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.
The imposing stupa enshrining the relic of Shakyamuni Buddha's finger bone, at Famen Temple, a Buddhist complex in Baoji, Shaanxi (2010).

China has long been a cradle and host to a variety of the most enduring religio-philosophical traditions of the world.[1] Confucianism and Taoism, plus Buddhism, constitute the "three teachings", philosophical frameworks which historically have had a significant role in shaping Chinese culture.[2][3] Elements of these three belief systems are often incorporated into the traditional folk religions.[4] 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.[5] There is a stimulating debate over what to call religion and who should be called religious in China.[6] 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, an atheist organisation, which regulates the practice of religion in mainland China. It presently 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).[7]

The largest group of religious traditions is the Chinese folk religion, which overlaps with Chinese horsesTaoism, and describes the worship of the shen, a term describing local deities, heroes and ancestors, and figures from Chinese mythology.[8] Among the grand-scale worship cultures even officially promoted there are those of Mazu (goddess of the seas, patron of Southern China), Huangdi (divine patriarch of all the Chinese, "Volksgeist" of the Chinese nation),[9][10] Caishen (god of prosperity and richness), Pangu and others. China has many of the world's tallest statues, including the tallest of all. Most of them represent buddhas, deities and religious personalities and have been 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[11] and the world's tallest stupa.[12] Chinese Buddhism developed since the 1st century, and remains the most influential single religion in modern China.[13]

Researchers have noted that in China "there is no clear boundary between Buddhism, Daoism and local folk religious practice". According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 22% of the Chinese are "folk religionists", and 18% are Buddhist.[14] However, there is overlap, as many Chinese identify themselves as followers of both Chinese folk religion and Buddhism. According to a survey conducted in 2010, hundreds of millions of people practice some kind of Chinese folk religions and Taoism; of these 754 million (56.2%) people practice Chinese ancestral veneration, only 215 million (16%) believing in the existence of ancestral shen[note 1], 173 million (13%) adopt Taoist practices on a level which is indistinguishable from Chinese folk religion.[13] The same survey reports that 185 million (13.8%) are Buddhists, 33 million (2.4%) are Christians, and 23 million (1.7%) are Muslims.[13] In addition to Han local religion, also some non-Han ethnic minorities follow their traditional autochthone religions. Christians are between 2-4% of the population according to various surveys.[15][16][17][18] Muslims are 1–2%.[19] Various new religious movements (among them: Falun Gong, Xiantiandao, Weixinism) are scattered across the country.[20] Confucianism as a religion is popular among intellectuals.[21]

Significant ethnic faith traditions include Tibetan Buddhism and the Islam in China of the Hui and Uyghur peoples. Christianity in China, although established since the 7th century, declined in China according to Ken Joseph J. of The Keikyo Institute, as a result of persecution during the 10th through 14th centuries.[22] 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.[23] During the Cultural Revolution, many priests were imprisoned.[24] After the late 1970s, religious freedoms for Christians improved, and state-appointed bishops have been permitted to tend to Catholic congregations.[25]

Ancient and pre-historic[edit]

Prior to the advent of Chinese civilization and world religions in the region generally known today as East Asia (which includes the territorial boundaries of modern-day China), tribal and animistic religious practices were the way in which prayers, sacrifices or offerings were communicated to the spiritual world by groups or mediatory individuals such as shamans.[26]

Altar to Zhuge Liang inside an ancestral temple in his hometown Yinan, Shandong.

Following the dawn of Chinese civilization, an early indigenous form of religious practice in Chinese history known as Taoism began to develop from the more primitive elements of animism, folk religions and shamanism.[27] Taoism is considered a traditional Chinese religion along with Confucianism and other Chinese folk religions. Shamanic traditions, which have the longest recorded history in China,[28] are still practiced formally by numerous ethnic groups around China, including the Han Chinese, but historic text and literature usually neglect this religious aspect of the Han people's history.[29][30][31][32][33][34]

Modern history[edit]

Matteo Ricci (left) and Xu Guangqi (right) in the Chinese edition of Euclid's Elements published in 1607.

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.[35]

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 recognised the Dalai Lamas as their spiritual and temporal leaders. The Boxer Rebellion saw nationalist resentment target Christian missionaries.[citation needed]

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, where Chinese emperors prayed for the harvest (1860).

By the mid-20th century, China had long been the home of "intensive but not triumphant Christian activity" and in 1949, wrote Blainey, "Catholic schools alone had taught five million Chinese students, Catholic hospitals and doctors served maybe 30 million people, and the Catholic orphanages alone numbered 1500".[36] 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 was about to become officially atheist.

