Prior to the formation of Chinese civilisation and the spread of world religions in the region known today as East Asia (which includes the territorial boundaries of modern-day China), local tribes shared animistic, shamanic and totemic worldviews. Mediatory individuals such as shamans communicated prayers, sacrifices or offerings directly to the spiritual world, a heritage that survives in some modern forms of Chinese religion.
Ancient shamanism is especially connected to ancient Neolithic cultures such as the Hongshan culture. The Flemish philosopher Ulrich Libbrecht traces the origins of some features of Taoism to what Jan Jakob Maria de Groot called "Wuism", or Chinese shamanism.
Libbrecht distinguishes two layers in the development of the Chinese theology and religion that continues to this day, traditions derived respectively from the Shang (1600-1046 BCE) and subsequent Zhou dynasties (1046-256 BCE). The religion of the Shang was based on veneration of the ancestors, who survived as unseen divine forces after death. They were not transcendental "gods" as seen in some parts of the world, but exalted human beings. The universe was "by itself so", not created by a force outside of it but had always existed, governed by internal rhythms and cosmic powers. The royal ancestors were called di (帝), "deities", and the greatest of them was Shangdi (上帝 "Highest Deity"). Shangdi is identified with the dragon, symbol of the universal power (qi) in its yang (engendering) aspect. Already in Shang theology, the multiplicity of gods of nature and ancestors were viewed as parts of Di, and the four 方 fāng ("directions" or "sides") and their 風 fēng ("winds") as his cosmic will.
The Zhou dynasty, which overthrew the Shang, was more rooted in an agricultural worldview. With them, gods of nature became dominant. Their supreme god was Tian (天 "Heaven"). The Shang dynasty's identification of Shangdi as their ancestor-god had asserted their claim to power by divine right; the Zhou transformed this claim into a legitimacy based on moral power, which they saw as (the Mandate of Heaven). In Zhou theology, Tian had no earthly progeny, but bestowed divine favour on virtuous rulers. Zhou kings declared that their victory over the Shang was because they were virtuous and loved their people, while the Shang were tyrants and thus were deprived of power by Tian.
John C. Didier and David Pankenier relate the shapes of both the Ancient Chinese characters Di and Tian to the patterns of stars in the northern skies, either in Didier's theory, to the constellations bracketing the celestial pole, or, in Pankenier's theory to the celestial pole itself and the circumpolar stars that form the Big Dipper and broader Ursa Major, and Ursa Minor. Cultures in other parts of the world have also conceived these stars or constellations as symbols of the origin of things, or the godhead.
By the 6th century BCE the power of Tian and the symbols that represented it on earth (architecture of cities, temples, altars and ritual cauldrons, and the Zhou ritual system) became "diffuse" and claimed by different potentates in the Zhou states to legitimise economic, political, and military ambitions. Divine right no longer was an exclusive privilege of the Zhou royal house, but could be bought by anyone could afford the elaborate ceremonies and the old and new rites required to access the authority of Tian.
Besides the waning Zhou ritual system, what can be defined as "wild" (野 yě) traditions, or traditions "outside of the official system", developed as attempts to access the will of Tian. The population had lost faith in the official tradition, which was no longer perceived as an effective way to communicate with Heaven. The traditions of the 九野 ("Nine Fields") and of the Yijing flourished. Chinese thinkers, faced with this challenge to legitimacy, diverged in a "Hundred Schools of Thought", each proposing its own theories for the reconstruction of the Zhou moral order.
Confucius (551-479 BCE) appeared in this period of political decadence and spiritual questioning. He was educated in Shang-Zhou theology, which he contributed to transmit and reformulate giving centrality to self-cultivation and agency of humans, and the educational power of the self-established individual in assisting others to establish themselves (the principle of 愛人 àirén, "loving others"). During the 6th century BCE, traditional Chinese values began to deteriorate as the Zhou reign was collapsing, resulting in a period of moral decline. Confucius saw an opportunity to reinforce values of compassion and tradition into society. Deluded with the widespread vulgarisation of the rituals to access Tian, he began to preach an ethical interpretation of traditional Zhou religion. In his view, the power of Tian is immanent, and responds positively to the sincere heart driven by humaneness and rightness, decency and altruism. Confucius conceived these qualities as the foundation needed to restore socio-political harmony. Like many contemporaries, Confucius saw ritual practices as efficacious ways to access Tian, but he thought that the crucial knot was the state of meditation that participants enter prior to engage in the ritual acts. Confucius amended and recodified the classical books inherited from the Xia-Shang-Zhou dynasties, and composed the Spring and Autumn Annals.
Warring States period's philosophers, both "inside the square" (focused on state-endorsed ritual) and "outside the square" (non-aligned to state ritual) built upon Confucius' legacy, compiled in the Analects, the classical metaphysics which became the lash of Confucianism. In accordance with the Master, they identified mental tranquility as the state of Tian, or the One (一 Yī), which in each individual is the Heaven-bestowed divine power to rule one's own life and the world. Going beyond the Master, they theorised the oneness of production and reabsorption into the cosmic source, and the possibility to understand and therefore reattain it through meditation. This line of thought would have influenced all Chinese individual and collective-political mystical theories and practices thereafter.
Zhou Youguang writes (2012) that Confucianism's name in Chinese, 儒 Rú, originally referred to shamanic methods of holding rites and existed before Confucius' times, but with Confucius it came to mean devotion to propagating such teachings to bring civilisation to the people. Confucianism was initiated by Confucius, developed by Mencius (~372-289 BCE) and inherited by later generations, undergoing constant transformations and restructuring since its establishment, but preserving the principles of humaneness and righteousness at its core.
The Qin (221–206 BCE), and especially Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), inherited the philosophical developments of the Warring States period molding them into a universalistic philosophy, cosmology and religion. It was in this period that religious focus shifted to the Earth (地 Dì), regarded as representative of Heaven's (celestial pole's) power. In the Han period the philosophical concern was especially the crucial role of the human being on earth, completing the cosmological trinity of Heaven-Earth-Humanity (天地人 Tiāndìrén). Han philosophers conceived the immanent virtue of Tian as working through earth and humanity to complete the 宇宙 yǔzhòu ("space-time").
The short-lived Qin dynasty, started by Qin Shi Huang (247-220 BCE), who reunified the Warring States and was the first Chinese ruler to use the title of "emperor", chose Legalism as the state ideology, banning and persecuting all other schools of thought. Confucianism was harshly suppressed, with the burning of Confucian classics and killing of scholars who espoused the Confucian cause. State ritual of the Qin was indeed similar to the following Han ritual. Qin Shi Huang personally held sacrifices to Di at Mount Tai, a site dedicated to the worship of the supreme God since pre-Xia times, and in the suburbs of the capital Xianyang. The emperors of Qin also concentrated the cults of the five forms of God, previously only held at dislocated places, in unified temple complexes.
The universal religion of the Han, which became connected at an early time with Huang–Lao, was centred on the idea of the incarnation of God as the Yellow Emperor. The idea of the incarnation of God was not new; as we have seen the Shang royal lineage regarded themselves as divine. Their progenitors were "sons of God", born by women who "stepped on the imprinting" of Di. This was also true for royal ancestors of the early Zhou dynasty. The difference rests in the fact that the Yellow Emperor was no longer an exclusive ancestor of some royal lineage, but rather a more universal archetype of the human being. Both Confucians and the fāngshì (方士 "masters of directions"), regarded as representatives of the ancient religious tradition inherited from previous dynasties, concurred in the formulation of the Han state religion. Besides these developments of common Chinese and state religion, the latter Han dynasty was characterised by new religious phenomena: the emergence of Taoism outside state orthodoxy, the rise of indigenous millenarian religious movements, and the introduction of the foreign religion of Buddhism.
By the Han dynasty, the universal God of early Shang-Zhou theology had found new expression by the names of Tàiyǐ (太乙 "Great Oneness"), "Supreme Oneness of the Central Yellow" (中黄太乙 Zhōnghuáng Tàiyǐ), or the "Yellow God of the Northern Dipper (i.e. Ursa Major)" (黄神北斗 Huángshén Běidǒu), other than by names inherited from the previous tradition. Although the name "Taiyi" became prominent in the Han, it harkens back to the Warring States, as attested in the poem The Supreme Oneness Gives Birth to Water, and possibly to the Shang dynasty as Dàyī (大一 "Big Oneness"), an alternative name for Shangs' (and universe's) greatest ancestor. Han theology focalised on the Yellow Emperor, a culture hero and creator of civility, who, according to a definition in apocryphal texts related to the Hétú 河圖, "proceeds from the essence of the Yellow God".
In the myth, the Yellow Emperor was conceived by a virgin mother, Fubao, who was impregnated by Taiyi's radiance (yuanqi, "primordial pneuma") from the Big Dipper after she gazed at it. By his human side, he was a descendant of 有熊氏 Yǒuxióng, the lineage of the Bear (another reference to the Ursa Major). Didier has studied the parallels that the Yellow Emperor's mythology has in other cultures, deducting a plausible ancient origin of the myth in Siberia or in north Asia.
In latter Han dynasty's Sima Qian's codification of the cosmology of the five forms of God (五方上帝 Wǔfāng Shàngdì) it is important the portrait of the Yellow Emperor as the grandfather of Black Emperor (黑帝 Hēidì) of the north who personifies as well the pole stars, and as the tamer of the Flaming Emperor (炎帝 Yándì, otherwise known as the "Red Emperor"), his half-brother, who is the spirit of the southern Chinese populations known collectively as Chu in the Zhou dynasty.
Emperor Wu of Han (142-87 BCE), under the influence of the scholar Dong Zhongshu (who incorporated into Confucianism the man-focused developments of the common religion, formulating the doctrine of the Interactions Between Heaven and Mankind), reinstituted Confucian state sacrifices to Taiyi or the Yellow God and his four cosmic faces inherited from Shang-Zhou cosmology, and outside state religion the Yellow God was the central focus of Huang-Lao religious movements which influenced the primitive Taoist Church. Before the Confucian turn of Emperor Wu and after him, early and latter Han dynasty had Huang-Lao as the state doctrine under various emperors; in Huang-Lao the philosopher-god Laozi was identified as the Yellow Emperor and received imperial sacrifices, for instance by Emperor Huan (146-168).
The latter Han dynasty (25-220 CE) struggled with both internal instability and menace by non-Chinese peoples from the outer edges of the empire. Prospects for a better personal life and salvation appealed to the masses who were periodically hit by natural disasters and galvanised by uprisings organised by self-proclaimed "kings" and "heirs". In such harsh conditions, while the imperial cult continued the sacrifices to the cosmological gods, the common people estranged from the rationalism of the state religion found solace in enlightened masters and in reviving and perpetuating more or less abandoned cults of national, regional and local divinities which better represented indigenous identities. The Han state religion itself was "ethnicised" by associating the cosmological deities to regional populations.
By the end of the dynasty (206 BCE-8 CE) the earliest record of a mass religious movement is the excitement provoked by the belief in the imminent advent of the Queen Mother of the West (西王母 Xīwángmǔ) in the northeastern provinces (then Henan, Hebei and Shandong) in the first half of the year 3 BCE. Though the soteriological movement included improper and possibly reprehensive collective behavior, it was not crushed by the government. Indeed, from the elites' point of view, the movement was connected to a series of abnormal cosmic phenomena seen as characteristic of an excess of 阴 yīn (femininity, sinister, reabsorption of the order of nature).
Between 184 and 205 CE, the Way of the Supreme Peace (太平道 Tàipíngdào) in the Central Plain, the earliest attested popular Taoist religious-military movement led by members of the Zhang lineage, prominently Zhang Jue and Zhang Liu, among other families' leaders, organised the so-called Yellow Turban Rebellion against the Han dynasty. Later Taoist religious movements flourished in the Han state of Shu (modern Sichuan). A 巫 wū (shaman) of the Supreme Peace named Zhang Xiu was known to have led a group of followers from Shu into the uprising of the year 184. In 191 he reappeared as a military official in the province, together with the apparently unrelated Zhang Lu. During a military mission in Hanning (modern southwest Shaanxi), Xiu either died in battle or was killed by Lu himself, who incorporated Xiu's followers and seized the city, which he renamed Hanzhong. A characteristic of the territory governed by Lu was its significant non-Chinese population. Between 143 and 198, starting with the grandfather Zhang Daoling and culminating with Zhang Lu, the Zhang lineage had been organising the territory into dioceses or parishes, establishing a Taoist theocracy, the early Celestial Masters' Church (in Chinese variously called 五斗米道 Wǔdǒumǐdào, "Way of the Five Pecks of Rice", and later 天师道 Tiānshīdào, "Way of the Celestial Masters", or 正一道 Zhèngyīdào, "Way of the Orthodox Unity"). Zhang Lu died in 216 or 217, and between 215 and 219 the people of Hanzhong were gradually dispersed northwards, implanting Celestial Masters' Taoism in other parts of the empire.
Buddhism was introduced during the latter Han dynasty, and first mentioned in 65 CE. Liu Ying, a half brother of Emperor Ming of Han (57-75 CE) was one of the earliest Chinese adherents, at a time when the imported religion interacted with Huang-Lao proto-Taoism. China's earliest known Buddhist temple, the White Horse Temple, was established outside the walls of the capital Luoyang during Emperor Ming's reign.
Buddhism entered China via the Silk Road, transmitted by the Buddhist populations who inhabited the Western Regions (modern Xinjiang), then Indo-Europeans (predominantly Tocharians and Saka). It began to grow to become a significant influence in China proper only after the fall of the Han dynasty, in the period of political division. When Buddhism had become an established religion it began to compete with Chinese indigenous religion and Taoist movements, deprecatorily designated as Ways of Demons (鬼道 Guǐdào) in Buddhist polemical literature.
