Chinese folk religion

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Altar to Guandi at the Temple of Guandi of Jinan, Shandong.
The Temple of the Town God of Wenao, Magong, Taiwan.
Altar to the Five Officials worshipped inside the Temple of the Five Lords in Haikou, Hainan.

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

Chinese folk religion has a variety of sources, localised worship forms, founder backgrounds,[4][5] ritual and philosophical traditions. Among the ritual traditions, notable examples include Chinese shamanism (or "Wuism") and Nuo ritualism. Chinese folk religion is sometimes categorized inadequately as "Taoism", since over the centuries institutional Taoism has acted as a "liturgical framework" of local religions.[6] Zhengyi Taoism is especially intertwined with local cults, with Zhengyi daoshi (道士, "masters of the Tao") often performing rituals for local temples and communities. Various orders of ritual ministers operate in folk religion but outside codified Taoism. Confucianism advocates worship of gods and ancestors through proper rites, which have ethical importance.[7][note 5] Confucian liturgy (儒 or 正统 zhèngtǒng, "orthoprax", ritual style) led by Confucian ritual masters (礼生 lǐshēng), is used on occasions in folk temples and by lineage churches.[8] Taoism in its various currents, either comprehended or not within the Chinese folk religion, has some of its origins from Wuism.[9] Chinese religion mirrors the social landscape, and takes on different shades for different people.[10]

Despite their great diversity, all the expressions of Chinese folk religion have a common core that can be summarised as four spiritual, cosmological, and moral concepts[11]Tian (), Heaven, the source of moral meaning, the utmost god and the universe itself; qi (), the breath or substance of the universe; jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors; bao ying (报应), moral reciprocity—, and two traditional concepts of fate and meaning[12]ming yun (命运), the personal destiny or burgeoning; and yuan fen (缘分), "fateful coincidence",[13] good and bad chances and potential relationships.[13] Yin and yang is the polarity that describes the order of the universe,[14] held in balance by the interaction of principles of growth (shen) and principles of waning (gui),[2] with act (yang) usually preferred over receptiveness (yin).[15] Ling (numen or sacred) is the "medium" of the bivalency, and the inchoate order of creation.[15]

Both in imperial China and under the modern nation, the state has opposed or attempted to eradicate these practices as "superstition". Yet Chinese folk religions are currently experiencing a revival in both mainland China and Taiwan.[16][17] Various forms of culture have received forms of official recognition by the government of China, such as Mazuism and Xiaism in southeastern China,[18] Huangdi worship,[19] and other forms of local worship, for example the Longwang, Pangu or Caishen worship.[20] The Vietnamese folk religion is similar to the Chinese folk religion practiced in the south.

Terminology and definition[edit]

Temple of the City God[note 6] of Dongmen, in Xiangshan, Ningbo, Zhejiang.

While in the English language academic literature "Chinese folk religion" (民间宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào) or "folk belief" (民间信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng) have long been used to define the complex of Han local indigenous cults of China, the Chinese language historically doesn't have a concept or overarching name for this.[21] In Chinese academic literature and common usage "folk religion" (minjian zongjiao) defines strictly the organised folk religious sects.[22] Also "folk beliefs" (minjian xinyang) is a technical term with little usage outside the academia.[23]

With the rise of interest in the study of traditional cults and the creation of a state department for the legal codification of this religion,[24] intellectuals and philosophers in China have proposed the adoption of a formal name in order to solve the terminological problems of confusion with folk religious sects and conceptualise a definite field for research and administration.[25] The terms that have been proposed include "Chinese native religion" or "Chinese indigenous religion" (民俗宗教 mínsú zōngjiào), "Chinese ethnic religion" (民族宗教 mínzú zōngjiào),[26] or also simply "Chinese religion" or "Zhonghuaism" (中華教 Zhōnghuájiào) viewed as comparable to the usage of the term "Hinduism" for Indian religion,[27] and "Shenxianism" (神仙教 Shénxiānjiào, "religion of deities and immortals") partly inspired to the older term "Shenism" coined in the 1950s by the anthropologist Allan J. A. Elliott.[28]

At the same time, Chinese scholars have also identified what they find to be the essential features of the folk (or indigenous—ethnic) religion of China. According to Chen Xiaoyi 陳曉毅 local indigenous religion is the crucial factor for a harmonious "religious ecology" (zongjiao shengtai 宗教生態), that is the balance of forces in a given community.[29] Professor Han Bingfang 韓秉芳 has called for a rectification of distorted names (zhengming 正名)[note 7] and acknowledgment of folk religion for what it really is, the "core and soul of popular culture" (suwenhua de hexin yu linghun 俗文化的核心與靈魂).[30]

According to Chen Jinguo 陳進國, folk religion is a core element of Chinese cultural and religious self-awareness (wenhua zijue 文化自覺, xinyang zijue 信仰自覺).[31] He has proposed a theoretical definition of Chinese indigenous religion in "three inseparable attributes" (sanwei yiti 三位一體), apparently inspired to Tang Junyi's thought:[32]

  • substance (ti 體): religiousness (zongjiaoxing 宗教性);
  • function (yong 用): folkloricity (minsuxing 民俗性);
  • quality (xiang 相): Chineseness (zhonghuaxing 中華性).


Communal ceremony at the Temple of Shennong-Yandi in Suizhou, Hubei.
Statue of Mazu inside a temple in Chiayi, Taiwan.

Chinese folk religion is very diverse, varying from province to province and even from a village to another, for it is bound to local communities, kinship, and environments.[33] In each setting, institution and ritual behaviour assumes highly organised forms.[33] Temples and the gods enshrined acquire symbolic character, with specific functions involved in the everyday life of the local community.[33] Local religion preserves aspects of natural beliefs such as totemism,[34] animism and shamanism.[35]

The Chinese folk religion is a grassroots, pervasive factor in all aspects of the social life, contributing to the very fabric of Chinese society.[1] It is deeply embedded in family and civic life, rather than expressed in a separate organisational structure like a "church".[1]

Village temple associations and kinship-lineage associations with their temple-congregations, pilgrimage associations and formalised prayers, rituals and expressions of virtues, are the common forms of organisation of Chinese folk religion on the local level.[33] Neither initiation rituals nor official membership into a church organisation separate from one person's native identity are mandatory in order to be involved in religious activities.[33] Contrarywise to institutional religions, Chinese indigenous religion does not require "conversion" for participation.[1]

The prime criterion for participation in Chinese folk religion is not "to believe" in an official doctrine or dogma, but "to belong" to the local unit of Chinese religiousness, that is the "village" or the "kinship", with their gods and rituals.[36] Scholar Richard Madsen describes Chinese religion, adopting the definition of Tu Weiming,[37] as characterised by "immanent transcendence" grounded in a devotion to "concrete humanity", focused on building moral community within concrete humanity.[38]

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

Recent history[edit]

Altar inside a Tudi Gong temple in Quanzhou, Fujian. The back statue represents Tudi Gong (土地公 "Lord of the Local Land"), the one on the right Kui Xing.

