, I followed my heart's desire without overstepping the boundaries of what was right." One similarity between Confucius and Jesus is that both offered an alterative lifestyle to greed and the pursuit of power.

Confucius is considered the most influential educator of all Chinese. He lived roughly the same time as Socrates and scholars often like to compare the two in terms of influence over East and West. Confucius did not achieve his political ideals when he was alive, but his philosophy informed many later emperors. Confucius' disciples compiled “The Analects”, which represent the essence of his and their thoughts.

Confucius and the Origins of Confucianism

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Textual records of systematic thought first emerge in China during the era of the Warring States. The earliest of these appear to be the records of Confucius’s saying that were gradually compiled by his disciples during the fifth century B.C., and then expanded by second and third generation disciples in subsequent years. Once the Confucians established the genre of recorded ideas, other people began to espouse different notions and their disciples emulated Confucius’s in recording them. By the end of the fourth century, this process has moved a step further, and individuals had begun to record their ideas directly in writings. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The variety of philosophies developed during this period was such that they are often referred to as the “Hundred Schools.” The word “schools” does not imply fixed buildings, but traditions associated with master.disciple lineages. The way in which philosophies were propagated seems generally to have been by groups of men who studied for many years with a master whose teachings they adopted and preached with energy, though over time generations of disciples would elaborate the teachings of their school in new ways, these changes sometimes leading to long-term divisions within traditions tracing back to a single master. /+/

“The interests of early Chinese philosophy were far more practical than were those of the earliest systematic Western thinkers, the Greeks. Whereas Greek thought seems to have begun with highly theoretical inquiries concerning Nature, Chinese thought begins with a social problem connected with Warring States political chaos. The central issue for Chinese thinkers was, how did China fall into this state of chaos, how can it get out of it, and what is the proper conduct for individuals in times such as these? These are the background issues behind the thought of Confucius, who may be seen as the founder of Chinese philosophy. Confucius lived at the close of the Spring and Autumn period (551-479 B.C.) and his mode of free inquiry is a model for the subsequent Warring States era. It is difficult to overstate Confucius’s importance to the cultural history of China. His particular school of thought is generally seen as having dominated Chinese society for two millennia (although some interpreters would say that it became pervasive only after having been adapted beyond recognition to the contours of China’s post-Classical imperial state). But even more important, Confucius made a decisive contribution in exemplifying the notion that the socio.political issues of his time were ones that needed to be resolved by thought and training rather than by diplomatic and military intrigue. Thus the path to China’s future was one that could be created by men of any social class regardless of their access to political prestige – not any man could occupy a throne or command an army, but any man could think and equip himself with ethical skills. In this sense, Confucius, by making study and thought a path to social recognition and political influence, reinforced the social trends that were moving China away from the closed society of the patrician state.

Early History of Confucianism

Statuette of Confucius
as a Mandarin
Although many Confucians argue that their beliefs are based on the wisdom of sages that preceded Confucius and Confucius himself gave himself no credit for being an originator or even innovator, historians give him credit for founding Confucianism because he gave the beliefs a structure.

Some of the most important principals of Confucianism were established in the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 BC), centuries before Confucius was born. They include the notion of a benevolent supreme being; the mandate given by the supreme being to a ruler to govern; and the justification of overthrow of a dynasty if the ruler double-crosses the supreme being and becomes wicked.

Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “In the 5th Century B.C., Europe had Socrates and China had just had Confucius. Both philosophers thought hard about ethics, and the right relationship between the individual and the state. We often think of Confucius as being the foundation stone of Chinese political philosophy, and so do most Chinese. But he was channelling a world view which had been crystallising over centuries. [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012]

Confucius placed more emphasis on the morality and humanness rather than the divine, sensational and legendary found in writings that preceded him. In ancient texts there is a great deal of discussion about great emperors and sages but no one talked much of their wisdom and tried to spell out this wisdom until Confucius came along.

Yu Dan wrote in his bestseller “Confucius from the Heart”: “The reason why these simple truths have survived down the millennia is that they have helped generation after generation of Chinese to understand the nature and the culture that formed them, and not to lose their heads, even when confronted by immense social change and almost overwhelming choice.”