After the fall of the Han dynasty started a period of disunity defined as the "Six Dynasties". After the first stage of the Three Kingdoms (220-280), China was partially unified under the Jin dynasty (265-420), while much of the north was governed by sixteen independent states. The fall of the Han capital Luoyang to the Xiongnu in 311 led the royal court and Celestial Masters' clerics to migrate southwards. Jiangnan became the epicenter of the "southern tradition" of Celestial Masters' Taoism, which developed characteristic features, among which a meditation technique known as "guarding the One" (shouyi), that is visualising the unity God in the human organism.
Representatives of Jiangnan's indigenous religions responded to the spread of Celestial Masters' Taoism by reformulating their own traditions according to the imported religion. This led to the foundation of two new Taoist schools, with their own scriptural and ritual bodies: Shangqing Taoism (上清派 Shàngqīngpài, "Highest Clarity school"), based on revelations that occurred between 364 and 370 in modern-day Nanjing, and Lingbao Taoism (灵宝派 Língbǎopài, "Numinous Gem school"), based on revelations of the years between 397 and 402 and recodified later by Lu Xiujing (406-77). Lingbao incorporated from Buddhism concepts of "universal salvation", ranked "heavens" and focused on communal rituals.
Buddhism brought a model of afterlife to Chinese people and had a deep influence on Chinese culture. The story Mulian Rescues His Mother, for instance, is a parable dated back to the 3rd century, which adapts an originally Buddhist fable to show Confucian values of filial piety. In it, a virtuous monk descends into hell to rescue his mother, who had been condemned for her transgressions.
In the Tang dynasty (618-907) the concept of "Tian" became more common at the expense of "Di", continuing a tendency that started in the Han dynasty. Both also expanded their meanings, with "di" now more frequently used as suffix of a deity's name rather than to refer to the supreme power. "Tian", besides, became more associated to its meaning of "Heaven" as a paradise or the hierarchy of physical skies. The proliferation of foreign religions in the Tang, especially Buddhist sects, entailed that each of them conceived their own ideal "Heaven". "Tian" itself started to be used, linguistically, as an affix in composite names to mean "heavenly" or "divine". This was also the case in the Buddhist context, with many monasteries' names containing this element.
Under the influence of foreign cultures and thought systems, new concepts to refer to the supreme God were formulated, such as Tiānzhōngtiān (天中天 "God of the Gods"), seemingly introduced by Yuezhi Buddhist missionaries to render the Sanskrit Devātideva (of the same meaning) or Bhagavān from their Iranian sources.
Both Buddhism and Taoism developed hierarchical pantheons that merged metaphysical (celestial) and physical (terrestrial) being, blurring the edge between the human and the divine, which reinforced the religious belief that gods and devotees sustain one another.
The principle of reciprocity between the human and the divine that was strengthened during the Tang dynasty, led to changes in the pantheon that reflected changes in the society. The late Tang dynasty saw the spread of the cult of the City Gods in direct bond to the development of the cities as centres of commerce and the rise in influence of the class of merchants. Commercial travel opened China to influences from foreign cultures.
The City God is a protector of the boundaries of a city and of its internal affairs, such as commerce and elections of politicians. In each city, the respective City God is embodied by one or more historical personages, native of the city itself, who distinguished themselves by extraordinary attainments. Scholar Valerie Hansen argues that the City God is not a homegrown cult, but has its prototype in the Indian Vaiśravaṇa as a guardian deity.
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 veneration into the religious doctrine they taught in China.
Chinese traditional religions were exposed to waves of persecution already in the 19th century, during the rule of the Qing dynasty. Many folk religious and institutional religious temples were destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Rebellion in the late 1800s. The former was organised by Christian movements which established a separate state against the Qing dynasty, while the latter rebellion was started by indigenous Chinese movements against the influence of Western culture and colonialism. In the Christian-inspired Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, official policies pursued the elimination of Chinese religions to substitute them with forms of Christianity. In this effort, the libraries of the Buddhist monasteries were destroyed, almost completely in the Yangtze River Delta.
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, as at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, where prayers for the harvest were offered. Tibetan Buddhists recognised the Dalai Lama as their spiritual and temporal leader. Popular cults were regulated by imperial government policies, promoting certain deities while suppressing others. During the anti-foreign and anti-Christian Boxer Uprising of 1900, thousands of Chinese Christians and foreign missionaries were killed, but in the aftermath of the retaliatory invasion, numbers of reform-minded Chinese turned to Christianity. Between 1898 and 1904 the imperial government issued a measure to "build schools with temple property" (庙产兴学 miàochǎn xīngxué).
After the Revolution of 1911, with increasing urbanisation and Western influence, the issue for the new intellectual class was no longer worship of heterodox gods, but the delegitimisation of religion, especially folk religion, as an obstacle to modernisation. Leaders of the New Culture Movement (1916-1923) debated whether religion was cosmopolitan spirituality or irrational superstition, but the Anti-Christian Movement of 1923 was part of a rejection of Christianity as imperialistic and Buddhism as feudal superstition.
The Nationalist Party government of the Republic of China (1912–49) intensified the suppression of local religion. Temples were widely appropriated, destroyed, or used for schools. The 1928 "Standards for retaining or abolishing gods and shrines" formally abolished all cults of gods with the exception of human heroes such as Yu the Great, Guan Yu and Confucius. Sun Yat-sen, however, the first president of the Republic of China, and his successor, Chiang Kai-shek, were both Christians. During the Japanese invasion of China between 1937 and 1945 many temples were used as barracks by soldiers and destroyed in warfare.
The People's Republic of China, established in 1949 under the leadership of Mao Zedong, established a policy of state atheism. Initially, the new government did not suppress religious practice, but, like its dynastic ancestors, viewed popular religious movements, especially in the countryside, as possibly seditious. The government condemned religious organisations, labeling them as superstitious. Religions that were deemed "appropriate" and given freedom were those that entailed the ancestral tradition of consolidated state rule. In addition, Marxism viewed religion as feudal. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement institutionalised Protestant Churches in official organizations that renounced foreign funding and foreign control as imperialist. Chinese Catholics resisted the new government's move toward state control and independence of the Vatican. The Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) included a systematic effort to destroy religion. The historian Arthur Waldron adds, however, that "communism was, in effect, a religion for its early Chinese converts: more than a sociological analysis, it was a revelation and a prophecy that engaged their entire beings and was expounded in sacred texts, many imported from Moscow and often printed in English".
The radical policy relaxed considerably in the late 1970s. Since 1978, the Constitution of the People's Republic of China guarantees "freedom of religion". Its article 36 states that:
Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.
For several decades, the party acquiesced or even encouraged a religious revival. Most Chinese were allowed to worship as they felt best, even in churches, mosques, and temples. Although groups such as the Falungong were banned, local authorities were likely to follow a hands-off policy toward underground House churches. In the late 20th century there was a reactivation of the state cults devoted to the Yellow Emperor and the Red Emperor. In the early 2000s, the Chinese government became open especially to traditional religions such as Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and folk religion, emphasizing the role of religion in building a "Harmonious Society" (hexie shehui), a Confucian idea. China hosted religious meetings and conferences including the first World Buddhist Forum in 2006 and the subsequent World Buddhist Forums, a number of international Taoist meetings and local conferences on folk religions. Aligning with anthropologists' discourse about the importance of "culture", the government considers these religions as integral expressions of national "Chinese culture".
A turning point was reached in 2005, when folk religious cults began to be protected and promoted under the policies of intangible cultural heritage. Not only were traditions that had been interrupted for decades being resumed, but ceremonies forgotten for centuries were being reinvented. The annual worship of the god Cáncóng of ancient state of Shu, for instance, was resumed at a ceremonial complex near the Sanxingdui archaeological site in Sichuan.
In late 2013, however, a change in policy emerged, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, expressed hope that "traditional cultures" might fill a "moral void" and fight corruption. But in 2014, the government began a policy that restricted Christian churches by enforcing building codes, removing crosses from church steeples, and even tearing down church buildings. At least one prominent pastor who protested was arrested on charges of misusing church funds. A lawyer who had counselled these churches appeared on state television to confess that he had been in collusion with American organizations to incite local Christians.
At a conference on religions held in Beijing in April 2016, President Xi promised to "fully implement the Party's policy of religious freedom,“ but continued that religious groups “must adhere to the leadership of the CPC, and support the socialist system and socialism with Chinese characteristics.” He called upon them to "merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture,” and urged that "We must resolutely guard against overseas infiltrations via religious means and prevent ideological infringement by extremists."
André Laliberté notes that despite there having been much talk about "persecution against religion (especially Christianity) in China", one should not jump to hasty conclusions, since "a large proportion of the population worship, pray, perform rituals and hold certain beliefs with the full support of the Party. Most of this activity affects people who subscribe to world views that are sometimes formally acknowledged by the state and are institutionalised, or others that are tacitly approved as customs". In this context, Christianity not only represents a small proportion of the population, but its adherents are still seen by the majority who observe traditional rituals as followers of a foreign religion that sets them apart from the body of society.
The varieties of Chinese religion are spread across the map of China in different degrees. Southern provinces have experienced the most evident revival of Chinese folk religion, although it is present all over China in a great variety of forms, intertwined with Taoism, fashi orders, Confucianism, Nuo rituals, shamanism and other religious currents. Quanzhen Taoism is mostly present in the north, while Sichuan is the area where Tianshi Taoism developed and the early Celestial Masters had their main seat. Along the southeastern coast, ritual functions of the folk religion are reportedly dominated by Taoism, both in registered and unregistered forms (Zhengyi Taoism and unrecognised fashi orders), which since the 1990s has developed quickly in the area.
Many scholars see "north China folk religion" as distinct from practices in the south. The folk religion of southern and southeastern provinces is primarily focused on the lineages and their churches (zōngzú xiéhuì 宗族协会) focusing on ancestral gods. The folk religion of central-northern China (North China Plain) predominantly hinges on the communal worship of tutelary deities of creation and nature as identity symbols by villages populated by families of different surnames, structured into "communities of the god(s)" (shénshè 神社, or huì 会, "association"), which organise temple ceremonies (miaohui 庙会), involving processions and pilgrimages, and led by indigenous ritual masters (fashi) who are often hereditary and linked to secular authority. Northern and southern folk religions also have a different pantheon, of which the northern one is composed of more ancient gods of Chinese mythology.
Folk religious sects have historically been more successful in the central plains and in the northeastern provinces than in southern China, and central-northern folk religion shares characteristics of some of the sects, such as the heavy importance of mother goddess worship and shamanism, as well as their scriptural transmission. Confucian churches as well have historically found much resonance among the population of the northeast; in the 1930s the Universal Church of the Way and its Virtue alone aggregated at least 25% of the population of the state of Manchuria and contemporary Shandong has been analysed as an area of rapid growth of folk Confucian groups.
Goossaert talks of this distinction, although recognising it as an oversimplification, of a "Taoist south" and a "village-religion/Confucian centre-north", with the northern context also characterised by important orders of "folk Taoist" ritual masters, one of which are the 阴阳生 yīnyángshēng, and sectarian traditions, and also by a low influence of Buddhism and official Taoism.
The folk religion of northeast China (Manchuria) has unique characteristics deriving from the interaction of Han religion with Tungus and Manchu shamanisms; these include chūmǎxiān (出马仙 "riding for the immortals") shamanism, the worship of Fox Gods and other zoomorphic deities, and the Great Lord of the Three Foxes (胡三太爷 Húsān Tàiyé) and the Great Lady of the Three Foxes (胡三太奶 Húsān Tàinǎi) usually positioned at the head of pantheons. Otherwise, in the religious context of Inner Mongolia there has been a significant integration of Han Chinese into the traditional folk religion of the region.
Across China in recent years Han religion has adopted deities from Tibetan folk religion, especially wealth gods. In Tibet, across broader western China, and in Inner Mongolia, there has been a growth of the cult of Gesar with the explicit support of the Chinese government, Gesar being a cross-ethnic Han-Tibetan, Mongol and Manchu deity (the Han identify him as an aspect of the god of war analogically with Guandi) and culture hero whose mythology is embodied as a culturally important epic poem.
The Han Chinese schools of Buddhism are mostly distributed in the eastern part of the country. On the other hand, Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion in Tibet, and significantly present in other westernmost provinces where ethnic Tibetans constitute a significant part of the population, and has a strong influence in Inner Mongolia in the north. The Tibetan tradition is also having a growing influence among the Han Chinese.
Christians are especially concentrated in the three provinces of Henan, Anhui and Zhejiang. The latter two provinces were in the area affected by the Taiping event, and Zhejiang along with Henan were hubs of the intense Protestant missionary activity in the 19th and early 20th century.
Islam is the majority religion in areas inhabited by the Hui Muslims, particularly the province of Ningxia, and in the province of Xinjiang which is inhabited by the Uyghurs. Many ethnic minority groups in China follow their own traditional ethnic religions: Benzhuism of the Bai, Bimoism of the Yi, Bön of the Tibetans, Dongbaism of the Nakhi, Miao folk religion, Qiang folk religion, Yao folk religion, Zhuang folk religion, Mongolian shamanism or Tengerism, and Manchu shamanism among Manchus.
Counting the number of religious people anywhere is hard; counting them in China is even harder. Low response rates, non-random samples, and adverse political and cultural climates are persistent problems. One scholar concludes that statistics on religious believers in China "cannot be accurate in a real scientific sense", since definitions of "religion" exclude people who do not see themselves as members of a religious organization but are still "religious" in their daily actions and fundamental beliefs. The forms of Chinese religious expression tend to be syncretic and following one religion does not necessarily mean the rejection or denial of others.
Few people call themselves "Taoists" because to most Chinese, Taoism is the same as the Chinese folk religion. Traditionally, the Chinese language has not included a term for a lay follower of Taoism, since the concept of being "Taoist" in this sense is a new word that derives from the Western concept of "religion" as membership in a church institution.
