Chinese folk religion

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Altar to Guandi at the Temple of Guandi of Jinan, Shandong.
Altar inside a Tudi Gong temple in Quanzhou, Fujian.
Altar to the Five Officials worshipped inside the Temple of the Five Lords in Haikou, Hainan.

The Chinese folk religion or Chinese traditional religion[note 1] (traditional Chinese: or ; simplified Chinese: 中国民间宗教 or 中国民间信仰; pinyin: Zhōngguó mínjiān zōngjiào or Zhōngguó mínjiān xìnyăng), sometimes called Shenism (pinyin: Shénjiào, 神教),[note 2] is the collection of grassroots ethnic religious traditions of the Han Chinese, or the indigenous religion of China.[3] Chinese folk religion primarily consists in the worship of the shen (神, shén; "deities", "spirits", "awarenesses", "consciousnesses", "archetypes") which can be nature deities, city deities or tutelary deities of other human agglomerations, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, dragons and ancestors, deities of the kinship. Holy narratives regarding some of these gods are codified into the body of Chinese mythology. Another name of this complex of religions is Chinese Universism[note 3], especially referring to its intrinsic metaphysical perspective.[4][5]

The Chinese folk religion has a variety of sources, localised worship forms, ritual and philosophical traditions. Among the ritual traditions, notable examples includes Wuism and Nuoism. Chinese folk religion is sometimes categorized inadequately as "Taoism", since over the centuries institutional Taoism has been assimilating or administering local religions. Zhengyi Taoism is especially intertwined with local cults, with Zhengyi daoshi often performing rituals for local temples and communities. Faism, the tradition of the fashi ("masters of rites"), is an ancient tradition on the boundary between Taoism and folk religion. Confucianism promotes certain aspects of Chinese traditional religion, especially ancestor veneration. Taoism in its various currents, either comprehended or not within the Chinese folk religion, has some of its origins from Wuism.[6]

According to old statistics, the Chinese folk religion has 454 million people involved, or about 6.6% of the world population,[7] making it one of the major religious traditions in the world. Statistics by the Pew Research Center estimate the number of practitioners in China at 22% of the total population.[8] Another estimate puts it over 30% of the total population.[9] Scholars estimate a higher proportion.[10] A 2010 survey gives the following numbers: 754 million (56.2%) people practice Chinese ancestral veneration, but only 216 million people (16%) believe in the existence of ancestral shen (spirits).[note 4] The same survey says 173 million (13%) adopt Taoist practices on a level which is indistinguishable from the Chinese folk religion.[11] Chinese religion mirrors the social landscape, and takes on different meanings for different people.[12]

Both in imperial China and under the modern nation, the state has opposed or attempted to eradicate these practices as "superstition". Yet Chinese folk religions are currently experiencing a revival in both Mainland China and Taiwan.[13][14] Various forms of culture have received support by the government of China, such as Mazuism in Southern China,[15] Huangdi worship,[16] Black Dragon worship in Shanbei (Heilongdawang Temple),[17] and other forms of local culture, for example Pangu or Caishen worship. The Vietnamese folk religion is similar to the Chinese folk religion practiced in the south.


A glass temple of goddess Mazu built in 2010 in Lukang, Changhua, Taiwan.
Communal ceremony at the Grand Temple of Shennong-Yandi in Suizhou, Hubei.
The Temple of the Town God of Beijing.

Chinese folk religion is very diversified, varying from provice to province and even from a village to another, for it is bound to local communities, kinship, and environments.[18] In each setting, institution and ritual behaviour assumes highly organised forms.[18] Temples and the gods enshrined acquire symbolic character, with specific functions involved in the everyday life of the local community.[18] Local religion holds aspects of natural belief systems such as animism and shamanism.[19][20]

The Chinese folk religion is a grassroots, pervasive factor in all aspects of the social life, contributing to the very fabric of Chinese society.[3] It is deeply embedded in family and civic life, rather than expressed in a separate organisational structure like a "church".[3]

Village temple associations and kinship-lineage associations with their temple-congregations, pilgrimage associations and formalised prayers, rituals and expressions of virtues, are the common forms of organisation of Chinese folk religion on the local level.[18] Neither initiation rituals nor official membership into a church organisation separate from one person's native identity are mandatory in order to be involved in religious activities.[18] Contrarywise to institutional religions, Chinese indigenous religion does not require "conversion" for participation.[3]

The prime criterion for participation in Chinese folk religion is not "to believe" in an official doctrine or dogma, but "to belong" to the local unit of Chinese religiousness, that is the "village" or the "kinship", with their gods and rituals.[21] Scholar Richard Madsen describes Chinese religion, adopting the definition of Tu Weiming,[22] as characterised by "immanent transcendence" grounded in a devotion to "concrete humanity", focused on building moral community within concrete humanity.[23]

Philosophical framework[edit]

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:[24]