The Chinese folk religion was subject to persecution in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many local temples were destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Rebellion in the late 1800s;[39] others suffered severe damage during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.[39] The Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 brought a third systematic effort to destroy folk religious devotion.[39]

Since then, Chinese folk religion is exhibiting a dramatic revival throughout China,[40][41] with millions of temples being rebuilt or built from scratch.[41] Since the 1980s the central government moved to a policy of benign neglect or wu wei (无为) in regard to rural community life, and the local government's new regulatory relationship with local society is characterized by practical mutual dependence; these factors have given much space for popular religion to develop.[41] In recent years, in some cases, local governments have taken an even positive and supportive attitude towards indigenous religion in the name of promoting cultural heritage.[41]

Instead of signing the demise of traditional religiousness, China's economic development has brought a spiritual renewal.[42] The worldview of the Chinese indigenous religion is distinctive;[42] its images and practices are shapen by the codes of Chinese culture, helping Chinese people to face the challenges of modernisation.[42]

Theology and cosmology[edit]

Despite their great diversity, all the expressions of Chinese folk religion have a common core that can be summarised as four spiritual, cosmological, and moral concepts:[11] Tian (), Heaven, the source of moral meaning; qi (), the breath or substance of which all things are made; the practice of jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors; bao ying (报应), moral reciprocity.

Tian and qi[edit]

Main articles: Tian and Qi

Tian is usually rendered as "Heaven", but a philological translation would be "Great One", "Great Whole", "Great All". At a point in history he was equated with the concept of Shangdi: during the Shang dynasty, which gave prominence to the worship of ancestral gods and cultural heroes, the fountain of the universe was named Shangdi, meaning "Primordial Deity" or "Highest Emperor", and manifested in the human realm as the imperial power.[43] With the Zhou dynasty, that preferred a religion focused on gods of nature, Shangdi was identificated with the more abstract and impersonal concept of Tian.[43] Another equivalent concept is that of Taidi, the "Great God". Di () is a term meaning "deity" or "emperor" (Latin: imperator, verb im-perare; "generating, making from within"), used either as a name of the primordial god or as a title of natural gods.[44]

The Tian is the absolute reality, the source of moral meaning and of all creativity inherent to the natural world.[45] This creativity or virtue (de), in humans is the potentiality to transcend the given conditions and act wisely and morally.[46] Tian is therefore both transcendent and immanent.[46] Various interpretations were developed by Confucians and other schools of thought.[47]

The qi is the breath or substance of which all things are made, including inanimate matter, the living beings, thought and gods.[48] It is the continuum energy—matter.[49] Neo-Confucian thinkers such as Zhu Xi developed the idea of li, the "reason", "order" or pattern through which the qi develops,[2] that is the polarity of yin and yang.[14] In Taoism the Tao ("Way") denotes in one concept both the impersonal absolute Tian and its order of manifestation (li).

Yin and yanggui and shen[edit]

Yin and yang as earth (and the mountain) and heaven-sky (and the Seven Stars of the North).[note 8]
Quanjunxi Linggong, the "Numinous Palace (linggong), by the Brook (xi) in the Land of Springs (quanjun)", in Quanzhou, Fujian.[note 9]

Yin and yang, which etymological roots mean respectively "shady" and "sunny", or "dark" and "light",[14] are modes of manifestation of the qi.[14] Yin is the qi in its dense, dark, sinking, wet, condensing mode; yang denotes the light, and the bright, rising, dry, expanding modality.[14] Described as Taiji (the "Great Pole"), they represent the polarity and complementarity that enlivens the cosmos.[14] They can also be conceived as "disorder" and "order", "activity" or "passivity", with act (yang) usually preferred over receptiveness (yin).[15] In Neo-Confucian terminology this polarity is li, the natural order.[14]

The concept of shén (cognate of shēn, "expansion, growth"[50]) is translated as "gods" or "spirits" (from Latin spiritus, "insufflation"), as they are the essences or energies that generate and grow the different things and phenomena.[2] In poetic speech "they draw out the ten thousand things"; they make phenomena appear and things extend themselves.[2] As forces of growth the gods are regarded as yang,[2] opposed to a yin class of entities called 鬼 guǐ (cognate of 归 guī, "return, contraction"[50]), chaotic beings.[2] The dragon is a symbol of yang, the principle of generation.[43] There are gods of nature, gods of the place, and ancestral gods (zu or zuxian).[51]

In Taoist and Confucian thought, the Tao and the multiplicity of shen are identified as one and the same.[52] In the Yizhuan, a commentary to the Yijing, it is written that «one yin and one yang are called the Tao [...] the unfathomable change of yin and yang is called shen».[52] In other texts, with a tradition going back to the Han period, the gods and spirits are explained to be names of yin and yang, forces of contraction and forces of growth.[52]

While in popular thought they have conscience and personality,[53] Neo-Confucian scholars tended to rationalise them.[54] Zhu Xi wrote that they act according to the li.[50] Zhang Zai wrote that they are "the inherent potential (liang neng) of the two ways of qi".[55] Cheng Yi said that they are "traces of the creative process".[50] Chen Chun wrote that shen and gui are expansions and contractions, going and coming, of yin and yangqi.[50]

Hun and po, and zu[edit]

Temple of the Filial Blessing (Xiaoyou gong) in Ouhai, Wenzhou, Zhejiang. It is a place for the worship of ancestors.

Like all things, also humans are enlivened by a spirit: hun and po are respectively the yang soul or mind, and the yin soul that is the body.[56] To extend life to its full potential the human shen must be cultivated, resulting in ever clearer, more luminous states of being.[2] In man there's no distinction between rationality and intuition, thinking and feeling: the human being is xin (), mind-heart.[49] With death, while the po returns to the earth, the hun is thought to be pure awareness or qi, and is the shen to whom ancestral sacrifices are dedicated.[57]

The shen of men who are properly cultivated and honoured after their death are upheld ancestors and progenitors (zuxian 祖先 or simply zu ).[51] When ancestries aren't properly cultivated the world falls into disruption, and they become gui.[51] Ancestral worship is intertwined with totemism, as the earliest ancestors of an ethnic lineage are often represented as animals or associated to them.[34][58]

Ancestors are means of connection to the Tian-Taidi, the primordial god which does not have form.[34] As ancestors have form, they shape the destiny of humans.[34] Ancestors who have had a significant impact in shaping the destiny of large groups of people, or even the entirety of the Chinese nation (cultural heroes), are exalted among the highest gods.

Bao ying and ming yun[edit]

Main articles: Bao ying and Ming yun

The Chinese traditional belief of bao ying ("reciprocity", "retribution" or "judgement"), is inscribed in the cosmological view of an ordered universe, thus moral retribution is in fact a cosmic retribution.[59] It determines fate, as written in Zhou texts: «on the doer of good, heaven sends down all blessings, and on the doer of evil, he sends down all calamities» (《书经•汤诰》); the Tian maintains balance rewarding everyone according to the quality of their actions.[60]

The cosmic significance of bao ying is better understood by exploring other two traditional concepts of fate and meaning:[12]

  • Ming yun (命运), the personal destiny or burgeoning of a being in his world, in which ming is "life" or "right", the given status of life, and yun defines "circumstance" and "individual choice"; ming is given and influenced by the transcendent force Tian (), that is the same as the "divine right" (tian ming) of ancient rulers as identified by Mencius.[12] Personal destiny (ming yun) is thus perceived as both fixed (the status of life) and flexible, open-ended (the individual choice in matters of bao ying).[12]
  • Yuan fen (缘分), "fateful coincidence",[13] describing good and bad chances and potential relationships.[13] Scholars K. S. Yang and D. Ho have analysed the psychological advantages of this belief: assigning causality of both negative and positive events to yuan fen reduces the conflictual potential of guilt and pride, and preserves social harmony.[61]