People's Republic of China

The People's Republic of China was established 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 massive number of places of worship were destroyed.[37]

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. The 1978 Constitution of the People's Republic of China guarantees "freedom of religion" in Article 36. The policy regarding religious practice in China states that "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 because they do, or do not believe in religion. The state protects normal religious activities", and continues with the statement that: "nobody can make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state".[38] 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 World Buddhist Forum in 2006 and the International Forum on the Daodejing in 2007. The government sees these religions as an integral part of Chinese culture.[39]

The Communist Party, which remains an atheist organisation, presently formally permits 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).[7][40] To some degree the government also controls the institutions in the religions it recognizes.[41] In October 2007, the new statute of China cites religion as an important element of citizens' life.[42] However, the Chinese government has also banned some religious activities or movements for public health concerns.[43][44] In late 2013, president Xi Jinping expressed hope that "traditional cultures" may fill "moral void" and fight corruption.[45]

Temple economy[edit]

Scholars have studied how Chinese folk religion-based society, elastic and polytheistic in spirit, provided the groundwork for the development of dynamic grassroots capitalism with Chinese characteristics in Song Dynasty China and modern capitalism in contemporary Taiwan.[46][47][48][49] The revival of Chinese folk religion with its ritual economy or temple economy, studied by on-ground researches,[50] is also the key of the contemporary economic development in rural Mainland China.[51][52]


Anshan Jade Buddha, the largest jade statue in the world, in the interior of Jade Buddha Temple in Anshan City, Liaoning.

Chinese Buddhists are evenly distributed across the whole country. Southern provinces (Guangdong, Fujian, etcetera) have experienced the most vibrant revival of Chinese folk religion[53] thickly mingled with Zhengyi "Southern" Taoism. The Chinese folk religion can also be found in all other provinces, in a wide variety of forms. Quanzhen "Northern" Taoism is mostly present in the north.

Sichuan is the area where Tianshi Taoism developed and the Celestial Masters had their main seat. Christians are mostly concentrated in easternmost provinces and coastal areas, particularly in Zhejiang, Anhui, areas which were the most affected by the Taiping, but also in Henan and Hebei. Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion in Tibet, other westernmost provinces where ethnic Tibetans constitute a significant amount of the population, and Inner Mongolia in the north; it is also having a growing influence among ethnic Han.[54][55] Islam is the majority religion in the ethnic Hui areas, particularly Ningxia, and in the Uyghur province of Xinjiang. Many non-Han minority ethnic groups follow their own traditional ethnic religions (for example, Dongbaism). Confucianism as a religion is popular among intellectuals.[21]

Communist governments often suppress religious freedom and officially endorse atheism. Due to this the relation between the Government and religions was not smooth in the past.[56] In recent years, the Chinese government has opened up to religion, especially traditional religions such as Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and folk religion emphasizing the role of religion in building a "Harmonious Society".[57]


A variety of Chinese priests and monks seen by Johan Nieuhof between 1655 and 1658.

A survey taken by Shanghai University in 2007 found that 31.4% of people above the age of 16 considered themselves religious. The survey also found that the major religions are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Christianity, accounting for 67.4% of believers. About 66.1% of all believers are Buddhists, Taoists or worshippers of legendary figures such as the Dragon King and God of Fortune, while Christianity accounted for 12% of believers.[58][59]

According to a study by the Pew Research Center of Global Religious Landscape as of 2010, 21.9% of the population in China are folk religionists, 18.2% are Buddhist, 5.1% are Christians, 1.8% are Muslims, 0.8% are of other religions, while unaffiliated constitutes 52.2% of the population.[14]

A survey conducted in 2010 by Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society has revealed the following results:[13] many types of Chinese folk religions and Taoism are practiced by possibly hundreds of millions of people; 56.2% of Chinese practice Chinese ancestral worship, but only 16% assert a belief in the existence of ancestral shen; 12.9% practice Taoism on a level indistinguishable from the folk religion; 0.9% people identify exclusively with Taoism; 13.8% identify as "Buddhist", of which only 1.3% are formal initiates; 2.4% identify as "Christians", of which 2.2% are Protestants and 0.02% are Catholics; an additional 1.7% are Muslims. As highlighted, the practice of Taoism and various Chinese folk religions easily blurs. Also, many Buddhists may also practice the worship of ancestors and gods.

In 2010, according to a conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the number of Protestants in China is 1.8% of the total population.[60] Another survey in 2010 survey conducted by the Purdue's Center on Religion and Chinese Society revealed that 18% of the adult Chinese are Buddhist, 15% are atheists and 3.2% are Christian.[61] Average data from various surveys find that Buddhists are 18% to 20% of the total population, or around 300 million people.[17][62][61]

Some non-Han ethnic groups practice distinct ethnic religions (Moism, Ruism, Dongbaism, Bön),[63] A number of distinctively Chinese new religions and sects (for example Xiantiandao and Falun Gong), may be part of the large population of practitioners of "Chinese folk religions" and "folk Taoism".