Analysing Chinese traditional religions is further complicated by discrepancies between the terminologies used in Chinese and Western languages. While in the English current usage "folk religion" means broadly all forms of common cults of gods and ancestors, in Chinese usage and in academia these cults have not had an overarching name. By "folk religion" (民間宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào) or "folk beliefs" (民間信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng) Chinese scholars have usually meant organised sects originating from the common religion. Furthermore, in the 1990s some of these organised sects began to register as branches of the official Taoist Association and therefore to fall under the label of "Taoism". "Folk beliefs" is sometimes used to define the common cults by contemporary scholars, but it is only an academic term and it entered into usage at first among Taiwanese scholars from Japanese language during Japan's occupation (1895–1945), and later between the 1990s and the early 21st century among mainland Chinese scholars. In order to address this terminological confusion, some Chinese intellectuals have proposed recognition and legal management of the indigenous religion by the state and to adopt the label "Chinese native (or indigenous) religion" (民俗宗教 mínsú zōngjiào) or "Chinese ethnic religion" (民族宗教 mínzú zōngjiào), or other names.According to the results of an official census provided in 1995 by the Information Office of the State Council of China, at that time the Chinese traditional religions were already popular among nearly 1 billion people.
2005: a survey of the religiosity of urban Chinese from the five cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Nantong, Wuhan and Baoding, conducted by professor Xinzhong Yao, found that only 5.3% of the analysed population belonged to religious organisations, while 51.8% were non religious, in that they did not belong to any religious association. Nevertheless, 23.8% of the population regularly worshipped gods and venerated ancestors, 23.1% worshipped Buddha or identified themselves as Buddhists, up to 38.5% had beliefs and practices associated with the folk religions such as feng shui or belief in celestial powers, and only 32.9% were convinced atheists.
Three surveys conducted respectively in 2005, 2006 and 2007 by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group on a disproportionately urban and suburban sampling, found that Buddhists constituted between 11% and 16% of the total population, Christians were between 2% and 4%, and Muslims approximately 1%. The surveys also found that ~60% of the population believed in concepts such as fate and fortune associated to the folk religion.
2007: a survey conducted by the East China Normal University taking into account people from different regions of China, concluded that there were approximately 300 million religious believers (≈31% of the total population), of whom the vast majority ascribable to Buddhism, Taoism and folk religions. Some scholars considered this number an underestimate, given possible higher numbers for the Chinese folk religion alone.
2008: a survey conducted in that year by Yu Tao of the University of Oxford with a survey scheme led and supervised by the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy and the Peking University, analysing the rural populations of the six provinces of Jiangsu, Sichuan, Shaanxi, Jilin, Hebei and Fujian, each representing different geographic and economic regions of China, found that followers of the Chinese folk religions were 31.9% of the analysed population, Buddhists were 10.85%, Christians were 3.93% of which 3.54% Protestants and 0.39% Catholics, and Taoists were 0.71%. The remaining 53.41% of the population claimed to be not religious.
2010: the Chinese Spiritual Life Survey directed by the Purdue University's Center on Religion and Chinese Society concluded that many types of Chinese folk religions and Taoism are practiced by possibly hundreds of millions of people; 56.2% of the total population or 754 million people practiced Chinese ancestral religion, but only 16% claiming to "believe in the existence" of the ancestor; 12.9% or 173 million practiced Taoism on a level indistinguishable from the folk religion; 0.9% or 12 million people identified exclusively as Taoists; 13.8% or 185 million identified as Buddhists, of which 1.3% or 17.3 million had received formal initiation; 2.4% or 33 million identified as Christians, of which 2.2% or 30 million as Protestants (of which only 38% baptised in the official churches) and 0.02% or 3 million as Catholics; and an additional 1.7% or 23 million were Muslims.
2012: the Chinese Family Panel Studies (CFPS) institute conducted a survey of 25 of the provinces of China. The provinces surveyed had a Han majority, and did not include the autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang, and of Hong Kong and Macau. The survey found only ~10% of the population belonging to organised religions; specifically, 6.75% were Buddhists, 2.4% were Christians (of which 1.89% Protestants and 0.41% Catholics), 0.54% were Taoists, 0.46% were Muslims, and 0.40% declared to belong to other religions. Although ~90% of the population declared that they did not belong to any religion, the survey estimated (according to a 1992 figure) that only 6.3% were atheists while the remaining 81% (≈1 billion people) prayed to or worshipped gods and ancestors in the manner of the folk religion. The results also provided detailed demographics of religions in the five selected regions of Shanghai, Liaoning, Henan, Gansu and Guangdong.
Four surveys conducted respectively in the years 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011 as part of the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) of the Renmin University of China found an average 6.2% of the Chinese identifying as Buddhists, 2.3% as Christians (of which 2% Protestants and 0.3% Catholics), 2.2% as members of folk religious sects, 1.7% as Muslims, and 0.2% as Taoists.
2012-2014: analyses published in a study of Fenggang Yang and Anning Hu found that 55.5% of the adult population (15+) of China, or 578 million people in absolute numbers, believed and practiced folk religions, including a 20% who practiced ancestor veneration or communal worship of deities, and the rest who practiced what Yang and Hu define "individual" folk religions like devotion to specific gods such as Caishen. Members of folk religious sects were not taken into account. Around the same year, Kenneth Dean estimated 680 million people involved in folk religion, or 51% of the total population. In the same years, reports of the Chinese government claim that the sects have about the same number of followers of the five state-sanctioned religions counted together (~13% ≈180 million).
The CFPS 2014 survey, released in early 2017, found that 15.87% of the Chinese declare to be Buddhists, 5.94% to belong to other religious organisations, 0.85% to be Taoists, 0.81% to be members of the popular sects, 2.53% to be Christians (2.19% Protestants and 0.34% Catholics) and 0.45% to be Muslims. 73.56% of the population does not belong to the state-sanctioned religions.
Besides the surveys based on fieldwork, estimates using projections have been published by the Pew Research Center as part of its study of the Global Religious Landscape in 2010. This study estimated 21.9% of the population of China believed in folk religions, 18.2% were Buddhists, 5.1% were Christians, 1.8% were Muslims, 0.8% believed in other religions, while unaffiliated people constituted 52.2% of the population. According to the surveys of Phil Zuckerman published on Adherents.com, 59% of the Chinese population was not religious in 1993, and in 2005 between 8% and 14% was atheist (from over 100 to 180 million). A survey held in 2012 by WIN/GIA found that in China the atheists comprise 47% of the population. A 2015 Gallup survey reported that 90% of all Chinese consider themselves to be atheists or not to be religious.
Yu Tao's survey of the year 2008 provided a detailed analysis of the social characteristics of the religious communities. It found that the proportion of male believers is higher than the average among folk religious people, Taoists, and Catholics, while it is lower than the average among Protestants. The Buddhist community shows a greater balance of male and female believers. Concerning the age of believers, folk religious people and Catholics tend to be younger than the average, while Protestant and Taoist communities were composed by older people. The Christian community is more likely than other religions to have members belonging to the ethnic minorities. The study analysed the proportion of believers that are at the same time members of the local section of the Communist Party of China, finding that it is exceptionally high among the Taoists, while the lowest proportion is found among the Protestants. About education and wealth, the survey found that the wealthiest populations are those of Buddhists and especially Catholics, while the poorest is that of the Protestants; Taoists and Catholics are the better educated, while the Protestants are the less educated among the religious communities. These findings confirm a description by Francis Ching-Wah Yip that the Protestant population was predominantly composed of rural people, illiterate and semi-illiterate people, elderly people, and women, already in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Chinese Family Panel Studies' findings for 2012 show that Buddhists tend to be younger and better educated, while Christians are older and more likely to be illiterate. Furthermore, Buddhists are generally wealthy, while Christians most often belong to the poorest parts of the population. Henan has been found to be host to the largest percentage of Christians of any province of China, about 6%. According to Zhe Ji, Chan Buddhism and individual, non-institutional forms of folk religiosity are particularly successful among the contemporary Chinese youth.
Han Chinese culture embodies a concept of religion that differs from the one that is common in the Abrahamic traditions, which are based on the belief in an omnipotent God who exists outside the world and human race and has complete power over them. Chinese religions in general do not place as much emphasis as Christianity does on exclusivity and doctrine.
Han Chinese culture is marked by a "harmonious holism" in which religious expression is syncretic and religious systems encompass elements that grow, change, and transform but remain within an organic whole. Ritual is another key characteristic, a tendency that scholars see as extending back to Neolithic times, when rituals of sacrifice and burial were adopted as moral, social, and political norms. This primordial sense of ritual united the moral and the religious and drew no boundaries between family, social, and political life. From earliest times Chinese tended to be all-embracing rather than to treat different religious traditions as separate and independent. The scholar Xinzhong Yao argues that the term "Chinese religion", therefore, does not imply that there is only one religious system, but that the "different ways of believing and practicing... are rooted in and can be defined by culturally common themes and features", and that "different religious streams and strands have formed a culturally unitary single tradition" in which basic concepts and practices are related.
The continuity of Chinese civilisation across thousands of years and thousands of square miles is made possible through China's religious traditions understood as systems of knowledge transmission. A worthy Chinese is supposed to remember a vast amount of information from the past, and to draw on this past to form a basis of moral reasoning. The remembrance of the past and of the dead is important for individuals and groups. The identities of descent-based groups are molded by stories, written genealogies (zupu, "books of ancestors"), temple activities, and village theater that link them to history.
This reliance on group memory is the foundation of the Chinese practice of ancestor veneration or ancestor worship (拜祖 bàizǔ or 敬祖 jìngzǔ) that dates back to prehistory, and is the focal aspect of Chinese religion. Defined as "the essential religion of the Chinese", ancestor worship is the means of memory and therefore the cultural vitality of the entire Chinese civilisation. Rites, symbols, objects and ideas construct and transmit group and individual identities. Rituals and sacrifices are employed not only to seek blessing from the ancestors, but also to create a communal and educational religious environment in which people are firmly linked with a glorified history. Ancestors are evoked as gods and kept alive in these ceremonies to bring good luck and protect from evil forces and ghosts.
A practice developed in Chinese folk religion of post-Maoist China, that started in the 1990s from the Confucian temples managed by the Kong kin (the lineage of the descendants of Confucius himself), is the representation of ancestors in ancestral shrines no longer just through tablets with their names, but through statues. Statuary effigies were previously exclusively used for Buddhist bodhisattva and Taoist gods.
Lineage cults of the founders of surnames and kins are religious microcosms part of a larger organism, the ancestor cults of regional and ethnic groups, which in turn are part of another macrocosm, the cults of virtuous historical figures that have had an important impact in the history of China, notable examples including Confucius, Guandi, or Huangdi, considered the patriarch of all Han Chinese. This hierarchy proceeds up to the gods of the environment, the Earth and the Heaven.
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.
There was no term that corresponded to "religion" in Classical Chinese. The combination of zong (宗) and jiao (教), which now corresponds to "religion", was in circulation since the Tang dynasty in Chan circles to define the Buddhist doctrine. It was chosen to translate the Western concept "religion" only at the end of the 19th century, when Chinese intellectuals adopted the Japanese term shūkyō (pronounced zongjiao in Chinese). Under the influence of Western rationalism and later Marxism, what most of the Chinese today mean as zōngjiào are "organised doctrinal teachings", that is "superstructures consisting of superstitions, dogmas, rituals and institutions". Most academics in China use the term "religion" (zongjiao) to include formal institutions, specific beliefs, a clergy, and sacred texts, while Western scholars tend to use the term more loosely.
Zōng (宗 "ancestor", "model", "mode", "master", "pattern", but also "purpose") implies that the understanding of the ultimate derives from the transformed figure of the great ancestor or ancestors, who continue to support—and correspondingly rely on—their descendants, in a mutual exchange of benefit. Jiào (教 "teaching") is connected to filial piety (xiao), as it implies the transmission of knowledge from the elders to the youth and of support from the youth to the elders.
Understanding religion primarily as an ancestral tradition, Chinese have a relationship with the divine that functions socially, politically as well as spiritually. The Chinese concept of "religion" draws the divine near to the human world. Because "religion" refers to the bond between the human and the divine, there is always a danger that this bond will be broken. However, the term zōngjiào—instead of separation—emphasises communication, correspondence and mutuality between the ancestor and the descendant, the master and the disciple, and between the Way (Tao, the way of the divine in nature) and its ways. Ancestors are the mediators of Heaven. In other words, to the Chinese, the universal god (Tian or Shangdi) is manifested and embodied by the chief gods of each phenomenon and of each human kin, making the worship of the highest god possible even in each ancestral temple.
Chinese concepts of religion differ from concepts in Judaism and Christianity, says scholar Julia Ching, which were "religions of the fathers", that is, patriarchal religions, whereas Chinese religion was not only "a patriarchal religion but also an ancestral religion". Israel believed in the "God of its fathers, but not its divinised fathers". Among the ancient Chinese the God of the Zhou dynasty appeared to have been an ancestor of the ruling house. "The belief in Tian (Heaven) as the great ancestral spirit differed from the Judeo-Christian, and later Islamic belief in a creator God". Early Christianity's Church Fathers pointed out that the First Commandment injunction, "thou shalt have no other gods before me", reserved all worship for one God, and that prayers therefore could not be offered to the dead, even though Judaism, Christianity, and Islam did encourage prayers for the dead. Unlike the Abrahamic traditions where living beings are created by God out of nothing, in Chinese religions all living beings are descended beings that existed before. These ancestors are the roots of current and future beings. They continue to live in the lineage that they have begotten, and are cultivated as models and exemplars by their descendants.
The mutual support of elders and youth is needed for the continuity of the ancestral tradition, that is communicated from generation to generation. With an understanding of religion as teaching and education, the Chinese have a staunch confidence in the human capacity of transformation and perfection, enlightenment or immortality. In the Chinese religions, humans are confirmed and reconfirmed with the ability to improve themselves, in a positive attitude towards eternity. Hans Küng has defined Chinese religions as the "religions of wisdom", thereby distinguishing them from the "religions of prophecy" (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and from the "religions of mysticism" (Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism).
The cults of gods and ancestors that in recent (originally Western) literature have been classified as "Chinese popular religion", traditionally neither have a common name nor are considered zōngjiào ("doctrinal teaching").