Early Chinese Political Philosophers


Tsinghua University professor Yan Xuetong wrote in the New York Times: “Ancient Chinese political theorists like Guanzi, Confucius, Xunzi and Mencius were writing in the pre-Qin period, before China was unified as an empire more than 2,000 years ago — a world in which small countries were competing ruthlessly for territorial advantage. [Source: Yan Xuetong, New York Times, November 20, 2011. Yan Xuetong, the author of “Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power,” is a professor of political science and dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University.]

It was perhaps the greatest period for Chinese thought, and several schools competed for ideological supremacy and political influence. They converged on one crucial insight: The key to international influence was political power, and the central attribute of political power was morally informed leadership. Rulers who acted in accordance with moral norms whenever possible tended to win the race for leadership over the long term.

China was unified by the ruthless king of Qin in 221 B.C., but his short-lived rule was not nearly as successful as that of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, who drew on a mixture of legalistic realism and Confucian “soft power” to rule the country for over 50 years, from 140 B.C. until 86 B.C.

According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, there were three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority won the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny — based on military force — inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic powers lay in between: they did not cheat the people at home or cheat allies abroad. But they were frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often used violence against non-allies. The philosophers generally agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny.

Emergence of “Confucianism” During the Han Dynasty

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ It was only with the founding of the Han dynasty (202 B.C.-220 CE) that Confucianism became “Confucianism,” that the ideas associated with Kong Qiu’s name received state support and were disseminated generally throughout upper-class society. The creation of Confucianism was neither simple nor sudden, as the following three examples will make clear. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/]

“1) The Classical Texts. In the year 136 B.C. the classical writings touted by Confucian scholars were made the foundation of the official system of education and scholarship, to the exclusion of titles supported by other philosophers. The five classics (or five scriptures, wujing) were the Classic of Poetry (Shijing), Classic of History (Shujing), Classic of Changes (Yijing), Record of Rites (Liji), and Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period (Chunqiu) with the Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan), most of which had existed prior to the time of Kong Qiu.Although Kong Qiu was commonly believed to have written or edited some of the five classics, his own statements (collected in the Analects [Lunyu]) and the writings of his closest followers were not yet admitted into the canon. [Note: The word jing denotes the warp threads in a piece of cloth. Once adopted as a generic term for the authoritative texts of Han-dynasty Confucianism, it was applied by other traditions to their sacred books. It is translated variously as book, classic, scripture, and sutra.]

“2. State Sponsorship. Kong Qiu’s name was implicated more directly in the second example of the Confucian system, the state-sponsored cult that erected temples in his honor throughout the empire and that provided monetary support for turning his ancestral home into a national shrine. Members of the literate elite visited such temples, paying formalized respect and enacting rituals in front of spirit tablets of the master and his disciples.

“3. Dong Zhongshu’s Cosmological Framework. The third example is the corpus of writing left by the scholar Dong Zhongshu (ca. 179-104 B.C.), who was instrumental in promoting Confucian ideas and books in official circles. Dong was recognized by the government as the leading spokesman for the scholarly elite. His theories provided an overarching cosmological framework for Kong Qiu’s ideals, sometimes adding ideas unknown in Kong Qiu’s time, sometimes making more explicit or providing a particular interpretation of what was already stated in Kong Qiu’s work.

“Dong drew heavily on concepts of earlier thinkers — few of whom were self-avowed Confucians — to explain the workings of the cosmos. He used the concepts of yin and yang to explain how change followed a knowable pattern, and he elaborated on the role of the ruler as one who connected the realms of Heaven, Earth, and humans. The social hierarchy implicit in Kong Qiu’s ideal world was coterminous, thought Dong, with a division of all natural relationships into a superior and inferior member. Dong’s theories proved determinative for the political culture of Confucianism during the Han and later dynasties.

“What in all of the examples above, we need to ask, was Confucian? Or, more precisely, what kind of thing is the “Confucianism” in each of these examples? In the case of the five classics, “Confucianism” amounts to a set of books that were mostly written before Kong Qiu lived but that later tradition associates with his name. It is a curriculum instituted by the emperor for use in the most prestigious institutions of learning. In the case of the state cult, “Confucianism” is a complex ritual apparatus, an empire-wide network of shrines patronized by government authorities. It depends upon the ability of the government to maintain religious institutions throughout the empire and upon the willingness of state officials to engage regularly in worship. In the case of the work of Dong Zhongshu, “Confucianism” is a conceptual scheme, a fluid synthesis of some of Kong Qiu’s ideals and the various cosmologies popular well after Kong Qiu lived. Rather than being an updating of something universally acknowledged as Kong Qiu’s philosophy, it is a conscious systematizing, under the symbol of Kong Qiu, of ideas current in the Han dynasty.”