According to the surveys of Phil Zuckerman on in 1993; there was 59%[64] of the Chinese population was irreligious and 8% – 14% was atheist (from over 100 to 180 million) as of 2005.[56] There are intrinsic logistical difficulties in trying to count the number of religious people anywhere, as well as difficulties peculiar to China. According to Phil Zuckerman, "low response rates", "non-random samples", and "adverse political/cultural climates" are all persistent problems in establishing accurate numbers of religious believers in a given locality.[65] Similar difficulties arise in attempting to subdivide religious people into sects. These issues are especially pertinent in China for two reasons. First, it is a matter of current debate whether some several important belief systems in China constitute "religions". 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".[66] Many Chinese belief systems have concepts of a sacred and sometimes spiritual natural world yet do not always invoke a concept of personal god.[67]

Cultural background[edit]

Statue of Confucius at a temple in Chongming, Shanghai.

Confucius' philosophy[edit]

The mores background of the Chinese people is deeply shaped by the Confucian philosophy (儒家; Rujia). Confucius' thought stresses ethical, moral and social values. This system of values is sometimes considered as the proper culture of the Chinese; consequently, for centuries it has targeted religious tendencies. According to the Confucian thought every culture should carry on its own primordial ethnic religion, which two main aspects are reverence for nature and for the ancient fathers; in the case of the Chinese it is the Chinese folk religion and Taoism compound, which pivotal element is the worship of ancestor is mostly practiced in China. Confucianism arose during the 5th century BCE from the teachings of Confucius, collected under the name of the Analects. The Han Dynasty eventually made Confucianism the official state culture, along with Taoism which was the official religion.

Confucian social and political system remained established until 1912, when it was rejected by the new Republic of China and subsequently by the People's Republic of China. Since the 2000s[68] Confucianism has been experiencing a great revival in China, as it is supported by the central government. The People's Republic of China is establishing institutes for Confucian education all over the world.[68] The headquarters of all Confucius Institutes around the world is in Beijing.[69] China has established 300 of such institutes as of 2010.[70] With the recent rise of nationalism and cultural conservatism among Chinese intellectuals, a growing number of them are converting to Confucianism and working to make it an institutional religion (see the relative section).[71]

Veneration of ancestors[edit]

Chinese veneration of ancestors (拜祖, baizu; or 敬祖, jingzu) dates back to prehistory and is considered an integral part of Chinese folk religion, and a mandatory practice in Confucianism. Chinese culture and religions all value filial piety as a top virtue and De, and the act is a continued display of piety and respect towards departed ancestors. The veneration of ancestors can even extend to legendary figures or historical, such as the founder of one's Chinese surname, virtuous individuals such as Confucius or Guan Yu, or mythological figures like Huangdi, 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.

Heaven worship[edit]

The Round Mound Altar, the altar proper at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, where the Emperor communed with Heaven.

"Heaven worship" was the imperial belief of most of the dynasties of China from the Shang and the Zhou until the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty. It was a "pantheistic-panentheistic" belief, centering on the worship of Tian ("Heaven" or "Sky"), that is the "Cosmos" or "The One" in Western terms, also known with the title Shangdi (literally "Lord Above"). This belief is part of the Chinese folk religion, pre-dating the development of Taoism, Confucianisn, and the introduction of Buddhism and Christianity. Its roots can perhaps be traced back to Tengrism, the ancient religion common to the Altaic peoples.

Heaven worship is closely linked with ancestor veneration and polytheism, as the ancestors and the gods are seen as a medium between Heaven and man. The Emperor of China, also known as the "Son of Heaven", derived the Mandate of Heaven, and thus his legitimacy as ruler, from his supposed ability to commune with Heaven on behalf of his nation.

Confucianism inherited scholarship and the sacred books from the Shang and Zhou. In the theology of Confucianism, Shangdi is the logos (creating word) which is the manifesting path of Tian.[72] Rites are the logos of Shangdi.[73] In the tradition of New-Text School, Confucius is a "throne-less king" of Shangdi and a savior of the world. But Old-Text School persisted that Confucius is a sage of Shangdi who had given new interpretation to the heritage from previous three great dynasties.[74] In Taoism Shangdi is venerated with the extended title of August Heavenly Celestial Emperor (皇天上帝, Huángtiān Shàngdì) and identified as the Jade Lord.