Ming yun and yuan fen are linked, because what appears on the surface to be chance (either positive or negative), is part of the deeper rhythm that shapes personal life based on how destiny is directed.[59] They are shapen by bao ying through moral actions. Recognising this connection has the result of making a person responsible for his or her actions:[60] doing good for others produces further good for oneself and contributes to social harmony.[62]

These three themes of Chinese indigenous spiritual heritage—moral reciprocity, personal destiny, fateful coincidence—are completed when a fourth notion is explained:[63]

  • Wu (), "awareness". According to scholarly studies, many practitioners recently "reverted" to the Chinese traditional religion speak of a "new awareness" (kai wu 开悟 or jue wu 觉悟) that makes the aforementioned three themes operative in one's life:[63] awareness of ming yun ignites responsibility towards one's life and world; awareness of yuan fen stirs to respond to events rather than resigning.[63] Awareness may arrive as a gift, often unbidden; then it evolves into a practice that the person intentionally follows.[63]

Ling and xianling—holy and numen[edit]

Altar to the Stone Generals, protective deities, at the Kantai Tianhou Temple in Anping, Tainan, Taiwan.
A shrine dedicated to Zhenwu in Wuqi, Taichung, Taiwan.

In Chinese religion the concept of ling () is the equivalent of holy and numen.[64] Ling is the state of the "medium" of the bivalency (yin-yang), and thus it is identical with the inchoate order of creation.[15] At times shen is used as a synonym.[2] Everything inspiring awe or wonder because it is not measured by yin and yang, because it crosses the polarity and therefore can't be conceptualised, is regarded as numinous.[2] These entities possess unusual spiritual characteristics, and possess the power to disrupt the balance of yin and yang.[2]

The notion of xian ling (显灵), variously translated as "divine efficacy, virtue" or simply the "numen", is of foremost importance in the Chinese folk religion, in the relationship between men and gods.[65] It describes the manifestation, activity, of the power of a god (灵气 ling qi, "divine energy" or "effervescence"), the evidence of the holy.[66] Within the framework of traditional cosmology, the interaction of these energies constitutes the universe.[66]

The term xian ling may be interpreted as the god revealing his presence in a particular area and temple,[67] through events that are perceived as extraordinary, miraculous.[68] Divine power usually manifests in the presence of a wide public,[67] and once the event is witnessed and acknowledged, reports about it spread quickly and the cult of the deity strikes a root, grows in popularity, and temples are built.[67]

Scholar Zavidovskaya has studied how the incentive of temples restoration since the 1980s in northern China was triggered by numerous instances of gods becoming "active", "returning", and claiming back their temples and place in society.[67] She brings the example of a Chenghuang Temple in Yulin, Shaanxi province, that during the Cultural Revolution was turned into a granary; in the 1980s the temple was restored to its original function because the seeds kept into the temple always rotted, and this event was recognized as god Chenghuang giving signs to empty his residence of grain and let him back in.[67] The ling qi, divine energy, is believed to accumulate in certain places, temples, making them holy.[67] Temples with a longer history are considered holier than newly built ones, which still need to be filled by divine energy.[67]

Another example of Zavidovskaya is that of the cult of god Zhenwu in Congluo Yu, Shanxi;[69] the god's temples were in ruins and the cult inactive until the mid 1990s, when a man with a serious cancer, in his last hope prayed (bai 拜) Zhenwu. The man began to miraculously recover day after day, and after a year he was completely healed.[69] To thank the god, he organised an opera performance in his honour.[69] A temporary altar with a statue of Zhenwu and a stage for performances was set up in an open space at the foots of a mountain.[69] While the opera was being played, large white snakes appeared, not afraid of people and not attacking them, seemingly watching the opera; the snakes were considered by locals as incarnations of Zhenwu, who came to watch the opera held in his honour.[69]

Within temples, it is common to see banners bearing the phrase "if the heart is sincere, god will reveal his power" (心诚神灵 xin cheng shen ling).[70] The relationship between men and gods is an exchange of favour.[70] This implies the belief that gods respond to the entreaties of the believer, if his or her religious fervor is sincere (cheng xin 诚心).[70] If a person believes in the god's power with all his heart and accumulates the energy of piety, the gods are confident in his faith and reveal their efficacious power.[70] At the same time, for faith to strengthen in the devout's heart, the deity has to prove his or her efficacy.[70] In exchange for divine favours, a faithful honours the deity with vow fulfillment (huan yuan 还愿 or xu yuan 许愿), through individual worship, reverence and respect (jing shen 敬神).[70]

The most common display of divine power is the cure of diseases after a faithful asks for aid.[67] Another manifestation is the fulfillment of a request of children.[67] The deity may also manifest through mediumship, entering the body of a shaman-medium and speaking through his or her lips.[67] There have been cases of people curing illnesses "on behalf of god" (ti shen zhi bing 替神治病).[69] Gods may also speak to people when they are asleep (tuomeng 托梦).[67]


Types of indigenous—ethnic religion[edit]

Communal local religion[edit]

Putou Damiao, the "First Great Temple by the Riverside", in Zhangzhou, Fujian.

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

Rituality expresses into large-scale festivals participated by members of the whole village or township community on the occasions of what are believed to be the birthdays of the gods or other events,[41] or to seek protection from droughts, epidemics, and other disasters.[41] Such festivals invoke the power of the gods for practical goals to "summon blessings and drive away harm".[41] Special devotional currents within this framework can be identified by specific names such as Mazuism (Mazujiao),[71] Wang Ye worship, or the cult of the Silkworm Mother.[72]

Kinship congregational religion[edit]

Guanji temple (left) and Huang ancestral shrine (right) in Wenzhou, Zhejiang.
People forgather for a worship ceremony at an ancestral shrine in Hong'an, Hubei.

Another dimension of the Chinese folk religion is based on family or genealogical worship of deities and ancestors in family altars or private temples (simiao 私庙 or jiamiao 家庙), or ancestral temples (citang 祠堂 or zongci 宗祠, or also zumiao 祖庙).[73] Kinship associations or churches, congregating people with the same surname and belonging to the same kin, are a major organisational unit of kinship religion: these lineage societies build temples where the deified ancestors of a kin (for example the Chens or the Lins) are enshrined and worshiped.[74] These temples serve as congregational centres for people belonging to the same lineage, and the lineage associations provide groundwork for mutual assistance.[74]

Construction of ancestral temples of impressive sizes and elaborate decorations serves as a mean to represent a kin's wealth, influence and achievement.[75] Scholar K. S. Yang has explored the ethno-political dynamism of this form of religion, through which people who become distinguished for their value and virtue are considered immortal and receive posthumous divine titles, and are believed to protect their descendants, inspiring the mythological lore and substantiating the memory of a family or kin.[76]

If their temples and their deities enshrined acquire popularity they are considered worthy of the virtue of ling, "efficacy".[76] Ancestor veneration in China (jingzu 敬祖) is observed nationally with large-scale rituals on Qingming Festival and other holidays.

