Religion in China

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"Chinese religion" redirects here. For other uses, see Chinese religion (disambiguation).
"Three laughs at Tiger Brook", Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one, a litang style painting portraying three men laughing by a river stream, 12th century, Song dynasty.
Public worship ceremony at the Temple of Shennong-Yandi, in Suizhou, Hubei.
Temple of the Filial Blessing, a place for cultivation of lineage origins, in Wenzhou, Zhejiang.
The imposing stupa enshrining the relic of Shakyamuni Buddha's finger bone, at Famen Temple, a Buddhist complex in Baoji, Shaanxi.
A Taoist temple in Shangrao, Jiangxi, dedicated to Dongyue, the god of Mount Tai, one of the Five Great Mountains.

China has long been a cradle and host to a variety of the most enduring religio-philosophical traditions of the world. Confucianism and Taoism, plus Buddhism, constitute the "three teachings", philosophical frameworks which historically have had a significant role in shaping Chinese culture.[1][2] Elements of these three belief systems are often incorporated into the traditional folk religions.[3] Chinese religions are family-oriented and do not demand exclusive adherence, allowing the practice or belief of several at the same time. Some scholars prefer not to use the term "religion" in reference to belief systems in China, and suggest "cultural practices", "thought systems" or "philosophies" as more appropriate terms.[4] There is debate over what to call religion and who should be called religious in China.[5] The emperors of China claimed the Mandate of Heaven and participated in Chinese religious practices. Since 1949, China has been governed by the Communist Party of China, which, in theory, is as an officially atheist institution and prohibits party members from belonging to a religion.[6] During Mao Zedong's rule, religious movements were oppressed.[7] Under more recent leaders, religious organisations have been given more autonomy.[8] At the same time, China is considered a nation with a long history of humanist and secularist, this-worldly, thought since the time of Confucius,[9][note 1] who stressed shishu or shisu (世俗 "being in the world"), and Hu Shih stated in the 1920s that "China is a country without religion and the Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstitions".[11] Presently, the Party formally and institutionally recognises five religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism (though despite historic links, the Party enforces a separation of the Chinese Catholic Church from the Roman Catholic Church).[12] In recent years there have been projects of giving a more institutional recognition to Confucianism and the Chinese folk religion.[13][14]

Demographically, the largest group of religious traditions is the Chinese folk religion, which overlaps with Taoism, and describes the worship of the shen 神, a character that signifies the "energies of generation", comprising deities of the natural environment, gods of human groups, heroes and ancestors, and figures from Chinese mythology.[15] Among widespread cults even officially promoted there are those of Mazu (goddess of the seas),[16][17] Huangdi (divine patriarch of all the Chinese, "Volksgeist" of the Chinese nation),[16][18] Guandi (god of war and business), Caishen (god of prosperity and richness), Pangu and many others. China has many of the world's tallest statues, including the tallest of all. Most of them represent buddhas and deities and have been built in the 2000s. The world's tallest statue is the Spring Temple Buddha, located in Henan. Recently built in the country are also the world's tallest pagoda in Tianning Temple, and the world's tallest stupa in Famen Temple. Chinese Buddhism developed since the 1st century, and retains its utmost influence in modern China.

Scholars have noted that in China there is no clear boundary between religions, especially Buddhism, Taoism and local folk religious practice.[19] According to the most recent demographic analyses, an average 30—80% of the population in China, that is hundreds of millions of people, practice some kinds of Chinese folk religions and Taoism, 10—16% are Buddhists, 2—4% are Christians, and 1—2% are Muslims. In addition to Han people's local religious practices, there are also various ethnic minority groups in China who maintain their traditional autochthone religions. Various sects of indigenous origin gather 2—3% of the population, while Confucianism as a religious self-designation is popular among intellectuals.

Significant faiths specifically connected to certain ethnic groups include Tibetan Buddhism and the Islamic religion of the Hui and Uyghur peoples. Christianity in China was introduced two times between the 7th and the 15th centuries, but failed to take root.[20] It was reintroduced in the 16th century by Jesuit missionaries. Protestant missions and later Catholic missionaries expanded the presence of Christianity, which influenced the Taiping Rebellion of the mid 19th century. Under Communism, foreign missionaries were expelled, most churches closed and their schools, hospitals and orphanages seized.[21] During the Cultural Revolution, many priests were imprisoned.[22] After the late 1970s, religious freedoms for Christians improved.[23]

Ancient and prehistoric[edit]

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

Prior to the formation of the Chinese civilisation and the spread of world religions in the region generally known today as East Asia (which includes the territorial boundaries of modern-day China), local tribes were united by animistic, shamanic and totemic worldviews, and mediatory individuals such as shamans were the way in which prayers, sacrifices or offerings were communicated to the spiritual world. The ancient spiritual and shamanic heritage is preserved to this day in the forms of Chinese folk religions, including Taoism.[24][25]

Ancient shamanism exhibits features that are especially connected to the ancient Neolithic cultures such as the Hongshan culture.[26] The Flemish philosopher Ulrich Libbrecht traces the origins of some features of Taoism to what he calls "Wuism", or Chinese shamanism. [27]

Libbrecht distinguishes two layers in the development of the Chinese religion, traditions derived respectively from the Shang and subsequent Zhou dynasties. The religion of the Shang era developed around ancestral worship.[27] The main gods from this period are not forces of nature in the Indo-European way, but deified virtuous men.[27] The ancestors of the emperors were called di (帝), "deities", and the greatest of them was called Shangdi (上帝, "Primordial Deity").[27] He is identified with the dragon, symbol of the universal power (qi) in its yang (generative) aspect.[27]

The Zhou dynasty, succeeding the Shang, was more rooted in an agricultural worldview.[27] With them, gods of nature became dominant.[27] The utmost power in this period was named Tian (天, the "Great Oneness", "Heaven").[27] With Di (地, "earth") he forms the whole cosmos in a complementary duality.[27]

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

Modern history[edit]

16th—19th century[edit]

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

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

Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Republic of China, and his successor nationalist leader of China Chiang Kai-shek were both Christians. But with the triumph of Mao Zedong's communists, mainland China was about to become officially atheist (atheism in Chinese is called 无神论 wúshénlùn, literally the "no-god(s)-theory").