With the fall of the Chinese Empire, imperial Heaven worship disappeared, but remained in Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese folk religion. The concept of the Heaven as a force remained in popular expressions. Where an Anglophone would say "Oh my God" or "Thank God", a Chinese person might say "Oh Heaven" ("老天!" or "天哪!") or "Thank the heavens and the earth" ("謝天謝地").

Notable religions[edit]

Local deity temple in Zhangzhou, Fujian.
Altar to Guandi at the Temple of Guandi of Jinan, Shandong.
Altar inside a Tudi Gong temple in Quanzhou, Fujian.
Statues inside the temple of a Taizu[disambiguation needed] deity (deified important ancestor) in Maoming, Guangdong.

Chinese folk religion[edit]

The Chinese folk religion (simplified Chinese: 中国民间宗教 or 中国民间信仰, pinyin: Zhongguo minjian zongjiao or Zhongguo minjian xinyang) or Shenism (Shenjiao, 神教)[75][76][77] is the collection of local religious traditions which have been the majority belief system in China and among Han Chinese ethnic groups for the most part of the civilization's history till today. Chinese folk religion comprises Chinese mythology and includes the worship of the shen (神, shén; "deities", "spirits", "awarenesses", "consciousnesses", "archetypes") which can be nature deities, deities of the kinship, city deities, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, dragons and ancestors.

The Chinese folk religion is sometimes categorized as "Taoism", since over the centuries institutional Taoism has been attempting to assimilate or administer local religions. Confucianism promotes certain aspects of Chinese traditional religion, especially ancestor veneration. Unlike Taoism, the religious aspects found in Confucianism (worship of Confucius and his disciples, worship of Tian, rituals and sacrifices) never took independent institutional form and have thus remained part of Shenism.

According to old statistics, the Chinese folk religion has 454 million people involved, or about 6.6% of the world population,[78] Chinese folk religion is one of the major religious traditions in the world. More recent statistics of the Pew Research Center put the number of practitioners in China at 22% of the total population.[79] A survey in 2010 has found larger numbers: 754,000,000 people (56.2%) practice Chinese ancestral worship, and 173,000,000 (12.9%) practice Taoism on a level indistinguishable from the folk religion.[13] Chinese religion mirrors the social landscape, and takes on different meanings for different people.[80]

Despite being heavily 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[81][82] and is supported by the Government of the People's Republic of China, particularly certain worship cultures such as Huangdi worship.[9]

Scholars have studied how Chinese folk religion-inspired society, elastic and polytheistic in spirit, provided the groundwork for the development of dynamic grassroots Chinese-style pre-modern capitalism in Song Dynasty China and modern capitalism in contemporary Taiwan.[46][47][48][49] Chinese folk religion with its ritual economy is also the key of the contemporary economic development in rural Mainland China.[51][52]

Prayer plaques in a Confucian temple.


Religious Confucianism (儒教 Rujiao, "Religion of the Scholars"; or 孔教 Kongjiao, "Religion of Confucius") is relatively new and still numerically small phenomenon, limited to the Chinese intelligentsia. Nevertheless, being well embedded in the Chinese academia, in recent years it has become very influential.

Whether Confucianism is a religion or not has been debated for more than one hundred years.[71] Religious aspects promoted by Confucianism include the establishment of temples for ancestral worship of Confucius and his disciples, knowledge and worship of Tian, ritual and sacrifice; however, over the centuries Confucianism never developed an official institutional structure as Taoism did, and its religious aspects never completely detached from Chinese folk religion.

Since 2003 the debate seems to have taken a turn.[71] Large numbers of intellectuals and students are converting to Confucianism,[71] making it a strong intellectual force.[21] A more and more influent movement among them is working to turn Confucianism into a religion (and a movement of its own, independent from the Chinese folk religion), to obtain recognisation by the Chinese government, and even make Confucianism the official state religion of China. Scholar Fenggang Yang calls this movement Confucian Fundamentalism.[71]

In 2003 the Confucian intellectual Kang Xiaoguang published a cultural nationalist manifesto in which he made four suggestions: Confucian education must enter official education at any level, from elementary to high school; the state must establish Confucianism as the state religion by law; Confucian religion must enter the daily life of ordinary people through standardization and development of doctrines, rituals, organisations, churches and activity sites; the Confucian religion must be spread through NGOs.[71]

All the suggestions appear to be being gradually implemented. Since the Jiashen Manifesto published in 2004, intellectuals are calling for a return to the Chinese traditional culture. The Government has since then supported the revival of the Chinese traditional religions, holidays and celebrations. In 2005 the Center for the Study of Confucian Religion was established, and scholars who criticised Confucianism as a religion lost their influence.[71] Also in 2005 Guoxue education started to be implemented in schools of any level. Being well received by the population, even Confucian "televangelists" started to appear on television since 2006.[71]

The most enthusiast and cultural nationalist and conservatist Confucian Fundamentalists proclaim the uniqueness and superiority of Confucian Chinese culture, and have generated some popular sentiment against Western cultural influences in China.[71] In January 2011 a statue of Confucius was unveiled on Tiananmen Square.[83][84]


Altar to Laozi as Daode Tianjun ("Lord of the Way and the Virtue") and the Three Pure Ones at Changchun Temple, Wuhan, Hubei.