Tian is usually translated as "Heaven", but a philological translation would be "Great One", "Great Whole", "Great All". He is equivalent with Shangdi. During the Shang dynasty, which gave prominence to the worship of ancestral gods and cultural heroes, the fountain of the universe was named Shangdi, meaning "Earliest Patriarch", "Earliest Ancestor", "Highest Emperor", and identified as the imperial power.[25] With the Zhou dynasty, that preferred a religion focused on gods of nature, Shangdi was regarded as a more abstract and impersonal concept, as Tian.[25]

In Chinese religion the concept of ling (灵) is the equivalent of holy and numen.[26] Yin and yang, that is "disorder" and "order", "activity" or "passivity", with act (yang) usually preferred over receptiveness (yin), is a concept for the balance of the universal forces.[27] Ling is the "medium" of the bivalency, and the inchoate order of creation.[27]

The Chinese traditional belief of bao ying, moral reciprocity, implies that people dwell in a moral universe, a universe that is kept ordained by mores, good actions, thus moral retribution is in fact a cosmic retribution.[28] It determines fate, as written in Zhou texs: «on the doer of good, heaven sends down all blessings, and on the doer of evil, he sends down all calamities.» (《书经•汤诰》)[29]

The cosmic significance of bao ying is better understood by exploring other two traditional concepts of fate and meaning:[30]

Ming yun and yuan fen are linked, because what appears on the surface to be chance events (for better or worse), are part of the deeper rhythm that shapes personal life based on how destiny is directed.[28] They are ultimately shapen by bao ying, good action. Recognising this connection has the result of making a person responsible for his or her actions:[29] doing good for others produces further good for oneself and keeps the world in harmony.[33]

These three themes of Chinese indigenous spiritual heritage—moral reciprocity, personal destiny, fateful coincidence—come alive when a fourth theme is introduced:[34]

There are many public-domain folk religion texts such as Journeys to the Underworld, The Peach Blossom Spring, the Shi Yi Ji, the Investiture of the Gods, the Shanhaijing, and notably the Yijing divination book, distributed in temples (often without charge) or sold in religious goods stores.

Divine efficacy[edit]

An altar with offerings inside the City God Temple of Shanghai.

The notion of xian ling (显灵), variously translated as "divine efficacy, virtue", also "efficacious response", or simply the "numen", is of foremost importance in the Chinese folk religion, in the relationship between men and gods.[35] It describes the manifestation, activity, of the power of a god (灵气 ling qi, "divine energy" or "divine effervescence"), the evidence of ling (the sacred).[36] Within the context of traditional cosmology, the interaction of these energies constitutes the universe.[36]

The term xian ling may be interpreted as the god revealing his presence in a particular area and temple,[37] through events that are perceived as extraordinary, miraculous.[38] Divine power usually manifests in the presence of a wide public,[37] and once the event is witnessed and acknowledged, reports about it spread quickly and the cult of the deity strikes a root, grows in popularity, and temples are built.[37]

Scholar Zavidovskaya has studied how the incentive of temples restoration since the 1980s in Northern China was triggered by numerous instances of gods becoming "active", "returning", and claiming back their temples and place in society.[37] She brings the example of a Chenghuang Temple in Yulin, Shaanxi province, that during the Cultural Revolution was turned into a granary; in the 1980s the temple was restored to its original function because the seeds kept into the temple always rotted, and this event was recognized as god Chenghuang giving signs to empty his residence of grain and let him back in.[37] The ling qi, divine energy, is believed to accumulate in certain places, temples, making them holy.[37] Temples with a longer history are considered holier than newly-built ones, which still need to be filled by divine energy.[37]

Another example of Zavidovskaya is that of the cult of god Zhenwu in Congluo Yu, Shanxi;[39] the god's temples were in ruins and the cult inactive until the mid 1990s, when a man with a serious cancer, in his last hope prayed (bai 拜) Zhenwu. The man began to miraculously recover day after day, and after a year he was completely healed.[39] To thank the god, he organised an opera performance in his honour.[39] A temporary altar with a statue of Zhenwu and a stage for performances was set up in an open space at the foots of a mountain.[39] While the opera was being played, large white snakes appeared, not afraid of people and not attacking them, seemingly watching the opera; the snakes were considered by locals as incarnations of Zhenwu, who came to watch the opera held in his honour.[39]

Within temples, it is common to see banners bearing the phrase "if the heart is sincere, god will reveal his power" (心诚神灵 xin cheng shen ling).[40] The relationship between men and gods is an exchange of favour.[40] This implies the belief that gods respond to the entreaties of the believer, if his or her religious fervor is sincere (cheng xin 诚心).[40] If a person believes in the god's power with all his heart and accumulates the energy of piety, the gods are confident in his faith and reveal their efficacious power.[40] At the same time, for faith to strengthen in the devout's heart, the deity has to prove his or her efficacy.[40] In exchange for divine favours, a faithful honours the deity with vow fulfillment (huan yuan 还愿 or xu yuan 许愿), through individual worship, reverence and respect (jing shen 敬神).[40]