Philosophical and ritual modalities[edit]

Wuism and shamanic traditions[edit]

Main articles: Chinese shamanism and Nuo rituals

Shamanism was the prevalent modality of pre-Han dynasty Chinese indigenous religion.[77] The Chinese usage distinguishes the Chinese wu tradition (巫教 wūjiào; properly shamanic, with control over the gods) from the tongji tradition (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.[77] According to Chirita (2014), Confucianism itself, with its emphasis on hierarchy and ancestral rituals, derived from the shamanic discourse of the Shang dynasty.[77] What Confucianism did was to marginalise the "dysfunctional" features of old shamanism.[77] However, shamanic traditions continued uninterrupted within the folk religion and found precise and functional forms within Taoism.[77]

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.[77] 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“:[77]

«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.[77] Shamanism is viewed by many scholars as the foundation for the emergence of civilisation, and the shaman as "teacher and spirit" of peoples.[78] The Chinese Society for Shamanic Studies was founded in Jilin City in 1988.[78]

Nuo traditions are ritual forms of the Chinese folk religion present especially in central-southern China and representing much of the religious life of the Tujia people.[79] Nuo ceremonies revolve around the worship of gods and ancestors represented by characteristic wooden masks and idols. Ritual performances and dramas are carried out by circles of ritual masters wearing masks of the gods.[79]

Confucianism, Taoism and orders of ritual masters[edit]

A fashi-led ceremony
The Temple of the God of Culture (文庙 wénmiào) of Jiangyin, Wuxi, Jiangsu. In this temple the Wéndì (文帝, "God of Culture") enshrined is Confucius.
Effigy of god Erlang inside the Taoist-managed Erwang Temple in Dujiangyan, Sichuan.

Confucianism and Taoism—which are formalised, ritual, doctrinal or philosophical traditions—can be considered as both embedded within the larger category of Chinese traditional religion, or as separate religions. In fact, one can practice certain folk cults and espouse the tenets of Confucianism as a philosophical framework, Confucian theology instructing to uphold the moral order through the worship of gods and ancestors[7] that is the way of connecting to the Tian and awakening to its harmony (li, "right").[80] Folk temples and ancestral shrines on special occasions may choose Confucian liturgy (that is called 儒 , or sometimes 正统 zhèngtǒng, meaning "orthoprax" ritual style) led by Confucian ritual masters (礼生 lǐshēng), that in many cases are the elders of a local community.[81] Confucian liturgies are alternated with Taoist liturgies and popular devotion.[82]

There are many organised groups of the folk religion that adopt Confucian liturgy and identity, for example the Way of the Gods according to the Confucian Tradition or phoenix churches, or the Confucian churches, schools and fellowships such as the Yidan xuetang (一耽学堂), a of Beijing,[83] the Mengmutang (孟母堂) of Shanghai,[84] the Kongshengtang (孔圣堂) in Shenzhen,[85] the Confucian Fellowship (儒教道坛 Rújiào Dàotán) in northern Fujian, and ancestral temples of the Kong (Confucius) lineage operating as well as Confucian-teaching churches.[86]

Some currents of Taoism are interwoven with the Chinese folk religion, especially the Zhengyi school, developing aspects of local cults within their doctrines;[6] however Taoists always highlight the distinction between their traditions and those which aren't Taoist. The daoshi (道士, "masters of the Tao") of the Zhengyi school, who are called sanju daoshi (散居道士) or huoju daoshi (火居道士), respectively meaning "scattered daoshi" and "daoshi living at home", because they can get married and perform the profession of priests as a part-time occupation, may perform rituals of offering (jiao), thanks-giving, propitiation, exorcism and rites of passage for local communities' temples and private homes.[87] Local gods of local cultures are often incorporated into their altars.[87] The Zhengyi sanju daoshi are trained by other priests of the same sect, and historically received formal ordination by the Celestial Master,[88] although the 63rd Celestial Master Zhang Enpu fled to Taiwan in the 1940s during the Chinese Civil War.

Lineages of ritual masters (法師 fashi), also referred to as practitioners of "Faism", also called "Folk Taoism" or (in southeast China) "Red Taoism", operate within the Chinese folk religion but outside institutional or official Taoism.[88] The ritual masters, who have the same role of the sanju daoshi within the fabric of society, aren't considered Taoist priests by the daoshi of Taoism who trace their lineage to the Celestial Masters. Fashi are defined as of "kataphatic" (filling) character in opposition to professional Taoists who are "kenotic" (of emptying, or apophatic, character).[89]

Organised folk religious sects[edit]

Tianyuanggong, a temple of Yiguandao in Tamsui, New Taipei, Taiwan.

China has a long history of sect traditions characterised by a soteriological and eschatological character, often called "salvationist religions" (救度宗教 jiùdù zōngjiào),[90] emerged from the traditional folk faith but neither ascribable to the lineage cult of ancestors and progenitors, nor to the communal-liturgical religion of village temples, neighbourhood, corporation, or national temples.[91]

The 20th-century expression of this kind of religions has been studied under Prasenjit Duara's definition of "redemptive societies" (救世团体 jiùshì tuántǐ),[92][93] while modern Chinese scholarship tends to describe them as "folk religious sects" (民間宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào, 民间教门 mínjiān jiàomén or 民间教派 mínjiān jiàopài),[94] abandoning the ancient derogatory definition of xiéjiào (邪教), "evil religion".[95]

They are characterised by egalitarianism; a foundation through a charismatic figure and a direct divine revelation; a millenarian eschatology and a voluntary path of salvation; an embodied experience of the numinous through healing and cultivation; and an expansive orientation through good deeds, evangelism and philanthropy.[96] Their practices are focused on their moral teachings, body cultivation, and recitation of scriptures.[90]

Many of the redemptive religions of the 20th and 21st century aspire to become the repository of the entirety of the Chinese tradition in the face of Western modernism and materialism.[97] This group of religions includes[98] Yiguandao and other Xiantiandao (先天道 "Way of the Ancient Heaven") sects, Jiugongdao (九宮道 "Way of the Nine Palaces"), various proliferations of the Luoist movement, Zailiism, and the more recent De religion, Weixinist, Xuanyuanist and Tiandist movements, the latter two focused respectively on the worship of Huangdi and the Tian. Also, most of the qigong schools are developments of the same religious context.[99] 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 Deism, Tiandism, Weixinism, Xuanyuanism and Yiguandao—have developed cooperation with mainland China's academic, non-governmental organisations,[18] and even governmental units. Xiaism is an organised folk religion founded in the 16th century, present in the Putian region (Xinghua) of Fujian where it is legally recognised.[18] Some of them began to register as branches of the official Taoist Association since the 1990s.[100]

Another category that has been sometimes confused with that of the sects of salvation by the scholarly narrative, is that of the secret societies (會道門 huìdàomén, 祕密社會 mìmì shèhuì, or 秘密結社 mìmì jiéshè).[101] 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).[102] They became very popular in the early republican period, and often labeled as "heretical doctrines" (宗教異端 zōngjiào yìduān).[102] Recent scholarship has created the label of "secret sects" (祕密教門 mìmì jiàomén) to distinguish the paesant "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).[102]

A further distinctive type of sects of the folk religion, that are possibly the same with the positive "secret sects", are the martial sects. They combine two aspects: the wenchang (文场 "cultural field"), that is the doctrinal aspect characterised by elborate cosmologies, theologies, initiatory and ritual patterns, and that is usually kept secretive ; and the wuchang (武场 "martial field"), that is the body cultivation practice and that is usually the "public face" of the sect.[103] They were outlawed by Ming imperial edicts that continued until the fall of the Qing dynasty in the 20th century.[103] An example of martial sect is the Meihuaquan (梅花拳 "Plum Flower Boxing"), that has become very popular throughout northern China.[103] In Taiwan, virtually all of the "redemptive societies" operate freely since the late 1980s.