Taoism (道教; Daojiao in Chinese) refers to a variety of related philosophical and religious traditions and concepts, born in China itself in the 6th century BCE and it's traditionally traced to the composition of the Tao Te Ching attributed to the sage Laozi, a person who subsequently came to be venerated by Taoists as Daode Tianjun in the Three Pure Ones. Taoist thought focuses on health, longevity, immortality, wu wei (non-action) and spontaneity. These traditions have influenced East Asia for over two thousand years and some have spread internationally.[85]

Reverence for nature and ancestor spirits is common in popular Taoism. Organized Taoism distinguishes its ritual activity from that of the folk religion, which some professional Taoists (Daoshi) view as debased. Chinese alchemy, astrology, cuisine, several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditional medicine, fengshui, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines are intertwined with Taoism throughout history.

Taoism was established as a religion in the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220). During the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386–589), Neo-Taoism adopted concepts and methods from its rival, Buddhism. Some emperors supported it for political reasons while many educated men and women were attracted by its beauty and power. Taoism experienced its silver age from the Tang Dynasty (618–907) to the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). Many sects arose during this period. Taoist temples and Taoist masters spread throughout China. After the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), Taoism divided into two main sects: Quanzhen and Zhengyi Dao.[86]

Taoism gradually developed with the support of the rulers. However, during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), national conflicts sapped the energy and support for Taoism. In the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), the Manchu rulers adopted Tibetan Buddhism and lost interest in Taoism.[86] After 1949, The People's Republic of China found Taoism detrimental to socialist reconstruction while permitting some practical arts linked to Taoism, such as the use of traditional herbal medicines.[87] In 1956 a national organization, the Chinese Taoist Association (with chapters in every province and city) was set up to administer Taoist activities.

Banned during the Cultural Revolution (along with all other religions), Taoism is undergoing a revival today.[88] A 2010 survey has found that in China, Taoism has 12,000,000 initiates (0.8% of the population) strictly identifying as only "Taoist" with another 173,000,000 (13%) who practice Chinese folk religion in a Taoist framework (adopting Taoist tenets and practices).[13]

In April 2007, China took place the "International Forum on the Daodejing", during which celebrities and government officials expressed will to support Taoism as one of the foundations of Chinese culture.[89] Chinese Taoist clergy is organizing missionary systems to spread the spirituality around the world.[88][90]


Shang Liu Temple (Chinese Buddhist) in Changsha, Hunan.
Golden Temple (Chinese Buddhist) at the summit of Emei Shan, in Sichuan. Emei Shan is one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Chinese Buddhism.
Donglin Temple (Chinese Buddhist) entrance, in Shanghai.
Altar inside Litang Monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist complex in Tibet.

Buddhism (called 佛教, Fojiao) was introduced from modern-day Nepal 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. It is estimated that by the 9th century Buddhist institutions had become the most powerful of China, surpassing the Taoist ones and challenging the authority of the government.

This led to the so-called Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, which saw Buddhism repressed. Although the persecution was heavy, Buddhism survived and reflourished in the following centuries. It experienced important developments at the time of some Chinese dynasties, such as Southern and Northern Dynasties, Sui Dynasty, Tang Dynasty, Song Dynasty, and others. Buddhism is deeply embedded in the culture of China, Chinese philosophy, and in Chinese pop culture today.

The entry of Buddhism into China was marked by interaction and syncretism with Taoism in particular.[91] Originally seen as a kind of "foreign Taoism", Buddhism's scriptures were translated into Chinese using the Taoist vocabulary.[92] Chan Buddhism was particularly 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".[93] In the Tang period Taoism incorporated such Buddhist elements as monasteries, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, the doctrine of emptiness, and collecting scripture into tripartite organisation. During the same time, Chan Buddhism grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism.[94]

Buddhism was not universally welcomed, particularly among the gentry. The Buddha's Dharma seemed alien and amoral to conservative and Confucian sensibilities.[95] 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.[92] However, Buddhism and Confucianism eventually reconciled after centuries of conflict and assimilation.[96]

With the rise of People's Republic of China in 1949 Buddhism was banned and many temples and monasteries destroyed. Restrictions lasted until the 1980s. The Buddhist Association of China was founded in 1953. In recent times, Buddhism has recovered popularity and it is returned to be the largest organized faith in the country. While estimates of the number of Buddhists in China range widely, old Chinese government statistics estimates the number of Buddhists at 100 million.[97]

