Religion in China

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"Three laughs at Tiger Brook", Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one, a litang style painting portraying three men laughing by a river stream, 12th century, Song dynasty.
Public worship ceremony at the Temple of Shennong-Yandi, in Suizhou, Hubei.
Temple of the Filial Blessing, a place for lineage religion, in Wenzhou, Zhejiang.
The Temple of the Mother Goddess of the Yellow River (黄河女神 Huánghé Nǚshén), a folk religious focus of a new residential suburb of the city of Qingtongxia, Ningxia, is possibly one of the biggest temples in China.
The imposing stupa enshrining the relic of Shakyamuni Buddha's finger bone, at Famen Temple, a Buddhist complex in Baoji, Shaanxi.
A Taoist temple in Shangrao, Jiangxi, dedicated to Dongyue, the god of Mount Tai, one of the Five Great Mountains.

China has long been a cradle and host to a variety of the most enduring religio-philosophical traditions of the world. Confucianism and Taoism, plus Buddhism, constitute the "three teachings", philosophical frameworks which historically have had a significant role in shaping Chinese culture.[1][2] Elements of these three belief systems are incorporated into folk or popular religions.[3] Chinese religions are family-oriented and do not demand exclusive adherence, allowing the practice or belief of several at the same time. Some scholars prefer not to use the term "religion" in reference to belief systems in China, and suggest "cultural practices", "thought systems" or "philosophies" as more appropriate terms.[4] The emperors of China claimed the Mandate of Heaven and participated in Chinese religious practices. Since 1949, China has been governed by the Communist Party of China, which, in theory, is an atheist institution and prohibits party members from practicing religion while in office.[5] During Mao Zedong's rule, religious movements were oppressed.[6] Under following leaders, religious organisations have been given more autonomy.[7] At the same time, China is considered a nation with a long history of humanist and secularist, this-worldly thought since the time of Confucius,[8][note 1] who stressed shisu (Chinese: 世俗; pinyin: shìsú, "being in the world"), and Hu Shih stated in the 1920s that "China is a country without religion and the Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstitions".[10] The Party formally and institutionally recognises five religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism (though despite historic links, the Party enforces a separation of the Chinese Catholic Church from the Roman Catholic Church),[11] and there has been more institutional recognition for Confucianism and the Chinese folk religion.[12] In 1999, the Chinese government launched a campaign to eliminate the spiritual practice of Falun Gong in China.[13]

Demographically, the largest group of religious traditions is popular religion, or folk religion, which overlaps with Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism but includes further elements. These traditions include respect for the forces of nature, gods of human groups, ancestors and figures from Chinese mythology.[14] Among widespread cults even officially promoted there are those of Mazu (goddess of the seas),[15] Yellow Emperor (divine patriarch of all the Chinese, "Volksgeist" of the Chinese nation),[16][17] Guandi (god of war and business), Caishen (god of prosperity and richness), Pangu and many others. China has many of the world's tallest statues, including the tallest of all. Most of them represent buddhas and deities and were built in the 2000s. The world's tallest statue is the Spring Temple Buddha, located in Henan. Recently built in the country are also the world's tallest pagoda in Tianning Temple, and the world's tallest stupa in Famen Temple. Chinese Buddhism has developed since the 1st century, and retains its utmost influence in modern China.

Scholars have noted that in China there is no clear boundary between religions, especially Buddhism, Taoism and local popular folk religious practice.[18] According to the most recent demographic analyses, an average 80% of the population in China, that is hundreds of millions of people, practice some kinds of Chinese folk religions and Taoism, 10—16% are Buddhists, 2—4% are Christians, and 1—2% are Muslims. In addition to Han people's local religious practices, there are also ethnic minority groups who maintain religions that can be found nowhere else. Sects of indigenous origin constitute 2—3% of the population, while Confucianism as a religious self-designation is popular among intellectuals.

Significant faiths specifically connected to certain ethnic groups include Tibetan Buddhism and the Islamic religion of the Hui and Uyghur peoples. Christianity in China was introduced two times between the 7th and the 15th centuries, but failed to take root.[19] It was reintroduced in the 16th century by Jesuit missionaries. Protestant missions and later Catholic missionaries expanded the presence of Christianity, which influenced the Taiping Rebellion of the mid 19th century. Under Communism, foreign missionaries were expelled, most churches closed and their schools, hospitals and orphanages seized.[20] During the Cultural Revolution, many priests were imprisoned.[21] After the late 1970s, religious freedoms for Christians improved.[22]


Ancient and prehistoric

Expressions of ancient cultures of China
Xiwangmu, the "Queen Mother of the West". From a Han dynasty mural.
Leishen (the "God of Thunder"), punishing evil-doers on Heaven's behalf (1923).

Prior to the formation of the Chinese civilisation and the spread of world religions in the region generally known today as East Asia (which includes the territorial boundaries of modern-day China), local tribes were united by animistic, shamanic and totemic worldviews, and mediatory individuals such as shamans were the way in which prayers, sacrifices or offerings were communicated to the spiritual world. The ancient spiritual and shamanic heritage is preserved to this day in the forms of Chinese folk religions, including Taoism.[23][24]

Ancient shamanism exhibits features that are especially connected to the ancient Neolithic cultures such as the Hongshan culture.[25] The Flemish philosopher Ulrich Libbrecht traces the origins of some features of Taoism to what he calls "Wuism", or Chinese shamanism.[26]

Libbrecht distinguishes two layers in the development of the Chinese religion, traditions derived respectively from the Shang and subsequent Zhou dynasties. The religion of the Shang era developed around ancestral worship.The main gods from this period are not forces of nature in the Indo-European way, but deified virtuous men. The ancestors of the emperors were called di (帝), "deities", and the greatest of them was called Shangdi (上帝, "Primordial Deity"), who is identified with the dragon, symbol of the universal power (qi) in its yang (generative) aspect.[26]

The Zhou dynasty, succeeding the Shang, was more rooted in an agricultural worldview. With them, gods of nature became dominant. The utmost power in this period was named Tian (天, the "Great Oneness", "Heaven"). With Di (地, "earth") he forms the whole cosmos in a complementary duality.[26]

Matteo Ricci (left) and Xu Guangqi (right) in the Chinese edition of Euclid's Elements published in 1607.
A variety of Chinese priests and monks seen by Johan Nieuhof between 1655 and 1658.

Middle Ages

Buddhism brought a model of afterlife to Chinese people and had a deep influence on Chinese culture. The story Mulian Rescues His Mother, for instance, adapted an originally Buddhist fable to show Confucian values of filial piety. In it, a virtuous monk descends into hell to rescue his mother, who had been condemned for her transgressions.[27]

Modern history

16th—19th century

From the 16th century, the Jesuit China missions played a significant role in opening dialogue between China and the West. The Jesuits brought Western sciences, becoming advisers to the imperial court on astronomy, taught mathematics and mechanics, but also adapted Chinese religious ideas such as admiration for Confucius and ancestor worship into the religious doctrine they taught in China.[28]

20th and 21st centuries

China entered the 20th century under the Manchu Qing dynasty, whose rulers favoured traditional Chinese religions, and participated in public religious ceremonies, with state pomp and ceremony, as at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, where prayers for the harvest were offered. On the empire's fringe, Tibetan Buddhists recognized the Dalai Lamas as their spiritual and temporal leaders.

Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China, and his successor nationalist leader of China Chiang Kai-shek were both Christians. But with the triumph of Mao Zedong's communists, mainland China became officially atheist. The historian Arthur Waldron suggests, however, that "communism was, in effect, a religion for its early Chinese converts: more than a sociological analysis, it was a revelation and a prophecy that engaged their entire beings and was expounded in sacred texts, many imported from Moscow and often printed in English".[29]

The Jade Buddha of Anshan, in Liaoning, is the largest jade statue in the world, enshrined in the Jade Buddha Temple.
Incense Snow Temple (香雪寺 Xiāngxuě sì), a rural Buddhist community in Ouhai, Wenzhou, Zhejiang.

The People's Republic of China was established on the 1 October 1949. Its government is officially atheist, having viewed religion as emblematic of feudalism and foreign colonialism, and maintained separation of state and the church. This changed during the Cultural Revolution, in 1966 and 1967. The Cultural Revolution led to a policy of elimination of religions; a great number of places of worship were destroyed.

This policy relaxed considerably in the late 1970s at the end of the Cultural Revolution and more tolerance of religious expression has been permitted since. Since 1978, the Constitution of the People's Republic of China guarantees "freedom of religion". Its article 36 states that:[30][31]

Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.

Since the mid-1980s there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist temples. In recent times, the government has expressed support for Buddhism and Taoism, organizing the first World Buddhist Forum in 2006, subsequent World Buddhist Fora, and a number of Taoist fora. The government sees these religions as an integral part of Chinese culture.[32]

In recent years, the Chinese government has been open especially to traditional religions such as Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and folk religion, emphasizing the role of religion in building a "Harmonious Society" (hexie shehui),[33] a Confucian idea.[34][35] In late 2013, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, expressed hope that "traditional cultures" may fill "moral void" and fight corruption.[36] At the same time, there is a tendency to contrast an idealized image of harmony among the Chinese religions with the hostility among the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Intellectuals sometimes blame Christianity for being intolerant and exclusive, even imperialistic and arrogant.[37] Some intellectuals criticise Christianity for disrupting the socio-cultural complex and for culture loss.[38]

The Communist Party, which remains an atheist organisation, presently formally recognises five religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism (though despite historic links, for political reasons, the Chinese Catholic Church has been separated from the Roman Catholic Church).[11][39] To some degree the government also controls the institutions of the religions it recognizes.[40]

Geographic distribution

The varieties of Chinese religion are spread across the map of China in different degrees. Southern provinces have experienced the most vibrant revival of Chinese folk religion,[45][29] although it is present all over the country in a wide variety of forms, intertwined with Taoism, fashi orders, Confucianism, Nuo ritualism, shamanism and other forms of ritual, worship, ecstasy and devotion. Quanzhen Taoism is mostly present in the north, while Sichuan is the area where Tianshi Taoism developed and the early Celestial Masters had their main seat. Taoism, both in registered and unregistered forms (Zhengyi Taoism and unrecognised fashi orders), since the 1990s has developed quickly and has gained predominance in the religious market of coastal provinces.[46][47]

In contrast with the folk religion of southern and southeastern provinces—which fabric is constituted fundamentally by the kins and their cults (zongzu xiehui 宗族协会) focusing on ancestral gods—, the folk religion of central-northern China (North China Plain) predominantly hinges on the communal worship of tutelary deities of creation and nature as identity symbols by villages populated by families of different surnames,[48] organised into "godly communities" (shenshe 神社, synonymous with shehui 社會, "society" in the original sense of "assembly of the altar", a celebration of a community and its god or gods[49]), which organise temple ceremonies (miaohui 廟會), involving processions and pilgrimages,[50] and led by indigenous ritual masters (fashi) who are often hereditary and linked to secular authority.[note 2] Northern and southern folk religions also have a different pantheon, of which the northern one composed by more ancient gods of Chinese mythology.[51]

Folk religious sects have historically been more successful in the central plains and in the northeastern provinces than in southern China, and central-northern folk religion shares characteristics of some of the sects, such as the heavy importance of mother goddess worship and shamanism.[52] Confucian churches as well have historically found much resonance among the population of the northeast; in the 1930s the Universal Church of the Way and its Virtue alone aggregated at least 25% of the population of the state of Manchuria[53] and contemporary Shandong has been analysed as an area of rapid growth of folk Confucian groups.[54]

The folk religion of northeastern China (Manchuria) has unique characteristics deriving from the interaction of Han folk faiths with Tungus and Manchu shamanisms; these include chuma xian (出馬仙 "riding (for the) immortal gods") shamanism, the worship of foxes and other animal deities, and the fox god and goddess—Húsān Tàiyé (胡三太爷) and Húsān Tàinǎi (胡三太奶)—at the head of pantheons.[55] Otherwise, in the religious context of Inner Mongolia there has been a significant integration of Han Chinese into the traditional folk religion of the region.

Across China in recent years Han folk religion has adopted deities from Tibetan folk religion, especially wealth gods.[56] In Tibet, across broader western China, and in Inner Mongolia, there has been a growth of the cult of Gesar with the explicit support of the Chinese government, Gesar being a cross-ethnic Han-Tibetan, Mongol and Manchu deity (the Han identify him as an aspect of the god of war analogically with Guandi) and culture hero whose mythology is embodied as a culturally important epic poem.[57]

The Han Chinese schools of Buddhism are mostly distributed in the eastern part of the country. On the other hand, Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion in Tibet, and significantly present in other westernmost provinces where ethnic Tibetans constitute a significant part of the population, and has a strong influence in Inner Mongolia in the north. The Tibetan tradition is also having a growing influence among the Han Chinese.[58]

Christians are especially concentrated in the three provinces of Henan, Anhui and Zhejiang.[59] The latter two provinces were in the area affected by the Taiping event, and Zhejiang along with Henan were hubs of the intense Protestant missionary activity in the 19th and early 20th century.

Islam is the majority religion in areas inhabited by the Hui Muslims, particularly the province of Ningxia, and in the province of Xinjiang which is inhabited by the Uyghurs. Many ethnic minority groups in China follow their own traditional ethnic religions: Benzhuism of the Bai, Bimoism of the Yi, Bön of the Tibetans, Dongbaism of the Nakhi, the eclectic traditions of the Qiang, Shigongism or Moism of the Zhuang, Ua Dab of the Hmong, Yao Taoism, Mongolian shamanism or Tengerism, Manchu shamanism among Manchus.

Geographic distribution of religions in China, by share of total population by province
Taoist Church's strength[61] 
Buddhist institutions per capita[66][note 5] 


Worshipers at the Temple of the City God of Suzhou, Jiangsu. Is it Taoism or folk religion? To the general Chinese public they are not distinguished, but a lay practitioner would hardly claim to be a "Taoist", as Taoism is a set of doctrinal and liturgical functions that work as specialising patterns for the indigenous religion.[69]
Temple of Hebo, the god of the Yellow River, a prominent form of the Heshen (River God), in Hequ, Xinzhou, Shanxi.