Tiandism (Chinese: 天帝教; pinyin: Tiāndìjiào; literally: "Religion of the Heaven God") is a religion that encompasses two branches, Tiandi and Tiande (天德, "Heavenly Virtue"), emerged from the techings of Xiao Changming and Li Yujie, disseminated in the early 20th century.[104] Tiandi is actually a later sprout of Tiande, established in the 1980s.[104]

The religions focus on the worship of Tiandi (天帝), the "Heavely God" or "Heavenly Emperor",[104] on health through the proper cultivation of qi,[104] and teach a style of qigong named Tianren qigong.[105] According to scholars, Tiandism derives from the Taoist tradition of Huashan,[106] where Li Yujie studied for eight years.[107] The Tiandi church is very active both in Taiwan and mainland China, where it has high-level links.[104]


Weixinism (Chinese: 唯心聖教; pinyin: Wéixīn shèngjiào; literally: "Holy Religion of the Only Heart" or simply 心聖教; Wéixīnjiào) is a religion primarily based on the "orthodox lineages of Yijing and feng shui",[108] the Hundred Schools of Thought,[109] and worship of the "three great ancestors" (Huangdi, Yandi and Chiyou).[110] The movement promotes the restoration of the authentic roots of the Chinese civilization and Chinese reunification.[109]

The Weixinist church, which headquarters are in Taiwan, is also active in Mainland China in the key birthplaces of the Chinese culture. It has a contract with Henan government for building the "City of Eight Trigrams" templar complex on Yunmeng Mountain (of the Yan Mountains),[111] and it has also built temples in Hebei.[112]

Northern and southern typological differences[edit]

A temple dedicated to Pangu in Zhunan, Miaoli.
Altar to Baoshengdadi, whose cult is mostly Fujianese and Taiwanese.

In contrast with the folk religion of southern and southeastern provinces—which fabric is constituted fundamentally by the kins and their churches (zongzu xiehui 宗族协会) focusing on ancestral gods—, the folk religion of central-northern China (the Huabei Pingyuan) predominantly hinges on the communal worship of tutelary deities of creation and nature as identity symbols by villages populated by families of different surnames,[113] organised into "godly communities" (shenshe 神社, synonymous with shehui 社會, "society" in the original sense of "assembly of the altar", a celebration of a community and its god or gods[114]), which organise temple ceremonies (miaohui 廟會), involving processions and pilgrimages,[115] and led by indigenous ritual masters (fashi) who are often hereditary and linked to secular authority.[note 10]

Northern and southern folk religions also have a different pantheon, of which the northern one composed by more ancient gods of Chinese mythology.[116] Furthermore, folk religious sects have historically been more successful in the central plains than in southern China and central-northern folk religion has absorbed characters of the sects, especially the heavy importance of mother goddess worship (with many goddesses named mu or Laomu, "Mother" or "Ancient Mother").[117]

The folk religion of northeastern China (Manchuria) has unique characteristics deriving from the interaction of Han folk faiths with Tungus and Manchu shamanisms; these include chuma xian (出馬仙 "riding (for the) the immortal gods") shamanism, the worship of foxes and other animal deities, and the fox god and goddess—Húsān Tàiyé (胡三太爷) and Húsān Tàinǎi (胡三太奶)—at the head of pantheons.[118] 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.

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.[119][120]


"Kui Xing pointing the Big Dipper". Reproduction of a calligraphic art preserved at the Stele Forest in Xi'an. It represents the Chinese god of exams, Kui Xing, made up of the characters describing the four Confucian virtues (Sìzì 四字), standing on the head of the ao (鰲) turtle (an expression for coming first in the examinations), and "pointing the Dipper (斗)".[note 11]
Temple of Tiānhòu (天后, the "Queen of Heaven") in Qingdao, Shandong.
A Tang-style Temple of Huangdi, in Jinyun, Lishui, Zhejiang.
Chang'e Flying to the Moon, ink painting by Ren Shuai Ying, 1955. Preserved at the China's National Museum of Fine Arts.

Hierarchy of Tian and polytheism[edit]

The Chinese religion is polytheistic, meaning that many deities are worshipped as part of what has been defined as yǔzhòu shénlùn (宇宙神论), loosely translated as "cosmotheism", a worldview in which divinity is inherent to the world itself.[121] The gods (shen 神; "growth", "beings that give birth"[122]) are interwoven energies or principles that generate phenomena which reveal or reproduce the way of Heaven, that is to say the order (li) of the Great One (Tian).[note 12]

Historical persons distinguished for their worth or bravery are deified (apotheosis) and venerated and honored as ancestors or progenitors (zu 祖, the creators of a genetic line or a spiritual tradition), as immortal heroes (xian 仙).[123] The Song dynasty enlisted many of them.[124]

Immortal beings are conceived as "constellations of qi", which is so vibrant in certain historical persons that, upon the person's death, this qi nexus does not dissipate but persists, and is reinforced by living people's worship.[125] The energetic power of a god is thought to rebound on the worshipers influencing their fortune.[125]

Deities reflect the pattern or structure of development of the universe, in a hierarchy in which each god presides an aspect of reality.[10] The multifarious representation of God and deities in the Chinese cultural tradition indicates a hierarchical, multiperspective experience of divinity by the Chinese.[126] There are the great ancestral gods—the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors; the sky gods—Sun, Moon and the Stars; the gods of weather—Wind, Rain, Cloud, Thunder and Lightning; the scenery gods—the Five Mountains, the Three Hills, River, Lake and Sea; the vegetal gods—the Five Cereals, Flower, Wood; and the animal gods—Dragon, Phoenix, Crane, Unicorn and Turtle.[127] There are also many gods of Taoism and folk sects with long kataphatic names.[128]