The lack of an overarching name conceptualising the Chinese local indigenous cults has led to some confusion in the terminology employed in scholarly literature. In Chinese, with the terms usually translated in English as "folk religion" (i.e. 民間宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào) or "folk faith" (i.e. 民間信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng) they generally refer to the folk religious sects, and not to the local indigenous cults of gods and ancestors. To resolve this issue some Chinese intellectuals have proposed to formally adopt "Chinese native religion" / "Chinese indigenous religion" (i.e. 民俗宗教 mínsú zōngjiào) or "Chinese ethnic religion" (i.e. 民族宗教 mínzú zōngjiào), or also "Chinese religion" (中華教 Zhōnghuájiào) and "Shenxianism" (神仙教 Shénxiānjiào), as single names for the local indigenous cults of China.
The economic dimension of Chinese folk religion is also important. Yang Mayfair (2007) has studies how rituals and temples interweave a form of grassroots socio-economic capital for the well-being of local communities, fostering the circulation of wealth and its investment in the "sacred capital" of temples, gods and ancestors.
This religious economy already played a role in periods of imperial China, plays a significant role in modern Taiwan, and is seen as a driving force in the rapid economic development in parts of rural China, especially the southern and eastern coasts.
According to Law (2005), in his study about the relationship between the revival of folk religion and the recostruction of patriarchal civilisation:
Yang defines it as an "embedded capitalism", which preserves local identity and autonomy, and an "ethical capitalism" in which the drive for individual accumulation of money is tempered by religious and kinship ethics of generosity which foster the sharing and investment of wealth in the construction of civil society.
China has many of the world's tallest statues, including the tallest of all. Most of them represent buddhas and deities and were built in the 2000s. The world's tallest statue is the Spring Temple Buddha, located in Henan. Recently built in the country are also the world's tallest pagoda in Tianning Temple, and the world's tallest stupa in Famen Temple.
Tian 天 ("Heaven" or "Sky", philologically "Great One") is the idea of the absolute principle or God that is the spring of universal reality, in Chinese common religion and philosophy. According to classical theology he manifests in five primary forms (五方上帝 Wǔfāng Shàngdì, "Five Forms of the Highest Deity").
Various interpretations have been elaborated by Confucians, Taoists, and other schools of thought. A popular representation is the Jade Deity (玉帝 Yùdì) or Jade Emperor (玉皇 Yùhuáng) originally formulated by Taoists. Tian is defined in many ways, with many names, other well-known being Tàidì 太帝 (the "Great Deity") and Shàngdì 上帝 (the "Highest Deity") or simply Dì 帝 ("Deity"). Tengri is the equivalent of Tian in Altaic shamanic religions.
Confucianism, which inherited scholarship and sacred books from the Shang and Zhou dynasty, distinguishes Shangdi as the logos (word of order, way, or path; Tao or li) of Tian, and rites as the logos of Shangdi. In the tradition of New Text Confucianism, Confucius is regarded as a "throne-less king" of Shangdi and a savior of the world. Otherwise, the school of the Old Texts persisted that Confucius is a sage of Shangdi who had given new interpretation to the heritage from previous great dynasties. Neo-Confucian thinkers such as Zhu Xi developed the idea of li 理, the "reason", "order" of Heaven, that develops in the polarity of yin and yang. In Taoist theology Shangdi is discussed as the Jade Purity (玉清 Yùqīng) the "Heavenly Honourable of the First Beginning" (元始天尊 Yuánshǐ Tiānzūn), whereas in Taoist philosophical discourse the Tao 道 ("Way") denotes in one concept both the impersonal absolute Tian and its order of manifestation (li).
In Chinese religion, Tian is both transcendent and immanent, inherent in the multiple phenomena of nature (polytheism or cosmotheism, yǔzhòu shénlùn 宇宙神论). Shén 神, an early Chinese dictionary explains, "are the spirits of Heaven. They draw out the ten thousand things". Shen and ancestors (祖 zǔ) are interwoven energies that generate phenomena which reveal or reproduce the order of Heaven. Shen, says the scholar Stephen Teiser, is a term that needs to be translated into English in at least three different ways, according to the context: "spirit", "spirits", and "spiritual". The first, "spirit", is in the sense of "human spirit" or "psyche". The second use is "spirits" or "gods" — the latter written in lowercase because, says Teiser, "Chinese spirits and gods need not be seen as all-powerful, transcendent, or creators of the world". These "spirits" are associated with stars, mountains, and streams and directly influence what happens in the natural and human world. A thing or being is "spiritual", the third sense of shen, when it inspires awe or wonder.
Shen are opposed in several ways to guǐ 鬼 ("ghosts", or "demons"). Shen are considered yáng 阴, while gui are yīn 阴. Gui can be the spirit or soul of an ancestor called back to live in the family spirit tablet. Yet the combination 鬼神 guǐshén ("ghosts and spirits") includes both good and bad, those that are lucky or unlucky, benevolent or malevolent. These guishen animate all elements of the universe, whether rocks, trees, and planets, or animals and human beings. In this sense, "animism" can be said to characterise the Chinese worldview. Further, since humans, shen, and gui are all made of 气 qì, the same basic stuff, there is no gap or barrier between good and bad spirits or between these spirits and human beings. There is no ontological difference between gods and demons, and humans can emulate the gods and join them in the pantheon.
An elaborate ceremony for the worship of Tian at the Temple of Heaven (in which Tian is enshrined as 皇天上帝 Huángtiān Shàngdì, "Highest Deity of the Shining Heaven" or "Highest Deity the King of Heaven") in Beijing was conducted once a year by the emperors of China and has been revived in the 2000s by Confucian and civil religion groups. This cult dates back, according to registered history, to the Shang dynasty, and lasted until the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. The emperor of China was known as the "Son of Heaven" (tianzi), invested with the Mandate of Heaven (tianming), that was the legitimacy as ruler of the Chinese state.
Chinese popular or folk religion is the broad religious tradition whose practices and beliefs are shared by elites and common people. This tradition includes veneration of forces of nature and ancestors, exorcism of harmful forces, and a belief in the rational order of a natural universe that can be influenced by human beings and their rulers. Worship is devoted to gods and immortals (shén), who can be ancestors, deities of phenomena, of human behaviour, or founders of lineages.
Chinese popular religion is "diffused", rather than "institutional", in the sense that there are no canonical scriptures or clergy, and its practices and beliefs are handed down over the generations by Chinese mythology as told in popular forms of fiction, opera, and visual arts, and are embedded in rituals practiced in the family, clan, and guild rather than institutions with exclusively religious functions. It is a meaning system of social solidarity and identity, ranging from the lineage and kinship systems to the community, the state, and the economy.
Because this common religion is embedded in Chinese social relations, it historically doesn't have a separate name. Chinese scholars have recently proposed names to define the local indigenous cults of China, including "Chinese native religion" or "Chinese indigenous religion" (民俗宗教 mínsú zōngjiào), "Chinese ethnic religion" (民族宗教 mínzú zōngjiào), or simply "Chinese religion" (中華教 Zhōnghuájiào), "Shenism" (神教 Shénjiào) and "Shenxianism" (神仙教 Shénxiānjiào, "religion of deities and immortals"); this is meant to avoid terminological confusion, since "folk religion" (民间宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào) or "folk belief" (民间信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng) historically defined the folk religious sects and not local indigenous cults, and to identify a "national Chinese religion" similarly to Hinduism in India and Shinto in Japan.
Taoism has been defined by scholar and Taoist initiate Kristofer Schipper as a doctrinal and liturgical framework functional to the development of indigenous religions. The Zhengyi school is especially intertwined with local cults, with Zhengyi daoshi (道士, "masters of the Tao", otherwise commonly translated simply the "Taoists", as common followers and folk believers who are not part of Taoist orders are not identified as such) often performing rituals for local temples and communities. Various orders of ritual ministers often identified as "folk Taoists" operate in folk religion but are outside the jurisdiction of the state's Taoist Church or religious schools clearly identified as Taoist. Confucianism advocates worship of gods and ancestors through appropriate rites. Folk temples and ancestral shrines on special occasions may choose Confucian liturgy (儒 rú or 正统 zhèngtǒng, meaning "orthoprax" ritual style) led by Confucian "sages of rites" (礼生 lǐshēng), who in many cases are the elders of a local community. Confucian liturgies are alternated with Taoist liturgies and popular ritual styles. Taoism in its various currents, either comprehended or not within the Chinese folk religion, has some of its origins from Chinese shamanism (Wuism).
Despite this great diversity there is a common theological core which can be summarised as four cosmological and moral concepts: Tian (天), Heaven, the "transcendently immanent" source of moral meaning, who is God; qi (气), the breath or energy that animates the universe; jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors; and bao ying (报应), moral reciprocity; together with two traditional concepts of fate and meaning: ming yun (命运), the personal destiny or burgeoning; and yuan fen (缘分), "fateful coincidence", good and bad chances and potential relationships.
In Chinese religion yin and yang is the polarity that describes the order of the universe, held in balance by the interaction of principles of growth (shen) and principles of waning (gui), with act (yang) usually preferred over receptiveness (yin). Ling (numen or sacred) is the "medium" of the two states and the inchoate order of creation.
Both the present day government of China and the imperial dynasties of the Ming and Qing tolerated village popular religious cults if they bolstered social stability but suppressed or persecuted those that they feared would undermine it. After the fall of the empire in 1911, governments and elites opposed or attempted to eradicate folk religion in order to promote "modern" values, and many condemned "feudal superstition". These conceptions of folk religion began to change in Taiwan in the late 20th century and in mainland China in the 21st. Many scholars now view folk religion in a positive light.
In recent times Chinese folk religions are experiencing a revival in both mainland China and Taiwan. Some forms have received official understanding or recognition as a preservation of traditional Chinese culture, such as the worship of Mazu and the Sanyi teaching in Fujian, Huangdi worship, and other forms of local worship, for example the Longwang, Pangu or Caishen worship. In mid-2015 the government of Zhejiang began the registration of more than twenty thousand folk religious associations.
According to the most recent demographic analyses, an average 80% of the population of China, approximately 1 billion people, practices cults of gods and ancestors or belongs to folk religious sects. Moreover, according to one survey approximately 14% of the population claims different levels of affiliation with Taoist practices. Other figures from the micro-level testify the wide proliferation of folk religions: in 1989 there were 21,000 male and female shamans (shen han and wu po respectively, as they are named locally), 60% of them young, in the Pingguo County of Guangxi alone; and by the mid-1990s the government of the Yulin Prefecture of Shaanxi counted over 10,000 folk temples on its territory alone, for a population of 3.1 million, an average of one temple per 315 persons.
According to Wu and Lansdowne:
According to Yiyi Lu, discussing the reconstruction of Chinese civil society:
China has a long history of sect traditions, called "salvationist religions" (救度宗教 jiùdù zōngjiào) by some scholars, that are characterised by a concern for salvation (moral fulfillment) of the person and the society, that is, by a soteriological and eschatological character. They generally emerged from the common religion but are separate from the lineage cult of ancestors and progenitors, as well as from the communal deity worship of village temples, neighbourhood, corporation, or national temples. The 20th-century expression of such religions has been studied under Prasenjit Duara's definition of "redemptive societies" (救世团体 jiùshì tuántǐ), while modern Chinese scholarship describes them as "folk religious sects" (民間宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào, 民间教门 mínjiān jiàomén or 民间教派 mínjiān jiàopài), abandoning the ancient derogatory definition of xiéjiào (邪教), "evil religion".
They are characterised by egalitarianism, a charismatic foundation figure who claims a direct divine revelation, a millenarian eschatology and voluntary path of salvation, an embodied experience of the numinous through healing and cultivation, and an expansive orientation through good deeds, evangelism and philanthropy. Their practices are focused on improving morality, body cultivation, and recitation of scriptures.
Many redemptive religions of the 20th and 21st century aspire to embody Chinese tradition in the face of Western modernism and materialism. This group includes Yiguandao and other sects belonging to the Xiantiandao (先天道 "Way of Former Heaven"), Jiugongdao (九宮道 "Way of the Nine Palaces"), various proliferations of the Luo teaching, the Zaili teaching, and the more recent De teaching, Weixinist, Xuanyuan and Tiandi teachings, the latter two focused respectively on the worship of Huangdi and the universal God. Also, the qigong schools are developments of the same religious context. These movements were banned in the early Republican China and later Communist China. Many of them still remain illegal, underground or unrecognised in China, while others—specifically the De teaching, Tiandi teachings, Xuanyuan teaching, Weixinism and Yiguandao—have developed cooperation with mainland China's academic and non-governmental organisations. The Sanyi teaching is an organised folk religion founded in the 16th century, present in the Putian region (Xinghua) of Fujian where it is legally recognised. Some of these sects began to register as branches of the state Taoist Association since the 1990s.
Another category that has been sometimes confused with that of the sects of salvation by scholars, is that of the secret societies (會道門 huìdàomén, 祕密社會 mìmì shèhuì, or 秘密結社 mìmì jiéshè). They are religious communities of initiatory and secretive character, including rural militias such as the Red Spears (紅槍會) and the Big Knives (大刀會), and fraternal organisations such as the Green Gangs (青幫) and the Elders' Societies (哥老會). They became very popular in the early republican period, and often labeled as "heretical doctrines" (宗教異端 zōngjiào yìduān). Recent scholarship has created the label of "secret sects" (祕密教門 mìmì jiàomén) to distinguish the peasant "secret societies" with a positive dimension of the Yuan, Ming and Qing periods, from the negatively viewed "secret societies" of the early republic that became instruments of anti-revolutionary forces (the Guomindang or Japan).