1785 image of a Taoist
Taoism (Daoism in pinyin) is a philosophy-turned-religion that preaches living in harmony with nature and simplicity. It began as a philosophical tradition in early China. Its most famous work is the Daodejing, attributed to a person known as Laozi, who may have existed in the 6th century B.C. It developed into an organized religion by the A.D. 2nd century. Although its practices vary widely, it generally advocates self-discipline and good living as a way to attain immortality, as well as elaborate rituals to purge individuals or communities of evil. Its ideas of harmony with nature underlie many aspects of Chinese culture, from calligraphy and painting to architecture and medicine. For generations, its formal teachings were passed down by Taoist priests as well as lay practitioners.

Taoism, the second most important stream of Chinese thought, also developed during the Zhou period (1100 - 221 B.C.) along with Confucianism. Its formulation is attributed to the legendary sage Lao Zi (Old Master), said to predate Confucius, and Zhuang Zi (369-286 B.C.). 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]

Taoism is derived from the Chinese word Tao ("The Way"), which is pronounced "dao." It is the second most important stream of Chinese thought after Confucianism. Its formulation is attributed to the legendary sage Lao Zi (Old Master), said to predate Confucius. As is true with Confucianism, it isn't really a religion in the Western sense of the word. It is more of a mystical philosophy built on a set of ethical principals for everyday living. Unlike Confucianism, which is a practical philosophy with religious overtones, Taoism is more spiritual, rooted in magic and shamanism and concerned with things like self awareness, transcendentalism, and immortality.

Francesco Sisci wrote in the Asia Times, “Tao, originally a small path in the mountains, describes the easiest way to move up and down the difficulties of life. It is a concept central to Chinese thinking and way of acting - to China's own being. The concept is vague but also precise, linked to the idea of water, which takes the shape of the object holding it without changing nature. It is the yielding of a woman. The way is the Chinese cosmic order, the closest thing China has to the god or gods of Judaic or Greek tradition. In the movement to rediscover China through rediscovery of Confucianism, the Tao had to emerge as well." [Source:Francesco Sisci, Asia Times, Asia Editor of La Stampa, September 2, 2010 /*]

History of Taoism

Taoism is regarded as the oldest of China's three religion-philosophies (Confucianism and Buddhism are the other two). Like Confucianism it emerged during the Age of Philosophers (See Confucianism and Chinese Philosophy) and is said to have been founded by a humble, legendary Chinese mystic named Lao-tze and given some structure by influential Taoist scholars such as the Taoist master Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). Some historians have argued that Taoism it a revival of religious thought dominant in the Shang Dynasty (1558 to 1102 B.C.).

Taoism has both a philosophical and a religious tradition in China. Although philosophical Taoism flourished early in the fifth century B.C., Taoism as a religion did not develop until the first century A.D. Next to Confucianism, it ranks as the second major belief system in traditional Chinese thought. The philosophy of Taoism outlined in the Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching offers a practical way of life.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “When we speak of “Daoism” in the Classical period, we generally mean by the term the ideas of two rather mysterious texts that date from the Warring States era. They are the “Dao de jing” (Classic of the Way and of Virtue) by Laozi, and the works of the quirky recluse Zhuangzi, which appear in a book that takes his name as its title. Daoism appears to have begun as an escapist movement during the early Warring States period, and in some ways it makes sense to see it as an outgrowth of Confucianism and its doctrine of “timeliness.” That doctrine originated with Confucius’s motto: “When the Way ("dao") prevails in the world, appear; when it does not, hide!” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

20080221-Bodhasatva from Yungang 5th c u wash.jpg
5th century Bodhisattva from Yungang
Birgitta Augustin of New York University wrote: “Indigenous to China, Daoism arose as a secular school of thought with a strong metaphysical foundation around 500 B.C., during a time when fundamental spiritual ideas were emerging in both the East and the West. Two core texts form the basis of Daoism: the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, attributed to the two eponymous masters, whose historical identity, like the circumstances surrounding the compilation of their texts, remains uncertain. The Laozi—also called the Daodejing, or Scripture of the Way and Virtue—has been understood as a set of instructions for virtuous rulership or for self-cultivation. It stresses the concept of nonaction or noninterference with the natural order of things. Dao, usually translated as the Way, may be understood as the path to achieving a state of enlightenment resulting in longevity or even immortality. But Dao, as something ineffable, shapeless, and conceived of as an infinite void, may also be understood as the unfathomable origin of the world and as the progenitor of the dualistic forces yin and yang. Yin, associated with shade, water, west, and the tiger, and yang, associated with light, fire, east, and the dragon, are the two alternating phases of cosmic energy; their dynamic balance brings cosmic harmony. [Source: Birgitta Augustin Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Buddhism in China