The most common display of divine power is the cure of diseases after a faithful asks for aid.[37] Another manifestation is the fulfillment of a request of children.[37] The deity may also manifest through mediumship, entering the body of a shaman-medium and speaking through his or her lips.[37] There have been cases of people curing illnesses "on behalf of god" (ti shen zhi bing 替神治病).[39] Gods may also speak to people when they are asleep (tuomeng 托梦).[37]

Recent history[edit]

The Chinese folk religion suffered persecution in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many local temples were destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Rebellion in the late 1800s;[41] others suffered severe damage during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.[41] The Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 brought a third systematic effort to destroy folk religious devotion.[41]

Since then, Chinese folk religion is exhibiting a dramatic revival throughout China,[42][43] with millions of temples being rebuilt or built from scratch.[43] Since the 1980s the central government moved to a policy of benign neglect or wuwei (无为) in regard to rural community life, and the local government's new regulatory relationship with local society is characterized by practical mutual dependence; these factors have given much space for popular religion to develop.[43] In recent years, in some cases, local governments have taken an even positive and supportive attitude towards indigenous religion in the name of carrying on cultural heritage.[43]

Instead of signing the demise of traditional religiousness, China's economic development has brought a spiritual renewal.[44] The worldview of the Chinese indigenous religion is distinctive;[44] its images and practices are shapen by the codes of Chinese culture, helping Chinese people to face the challenges of modernization.[44]


Communal indigenous religion[edit]

Local deity temple in Zhangzhou, Fujian.

Chinese local religion in its communal expression involves the worship of gods that are the generative power and tutelary spirit (genius loci) of a place or a certain aspect of nature (for example water gods, river gods, fire gods, mountain gods), or of gods that are common ancestors of a village, a larger identity, or the Chinese nation (Shennong, Huangdi, Pangu). This type of local religion has village temples or temples with a wider geographical importance (for example the Heilongdawang Temple in Shanbei).

Rituality expresses into large-scale festivals participated by members of the whole village or township community on the occasions of what are believed to be the birthdays of the gods or other events,[43] or to seek protection from droughts, epidemics, and other disasters.[43] Such festivals invoke the power of the gods for practical goals to "summon blessings and drive away harm".[43] Special devotional currents within this framework can be identified by specific names such as Mazuism (Mazujiao),[45] Wang Ye worship, or the cult of the Silkworm Mother.[46]

Kinship congregational religion[edit]

Guanji temple (left) and Huang ancestral shrine (right) in Wenzhou, Zhejiang.
A new ancestral temple in Hunan. Note the Classical order-styled pilasters on the facade.

Another dimension of the Chinese folk religion is based on family or genealogical worship of deities and ancestors in family altars or private temples (simiao 私庙 or jiamiao 家庙), or ancestral temples (citang 祠堂 or zongci 宗祠).[47] Kinship or lineage associations, often congregating people with the same surname, are a major organisational unit of kinship religion: these lineage congregations build special congregational temples where the deified ancestors of a kin (for example the Chens or the Lins) are enshrined and worshiped.[48] These temples serve as congregational centers for people belonging to the same lineage, and the lineage associations provide groundwork for mutual assistance.[48]

Construction of ancestral temples of impressive sizes and elaborate decorations serves as a mean to represent a kin's wealth, influence and achievement.[49] Scholar K. S. Yang has explored the ethno-political dynamism of this form of religion, through which people who become distinguished for their value and virtue are considered immortal and receive posthumous divine titles, and are believed to protect their descendants, inspiring the mythological lore and substantiating the memory of a family or kin.[50]

If their temples and their deities enshrined acquire popularity they are considered worthy of the virtue of ling, "efficacy".[50] Ancestor veneration in China (jingzu 敬祖) is observed nationally with large scale rituals on Qingming Festival and other holidays.

Wuism and ritual traditions[edit]

Within the Chinese folk religion, worship may draw upon dedicated ancient ritual traditions. Many of these ascend to Wuism, the indigenous shamanic tradition of China. The wu 巫, "shamans" or "wizards", are men who can mediate with the gods. According to philosopher Ulrich Libbrecht also some of the origins of Taoism can be traced to Wuism.[6] Different from Wuism is the practice of tongji mediumship, where the medium is imbued by a divine power, yet can't control it.

Nuoism is a variety of the Chinese folk religion practiced by most of the Tujia people, but also by a number of Han Chinese and other ethnic groups of China. Nuo religion revolves around the worship of gods and ancestors represented by characteristic wooden masks and idols. Ritual performances (Nuo opera) carried out by circles of ritual masters wearing masks of the gods are central to this type of religion.

Confucianism, Taoism and Faism[edit]

Confucianism, Taoism and Faism—which are formalised or institutionalised, doctrinal or philosophical traditions—can be considered as both embedded within the larger category of Chinese traditional religion, or as separate religions. In fact, one can practice certain folk cults and espouse the tenets of Confucianism as a philosophical framework, the Confucian system instructing ancestral worship, li (rite, right) and remembrance of the Tian.

