Shenism in Southeast Asia

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Kheng Hock Keong, of the Chinese community in Yangon, Burma, is a temple enshrining Mazu.

Shenism (shen worship) in Southeast Asia plays a dynamic role in the lives of the Chinese populations that have settled in the countries of this geographic region, particularly Burmese Chinese, Singaporean Chinese, Malaysian Chinese, Thai Chinese and Hoa. The Indonesian Chinese, by contrast, were forced to adopt en masse either Buddhism or Christianity in the 1950s and 1960s, abandoning traditional worship, due to Indonesia's religious policies which forbade Chinese traditional religion. "Shenism" is one of the alternative names for the Chinese folk religion, the ethnic religion of Han Chinese, especially coined referring to its Southeast Asian expression; another Southeast Asian name for the religion is the Sanskrit expression Satya Dharma (literally "Truth Law").

The Chinese folk religion of Southeast Asia is markedly typified by the interaction with Malay indigenous religions (Malaysian and Indonesian folk religion) and the adoption of gods of Hindu derivation, such as Brahma, Ganesha and Hanuman. The philosophical forms of Confucianism and Taoism are followed, and organised forms of the Chinese folk faith, such as the Church of Virtue, Yiguandao and Zhenkongism, have taken significant foothold among Southeast Asian Chinese.

In Singapore about 11% of the total population is Taoist, composed by a 14.4% of the Chinese Singaporeans identifying as Taoists.[1] In Malaysia, around 10% of Chinese Malaysians practice Chinese folk religions, corresponding to around 1% of the whole country population.[2] However, numbers may be significantly larger since many folk religious Chinese register as "Buddhists" for census purposes. In Indonesia, Taosu Agung Kusumo, leader of the Majelis Agama Tao Indonesia, claims there are 5 million Taoist followers in the country as of 2009.[3]

By country[edit]


Satya Dharma Temple in Bali is dedicated to Mazu and a variety of other deties, including Hindu ones.
Kelenteng Thien Ie Kong (Temple of the Olden Lord of Heaven) in Kota Samarinda, East Kalimantan province of Indonesia.

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

All religions insist on peace. From this we might think that the religious struggle for peace is simple... but it is not. The deep problem is that people use religion wrongly in pursuit of victory and triumph. This sad fact then leads to conflict with people who have different beliefs.[4]

The first precept of Pancasila (the Five Basic Principles of the Indonesian state) stipulates belief in the one and only God. The Confucian philosophy is able to fulfill this, for Confucius mentioned only one God in his teaching, the Heaven or Shangdi. The Heaven possess the characteristic of Yuan Heng Li Zhen, or Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent, Just.[5]

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

Another movement in Indonesia is the Tridharma (Sanskrit: "law of the three"), syncretising elements of different religions, the Chinese three teachings amongst others.[6] After the fall of Suharto rule it is undergoing a process of systematisation of doctrines and rituals.[6] Tridharma temples always consist of three main rooms: the front room for Tian or God, the middle for the main deity of the temple, the back room for the three teachers and their pantheon: Confucius, Laozi, and Buddha. Several big Chinese population cities like Medan, Batam, Bagansiapiapi and Singkawang has a significant numbers of Chinese folk religion followers aside Buddhist. There are also many Taoist associations in Indonesia.

Some local deities which are not known outside Indonesia includes Tan Hu Cin Jin from Banyuwangi-Bali, Tan Tik Siu from Tulungagung, Tan Oei Ji Sian Seng or Gi Yong Kong from Rembang-Lasem, and Tey Hai Cin Jin whose worshiped on the coastal cities of East and Middle Java.


Kwong Fook Kung Temple, a Chinese folk temple in Papar, Sabah.
The Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia, hosting a Chinese cult of the snake that is unique to the area.

In Malaysia the Malaysian Chinese constitute a large segment of the population, mostly adherent of Mahayana Buddhism. The Chinese traditional religion has a relatively significant registered following in the states of Sarawak (6%) and Penang (5%). Many other folk religious Chinese register as "Buddhists" in government surveys. Chinese temples are called tokong in Malaysian language.

The Chinese folk religion was brought for the first time into Malaysia by Chinese emigrants in the 15th century, with small settlements that were established in Melaka by Hokkien traders, but it was not until the 19th century that there was a mass migration of Chinese. They built shrines dedicated to their deities and cemeteries for those who died. The Chinese migration during the tin and gold mining days, which were a result of high demand for these products, prompted the need of temples, for practices and religious rituals.[7]

Social organisations in the Chinese immigrant society were important, where surnames, dialect, locality and trade mattered. The Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew and Hakka, respectively formed their secret societies, such as the Ghee Hin and Hai San, and they played grassroots government of the Chinese communities.[7]

A prominent cult is that of Tua Pek Kong (大伯公 Dabo Gong), and it has incorporated the cult of the Na Tuk Kong (拿督公 Nadu Gong) of local Malay origin. Other Malay and Thai gods have been incorporated into the pantheon.