  • Caishen (财神 "God of Wealth"), who oversees the gaining and distribution of wealth through fortune. He is often the deified manifestation of certain historical personalities such as Zhao Gongming or Bi Gan. His shape is sometimes that of a black and fierce tiger.
  • Chenghuang (城隍), commonly known as "City God" in English, a class of protective deities: each city has a Chenghuang who looks after the fortunes of the city and judges the dead. Usually these are famous or noble persons from the city who were deified after death. The Chenghuangmiao (城隍庙) or "City God Temple" was often the focal point of a town in ancient times.
  • Doumu (斗母 "Mother of the Great Chariot"), the heaven goddess representing the Big Dipper, which seven stars in addition to two not visible ones are the Jiuhuangdadi (九皇大帝 "Nine Great Emperor Gods") her sons. She is the female consort of Shangdi, also named Doufu (斗父 "Father of the Great Chariot").
  • The Baxian (八仙), the "Eight Immortals", are important literary and artistic figures who were deified after death and became objects of worship. In Taoism they're worshipped as xians.
  • Fu, Lu and Shou:
    • Fushen (福神 "God of Happiness"), he looks like a traditional Chinese feudal lord with red clothing. He symbolizes happiness and joy.
    • Lushen (禄神 "God of Prosperity"), a god of success in work and life. In ancient times he was the patron god of success in imperial bureaucracy.
    • Shoushen (寿神 "God of Longevity"), who stands for a healthy and long life. He is portrayed as an old balding man with a walking stick in his right hand and a peach in his left.
  • Fuxi and Nuwa:
    • Fuxi (伏羲), also known as Paoxi, a divine patriarch reputed to have taught to humanity writing, fishing, and hunting. Cangjie is also said to have invented writing.
    • Nüwa (女娲), an ancient mother goddess, attributed for the creation of mankind. In later traditions she is described as the twin sister or/and wife of Fuxi. It was said she used rainbow coloured stones to mend the sky when it opened a hole.
  • Guan Yu (关羽), also known with the templar names of Guandi and Guan Gong (literally "Emperor Guan" and "Lord Guan" respectively), the red-faced, bearded hero of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and symbol of loyalty. He is the patron god of policemen (and also gangsters), fortune, and law, as he shows forgiveness. He is the most popular god of war (Wudi 武帝) in both northern and southern China, although in certain areas and ethnic minorities the martial god is Chi You (蚩尤).
  • Guanyin (观音), "Observing the Cries of the World", is the goddess of mercy. Thought to derive from the goddess Miao Shan adopted also by Buddhists to represent bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.
  • Heibai Wuchang (黑白無常 "Black and White Impermanence"), two guards who serve under Yanluo, the ruler of the Underworld, alongside Ox-Head and Horse-Face. One of them is dressed in white while the other is dressed in black. They are in charge of escorting the spirits of the dead to the Underworld.
  • Huangdi (黃帝), or "Yellow Emperor", the divine patriarch of the Huaxia culture lineage. He is regarded as the founder of China.
  • Huoshen (火神), the "God of Fire". Huoshen is embodied by different characters of Chinese mythology, among which Zhu Rong.
  • Huye (虎爺), a guardian tiger god. Worshipers revere the tiger spirit to curse spiritual enemies. Rituals include stomping an effigy of a spiritual enemy in front of the tiger spirit, as well as sacrificing meat offerings, paper gold, and others.
  • Ji Gong (济公), a folk hero combining a wild and eccentric behaviour and a kind-hearted personality.
  • Jinzha (金吒), Muzha (木吒) and Nezha (哪吒). Three brothers and warlike protector deities. Their father is Li Jing, the tower-wielding god (托塔李天王).
  • Lei Gong (雷公 "Lord of Thunder") or Leishen (雷神 "God of Thunder"), with an eagle-face and a hammer, he is the spirit of thunder punishing evil-doers on Heaven's behalf.
  • Longmu (龙母 "Dragon Mother"), a deified woman who raised five infant dragons.
  • Longwang (龙王 "Dragon Kings"; also Sihai Longwang 四海龍王, "Dragon Kings of the Four Seas"), four water gods or rain gods, patrons of the Four Seas (sihai 四海) and the four cardinal directions. They are the White Dragon, the Black Dragon, the Red Dragon or Yellow Dragon, and the Blue Dragon or Green Dragon. They are usually represented as creatures with a human body and a dragon head, less often as entirely human figures.
  • Lu Ban (鲁班), the legendary master craftsman from the 5th century BC; patron deity of Chinese craftsmen.
  • Pangu (盘古), the Cosmic Man and creator god in certain myths. He is usually depicted as a primitive, hairy giant with horns on his head and clad in furs. Pangu set about the task of creating the world: he separated yin from yang with a swing of his giant axe, creating the Earth (murky yin) and the sky (clear yang). According to other sources, after Pangu died, his body became the land and other celestial bodies.
  • Shennong (神农), also identified as Yandi (炎帝), a divine patriarch said to have taught the ancient Chinese the practices of agriculture. He is often represented as a human with bull horns.
  • Songzi Niangniang (送子娘娘) or Zhusheng Niangniang (註生娘娘), a fertility goddess. She is worshiped by people who want children, or who want their child to be a boy.
  • Tu Di Gong (土地公 "Lord God of the Land"), the genius loci who protects a local place (especially hills), and whose statue may be found in roadside shrines. He is also the god of wealth, by virtue of his connection with the earth, and therefore, minerals and buried treasure. Houtushen (后土神) is a more generic "Earth God".
  • Wenchangdi (文昌帝 "God of Thriving Culture") or Wendi (文帝 "God of Culture"), god of students, scholars, and examination. He is worshiped by students who wish to pass their examinations. He is associated with the Big Dipper asterism. In northern China the Wendi is often identified with Confucius.
  • Xiwangmu (西王母), the "Queen Mother of the West", also known as Yaochi Jinmu (瑤池金母 "Golden Mother of the Jade Pond"), a mother goddess who reigns over a paradisaical mountain and has the power to make others immortal. In some myths, she is the mother of the Jade Emperor (玉帝).
  • Yuexia Laoren (月下老人 "Old Man Under the Moon"). The matchmaker who pairs lovers together, worshiped by those seeking their partner.
  • Zaoshen (灶神), the "God of the Kitchen", also Zao Jun (灶君), mentioned in the title of Amy Tan's novel, The Kitchen God's Wife. He reports to Heaven on the behavior of the family of the house once a year, at Chinese New Year, and is given sticky rice to render his speech less comprehensible on that occasion.
An altar with incense offerings inside the Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong.
Inner hall of the Tao Kong Pa Temple in Sukhothai Thani, Thailand.

Forms of worship and practices[edit]

Most of the temples of the Chinese folk religion emphasise the formula "if there is an entreaty, there will be a response" (you qiu bi ying 有求必应) or "if the heart is sincere, god will reveal his power" (xin cheng shen ling 心诚神灵),[70] since the relationship between the gods and humans is one of exchange of effervescence and favour.[70] The formula explains that in exchange of their favour and protection the gods require a certain type of conduct from their faithful.[129] Once the power of the deity (ling qi, xian ling) is attested, it is the responsibility of humans to prove their religious fervor and deserve/merit of divine protection.[129]

Through rituals of worship, people acquire and maintain a sense of stable world order, peace and balance (in philosophical-cosmological terms expressed by the concepts of Tian, Qi and bao ying).[70] Violating rules may insult a god and hence, undermine the balance and open the doors to chaos.[70] The attitude of the people towards their deities is of awe and apprehension.[70] Through devotional practices a person strives to secure balance and protect himself and the world he is located into from the power of unfavorable forces.[70] In this sense, the Chinese traditional view of human life is not fatalistic, but one is a master of his own life through his relationship with the divine energies.[70]

The core idea of individual worship is the display reverence/respect (jing shen 敬神) for the gods. Believers fear offending the deity and wreaking havoc.[70] Honouring the deities means the fulfillment of vows (huan yuan 还愿).[70] In most of cases, vow-fulfillment is expressed in material forms: for example jingxiang offering rituals.