A further distinctive type of sects of the folk religion, that are possibly the same as the positive "secret sects", are the martial sects. They combine two aspects: the wénchǎng (文场 "cultural field"), that is the doctrinal aspect characterised by elborate cosmologies, theologies, initiatory and ritual patterns, and that is usually kept secretive; and the wǔchǎng (武场 "martial field"), that is the body cultivation practice and that is usually the "public face" of the sect. They were outlawed by Ming imperial edicts that continued to be enforced until the fall of the Qing dynasty in the 20th century. An example of martial sect is Meihuaism (梅花教 Méihuājiào, "Plum Flowers"), that has become very popular throughout northern China. In Taiwan, virtually all of the "redemptive societies" operate freely since the late 1980s.
Confucianism (儒教 Rújiào, "teaching of the refined ones"; or 孔教 Kǒngjiào, "teaching of Confucius") is considered by some scholars to be a religion and by others an ethical or spiritual tradition. Yong Chen calls the question "probably one of the most controversial issues in both Confucian scholarship and the discipline of religious studies".
Guy Alitto points out that there was "literally no equivalent for the Western (and later world) concept of 'Confucianism' in traditional Chinese discourse." He argues that the Jesuit missionaries of the sixteenth century selected Confucius from many possible sages to serve as the counterpart to Christ or Muhammad in order to meet European expectations.They used a variety of writings by Confucius and his followers to invent "one hybrid 'ism'" – “Confucianism” – which they presented as a "rationalist secular-ethical code", not as a religion. This secular understanding of Confucianism inspired both Enlightenment Europe of the eighteenth century and Chinese intellectuals of the twentieth. The May Fourth Movement philosopher Liang Shuming wrote that Confucianism “functioned as a religion without actually being one.” Western scholarship generally accepted this understanding. In the decades after World War Two, however, many Chinese intellectuals and academic scholars in the West, such as Tu Weiming, reversed this assessment. Confucianism for them became a “true religion” that offered “immanent transcendence”.
According to Herbert Fingarette's concept of "the secular as sacred", however, Confucianism transcends the dichotomy between religion and humanism. Confucians experience the sacred as existing in this world as part of everyday life, most importantly in family and social relations. Confucianism focuses a this-worldly awareness of Tian (Heaven) and a proper respect of the gods or spirits (shen) through ritual and sacrifice. Confucians cultivate family bonds and social harmony rather than pursuing a doctrine of salvation that looks to a transcendental future. The scholar Joseph Adler concludes that Confucianism is not so much a religion as "a non-theistic, diffused religious tradition" and that Tian is not so much a "deity" as "an impersonal absolute, like dao and Brahman".
Broadly speaking, however, scholars agree that it is an ethico-political system, developed from the teachings of the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE). Confucianism originated during the Spring and Autumn period and developed metaphysical and cosmological elements in the Han dynasty, to match the developments in Buddhism and Taoism, then dominant among the populace. By the same period, Confucianism became the core idea of Chinese politics. According to He Guanghu, Confucianism can be identified as a continuation of the Shang-Zhou official religion, or the Chinese aboriginal religion which has lasted for three thousand years.
By the words of Tu Weiming and other Confucian scholars, who recover the work of Kang Youwei, Confucianism revolves around the pursuit of the unity of the self and Heaven (Tian), and the relationship of humankind to the Heaven. The principle of Heaven (Tian li or Tao), is the order of the creation and divine authority, monistic in its structure. Individuals can realise their humanity and become one with Heaven through the contemplation of this order. This transformation of the self can be extended to the family and society to create a harmonious fiduciary community. The moral-spiritual ideal of Confucianism conciles both the inner and outer polarities of self-cultivation and world redemption, synthesised in the ideal of "sageliness within and kingliness without".
In Confucian thought human beings are teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor especially self-cultivation and self-creation. Some of the basic Confucian ethical concepts and practices include rén, yì, and lǐ, and zhì. Ren is translated as "humaneness" or the essence proper of a human being, that is characterised by compassionate mind; it is the virtue endowed by Heaven and at the same time what allows man to achieve oneness with Heaven—in the Datong shu it is defined as "to form one body with all things" and "when the self and others are not separated ... compassion is aroused". Yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good. Li is a system of ritual norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act in everyday life. Zhi is the ability to see what is right and fair, or the converse, in the behaviors exhibited by others. Confucianism holds one in contempt, either passively or actively, for the failure of upholding the cardinal moral values of ren and yi.
Confucianism never developed an institutional structure similar to that of Taoism, and its religious bodies never completely differentiated themselves from Chinese folk religion. Since the 2000s, Confucianism has been embraced as a religious identity by a large numbers of intellectuals and students in China. In 2003 the Confucian intellectual Kang Xiaoguang published a manifesto in which he made four suggestions: Confucian education should enter official education at any level, from elementary to high school; the state should establish Confucianism as the state religion by law; Confucian religion should enter the daily life of ordinary people through standardization and development of doctrines, rituals, organisations, churches and activity sites; the Confucian religion should be spread through non-governmental organisations. Another modern proponent of the institutionalisation of Confucianism in a state church is Jiang Qing.
In 2005 the Center for the Study of Confucian Religion was established, and guoxue education started to be implemented in public schools. Being well received by the population, even Confucian preachers started to appear on television since 2006. The most enthusiast New Confucians proclaim the uniqueness and superiority of Confucian Chinese culture, and have generated some popular sentiment against Western cultural influences in China.
The idea of a "Confucian Church" as the state religion of China has roots in the thought of Kang Youwei, an exponent of the early New Confucian search for a regeneration of the social relevance of Confucianism, at a time when it was de-institutionalised with the fall of the Qing dynasty and the Chinese empire. Kang modeled his ideal "Confucian Church" after European national Christian churches, as a hierarchical and centralised institution, closely bound to the state, with local church branches, devoted to the worship and the spread of the teachings of Confucius.
In contemporary China, the Confucian revival has developed into different, yet interwoven, directions: the proliferation of Confucian schools or academies (shuyuan 书院 or 孔学堂 Kǒng xuétáng, "Confucian learning halls"), the resurgence of Confucian rites (chuántǒng lǐyí 传统礼仪), and the birth of new forms of Confucian activity on the popular level, such as the Confucian communities (shèqū rúxué 社区儒学). Some scholars also consider the reconstruction of lineage churches and their ancestral temples, as well as cults and temples of natural gods and national heroes within broader Chinese traditional religion, as part of the revival of Confucianism.
Other forms of revival are folk religious or salvationist religious groups with a Confucian focus or Confucian churches, for example the Yidan xuetang (一耽学堂) based in Beijing, the Mengmutang (孟母堂) of Shanghai, the Way of the Gods according to the Confucian Tradition or phoenix churches, the Confucian Fellowship (儒教道坛 Rújiào Dàotán) in northern Fujian which has spread rapidly over the years after its foundation, and ancestral temples of the Kong (Confucius') kin operating as Confucian-teaching churches.
Also, the Hong Kong Confucian Academy has expanded its activities to the mainland, with the construction of statues of Confucius, Confucian hospitals, restoration of temples and sponsorship of other activities. In 2009 Zhou Beichen founded another institution that inherits the idea of Kang Youwei's Confucian Church, the Holy Hall of Confucius (孔圣堂 Kǒngshèngtáng) in Shenzhen affiliated with the Federation of Confucian Culture of Qufu City, the first of a nationwide movement of congregations and civil organisations that was unified in 2015 as the Holy Confucian Church (孔圣会 Kǒngshènghuì). The first spiritual leader of the Holy Church is the renowned scholar Jiang Qing, the founder and manager of the Yangming Confucian Abode (阳明精舍 Yángmíng jīngshě), a Confucian academy in Guiyang, Guizhou.
Chinese folk religion's temples and kinship ancestral shrines on certain occasions may choose Confucian liturgy (that is called 儒 rú, or sometimes 正统 zhèngtǒng, meaning "orthoprax" ritual style) led by Confucian ritual masters (礼生 lǐshēng) to worship the gods, instead of Taoist or popular ritual. "Confucian businessmen" (儒商人 rúshāngrén, also "refined businessman"), is a recently recovered term that defines people of the entrepreneurial or economic elite that recognise their social responsibility and therefore apply Confucian culture to their business.
Taoism (道教 Dàojiào) refers to a variety of related orders of philosophy and rite that operate in Chinese religion. They share elements going back to the 4th century BCE and to the prehistoric culture of China, such as the School of Yin and Yang and the thought of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Taoism has a distinct scriptural tradition, with the Dàodéjīng (道德经 "Book of the Way and its Virtue") of Laozi being regarded as its keystone. Taoism can be precisely described, as does the scholar and Taoist initiate Kristofer Schipper in The Taoist Body (1986), as a doctrinal and liturgical framework or structure for the local cults of the indigenous religion. Taoist traditions emphasise living in harmony with the Tao (also romanised as Dao). The term Tao means "way", "path" or "principle", and can also be found in Chinese philosophies and religions other than Taoism. In Taoism, however, Tao denotes the principle that is both the source and the pattern of development of everything that exists. It is ultimately ineffable: "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao".
Only by the Han dynasty the various sources of Taoism coalesced into a coherent tradition of religious organisations and orders of ritualists. In earlier ancient China, Taoists were thought of as hermits or recluses who did not participate in political life. Zhuangzi was the best known of these, and it is significant that he lived in the south, where he was part of local shamanic traditions. Women shamans played an important role in this tradition, which was particularly strong in the southern state of Chu. Early Taoist movements developed their own institution in contrast to shamanism, but absorbed basic shamanic elements. Shamans revealed basic texts of Taoism from early times down to at least the 20th century.
Institutional orders evolved in various strains that in more recent times are conventionally grouped into two main branches: Quanzhen Taoism and Zhengyi Taoism. Taoist schools traditionally feature reverence for Laozi, immortals or ancestors, along with a variety of divination and exorcism rituals, and practices for achieving ecstasy, longevity or immortality. Taoist propriety and ethics may vary depending on the particular school, but in general tends to emphasise wu wei (effortless action), "naturalness", simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures: compassion, moderation, and humility.
Taoism has had profound influence on Chinese culture in the course of the centuries, and clerical "Taoists" (Chinese: 道士; pinyin: dàoshi, "masters of the Tao") usually take care to note distinction between their ritual tradition and those of vernacular orders which are not recognised as Taoist.
Taoism was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution but its traditions endured in secrecy and revived in following decades. In 1956 a national organisation, the Chinese Taoist Association, was set up to govern the activity of Taoist orders and communities. According to demographic analyses approximately 13% of the population of China claims a loose affiliation with Taoist practices, while self-proclaimed "Taoists" by exclusivity (a title that traditionally is only used for experts of Taoist doctrines and rites, if not strictly for priests) might be 12 million (~1%). The definition of "Taoists" is complicated by the fact that many folk sects of salvation and their members began to be registered as branches of the Taoist association in the 1990s.
There are two types of Taoists, following the distinction between the Quanzhen and Zhengyi traditions. Quanzhen daoshi are celibate monks, and therefore the Taoist temples of the Quanzhen school are monasteries. Contrarywise, the Zhengyi daoshi, also known as sanju daoshi ("scattered" or "diffused" Taoists) or huoju daoshi ("Taoists who live at home"), are part-time priests who may marry and have other jobs, they live among the common people, and perform Taoist rituals within the field of common Chinese religion, for local temples and communities.
While the Chinese Taoist Association started as a Quanzhen institution, and remains based at the White Cloud Temple of Beijing, that is the central temple of the Quanzhen sect, since the 1990s it started to open to the sanju daoshi of the Zhengyi branch, who are more numerous than the Quanzhen monks. The Chinese Taoist Association had already 20.000 registered sanju daoshi in the mid-1990s, while in the same years the total number of Zhengyi priests including the unregistered ones was estimated at 200.000. The Zhengyi sanju daoshi are trained by other priests of the same sect, and historically received formal ordination by the Celestial Master, although the 63rd Celestial Master Zhang Enpu fled to Taiwan in the 1940s during the Chinese Civil War. Taoism, both in registered and unregistered forms, has experienced a strong development since the 1990s and dominates the religious life of coastal provinces.
Chinese ritual masters, also referred to as practitioners of Faism (法教 fǎjiào, "ritual traditions"), also named Folk Taoism (民间道教 Mínjiàn Dàojiào), are orders of priests that operate within the Chinese folk religion, but outside any institution of official Taoism. The "masters of rites", the fashi (法師), are known by a variety of names including the appellation of hongtou daoshi (紅頭道士) popular in southeast China, meaning "redhead" or "redhat" daoshi, in contradistinction with the wutou daoshi (烏頭道士), "blackhead" or "blackhat" daoshi, as they call the sanju daoshi of Zhengyi Taoism that were traditionally ordained by the Celestial Master. In some provinces of north China they are known as yīnyángshēng (阴阳生 "sages of yin and yang"), and by a variety of other names.
Although the two types of priests, daoshi and fashi, have the same roles in Chinese society—in that they can marry and they perform rituals for communities' temples or private homes—Zhengyi daoshi emphasize their Taoist tradition, distinguished from the vernacular tradition of the fashi. Popular priests are defined as "kataphatic" ("filling") in character, while professional Taoists are "kenotic" ("emptying", apophatic).
Fashi are practitioners of tongji possession, healing, exorcism and jiao rituals (although historically they were excluded from performing the jiao liturgy). They aren't shamans (wu), with the exception of those of the order of Mount Lu of east China. Rather, they represent an intermediate level between the wu and the Taoists. Like the wu the ritual masters identify with their deity, but while the wu embody wild forces, the ritual masters represent order like the Taoists. Unlike the Taoists, both ritual masters and wu find their institutional base in local cults to particular deities, although the ritual masters are itinerant.
Shamanism was the prevalent modality of pre-Han dynasty Chinese indigenous religion. The Chinese usage distinguishes the Chinese wu tradition (Wuism: 巫教 wūjiào; properly shamanic, with control over the gods) from the tongji tradition (童乩; mediumship, without control of the godly movement), and from non-Han Chinese Altaic shamanisms (萨满教 sàmǎnjiào) that are practiced in northern provinces.