Some currents of Taoism are interwoven with the Chinese folk religion, especially the Zhengyi school, developing aspects of local cults within their doctrines; however Taoists always highlight the distinction between their traditions and those which aren't Taoist. The daoshi (道士, "masters of the Tao") of the Zhengyi school, who are called sanju daoshi (散居道士) or huoju daoshi (火居道士), respectively meaning "scattered daoshi" and "daoshi living at home", because they can get married and perform the profession of priests as a part-time occupation, may perform rituals of offering (jiao), thanks-giving, propitiation, exorcism and rites of passage for local communities' temples and private homes.[51] Local gods of local cultures are often incorporated into their altars.[51]

Faism, also called "Redhead" or "Redhat Taoism", from the color of the headgear of its priests, is ingrained in the Chinese folk religion more deeply than Taoism. It is the tradition of the "masters of rites", fashi (法師), present especially in southern China, who have the same role of the sanju daoshi within the fabric of society. They aren't considered Taoist priests by the daoshi of Zhengyi Taoism, who wear a black headgear.

Derived organized sects[edit]

With the internal migrations and political turmoils in China between the 19th century and 1949, the cadre of Chinese folk religion and Taoism gave rise to a variety of new religious movements called "redemptive societies" by scholar Prasenjit Duara.[23][52] Quite different from indigenous religion of devotion to local gods, these "disembedded" religious groups provided aggregation for mobile people that were uprooted from local communities and integrated into the cosmopolitan life of the cities.[23]

Some of these religions call on ideas of transcendent authority to change the established order, recalling Axial Age religions, reorienting society towards a transcendent ideal as opposed to worldly power.[52] They provide new variations of traditional practices, in the frame of a millenarian or utopian perspective, reconstructing society on orthodox Confucian-Taoist values mediated through folk tradition,[52][53] often incorporating Buddhist themes.[23] Other religions, often those produced by more recent waves of religious innovation, may downplay or miss the "redemptive" millenarian aspects and rather emphasize devotion to a specific deity, virtues, good deeds and other moral values.

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 they operate freely in Taiwan since the late 1980s. This group of religions includes Yiguandao[23] and other Xiantiandao sects, Yaochidao, Jiugongdao and the more recent De religion and the Tiandist movement, focused on the worship of Tian. Also, many Qigong schools may rely on the worldview of the Chinese folk religion.

Weixinism is a religion primarily based on the "orthodox lineages of Yijing and Feng Shui",[54] the Hundred Schools of Thought,[55] and worship of the "three great ancestors" (Huangdi, Yandi and Chiyou).[56] The movement promotes the restoration of the authentic roots of the Chinese civilization and Chinese reunification.[55]

The Weixinist church, which headquarters are in Taiwan, is also active in Mainland China in the key birthplaces of the Chinese culture. It has a contract with Henan government for building the "City of Eight Trigrams" templar complex on Yunmeng Mountain (of the Yan Mountains),[57] and it has also built temples in Hebei.[58] Xiaism is an organised folk religion founded in the 16th century, present in the Putian region (Xinghua) of Fujian.

Secret religions[edit]

There are many controversial folk religious movements known as "secret religions" with different names and roots in imperial-period heterodox sects such as the White Lotus religion.[59] They are not entirely bound to the Chinese folk religion and their category blur with that of the "redemptive societies" of the 18th and 20th centuries. Luoism is considered a sect belonging to the "secret religions" group.



Historical depiction of the archaic twin deities Fuxi and Nüwa.
Chang'e Flying to the Moon, ink painting by Ren Shuai Ying, 1955. Preserved at the China's National Museum of Fine Arts.

There are hundreds of Chinese deities (local gods and goddesses) as well as demigods. After apotheosis, historical figures noted for their bravery or virtue are also venerated and honored as ancestral "saints", xians, or heightened to the status of shen, deities. The Song Dynasty enlisted many of them.[60] Deities often reflect a hierarchy, and exemplify many characteristics of human officials, such as their fallibility.[12] The following list represents some commonly worshipped deities.

An altar with incense offerings inside the Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong.
Inner hall of the Tao Kong Pa Temple in Sukhothai Thani, Thailand.