Many people repay vows to the gods by contributing with incense, oil, and candles, as well as money.[130] Religious devotion may also express in the form of performance troupes (huahui), involving many different kinds of groups of performers such as stilt walkers, lion dancers, musicians, martial arts masters, yangge dancers, and story-tellers.[130]

Some gods are considered carnivorous, for example Heshen (河神) or the Longwang (龙王), and offering to them requires animal sacrifice (shengji 生祀),[131] while other deities, for example Zhenwu, do not ask for animal sacrifice.[131]

A deity may also require in exchange, for his or her help through divine effervescence, that people act morally and perform good works, virtuous deeds (shanshi 善事), and practice self-cultivation (xiu xing 修行).[132] For this aim, some forms of local religion develop clear prescriptions for believers, such as detailed lists of meritorious and sinful deeds in the form of "books of virtue" (shanshu 善书) and "ledgers of merit" (guogong ge 过功格).[133] Involvement in the affairs of communal or intra-village temples are perceived by believers as ways for accumulating merit (gongde 功德).[133] "Doing good deeds to accumulate virtue" (xing shan ji de 行善积德) is a common formula for religious practice.[134] Virtue is believed to accumulate in one's heart, which is seen as energetic centre of the human body (zai jun xin zuo tian fu 在君心作福田).[134]

Practices of communication with the gods comprehend different forms of Chinese shamanism, such as wu shamanism and tongji mediumship, or fuji practice. On the community level, religious services are organised and led by local people themselves.[39] Leaders are usually selected among male heads of families or lineages, or on the village level they may be the village heads.[39]

Places of worship[edit]

Temple of the Highest Goddess (Taimu dian) in Fuding, Ningde, Fujian. The compound has a small ancient pavilion and a larger modern one behind of it.
See also: Chinese temple

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

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

Ancestral shrines are sacred places in which lineages of related families, identified by shared surnames, worship their common progenitors. These temples are the "collective representation" of a group, and function as centers where religious, social and economic activities intersect.[135]


Detail of the Nine Dragons scroll painting by Chen Rong, 1244, Song dynasty.

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

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

The Chinese dragon (long ) is a very important symbol in Chinese indigenous tradition: it is a positive creature representing yang, and thus the life-giving creative force, the universal generating power (Tian-Shangdi) and qi,[43] from which also the kin lineage.[136][137]


The Kanteibyo (Temple of Guandi) in Kobe, Japan.
Altar to Guandi in a restaurant of Beijing.

China and Taiwan[edit]

The Pew Research Center has collected statistics saying that in China 22%[138] of the population practices the Chinese indigenous religion. Another estimate puts it at over 30% of the total population.[139] Kenneth Dean estimates a higher proportion.[note 13]

A 2010 survey has found the following numbers: 754 million (56.2%) people practice Chinese ancestral veneration, but only 216 million people (16%) believe in the existence of ancestral shen (spirits).[note 14] The same survey says 173 million (13%) adopt Taoist practices on a level which is indistinguishable from the Chinese folk religion.[140]

In Taiwan, Chinese folk religions are mostly subsumed under the label and the institutions of "Taoism", which is the religion of 33% of the population.[141]

Ritual economy[edit]

Scholars have studied the economic dimension of Chinese folk religion,[142] with its ritual and templar economy that constitutes a form of grassroots capitalism, that produces well-being among local communities through the circulation of wealth and its investment in the "sacred capital" of temples, gods and ancestors.[143]

This groundwork, which was already there in imperial China and plays an important role in modern Taiwan,[144] is seen as the driving force in the rapid economic development in parts of rural China, especially the southern and eastern coasts.[145][146] It is an "embedded capitalism", which preserves local identity and autonomy.[147] The drive for individual accumulation of money is tempered by the religious and kinship ethics of generosity in sharing wealth for devotion, ritual, and the construction of the civil society.[147]

Southeast Asia[edit]

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

In Singapore about 11% of the total population is Taoist, composed by a 14.4% of the Chinese Singaporeans identifying as Taoists.[148] In Malaysia, around 3% of Chinese Malaysians practice Chinese folk religions, corresponding to around 1% of the whole country population.[149] In Indonesia, Taosu Agung Kusumo, leader of the Majelis Agama Tao Indonesia, claims there are 5 million Taoist followers in the country as of 2009.[150]

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


Confucian temple in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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

All religions insist on peace. From this we might think that the religious struggle for peace is simple... but it is not. The deep problem is that people use religion wrongly in pursuit of victory and triumph. This sad fact then leads to conflict with people who have different beliefs.[151]

The first precept of Pancasila (the Five Basic Principles of the Indonesian state) stipulates belief in the one and only God. The Confucian philosophy is able to fulfill this, for Confucius mentioned only one God in his teaching, the Heaven or Shangdi. The Heaven possess the characteristic of Yuan Heng Li Zhen, or Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent, Just.[152]

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

Another movement in Indonesia is the Tridharma (Sanskrit: "religion of the Three"), syncretising elements of different religions, the Chinese three teachings amongst others.[153] After the fall of Suharto rule it is undergoing a process of systematisation of doctrines and rituals.[153] Tridharma temples always consist of three main rooms: the front room for Tian or God, the middle for the main deity of the temple, the back room for the three teachers and their pantheon: Confucius, Laozi, and Buddha. There are also many Taoist associations in Indonesia.


The Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia, hosting a Chinese cult of the snake that is unique to the area.

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


The Tao Kong Pa Temple in Sukhothai Thani, Thailand.

Thailand has a large population of Thai Chinese, people of Chinese or partial Chinese origin. Most of those who follow Buddhism have been integrated into the Theravada Buddhist tradition of the country, with only a negligible minority having retained Chinese Buddhism. However, many others have retained the Chinese folk religions and Taoism.[154] Despite the large number of followers and temples, and although they are practiced freely, these religions have no state recognition, their temples are not counted as places of worship, and their followers are counted as "Theravada Buddhists" in officially released religious figures.[154] In Thailand, Chinese temples are called sanchao (Thai: ศาลเจ้า).[154]

The Chinese folk religion of Thailand has developed local features, including the worship of local gods.[154] Major Chinese festivals such as the Nian, Zhongqiu and Qingming are widely celebrated especially in Bangkok, Phuket, and other parts of Thailand where there are large Chinese populations.[155]

The Chinese in the city of Phuket are noted for their nine-day vegetarian festival between September and October. During the festive season, devotees will abstain from meat and mortification of the flesh by Chinese mediums are also commonly seen, along with rites devoted to the worship of Tua Pek Kong. Such traditions were developed during the 19th century in Phuket by the local Chinese with influences from Thai culture.[156]