With the rise of Confucian orthodoxy in the Han period, shamanic traditions found a more institutionalised and intellectualised state within the esoteric philosophical discourse of Taoism. According to Chirita (2014), Confucianism itself, with its emphasis on hierarchy and ancestral rituals, derived from the shamanic discourse of the Shang dynasty. What Confucianism did was to marginalise the "dysfunctional" features of old shamanism. However, shamanic traditions continued uninterrupted within the folk religion and found precise and functional forms within Taoism.
In the Shang and Zhou dynasty, shamans had a role in the political hierarchy, and were represented institutionally by the Ministry of Rites (大宗拍). The emperor was considered the supreme shaman, intermediating between the three realms of heaven, earth and man. The mission of a shaman (巫 wu) is "to repair the dis-functionalities occurred in nature and generated after the sky had been separated from earth":
«The female shamans called
wu as well as the male shamans called
xi represent the voice of spirits, repair the natural dis-functions, foretell the future based on dreams and the art of divination ... "a historical science of the future", whereas shamans are able to observe the yin and the yang ...
Since the 1980s the practice and study of shamanism has undergone a massive revival in Chinese religion as a mean to repair the world to a harmonious whole after industrialisation. Shamanism is viewed by many scholars as the foundation for the emergence of civilisation, and the shaman as "teacher and spirit" of peoples. The Chinese Society for Shamanic Studies was founded in Jilin City in 1988.
In China, Buddhism (佛教 Fójiào) is represented by a large number of people following the Mahayana. This is distinguished in two very different cultural traditions, the schools of Chinese Buddhism followed by the Han Chinese, and the schools of Tibetan Buddhism followed by Tibetans and Mongols. The vast majority of Buddhists in China, counted in the hundreds of millions, are Chinese Buddhists, while Tibetan Buddhists are in the number of the tens of millions. Small communities of the Theravada exist among minority ethnic groups who live in southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi which border Burma, Thailand and Laos, and the Li people of Hainan.
With the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 Buddhism was suppressed and temples closed or destroyed. The Buddhist Association of China was founded in 1953. Restrictions lasted until the reforms of the 1980s, when Buddhism began to recover popularity and its place as the largest organised faith in the country. While estimates of the number of Buddhists in China range widely, the most recent surveys have found that an average 10–16% of the population of China claims a Buddhist affiliation, with even higher percentages in urban agglomerations.
Buddhism was introduced into China from its western neighbouring peoples during the Han dynasty, traditionally in the 1st century. It became very popular among Chinese of all walks of life, admired by commoners, and sponsored by emperors in certain dynasties. The expansion of Buddhism reached its peak during the Tang dynasty, in the 9th century, when Buddhist monasteries had become very rich and powerful.
The wealth of Buddhist institutions was among the practical reasons (the ideal reason was that Buddhism was a "foreign religion") why the Tang emperors decided to enact a wave of persecutions of the religion, starting with the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution by Emperor Wuzong of Tang, through which many monasteries were destroyed and the religion's influence in China was greatly reduced. Buddhism survived and regained a place in the Chinese society over the following centuries.
The entry of Buddhism into China was marked by interaction with Taoism in particular, from which a set of uniquely Chinese Buddhist schools emerged (汉传佛教 Hànchuán Fójiào, "Han Buddhism" or "Chinese Buddhism"). Originally seen as a kind of "foreign Taoism", Buddhism's scriptures were translated into Chinese using the Taoist vocabulary. Chan Buddhism in particular was shaped by Taoism, integrating distrust of scripture, text and even language, as well as the Taoist views of embracing "this life", dedicated practice and the "every-moment". In the Tang dynasty Taoism itself absorbed Buddhist influences such as monasticism, vegetarianism, prohibition of alcohol, and the doctrine of emptiness. During the same period, Chan Buddhism grew to become the largest sect in Chinese Buddhism.
Buddhism was not universally welcomed, particularly among the gentry. The Buddha's teaching seemed alien and amoral to conservative and Confucian sensibilities. 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. However, Buddhism and Confucianism eventually reconciled after centuries of conflict and assimilation.
Today the most popular forms of Chinese Buddhism are the Pure Land and Chan schools. Pure Land Buddhism is a form that is very accessible as even lay practitioners have the ability to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. The goal of this popular form of Buddhism is to be boring in Pure Land (a place rather than a state of mind). In the 2000s and 2010s the influence of Chinese Buddhism has been expressed through the construction of large-scale statues, pagodas and temples, including the Guan Yin of the South Sea of Sanya inaugurated in 2005, and the Spring Temple Buddha, the highest statue in the world. Many temples in China also claim to host relics of the original Gautama Buddha.
The revival of Chinese Buddhism in the 21st century has seen the introduction or reintroduction of the Humanistic Buddhist movement from Taiwan and the Chinese overseas, with organisations such as the Cíjì (慈济), which has been working in mainland China since 1991 and has opened its mainland headquarters in the 2010s in Suzhou.
The Buddhist schools that emerged in the cultural sphere of Tibet (藏传佛教 Zàngchuán Fójiào or 喇嘛教 Lǎmajiào, "Lamaism") also have an influence throughout China that dates back to historical interactions of the Han Chinese with Tibetans and Mongols. Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion in Tibet, among Tibetans in Qinghai, and has a historical and significant presence in Inner Mongolia (where its traditional name is Burkhany Shashin, "Buddha's religion", or Shira-in Shashin, the "Yellow religion"—黄教 Huángjiào in Chinese). However, there are many Tibetan Buddhist temples as far east as northeast China. The Yonghe Temple in Beijing is one example.
There are controversies around the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, specifically the succession of Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama, who was not only the spiritual leader of Gelug, the major branch of Tibetan Buddhism, but also the reputed traditional political ruler of Tibet and was exiled with the establishment of the modern People's Republic of China. The Panchen Lama, the Tibetan hierarch in charge of the designation of the future successor of the Dalai Lama, is a matter of controversy between the Chinese government and Tenzin Gyatso. The government of China asserts that the present (11th) incarnation of the Panchen Lama is Gyancain Norbu, while the 14th Dalai Lama asserted in 1995 that it was Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who has not been seen in public since being detained by Chinese authorities in that year.
Since the liberalisation of religions in China in the 1980s, there has been a growing movement of adoption of the Gelug sect, and other Tibetan-originated Buddhist schools, by the Han Chinese. This movement has been favoured by the proselytic activity of Chinese-speaking Tibetan lamas.
Theravada Buddhism is a major form of Buddhism, practiced mostly in Southeast Asia but also among some minority ethnic groups in southwest China. Theravada Buddhism spread from Myanmar to present day Xishuangbanna, Dehong, Simao, Lincang, and Baoshan areas in Yunnan during sixth and seventh centuries. This school of Buddhism is today popular among the ethnic minority Dai, and also the Palaung, Blang, Achang, and Jingpo ethnic groups.
The first Buddhist temple in Yunnan province, the Wabajie Temple in Xishuangbanna, was erected in 615. After the 12th century, Theravada Buddhist influence into the region began to come from Thailand. Thais began to bring copies of the Pali canon to Yunnan, to translate the scriptures and to construct new temples. The people living in areas in Yunnan where Theravada Buddhism is a popular religion follow similar norms as the Buddhists in Thailand and it is often intermixed with local folk beliefs. Theravada Buddhism suffered from persecution in the region during the Cultural Revolution, but since the 1980s has seen some revival.
Besides Tibetan Buddhism and the Vajrayana streams found within Chinese Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism is practiced in China in some independent forms. For instance, Azhaliism (Chinese: 阿吒力教 Āzhālìjiào) is a Vajrayana Buddhist religion practiced among the Bai people.
The Vajrayana current of Chinese Buddhism is known as Tangmi (唐密 "Tang Mysteries"), as they flourished in China during the Tang dynasty just before the great suppression of Buddhism by imperial decision. Another name for this body of traditions is "Han Chinese Transmission of the Esoteric (or Mystery) Tradition" (汉传密宗 Hànchuán Mìzōng, where Mizong is the Chinese name of all Vajrayana). Tangmi, together with the broader religious tradition of Tantrism (in Chinese: 怛特罗 Dátèluō or 怛特罗密教 Dátèluó mìjiào; which may include Hindu forms of religion) has undergone a revitalisation in recent times together with the revival of Buddhism overall.
The Gateway of the Hidden Flower (华藏宗门 Huácáng Zōngmén) and the True Awakening Tradition (真佛宗 Zhēnfó Zōng) are two new Han Chinese movements within the Vajrayana, and are among the Buddhist sects officially proscribed by the government.
From the 1890s to the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1945, the Hompa Honganji-ha organisation of the Jōdo Shinshū (淨土真宗; Chinese reading: Jìngtǔ Zhēnzōng, "True Tradition of the Pure Land"), or Shin Buddhism ("True Buddhism"), which is a Japanese variation of Pure Land Buddhism, carried out missionary activity throughout East Asia, including Manchuria, Taiwan and China proper. With the unconditional surrender of Japan at the end of the war, the missions were shut down.
Starting in the 1990s there has been a revival of Shin Buddhism among the Chinese, which has taken a formal nature with the foundation of the Hong Kong Fǎléi Niànfóhuì (香港法雷念佛会) in 2000, followed by the Fuzhou Fǎléi Niànfóhuì (福州法雷念佛会) founded in 2006 and the Shaanxi Fǎléi Niànfóhuì (陕西法雷念佛会) founded in 2010. There are Shin Buddhist groups also in Henan, Zhejiang, Inner Mongolia, Yunnan and other provinces.
The propagation of Shin Buddhism in China has faced some criticism for cultural, historical and doctrinal reasons. Cultural criticism points to the fact that Shin Buddhist clerics can marry and eat meat; modern Chinese Shin Buddhist groups, however, tend to follow the norms of celibacy and vegetarianism of Chinese Buddhism. Historical criticism has to do with the links that Jodo Shinshu had with Japanese militarism and colonialism prior to 1945. Doctrinal criticism is based on the attribution of "unfiliality" to Shin Buddhism, because it was not influenced by Chinese folk religion as Chinese Buddhism was, and therefore does not have firmly established practices for ancestor worship.
Nichiren Buddhism, a denomination of the Buddhist religion which was founded in Japan in the 13th century, has been spreading in China in the last decades in the form of the Soka Gakkai (in Chinese: 创价学会 Chuàngjià xuéhuì). This society has engaged in missionary efforts in China partially aided by the good relationship it has interlaced with the Chinese government. Delegations from the Japanese Soka Gakkai and the Chinese government and intellectual class have made visits to each other, so that the society has been called an "intimate friend of the Chinese government". Soka Gakkai members in China are organised in the form of the house church, as they "meet quietly in small groups in the homes of other members", with little interference from the government.
Various Chinese non-Han minority populations practice unique indigenous religions. The government of China promotes and protects the indigenous religions of minority nations as the focus of their culture and ethnic identity.
Benzhuism (本主教 Běnzhǔjiào, "religion of the patrons") is the indigenous religion of the Bai people, an ethnic group of Yunnan. It consists in the worship of the ngel zex, Bai word for "patrons" or "source lords", rendered as benzhu (本主) in Chinese, that are local gods and deified ancestors of the Bai nation. It is very similar to Han Chinese religion.
Bimoism (毕摩教 Bìmójiào) is the indigenous religion of the Yi people(s), the largest ethnic group in Yunnan after the Han Chinese. This faith is represented by three types of religious specialists: the bimo (毕摩, "ritual masters", "priests"), the sunyi (male shamans) and the monyi (female shamans).
What distinguishes the bimo and the shamans is the way they derive their authority. While both are regarded as the "mediators between men and the divine", the shamans are initiated through a "spirit-possessed inspiration" (comprising illness or vision) whereas the bimo—who are always males with few exceptions—are literates, who can read and write traditional Yi script, have a tradition of theological and ritual scriptures, and are initiated through a tough edicational system.
Since the 1980s, Bimoism has undergone a comprehensive revitalisation, both on the grassroots level and on the scholarly level, with the bimo now celebrated as an "intellectual class" whose role is that of creators, preservers and transmitters of Yi high culture. Since the 1990s, Bimoism has undergone an institutionalisation, starting with the foundation of the Bimo Culture Research Center in Meigu County in 1996. The founding of the centre received substantial support from local authorities, especially those whose families were directly affiliated with one of the many bimo hereditary families. Since then, large temples and ceremonial complexes for Bimoist practices have been constructed.
"Bon" (Tibetan: བོན་; Chinese: 苯教 Běnjiào) is the post-Buddhist name of the pre-Buddhist folk religion of Tibet. Buddhism spread into Tibet starting in the 7th and 8th centuries, and the name "Bon" was adopted as the name of the indigenous religion in Buddhist historiography. Originally, bon was the title of the shamans-priests of that indigenous religion. This is in analogy with the names of the priests of the folk religions of peoples related to the Tibetans, such as the dong ba of the Nakhi or the bø of Mongolians and other Siberian peoples. Bonpo ("believers of Bon") claim that the word bon means "truth" and "reality".
The spiritual source of Bon is the mythical figure of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche. Since the late 10th century, the religion then designated as "Bon" started to organise adopting the style of Tibetan Buddhism, including a monastic structure and a Bon Canon (Kangyur) that made it a codified religion. The Chinese sage Confucius is worshipped in Bon as a holy king, master of magic and divination.
Dongbaism (東巴教 Dōngbajiào, "religion of the eastern Ba") is the main religion of the Nakhi people. The "dongba" ("eastern Ba") are masters of the culture, literature and the script of the Nakhi. They originated as masters of the Tibetan Bon religion ("Ba" in Nakhi language), many of whom, in times of persecution when Buddhism became the dominant religion in Tibet, were expelled and dispersed to the eastern marches settling among Nakhi and other eastern peoples.
Dongbaism historically formed as beliefs brought by Bon masters commingled with older indigenous Nakhi beliefs. Dongba followers believe in a celestial shaman called Shi-lo-mi-wu, with little doubt the same as the Tibetan Shenrab Miwo. They worship nature and generation, in the form of many heavenly gods and spirits, chthonic Shu (spirits of the earth represented in the form of chimera-dragon-serpent beings), and ancestors.