Forms of worship and practices[edit]

Most of the temples of the Chinese folk religion emphasise the formula "if there is an entreaty, there will be a response" (you qiu bi ying 有求必应) or "if the heart is sincere, god will reveal his power" (xin cheng shen ling 心诚神灵),[40] since the relationship between the gods and humans is one of exchange of effervescence and favour.[40] The formula explains that in exchange of their favour and protection the gods require a certain type of conduct from their faithful.[61] Once the power of the deity (ling qi, xian ling) is attested, it is the responsibility of humans to prove their religious fervor and deserve/merit of divine protection.[61]

Through rituals of worship, people acquire and maintain a sense of stable world order, peace and balance (in philosophical-cosmological terms expressed by the concepts of Tian, Qi and bao ying).[40] Violating rules may insult a god and hence, undermine the balance and open the doors to chaos.[40] The attitude of the people towards their deities is of awe and apprehension.[40] Through devotional practices a person strives to secure balance and protect himself and the world he is located into from the power of unfavorable forces.[40] In this sense, the Chinese traditional view of human life is not fatalistic, but one is a master of his own life through his relationship with the divine energies.[40]

The core idea of individual worship is the display reverence/respect (jing shen 敬神) for the gods. Believers fear offending the deity and wreaking havoc.[40] Honouring the deities means the fulfillment of vows (huan yuan 还愿).[40] In most of cases, vow-fulfillment is expressed in material forms: for example jingxiang offering rituals.

Many people repay vows to the gods by contributing with incense, oil, and candles, as well as money.[62] Religious devotion may also express in the form of performance troupes (huahui), involving many different kinds of groups of performers such as stilt walkers, lion dancers, musicians, martial arts masters, yangge dancers, and story-tellers.[62]

Some gods are considered carnivorous, for example Heshen (河神) or the Longwang (龙王), and offering to them requires animal sacrifice (shengji 生祀),[63] while other deities, for example Zhenwu, do not ask for animal sacrifice.[63]

A deity may also require in exchange, for his or her help through divine effervescence, that people act morally and perform good works, virtuous deeds (shanshi 善事), and practice self-cultivation (xiu xing 修行).[64] For this aim, some forms of local religion develop clear prescriptions for believers, such as detailed lists of meritorious and sinful deeds in the form of "books of virtue" (shanshu 善书) and "ledgers of merit" (guogong ge 过功格).[65] Involvement in the affairs of communal or intra-village temples are perceived by believers as ways for accumulating merit (gongde 功德).[65] "Doing good deeds to accumulate virtue" (xing shan ji de 行善积德) is a common formula for religious practice.[66] Virtue is believed to accumulate in one's heart, which is seen as energetic centre of the human body (zai jun xin zuo tian fu 在君心作福田).[66]

Practices of communication with the gods comprehend different forms of Chinese shamanism, such as wu shamanism and tongji mediumship, or fuji practice. On the community level, religious services are organised and led by local people themselves.[41] Leaders are usually selected among male heads of families or lineages, or on the village level they may be the village heads.[41]

Places of worship[edit]

Temples of the Chinese folk religion can be distinguished into miao (庙) or dian (殿), meaning "temple"; family altars or private temples (simiao 私庙 or jiamiao 家庙), or ancestral temples or shrines (citang 祠堂 or zongci 宗祠). The terms have often been used interchangeably. However miao is the general Chinese term for "temple" understood as "sacred space", "worship place". In Chinese folk religion it is mostly associated to temples which enshrine nature gods and patron gods. Instead ci is the specific term for temples enshrining ancestry gods, deified virtuous men.

Shen temples are distinct from Taoist temples in that they are established and administered by local managers, village communities, lineage congregations and worship associations, and don't have professional priests, although Taoist daoshi, Faist fashi, and also Wuist wu and tongji, may perform services within these temples. Shenist temples are usually small and decorated with traditional figures on their roofs (dragons and deities), although some evolve into significant structures. Other terms associated to templar structures of Shenism and other religions in China are 宫 gong ("palace"), referring to a templar complex of multiple buildings, and 院 yuan, a general term for "sanctuary", "shrine".


Yinyang as heaven and earth.

Chinese folk religion followers and temples make use of different symbols, from symbols with cosmological or generative significance to symbols peculiar of specific deities, lineages or areas.

As in Taoism, also in the Chinese folk religion the yin and yang concept can be represented through the taijitu symbol, but also in pairs of complementary figures such as the dragon and the phoenix, heaven and earth, or water and fire. The taijitu is often represented in the hands of creator deities such as Pangu, who represent the originating principle separating into heaven and earth. The bagua of I Ching is also a symbol used in Chinese folk religion.

The Chinese dragon (long 龙) is a very important symbol in Chinese indigenous tradition: it is a positive creature representing yang, and thus the life-giving creative force, the universal generating power (Tian-Shangdi) and qi,[25] from which also the kin lineage.[67][68]


The Kanteibyo (Temple of Guandi) in Kobe, Japan.

China and Taiwan[edit]

The Pew Research Center has collected numbers saying that in China 22%[8] of the population adheres to the Chinese indigenous religion. Another estimate puts it at over 30% of the total population.[9] A survey conducted in 2010 by the Purdue University's Center on Religion and Chinese Society has found that 56.2% of Chinese practice some form of ancestral veneration, but only 16% believe in the existence of ancestral spirits, and 13% adopt Taoist practices on a level which is indistinguishable from the Chinese folk religion.[11] In Taiwan, Chinese folk religions are mostly subsumed under the label and the institutions of "Taoism", which is the religion of 33% of the population.[69]

Altar to Guandi in a restaurant of Beijing.