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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In Chinese academic literature and common usage with the terms usually translated in English as "folk religion" (民間宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào) or "folk faith" (民間信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng) they generally refer to the organised folk religious sects, and not to the local indigenous cults of gods and ancestors.[157] To resolve this terminological confusion some Chinese scholars have proposed to formally adopt a new name for the local indigenous cults of China to create a definite field for their study and a state department for their administration. Terms proposed so far are:[158]
    • Chinese native religion or Chinese indigenous religion (民俗宗教 mínsú zōngjiào);
    • Chinese ethnic religion (民族宗教 mínzú zōngjiào)
    • Simply Chinese religion or Zhonghuaism (中華教 Zhōnghuájiào), viewed as comparable to the usage of "Hinduism" for Indian religions;
    • Shenxianism (神仙教 Shénxiānjiào), "religion of gods and immortals", coined on the model of Allan J. A. Elliott's "Shenism".
  2. ^
    • The term Shenism (神教, Shénjiào) was first used in 1955 by anthropologist Allan J. A. Elliott, in his work Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore.
    • During the history of China it was named Shendao (神道, Shéndào, the "way of the gods"), apparently since the time of the spread of Buddhism to the area in the Han period (206 BCE–220 CE), in order to distinguish it from the new religion. The term was subsequently adopted in Japan as Shindo, later Shinto, with the same purpose of identification of the Japanese indigenous religion. The oldest recorded usage of Shindo is from the second half of the 6th century.[159][160]
  3. ^ Not in the sense of "universalism", that is a system of universal application, but in the original sense of "uni-verse" which is "towards the One", that is the TianShangdiTaidi in Chinese thought.
  4. ^ «J. J. M. de Groot calls "Chinese Universism" the ancient metaphysical view that serves as the basis of all classical Chinese thought. [...] In Universism, the three components of integrated universe — understood epistemologically, "heaven, earth and man", and understood ontologically, "Taiji (the great beginning, the highest ultimate), yin and yang" — are formed.» Quote from: P. Koslowski. Philosophy Bridging the World Religions. Book 5 in: A Discourse of the World Religions. Springer, 2003. ISBN 1402006489. p. 110
  5. ^ Quote: «Confucius placed strong emphasis on the importance of rites for the individual who wishes to live the good life. He maintains that "benevolence (jen) is constituted by returning to the observance of the rites through overcoming of the self" (Analects 12:1, Lau: 112). [...] Confucius holds that these rites have an ethical dimension [...] But in order to live as one should, it is not enough to follow or perform these rites—rather these rites should be lived out. Confucius holds that, when one sacrifices to the gods, one must sacrifice as if the gods are present (Analects 3:12, Lau: 69). It is not enough to perform the sacrifice, one must take part in it.»[161]
  6. ^ Chénghuángmiào (城隍庙), or city god temples, are devoted to the worship of the constitutive principles of human agglomerations, that is the Chénghuángshen (城隍神), the "God of the Boundary".
  7. ^ Distorted names are "superstitious activities" (mixin huodong 迷信活動) or "feudal superstition" (fengjian mixin 封建迷信), that were derogatorily applied to the indigenous religion by Christian missionaries in order to undermine their religious competitor, and later used in political discourse of materialist ideologies.[162]
  8. ^ In Chinese cosmology the world isn't created ex nihilo from an external god, but evolves from the primordial chaos (Hundun). One way this has been commonly expressed is in terms of the Taiji symbol of yin and yang. The outer circle represents the primordial chaos out of which spontaneously emerges the fundamental polarity of yin (dark) and yang (light), which then produce the "myriad things" or "ten thousand things" by combination and recombination.»[163]
  9. ^ Temples are usually built in accordance with feng shui methods, which hold that any thing needs to be arranged in equilibrium with the surrounding world in order to thrive. Names of holy spaces often describe, poetically, their collocation within the world.
  10. ^ Overmyer (2009, p. 73), says that from the late 19th to the 20th century few professional priests (i.e. licensed Taoists) were involved in local religion in the central and northern provinces of China, and discusses various types of folk ritual specialists including: the yuehu 樂戶, the zhuli 主禮 (p. 74), the shenjia 神家 ("godly families", hereditary specialists of gods and their rites; p. 77), then (p. 179) the yinyang or fengshui masters (as «[...] folk Zhengyi Daoists of the Lingbao scriptural tradition, living as ordinary peasants. They earn their living both as a group from performing public rituals, and individually [...] by doing geomancy and calendrical consultations for fengshui and auspicious days»; quoting: S. Jones (2007), Ritual and Music of North China: Shawm Bands in Shanxi). He also describes shamans or media known by different names: mapi 馬裨, wupo 巫婆, shen momo 神嬤嬤 or shen han 神漢 (p. 87); xingdao de 香道的 ("practitioners of the incense way"; p. 85); village xiangtou 香頭 ("incense heads"; p. 86); matong 馬童 (the same as southern jitong), either wushen 巫神 (possessed by gods) or shenguan 神官 (possessed by immortals; pp. 88-89); or "godly sages" (shensheng 神聖; p. 91). Further (p. 76), he discusses for example the sai 賽, ceremonies of thanksgiving to the gods in Shanxi with roots in the Song era, which leaders very often corresponded to local political authorities. This pattern continues today with former village Communist Party secretaries elected as temple association bosses (p. 83). He concludes (p. 92): «In sum, since at least the early twentieth century the majority of local ritual leaders in north China have been products of their own or nearby communities. They have special skills in organization, ritual performance or interaction with the gods, but none are full-time ritual specialists; they have all ‘kept their day jobs’! As such they are exemplars of ordinary people organizing and carrying out their own cultural traditions, persistent traditions with their own structure, functions and logic that deserve to be understood as such.»
  11. ^ The "Kui Xing pointing the Dipper" image is a good synthesis of the basic virtues of Chinese religion and Confucian ethics, that is to say "to move and act according to the harmony of Heaven". The Big Dipper or Great Chariot in Chinese culture (as well as in other traditional cultures) is a symbol of the axis mundi, the source of the universe (God, Tian) in its way of manifestation, order of creation (li or Tao). The symbol, also called the Gate of Heaven (天门 Tiānmén), is widely used in esoteric and mystical literature. For example, an excerpt from Shangqing Taoism's texts:[164]
    «Life and death, separation and convergence, all derive from the seven stars. Thus when the Big Dipper impinges on someone, he dies, and when it moves, he lives. That is why the seven stars are Heaven's chancellor, the yamen where the gate is opened to give life.»
  12. ^ Tian ("Sky", "Heaven", the "Great One") has many definitions. Besides Taidi ("Great God") and Shangdi ("Primordial Deity"), and Shen 神 ("God"), other names attested are:[165]
    • Tiānshén 天神, the "God of Heaven", interpreted in the Shuowen jiezi (說文解字) as "the being that gives birth to all things";
    • Shénhuáng 神皇, "God the King", attested in Taihong ("The Origin of Vital Breath");
    • Tiāndì 天帝, the "Deity of Heaven" or "Emperor of Heaven".
    • A slang Chinese term is Lǎotiānyé (老天爷), "Old Heavenly Father".
    Tian is both transcendent and immanent, manifesting in the three forms of dominance, destiny and nature. In the Wujing yiyi (五經異義, "Different Meanings in the Five Classics"), Xu Shen explains that the designation of Heaven is quintuple:[166]
    • Huáng Tiān 皇天 —"Yellow Heaven" or "Shining Heaven", when it is venerated as the lord of creation;
    • Hào Tiān 昊天—"Vast Heaven", with regard to the vastness of its vital breath (qi);
    • Mín Tiān 旻天—"Compassionate Heaven" for it hears and corresponds with justice to the all-under-heaven;
    • Shàng Tiān 上天—"Highest Heaven" or "First Heaven", for it is the primordial being supervising all-under-heaven;
    • Cāng Tiān 苍天—"Deep-Green Tian", for it being unfathomably deep.
  13. ^ Scholar Kenneth Dean estimates 680 million people involved in folk temples and rituals. Quote: «According to Dean, "in the rural sector... if one takes a rough figure of 1000 people per village living in 680,000 administrative villages and assume an average of two or three temples per village, one arrives at a figure of over 680 million villagers involved in some way with well over a million temples and their rituals".»[167]
  14. ^ However, that the nature of Chinese folk religion requires a "belief" in addition to a "practice" is controversial. The Chinese folk religion is often considered one of "belonging" rather than "believing" (see: Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 5.)


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  167. ^ Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 8. Citing: Dean, Kenneth. Local Ritual Traditions of Southeast China: A Challenge to Definitions of Religion and Theories of Ritual. In China: Methodology, Theories, and Findings, eds. Fenggang Yang and Graeme Lang, 133-165, Leiden: Brill, 2011. p. 134



External links[edit]

Media related to Chinese folk religion at Wikimedia Commons