Counting the number of religious people anywhere is hard; counting them in China is even harder. Low response rates, non-random samples, and adverse political and cultural climates are persistent problems.[70] One scholar concludes that statistics on religious believers in China "cannot be accurate in a real scientific sense," since definitions of "religion" exclude people who do not see themselves as members of a religious organization but are still "religious" in their daily actions and fundamental beliefs.[71] The concept of "religion" in China is very different from that in the Western world. The Chinese mindset is characterised by an harmonious holism, that is a worldview in which all things are part of the whole. There is an organic oneness in which every aspect reflects and presupposes the other aspects in a constant process of growing and transforming. For this reason, the forms of Chinese religious expression tend to be syncretic and following one religion does not necessarily mean the rejection or denial of others.[72]

Another matter of current debate is whether some important belief systems, primarily Confucianism, constitute "religions".[73] As Daniel L. Overmeyer writes, in recent years there has been a "new appreciation... of the religious dimensions of Confucianism, both in its ritual activities and in the inward search for an ultimate source of moral order".[74] Many Chinese belief systems have concepts of a sacred and sometimes spiritual natural world yet do not invoke a concept of personal god.[75]

Surveys have found very few people who call themselves Taoists. This is because to most Chinese, Taoism is the same as the Chinese folk religion, while scholars such as Kristofer Schipper hold that Taoism is more accurately defined as a doctrinal and liturgical framework of the folk religion.[76] Traditionally, the Chinese language has not included a term for a lay follower of Taoism. In earlier Western sinological literature as in Chinese common usage, the term "Taoist" (道教徒 dàojiàotú, "disciple of the teachings about the Tao") means the daoshi (道士, "masters of the Tao")—the "Taoist priests"—, the ordained clergymen of a Taoist institution who "represent Taoist culture on a professional basis".[77] The same discourse applies to the fashi (法師, "ritual masters"), the popular non-Taoist specialists of rites.[76] The concept of "Taoist" as lay member or believer in Taoism, is a neologism that derives from the Western category of "religion" as membership in a church institution.

Analysing Chinese traditional religions is further complicated by discrepancies between the terminologies used in Chinese and Western languages. While in the English current usage "folk religion" means broadly all forms of indigenous and ethnic cults of gods and ancestors, in Chinese usage and in academia these cults have not had an overarching name. By "folk religion" (民間宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào) or "folk faith" (民間信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng) Chinese scholars have usually meant organised sects originating from the "folk religion".[78][79] Furthermore, in the 1990s some of these organised sects began to register as branches of the official Taoist Association.[80] In order to address this terminological confusion, some Chinese intellectuals have proposed recognition and legal management of the indigenous religion by the state and to adopt the label "Chinese native (or indigenous) religion" (民俗宗教 mínsú zōngjiào) or "Chinese ethnic religion" (民族宗教 mínzú zōngjiào),[81] or other names.[note 6]

Circle frame.svg

Religion in China (CGSS's average 2012)[83]

  Not religious, traditional worship, Confucianism or Taoism (87.4%)
  Buddhism (6.2%)
  Christianity (2.3%)
  Islam (1.7%)
  Other faiths (0.2%)
  • According to the results of an official census provided in 1995 by the Information Office of the State Council of China, at that time the Chinese traditional religions were already popular among nearly 1 billion people.[71]
  • 2005: a survey of the religiosity of urban Chinese from the five cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Nantong, Wuhan and Baoding, conducted by professor Xinzhong Yao, found that only 5.3% of the analysed population belonged to religious organisations, while 51.8% were non religious, in that they did not belong to any religious association. Nevertheless, 23.8% of the population regularly worshipped gods and ancestors, 23.1% worshipped Buddha or identified themselves as Buddhists, up to 38.5% had beliefs and practices associated with the folk religions such as feng shui or belief in celestial powers, and only 32.9% were convinced atheists.[84]
  • Three surveys conducted respectively in 2005, 2006 and 2007 by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group on a disproportionately urban and suburban sampling, found that Buddhists constituted between 11% and 16% of the total population, Christians were between 2% and 4%, and Muslims approximately 1%.[85] The surveys also found that ~60% of the population believed in concepts such as fate and fortune associated to the folk religion.[85]
  • 2007: a survey conducted by the East China Normal University taking into account people from different regions of China, concluded that there were approximately 300 million religious believers (~31% of the total population), of whom the vast majority ascribable to Buddhism, Taoism and folk religions. Some scholars considered this number an underestimate, given possible higher numbers for the Chinese folk religion alone.[86]
  • 2008: a survey conducted in that year by Yu Tao of the University of Oxford with a survey scheme led and supervised by the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy and the Peking University, analysing the rural populations of the six provinces of Jiangsu, Sichuan, Shaanxi, Jilin, Hebei and Fujian, each representing different geographic and economic regions of China, found that followers of the Chinese folk religions were 31.9% of the analysed population, Buddhists were 10.85%, Christians were 3.93% of which 3.54% Protestants and 0.39% Catholics, and Taoists were 0.71%.[87] The remaining 53.41% of the population claimed to be not religious.[87]
  • 2010: the Chinese Spiritual Life Survey directed by the Purdue University's Center on Religion and Chinese Society concluded that many types of Chinese folk religions and Taoism are practiced by possibly hundreds of millions of people; 56.2% of the total population or 754 million people practiced Chinese ancestral religion[note 7], but only 16% asserting to believe in the existence of ancestral shen; 12.9% or 173 million practiced Taoism on a level indistinguishable from the folk religion; 0.9% or 12 million people identified exclusively as Taoists; 13.8% or 185 million identified as Buddhists, of which 1.3% or 17.3 million had received formal initiation; 2.4% or 33 million identified as Christians, of which 2.2% or 30 million as Protestants (of which only 38% baptised in the official churches) and 0.02% or 3 million as Catholics; and an additional 1.7% or 23 million were Muslims.[89]
  • 2012: the Chinese Family Panel Studies (CFPS) institute conducted a survey of 25 of the provinces traditionally with a Han majority, with the exception of Hainan and Qinghai, and the exclusion of the autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang, and of Hong Kong and Macau.[90] The survey found only ~10% of the population belonging to organised religions; specifically, 6.75% were Buddhists, 2.4% were Christians (of which 1.89% Protestants and 0.41% Catholics), 0.54% were Taoists, 0.46% were Muslims, and 0.40% declared to belong to other religions.[91] Although ~90% of the population declared to not belong to any religion, the authors of the survey estimated that only 6.3% were atheists neither believing nor worshipping gods and ancestors.[92] The results also provided detailed demographics of religions in the five selected regions of Shanghai, Liaoning, Henan, Gansu and Guangdong.[92]
  • Four surveys conducted respectively in the years 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011 as part of the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) of the Renmin University of China found an average 6.2% of the Chinese identifying as Buddhists, 2.3% as Christians (of which 2% Protestants and 0.3% Catholics), 2.2% as members of folk religious sects, 1.7% as Muslims, and 0.2% as Taoists.[93]

Besides the surveys based on fieldwork, estimates using projections have been published by the Pew Research Center as part of its study of the Global Religious Landscape in 2010. This study estimated 21.9% of the population of China believed in folk religions, 18.2% were Buddhists, 5.1% were Christians, 1.8% were Muslims, 0.8% believed in other religions, while unaffiliated people constituted 52.2% of the population.[94] According to the surveys of Phil Zuckerman published on, 59% of the Chinese population was not religious in 1993,[95] and in 2005 between 8% and 14% was atheist (from over 100 to 180 million).[96] A survey held in 2012 by WIN/GIA found that in China the atheists comprise 47% of the population.[97]

Yu Tao's survey of the year 2008 provided a detailed analysis of the social characteristics of the religious communities.[87] It found that the proportion of male believers is higher than the average among folk religious people, Taoists, and Catholics, while it is lower than the average among Protestants. The Buddhist community shows a greater balance of male and female believers. Concerning the age of believers, folk religious people and Catholics tend to be younger than the average, while Protestant and Taoist communities were composed by older people. The Christian community is more likely than other religions to have members belonging to the ethnic minorities. The study analysed the proportion of believers that are at the same time members of the local section of the Communist Party of China, finding that it is exceptionally high among the Taoists, while the lowest proportion is found among the Protestants. About education and wealth, the survey found that the wealthiest populations are those of Buddhists and especially Catholics, while the poorest is that of the Protestants; Taoists and Catholics are the better educated, while the Protestants are the less educated among the religious communities. These findings confirm a description by Francis Ching-Wah Yip that the Protestant population was predominantly composed of illiterate and semi-illiterate people, elderly people, and women, already in the 1990s and early 2000s.[59]

The Chinese Family Panel Studies' findings for 2012 show that Buddhists tend to be younger and better educated, while Christians are older and more likely to be illiterate.[98] Furthermore, Buddhists are generally wealthy, while Christians most often belong to the poorest parts of the population.[99] Henan has been found to be host to the largest percentage of Christians of any province of China, about 6%.[92] According to Zhe Ji, Chan Buddhism and individual, non-institutional forms of folk religiosity are particularly successful among the contemporary Chinese youth.[100]

Religion as cultural memory and morality

Statue of Confucius at a temple in Chongming, Shanghai.
People forgather for a Taoist-led ceremony at the pyramidal shaped Great Temple of Zhang Hui (张挥公大殿 Zhāng Huī gōng dàdiàn), the main ancestral shrine dedicated to the progenitor of the Zhang lineage, located at Zhangs' ancestral home in Qinghe, Hebei.

The Chinese civilisation claims an unusual continuity of several thousands of years and, as its habitat, several thousands of square miles.[106] This continuity is possible through China's religion, understood as a system of knowledge transmission.[106]

«This continuity and unity are found most markedly in the philosophy, political theory, and ethics that are subsumed under the tradition of Confucian thought and in Buddhist and Taoist impacts on art, poetry, and religion.»

A worthy Chinese is supposed to remember a vast amount of information from the past, and to draw on this past to form a basis of moral reasoning.[106] The meticulous remembrance of the past is important equally for urban and rural people, where local history is entwined with the identities of descent-based groups.[107] The identity, outlook and behavior, of a person who grows up in a certain group is molded by the process of learning from their past through a multitude of oral, written and performative media (mythology).[107]

This is the foundation of the Chinese practice of ancestor veneration or worship (拜祖 baizu or 敬祖 jingzu)[107] that dates back to prehistory, and is a backbone of Chinese folk religion and Confucianism. Defined as "the essential religion of the Chinese",[107] it is the actual mean of memory and therefore cultural vitality of the entire Chinese civilisation.[107]

Relying on lineage rhetoric, sacrificial rites, and the updating of genealogies (zupu, "books of ancestors"), it evokes memory and thus identity of each generation.[107] Temple festivals and local arts are other displays of group identities.[107] Religious rituals, symbols, objects and ideas, are the means of the construction, maintaining, and transmission of these identities.[108]

A practice developed in the Chinese folk religion of post-Maoist China, that started in the 1990s from the Confucian temples managed by the Kong kin (the lineage of the descendants of Confucius himself), is the representation of ancestors in ancestral shrines no longer just through tablets with their names, but through statues. Statuary effigies were previously exclusively used for Buddhist bodhisattva and Taoist gods.[109]

Besides the lineage worship of the founders of Chinese surnames and kins, virtuous historical figures that have had an important impact in the history of China are revered as gods. Notable examples include Confucius, Guan Yu, or Yellow Emperor, the Yellow Emperor, considered the patriarch of all Han Chinese.

The two major festivals involving ancestor veneration are the Qingming Festival and the Double Ninth Festival, but veneration of ancestors is conducted in many other ceremonies, including weddings, funerals, and triad initiations. Worshipers generally offer prayers in a jingxiang rite, with food, light incense and candles, and burn offerings of joss paper. These activities are typically conducted at the site of ancestral graves or tombs, at an ancestral temple, or at a household shrine.

Chinese concept of religion

"Kui Xing pointing the Big Dipper". Reproduction of a calligraphic art preserved at the Stele Forest in Xi'an. It represents the Chinese god of exams, Kuixing, made up of the characters describing the four Confucian virtues (Sìzì 四字), standing on the head of the ao (鰲) turtle (an expression for coming first in the examinations), and "pointing the Dipper (斗)".[note 8]

Understanding religion primarily as an ancestral tradition and its transmission, the Chinese have a relationship with the divine that is meaningful and functional socially, politically as well as spiritually.[111] The Chinese concept of "religion", zōngjiào (宗教), draws the divine near to the human world.[111] To the Chinese the utmost deity (Di or Shangdi, or Tian) is manifested and embodied by the chief gods of each phenomenon and of each human kin, making the worship of the highest god possible even in each ancestral temple.[112]

Because "religion" refers to the bond between the human and the divine, there is always a danger that this bond will be broken.[113] However, the Chinese term zōngjiào—instead of separation—emphasises communication, correspondence and mutuality between the ancestor and the descendant, the master and the disciple, and between the Way (Tao, the way of the divine in nature) and its ways.[113] Zōng (宗 "ancestor", "model", "mode", "master", "pattern", but also "purpose") implies that the understanding of the ultimate derives from the transformed figure of the great ancestor or ancestors, who continue to support—and correspondingly rely on—their descendants, in a mutual exchange of benefit.[113] Jiào (教 "teaching") is connected to filial piety (xiao), as it implies the transmission of knowledge from the elders to the youth and of support from the youth to the elders.[113]

The mutual support of elders and youth is needed for the continuity of the ancestral tradition, that is communicated from generation to generation.[113] With an understanding of religion as teaching and education, the Chinese have a staunch confidence in the human capacity of transformation and perfection, enlightenment or immortality.[114] In the Chinese religions, humans are confirmed and reconfirmed with the ability to improve themselves, in a positive attitude towards eternity.[114] Hans Küng has defined Chinese religions as the "religions of wisdom", thereby distinguishing them from the "religions of prophecy" (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and from the "religions of mysticism" (Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism).[114]

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, where Chinese emperors prayed Heaven (photograph from 1860).