Ritual economy[edit]

Scholars have studied how Chinese folk religion-inspired society, elastic and polytheistic in spirit, provided the groundwork for the development of dynamic grassroots capitalism in Song Dynasty China and modern capitalism in contemporary Taiwan.[70][71][72][73] Chinese folk religion with its ritual economy is also a key in the contemporary economic development in rural Mainland China.[74][75]

Southeast Asia[edit]

Confucian temple in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia, hosting a Chinese cult of the snake that is unique to the area.
The Tao Kong Pa Temple in Sukhothai Thani, Thailand.
The gods enshrined in the Nam Soon Church of Kolkata, India.

Being the Chinese folk religion an ethnic religion and indigenous to the soil of China, Chinese people who emigrate tend to lose their connection to ancestral rites and local temples. The overseas Chinese settled in Southeast Asia have mostly adopted Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Christianity. However, some of them have succeeded in preserving the Chinese folk religion, often adapting it to the new environment developing new cults and incorporating elements of local traditions. Southeast Asia's Chinese folk religions are particularly ready to adopt Buddhist bodhisattva (fo, enlightened beings) as gods, and even Hindu gods such as Hanuman, Ganesha and Brahma, into their pantheon. Some of the organised folk religions, such as Yiguandao and Deism, have also succeeded in spreading amongst Southeast Asian Chinese communities.

In Singapore about 11% of the total population is Taoist, composed by a 14.4% of the Chinese Singaporeans identifying as Taoists.[76] In Malaysia, around 3% of Chinese Malaysians practice Chinese folk religions, corresponding to around 1% of the whole country population. In Indonesia, Taosu Agung Kusumo, leader of the Majelis Agama Tao Indonesia, claims there are 5 million Taoist followers in the country as of 2009.[77]

Chinese temples in Indonesia and Malaysia are called kelenteng or klenteng in local Malay languages, or alternatively bio, the southern Chinese pronunciation of Mandarin miao (庙).


The Chinese folk religion of the Chinese Indonesians is named "Confucianism", and officially recognised by the government as Agama Khonghucu or religion of Confucius, which was chosen because of the political condition in Indonesia before the end of Suharto rule in 1998, which saw the Chinese religions forbidden and the Chinese forced to convert to Buddhism or Christianity. The Chinese Indonesians had their culture and religious rights restored only after the fourth president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, issued a regulation that recognised "Confucianism" among the legal religions of the country. He said that:

All religions insist on peace. From this we might think that the religious struggle for peace is simple... but it is not. The deep problem is that people use religion wrongly in pursuit of victory and triumph. This sad fact then leads to conflict with people who have different beliefs.[78]

The first precept of Pancasila (the Five Basic Principles of the Indonesian state) stipulates belief in the one and only God. The Confucian philosophy is able to fulfill this, for Confucius mentioned only one God in his teaching, the Heaven or Shangdi. The Heaven possess the characteristic of Yuan Heng Li Zhen, or Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent, Just.[79]

The Master said, "Great indeed was Yao as a sovereign! How majestic was he! It is only Heaven that is grand, and only Yao corresponded to it. How vast was his virtue! The people could find no name for it. How majestic was he in the works which he accomplished! How glorious in the elegant regulations which he instituted!" (VIII, xix, tr. Legge 1893:214)

Another movement in Indonesia is the Tridharma (Sanskrit: "religion of the Three"), syncretising elements of different religions, the Chinese three teachings amongst others.[80] After the fall of Suharto rule it is undergoing a process of systematisation of doctrines and rituals.[80] Tridharma temples always consist of three main rooms: the front room for Tian or God, the middle for the main deity of the temple, the back room for the three teachers and their pantheon: Confucius, Laozi, and Buddha.


In Malaysia the Malaysian Chinese constitute a large segment of the population, mostly adherent of Mahayana Buddhism. The Chinese traditional religion has a relatively significant following in the states of Sarawak (6%) and Penang (5%). A prominent cult is that of Tua Pek Kong (大伯公 Dabo Gong), and it has incorporated the cult of the Na Tuk Kong (拿督公 Nadu Gong) of local Malay origin.