Today the most popular forms of Buddhism in China are the Pure Land and Chán schools. The most recent surveys put the total number of Chinese Buddhists at 18% to 20% of the total population, or around 300 million people,[17][62][61] thus making China the country with the most Buddhist adherents in the world, followed by Japan. A 2010 survey has reported that 185.000.000 people (12.5%) identify as "Buddhist", of which only 17.300.000 (1.3%) are formal initiates.[13]

Buddhism is the preferred religion among successful urban professional people.[98] The vast majority of Chinese Buddhists are Mahayana, while Tibetans and Mongols traditionally follow Tibetan Buddhism. Small communities of Theravada also exist among the minority ethnic groups live in southern provinces as Yunnan and Guangxi which border Burma, Thailand and Laos.

Buddhism is supported by the government. The 108-metre-high Guanyin Statue of Hainan was enshrined on 24 April 2005 with the participation of 108 eminent monks from various Buddhist groups in Hong Kong, Macao and Mainland China, and tens of thousands of pilgrims. The delegation also included monks from the Theravada and Vajrayana traditions.[99][100] China is one of the countries which own many of the world's highest Buddhist statues.

In April 2006 China organized the World Buddhist Forum and in March 2007 the government banned mining on Buddhist sacred mountains.[101] In May of the same year, in Changzhou, the world's tallest pagoda was built and opened.[102][103][104] In March 2008 the Taiwan-based Tzu Chi Foundation was approved to open a branch in China.[105]

In 2010 remains of the skull of Gautama Buddha have been unveiled and enshrined as relics (sarira) at Qixia Temple in Nanjing.[106][107] A famed historical pagoda-tower destroyed a century and a half ago is being rebuilt to host the relic.[108] In 2009, a fingerbone relic of Gautama Buddha was enshrined in the world's tallest stupa recently built within the domains of Famen Temple, in Shaanxi.[12]

According to Tang Dynasty records, China had 19 pagodas of King Asoka holding Sakyamuni's relics. To date, it is believed seven of the pagodas have been found.[106]

However, some restrictions of Tibetan Buddhism are due to controversies about its hierarchy, and the issue of the succession of Tenzin Gyatso the current 14th Dalai Lama (who wasn't invited to the World Buddhist Forum). Tenzin Gyatso – who was not only the spiritual leader of Gelug Buddhism, the major branch of Tibetan Buddhism, but also the reputed traditional political ruler of Tibet – is in exile, and China currently intends to elect its own 15th Dalai Lama. In August 2007 China has prohibited the reincarnation of Tibetan living buddhas without permission of the government, thus limiting the influence of Tenzin Gyatso on new Gelug Buddhist monks.[109]

Non-Han indigenous religions[edit]

Besides Han Chinese practicing their ethnic Shenism, various Chinese non-Han minority populations have retained their own indigenous religions. The Government of the People's Republic of China promotes and protects the indigenous religions of minority nations as pivotal expression of their culture and ethnic identity.

Zhuang Moism[edit]

Moism (Chinese: 摩教, Mojiao) is the traditional religion of the Zhuang, a people inhabiting the Zhuang Autonomous Region of Guangxi. About 80–90% out of 18 million of the Zhuang follow their ethnic faith.[110] It is a polytheistic-monistic and shamanic religion centered around the creator god Buluotuo. 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.

Yi Bimoism[edit]

Bimoism is the indigenous religion of the Yi people, the largest ethnic group in Yunnan after the Han Chinese. It takes its name from the bimo, shaman-priests who are also masters of Yi language and scriptures, wearing distinctive black robes and large hats. Since the 1980s, with the loosening of religion restrictions in China, Bimoism has undergone a revitalisation with the Bimo Culture Research Center founded in 1996. In the early 2010s the government of China has helped the revival of the Bimoist faith through the construction of large temples and ceremonial complexes.[111][112][113]

Tibetan Bön[edit]

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

Bön (Tibetan: བོན་; called 苯教, Benjiao by the Chinese) is the oldest spiritual tradition of Tibet, dominant before the introduction of Buddhism. The Bönpo religion is traditionally considered founded by the mythical figure of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche. With the spread of Buddhism, Bön incorporated styles, iconography and clergy system of the new religion, whereas remaining a distinguished tradition. Simultaneously, Bönpo elements combined with original Buddhism gave origin to Tibetan Buddhism. An estimated 10% of Tibetans follow Bön.

Mongol shamanism and Genghis Khan belief[edit]

Main hall of the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan in Ordos City, Inner Mongolia, one of the temples for the worship of Genghis Khan.