It is important to note that no exact term described "religion" in Classical Chinese.[115] The combination of zong (宗) and jiao (教), despite being in circulation since the Tang dynasty in Chan circles to define the Buddhist doctrine,[116] was used to translate the Western concept of "religion" by the end of the 19th century.[115] Chinese intellectuals also likened the concept to the Japanese shūkyō.[117] Under the influence of Western rationalism and later Marxism, what most of the Chinese today mean as zōngjiào are "organised doctrinal teachings", that is "superstructures consisting of superstitions, dogmas, rituals and institutions".[118][119] The cults of gods and ancestors, that in recent (originally Western) literature have been classified as "traditional folk religion(s)", traditionally neither have a common name nor are considered zōngjiào ("doctrinal teaching").[120][note 9]

Temple economy

Folk temple on the rooftop of a commercial building in the city of Wenzhou.

The economic dimension of Chinese folk religion is also important.[122] Some scholars emphasize its ritual and temple economy as a form of grassroots capitalism, that circulates wealth and invests the "sacred capital" of temples, gods and ancestors.[123]

This groundwork, laid in imperial China, plays an important role in modern Taiwan,[124] and is seen as the driving force in the rapid economic development in parts of rural China, especially the southern and eastern coasts.[125][126] It is an "embedded capitalism", which preserves local identity and autonomy. The drive for individual accumulation of money is tempered by the religious and kinship ethics of generosity in sharing wealth for devotion, ritual, and the construction of the civil society.[127]

Idea of Tian and its cult

Tian or Di as the square of the north astral pole.[128]
«Tian is dian 顛 ("top"), the highest and unexceeded. It derives from the characters yi 一, "one", and da 大, "big"[note 10]

Tian 天 ("Heaven" or "Sky", philologically "Great Whole") is the idea of the absolute principle that is the spring of universal reality, in Chinese religious traditions.

Various interpretations have been elaborated by Confucians, Taoists, and other schools of thought.[136] A popular representation is the Jade Deity (玉帝 Yùdì) or Jade Emperor (玉皇 Yùhuáng)[note 11] originally formulated by Taoists.[140] Tian is defined in many ways, with many names, the most widely known being Tàidì 太帝 (the "Great Deity") and Shàngdì 上帝 (the "Primordial Deity") or simply 帝 ("Deity").[note 12] Tengri is the equivalent of Tian in Altaic shamanic religions.

Confucianism, which inherited scholarship and sacred books from the Shang and Zhou dynasty, distinguishes Shangdi as the logos (word of order, way, or path; Tao or li) of Tian,[145] and rites as the logos of Shangdi.[146] In the tradition of the New-Text School of Confucianism, Confucius is regarded as a "throne-less king" of Shangdi and a savior of the world. Otherwise, the Old-Text School persisted that Confucius is a sage of Shangdi who had given new interpretation to the heritage from previous great dynasties.[147] Neo-Confucian thinkers such as Zhu Xi developed the idea of li 理, the "reason", "order" of Heaven, that develops in the polarity of yin and yang.[148] In Taoist theology Shangdi is discussed as Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊 "Heavenly Lord of the Primordial Beginning"), whereas in Taoist philosophical discourse the Tao 道 ("Way") denotes in one concept both the impersonal absolute Tian and its order of manifestation (li).

In Chinese religions, Tian is both transcendent and immanent,[149] inherent in the multiple phenomena of nature (polytheism or cosmotheism, yǔzhòu shénlùn 宇宙神论).[140] Gods (shen 神; "growth", "beings that give birth"[150]) and ancestors (zu 祖) are interwoven energies or principles that generate phenomena which reveal or reproduce the order of Heaven.

An elaborate ceremony for the worship of Tian at the Temple of Heaven (in which Tian is enshrined as 皇天上帝 Huángtiān Shàngdì, "Primordial Deity of the Shining Heaven") in Beijing was conducted once a year by the emperors of China. This cult dates back, according to registered history, to the Shang dynasty, and lasted until the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. The emperor of China was known as the "Son of Heaven" (tianzi), invested with the Mandate of Heaven (tianming), that was the legitimacy as ruler of the Chinese state.

Main religions

Chinese traditional religion

Temple of Xuanyuan in Huangling, Yan'an, Shaanxi, dedicated to the worship of Yellow Emperor, the "Yellow Emperor".[note 13]
Temple of the Great Goddess (Taimu dian) in Fuding, Ningde, Fujian. The compound has a small ancient pavilion and a larger modern one behind of it.
Temple of Bao Gong in Wenzhou, Zhejiang.
Temple of the City God of Xi'an, Shaanxi.
Worship incense at a temple of Mazu in Tianjin.
People forgathering at an ancestral shrine in Hong'an, Hubei.

Chinese folk or popular religion is the traditional common religion of the Han Chinese, or the indigenous religion of China.[153] It primarily consists in the worship of shen (神 "gods", "spirits", "awarenesses", "consciousnesses", "archetypes"; literally "expressions", the energies that generate things and make them thrive[154]) which can be nature deities, city deities or tutelary deities of other human agglomerations, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, ancestors and progenitors. Holy narratives regarding some of these gods are codified into the body of Chinese mythology.

This religion historically doesn't have a name in Chinese. The scholar Jan Jakob Maria de Groot coined the term "Chinese Universism" (not in the sense of "universalism", that is a system of universal application, but in the original sense of "uni-verse" which is "towards the One", that is the TianShangdi in Chinese thought) to define it, especially referring to its intrinsic metaphysical perspective.[155][156] In more recent times, mainland Chinese scholars have proposed other names to define the local indigenous cults of China, including "Chinese native religion" or "Chinese indigenous religion" (民俗宗教 mínsú zōngjiào), "Chinese ethnic religion" (民族宗教 mínzú zōngjiào), or also "Chinese religion" (中華教 Zhōnghuájiào), "Shenism" (神教 Shénjiào) and "Shenxianism" (神仙教 Shénxiānjiào, "religion of deities and immortals"); this is meant to avoid terminological confusion, since "folk religion" (民间宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào) or "folk belief" (中国民间信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng) historically identify the folk religious sects and not local indigenous cults.[121]

The Chinese folk religion has a variety of sources, localised worship forms, ritual and philosophical traditions. Among the ritual traditions, notable examples include Chinese shamanism and Nuo rituals. Chinese folk religion is sometimes categorized inadequately as "Taoism",[157] since over the centuries institutional Taoism has acted as a "liturgical framework" for local religions.[76] Zhengyi Taoism is especially intertwined with local cults, with Zhengyi daoshi (道士, "masters of the Tao") often performing rituals for local temples and communities. Various orders of ritual ministers operate in folk religion but outside codified Taoism. Confucianism advocates worship of gods and ancestors through proper rites.[158][159] Confucian liturgy (儒 or 正统 zhèngtǒng, "orthoprax", ritual style) led by Confucian ritual masters (礼生 lǐshēng), is used on occasions in folk temples and by lineage churches.[160] Taoism in its various currents, either comprehended or not within the Chinese folk religion, has some of its origins from Chinese shamanism (Wuism).[26]

Despite their great diversity, all the expressions of Chinese folk religion have a common core that can be summarised as four spiritual, cosmological, and moral concepts[161]Tian (天), Heaven, the source of moral meaning, the utmost god and the universe itself; qi (气), the breath or substance of the universe; jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors; bao ying (报应), moral reciprocity—, and two traditional concepts of fate and meaning[162]ming yun (命运), the personal destiny or burgeoning; and yuan fen (缘分), "fateful coincidence",[163] good and bad chances and potential relationships.[163]

In Chinese religions, yin and yang is the polarity that describes the order of the universe,[148] held in balance by the interaction of principles of growth (shen) and principles of waning (gui),[154] with act (yang) usually preferred over receptiveness (yin).[164] Ling (numen or sacred) is the "medium" of the bivalency, and the inchoate order of creation.[164]

Despite having being suppressed during the last two centuries of the history of China, from the Taiping Movement to the Cultural Revolution, it is now experiencing a revival[165][166] and many of its forms have received a degrees of official recognition by the government of China, such as in the cases of Mazuism and the Xia teaching in southeastern China,[15] and Yellow Emperor worship.[17] In mid-2015 the government of Zhejiang began the registration of more than twenty thousand folk religious associations.[167]

According to the most recent demographic analyses, an average 30—80% of the population of China, approximately 400 million to 1 billion people, practices cults of gods and ancestors or belongs to folk religious sects. Moreover, according to one survey approximately 14% of the population claims different levels of affiliation with Taoist practices.[101] Other figures from the micro-level testify the wide proliferation of folk religions: in 1989 there were 21,000 male and female shamans (shen han and wu po respectively, as they are named locally), 60% of them young, in the Pingguo County of Guangxi alone;[168] and by the mid-1990s the government of the Yulin Prefecture of Shaanxi counted over 10,000 folk temples on its territory alone,[169] for a population of 3.1 million, an average of one temple per 315 persons.

According to Wu and Lansdowne:[170]

«... numbers for authorised religions are dwarfed by the huge comeback of traditional folk religion in China. ... these actually may involve the majority of the population. Chinese officials and scholars now are studying "folk faiths" ... after decades of suppressing any discussion of this phenomenon. Certain local officials for some time have had to treat regional folk faiths as de facto legitimate religion, alongside the five authorized religions.»

Chinese religion mirrors the social landscape, and takes on different meanings for different people.[171] The Chinese folk religion is a "diffused religion" rather than "institutional". It is a meaning system of social solidarity and identity, ranging from the kinship systems to the community, the state, and the economy, that serves to integrate Chinese culture.

According to Yiyi Lu, discussing the reconstruction of Chinese civil society:[172]

«... the two decades after the reforms have seen the revival of many folk societies organized around the worshipping of local deities, which had been banned by the state for decades as "feudal superstition". These societies enjoy wide local support, as they carry on traditions going back many generations, and cater to popular beliefs in theism, fatalism and retribution ... Because they build on tradition, common interest, and common values, these societies enjoy social legitimacy ...»

Folk religious sects

Han dynasty fragments representing qigong practices.

China has a long history of sect traditions characterised by a soteriological and eschatological character, often called "salvationist religions" (救度宗教 jiùdù zōngjiào),[173] emerged from the traditional folk faith but neither ascribable to the lineage cult of ancestors and progenitors, nor to the communal-liturgical religion of village temples, neighbourhood, corporation, or national temples.[174]

The 20th-century expression of this kind of religions has been studied under Prasenjit Duara's definition of "redemptive societies" (救世团体 jiùshì tuántǐ),[175][176] while modern Chinese scholarship tends to describe them as "folk religious sects" (民間宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào, 民间教门 mínjiān jiàomén or 民间教派 mínjiān jiàopài),[177] abandoning the ancient derogatory definition of xiéjiào (邪教), "evil religion".[178]

They are characterised by egalitarianism; a foundation through a charismatic figure and a direct divine revelation; a millenarian eschatology and a voluntary path of salvation; an embodied experience of the numinous through healing and cultivation; and an expansive orientation through good deeds, evangelism and philanthropy.[179] Their practices are focused on their moral teachings, body cultivation, and recitation of scriptures.[173]

Many of the redemptive religions of the 20th and 21st century aspire to become the repository of the entirety of the Chinese tradition in the face of Western modernism and materialism.[180] This group of religions includes[181] Yiguandao and other Xiantiandao (先天道 "Way of the Ancient Heaven") sects, Jiugongdao (九宮道 "Way of the Nine Palaces"), various proliferations of the Luo teaching, the Zaili teaching, and the more recent De teaching, Weixinist, Xuanyuan and Tiandi teachings, the latter two focused respectively on the worship of Yellow Emperor and the Tian. Also, most of the qigong schools are developments of the same religious context.[182] These movements were banned in the early Republican China and later Communist China. Many of them still remain illegal, underground or unrecognised in China, while others—specifically the De teaching, the Tiandi teachings, the Xuanyuan teaching, Weixinism and Yiguandao—have developed cooperation with mainland China's academic, non-governmental organisations,[15] and even governmental units. The Xia teaching is an organised folk religion founded in the 16th century, present in the Putian region (Xinghua) of Fujian where it is legally recognised.[15] Some of them began to register as branches of the official Taoist Association since the 1990s.[80]

Another category that has been sometimes confused with that of the sects of salvation by the scholarly narrative, is that of the secret societies (會道門 huìdàomén, 祕密社會 mìmì shèhuì, or 秘密結社 mìmì jiéshè).[183] They are religious communities of initiatory and secretive character, including rural militias such as the Red Spears (紅槍會) and the Big Knives (大刀會), and fraternal organisations such as the Green Gangs (青幫) and the Elders' Societies (哥老會).[184] They became very popular in the early republican period, and often labeled as "heretical doctrines" (宗教異端 zōngjiào yìduān).[184] Recent scholarship has created the label of "secret sects" (祕密教門 mìmì jiàomén) to distinguish the peasant "secret societies" with a positive dimension of the Yuan, Ming and Qing periods, from the negatively viewed "secret societies" of the early republic that became instruments of anti-revolutionary forces (the Guomindang or Japan).[184]

A further distinctive type of sects of the folk religion, that are possibly the same with the positive "secret sects", are the martial sects. They combine two aspects: the wenchang (文场 "cultural field"), that is the doctrinal aspect characterised by elborate cosmologies, theologies, initiatory and ritual patterns, and that is usually kept secretive ; and the wuchang (武场 "martial field"), that is the body cultivation practice and that is usually the "public face" of the sect.[185] They were outlawed by Ming imperial edicts that continued until the fall of the Qing dynasty in the 20th century.[185] An example of martial sect is the Meihuaquan (梅花拳 "Plum Flower Boxing"), that has become very popular throughout northern China.[185]

Temple of Confucius of Liuzhou, Guangxi. This is a wénmiào (文庙), that is to say a temple where Confucius is worshiped as Wéndì (文帝), "God of Culture".
Altar dedicated to Confucius at a temple in Pingyao, Shanxi.
Prayer flairs at a Confucian temple.


Confucianism (儒教 Rújiào, "teaching of the cultured ones"; or 孔教 Kǒngjiào, "teaching of Confucius") is an ethical and philosophical system, also described as a religion,[note 14] developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (孔夫子 Kǒng Fūzǐ, "Master Kong", 551–479 BC). Confucianism originated as an "ethical-sociopolitical teaching" during the Spring and Autumn Period, but later developed metaphysical and cosmological elements in the Han dynasty,[188] and became the state ideology of the Chinese empire.