20th—21st century[edit]

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

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

This policy relaxed considerably in the late 1970s at the end of the Cultural Revolution and more tolerance of religious expression has been permitted since. The 1978 Constitution of the People's Republic of China guarantees "freedom of religion" in Article 36. The policy regarding religious practice in China states that "No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens because they do, or do not believe in religion. The state protects normal religious activities", and continues with the statement that: "nobody can make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state".[29] Since the mid-1980s there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist temples. In recent times, the government has expressed support for Buddhism and Taoism, organizing the first World Buddhist Forum in 2006, subsequent World Buddhist Fora, and a number of Taoist fora. The government sees these religions as an integral part of Chinese culture.[30]

In recent years, the Chinese government has been open especially to traditional religions such as Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and folk religion, emphasizing the role of religion in building a "Harmonious Society" (hexie shehui),[31] a Confucian idea.[32][33] At the same time, Abrahamic religions and especially Islam and Christianity are criticised by Chinese intellectuals as intolerant and arrogant, as well as vestiges of colonialism.[34] In late 2013, president Xi Jinping expressed hope that "traditional cultures" may fill "moral void" and fight corruption.[35]

The Communist Party, which remains an atheist organisation, presently formally recognises five religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism (though despite historic links, for political reasons, the Chinese Catholic Church has been separated from the Roman Catholic Church).[12][36] To some degree the government also controls the institutions of the religions it recognizes.[37] The Chinese government has banned some religious activities or movements for public health concerns.[38][39]

Templar economy[edit]

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

Scholars have studied the economic dimension of Chinese folk religion,[40] 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.[41]

This groundwork, which was already there in imperial China and plays an important role in modern Taiwan,[42] is seen as the driving force in the rapid economic development in parts of rural China, especially the southern and eastern coasts.[43][44] It is an "embedded capitalism", which preserves local identity and autonomy.[45] 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.[45]


Chinese Buddhist schools are evenly distributed across the country, but are not as popular as the Chinese folk religions. 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 amount 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.[46]

Southern provinces have experienced the most vibrant revival of Chinese folk religion,[47] although it is present all over the country in a wide variety of forms, intertwined with Taoism, fashi orders, Nuo ritualism, Wuism and other forms of ritual, worship, ecstasy and devotion. Quanzhen Taoism is mostly present in the north, while Sichuan is the area where Tianshi Taoism developed and the early Celestial Masters had their main seat. The Chinese folk religion of northeastern China (Manchuria) has unique characteristics deriving from interactions with Manchu shamanism; these include chuma xian (出馬仙 "riding (for the) the 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.[48] Otherwise, in the religious environment of Inner Mongolia there has been a significant integration of Han Chinese into the traditional folk religion of the region.

Christians are especially concentrated in the three provinces of Henan, Anhui and Zhejiang.[49] 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, Ruism of the Qiang, Shigongism or Moism of the Zhuang, Ua Dab of the Hmong, Yao Taoism, Mongolian shamanism or Tengerism, Manchu shamanism.

Geographic distribution of religions in China.[50][51]
  Chinese traditional religions: including worship of gods and ancestors, Confucianism and Taoism
  Ethnic minorities' traditional religions: Zhuang Shigongism, Yi Bimoism, Miao Hmongism, Yao Taoism
  Tengerism: Mongolian shamanism


Worshipers at the Temple of the City God of Suzhou, Jiangsu. Is it Taoism or folk religion? To the general Chinese public they are not distinguished, but a lay practitioner would hardly claim to be a "Taoist", as Taoism is a set of doctrinal and liturgical functions that work as specialising patterns for the indigenous religion.[52]

There are intrinsic logistical difficulties in trying to count the number of religious people anywhere, as well as difficulties peculiar to China due to cultural factors.[53] The concept of "religion" (宗教 zōngjiào) in China is very different from what with this term is intended in the Western world.[54] The mindset and expressed culture of the Chinese is characterised by an harmonious holism, that is a worldview in which everything is a part of the whole, an organic oneness in which every aspect reflects and presupposes the other aspects in a constant process of growing and transforming.[55] For this reasons, the forms of Chinese religious expression tend to be syncretic, in an attitude of inclusiveness for which following one religion does not necessarily mean the rejection or denial of others.[56]

Moreover, it is a matter of current debate whether some important belief systems in China, primarily Confucianism, constitute "religions".[57] As Daniel L. Overmeyer writes, in recent years there has been a "new appreciation... of the religious dimensions of Confucianism, both in its ritual activities and in the inward search for an ultimate source of moral order".[58] Many Chinese belief systems have concepts of a sacred and sometimes spiritual natural world yet do not always invoke a concept of personal god.[59]

According to Phil Zuckerman, "low response rates", "non-random samples", and "adverse political and cultural climates" are all persistent problems in establishing accurate numbers of religious believers in a given locality.[60] Similar difficulties arise in attempting to subdivide religious people into sects. Nevertheles, different agencies have attempted to analyse the statistics of adherents and practice of religions in China, holding and publishing various surveys.