Manchu folk religion is the ethnic religion practiced by most of the Manchu people, the major of the Tungusic peoples, in China. It can also be called "Manchu Shamanism" (满族萨满教 Mǎnzú sàmǎnjiào) by virtue of the word "shaman" being originally from Tungusic šamán ("man of knowledge"), later applied by Western scholars to similar religious practices in other cultures.
It is a patheistic system, believing in a universal God called Apka Enduri ("God of Heaven") which is the omnipotent and omnipresent source of all life and creation. Deities (enduri) enliven every aspect of nature, and the worship of these gods is believed to bring favour, health and prosperity. Many of the deities are original Manchu kins' ancestors, and people with the same surname are generated by the same god.
Most of the Miao people (or Hmong) in China have retained their traditional folk religion. It is pantheistic and deeply influenced by Chinese religion, sharing the concept of yeeb ceeb and yaj ceeb representing respectively the realm of the gods in potentiality and the manifested or actual world of living things as a complementary duality.
Miao believe in a supreme universal God, Saub, who is somewhat a deus otiosus who created reality and left it to develop according to its ways, but nonetheless can be appealed in times of need. He entrusted a human, Siv Yis, with his healing powers and he became the first shaman. On his death he ascended to heaven, but he left behind his instruments which became the equipment of the shaman class. They (txiv neeb) regard Siv Yis as their archetype and identify as him when they are imbued by the gods.
Various gods (dab or neeb, the latter defining those who work with shamans) enliven the world. Among them the most revered are the water god Dragon King (Zaj Laug), the Thunder God (Xob), the gods of life and death (Ntxwj Nyug and Nyuj Vaj Tuam Teem), Lady Sun (Nkauj Hnub) and Lord Moon (Nraug Hli), and various deified human ancestors.
Mongolian folk religion, that is Mongolian shamanism (蒙古族萨满教 Ménggǔzú sàmǎnjiào), alternatively named Tengerism (腾格里教 Ténggélǐjiào), is the native and major religion among the Mongols of China, mostly residing in the region of Inner Mongolia.
It is centered on the worship of the tngri (gods) and the highest Tenger (Heaven, God of Heaven, God) or Qormusta Tengri. In the Mongolian native religion, Genghis Khan is considered one of the embodiments, if not the main embodoment, of the Tenger. In worship, communities of lay believers are led by shamans (called böge if males, iduγan if females), who are intermediaries of the divine.
Since the 1980s there has been an unprecedented development of Mongolian religion in Inner Mongolia, including böge, the cult of Genghis Khan and the Heaven in special temples (many of which yurt-style), and the cult of aobao as ancestral shrines. There has been a significant integration of the Han Chinese of Inner Mongolia into the traditional Mongolian spiritual heritage of the region. The cult of Genghis is also shared by the Han, claiming his spirit as the founding principle of the Yuan dynasty.
Aobaoes (敖包 áobāo) are sacrificial altars of the shape of a mound that are traditionally used for worship by Mongols and related ethnic groups. Every aobao is thought as the representation of a god. There are aobaoes dedicated to heavenly gods, mountain gods, other gods of nature, and also to gods of human lineages and agglomerations.
The aobaoes for worship of ancestral gods can be private shrines of an extended family or kin (people sharing the same surname), otherwise they are common to villages (dedicated to the god of a village), banners or leagues. Sacrifices to the aobaoes are made offering slaughtered animals, joss sticks, and libations.
Qiang people are mostly followers of a native Qiang folk religion. It is pantheistic, involving the worship of a variety of gods of nature and of human affairs, including Qiang progenitors. White stones are worshipped as it is believed they can be invested with the power of some gods through rituals. They believe in an overarching God, called Mubyasei ("God of Heaven"), which is connected to the Chinese concept of Tian and clearly identified by the Qiang with the Taoist-originated Jade Deity.
Religious ceremonies and rituals are directed by priests called duāngōng in Chinese. They are shamans who acquire their position through years of training with a teacher. Duāngōng are the custodians of Qiang theology, history and mythology. They also administer the coming of age ceremony for 18 years-old boys, called the "sitting on top of the mountain", which involves the boy's entire family going to mountain tops to sacrifice a ship or cow and to plant three cypress trees.
Two of the most important religious holidays are the Qiang New Year, falling on the 24th day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar (though now it is fixed on October 1), and the Mountain Sacrifice Festival, held between the second and the sixth month of the lunar calendar. The former festival is to give sacrifice to the God of Heaven, while the latter is dedicated to the god of mountains.
The Yao people, who reside in Guangxi and Hunan and surrounding provinces, follow a folk religion that is deeply integrated with Taoism since the 13th century, so much that it is frequently defined as "Yao Taoism". Yao folk religion was described by a Chinese scholar of the half of the 20th century as an example of deep "Taoisation" (道教化 Dàojiàohuà). In the 1980s it was found that the Yao clearly identified with the Chinese-language Taoist theological literature, seen as a prestigious statute of culture (文化 wénhuà).
The reason of this tight identification of Yao religion and identity with Taoism is that in Yao society every male adult is initiated as a Taoist, and Yao Taoism is therefore a communal religion; this is in sharp contrast to Chinese Taoism, which is an order of priests disembedded from the common Chinese folk religion. A shared sense of Yao identity is based additionally on tracing their descent from the mythical ancestor Panhu.
Zhuang folk religion, sometimes called Moism (摩教 Mójiào) or Shigongism (师公教 Shīgōngjiào, "religion of the [Zhuang] ancestral father"), after two of its forms, is practiced by most of the Zhuang people, the largest ethnic minority of China, who inhabit the province of Guangxi. It is a polytheistic-monistic and shamanic religion centered on the creator god usually expressed as Buluotuo, the mythical primordial ancestor of the Zhuang. Its beliefs are codified into a mythology and a sacred scripture, the "Buluotuo Epic". A very similar religion of the same name is that of the Buyei people, kindred to the Zhuang.
The Zhuang religion is intertwined with Taoism. In fact, Chinese scholars divide the Zhuang religion into several categories according to the type of ritual specialists who conduct the rites; these categories include Shigongism, Moism, Daogongism (道公教 Dàogōngjiào) and shamanism (巫教 Wūjiào).
"Shigongism" refers to the dimension led by the shīgōng (师公) ritual specialists, a term that can be translated variously as "ancestral father" or "teaching master", and which refers to the generating principle and the men who can represent it. Shīgōng specialists practice masked dancing and worship the Three Primordials, the generals Tang, Ge and Zhou. "Moism" refers to the dimension led by mógōng (摩公), who are vernacular ritual specialists able to transcribe and read texts written in Zhuang characters and worship Buluotuo and the goddess Muliujia. "Daogongism" is Zhuang Taoism, that is the indigenous religion directed by Zhuang Taoist priests, known as dàogōng (道公 "lords of the Tao") in the Zhuang language, according to Taoist doctrines and rites. Zhuang shamanism entails the practices of mediums who provide direct communication between the material and the spiritual worlds, known as momoed if female and gemoed if male.
Since the 1980s and the 1990s there has been a revival of this religion that has taken place in two directions. The first is a grassroots revival of cults to local deities and ancestors led by shamans; the second way is a promotion of the religion on the official institutional level, through a standardisation of Moism elaborated by Zhuang officials and intellectuals.
Christianity (基督教 Jīdūjiào, "religion of Christ") in China comprises Protestantism (基督教新教 Jīdūjiào xīnjiào, "New-Christianity"), Roman Catholicism (天主教 Tiānzhǔjiào, "religion of the Lord of Heaven"), and a small number of Orthodox Christians (正教 Zhèng jiào). Also Mormonism (摩爾門教 Mó'ěrménjiào) has a tiny presence. The Orthodox Church, which has believers among the Russian minority and some Chinese in the far northeast and far northwest, is officially recognised only in Heilongjiang. There are also a number of heterodox sects of Christian inspiration, including Zhushenism, Linglingism, Fuhuodao, Mentuhui and Eastern Lightning or the Church of Almighty God.
Christianity existed in China as early as the 7th century AD, having multiple cycles of strong presence for hundreds of years at a time, disappearing for hundreds of years, and then being re-introduced. The arrival of the Persian missionary Alopen in 635, during the early part of the Tang dynasty, is considered by some to be the first entry of the Christian religion into China. What Westerners referred to as Nestorian Christianity flourished for hundreds of years, until Emperor Wuzong of the Tang dynasty adopted anti-religious measures in 845, expelling Buddhism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism and confiscating their considerable assets. Christianity again came to China in the 13th century during the Mongol-established Yuan dynasty, when the Mongols brought Nestorianism back to the region, and contacts began with the Papacy, such as Franciscan missionaries in 1294. When the native Chinese Ming dynasty overthrew the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century, Christians were again expelled from China.
At the end of the Ming dynasty in the 16th century, Jesuits arrived in Beijing via Guangzhou. The most famous of the Jesuit missionaries was Matteo Ricci, an Italian mathematician who came to China in 1588 and lived in Beijing in 1600. Ricci was welcomed at the imperial court and introduced Western learning into China. The Jesuits followed a policy of accommodation to the traditional Chinese practice of ancestor worship, but this doctrine was eventually condemned by the Pope. Roman Catholic missions struggled in obscurity for decades afterwards.
Christianity began to take root in a significant way in the late imperial period, during the Qing dynasty, and although it has remained a minority religion in China, it has had significant recent historical impact. Further waves of missionaries came to China in the Qing period as a result of contact with foreign powers. Russian Orthodoxy was introduced in 1715 and Protestants began entering China in 1807. The pace of missionary activity increased considerably after the First Opium War in 1842. Christian missionaries and their schools, under the protection of the Western powers, went on to play a major role in the Westernization of China in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Taiping Rebellion was influenced to some degree by Christian teachings, and the Boxer Rebellion was in part a reaction against Christianity in China. Christians in China established the first modern clinics and hospitals, 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, and the unjust treatment of maidservants, as well as launching charitable work and distributing food to the poor. They also opposed the opium trade and brought treatment to many who were addicted. Some of the early leaders of the Chinese Republic, such as Sun Yat-sen were converts to Christianity and were influenced by its teachings. By 1921, Harbin, Manchuria's largest city, had a Russian population of around 100,000, constituting a large part of Christianity in the city.
Christianity, especially in its Protestant form, gained momentum in China between the 1980s and the 1990s, but in the following years, folk religion recovered more rapidly and in greater numbers than Christianity (or Buddhism). One scholar noted that "the Christian God then becomes one in a pantheon of local gods among whom the rural population divides its loyalties".
Protestants in the early twenty-first century, including both official and unofficial churches, had between 25 and 35 million adherents. Catholics were not more than 10 million. Other demographic analyses found that an average 2–4% of the population of China claims a Christian affiliation. Christians were unevenly distributed geographically. The only provinces in which they constituted a population significantly larger than 1 million persons are Henan, Anhui and Zhejiang. Protestants are characterised by a prevalence of people living in the countryside, women, illiterates and semi-literates, and elderly people.
A significant number of members of churches unregistered with the government, and of their pastors, belong to the Koreans of China. Christianity has a strong presence in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in Jilin. The Christianity of Yanbian Koreans has a patriarchal character; Korean churches are usually led by men, in contrast to Chinese churches which more often have female leadership. For instance, of the 28 registered churches of Yanji, only three of which are Chinese congregations, all the Korean churches have a male pastor while all the Chinese churches have a female pastor. Also, Korean church buildings are stylistically very similar to South Korean churches, with big spires surmounted by large red crosses. Yanbian Korean churches have been a matter of controversy for the Chinese government because of their links to South Korean churches.
In recent decades the Communist Party of China has become more tolerant of Christian churches outside party control, despite looking with distrust on organizations with international ties. The government and Chinese intellectuals tend to associate Christianity with subversive Western values, and many churches have been closed or destroyed. Since the 2010s policies against Christianity have been extended also to Hong Kong.
Islam (伊斯兰教 Yīsīlánjiào or 回教 Huíjiào) traditionally dates back to a diplomatic mission in 651, eighteen years after Muhammad's death, led by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas. Emperor Gaozong is said to have shown esteem for Islam and established the Huaisheng Mosque (Memorial Mosque) at Guangzhou in memory of the Prophet.
Muslims, mainly Arabs, travelled to China to trade. In the year 760, the Yangzhou Massacre killed large numbers of these traders and in the years 878-879 the Chinese rebels fatally targeted the Arab community in the Guangzhou Massacre. Yet Muslims virtually dominated the import and export industry by the Song dynasty. The office of Director General of Shipping was consistently held by a Muslim. Immigration increased when hundreds of thousands of Muslims were relocated to help administer China during the Yuan dynasty. A Muslim, Yeheidie'erding, led the construction of the Yuan capital of Khanbaliq, in present-day Beijing.
During the Ming dynasty, Muslims continued to have an influence among the high classes. Zhu Yuanzhang's most trusted generals were Muslim, including Lan Yu, who led a decisive victory over the Mongols, effectively ending the Mongol dream to re-conquer China. Zheng He led seven expeditions to the Indian Ocean. The Hongwu Emperor composed The Hundred-word Eulogy in praise of Muhammad. Muslims who were descended from earlier immigrants began to assimilate by speaking Chinese dialects and by adopting Chinese names and culture. They developed their own cuisine, architecture, martial arts and calligraphy. This era, sometimes considered the Golden Age of Islam in China, also saw Nanjing become an important center of Islamic study.
The rise of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) saw numerous rebellions including the Panthay Rebellion, which occurred in Yunnan province from 1855 to 1873, and the Dungan revolt, which occurred mostly in Xinjiang, Shaanxi and Gansu, from 1862 to 1877. The Manchu government ordered the execution of all rebels killing a million people in the Panthay Rebellion, several million in the Dungan revolt. However, many Muslims like Ma Zhan'ao, Ma Anliang, Dong Fuxiang, Ma Qianling, and Ma Julung defected to the Qing dynasty side, and helped the Qing general Zuo Zongtang exterminate the Muslim rebels. These Muslim generals belonged to the Khafiya sect, and they helped Qing defeat Jahariyya rebels. In 1895, another Dungan Revolt (1895) broke out, and loyalist Muslims like Dong Fuxiang, Ma Anliang, Ma Guoliang, Ma Fulu, and Ma Fuxiang suppressed and massacred the rebel Muslims led by Ma Dahan, Ma Yonglin, and Ma Wanfu. A Muslim army called the Kansu Braves led by General Dong Fuxiang fought for the Qing dynasty against the foreigners during the Boxer Rebellion.