Confucianism lost its influence in the 20th century, substituted by the "Three Principles of the People" with the establishment of the Republic of China, and then Maoism under the People's Republic of China. In the late twentieth century, some people credited Confucianism with the rise of the East Asian economy and it enjoyed a rise in popularity both in China and abroad. A contemporary New Confucian revival continues revitalisation movements of the early 20th century.

The core of Confucianism is humanistic,[8] or, according to the Herbert Fingarette's concept of "the secular as sacred", a religion that deconstructs the sacred-profane dichotomy regarding the secular real of human action as a manifestation of the sacred.[189] Confucianism focuses on the practical order that is given by a this-worldly awareness of the Tian (Heaven, or the impersonal God of the Universe in European terminology)[190] and a proper respect of the gods (shen) through ritual and sacrifice,[191] with particular emphasis on the importance of the family and social harmony, rather than on an otherworldly soteriology.[192]

By the words of Tu Weiming and other Confucian scholars, who recover the work of Kang Youwei, Confucianism revolves around the pursuit of the unity of the self and Heaven (Tian), and the relationship of humankind to the Heaven.[193] The principle of Heaven (Tian li or Tao), is the order of the creation and divine authority, monistic in its structure.[193] Individuals can realise their humanity and become one with Heaven through the contemplation of this order.[193] This transformation of the self can be extended to the family and society to create a harmonious fiduciary community.[193] The moral-spiritual ideal of Confucianism conciles both the inner and outer polarities of self-cultivation and world redemption, synthesised in the ideal of "sageliness within and kingliness without".[193]

In Confucian thought human beings are teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor especially self-cultivation and self-creation. Some of the basic Confucian ethical concepts and practices include rén, , and , and zhì. Ren is translated as "humaneness" or the essence proper of a human being, that is characterised by compassionate mind; it is the virtue endowed by Heaven and at the same time what allows man to achieve oneness with Heaven—in the Datong shu it is defined as "to form one body with all things" and "when the self and others are not separated ... compassion is aroused".[194] Yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good. Li is a system of ritual norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act in everyday life. Zhi is the ability to see what is right and fair, or the converse, in the behaviors exhibited by others. Confucianism holds one in contempt, either passively or actively, for the failure of upholding the cardinal moral values of ren and yi.

Confucianism never developed an official institutional structure as Taoism did, and its religious bodies never completely differentiated themselves from Chinese folk religion. Since the 2000s, Confucianism has been embraced as a religious identity by a large numbers of intellectuals and students in China.[195] In 2003 the Confucian intellectual Kang Xiaoguang published a manifesto in which he made four suggestions: Confucian education should enter official education at any level, from elementary to high school; the state should establish Confucianism as the state religion by law; Confucian religion should enter the daily life of ordinary people through standardization and development of doctrines, rituals, organisations, churches and activity sites; the Confucian religion should be spread through non-governmental organisations.[195] Another modern proponent of the institutionalisation of Confucianism in a state church is Jiang Qing.[196]

In 2005 the Center for the Study of Confucian Religion was established,[195] and guoxue education started to be implemented in public schools. Being well received by the population, even Confucian preachers started to appear on television since 2006.[195] The most enthusiast New Confucians proclaim the uniqueness and superiority of Confucian Chinese culture, and have generated some popular sentiment against Western cultural influences in China.[195]

The idea of a "Confucian Church" as the state religion of China has roots in the thought of Kang Youwei, an exponent of the early New Confucian search for a regeneration of the social relevance of Confucianism, at a time when it was de-institutionalised with the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Chinese empire.[197] Kang modeled his ideal "Confucian Church" after European national Christian churches, as a hierarchical and centralised institution, closely bound to the state, with local church branches, devoted to the worship and the spread of the teachings of Confucius.[197]

In contemporary China, the Confucian revival has developed into different, yet interwoven, directions: the proliferation of Confucian schools or academies (shuyuan 书院),[196] the resurgence of Confucian rites (chuantong liyi),[196] and the birth of new forms of Confucian activity on the popular level, such as the Confucian communities (shequ ruxue 社区儒学). Some scholars also consider the reconstruction of lineage churches and their ancestral temples, as well as cults and temples of natural and national gods within broader Chinese traditional religion, as part of the revival of Confucianism.[198]

Other forms of revival are folk religious[199] or salvationist religious[200] groups with a Confucian focus or Confucian churches, for example the Yidan xuetang (一耽学堂) based in Beijing,[201] the Mengmutang (孟母堂) of Shanghai,[202] the Way of the Gods according to the Confucian Tradition or phoenix churches,[203] the Confucian Fellowship (儒教道坛 Rújiào Dàotán) in northern Fujian which has spread rapidly over the years after its foundation,[203] and ancestral temples of the Kong (Confucius) kin operating as well as Confucian-teaching churches.[202]

Also, the Hong Kong Confucian Academy has expanded its activities to the mainland, with the construction of statues of Confucius, Confucian hospitals, restoration of temples and sponsorship of other activities.[204] In 2009 Zhou Beichen founded another institution that inherits the idea of Kang Youwei's Confucian Church, the Holy Hall of Confucius (孔圣堂 Kǒngshèngtáng) in Shenzhen affiliated with the Federation of Confucian Culture of Qufu City,[205] the first of a nationwide movement of congregations and civil organisations that was unified in 2015 by the Holy Confucian Church (孔圣会 Kǒngshènghuì). The first spiritual leader of the Holy Church is the renowned scholar Jiang Qing.

Chinese folk religion's temples and kinship ancestral shrines on special occasion may choose Confucian liturgy (that is called 儒 , or sometimes 正统 zhèngtǒng, meaning "orthoprax" ritual style) led by Confucian ritual masters (礼生 lǐshēng) to worship the gods enshrined, instead of Taoist or popular ritual.[160] "Confucian businessmen" (rushang, also "learned businessman"), is a recently recovered term that defines people of the entrepreneurial or economic elite that recognise their social responsibility and therefore apply Confucian culture to their business.[206]


Zhengyi priests bowing while officiating a rite at the White Cloud Temple of Shanghai.
Taoist temple dedicated to Jiutian Xuannü on Mount Fenghuang, in Lunmalong village, Duoba, Qinghai.
Altar to Shangdi (上帝 "Primordial God") and Doumu (斗母 "Mother of the Great Chariot"), together representing the originating principle of the universe in some Taoist cosmologies, in the Chengxu Temple of Zhouzhuang, Jiangxi.

Taoism (道教 Dàojiào) refers to a variety of related philosophical and ritual traditions with elements going back to the 4th century BC and to the prehistoric culture of China, and it took on an organized form starting in the 2nd century. Taoist traditions emphasise living in harmony with the Tao (also romanized as Dao). The term Tao means "way", "path" or "principle", and can also be found in Chinese philosophies and religions other than Taoism. In Taoism, however, Tao denotes something that is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists. It is ultimately ineffable: "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao."[207] Taoism can be more accurately described, as does Kristofer Schipper in The Taoist Body (1986), as a doctrinal and liturgical framework or structure for the local cults of the indigenous religion.[76]

Taoism as such did not come together as coherent or institutionalized religious tradition until the Han dynasty. In earlier ancient China, Taoists were thought of a hermits or recluses who did not participate in political life. Zhuangzi was the best known of these, and it is significant that he lived in the south, where he was part of local shamanic traditions.[208] Women shamans played an important role in this tradition, which was particularly strong in the southern state of Chu. Early Taoist movements developed their own institution in contrast to shamanism, but absorbed basic shamanic elements. Shamans revealed basic texts of Taoism from early times down to at least the 20th century.[209]

While Taoism drew its cosmological notions from the tenets of the School of Yin Yang, the Tao Te Ching, a terse and ambiguous book containing teachings attributed to Laozi is widely considered its keystone work. Together with the writings of Zhuangzi, these two texts build the philosophical foundation of Taoism. This philosophical Taoism, individualistic by nature, is not institutionalized.

Institutionalized forms, however, evolved over time in the shape of a number of different schools, that in more recent times are conventionally grouped into two main branches: Quanzhen Taoism and Zhengyi Taoism.[210] Taoist schools traditionally feature reverence for Laozi, immortals or ancestors, along with a variety of divination and exorcism rituals, and practices for achieving ecstasy, longevity or immortality. Taoist propriety and ethics may vary depending on the particular school, but in general tends to emphasize wu wei (action through non-action), "naturalness", simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures: compassion, moderation, and humility.

Taoism has had profound influence on Chinese culture in the course of the centuries, and clerics of institutionalised Taoism (Chinese: 道士; pinyin: dàoshi, "masters of the Tao") usually take care to note distinction between their ritual tradition and the customs and non-Taoist practices and schools of the Chinese folk religion as these distinctions sometimes appear blurred.

Suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, Taoism survived and retains its cultural status in China. In 1956 a national organization, the Chinese Taoist Association, was set up to administer Taoist activities. According to demographic analyses approximately 13% of the population of China claims a loose affiliation with Taoist practices, while self-proclaimed "Taoists" by exclusivity (a title that traditionally is only used for experts of Taoist doctrines and rites, if not strictly for priests) might be 12 million (~1%).[101] The definition of "Taoists" is complicated by the fact that many folk sects of salvation and their members began to be registered as branches of the Taoist association in the 1990s.[80]

There are two types of daoshi (Taoist priests), following the distinction between the Quanzhen and Zhengyi traditions.[210] Quanzhen daoshi are celibate monks, and therefore the Taoist temples of the Quanzhen school are monasteries.[210] Contrarywise, the Zhengyi daoshi, also known as sanju daoshi ("scattered" or "diffused" Taoists) or huoju daoshi ("Taoists who live at home"), are part-time priests who may marry and have other jobs, they live among the common people, and perform Taoist rituals within the field of the Chinese folk religion, for local temples and communities.[210]

While the Chinese Taoist Association started as a Quanzhen institution, and remains based at the White Cloud Temple of Beijing, that is the central temple of the Quanzhen sect, since the 1990s it started to open to the sanju daoshi of the Zhengyi branch, who are more numerous than the Quanzhen monks. The Chinese Taoist Association had already 20.000 registered sanju daoshi in the mid-1990s,[211] while in the same years the total number of Zhengyi priests including the unregistered ones was estimated at 200.000.[212] The Zhengyi sanju daoshi are trained by other priests of the same sect, and historically received formal ordination by the Celestial Master,[210][213] although the 63rd Celestial Master Zhang Enpu fled to Taiwan in the 1940s during the Chinese Civil War. Taoism, both in registered and unregistered forms, has experienced a strong development since the 1990s and dominates the religious market of coastal provinces.[46]

Ritual mastery traditions

A folk Taoist ritual master in China.

Chinese ritual masters, also referred to as practitioners of Faism (法教 Fǎjiào),[214][215] also named Folk Taoism (民间道教 Mínjiàn Dàojiào), are orders of ritual mastery that operate within the Chinese folk religion, but outside institutional or official Taoism.[213] The "masters of rites", the fashi (法師), are known by a variety of names including the appellation of hongtou daoshi (紅頭道士) popular in southeast China, meaning "redhead" or "redhat" daoshi, in contradistinction with the wutou daoshi (traditional Chinese: 烏頭道士), "blackhead" or "blackhat" daoshi, as they call the sanju daoshi of Zhengyi Taoism that were traditionally ordained by the Celestial Master.[213]

Although the two types of priests, daoshi and fashi, have the same roles in Chinese society—in that they can marry and they perform rituals for communities' temples or private homes—Zhengyi daoshi emphasize their Taoist tradition, distinguished from the more vernacular tradition of the fashi.[213][216] Popular priests are defined as "kataphatic" ("filling") in character, while professional Taoists are "kenotic" ("emptying", apophatic).[217]

Fashi are practitioners of tongji possession, healing, exorcism and jiao rituals[218] (although historically they were excluded from performing the jiao liturgy[213]). They aren't shamans (wu), with the exception of the fashi of Mount Lu Faism.[218] The priests of the Mount Lu order are popular in eastern China.[219]

Chinese shamanic traditions

Shamanism was the prevalent modality of pre-Han dynasty Chinese indigenous religion.[220] The Chinese usage distinguishes the Chinese wu tradition (巫教 wūjiào; properly shamanic, with control over the gods) from the tongji tradition (童乩; mediumship, without control of the godly movement), and from non-Han Chinese Altaic shamanisms (萨满教 sàmǎnjiào) that are practiced in northern provinces.

With the rise of Confucian orthodoxy in the Han period, shamanic traditions found a more institutionalised and intellectualised state within the esoteric philosophical discourse of Taoism.[220] According to Chirita (2014), Confucianism itself, with its emphasis on hierarchy and ancestral rituals, derived from the shamanic discourse of the Shang dynasty.[220] What Confucianism did was to marginalise the "dysfunctional" features of old shamanism.[220] However, shamanic traditions continued uninterrupted within the folk religion and found precise and functional forms within Taoism.[220]

In the Shang and Zhou dynasty, shamans had a role in the political hierarchy, and were represented institutionally by the Ministry of Rites (大宗拍). The emperor was considered the supreme shaman, intermediating between the three realms of heaven, earth and man.[220] The mission of a shaman (巫 wu) is "to repair the dis-functionalities occurred in nature and generated after the sky had been separated from earth":[220]

«The female shamans called wu as well as the male shamans called xi represent the voice of spirits, repair the natural dis-functions, foretell the future based on dreams and the art of divination ... "a historical science of the future", whereas shamans are able to observe the yin and the yang ...».

Since the 1980s the practice and study of shamanism has undergone a massive revival in Chinese religion as a mean to repair the world to a harmonious whole after industrialisation.[220] Shamanism is viewed by many scholars as the foundation for the emergence of civilisation, and the shaman as "teacher and spirit" of peoples.[221] The Chinese Society for Shamanic Studies was founded in Jilin City in 1988.[221]


In China, Buddhism (佛教 Fójiào) is represented by a large number of people following the Mahayana form. This is distinguished in two very different cultural traditions, the schools of Chinese Buddhism followed by the Han Chinese, and the schools of Tibetan Buddhism followed by Tibetans and Mongols. The vast majority of Buddhists in China, counted in the hundreds of millions, are Chinese Buddhists, while Tibetan Buddhists are in the number of the tens of millions. Small communities of the Theravada exist among minority ethnic groups who live in southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi which border Burma, Thailand and Laos, and the Li people of Hainan.