Thailand has a large population of Thai Chinese, people of Chinese or partial Chinese origin. Most of those who follow Buddhism have been integrated into the Theravada Buddhist tradition of the country, with only a negligible minority having retained Chinese Buddhism. However, many others have retained the Chinese folk religions and Taoism.[81] Despite the large number of followers and temples, and although they are practiced freely, these religions have no state recognition, their temples are not counted as places of worship, and their followers are counted as "Theravada Buddhists" in officially-released religious figures.[81] Chinese temples are called sanchao in Thai language.[81]

The Chinese folk religion of Thailand has developed local features, including the worship of local gods.[81] Major Chinese festivals such as the Nian, Zhongqiu and Qingming are widely celebrated especially in Bangkok, Phuket, and other parts of Thailand where there are large Chinese populations.[82]

The Chinese in the city of Phuket are noted for their nine-day vegetarian festival between September and October. During the festive season, devotees will abstain from meat and mortification of the flesh by Chinese mediums are also commonly seen, along with rites devoted to the worship of Tua Pek Kong. Such traditions were developed during the 19th century in Phuket by the local Chinese with influences from Thai culture.[83]


Some within the Chinese community in India practice the Chinese folk religion. The community of Kolkata have built some "churches" to the Chinese gods.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Also named Chinese ethnic religion or, using the terminology adopted by some scholars in China, Chinese indigenous religion or Chinese spiritual heritage. See: Fan Lizhu, Chen Na. The Revival of Indigenous Religion in China. Fudan University, 2013.
  2. ^
    • The term Shenism (神教, Shénjiào) was first used in 1955 by anthropologist Allan J. A. Elliott, in his work Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore.
    • During the history of China it was named Shendao (神道, Shéndào, the "way of the gods"), apparently since the time of the spread of Buddhism to the area in the Han period (206 BCE–220 CE), in order to distinguish it from the new religion. The term was subsequently adopted in Japan as Shindo, later Shinto, with the same purpose of identification of the Japanese indigenous religion. The oldest recorded usage of Shindo is from the second half of the 6th century.[1][2]
  3. ^ 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 Tian in Chinese thought.
  4. ^ However, that the nature of Chinese folk religion requires a "belief" in addition to a "practice" is controversial. The Chinese folk religion is often considered one of "belonging" rather than "believing" (see: Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 5.)