Mongolian shamanism is practiced by many Mongols in China, mostly residing in the region of Inner Mongolia, besides Mongolian Buddhism. Genghis Khan worship is another religion popular among Mongolians, a peculiar form of traditional Mongolian shamanism, as the hero-ancestor is considered an intermediary with Tengri (Heaven).[114] An important center of this belief is the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan in Ordos City; there are other temples of this worship in Inner Mongolia and northern China.[115][116]


Benzhuism (Chinese: 本主教; pinyin: Běnzhǔjiào; literally "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. Thus, it is very similar to the Chinese traditional religion.

Dongbaism (Chinese: 東巴教; pinyin: Dōngbajiào; literally "religion of the dongba") is the primary religion of the Nakhi people. About two-thirds of today Nakhis (200.000 on 300.000) are Dongbaists. Deep similarities between Dongbaist practices and tose of Bön seem to prove that Dongbaism arose roughly during the 11th or 12th century when Bönpos settled among the Nakhis spreading their religion; Dongbaism eventually originated by the combination of Bön with Nakhi native beliefs. Dongbaists worship nature and generation, in the form of chimera-dragon-serpent creatures called Shv or Shu.

The traditional religion of the Qiang people (200.000, most residing in north-western Sichuan) is known as Ruism.[117] It is a polytheistic and monistic religion, centered on the worship of ancestors and nature.[117] 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.[117] White stones are used as symbols of the Qiang gods.[117]

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 is still practiced by some Manchu people, while most of them are either Buddhist, practitioners of Chinese religion, or non-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[edit]


Church of the Holy Family (Catholic) in Wuhan, Hubei.
Puqian Church (Protestant) in Fuzhou, Fujian.
The Lord's Prayer in Classical Chinese, 1889.

Christianity (Chinese: 基督教; pinyin: Jīdūjiào; literally "Religion of Christ") in China comprises Protestants (Chinese: 新教; pinyin: Xīnjiào; literally "New Religion"), Catholics (Chinese: 天主教; pinyin: Tiānzhǔjiào; literally "Religion of the Lord of Heaven"), and a small number of Orthodox Christians. Christianity has been a growing minority religion for over 200 years.[118] Growth has been more significant since the loosening of restrictions on religion after the 1970s within the People's Republic. Religious practices are still often tightly controlled by government authorities. Currently, Chinese over age 18 in the PRC are permitted to be involved with officially sanctioned Christian meetings through the "Three-Self Patriotic Movement" or the "Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association".[119] Many Chinese Christians who want to avoid the state-controlled religious movements meet in unregistered house churches – "risking fines, imprisonment, torture, and even, in some cases, death."[120]

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 Chinese Empire 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 Dynasty 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,[121] 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,[122] and the unjust treatment of maidservants, as well as launching charitable work and distributing food to the poor. They also opposed the opium trade[118] 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, feeding the growth of Christianity in the city.[123]


Machang Mosque in Linxia, 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 (called 伊斯兰教, Yisilanjiao or 回教 Huijiao) traditionally dates to a diplomatic mission in 651, eighteen years after Muhammad's death, led by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas.[124] The Gaozong Emperor is said to have showed esteem for Islam and established the Huaisheng Mosque, or Memorial Mosque, in memory of the Prophet.[124][125]

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.[124][126] Immigration increased when hundreds of thousands of Muslims were relocated to help administer China during the Yuan Dynasty.[127] A Muslim, Yeheidie'erding, led the construction of the Yuan capital of Khanbaliq, in present-day Beijing.[128]

During the Ming Dynasty, Muslims continued their influence on government. 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 immigrats 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,[126] also saw Nanjing become an important center of Islamic study.[129]

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, Shensi and Gansu, from 1862 to 1877. The Manchu government ordered the execution of all rebels killing a million people in the Panthay rebellion,[128][page needed] several million in the Dungan revolt[128] 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 Dynasty, 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.[130][131]

Today Islam is experiencing a revival. There is an upsurge in Islamic expression and many nation-wide Islamic associations have organized to co-ordinate inter-ethnic activities among Muslims. Muslims are found in every province in China. Of China's 55 officially recognized minorities, ten groups are predominately Muslim. Accurate statistics on China's current Muslim population are hard to find; the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) states there are more than 21 million Muslims in the country (1.5%–2% of the total population). According to SARA there are approximately 36,000 Islamic places of worship, more than 45,000 imams, and 10 Islamic schools in the country.[132][133][134][135][136][137] In 2006 a record number of Chinese traveled to Mecca for the hajj, up 40 percent from the previous year.[138]


Judaism (called 犹太教, Youtaijiao in Chinese) was introduced during the Tang Dynasty (between the 7th and the 10th centuries) 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 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).[139]

Shanghai was particularly notable for its volume of 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).[140]

New religions[edit]

Han Dynasty era fragments representing Qigong practices.