Buddhism was first introduced into China in the first century A.D. from India. Chinese Buddhism was of the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) school, so named to distinguish it from the earlier form of Buddhism known as Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle). Among Tibetan peoples, it is distinguished by its emphasis on the Buddhist Tantras.

Buddhism in China has gone through cycles of rising, flourishing and declining. Over the centuries it has been shaped by the tensions between the Indian-influenced traditions and Chinese traditions. In the eyes of many scholars the tension is what kept Buddhism alive and relevant. When the tensions waned so too did the religion. At its peak Buddhism had hundreds of millions of followers and deeply shaped Chinese culture and thought.

Buddhism entered China mostly in the Mahayana form as it was going through many changes in India. Each major change resulted in a new school in China. Chinese Buddhism evolved through the study of sutras in Chinese. Doctrinal issues were addressed using different sutras than those used in India. The various schools tended to differ from each other and from those in India based on the sutras they emphasized as being truest.

Buddhism is regarded as the largest religion in China today, with 100 million followers, or about 8 percent of the Chinese population, including Tibetans, Mongolians and a few other ethnic minorities like the Dai. There is roughly around the same number of Christians and Muslims. According to the State Administration for Religious Affairs there are about 13,000 Buddhist temples and about 200,000 Buddhist monks and nuns. Still, it can be argued that Buddhism is not embraced with the same ethusiasm amd devotion as it is in other Asian countries and in Tibet. Many Buddhist temples in China are watched over by caretakers not monks. In Japan and Korea, many people are buried according to Buddhist rites, but that is not usually the case in China.

When Buddhism reemerged after the Cultural Revolution it was simpler and more influenced by the West. While Tibetan Buddhism encourages lamas to counsel students individually, Chinese Buddhism puts more emphasis on teaching monks in groups in monasteries.

Sectarian and Foreign Religions in China

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: ““Sectarian traditions emerged periodically in Chinese history; by late imperial times most sectarian groups held a syncretic series of beliefs taken from Daoism, folk religion, the official tradition, and particularly from the Maitreya (Buddha of the Future) tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Exclusivist in their membership, often secret in their activities, many sects fomented millennarian uprisings, especially at times of dynastic turmoil and decline. Other sects were quietistic, striving for personal salvation rather than social revolution. Because of their exclusivist practices and their intermittent advocacy of violent social change, imperial, Republican, and Communist governments have all persecuted the sectarians, but they have reemerged after the Reforms in mainland China, and draw a large following in Taiwan, where they have entered a quietistic phase and currently pose little threat to the sociopolitical order. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

“Foreign religions other than Buddhism have historically had limited appeal to Han people. Islam has been present in China for over a thousand years, and there are Muslims throughout the northwest and in most cities of China. Muslims, however, are not considered Han in mainland China; they are given the separate ethnic designation of Hui. There was a Jewish community at Kaifeng in Henan for several hundred years; its members were largely assimilated by the late nineteenth century. Christian missionaries have proselytized in China intermittently since the Tang period; their most recent period of intense activity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced perhaps 4 million converts to both Protestant and Catholic Christian churches—suppressed in the Cultural Revolution, they are reviving in the Reform period. But Christians remain a tiny minority of Han people, probably no more than 10 million converts and adherents. |~|

“During the most radical periods of the People's Republic, all Han religion was suppressed, and very little activity went on. Since the Reforms, folk religion in particular has revived in many areas, particularly in the south and southeast, with many temples rebuilt and traditional funerals and other rituals quite common. A certain number of Buddhist monasteries and Daoist temples have been allowed to reopen, but it seems unlikely that the elite practitioners of either of these traditions will soon regain their former numbers or prominence. |~|

European Encroachment in Ming- and Qing-Era China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Qing dynasty in the 19th century saw the undermining of the prosperity, peace, and stability of earlier times. Qing China was already suffering from an internal economic crisis at the turn of the century, but perhaps even more important to the collapse of the old was the increasingly aggressive encroachment of Europeans in the economic and cultural spheres. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia ]