  1. ^ Brian Bocking. A Popular Dictionary of Shinto. Routledge, 2005. ASIN: B00ID5TQZY p. 129
  2. ^ Stuart D. B. Picken. Essentials of Shinto: An Analytical Guide to Principal Teachings. Resources in Asian Philosophy and Religion. Greenwood, 1994. ISBN 0313264317 p. xxi
  3. ^ a b c d Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 4.
  4. ^ J. J. M. de Groot. Religion in China: Universism a Key to the Study of Taoism and Confucianism. Kessinger Publishing, 2004. ISBN 141794658X
  5. ^ P. Koslowski. Philosophy Bridging the World Religions. Book 5 in: A Discourse of the World Religions. Springer, 2003. ISBN 1402006489. p. 110, quote: «J. J. M. de Groot calls "Chinese Universism" the ancient metaphysical view that serves as the basis of all classical Chinese thought. [...] In Universism, the three components of integrated universe — understood epistemologically, "heaven, earth and man", and understood ontologically, "t'ai chi (the great beginning, the highest ultimate), yin and yang" — are formed.»
  6. ^ a b Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43.
  7. ^ Religion. (2011). In Encyclopædia Britannica.
  8. ^ a b Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life (December 2012), The Global Religious Landscape: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Major Religious Groups as of 2010 (PDF), Pew Research Center, retrieved 9 October 2013 
  9. ^ a b ChartsBin (2009-09-16). "Chinese Folk Religion Adherents by Country". Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  10. ^ Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 8. Citing: Dean, Kenneth. Local Ritual Traditions of Southeast China: A Challenge to Definitions of Religion and Theories of Ritual. In China: Methodology, Theories, and Findings, eds. Fenggang Yang and Graeme Lang, 133-165, Leiden: Brill, 2011. p. 134
  11. ^ a b 2010 Chinese Spiritual Life Survey conducted by Dr. Yang Fenggang, Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society. Statistics published in: Katharina Wenzel-Teuber, David Strait. People’s Republic of China: Religions and Churches Statistical Overview 2011. Religions & Christianity in Today's China, Vol. II, 2012, No. 3, pp. 29-54, ISSN: 2192-9289.
  12. ^ a b Wolf, Arthur P. "Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors." Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Ed. Arthur O. Wolf. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974. pg. 131-182.
  13. ^ "Roundtable before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  14. ^ "The Upsurge of Religion in China" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  15. ^ "China's Leaders Harness Folk Religion For Their Aims". 2010-07-23. Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  16. ^ "Over 10,000 Chinese Worship Huangdi in Henan". 2006-04-01. Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  17. ^ The Policy of Legitimation and the Revival of Popular Religion in Shaanbei, North-Central China
  18. ^ a b c d e Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 5
  19. ^ "Animism". OMF. Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  20. ^ Barend ter Haar. "Shamanism in China: bibliography by Barend ter Haar". Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  21. ^ Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 5.
  22. ^ Tu Weiming. The Global Significance of Concrete Humanity: Essays on the Confucian Discourse in Cultural China. India Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2010. ISBN 8121512204 / 9788121512206
  23. ^ a b c d e Madsen, Secular belief, religious belonging. 2013.
  24. ^ Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 5-6
  25. ^ a b c Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43
  26. ^ Thien Do, 2003, p. 9
  27. ^ a b Thien Do, 2003, pp. 10-11
  28. ^ a b Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 25
  29. ^ a b Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 26
  30. ^ a b c Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 21
  31. ^ a b Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 23
  32. ^ a b Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 24
  33. ^ Lizhu, Na. 2013. pp. 26-27
  34. ^ a b c d e Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 27
  35. ^ Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 179-183
  36. ^ a b Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 183-184
  37. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 184
  38. ^ Zavidovskaya, 2013. p. 184
  39. ^ a b c d e f Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 185
  40. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 183
  41. ^ a b c d e Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 9
  42. ^ Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 1
  43. ^ a b c d e f g Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 8
  44. ^ a b c Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 28
  45. ^ Fujian Government's website: Fujian's General Information. Quote: «At present, major religions practiced in Fujian include Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. In addition, Fujian has its folk belief with deeply local characteristic, such as Mazuism, the belief in Mazu, (which) is very influential».
  46. ^ Fan Lizhu. The Cult of the Silkworm Mother as a Core of a Local Community Religion in a North China Village: Field Study in Zhiwuying, Baoding, Hebei. The China Quarterly No. 174 (Jun. 2003), 360.
  47. ^ Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 13
  48. ^ a b Lizhu, Na. 2013. pp. 14-15
  49. ^ Lizhu, Na. 2013. pp. 15
  50. ^ a b Lizhu, Na. 2013. pp. 16
  51. ^ a b Edward L. Davis. Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture. ¶ Daoist priests, vernacular priests
  52. ^ a b c Duara, Chinese religions in comparative historical perspective. 2013.
  53. ^ 民间宗教救世思想的演变
  54. ^ Weixinism propagates Chinese culture and Yi-Ching. Hun Yuan's website.
  55. ^ a b Grand Master Hun Yuan leads Weixinism for world peace. Taiwan Weixin Association for World Peace.
  56. ^ Honoring the contribution of the Three-Great-Chinese-Ancestor Culture to develop world peace. Hun Yuan's website.
  57. ^ Build the City of the Eight Trigrams on Yunmeng Mountain, integrate the differences within Chinese culture, and support the union of the Chinese people. Hun Yuan's website.
  58. ^ Build temples for the Three Great Chinese Ancestors, solidify the national union, and pray together for Cross-Strait and worldwide peace. Hun Yuan's website.
  59. ^ See: zh:中国秘密宗教.
  60. ^ 在线阅读
  61. ^ a b Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 186
  62. ^ a b Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 10
  63. ^ a b Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 189
  64. ^ Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 191
  65. ^ a b Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 182
  66. ^ a b Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 187
  67. ^ Rowena Pattee Kryder. Sacred Ground to Sacred Space. p. 298
  68. ^ The Almighty Dragon.
  69. ^ "Taiwan Yearbook 2006". Government of Information Office. 2006. Archived from the original on 8 July 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-01. 
  70. ^ Council of Foreign Relations. Symposium on Religion and the Future of China: Religion, Civil Society, and Economic Life. June 11, 2008.
  71. ^ Hill Gates - Robert P. Weller. Hegemony of Chinese Folk Ideologies. Sage Publications, 1987.
  72. ^ Gordon Redding. The Spirit of Chinese Capitalism. Walter de Grutyer, 1990.
  73. ^ Hill Gates. China's motor: one thousand years of petty-capitalism. Cornell University, 1996.
  74. ^ Mayfair Mei-hui Yang (Director of Asian Studies, University of Sydney, Australia). Ritual Economy and Rural Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics. University of California Press. Retrieved 31 July 2011.
  75. ^ Pui-lam Law. The Revival of Folk Religion and Gender Relationships in Rural China. Hong Kong Polytechnic University Press. Retrieved 2011-07-31.
  76. ^ CIA World Factbook - Singapore
  77. ^ "Tao, Taoism Religion". Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  78. ^ Ambassadors for the Universal Peace Federation.
  79. ^ Bidang Litbang PTITD/Matrisia Jawa Tengah. 2007. Pengetahuan Umum Tentang Tri Dharma, First Edition (July 2007). Publisher: Benih Bersemi, Semarang, Indonesia.
  80. ^ a b Tsuda Koji. "Chinese Religion" in Modern Indonesia: Focusing on the Trend Toward Systematization in the Post-Soeharto Era. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
  81. ^ a b c d Tatsuki Kataoka. Religion as Non-religion: The Place of Chinese Temples in Phuket, Southern Thailand. In Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3, December 2012, pp. 461–485. Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.
  82. ^ Tong Chee Kiong; Chan Kwok Bun (2001). "Rethinking Assimilation and Ethnicity: The Chinese of Thailand". Alternate Identities: The Chinese of Contemporary Thailand. pp. 30–34. 
  83. ^ Jean Elizabeth DeBernardi (2006). The Way That Lives in the Heart: Chinese Popular Religion and Spirits Mediums in Penang, Malaysia. Stanford University Press. pp. 25–30. ISBN 0-8047-5292-3. 



External links[edit]

Media related to Chinese folk religion at Wikimedia Commons