Many surveys have tried to count the number of Taoists, in many cases finding very small percentages of the population choosing this religious affiliation. This is because to the Chinese general population there is no difference between Taoism and the Chinese folk religion, as Taoism is more accurately defined as an order or—as defined by Kristofer Schipper in The Taoist Body (1986)—a doctrinal and liturgical framework of the folk religion.[61]

Traditionally, the Chinese language does not have a term identifying a lay follower of Taoism, and as in the Western sinological literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the term "Taoist" identifies the daoshi (道士, "masters of the Tao")—the "Taoist priests"—, the ordained clergymen of a Taoist institution who "represent Taoist culture on a professional basis", are experts of Taoist liturgy, and therefore can employ this knowledge and ritual skills for the benefit of communities.[62] The same discourse applies to the fashi (法師, "ritual masters"), the popular non-Taoist specialists of rites.[61] The term dàojiàotú (Chinese: 道教徒; literally: "follower of Taoism"), with the meaning of "Taoist" as "lay member or believer of Taoism", is a modern invention that goes back to the introduction of the Western category of "religion" as membership in a church institution in the 20th century, and the creation of the Chinese Taoist Association, and it continues to have little sense to the majority of the Chinese population.

The analysis of the spectrum of Chinese traditional religions is furtherly complicated by discrepancies in the terminologies used in Chinese and Western languages. While in the English current usage "folk religion" means broadly all the forms of indigenous and ethnic cults of gods and ancestors, in the Chinese language and academia these cults traditionally do not have an overarching name, and by "folk religion" (民間宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào) or "folk faith" (民間信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng) the Chinese scholars have usually defined the organised sects originating from the "folk religion".[63] Furthermore, in contemporary China some of these organised sects began to register as branches of the official Taoist Association in the 1990s.[64]

  • 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.[65]
  • 2005: a survey of the religiosity of urban Chinese from the five cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Nantong, Wuhan and Baoding, conducted by professor Xinzhong Yao, found that only 5.3% of the analysed population belonged to religious organisations, while 51.8% were non religious, in that they did not belong to any religious association. Nevertheless, 23.8% of the population regularly worshipped gods and ancestors, 23.1% worshipped Buddha or identified themselves as Buddhists, up to 38.5% had beliefs and practices associated with the folk religions such as feng shui or belief in celestial powers, and only 32.9% were convinced atheists.[66]
  • 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%.[67] The surveys also found that ~60% of the population believed in concepts such as fate and fortune associated to the folk religion.[67][68]
  • 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.[69]
  • 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%.[70] The remaining 53.41% of the population claimed to be not religious.[70]
  • 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 worship[note 2], but only 16% asserting to believe in the existence of ancestral shen; 12.9% or 173 million practiced Taoism on a level indistinguishable from the folk religion; 0.9% or 12 million people identified exclusively as Taoists; 13.8% or 185 million identified as Buddhists, of which 1.3% or 17.3 million had received formal initiation; 2.4% or 33 million identified as Christians, of which 2.2% or 30 million as Protestants (of which only 38% baptised in the official churches) and 0.02% or 3 million as Catholics; and an additional 1.7% or 23 million were Muslims.[72]
  • 2012: the Chinese Family Panel Studies (CFPS) institute conducted a survey of 25 of the provinces traditionally with a Han majority, with the exception of Hainan and Qinghai, and the exclusion of the autonomous regions of Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang, and of Hong Kong and Macau.[73] 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.[74] Although ~90% of the population declared to not belong to any religion, the authors of the survey estimated that only 6.3% were atheists neither believing nor worshipping gods and ancestors.[75] The results also provided detailed demographics of religions in the five selected regions of Shanghai, Liaoning, Henan, Gansu and Guangdong.[75]
  • 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.[76]

Besides the surveys[note 3], some estimates[note 4] have been published by the Pew Research Center as part of its study of the Global Religious Landscape in 2010: according to the Pew 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.[77] According to the surveys of Phil Zuckerman published on, 59% of the Chinese population was not religious in 1993,[78] and in 2005 between 8% and 14% was atheist (from over 100 to 180 million).[79] A survey held in 2012 by WIN/GIA found that in China the atheists comprise 47% of the population.[80]

Yu Tao's survey of the year 2008 provided a detailed analysis of the social characteristics of the religious communities.[70] 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 monorities. 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 James Miller of the Protestant population being predominantly composed of illiterate and semi-illiterate people, elderly people and women, already in the 1990s and early 2000s.[81]

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.[82] Furthermore, Buddhists are generally wealthy, while Christians most often belong to the poorest parts of the population.[83] Henan has been found to be host to the largest percentage of Christians of any province of China, about 6%.[75] According to Zhe Ji, Chan Buddhism and individual, non-institutional forms of folk religiosity are particularly successful among the contemporary Chinese youth.[84]

Religion as cultural memory and morality[edit]

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

The Chinese civilisation claims an unusual continuity of several thousands of years and, as its habitat, several thousands of miles.[87] This continuity is possible through China's religion, understood as a system of knowledge transmission.[87]

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

A worthy Chinese is supposed to remember a vast amount of information from the past, and to draw on this past a basis of moral reasoning.[87] The meticulous remembrance of the past is important equally for urban and rural people, where local history is entwined with the identities of descent-based groups.[88] The identity, outlook and behaviour, of a person who grows up in a certain group is molded by the process of learning from their past through a multitude of oral, written and performative media (mythology).[88]

This is the foundation of the Chinese practice of ancestor veneration or worship (拜祖 baizu or 敬祖 jingzu)[88] that dates back to prehistory, and is a backbone of Chinese folk religion and Confucianism. Defined "the essential religion of the Chinese",[88] it is the actual mean of memory and therefore cultural vitality of the entire Chinese civilisation.[88]

Relying on lineage rhetoric, sacrificial rites, and the updating of genealogies (zupu, "books of ancestors"), it evokes memory and thus identity of each generation.[88] Temple festivals and local arts are other displays of group identities.[88] Religious rituals, symbols, objects and ideas, are the means of the construction, maintaining, and transmission of these identities.[89]

A practice developed in the Chinese folk religion of post-Maoist China, that started in the 1990s from the Confucian temples managed by the Kong kin (the lineage of the descendants of Confucius himself), is the representation of ancestors in ancestral shrines no longer just through tablets with their names, but through statues. Statuary effigies were previously exclusively used for Buddhist bodhisattva and Taoist gods.[90]