European depiction of Confucius

“Significant contact between China and Europe began during the latter half of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). China officially began to trade with the Portuguese in 1557, and soon after, European Jesuits began to establish a presence in Macao and eventually entered China in the early 1580s. The Jesuits were curious about and generally respectful of Chinese culture and customs (including religious rites and Confucianism, in particular), and the imperial governments of the Ming and Qing generally regarded the presence of these Catholic missionaries favorably (though with some significant exceptions) and retained Jesuits as advisers at court. The Qing emperor Kangxi (b. 1654; reign, 1662-1722) even issued an imperial edict in 1692 supporting Chinese converts to Catholicism.

“Problems arose, however, when other Catholic orders began to enter China in the 1630s, and an internal controversy developed over whether the Jesuits, in the interest of winning converts, had gone too far in their attempts to make the Catholic faith more compatible with indigenous Chinese beliefs, especially on the question of the veneration of Confucius and the ancestors. The Jesuits insisted that these were civil rites and therefore acceptable practices for Chinese converts to Catholicism. Missionaries of the Dominican and Franciscan orders thought otherwise, and this disagreement (which later came to be known as the “Rites Controversy”) set off a fierce debate amongst European Catholics that would persist for nearly 100 years, from the 1640s to 1742, when Pope Benedict XIV reaffirmed an earlier (1715) decree by Pope Clement XI that sided with the Dominican-Franciscan position. Benedict XIV then declared that this matter was no longer open to debate, effectively closing the book on the issue. A leading intellectual of his time, Kang Youwei drafted for the Qing dynasty government a drastic program of reform, now known as the “One Hundred Days of Reform.”“

“Following the 1742 degree of Benedict XIV the Qing government regarded Catholics, with the possible exception of some Jesuits who were already favored by the imperial court, with suspicion and strictly contained their activities. Meanwhile the Qing’s economic relationship with Europe did not abate, though here also the Qing made every effort to contain their encroachment. When opium entered the picture in the early 1800s, however, the situation deteriorated significantly for the Qing.

“By the mid-1800s, following Qing China’s defeat in the so-called “Opium War” (1840-42) against the British and the resulting Treaty of Nanjing, European soldiers, merchants, and missionaries (both Catholic and Protestant) were establishing a presence in China and moving into cities all along China’s coastline and into interior regions of the country. This influx of Europeans represented an absolute and dramatic threat to China in many ways. The Westerners’ beliefs and customs were vastly different from that of the Chinese, and their ongoing presence represented not only a military disaster but a cultural disaster as well, for it undermined the centrality of the Chinese emperor, as well as the centrality of the Chinese civilization itself. “

Decline of Religion in China

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “From the 19th century onward, China’s elites argued that the country’s traditions and faiths were a major reason for its decline. Reformers in 1898 called for temples to be converted into schools. While the Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek approved of four religions — Buddhism, Taoism (sometimes called “Daoism”), Christianity and Islam — it largely considered traditional Chinese beliefs to be superstitions and advocated the destruction of temples. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, December 21, 2019; Johnson is the author of“The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao”]

“Scholars estimate that by the middle of the 20th century, half of the temples that existed in China at the end of the 19th century had been destroyed. An 1851 survey of the old city of Beijing listed 866 temples; today, I count just 18. At the end of the 19th century, most villages had at least one temple and many had half a dozen; vast sections of the Chinese countryside now have no temples at all.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Qing China at the close of the 19th century saw the emergence of a new intellectual elite that increasingly perceived the political situation of the day as proof that the Chinese system did not work and that traditional Chinese beliefs were no longer relevant. China’s physical survival as a nation became the overriding concern of these new intellectuals, for their fear was of not only China’s cultural destruction but China’s political destruction at the hands of imperial powers. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos ]

In a desperate urge to strengthen China so that it could resist the ongoing imperialism of the West (and increasingly, of Japan), these Chinese intellectuals developed a new kind of nationalism defined by a dramatic rejection of traditional beliefs, which were seen to have “failed” China. Even the imperial government recognized that some degree of what was called “Western learning” was necessary if China was to survive this new crisis. In 1898, the Qing emperor Guangxu (b. 1871; reign, 1875-1908) appointed Kang Youwei (1858-1927), a leading intellectual of the time, to draft and implement a drastic reform program for the Chinese government. Kang’s program, now known as the “One Hundred Days of Reform,” only had a brief trial period before political pressure brought about a coup and reinstated the Empress Dowager, who favored a more conservative approach. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/cosmos ]