Unwilling-to-Leave Guanyin Temple in Zhoushan, Zhejiang, is a sanctuary dedicated to Guanyin of the Mount Putuo, one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Chinese Buddhism.
Golden Temple at the summit of Mount Emei, in Sichuan. Emei is another sacred mountain of Buddhism.
Gates of the Donglin Temple of Shanghai.

Chinese Buddhism

Buddhism was introduced into China from its western neighbouring peoples during the Han dynasty, traditionally in the 1st century. It became very popular among Chinese of all walks of life, admired by commoners, and sponsored by emperors in certain dynasties. The expansion of Buddhism reached its peak during the Tang dynasty, in the 9th century, when Buddhist monasteries had become very rich and powerful.

This led to a series of persecutions of Buddhism, starting with the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, through which many monasteries were destroyed and the religion's influence in China was greatly reduced. Buddhism survived and regained a place in the Chinese society over the following centuries.

The entry of Buddhism into China was marked by interaction with Taoism in particular,[222] from which a set of uniquely Chinese Buddhist schools emerged (汉传佛教 Hànchuán Fójiào, "Han Buddhism" or "Chinese Buddhism"). Originally seen as a kind of "foreign Taoism", Buddhism's scriptures were translated into Chinese using the Taoist vocabulary.[223] Chan Buddhism in particular was shaped by Taoism, integrating distrust of scripture, text and even language, as well as the Taoist views of embracing "this life", dedicated practice and the "every-moment".[224] In the Tang dynasty Taoism itself absorbed Buddhist influences such as monasticism, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, and the doctrine of emptiness. During the same period, Chan Buddhism grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism.[225]

Buddhism was not universally welcomed, particularly among the gentry. The Buddha's teaching seemed alien and amoral to conservative and Confucian sensibilities.[226] Confucianism promoted social stability, order, strong families, and practical living, and Chinese officials questioned how a monk's monasticism and personal attainment of Nirvana benefited the empire.[223] However, Buddhism and Confucianism eventually reconciled after centuries of conflict and assimilation.[227]

With the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 Buddhism was suppressed and temples closed or destroyed. The Buddhist Association of China was founded in 1953. Restrictions lasted until the reforms of the 1980s, when Buddhism began to recover popularity and its place as the largest organized faith in the country. While estimates of the number of Buddhists in China range widely, the most recent surveys have found that an average 10—16% of the population of China claims a Buddhist affiliation, with even higher percentages in urban agglomerations.

Today the most popular forms of Chinese Buddhism are the Pure Land and Chán schools. In recent years, the influence of Chinese Buddhism has been expressed through the construction of large-scale statues, pagodas and temples, including the Guan Yin of the South Sea of Sanya inaugurated in 2005, and the Spring Temple Buddha, the highest statue in the world. Many temples in China also claim to host relics of the original Gautama Buddha.

Mount-like pavilion of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Tagong, Sichuan.
Sertar Larung Gar, the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world, founded in the 1980s, in Sêrtar, Sichuan.

Tibetan Buddhism

The Buddhist schools that emerged in the cultural sphere of Tibet (藏传佛教 Zàngchuán Fójiào or 喇嘛教 Lǎmajiào, "Lamaism") also have an influence throughout China that dates back to historical interactions of the Han Chinese with Tibetans and Mongols. Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion in Tibet, among Tibetans in Qinghai, and has a historical and significant presence in Inner Mongolia (where its traditional name is Burkhany Shashin, "Buddha's religion", or Shira-in Shashin, the "Yellow religion"—黄教 Huángjiào in Chinese[note 15]). However, there are many Tibetan Buddhist temples as far east as Beijing. The Yonghe Temple of the capital city is one example.

There are controversies around the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, specifically the succession of Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama, who was not only the spiritual leader of Gelug, the major branch of Tibetan Buddhism, but also the reputed traditional political ruler of Tibet and was exiled with the establishment of the modern People's Republic of China. The Panchen Lama, the Tibetan hierarch in charge of the designation of the future successor of the Dalai Lama, is a matter of controversy between the Chinese government and Tenzin Gyatso. The government of China asserts that the present (11th) incarnation of the Panchen Lama is Gyancain Norbu, while the 14th Dalai Lama asserted in 1995 that it was Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who has not been seen in public since being detained by Chinese authorities in that year.

Since the liberalisation of religions in China in the 1980s, there has been a growing movement of adoption of the Gelug sect, and other Tibetan-originated Buddhist schools, by the Han Chinese.[228] This movement has been favoured by the proselytic activity of Chinese-speaking Tibetan lamas.[228]

Theravada Buddhism

Dai Buddhist temple in Jinghong, Yunnan, China.

Theravada Buddhism is a major form of Buddhism, practiced mostly in Southeast Asia but also among some minority ethnic groups in southwest China. Theravada Buddhism spread from Myanmar to present day Xishuangbanna, Dehong, Simao, Lincang, and Baoshan areas in Yunnan during sixth and seventh centuries.[229] This school of Buddhism is today popular among the ethnic minority Dai, and also the Palaung, Blang, Achang, and Jingpo ethnic groups.[230]

The first Buddhist temple in Yunnan province, the Wabajie Temple in Xishuangbanna, was erected in 615. After the 12th century, Theravada Buddhist influence into the region began to come from Thailand. Thais began to bring copies of the Pali canon to Yunnan, to translate the scriptures and to construct new temples. The people living in areas in Yunnan where Theravada Buddhism is a popular religion follow similar norms as the Buddhists in Thailand and it is often intermixed with local folk beliefs.[231] Theravada Buddhism suffered from persecution in the region during the Cultural Revolution, but since the 1980s has seen some revival.[230]

Ethnic minorities' indigenous religions

Various Chinese non-Han minority populations practice unique indigenous religions. The government of China promotes and protects the indigenous religions of minority nations as pivotal expression of their culture and ethnic identity.[232]

Mongolian folk religion

Temple of the White Sulde of Genghis Khan in the town of Uxin in Inner Mongolia, in the Mu Us Desert. The worship of Genghis is shared by Chinese and Mongolian folk religion.[note 16]
An aobao in Inner Mongolia.

Mongolian folk religion, that is Mongolian shamanism (蒙古族萨满教 Ménggǔzú sàmǎnjiào), alternatively named Tengerism (腾格里教 Ténggélǐjiào),[233] is the native and major religion among the Mongols of China, mostly residing in the region of Inner Mongolia.

It is centered on the worship of the tngri (gods) and the highest Tenger (Heaven, God of Heaven, God) or Qormusta Tengri. In the Mongolian native religion, Genghis Khan is considered one of the embodiments, if not the main embodoment, of the Tenger.[234] In worship, communities of lay believers are led by shamans (called böge if males, iduγan if females), who are intermediaries of the divine.

Since the 1980s there has been an unprecedented development of Mongolian religion in Inner Mongolia, including böge, the cult of Genghis Khan and the Heaven in special temples (many of which yurt-style),[235][236] and the cult of aobao as ancestral shrines. There has been a significant integration of the Han Chinese of Inner Mongolia into the traditional Mongolian spiritual heritage of the region.[228] The cult of Genghis is also shared by the Han, claiming his spirit as the founding principle of the Yuan dynasty.[237]

Aobaoes (敖包 áobāo) are sacrificial altars of the shape of a mound that are traditionally used for worship by Mongols and related ethnic groups.[238] Every aobao is thought as the representation of a god. There are aobaoes dedicated to heavenly gods, mountain gods, other gods of nature, and also to gods of human lineages and agglomerations.

The aobaoes for worship of ancestral gods can be private shrines of an extended family or kin (people sharing the same surname), otherwise they are common to villages (dedicated to the god of a village), banners or leagues. Sacrifices to the aobaoes are made offering slaughtered animals, joss sticks, and libations.[238]

Tibetan Bon

The Narshi Gompa, a Bonpo monastery in Aba, Sichuan.

"Bon" (Tibetan: བོན་; Chinese: 苯教 Běnjiào) is the post-Buddhist name of the pre-Buddhist folk religion of Tibet.[239] Buddhism spread into Tibet starting in the 7th and 8th centuries,[240] and the name "Bon" was adopted as the name of the indigenous religion in Buddhist historiography.[239] Originally, bon was the title of the shamans-priests of that indigenous religion.[239] This is in analogy with the names of the priests of the folk religions of peoples related to the Tibetans,[241] such as the dong ba of the Nakhi or the of Mongolians and other Siberian peoples.[242] Bonpo ("believers of Bon") claim that the word bon means "truth" and "reality".[239]

The spiritual source of Bon is the mythical figure of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche.[240] Since the late 10th century, the religion then designated as "Bon" started to organise adopting the style of Tibetan Buddhism, including a monastic structure and a Bon Canon (Kangyur) that made it a codified religion.[240] The Chinese sage Confucius is worshipped in Bon as a holy king, master of magic and divination.[243]

Yi Bimoism

Bimoism (毕摩教 Bìmójiào) is the indigenous religion of the Yi people(s), the largest ethnic group in Yunnan after the Han Chinese. This faith is represented by three types of religious specialists: the bimo (毕摩, "ritual masters", "priests"), the sunyi (male shamans) and the monyi (female shamans).[244]

What distinguishes the bimo and the shamans is the way they derive their authority.[245] While both are regarded as the "mediators between men and the divine", the shamans are initiated through a "spirit-possessed inspiration" (comprising illness or vision)[245] whereas the bimo—who are always males with few exceptions[246]—are literates, who can read and write traditional Yi script, have a tradition of theological and ritual scriptures, and are initiated through a tough edicational system.[247]

Since the 1980s, Bimoism has undergone a comprehensive revitalisation,[244] both on the grassroots level and on the scholarly level,[244] with the bimo now celebrated as an "intellectual class"[248] whose role is that of creators, preservers and transmitters of Yi high culture.[249] Since the 1990s, Bimoism has undergone an institutionalisation, starting with the foundation of the Bimo Culture Research Center in Meigu County in 1996.[250] The founding of the centre received substantial support from local authorities, especially those whose families were directly affiliated with one of the many bimo hereditary families.[250] Since then, large temples and ceremonial complexes for Bimoist practices have been constructed.

Zhuang Moism

Moism (摩教 Mójiào) or Shigongism (师公教 Shīgōngjiào, "religion of the [Zhuang] ancestral father"), are both names that define the indigenous religion of the Zhuang people, the largest ethnic minority of China, who inhabit the province of Guangxi.[251] It is a polytheistic-monistic and shamanic religion centered on the creator god usually expressed as Buluotuo, the mythical primordial ancestor of the Zhuang. Its beliefs are codified into a mythology and a sacred scripture, the "Buluotuo Epic". A very similar religion of the same name is that of the Buyei people, kindred to the Zhuang.

The Zhuang religion is intertwined with Taoism.[252] In facts, Chinese scholars divide the Zhuang religion into several categories according to the type of ritual specialists who conduct the rites; these categories include Shigongism, Moism, Daogongism (道公教 Dàogōngjiào) and shamanism (巫教 Wūjiào).[253]

"Shigongism" refers to the dimension led by the shīgōng (师公) ritual specialists, a term that can be translated variously as "ancestral father" or "teaching master", and which refers to the generating principle and the men who can represent it. Shīgōng specialists practice masked dancing and worship the Three Primordials, the generals Tang, Ge and Zhou.[253] "Moism" refers to the dimension led by mógōng (摩公), who are vernacular ritual specialists able to transcribe and read texts written in Zhuang characters and worship Buluotuo and the goddess Muliujia.[254] "Daogongism" is Zhuang Taoism, that is the indigenous religion directed by Zhuang Taoist priests, known as dàogōng (道公 "lords of the Tao") in the Zhuang language, according to Taoist doctrines and rites.[255] Zhuang shamanism entails the practices of mediums who provide direct communication between the material and the spiritual worlds, known as momoed if female and gemoed if male.[255]

Since the 1980s and the 1990s there has been a revival of this religion that has taken place in two directions. The first is a grassroots revival of cults to local deities and ancestors led by shamans; the second way is a promotion of the religion on the official institutional level, through a standardisation of Moism elaborated by Zhuang officials and intellectuals.[256]


Dongba priest writing oracles with calam in Dongba script, at a Dongba temple near Lijiang.

Benzhuism (本主教 Běnzhǔjiào, "religion of the patrons") is the indigenous religion of the Bai people, an ethnic group of Yunnan. It consists in the worship of the ngel zex, Bai word for "patrons" or "lords", rendered as benzhu (本主) in Chinese, that are local gods and deified ancestors of the Bai nation. It is very similar to the Chinese traditional religion.

Dongbaism (東巴教 Dōngbajiào, "religion of the eastern Ba") is the main religion of the Nakhi people. The "dongba" ("eastern Ba") are masters of the culture, literature and the script of the Nakhi. They originated as masters of the Tibetan Bon religion ("Ba" in Nakhi language), many of whom, in times of persecution when Buddhism became the dominant religion in Tibet, were expelled and dispersed to the eastern marches settling among Nakhi and other eastern peoples.[257] Dongbaism emerged as a combination of the beliefs brought by Bon masters with indigenous Nakhi beliefs. Dongba followers believe in a celestial shaman called Shi-lo-mi-wu, with little doubt the same as the Tibetan Shenrab Miwo.[257] They worship nature and generation, in the form of many heavenly gods and spirits, chthonic Shu (spirits of the earth represented in the form of chimera-dragon-serpent beings), and ancestors.[258]

The traditional religion of the Qiang people (mostly residing in north-western Sichuan) is known as Ruism.[259] It is a polytheistic and monistic religion, centered on the worship of ancestors and nature.[259] In the Ruist theology, there is a highest "god of Heaven", called Mubyasei or Shan Wang, five major gods, and twelve lesser gods, besides tree gods and mountain gods.[259] White stones are used as symbols of the Qiang gods.[259]

Ua Dab (Hmong word for "worshiping the gods") is the religion of most of the Hmong people in China. It is a religion of the animistic and shamanic typology, pantheistic theology, centered on worship and communication with gods and spirits, and on ancestor veneration. Through its history it has incorporated theoretical and ritual elements from Taoism, and broader Chinese culture, especially the emphasis on the pattern of the forces of natural universe and the need of human life to be in accordance with these forces.