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

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

Chinese concept of religion[edit]

Understanding religion primarily as an ancestral tradition and its transmission, the Chinese have a relationship with the divine that is meaningful and functional socially, politically as well as spiritually.[91] The Chinese concept of "religion", zong jiao (宗教), draws the divine near to the human world.[92] To the Chinese the utmost deity (Di or Shangdi, or Tian) is manifested and embodied by the chief gods of each phenomenon and of each human kin, making the worship of the highest god possible even in each ancestral temple.[93]

Because "religion" refers to the bond between the human and the divine, there is always a danger that this bond will be broken.[94] However, the Chinese term zong jiao—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.[95] Zong (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.[96] Jiao (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.[97]

The mutual support of elders and youth is needed for the continuity of the ancestral tradition, that is communicated from generation to generation.[98] 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.[99] In the Chinese religions, humans are confirmed and reconfirmed with the ability to improve themselve, in a positive attitude towards eternity.[100] 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).[101]

It is important to note that no exact term described "religion" in Classical Chinese.[102] The combination of zong and jiao, despite being in circulation since the Tang dynasty in Chan circles to define the Buddhist doctrine,[103] was used to translate the Western concept of "religion" by the end of the 19th century.[104] Chinese intellectuals took the concept from the Japanese 宗教 shūkyō.[105] Under the influence of Western rationalism and later Marxism, what most of the Chinese today mean as zong jiao are "organised doctrinal teachings", that is "superstructures consisting of superstitions, dogmas, rituals and institutions".[106] The cults of gods and ancestors, that in recent (originally Western) literature have been calssified as "traditional folk religion(s)", traditionally neither have a common name nor are considered zong jiao ("doctrinal teaching").[107]

The Temple of Heaven, Beijing, where Chinese emperors prayed Heaven (1860).
(Replica) The well (藻井 zǎojǐng) of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests of the Temple of Heaven.

Cult of Heaven[edit]

Main article: Heaven worship

An ritual to worship the Heaven (Tian, that is the "Cosmos" or "The One" in the terms of European religion and philosophy, the Taidi, "Great God", also known with the title Shangdi, "Primordial Deity", in traditional beliefs) was performed each year at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing by the emperors of China. This cult dates back, according to registered history, to the Shang dynasty, and lasted until the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. Tian is the same as Tengri in Altaic shamanisms.

The cult of Heaven is closely linked with ancestral veneration and polytheism, because, accordingly to what is explained above, the ancestors and the gods are seen as a medium between Heaven (the origin) and living men. The emperor of China was known as the "Son of Heaven", invested with the Mandate of Heaven, that was the legitimacy as ruler of the Chinese state.

Confucianism inherited scholarship and the sacred books from the Shang and Zhou. In the theology of Confucianism, Shangdi is the logos (creating word), which is the manifesting path of Tian.[108] Rites are the logos of Shangdi.[109] In the tradition of New-Text School, Confucius is a "throne-less king" of Shangdi and a savior of the world. But Old-Text School persisted that Confucius is a sage of Shangdi who had given new interpretation to the heritage from previous three great dynasties.[110] In Taoist theology, Shangdi is Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊 "Heavenly Lord of the Primordial Beginning"), also venerated with the Temple of Heaven title "Primordial God the Heavenly King" (皇天上帝, Huángtiān Shàngdì).

Shenzhou—the Divine Land[edit]

By virtue of its uninterrupted connection to the principle of the world (Taidi, Tian or Di) through the rituals of ancestral memory and the wise rule of the Mandate of Heaven, one of the poetic names of China is Shénzhōu 神州, the "Divine Land", "Spiritual Land" or "Holy Land",[111] a term that originated in the Warring States period.[112] The land of shen 神, the divine principle that is present.

The same designation of "Middle Kingdom" (中国 Zhongguo), used since the 20th century as the official name of China, has religious overtones, as it defines the axis mundi (axle or pole of the world), that is the manifestation of the universal principle.[113]

As Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer wrote on these issues in The Religious Question in Modern China (2011), China stands out as a society "where the religious, the political, and the social were not clearly distinguished before the twentieth century".[114]

Main religions[edit]

Chinese traditional religion[edit]

Different levels of the folk faith
Xuanyuan Temple, dedicated to the worship of Huangdi, in Yan'an, Shaanxi.
Temple of Bao Gong in Wenzhou, Zhejiang.
Temple of the City God of Xi'an, Shaanxi.
Worship at a temple of Mazu in Tianjin.
People forgathering at an ancestral shrine in Hong'an, Hubei.
Main article: Chinese folk religion

Chinese traditional or folk religions (中国民间宗教 or 中国民间信仰, Zhōngguó mínjiān zōngjiào or Zhōngguó mínjiān xìnyǎng) are a collection of grassroots ethnic religious and/or spiritual experiences, disciplines, beliefs, practices of the Han Chinese, or the indigenous religion of China.[115] It primarily consists in the worship of the shen (神 "gods", "spirits", "awarenesses", "consciousnesses", "archetypes"; literally "expressions", the energies that generate things and make them thrive[116]) which can be nature deities, city deities or tutelary deities of other human agglomerations, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, ancestors and progenitors, 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 (not in the sense of "universalism", that is a system of universal application, but in the original sense of "uni-verse" which is "towards the One", that is the TianShangdi or Taidi in Chinese thought), especially referring to its intrinsic metaphysical perspective.[117][118]

The Chinese folk religion has a variety of sources, localised worship forms, ritual and philosophical traditions. Among the ritual traditions, notable examples include Chinese shamanism (Wuism) and Nuo rituals. Chinese folk religion is sometimes categorized inadequately as "Taoism", since over the centuries institutional Taoism has been assimilating or administering local religions. Zhengyi Taoism is especially intertwined with local cults, with Zhengyi daoshi often performing rituals for local temples and communities. Various orders of ritual ministers operate in folk religion but outside codified Taoism. Confucianism advocates worship of gods and ancestors through proper rites.[119][120] Taoism in its various currents, either comprehended or not within the Chinese folk religion, has some of its origins from Wuism.[27]