“Kang’s ideas for reform were not abandoned altogether, however, and wide-ranging reforms in education, the military, the economy and the government were implemented throughout the early 1900s, culminating in the elimination of the civil service examination system in 1905. But the reforms could not in the end save the Qing dynasty, which eventually collapsed in 1911. The political vacuum was filled by new anti-imperialist and nationalistic military and intellectual groups that shared an increasingly fierce anti-traditionalism — a powerful rejection of the very traditional patterns that had guided Chinese life and beliefs during the Qing and earlier periods.”

“Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 the anti-traditionalism of the Chinese intellectual elite was embraced by the iconoclastic Chinese Nationalists and led to the widespread destruction of religious and ancestral temples in the 1920s. This very powerful internal assault on traditional beliefs characterized the first half of the 20th century in China.

Religion under the Communist Regime

“When the Communists took power in 1949, they, like the Nationalists, officially recognized four religions — but then promptly began persecuting them. Traditional faiths came under especially harsh treatment, with the government banning bedrock traditional practices, from worshiping ancestors and local deities to following the advice of geomancy masters and spirit mediums. The Communists combined the anti-traditionalism already developed among the Chinese intellectual elite with Marxist-inspired contempt for all religious beliefs. This anti-traditional/anti-religious stance of the early Communists was in a sense a “double blow” to traditional Chinese religious practices. The destruction of ancestral temples, village temples, city god temples and every other vestige of traditional practice was carried on with even greater enthusiasm and more thoroughness by the Communists after 1949, compared to what had been attempted by the Nationalists in the 1920s and early 1930s. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia ]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, freedom of religion, as well as freedom to propagate atheism, has been guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution. Yet the Communist party has consistently maintained a negative attitude; active suppression was greatest during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and more recently has considerably abated. [Source: adapted from “Religion in a State Society: China,” by Myron L. Cohen ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

“Although diffuse (or popular) religion (see Notes, below) played a much larger role in daily life than did institutional forms, the government now only grants official recognition as religious groups to the major organized churches of Islam, the two major denominations of Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), Daoism, and Buddhism. All but the last two had been significant for only a minority of the population, and institutional Buddhism and Daoism had only a specialized and limited role in the religious life of most people.

“Under the Communists, the number of believers affiliated at least publicly with the institutional religions had decreased significantly, but in the more permissive atmosphere of recent times, especially since the several national religious associations were reactivated in1979, Buddhism and both denominations of Christianity in particular have shown signs of revival.

“Pressure against popular religion, considered to be “feudal superstition,” has always been greatest, and even to the present this religious system continues to be most disfavored. Since popular beliefs constituted a religious framework for traditional social organization, they were viewed by the Communists as a major obstacle to the goal of radical reorganization. The Communist attack on popular religion thus was greatest during the periods of land reform (1950-1954) and collectivization (1954-1979), for popular religion reinforced traditional social alignments by emphasizing community solidarity and autonomy, values the Communists wished to replace with class consciousness and the integration of collectivized communities into a socialist economy and polity.

Religious Revival After Mao in China

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: “Religion has blossomed in China despite the Communist Party’s efforts to control and sometimes suppress it, with hundreds of millions embracing the nation’s major faiths — Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism — over the past few decades. But many Chinese worship outside the government’s official churches, mosques and temples, in unauthorized congregations that the party worries could challenge its authority.[Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, October 7, 2016]

“Although the governing Communist Party requires its 85 million members to be atheist, its leaders have lauded some aspects of religious life for instilling morality in the broader population and have issueddirectives ratcheting back the hard-line attacks on religion that characterized the Mao era. Over the past decades this has permitted a striking religious renaissance in China, including a construction boom in temples,mosques and churches.

“The decades of reform that started in the late 1970s loosened controls over society, allowing the revival of all religions and many traditions that had been proscribed. Despite periodic crackdowns, churches and mosques, but also temples, were rebuilt, and clergy trained. Although all faiths were supposed to remain under party control, religious feeling boomed, with the number of believers in China topping 500 million by 2010.[Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, December 21, 2019; Johnson is the author of“The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao”]

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 ^^]

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.” ^^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei\=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; 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 2021

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