After the fall of the Qing, Sun Yat-sen, proclaimed that the country belonged equally to the Han, Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan and Hui people. In the 1920s the provinces of Qinhai, Gansu and Ningxia came under the control of Muslim Governors/Warlords known as the Ma clique, who served as generals in the National Revolutionary Army. During Maoist rule, in the Cultural Revolution, mosques were often defaced, destroyed or closed and copies of the Quran were destroyed by the Red Guards.
Today Islam is experiencing a revival. There is an upsurge in Islamic expression and many nationwide Islamic associations have organized to co-ordinate inter-ethnic activities among Muslims. Muslims are found in every province in China, but they constitute a majority only in Xinjiang, and a large amount of the population in Ningxia and Qinghai. Of China's recognised ethnic minorities, ten groups are predominantly Muslim. Accurate statistics on China's current Muslim population are hard to find; various surveys have found that they constitute 1–2% of the population of China, or between 20 and 30 million people. They are served by 35.000 to 45.000 mosques, 40.000 to 50.000 imams (ahong), and 10 Quranic institutions.
Judaism (犹太教 Yóutàijiào) was introduced during the Tang dynasty or earlier, by small groups of Jews settled in China. The most prominent early community was at Kaifeng, in Henan province (Kaifeng Jews). In the 20th century many Jews arrived in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Harbin during those cities' periods of economic expansion in the first decades of the century, as well as for the purpose of seeking refuge from anti-Semitic pogroms in the Russian Empire (the early 1900s), the communist revolution and civic war in Russia (1917–1918), and anti-Semitic Nazi policy in Central Europe, chiefly in Germany and Austria (1937–1940), and the last wave from Poland and other Eastern European countries (the early 1940s).
Shanghai was particularly notable for its numerous Jewish refugees (Shanghai Ghetto), most of whom left after the war, the rest relocating prior to or immediately after the establishment of the People's Republic. Today, the Kaifeng Jewish community is functionally extinct. Many descendants of the Kaifeng community still live among the Chinese population, mostly unaware of their Jewish ancestry. Meanwhile, remnants of the later arrivals maintain communities in Shanghai and Hong Kong. In recent years a community has also developed in Beijing, especially by Chabad-Lubavitch.
More recently, since the late 20th century, along with the study of religion in general, the study of Judaism and Jews in China as an academic subject has begun to blossom (i.e. Institute of Jewish Studies (Nanjing), China Judaic Studies Association).
The Bahá'í Faith (巴哈伊信仰 Bāhāyī xìnyǎng, 巴哈伊教 Bāhāyī jiào, or, in old translations, 大同教 Dàtóng jiào) has a presence in China since the 19th century.
Hinduism (印度教 Yìndùjiào) entered China around the same time as Buddhism, generally imported by Indian merchants, from different routes. One of them was the "Silk Route by Sea" which started from the Coromandel Coast in southeast India and reached Southeast Asia and then southeastern Chinese cities; another route was that from the ancient kingdom of Kamrupa, through upper Burma, reaching Yunnan; a third route is the well-known Silk Route reaching northwest China, which was the main route through which Buddhism spread into China. Archeological remains of Hindu temples and typical Hindu icons have been found in coastal cities of China and in Dali, Yunnan. It is recorded that in 758 there were three Brahminic temples in Guangzhou, with resident brahmins, and Hindu temples in Quanzhou. Remains of Hindu temples have also been discovered in Xinjiang, and they are of an earlier date than those in southeast China.
Hindu texts were translated into Chinese, including a large number of Indian Tantric texts and the Vedas, which are known in Chinese as the Minglun or Zhilun, or through phonetical transliteration as the Weituo, Feituo or Pituo. Various Chinese Buddhist monks dedicated themselves to the study of Hindu scriptures, thought and practice. In the Sui and later Tang dynasty, Hindu texts translated into Chinese included the Śulvasūtra, the Śulvaśāstra and the Prescriptions of Brahmin Rishis. The Tibetans contributed with the translation into Chinese of the Pāṇinisūtra and the Rāmāyaṇa.
In the 7th century there was an intellectual exchange between Taoists and Shaktas in India, with the translation of the Daodejing in Sanskrit. Some breathing techniques practiced in Shaktism are known as Cīnācāra ("Chinese Practice"), and the Shakta tantras which discuss them trace their origin to Taoism. Two of these tantras report that the Shakta master Vaśiṣṭha paid visit to China specifically for the purpose to learn Cīnācāra from the Taoists. According to Tamil language Śaivāgama of Pashupata Shaivism, two of the eighteen siddha of southern Shaktism, Bogar and Pulipani, were ethnically Chinese. Shaktism itself was practiced in China in the Tang period.
The impact of Hinduism in China is also evident in various gods, originally of Hindu origin, which have been absorbed into the Chinese folk religion. A glaring example is the god Hanuman, who gave rise to the Chinese god Hóuwáng (猴王 "Monkey King"), known as Sun Wukong in the Journey to the West. In the last decades there has been a growth of modern, transnational forms of Hinduism in China: Yogic ("Yoga" is rendered as 瑜伽 Yújiā, literally the "Jade Maiden"), Tantric, and Krishnaite groups (the Bhagavad Gita has been recently translated and published in China) have appeared in many urban centres including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Shenzhen, Wuhan and Harbin.
Manichaeism (摩尼教 Móníjiào or 明教 Míngjiào, "bright transmission") is a religion which was founded in Sasanid Mesopotamia, in the 3rd century, by the prophet Mani who wrote his texts in Mesopotamian Aramaic language. Based on Gnostic teachings and able to adapt to different cultural contexts, the Manichaean religion spread rapidly both westward to the Roman Empire and eastward to China. Historical sources speak of the religion being introduced in China in 694, though this may have happened much earlier. Manichaeans in China preserved a tradition that the spread of their religion in China was brought about by the arrival of Mōzak under Emperor Gaozong of Tang (650-83). His pupil, the Manichaean bishop Mihr-Ohrmazd, also came to China where he was granted an audience by empress Wu Zetian (684-704), and according to later Buddhist sources he presented at the throne the Erzongjing ("Text of the Two Principles") which became the most popular Manichaean scripture in China.
Manichaeism had bad reputation among Tang dynasty authorities, who regarded it as an erroneous form of Buddhism. However, as a religion of the Western peoples (Bactrians, Sogdians) it was not outlawed provided that it remained confined to them not spreading among Chinese. In 731 a Manichaean priest was asked by the current Chinese emperor to make a summary of Manichaean religious doctrines, so that he wrote the Compendium of the Teachings of Mani, the Awakened of Light, rediscovered at Dunhuang by Aurel Stein (1862-1943), which interprets Mani as an incarnation of Laozi. As time went on, Manichaeism conflicted with Buddhism but appears to have had good relations with the Taoists; an 8th-century-version of the Huahujing, a Taoist work polemical towards Buddhism, holds the same view of the Manichaean Compendium of Mani as Laozi reincarnated among the Western barbarians.
In the early 8th century Manichaeism became the official religion of the Uyghur Khaganate. As Uyghurs were traditional allies of the Chinese, also supporting the Tang during the An Lushan Rebellion at the half of the century, the Tangs' attitude towards the religion relaxed and under the Uyghur Khaganate's patronage Manichaean churches prospered in Nanjing, Yangzhou, Jingzhou, Shaoxing and other places. When the Uyghur Khaganate was defeated by the Kyrgyz in 840, Manichaeism's fortune vanished as anti-foreign sentiment arose among the Chinese. Manichaean properties were confiscated, the temples were destroyed, the scriptures were burned and the clergy was laicised, or killed, as was the case of seventy nuns who were executed at the Tang capital Chang'an. In the same years all foreign religions were suppressed under Emperor Wuzong of Tang (840-846).
The religion never recovered from the persecutions, but it persisted as a distinct underground movement at least until the 14th century, particularly among southeastern Chinese, resurfacing from time to time supporting peasant rebellions. In 1120, a rebellion led by Fang La was believed to have been caused by Manichaeans, and widespread crackdown of unauthorised religious assemblies took place. The Song dynasty continued to suppress Manichaeism as a subversive cult. During the subsequent Mongol Yuan dynasty, foreign religions were generally granted freedom, but the following Ming dynasty renewed discriminations against them. Small Manichaean communities are still active in modern China. Besides, Manichaeism is thought to have exerted a strong influence in some of the currents of popular sects, such as that which gave rise to Xiantiandao.
Zoroastrianism (琐罗亚斯德教 Suǒluōyàsīdéjiào or 祆教 Xiānjiào, "Heaven worship teaching", but also 波斯教 Bōsījiào, "Persian teaching", and 拜火教 Bàihuǒjiào, "fire-worshippers' transmission", and 白頭教 Báitóujiào, "old age teaching") was first introduced in northern China in the 4th century or even earlier, by the Sogdians, and it developed through three stages. Some scholars provide evidences that would attest the existence of Zoroastrianism, or Iranian religion, in China, as early as the 2nd and 1st century BCE. Worship of Mithra was performed at the court of Emperor Wu of Han (187-87 BCE).
The first phase of Zoroastrianism in China started in the Wei and Jin dynasties of the Northern and Southern dynasties' period (220-589), when Sogdian Zoroastrians advanced into China. They did not proselytise among Chinese, and from this period there are only two known fragments of Zoroastrian literature, both in Sogdian language. One of them is a translation of the Ashem Vohu recovered by Aurel Stein in Dunhuang and now preserved at the British Museum. The Tang dynasty prohibited Chinese people to profess Zoroastrianism, so it remained primarily a foreign religion. Before the An Lushan Rebellion (756-763), Sogdians and Chinese lived as segregated ethnic groups; however, after the rebellion intermarriage became common and the Sogdians were gradually assimilated by the Chinese.
In addition to the Sogdian Zoroastrians, after the fall of the Sasanid dynasty (651), in the 7th and 8th centuries Iranian Zoroastrians, including aristocrats and magi, migrated to northern China. Fleeing the Islamisation of Iran, they settled in the cities of Chang'an, Luoyang, Kaifeng, Yangzhou, Taiyuan and elsewhere. In the Tang period it is attested that there were at least twenty-nine Zoroastrian fire temples in northern urban centres. During the great purge of foreign religions under Emperor Wuzong of Tang also Zoroastrianism was target of suppression.
The second phase of Zoroastrianism in China was in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907-960), and saw the development of a Chinese Zoroastrianism which lasted until modern times. During this period, the gods of Sogdian Zoroastrianism were assimilated into the Chinese folk religion; Zoroastrian currents of the Chinese folk religion were increasingly practiced by the Chinese and survived until the 1940s. Chinese Zoroastrian temples were witnessed to be active in Hanyang, Hubei until those years.
The third phase started in the 18th century when Parsi merchants sailed from Mumbai to Macau, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Parsi cemeteries and fire temples were built in these coastal cities, in east China. The Parsis were expelled when the Communist Party of China rose to power in 1949. A Parsi fire temple was built in Shanghai in 1866, and was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Starting in the 1980s there has been a new wave of Parsis settling in China.
In Classical Chinese, Zoroastrianism was first referred to as 胡天 Hútiān, which in the Wei-Jin became the appellation of all northern nomads. In the early Tang, a new character was invented specifically for Zoroastrianism, 祆 xiān, meaning the "worship of Heaven". Curiously, in the Far East the Zoroastrians were regarded as "Heaven worshippers" rather than "fire worshippers" (in Japanese the name of the religion is Kenkyō, the same as in Chinese). At the time it was rare for the Chinese to create a character for a foreign religion, and this is an evidence of the impact of Zoroastrians in Tang Chinese society.
Between 1931 and 1945, with the establishment of the Japanese-controlled Manchukuo ("Manchu Country") in northeast China (Manchuria), many shrines of State Shinto (神社, Chinese: shénshè, Japanese: jinja) were established in the area.
They were part of the project of cultural assimilation of Manchuria into Japan, or Japanisation. The same was happening in Taiwan. With the end of World War II and the Manchu Country (Manchukuo) in 1945, and the return of Manchuria and Taiwan to China under the Guomindang, Shinto was abolished and the shrines destroyed.
During the same period also many Japanese new religions, or independent Shinto sects, proselytised in Manchuria establishing hundreds of congregations. Most of the missions belonged to the Omoto teaching, the Tenri teaching and the Konko teaching of Shinto.
China has a history of schools of thought not relying on conceptions of an absolute, or putting absolutes into question. Mark Juergensmeyer observes that Confucianism itself is primarily pragmatic and humanist, in it the "thisworldliness" being the priority. Given the differences between Western and Chinese concepts of "religion", Hu Shih stated in the 1920s what has been translated in Western terminology as "China is a country without religion and the Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstitions".
The Classic of Poetry contains several catechistic poems in the Decade of Dang questioning the authority or existence of the God of Heaven. Later philosophers such as Xun Zi, Fan Zhen, Han Fei, Zhang Zai, and Wang Fuzhi also criticized religious practices prevalent during their times. During the efflorescence of Buddhism in the Southern and Northern dynasties, Fan Zhen wrote "On the Extinction of the Soul" (神灭论 Shénmièlùn) to criticise Buddhist ideas pf body-soul dualism, samsara and karma. He wrote that the soul is merely an effect or function of the body, and that there is no soul without the body (i.e., after the destruction and death of the body). Further, he considered that cause-and-effect relationships claimed to be evidence of karma were merely the result of coincidence and bias. For this, he was exiled by Emperor Wu of Liang.