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[121]Tian (天), Heaven, the source of moral meaning, the utmost god and the universe itself; qi (气), the breath or substance of the universe; jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors; bao ying (报应), moral reciprocity—, and two traditional concepts of fate and meaning[122]ming yun (命运), the personal destiny or burgeoning; and yuan fen (缘分), "fateful coincidence",[123] good and bad chances and potential relationships.[123]

In Chinese religions, yin and yang is the polarity that describes the order of the universe,[124] held in balance by the interaction of principles of growth (shen) and principles of waning (gui),[116] with act (yang) usually preferred over receptiveness (yin).[125] Ling (numen or sacred) is the "medium" of the bivalency, and the inchoate order of creation.[125]

Despite being heavily suppressed during the last two centuries of the history of China, from the Taiping Movement to the Cultural Revolution, it is now experiencing a revival[126][127] and many of its forms have received a degrees of official recognition by the government of China, such as in the cases of Mazuism and Xiaism in southeastern China,[17] and Huangdi worship.[18]

According to the most recent demographic analyses, an average 30—80% of the population of China, approximately 400 million to 1 billion people, practices cults of gods and ancestors or belongs to folk religious sects. Moreover, according to one survey approximately 14% of the population claims different levels of affiliation with Taoist practices.[72] 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.[128]

According to Wu and Lansdowne:[129]

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

Chinese religion mirrors the social landscape, and takes on different meanings for different people.[130] According to Chen and Jeung,[131]

«Chinese rarely use the term "religion" for their popular religious practices, and they also do not utilize vocabulary that they "believe in" gods or truths. Instead they engage in religious acts that assume a vast array of gods and spirits and that also assume the efficacy of these beings in intervening in this world.»

The Chinese folk religion is a "diffused religion" rather than "institutional".[131] It is a meaning system of social solidarity and identity, ranging from the kinship systems to the community, the state, and the economy, that serves to integrate Chinese culture.[131]

According to Yiyi Lu, discussing the reconstruction of Chinese civil society:[132]

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

Sect of salvation, secret societies and martial sects[edit]

Han dynasty fragments representing qigong practices.

China has a long history of sect traditions characterised by a soteriological and eschatological character, often called "salvationist religions" (救度宗教 jiùdù zōngjiào),[133] 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.[134]

The 20th-century expression of this kind of religions has been studied under the definition of "redemptive societies" (救世团体 jiùshì tuántǐ),[135] 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),[136] abandoning the ancient derogatory definition of xiéjiào (邪教), "evil religion".[137]

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.[138] Their practices are focused on their moral teachings, body cultivation, and recitation of scriptures.[133]

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.[139] This group of religions includes[140] 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 the same religious context.[141] 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,[17] 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.[17] Some of them began to register as branches of the official Taoist Association since the 1990s.[64]

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).[142] 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).[143] They became very popular in the early republican period, and often labeled as "heretical doctrines" (宗教異端 zōngjiào yìduān).[144] 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).[145]

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.[146] They were outlawed by Ming imperial edicts that continued until the fall of the Qing dynasty in the 20th century.[146] An example of martial sect is the Meihuaquan (梅花拳 "Plum Flower Boxing"), that has become very popular throughout northern China.[146]

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


Main article: Confucianism

Confucianism (儒教 Rújiào, "teaching of the cultured ones"; or 孔教 Kǒngjiào, "teaching of Confucius") is an ethical and philosophical system, on occasion described as a religion,[note 5] developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (孔夫子 Kǒng Fūzǐ, "Master Kong", 551–479 BCE). Confucianism originated as an "ethical-sociopolitical teaching" during the Spring and Autumn Period, but later developed metaphysical and cosmological elements in the Han dynasty,[149] and became the state ideology of the Chinese empire.

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

The core of Confucianism is humanistic,[9] or what the philosopher Herbert Fingarette calls "the secular as sacred". Confucianism focuses on the practical moral order inscribed in a this-worldly awareness of the Tian and a proper respect of the gods (shen) through ritual and sacrifice,[150] with particular emphasis on the importance of the family, rather than on a transcendent divine or a soteriology.[151] This stance rests on the belief that human beings are teachable, improvable, and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor especially self-cultivation and self-creation. Confucian thought focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics. Some of the basic Confucian ethical concepts and practices include rén, , and , and zhì. Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals. Yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good. Li is a system of ritual norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act in everyday life. Zhi is the ability to see what is right and fair, or the converse, in the behaviors exhibited by others. Confucianism holds one in contempt, either passively or actively, for the failure of upholding the cardinal moral values of ren and yi. Confucianism never developed an official institutional structure as Taoism did, and its religious aspects never completely detached 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.[152] 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 NGOs.[152] Another modern proponent of the institutionalisation of Confucianism in a state church is Jiang Qing.[153]

In 2005 the Center for the Study of Confucian Religion was established,[152] 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.[152] 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.[152]

The idea of a "Confucian Church" as the state religion of China has roots in the thought of Kang Youwei, an exponent of the early New Confucian search for a regeneration of the social relevance of Confucianism, at a time when it was de-institutionalised with the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Chinese empire.[154] 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.[154]

In contemporary China, the Confucian revival has developed into different, yet interwoven, directions: the proliferation of Confucian schools or academies (shuyuan 书院),[153] the resurgence of Confucian rites (chuantong liyi),[153] and the birth of new forms of Confucian activity on the popular level, such as the Confucian communities (shequ ruxue 社区儒学).