Yao Taoism is a branch of Taoism practiced by the Yao or Mien. The Yao adopted Taoism in the 13th century, translating Taoist scriptures from Chinese to their languages, and incorporating the new religion into their culture and ancestral worship. As a result, Yao Taoism is strictly bound to Yao culture, but at the same time its pantheon is more conservative than that of Chinese Taoism, which has evolved differently since the 14th century.

Manchu shamanism (满族萨满教 Mǎnzú sàmǎnjiào) is still practiced by some Manchu people, while most of them are either Buddhists, practitioners of Chinese religion, or not religious. It had important role in the Qing dynasty period. It includes ancestor veneration, as Manchu shamans believe that all the spirits they sacrifice to are the original clans' spirits.

Abrahamic religions


Puqian Church (Protestant) in Fuzhou, Fujian.
Church of the Holy Family (Catholic) in Wuhan, Hubei.
The Lord's Prayer in Classical Chinese (1889).
Saint Sophia Cathedral (Russian Orthodox) in Harbin, Heilongjiang.

Christianity (基督教 Jīdūjiào, "religion of Christ") in China comprises Protestantism (基督教新教 Jīdūjiào xīnjiào, "New-Christianity"), Roman Catholicism (天主教 Tiānzhǔjiào, "religion of the Lord of Heaven"), and a small number of Orthodox Christians (正教 Zhèng jiào). Also Mormonism (摩爾門教 Mó'ěrménjiào) has a tiny presence.[260] The Orthodox Church, which has believers among the Russian minority and some Chinese in the far northeast and far northwest, is officially recognised only in Heilongjiang.[261] There are also a number of heterodox sects of Christian inspiration, including Zhushenism, Linglingism, Fuhuodao, Mentuhui and Eastern Lightning or the Church of Almighty God.[262]

Christianity had existed in China as early as the 7th century AD, having multiple cycles of strong presence for hundreds of years at a time, disappearing for hundreds of years, and then being re-introduced. The arrival of the Persian missionary Alopen in 635, during the early part of the Tang dynasty, is considered by some to be the first entry of the Christian religion into China. What Westerners referred to as Nestorian Christianity flourished for hundreds of years, until Emperor Wuzong of the Tang dynasty adopted anti-religious measures in 845, expelling Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism and confiscating their considerable assets. Christianity again came to China in the 13th century during the Mongol-established Yuan dynasty, when the Mongols brought Nestorianism back to the region, and contacts began with the Papacy, such as Franciscan missionaries in 1294. When the native Chinese Ming dynasty overthrew the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century, Christians were again expelled from China.

At the end of the Ming dynasty in the 16th century, Jesuits arrived in Beijing via Guangzhou. The most famous of the Jesuit missionaries was Matteo Ricci, an Italian mathematician who came to China in 1588 and lived in Beijing in 1600. Ricci was welcomed at the imperial court and introduced Western learning into China. The Jesuits followed a policy of accommodation to the traditional Chinese practice of ancestor worship, but this doctrine was eventually condemned by the Pope. Roman Catholic missions struggled in obscurity for decades afterwards.

Christianity began to take root in a significant way in the late imperial period, during the Qing dynasty, and although it has remained a minority religion in China, it has had significant recent historical impact. Further waves of missionaries came to China in the Qing period as a result of contact with foreign powers. Russian Orthodoxy was introduced in 1715 and Protestants began entering China in 1807. The pace of missionary activity increased considerably after the First Opium War in 1842. Christian missionaries and their schools, under the protection of the Western powers, went on to play a major role in the Westernization of China in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Taiping Rebellion was influenced to some degree by Christian teachings, and the Boxer Rebellion was in part a reaction against Christianity in China. Christians in China established the first modern clinics and hospitals,[263] and provided the first modern training for nurses. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants founded numerous educational institutions in China from the primary to the university level. Some of the most prominent Chinese universities began as religious-founded institutions. Missionaries worked to abolish practices such as foot binding,[264] and the unjust treatment of maidservants, as well as launching charitable work and distributing food to the poor. They also opposed the opium trade[265] and brought treatment to many who were addicted. Some of the early leaders of the Chinese Republic, such as Sun Yat-sen were converts to Christianity and were influenced by its teachings. By 1921, Harbin, Manchuria's largest city, had a Russian population of around 100,000, constituting a large part of Christianity in the city.[266]

Christianity, especially in its Protestant form, gained momentum in China between the 1980s and the 1990s.[267] In more recent times it has been curbed by the rapid regeneration of indigenous beliefs.[268][269] Protestants today, including both official and unofficial churches, have between 25 and 35 million adherents.[270][271] Catholics are not more than 10 million.[270][271] Various recent demographic analyses have found that an average 2—4% of the population of China claims a Christian affiliation.

Christians have an uneven geographic distribution, but a more even social composition. The only provinces in which they constitute a population significantly larger than 1 million persons are Henan, Anhui and Zhejiang.The social composition of Christianity in China is characterised by a prevalence of women, illiterate, and elderly people.[59]

A significant amount of the members of the networks of churches unregistered with the government, and of their pastors, belong to the Koreans of China.[272] Christianity has a strong presence in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in Jilin.[273] The Christianity of Yanbian Koreans has a patriarchal character; Korean churches are usually led by men, in contrast to Chinese churches which more often have female leadership. For instance, of the 28 registered churches of Yanji, only three of which are Chinese congregations, all the Korean churches have a male pastor while all the Chinese churches have a female pastor.[274] Also, Korean church buildings are stylistically very similar to South Korean churches, with big spires surmounted by large red crosses.[274] Yanbian Korean churches have been a matter of controversy for the Chinese government because of their links to South Korean churches.[275]

A Christian spiritual revival has grown in recent decades. While the Communist Party remains officially atheist, it has become more tolerant of churches outside party control. Christianity has grown rapidly, reaching 67 million people. They typically use underground or unofficial churches. In recent years, however, the Communist Party has looked with distrust on organizations with international ties; it tends to associate Christianity with subversive Western values, and has closed churches and schools. In 2015, Hong Kong has become a center of anti-Christian government activism.[276]


Machang Mosque in Linxia City, Gansu, is a mosque of the Xidaotang sect.
The gongbei (shrine) of the Sufi master Yu Baba in Linxia City, Gansu.
Taizi Mosque in Yinchuan, Ningxia.

Islam (伊斯兰教 Yīsīlánjiào or 回教 Huíjiào) traditionally dates back to a diplomatic mission in 651, eighteen years after Muhammad's death, led by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas. Emperor Gaozong is said to have shown esteem for Islam and established the Huaisheng Mosque, or Memorial Mosque, in memory of the Prophet.[277]

Muslims went to China to trade and virtually dominated the import and export industry by the time of the Song dynasty, with the office of Director General of Shipping consistently being held by a Muslim. Immigration increased when hundreds of thousands of Muslims were relocated to help administer China during the Yuan dynasty. A Muslim, Yeheidie'erding, led the construction of the Yuan capital of Khanbaliq, in present-day Beijing.[278]

During the Ming dynasty, Muslims continued to have an influence among the high classes. Zhu Yuanzhang's most trusted generals were Muslim, including Lan Yu, who led a decisive victory over the Mongols, effectively ending the Mongol dream to re-conquer China. Zheng He led seven expeditions to the Indian Ocean. The Hongwu Emperor composed The Hundred-word Eulogy in praise of Muhammad. Muslims who were descended from earlier immigrants began to assimilate by speaking Chinese dialects and by adopting Chinese names and culture. They developed their own cuisine, architecture, martial arts and calligraphy. This era, sometimes considered the Golden Age of Islam in China, also saw Nanjing become an important center of Islamic study.

The rise of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) saw numerous rebellions including the Panthay Rebellion, which occurred in Yunnan province from 1855 to 1873, and the Dungan revolt, which occurred mostly in Xinjiang, Shaanxi and Gansu, from 1862 to 1877. The Manchu government ordered the execution of all rebels killing a million people in the Panthay Rebellion,[278] several million in the Dungan revolt.[278] However, many Muslims like Ma Zhan'ao, Ma Anliang, Dong Fuxiang, Ma Qianling, and Ma Julung defected to the Qing dynasty side, and helped the Qing general Zuo Zongtang exterminate the Muslim rebels. These Muslim generals belonged to the Khafiya sect, and they helped Qing defeat Jahariyya rebels. In 1895, another Dungan Revolt (1895) broke out, and loyalist Muslims like Dong Fuxiang, Ma Anliang, Ma Guoliang, Ma Fulu, and Ma Fuxiang suppressed and massacred the rebel Muslims led by Ma Dahan, Ma Yonglin, and Ma Wanfu. A Muslim army called the Kansu Braves led by General Dong Fuxiang fought for the Qing dynasty against the foreigners during the Boxer Rebellion.

After the fall of the Qing, Sun Yat-sen, proclaimed that the country belonged equally to the Han, Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan and Hui people. In the 1920s the provinces of Qinhai, Gansu and Ningxia came under the control of Muslim Governors/Warlords known as the Ma clique, who served as generals in the National Revolutionary Army. During Maoist rule, in the Cultural Revolution, mosques were often defaced, destroyed or closed and copies of the Quran were destroyed by the Red Guards.[279]

Today Islam is experiencing a revival. There is an upsurge in Islamic expression and many nationwide Islamic associations have organized to co-ordinate inter-ethnic activities among Muslims. Muslims are found in every province in China, but they constitute a majority only in Xinjiang, and a large amount of the population in Ningxia and Qinghai. Of China's recognised ethnic minorities, ten groups are predominantly Muslim. Accurate statistics on China's current Muslim population are hard to find; various surveys have found that they constitute 1—2% of the population of China, or between 20 and 30 million people. They are served by 35.000 to 45.000 mosques, 40.000 to 50.000 imams (ahong), and 10 Quranic institutions.[101]


Judaism (犹太教 Yóutàijiào) was introduced during the Tang dynasty or earlier, by small groups of Jews settled in China. The most prominent early community was at Kaifeng, in Henan province (Kaifeng Jews). In the 20th century many Jews arrived in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Harbin during those cities' periods of economic expansion in the first decades of the century, as well as for the purpose of seeking refuge from anti-Semitic pogroms in the Russian Empire (the early 1900s), the communist revolution and civic war in Russia (1917–1918), and anti-Semitic Nazi policy in Central Europe, chiefly in Germany and Austria (1937–1940), and the last wave from Poland and other Eastern European countries (the early 1940s).[280]

Shanghai was particularly notable for its numerous Jewish refugees (Shanghai Ghetto), most of whom left after the war, the rest relocating prior to or immediately after the establishment of the People's Republic. Today, the Kaifeng Jewish community is functionally extinct. Many descendants of the Kaifeng community still live among the Chinese population, mostly unaware of their Jewish ancestry. Meanwhile, remnants of the later arrivals maintain communities in Shanghai and Hong Kong. In recent years a community has also developed in Beijing, especially by Chabad-Lubavitch.

More recently, since the late 20th century, along with the study of religion in general, the study of Judaism and Jews in China as an academic subject has begun to blossom (i.e. Institute of Jewish Studies (Nanjing), China Judaic Studies Association).[281]

Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í Faith (巴哈伊信仰 Bāhāyī xìnyǎng, 巴哈伊教 Bāhāyī jiào, or, in old translations, 大同教 Dàtóng jiào) has a presence in China[260] since the 19th century.

Other religions


The Awakened One of Light (Mani) carved from the living rock at Cao'an, in Jinjiang, Fujian.
A Manichaean inscription, dated 1445, at Cao'an (modern replica).[282]

Manichaeism (摩尼教 Móníjiào), an Iranian religion, entered China between the 6th and 8th centuries through interactions between the Tang dynasty and states of Central Asia, Daxia (Bactria).[283] In 731, a Manichaean priest was asked by the Chinese emperor to make a summary of the religion's teachings. He wrote the Compendium of the Teachings of Mani the Buddha of Light. The Tang emperors approved Manichaeism to be practiced by foreigners but prohibited preaching among Chinese people.[283]

A turning point occurred in 762 with the conversion of Bogu Khan of the Uyghurs.[283] Since 755, the Chinese Empire had been weakened by the An Shi Rebellion, and the Uyghurs had become the only fighting force serving the Tang dynasty. Bogu Khan encouraged the spread of Manichaeism into China. Manichaean temples were established in the two capitals, Chang'an and Luoyang, as well as in several other cities in northern and central China.[283]

The decline of Uyghur power in 840 brought an end to the prosperity of Manichaeism.[283] Emperor Wuzong of Tang started the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, which was not exclusively against Buddhism but extended to all foreign religions. Manichaeism was suppressed but didn't disappear. During the period of the Five Dynasties, it re-emerged as an underground phenomenon, particularly in southern China.[283]

In 1120, a rebellion led by Fang Xi was believed to be caused by adherents of secret religious communities, whose meeting places were said to host political dissidents. This event brought crackdowns of unauthorized religious congregations and destruction of scriptures. In 1280, the rule of the Mongol Yuan dynasty gave a century of freedom to Manichaeism.[283] Subsequently, since 1368 the Ming dynasty started a new policy of extermination of the religion, which eventually disappeared.[283]

Small Manichaean communities are still active in modern China.[284] Besides, Manichaeism has had a profound influence in the tradition of the popular sects and Xiantiandao.


Relief of the Hindu god Narasimha shown at the museum of Quanzhou.

A small Hindu (印度教 Yìndùjiào) community of traders from India had existed in past centuries in coastal Fujian. A bilingual Tamil-Chinese inscription dated from the 13th century has been found within the remains of a Shiva temple in Quanzhou. This was one of possibly two Hindu temples of southern Indian architecture that were built in the southeastern area of the old port, where the foreign traders' enclave was located. Various influences from Hindu thought penetrated China through the spread of Buddhism in the country. Many victims in 2015 Bangkok bombing visiting a Hindu god temple are Chinese with different nationalities.