A great diversity of new religious movements are thriving across China.[141] The majority are indigenous, stemming from the cadre of Chinese folk religion and Taoism, and some were already active before the communist revolution in 1949 and are being re-introduced from Taiwan. This group of religions includes Yiguandao,[142][143] Zailiism,[20] and other Xiantiandao sects, Yaochidao, Jiugongdao and the more recent De Religion[144] and the movement of Tiandism,[145] focused on the worship of Tian. Also, many Qigong schools may rely on the worldview of the Chinese folk religion: Falun Gong, Zhong Gong, Yuanji Gong and Wang Gong. Another movement, Weixinism, promoting orthodox Chinese culture, has reached an accord with local governmental institutions.

Some small movements are distinctively Christian-inspired; among them: Zhushenism, Linglingism, Fuhuodao, Mentuhui and Lightning from the East.[146][147]


Xiantiandao (Chinese: 先天道; pinyin: Xiāntiān Dào; literally "Way of the Original Heaven, Way of the Origin"), also simply Tiandao (Chinese: 天道; pinyin: Tiāndào; literally "Way of the Heaven"), encompasses a group of religions of Chinese origin which trace their lineage back to the White Lotus movement in past centuries. They share a common background in Han Chinese Shenism (folk religion) and Taoism, but show themes and perspectives from Gnostic-Christian and Buddhist traditions.


Weixinism (Chinese: 唯心聖教; pinyin: Wéixīn shèngjiào; literally "Holy Religion of the Only Heart" or simply 心聖教 Wéixīnjiào) is a religion primarily based on the "orthodox lineages of Yijing and Feng Shui",[148] the Hundred Schools of Thought,[149] and worship of the "three great ancestors" (Huangdi, Yandi and Chiyou).[150] The movement promotes the restoration of the authentic roots of the Chinese civilization and Chinese reunification.[151]

The Weixinist church, which was founded and headquartered in Taiwan, is active in 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),[152] and it has also built temples in Hebei.[153]

Other religions[edit]


The Buddha of Light (Mani) carved from the living rock at Cao'an Temple (now Buddhist), in Jinjiang, Fujian.
A Manichaean inscription, dated 1445, at Cao'an Temple. (Modern replica).[154]

Manichaeism (called 摩尼教, Monijiao), an Iranian religion, entered China between the 6th and 8th centuries due to contacts between the Tang Dynasty and states of Central Asia, particularly Tokharistan.[155] In 731, a Manichaean priest was asked by the Chinese Emperor to realize a summary of the religion's teachings. He wrote the Compendium of the Teachings of Mani the Buddha of Light. The Tang government approved Manichaeism to be practiced by foreigners but prohibited preaching among Chinese people.[155]

A turning point occurred in 762 with the conversion of Bogu Khan of the Uyghurs.[155] 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 Manichaeism to spread in China. Manichaean temples were established in the two capitals, Chang'an and Luoyang, as well as in several other cities in the Northern and Central China.[155]

The decay of Uyghur power in 840 brought the closure of many Manichaean institutions.[155] Emperor Wuzong of Tang started the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, which was not exclusively against Buddhism but extended to all foreign religions. The religion was severely suppressed, but didn't die out. During the period of the Five Dynasties, it re-emerged as a popular underground phenomenon, particularly in Southern China.[155]

In 1120, a rebellion led by Fang Xi was believed to be caused by adherents of underground religious communities, whose meeting places were said to host political protests. This event brought crackdowns of unauthorized religious congregations and destruction of scriptures. In 1280, the Mongol rule gave a century of freedom to Manichaeism,[155] but, in 1368, the Ming Dynasty started new persecutions.[155] The religion gradually collapsed, eventually dying out during the following centuries.


There was a small Hindu community in China, mostly situated in southeastern China. A late 13th-century bilingual Tamil and Chinese-language inscription has been found associated with the remains of a Shiva temple in Quanzhou. This was one of possibly two south Indian-style Hindu temples that were built in the southeastern sector of the old port, where the foreign traders' enclave was formerly located. Presently there are temples of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in China.


Zoroastrianism (called 琐罗亚斯德教, Suoluoyasidejiao, or 祆教, Xianjiao) expanded in Northern China during the 6th century via the Silk Road. It gained the status of an official religion in some Chinese regions. Zoroastrian fire temples have been found in Kaifeng and Zhenjiang. According to some scholars, they remained active until the 12th century, when the religion started to fade from the Chinese landscape.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ These two statistics exclude those who belong to one of the five official religions.


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]