Other forms of revival are Chinese folk religion[155] or Chinese salvationist religion[156] groups with a Confucian focus, for example the Yidan xuetang (一耽学堂) based in Beijing.[157] "Confucian businessmen" (rushang, also "learned businessman"), is a recently recovered term that defines people of the entrepreneurial or economic elite that recognise their social responsibility and therefore apply Confucian culture to their business.[158] Also, the Hong Kong Confucian Academy, the heir of Kang Youwei's idea, has expanded its activities to the mainland, with the construction of statues of Confucius, and the first Confucian church in Shenzhen and another structure in Qufu in the year 2009.[159]


Taoist temple dedicated to Jiutian Xuannü on Mount Fenghuang, in Lunmalong village, Duoba, Qinghai.
Altar to Shangdi (上帝 "Primordial God") and Doumu (斗母 "Mother of the Great Chariot"), together representing the originating principle of the universe in some Taoist cosmologies, in the Chengxu Temple of Zhouzhuang, Jiangxi.
Main article: Taoism

Taoism (道教 Dàojiào) refers to a variety of related philosophical and ritual traditions with elements going back to the 4th century BCE and to the prehistoric culture of China, and it took on an organized form starting in the 2nd century. Taoist traditions emphasise living in harmony with the Tao (also romanized as Dao). The term Tao means "way", "path" or "principle", and can also be found in Chinese philosophies and religions other than Taoism. In Taoism, however, Tao denotes something that is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists. It is ultimately ineffable: "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao."[160] Taoism can be more accurately described, as does Kristofer Schipper in The Taoist Body (1986), as a doctrinal and liturgical framework or structure for the local cults of the indigenous religion.[61]

Taoism as such did not come together as coherent or institutionalized religious tradition until the Han dynasty. In earlier ancient China, Taoists were thought of a hermits or recluses who did not participate in political life. Zhuangzi was the best known of these, and it is significant that he lived in the south, where he was part of local shamanic traditions.[161] 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.[162]

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

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

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

Suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, Taoism survived and retains its cultural status in China. In 1956 a national organization, the Chinese Taoist Association, was set up to administer Taoist activities. According to demographic analyses approximately 13% of the population of China claims a loose affiliation with Taoist practices, while self-proclaimed "Taoists" by exclusivity (a title that traditionally is only used for experts of Taoist doctrines and rites, if not strictly for priests) might be 12 million (~1%).[72] 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.[64]

There are two types of daoshi (Taoist priests), 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 the Chinese folk 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,[163] while in the same years the total number of Zhengyi priests including the unregistered ones was estimated at 200.000.[164] The Zhengyi sanju daoshi are trained by other priests of the same sect, and historically received formal ordination by the Celestial Master,[165] although the 63rd Celestial Master Zhang Enpu fled to Taiwan in the 1940s during the Chinese Civil War.

Ritual mastery—Faism[edit]

A folk Taoist ritual master in China.

Chinese ritual masters, also referred to as practitioners of Faism (法教 Fǎjiào),[166][167] also named Folk Taoism (民间道教 Mínjiàn Dàojiào) or "Redhead Taoism", are orders of ritual mastery that operate within the Chinese folk religion, but outside institutional or official Taoism.[165] The "masters of rites", the fashi (法師), are also known as hongtou daoshi (紅頭道士), meaning "redhead" or "redhat" daoshi, in contradistinction with the wutou daoshi (traditional Chinese: 烏頭道士), "blackhead" or "blackhat" daoshi, as they call the sanju daoshi of Zhengyi Taoism that were traditionally ordained by the Celestial Master.[165]

Although the two types of priests, daoshi and fashi, have the same roles in Chinese society—in that they can marry and they perform rituals for communities' temples or private homes—Zhengyi daoshi emphasize their Taoist tradition, distinguished from the more vernacular tradition of the fashi.[165][168]

Fashi are practitioners of tongji possession, healing, exorcism and jiao rituals[169] (although historically they were excluded from performing the jiao liturgy[165]). They aren't shamans (wu), with the exception of the fashi of Mount Lu Faism.[169] The priests of the Mount Lu order are popular in eastern China.[170]


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

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

Chinese Buddhism[edit]

Main article: Chinese Buddhism

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

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

The entry of Buddhism into China was marked by interaction with Taoism in particular,[171] 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.[172] 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".[173] 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.[174]

Buddhism was not universally welcomed, particularly among the gentry. The Buddha's teaching seemed alien and amoral to conservative and Confucian sensibilities.[175] 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.[172] However, Buddhism and Confucianism eventually reconciled after centuries of conflict and assimilation.[176]

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

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

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

Tibetan Buddhism[edit]

Main article: Tibetan Buddhism

The Buddhist schools that emerged in the cultural sphere of Tibet (藏传佛教 Zàngchuán Fójiào or 喇嘛教 Lǎmajiào, "Lamaism") also have an influence throughout China that dates back to historical interactions of the Han Chinese with Tibetans and Mongols. Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion in Tibet, among Tibetans in Qinghai, and has a historical and significant presence in Inner Mongolia (where its traditional name is Burkhany Shashin, "Buddha's religion", or Shira-in Shashin, the "Yellow religion"—黄教 Huángjiào in Chinese[note 6]). However, there are many Tibetan Buddhist temples as far east as Beijing. The Yonghe Temple of the capital city is one example.

There are controversies around the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, specifically the succession of Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama, who was not only the spiritual leader of Gelug, the major branch of Tibetan Buddhism, but also the reputed traditional political ruler of Tibet and was exiled with the establishment of the modern People's Republic of China. The Panchen Lama, the Tibetan hierarch in charge of the designation of the future successor of the Dalai Lama, is the 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 it was Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in 1995. 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.[177] This movement has been favoured by the proselytic activity of Chinese-speaking Tibetan lamas.[178]

Ethnic minorities' indigenous religions[edit]

Various Chinese non-Han minority populations practice unique indigenous religions. The government of China promotes and protects the indigenous religions of minority nations as pivotal expression of their culture and ethnic identity.[179]

Mongolian folk religion[edit]

Temple of the White Sulde in the town of Uxin in Inner Mongolia, in the Mu Us Desert.[note 7]
An aobao in Inner Mongolia.
Main article: Mongolian shamanism

Mongolian folk religion, that is Mongolian shamanism (蒙古族萨满教 Ménggǔzú sàmǎnjiào), alternatively named Tengerism (腾格里教 Ténggélǐjiào),[180] is the native and major religion among the Mongols of China, mostly residing in the region of Inner Mongolia.