Zoroastrianism (琐罗亚斯德教 Suǒluōyàsīdéjiào or 祆教 Xiānjiào) expanded in northern China during the 6th century through the Silk Road. It gained the status of an officially authorised religion in some Chinese regions. Remains of Zoroastrian fire temples have been found in Kaifeng and Zhenjiang. According to some scholars, they were active until the 12th century, when the religion disappeared from China.


Shinto shrine of Jilin city, Jilin province.

Between 1931 and 1945, with the establishment of the Japanese-controlled Manchukuo ("Manchu Country") in northeast China (Manchuria), many shrines of State Shinto (神社, Chinese: shénshè, Japanese: jinja) were established in the area.

They were part of the project of cultural assimilation of Manchuria into Japan, or Japanisation. The same was happening in Taiwan. With the end of World War II and the Manchu Country (Manchukuo) in 1945, and the return of Manchuria and Taiwan to China under the Guomindang, Shinto was abolished and the shrines destroyed.

During the same period also many Japanese new religions, or independent Shinto sects, proselytised in Manchuria establishing hundreds of congregations. Most of the missions belonged to the Omoto teaching, the Tenri teaching and the Konko teaching of Shinto.[285]

Irreligion in China

China is considered[by whom?] a nation with a long history of humanism, secularism, and this-worldly thought since the time of Confucius (551 – 479 BC). Humanist philosophies such as Confucianism do not share a belief in divine law and do not exalt faithfulness to a higher law as a manifestation of divine will.[8] Some[quantify] scholars consider Confucianism as humanist and secularist. Herbert Fingarette has described it as a religion that "sacralises the secular".[9] Other Chinese[which?] stressed shisu (世俗 "being in the world"). Hu Shih, a leading reform scholar, stated in the 1920s that "China is a country without religion and the Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstitions."[10]

See also



  1. Some scholars consider Confucianism as humanist and secularist. Rather, Herbert Fingarette has described it as a religion that "sacralises the secular".[9]
  2. Overmyer (2009, p. 73), says that from the late 19th to the 20th century few professional priests (i.e. licensed Taoists) were involved in local religion in the central and northern provinces of China, and discusses various types of folk ritual specialists including: the yuehu 樂戶, the zhuli 主禮 (p. 74), the shenjia 神家 ("godly families", hereditary specialists of gods and their rites; p. 77), then (p. 179) the yinyang or fengshui masters (as «[...] folk Zhengyi Daoists of the Lingbao scriptural tradition, living as ordinary peasants. They earn their living both as a group from performing public rituals, and individually [...] by doing geomancy and calendrical consultations for fengshui and auspicious days»; quoting: S. Jones (2007), Ritual and Music of North China: Shawm Bands in Shanxi). He also describes shamans or media known by different names: mapi 馬裨, wupo 巫婆, shen momo 神嬤嬤 or shen han 神漢 (p. 87); xingdao de 香道的 ("practitioners of the incense way"; p. 85); village xiangtou 香頭 ("incense heads"; p. 86); matong 馬童 (the same as southern jitong), either wushen 巫神 (possessed by gods) or shenguan 神官 (possessed by immortals; pp. 88-89); or "godly sages" (shensheng 神聖; p. 91). Further (p. 76), he discusses for example the sai 賽, ceremonies of thanksgiving to the gods in Shanxi with roots in the Song era, which leaders very often corresponded to local political authorities. This pattern continues today with former village Communist Party secretaries elected as temple association bosses (p. 83). He concludes (p. 92): «In sum, since at least the early twentieth century the majority of local ritual leaders in north China have been products of their own or nearby communities. They have special skills in organization, ritual performance or interaction with the gods, but none are full-time ritual specialists; they have all ‘kept their day jobs’! As such they are exemplars of ordinary people organizing and carrying out their own cultural traditions, persistent traditions with their own structure, functions and logic that deserve to be understood as such.»
  3. Chinese ancestral or lineage religion is the worship of a family or kin's godly ancestors in the system of lineage churches and ancestral shrines. Note it well that this does not include other forms of Chinese religion, such as the worship of national ancestral gods or the gods of nature (which in northern China is more typical than ancestor worship), Taoism and Confucianism.
  4. The map attempts to represent the geographic diffusion of the tradition of folk religious sects, Confucian churches and jiaohua (transformative teachings), based on historical data and contemporary fieldwork. Due to incomplete data and ambiguous identity of many of these traditions the map may not be completely accurate. Sources include a World Religion Map from Harvard University, based on data from the World Religion Database, showing highly unprecise ranges of Chinese folk religions' membership by province. Another source, the studies of China's Regional Religious System, find "very high activity of popular religion and secret societies and low Buddhist presence in northern regions, while very high Buddhist presence in the southeast".[62] Historical record and contemporary scholarly fieldwork testify certain central and northern provinces of China as hotbeds of folk religious sects and Confucian religious groups.
    • Hebei: Fieldwork by Thomas David Dubois[63] testifies the dominance of folk religious sects, specifically the Church of the Heaven and the Earth and the Church of the Highest Supreme, since their "energetic revival since the 1970s" (p. 13), in the religious life of the counties of Hebei. Religious life in rural Hebei is also characterised by a type of organisation called the benevolent churches and the folk sect known as Zailiism has returned active since the 1990s.
    • Henan: According to Heberer and Jakobi (2000)[64] Henan has been for centuries a hub of folk religious sects (p. 7) which constitute significant focuses of the religious life of the province. Sects present in the region include the Baguadao or Tianli ("Order of Heaven") sect, the Dadaohui, the Tianxianmiaodao, the Yiguandao, and many others. Henan also has a strong popular Confucian orientation (p. 5).
    • Northeast China: According to official records by the then-government the Universal Church of the Way and its Virtue or Morality Society had 8 million members in Manchuria, or northeast China, making up about 25% of the total population of the area (note that the state of Manchuria also included the eastern end of modern-day Inner Mongolia).[53] Folk religious sects of a Confucian nature, or Confucian churches, were in fact very successful in the northeast, gathering large slices of the population.
    • Shandong: The province is traditionally a stronghold of Confucianism and is the area of origin of many folk religious sects and Confucian churches of the modern period, including the Universal Church of the Way and its Virtue, the Way of the Return to the One (皈依道 Guīyīdào), the Way of Unity (一貫道 Yīguàndào), and others. Alex Payette (2016) testifies the rapid growth of Confucian groups in the province in the 2010s.[54]
    According to the Chinese General Social Survey of 2012,[65] about 2.2% of the total population of China (around 30 million people) claims membership in the folk religious sects, which have likely maintained their historical dominance in central-northern and northeastern China.
  5. Percentage of Buddhist temples and monasteries per capita by province of China according to incomplete data from 2006, reported in Ji Zhe's Three Decades of Revival: Basic Data on Contemporary Chinese Buddhism (复兴三十年:当代中国佛教的基本数据, 2011). The analysts say that despite being based on incomplete data, being Buddhist temples and other institutions far more numerous than those registered in 2006, the density projected on the total population of each province is quite accurate.
  6. Other names that have been proposed are:[82]
    • Simply "Chinese religion" (中華教 Zhōnghuájiào), viewed as comparable to the usage of "Hinduism";
    • "Shenxianism" (神仙教 Shénxiānjiào), "religion of gods and immortals", partly inspired to Allan J. A. Elliott's "Shenism".
  7. These numerical results for practitioners of the folk religions exclude those who identified with one of the institutional religions, even the 173 million folk Taoists. p. 34 of Wenzel-Teuber (2011): «The CSLS questioned people on popular religious beliefs and practices as well, and came to the following estimates (excluding those who identified themselves with an institutional religion)».[88]
  8. The "Kui Xing pointing the Dipper" image is a good synthesis of the basic virtues of Chinese religion and Confucian ethics, that is to say "to move and act according to the harmony of Heaven". The Big Dipper or Great Chariot in Chinese culture (as well as in other traditional cultures) is a symbol of the axis mundi, the source of the universe (God, Tian) in its way of manifestation, order of creation (li or Tao). The symbol, also called the Gate of Heaven (天门 Tiānmén), is widely used in esoteric and mystical literature. For example, an excerpt from Shangqing Taoism's texts:[110]
    «Life and death, separation and convergence, all derive from the seven stars. Thus when the Big Dipper impinges on someone, he dies, and when it moves, he lives. That is why the seven stars are Heaven's chancellor, the yamen where the gate is opened to give life.»
  9. The lack of an overarching name conceptualising the Chinese local indigenous cults has led to some confusion in the terminology employed in scholarly literature. In Chinese, with the terms usually translated in English as "folk religion" (i.e. 民間宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào) or "folk faith" (i.e. 民間信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng) they generally refer to the folk religious sects, and not to the local indigenous cults of gods and ancestors. To resolve this issue some Chinese intellectuals have proposed to formally adopt "Chinese native religion" / "Chinese indigenous religion" (i.e. 民俗宗教 mínsú zōngjiào) or "Chinese ethnic religion" (i.e. 民族宗教 mínzú zōngjiào), or also "Chinese religion" (中華教 Zhōnghuájiào) and "Shenxianism" (神仙教 Shénxiānjiào), as single names for the local indigenous cults of China.[121]
  10. The graphical etymology of Tian 天 as "Great One" (Dà yī 大一), and the phonetical etymology as diān 颠, were first recorded by Xu Shen.[129] John C. Didier in In and Outside the Square (2009) for the Sino-Platonic Papers discusses different etymologies which trace the character Tian 天 to the astral square or its ellipted forms, dīng 口, representing the northern celestial pole (pole star and Big Dipper revolving around it; historically a symbol of the absolute source of the universal reality in many cultures), which is the archaic (Shang) form of dīng 丁 ("square").[130] Gao Hongjin and other scholars trace the modern word Tian to the Shang pronunciation of 口 dīng (that is *teeŋ).[130] This was also the origin of Shang's 帝 ("Deity"), and later words meaning something "on high" or "top", including 顶 dǐng.[130] The modern graph for Tian 天 would derive from a Zhou version of the Shang archaic form of 帝 (from Shang oracle bone script[131]Shang archaic form of Di.svg, which represents a fish entering the astral square); this Zhou version represents a being with a human-like body and a head-mind informed by the astral pole (→ Zhou archaic form of Tian.svg).[130] Didier furtherly links the Chinese astral square and Tian or Di characters to other well-known symbols of God or divinity as the northern pole in key ancient cultural centres: the Harappan and Vedic-Aryan spoked wheels,[132] crosses and hooked crosses (Chinese wàn 卍/卐),[133] and the Mesopotamian Dingir Cuneiform sumer dingir.svg.[134] Jixu Zhou (2005), also in the Sino-Platonic Papers, connects the etymology of 帝, Old Chinese *Tees, to the Indo-European Deus, God.[135]
  11. The characters yu (jade), huang (emperor, sovereign, august), wang (king), as well as others pertaining to the same semantic field, have a common denominator in the concept of gong (work, art, craft, artisan, bladed weapon, square and compass; gnomon, "interpreter") and wu 巫 (shaman, medium)[137] in its archaic form 巫-bronze.svg, with the same meaning of wan (swastika, ten thousand things, all being, universe).[138] A king is a man or an entity who is able to merge himself with the axis mundi, the centre of the universe, bringing its order into reality. The ancient kings or emperors of the Chinese civilisation were shamans or priests, that is to say mediators of the divine rule.[139] The same Western terms "king" and "emperor" traditionally meant an entity capable to embody the divine rule: king etymologically means "gnomon", "generator", while emperor means "interpreter", "one who makes from within".
  12. Tian, besides Taidi ("Great God") and Shangdi ("Primordial Deity"), Yudi ("Jade Deity"), simply Shen 神 ("God"), and Taiyi ("Great Oneness") as identified as the ladle of the Tiānmén 天门 ("Gate of Heaven", the Big Dipper),[141] is defined by many other names attested in the Chinese literary, philosophical and religious tradition:[142]
    • Tiānshén 天神, the "God of Heaven", interpreted in the Shuowen jiezi (說文解字) as "the being that gives birth to all things";
    • Shénhuáng 神皇, "God the King", attested in Taihong ("The Origin of Vital Breath");
    • Tiāndì 天帝, the "Deity of Heaven" or "Emperor of Heaven".
    • A slang Chinese term is Lǎotiānyé (老天爷), "Old Heavenly Father".
    Tian is both transcendent and immanent, manifesting in the three forms of dominance, destiny and nature. In the Wujing yiyi (五經異義, "Different Meanings in the Five Classics"), Xu Shen explains that the designation of Heaven is quintuple:[143]
    • Huáng Tiān 皇天 —"Yellow Heaven" or "Shining Heaven", when it is venerated as the lord of creation;
    • Hào Tiān 昊天—"Vast Heaven", with regard to the vastness of its vital breath (qi);
    • Mín Tiān 旻天—"Compassionate Heaven" for it hears and corresponds with justice to the all-under-heaven;
    • Shàng Tiān 上天—"Highest Heaven" or "First Heaven", for it is the primordial being supervising all-under-heaven;
    • Cāng Tiān 苍天—"Deep-Green Heaven", for it being unfathomably deep.
    Di 帝 is rendered as "deity" or "emperor" and describes a divine principle that exerts a fatherly dominance over what it produces.[144]
  13. Huangdi (黄帝 "Yellow Emperor"; or Huangshen, 黄神 "Yellow God"), also known as Xuanyuan shi (轩辕氏 "Venerable Regulator") and Zhongyuedadi (中岳大帝 "God of the Central Peak"), is the creator of Huaxia, the beginning of the civilization of China. He represents the man who embodies or grasps the axis mundi (Kunlun Mountain in Chinese myth), the hub of creation, identifying with the unfathomable source of the universe (Tian), bringing the divine order into physical reality and thus opening the gateways to immortality.[151] The character 黄 huáng, for the color "yellow", also means, by homophony and shared etymology with 皇 huáng, "august", "creator" and "radiant", identifying the Yellow Emperor with Shangdi (the "Shining Deity") or his human form.[151] As a human, Xuanyuan, myth tells that he was the fruit of virginal birth; his mother Fubao conceived him after seeing the great lightning around the Big Dipper (swastika).[152]
  14. There is no consensus on whether Confucianism is a religion or not. Yong Chen opens his book on this very topic thus: "The question of whether Confucianism is a religion is probably one of the most controversial issues in both Confucian scholarship and the discipline of religious studies."[186] In another work on this topic the authors observe that "There have been, and are still, those scholars who have understood Confucianism as a religion; others have argued that Confucianism is not a religion but something else, often, a philosophy."[187]
  15. "Yellow religion", a synecdoche from the Yellow Hat sect, may also refer to yellow shamanism, that is a type of Mongolian shamanism which uses a Buddhist-like expressive style.
  16. The White Sulde (White Spirit) is one of the two spirits of Genghis Khan (the other being the Black Sulde), represented either as his white or yellow horse or as a fierce warrior riding this horse. In its interior, the temple enshrines a statue of Genghis Khan (at the center) and four of his men on each side (the total making nine, a symbolic number in Mongolian culture), there is an altar where offerings to the godly men are made, and three white suldes made with white horse hair. From the central sulde there are strings which hold tied light blue pieces of cloth with a few white ones. The wall is covered with all the names of the Mongol kins. The Chinese worship Genghis as the ancestral god of the Yuan dynasty.