It is centered around 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.[181] 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),[182][183] 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.[184] The cult of Genghis is also shared by the Han, claiming his spirit as the founding principle of the Yuan dynasty.[185]

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.[186] 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.[186]

Tibetan Bon[edit]

The Narshi Gompa, a Bonpo monastery in Aba, Sichuan.
Main article: Bon

"Bon" (Tibetan: བོན་; Chinese: 苯教 Běnjiào) is the post-Buddhist name of the pre-Buddhist folk religion of Tibet.[187] Buddhism spread into Tibet starting in the 7th and 8th centuries,[188] and the name "Bon" was adopted as the name of the indigenous religion in Buddhist historiography.[187] Originally, bon was the title of the shamans-priests of that indigenous religion.[187] This is in analogy with the names of the priests of the folk religions of peoples related to the Tibetans,[189] such as the dong ba of the Nakhi or the of Mongolians and other Siberian peoples.[190] Bonpo ("believers of Bon") claim that the word bon means "truth" and "reality".[187]

The spiritual source of Bon is the mythical figure of Tonpa Shenrab Miwoche.[188] 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.[188] The Chinese sage Confucius is worshipped in Bon as a holy king, master of magic and divination.[191]

Yi Bimoism[edit]

Main article: Bimoism

Bimoism (毕摩教 Bìmójiào) is the indigenous religion of the Yi people(s), the largest ethnic group in Yunnan after the Han Chinese. This faith is represented by three types of religious specialists: the bimo (毕摩, "ritual masters", "priests"), the sunyi (male shamans) and the monyi (female shamans).[192]

What distinguishes the bimo and the shamans is the way they derive their authority.[193] 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)[193] whereas the bimo—who are always males with few exceptions[194]—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.[195]

Since the 1980s, Bimoism has undergone a comprehensive revitalisation,[192] both on the grassroots level and on the scholarly level,[192] with the bimo now celebrated as an "intellectual class"[196] whose role is that of creators, preservers and transmitters of Yi high culture.[197] Since the 1990s, Bimoism has undergone an institutionalisation, starting with the foundation of the Bimo Culture Research Center in Meigu County in 1996.[198] 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.[198] Since then, large temples and ceremonial complexes for Bimoist practices have been constructed.

Zhuang Moism[edit]

Main article: Mo (religion)

Moism (摩教 Mójiào) or Shigongism (师公教 Shīgōngjiào, "religion of the [Zhuang] ancestral father"), are both names that define the indigenous religion of the Zhuang people, the largest ethnic minority of China, who inhabit the province of Guangxi.[199] It is a polytheistic-monistic and shamanic religion centered around 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.[200] In facts, Chinese scholars divide the Zhuang religion into several categories according to the type of ritual specialists who conduct the rites; these categories include Shigongism, Moism, Daogongism (道公教 Dàogōngjiào) and Wuism (巫教 Wūjiào).[201]

"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.[202] "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.[203] "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.[204] "Wuism" refers to Zhuang shamanism (Wuism is a generic Chinese terms for forms of shamanism practiced in China) and entails the practices of media who provide direct communication between the material and the spiritual worlds, known as momoed if female and gemoed if male.[205]

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.[206]


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

Dongbaism (東巴教 Dōngbajiào, "religion of the eastern Ba") is the main religion of the Nakhi people. The "dongba" ("eastern Ba") are masters of the culture, literature and the script of the Nakhi. They originated as masters of the Tibetan Bon religion ("Ba" in Nakhi language), many of whom, in times of persecution when Buddhism became the dominant religion in Tibet, were expelled and dispersed to the eastern marches settling among Nakhi and other eastern peoples.[207] Dongbaism emerged as a combination of the beliefs brought by Bon masters with indigenous Nakhi beliefs. Dongba followers believe in a celestial shaman called Shi-lo-mi-wu, with little doubt the same as the Tibetan Shenrab Miwo.[207] 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.[207]

The traditional religion of the Qiang people (mostly residing in north-western Sichuan) is known as Ruism.[208] It is a polytheistic and monistic religion, centered on the worship of ancestors and nature.[208] In the Ruist theology, there is a highest "god of Heaven", called Mubyasei or Shan Wang, five major gods, and twelve lesser gods, besides tree gods and mountain gods.[208] White stones are used as symbols of the Qiang gods.[208]

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

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

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

Abrahamic religions[edit]


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

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.[209] 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.[210] 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.[211]

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

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

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

The Taiping Rebellion was influenced to some degree by Christian teachings, and the Boxer Rebellion was in part a reaction against Christianity in China. Christians in China established the first modern clinics and hospitals,[212] 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,[213] and the unjust treatment of maidservants, as well as launching charitable work and distributing food to the poor. They also opposed the opium trade[214] 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.[215]

Christianity, especially in its Protestant form, gained momentum in China between the 1980s and the 1990s.[216] In more recent times it has been curbed by the rapid regeneration of indigenous beliefs.[217][218] Protestants today, including both official and unofficial churches, have between 25 and 35 million adherents.[219][220] Catholics are not more than 10 million.[219][220] Various recent demographic analyses have found that an average 2—4% of the population of China claims a Christian affiliation.

Christians have an uneven geographic distribution, but a more even social composition.[221] The only provinces in which they constitute a population significantly larger than 1 million persons are Henan, Anhui and Zhejiang.[221] The social composition of Christianity in China is characterised by a prevalence of women, illiterate, and elderly people.[221]

A significant amount of the members of the networks of churches unregistered with the government, and of their pastors, belong to the Koreans of China.[222] Christianity has a strong presence in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, in Jilin.[223] 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.[224] Also, Korean church buildings are stylistically very similar to South Korean churches, with big spires surmounted by large red crosses.[225] Yanbian Korean churches have been a matter of controversy for the Chinese government because of their links to South Korean churches.[226]


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

Islam (伊斯兰教 Yīsīlánjiào or 回教 Huíjiào) traditionally dates back to a diplomatic mission in 651, eighteen years after Muhammad's death, led by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas. Emperor Gaozong is said to have shown esteem for Islam and established the Huaisheng Mosque, or Memorial Mosque, in memory of the Prophet.[227]

Muslims went to China to trade and virtually dominated the import and export industry by the time of the Song dynasty, with the office of Director General of Shipping consistently being held by a Muslim. Immigration increased when hundreds of thousands of Muslims were relocated to help administer China during the Yuan dynasty. A Muslim, Yeheidie'erding, led the construction of the Yuan capital of Khanbaliq, in present-day Beijing.[228]

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 immigrats began to assimilate by speaking Chinese dialects and by adopting Chinese names and culture. They developed their own cuisine, architecture, martial arts and calligraphy. This era, sometimes considered the Golden Age of Islam in China, 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,[228] several million in the Dungan revolt.[228] 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.[229]

Today Islam is experiencing a revival. There is an upsurge in Islamic expression and many nation-wide Islamic associations have organized to co-ordinate inter-ethnic activities among Muslims. Muslims are found in every province in China, 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.[72]


Main article: Judaism in China

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).[230]

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).[231]

Bahá'í Faith[edit]

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[232] since the 19th century.

Other religions[edit]


The Buddha of Light (Mani) carved from the living rock at Cao'an Temple (now Buddhist), in Jinjiang, Fujian.
A Manichaean inscription, dated 1445, at Cao'an Temple. (Modern replica).[233]

Manichaeism (摩尼教 Móníjiào), an Iranian religion, entered China between the 6th and 8th centuries through interactions between the Tang dynasty and states of Central Asia, Daxia (Bactria).[234] In 731, a Manichaean priest was asked by the Chinese emperor to make a summary of the religion's teachings. He wrote the Compendium of the Teachings of Mani the Buddha of Light. The Tang emperors approved Manichaeism to be practiced by foreigners but prohibited preaching among Chinese people.[234]

A turning point occurred in 762 with the conversion of Bogu Khan of the Uyghurs.[234] Since 755, the Chinese Empire had been weakened by the An Shi Rebellion, and the Uyghurs had become the only fighting force serving the Tang dynasty. Bogu Khan encouraged the spread of Manichaeism into China. Manichaean temples were established in the two capitals, Chang'an and Luoyang, as well as in several other cities in northern and central China.[234]

The decline of Uyghur power in 840 brought an end to the prosperity of Manichaeism.[234] Emperor Wuzong of Tang started the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution, which was not exclusively against Buddhism but extended to all foreign religions. Manichaeism was suppressed but didn't disappear. During the period of the Five Dynasties, it re-emerged as an underground phenomenon, particularly in southern China.[234]

In 1120, a rebellion led by Fang Xi was believed to be caused by adherents of secret religious communities, whose meeting places were said to host political dissidents. This event brought crackdowns of unauthorized religious congregations and destruction of scriptures. In 1280, the rule of the Mongol Yuan dynasty gave a century of freedom to Manichaeism.[234] Subsequently, since 1368 the Ming dynasty started a new policy of extermination of the religion, which eventually disappeared completely.[234] Religious movements of the following centuries such as the Xiantiandao, are said to have inherited Manichaean influences.


Relief of the Hindu god Narasimha shown at the museum of Quanzhou.
Main article: Hinduism in China

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


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


Shinto shrine of Jilin city, Jilin province.

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

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

Irreligion in China[edit]

Main article: Irreligion in China

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Some scholars consider Confucianism as humanist and secularist. Rather, Herbert Fingarette has described it as a religion that "sacralises the secular".[10]
  2. ^ These numerical results for practitioners of the folk religions exclude those who identified with one of the institutional religions, even the 173 million folk Taoists. p. 34 of Wenzel-Teuber (2011): «The CSLS questioned people on popular religious beliefs and practices as well, and came to the following estimates (excluding those who identified themselves with an institutional religion)».[71]
  3. ^ A survey is a scientific statistical analysis based on empirical research conducted on the population through sampling.
  4. ^ An estimate is a projected number that is usually not based on a scientific statistical analysis.
  5. ^ There is no consensus on whether Confucianism is a religion or not. Yong Chen opens his book on this very topic thus: "The question of whether Confucianism is a religion is probably one of the most controversial issues in both Confucian scholarship and the discipline of religious studies."[147] In another work on this topic the authors observe that "There have been, and are still, those scholars who have understood Confucianism as a religion; others have argued that Confucianism is not a religion but something else, often, a philosophy."[148]
  6. ^ "Yellow religion", a synecdoche from the Yellow Hat sect, may also refer to yellow shamanism, that is a type of Mongolian shamanism which uses a Buddhist-like expressive style.
  7. ^ The White Sulde is one of the two spirits of Genghis Khan (the other being the Black Sulde), represented either as his white or yellow horse or as a fierce warrior riding this horse. In its interior, the temple enshrines a statue of Genghis Khan (at the center) and four of his men on each side (the total making nine, a symbolic number in Mongolian culture), there is an altar where offerings to the godly men are made, and three white suldes made with white horse hair. From the central sulde there are strings which hold tied light blue pieces of cloth with a few white ones. The wall is covered with all the names of the Mongol kins. No photos are allowed inside the temple.


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