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  2. Miller, 2006. p. 57
  3. Tam Wai Lun, “Local Religion in Contemporary China,” in Xie, ed., 2006. p. 73
  4. Rodney L. Taylor. Proposition and Praxis: The Dilemma of Neo-Confucian Syncretism. On: Philosophy East and West, Vol. 32, No. 2, April 1982. p. 187
  5. Kuhn (2011), p. 373.
  6. Kuhn (2011), p. 362.
  7. Kuhn (2011), p. 368.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Mark Juergensmeyer. Religion in Global Civil Society. Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 70, quote: «[...] humanist philosophies such as Confucianism, which do not share a belief in divine law and do not exalt faithfulness to a higher law as a manifestation of divine will [...]».
  9. 9.0 9.1 Herbert Fingarette. Confucius: The Secular As Sacred. Waveland, 1998. ISBN 1577660102
  10. 10.0 10.1 Yong Chen, 2012. p. 127
  11. 11.0 11.1 Rowan Callick. Party Time: Who Runs China and How. Black Inc, 2013. p. 112
  12. Laliberté (2011), p. 7-8.
  13. "China: The crackdown on Falun Gong and other so-called "heretical organizations"". Amnesty International. 23 March 2000. Retrieved 17 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Steven F. Teiser. What is Popular Religion?. Part of: Living in the Chinese Cosmos, Asia for Educators, Columbia University. Extracts from: Stephen F. Teiser. The Spirits of Chinese Religion. In: Religions of China in Practice. Princeton University Press, 1996.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 China Zentrum: Religions & Christianity in Today's China. Vol. IV, 2014, No. 1. ISSN 2192-9289. pp. 22-23
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  17. 17.0 17.1 Sautman, 1997. pp. 80-81
  18. Yao, 2011. pp. 9-10
  19. Daniel H. Bays. Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Chapter One: The Nestorian Age and the Mongol Mission, 635-1368. Stanford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0804736510
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  21. Geoffrey Blainey. A Short History of Christianity. Viking, 2011. p. 531
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  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  27. Teiser (1988), p. 8-9.
  28. Geoffrey Blainey. A Short History of Christianity. Viking, 2011. p. 384
  29. 29.0 29.1 Waldron (1998), p. 325.
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  31. Constitution of the People's Republic of China (1982), English translation (page visited on 17 December 2015).
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  35. Daniel A. Bell. China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society. Princeton University Press, 2010. ASIN: B004R1Q79Q. p. 14
  36. China Digital Times: Xi Jinping Hopes Traditional Faiths Can Fill Moral Void.
  37. Lai Pan-chiu, "Christian Discourses on Religious Diversity in Contemporary China," in Perry Schmidt-Leukel, Joachim Gentz. Religious Diversity in Chinese Thought. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. p. 218
  38. Clart, 2014. pp. 407-408
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  41. Source map #1. Dumortier, Brigitte, 2002, Atlas des religions, Autrement, collection Atlas, Paris, p. 32.
  42. Source map #2. Narody Vostochnoi Asii ("Ethnic Groups of East Asia" (1965)), Zhongguo Minsu Dili ("Folklore Geography of China" (1999)), Zhongguo Dili ("Geography of China" (2002)).
  43. Source map #3. 高文德 主编.中国少数民族史大辞典.长春:吉林教育出版社. 1995.
  44. Source map #4. 《中国少数民族艺术词典》编程委员会 编;殷海山,李耀宗,郭洁 主编.中国少数民族艺术词典.北京:民族出版社. 1991.
  45. Zhao Litao, Tan Soon Heng. Religious Revival in China. On: EAI Background Brief No. 368, 2008. Quote pp. i-ii: «Their revival is most evident in South-east China, where annual festivals for local and regional gods often mobilize the entire village population for elaborate rites and rituals. The deep and rich ritual traditions share close similarities with those of Taiwan and overseas Chinese and financial help from these connections make coastal Fujian a frontrunner in reviving local communal religion.»
  46. 46.0 46.1 Chan, 2005. p. 93. Quote: «By the early 1990s Daoist activities had become popular especially in rural areas, and began to get out of control as the line between legitimate Daoist activities and popular folk religious activities - officially regarded as feudal superstition - became blurred. [...] Unregulated activities can range from orthodox Daoist liturgy to shamanistic rites. The popularity of these Daoist activities underscores the fact that Chinese rural society has a long tradition of religiosity and has preserved and perpetuated Daoism regardless of official policy and religious institutions. With the growth of economic prosperity in rural areas, especially in the coastal provinces where Daoist activities are concentrated, with a more liberal policy on religion, and with the revival of local cultural identity, Daoism - be it the officially sanctioned variety or Daoist activities which are beyond the edge of the official Daoist body - seems to be enjoying a strong comeback, at least for the time being.»
  47. Overmyer, 2009. p. 185 about Taoism in southeastern China: «Ethnographic research into the temple festivals and communal rituals celebrated within these god cults has revealed the widespread distribution of Daoist ritual traditions in this area, including especially Zhengyi (Celestial Master Daoism) and variants of Lushan Daoist ritual traditions. Various Buddhist ritual traditions (Pu’anjiao, Xianghua married monks and so on) are practiced throughout this region, particularly for requiem services». (quoting K. Dean (2003) Local Communal Religion in Contemporary Southeast China, in D.L. Overmyer (ed.) Religion in China Today. China Quarterly Special Issues, New Series, No. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 32–34.)
  48. Overmyer, 2009. pp. 12-13: «As for the physical and social structure of villages on this vast flat expanse; they consist of close groups of houses built on a raised area, surrounded by their fields, with a multi-surnamed population of families who own and cultivate their own land, though usually not much more than twenty mou or about three acres. [...] Families of different surnames living in one small community meant that lineages were not strong enough to maintain lineage shrines and cross-village organizations, so, at best, they owned small burial plots and took part only in intra-village activities. The old imperial government encouraged villages to manage themselves and collect and hand over their own taxes. [...] leaders were responsible for settling disputes, dealing with local government, organizing crop protection and planning for collective ceremonies. All these factors tended to strengthen the local protective deities and their temples as focal points of village identity and activity. This social context defines North China local religion, and keeps us from wandering off into vague discussions of ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ and relationships with Daoism and Buddhism.»
  49. Overmyer, 2009. p. xii
  50. Overmyer, 2009. p. 10: «There were and are many such pilgrimages to regional and national temples in China, and of course such pilgrimages cannot always be clearly distinguished from festivals for the gods or saints of local communities, because such festivals can involve participants from surrounding villages and home communities celebrating the birthdays or death days of their patron gods or saints, whatever their appeal to those from other areas. People worship and petition at both pilgrimages and local festivals for similar reasons. The chief differences between the two are the central role of a journey in pilgrimages, the size of the area from which participants are attracted, and the role of pilgrimage societies in organizing the long trips that may be involved. [...] pilgrimage in China is also characterized by extensive planning and organization both by the host temples and those visiting them.»
  51. Overmyer, 2009. p. 3: «[...] there are significant differences between aspects of local religion in the south and north, one of which is the gods who are worshiped.»; p. 33: «[...] the veneration in the north of ancient deities attested to in pre-Han sources, deities such as Nüwa, Fuxi and Shennong, the legendary founder of agriculture and herbal medicine. In some instances these gods were worshiped at places believed to be where they originated, with indications of grottoes, temples and festivals for them, some of which continue to exist or have been revived. Of course, these gods were worshiped elsewhere in China as well, though perhaps not with the same sense of original geographical location.»
  52. Overmyer, 2009. p. 15: «[...] Popular religious sects with their own forms of organization, leaders, deities, rituals, beliefs and scripture texts were active throughout the Ming and Qing periods, particularly in north China. Individuals and families who joined them were promised special divine protection in this life and the next by leaders who functioned both as ritual masters and missionaries. These sects were more active in some communities than in others, but in principle were open to all who responded to these leaders and believed in their efficacy and teachings, so some of these groups spread to wide areas of the country. [...] significant for us here though is evidence for the residual influence of sectarian beliefs and practices on non-sectarian community religion where the sects no longer exist, particularly the feminization of deities by adding to their names the characters mu or Laomu, Mother or Venerable Mother, as in Guanyin Laomu, Puxianmu, Dizangmu, etc., based on the name of the chief sectarian deity, Wusheng Laomu, the Eternal Venerable Mother. Puxian and Dizang are bodhisattvas normally considered ‘male’, though in Buddhist theory such gender categories don’t really apply. This practice of adding mu to the names of deities, found already in Ming period sectarian scriptures called baojuan ‘precious volumes’ from the north, does not occur in the names of southern deities.»
  53. 53.0 53.1 Ownby (2008).
  54. 54.0 54.1 Payette (2016).
  55. Claire Qiuju Deng. Action-Taking Gods: Animal Spirit Shamanism in Liaoning, China. Department of East Asian Studies, McGill University, Montreal, 2014.
  56. Mark Juergensmeyer, Wade Clark Roof. Encyclopedia of Global Religion. SAGE Publications, 2011. ISBN 1452266565. p. 202
  57. Benjamin Penny. Religion and Biography in China and Tibet. Routledge, 2013. ISBN 1136113940. pp. 185-187
  58. A. D. Jones. Contemporary Han Chinese Involvement in Tibetan Buddhism: A Case Study from Nanjing, Social Compass. 2011: 58 (4): 540-553.
  59. 59.0 59.1 59.2 Francis Ching-Wah Yip, in Miller, 2006. p. 186
  60. Chinese Spiritual Life Survey (CSLS) 2007. Report in Xiuhua Wang's Explaining Christianity in China: Why a Foreign Religion has Taken Root in Unfertile Ground, Baylor University (2015), p. 15.
  61. Mapping of the diffusion of influence of the Taoist religion, i.e. local religion led by Taoist specialists, forms and institutions.
  62. Jiang Wu, Daoqin Tong. Spatial Analysis and GIS Modeling of Regional Religious Systems in China. University of Arizona.
  63. Dubois (2005).
  64. Thomas Heberer, Sabine Jakobi. Henan - The Model: From Hegemonism to Fragmentism. Portrait of the Political Culture of China's Most Populated Province. Duisburg Working Papers on East Asian Studies, May 2000, n. 32.
  65. 65.0 65.1 Chinese Family Panel Studies's survey of 2012. Published on: The World Religious Cultures issue 2014: 卢云峰:当代中国宗教状况报告——基于CFPS(2012)调查数据. p. 13, reporting the results of the Renmin University's Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) for the years 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011.
  66. Ji Zhe's "Three Decades of Revival: Basic Data on Contemporary Chinese Buddhism / 复兴三十年:当代中国佛教的基本数据" (2011).
  67. Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) 2009. Report in Xiuhua Wang's Explaining Christianity in China: Why a Foreign Religion has Taken Root in Unfertile Ground, Baylor University (2015), p. 15. Data for Gansu, Guangdong, Henan, Liaoning and Shanghai updated according to the Chinese Family Panel Studies (CFPS) 2012.
  68. Min Junqing. The Present Situation and Characteristics of Contemporary Islam in China. JISMOR, 8. 2010 Islam by province, page 29. Data from: Yang Zongde, Study on Current Muslim Population in China, Jinan Muslim, 2, 2010.
  69. Pregadio, 2008. Vol. 2, p. xv
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  71. 71.0 71.1 Yao, 2011. p. 9
  72. Yao, 2011. p. 10
  73. Sun, Anna. Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities. Princeton University Press, 2013. ISBN 1400846080. p. 86
  74. Overmeyer, Daniel L. et al. "Introduction" of The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 54, No. 2. May, 1995. pp. 314–321
  75. Ethel R. Nelson, Richard E. Broadberry, Ginger Tong Chock. God's Promise to the Chinese. ISBN 0937869015. p. 8
  76. 76.0 76.1 76.2 76.3 Nengchang Wu. Religion and Society. A Summary of French Studies on Chinese Religion. On: Review of Religion and Chinese Society 1 (2014), 104-127. pp. 105-106
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  78. Palmer, 2011. p. 12: «Chinese sectarianism, millennialism and heterodoxy, called "popular religious sects" (minjian zongjiao 民間宗教, minjian jiaomen 民間教門, minjian jiaopai 民間教派) in the Chinese scholarship, often inextricable from debates on the exact nature of the so-called "White Lotus" tradition.»; p. 14: «The local and anthropological focus of these studies, and their undermining of rigid distinctions between "sectarian" groups and other forms of local religiosity, tends to draw them into the category of "popular religion" 民間信仰.»
  79. Clart, 2014. p. 393. Quote: «[...] The problem started when the Taiwanese translator of my paper chose to render "popular religion" literally as minjian zongjiao 民間宗教. The immediate association this term caused in the minds of many Taiwanese and practically all mainland Chinese participants in the conference was of popular sects (minjian jiaopai 民間教派), rather than the local and communal religious life that was the main focus of my paper.»
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Further reading

External links