Thailand has a large population of Thai Chinese, people of Chinese or partial Chinese origin (up to 40% of the population of the country). Most of those who follow Buddhism have been integrated into the Theravada Buddhist tradition of the country, with only a negligible minority still practicing Chinese Buddhism. However, many others have retained the Chinese folk religions and Taoism.[8] Despite the large number of followers and temples, and although they are practiced freely, these religions have no state recognition, their temples are not counted as places of worship, and their followers are counted as "Theravada Buddhists" in officially released religious figures.[8] In Thailand, Chinese temples are called sanchao (Thai: ศาลเจ้า).[8]

Like in other Southeast Asian countries, the Chinese folk religion of Thailand has developed local features, including the worship of local gods.[8] Major Chinese festivals such as the Nian, Zhongqiu and Qingming are widely celebrated especially in Bangkok, Phuket, and other parts of Thailand where there are large Chinese populations.[9]

The Chinese in the city of Phuket are noted for their nine-day vegetarian festival between September and October. During the festive season, devotees will abstain from meat and mortification of the flesh by Chinese mediums are also commonly seen, along with rites devoted to the worship of Tua Pek Kong. Such traditions were developed during the 19th century in Phuket by the local Chinese with influences from Thai culture.[10]


Girl praying at Thian Hock Keng (Tianhou Temple) in Telok Ayer Street, Singapore.

Some Chinese Singaporeans practice Taoism, which in the city state is used as a synecdoche for broader Chinese folk religion. Taoists in Singapore worship many deities, that frequently are embodied by historical ancestors and are subject to a complex Taoist hierarchy of veneration. They also worship some deities of common origins, notably the Jade Emperor, Xuan Wu, Guan Yu, and Mazu. Other deities that were venerated and frequently taken as auspicious images include the Fu, Lu, and Shou. Caishen is also venerated by many Chinese businessmen. Minor deities, especially ancestral, worshipped by different language groups, may not share a common origin with other Chinese dialect groups. Unlike other groups, some deities worshipped by Hakka are not depicted in the form of statues. Usually a stone or tablet is used to represent the deity instead.

Adherents of Taoism would place house altars in their living room. This is more frequently seen among Chinese families, rather than individuals. The family god or deity would be placed on the top altar, and a spiritual tablet would be placed at the bottom altar, although ancestral tablets are at times incorrectly placed at the top altar as well. Often, urns, usually placed with some joss sticks, are placed in front of the deity. Oil lamps may also be placed at the sides, and fruit offerings are also placed in front of the deity as offerings.

A brazier, often painted red, may also be seen. They are meant for burning joss papers. They also hang a small altar, painted red, with the words "Heaven Bestows Wealth" (天宮賜福) painted on it outside the house or simply a small urn filled with ash where joss sticks are placed. The smoke emitted from burning joss sticks is believed to transmit their devotion, and at times requests, to the gods.


Many Hoa people (Han Chinese of Vietnam) practice Shenism


Organised traditions[edit]

Maha Vihara Duta Maitreya is a Yiguandao temple in Batam, Indonesia. The deity Maitreya is represented by the statue on the porch roof.

Some organised sects stemming from Shenism have been very active among Southeast Asian Chinese. They include especially Deism ("religion of virtue"),[11][12][13] Zhenkongism ("religion of True Emptiness")[14] and Yiguandao ("Consistent Way").[14]

Southeast Asian Chinese pantheon[edit]

The names of the gods are in transcribed Chinese dialects spoken by Southeast Asian Chinese populations:

  • Na Tuk Kong (Chinese characters: 拿督公), the same as Dato or Datuk, a tutelary deity in Malaysian folk religion
  • Teen Kong (天公 "Lord of Heaven" also known as the Jade Emperor)
  • Teh Choo Kong (地主公 "Earth Lord") or Di Zhu Sun (地主神 "God of the Purified Place")
  • Tua Pek Kong (大伯公)
  • Choy Sun Yeh (财神 "Wealth God")
  • Kwan Kong (關公 "Lord Guan" The God of War)
  • Kuan Yin (觀世音), the Goddess of Mercy.
  • Ma Zu (媽祖 "Ancient Mother" Goddess of the sea, fishermen and travelers going overseas)
  • She Mien Fo (四面佛 "Four Faced Awakened Being", that is Brahma)
  • Xiwang Mu (西王母 Queen Mother of the West)
  • Di Mu Niang Niang/Hou Tu (地母娘娘/后土 Mother Goddess of the land)
  • Tao Bu (斗母元君 Mother Goddess of the Big Dipper)
  • Kew Ong Ya (九皇爷 9 Emperor Gods)
  • Wenchangdi (文昌帝 God of the arts, culture, literature, scholars and students)
  • Zhu Sheng Niang Niang (註生娘娘 Goddess of fertility and children)
  • Hua Gong Hua Po (花公花婆 Fertility God and Goddess couple)
  • Jiu Tian Xuan Nu (九天玄女 Lady of the Ninth Heavens)
  • Tua Li Ya Pek (大二爺伯 Underworld Gods in charge of escorting the spirits of the dead)
  • Jin Qian Bo (金錢伯 Popularly known in English as Uncle Moneybags, who oversees joss money transfer from the living to the dead)
  • Sun Wu kong/Qi Tian Da Sheng (孫悟空,齊天大聖 Monkey God)
  • Hu Ye (虎爺 "Tiger God" Guards temples and prayed for protection against bad luck, dangers and enemies)
  • Tai Yang Xing Jun (太陽星君 Sun God)
  • Change-e/Tai Yin Niang Niang (嫦娥/太陰娘娘 Moon Goddess, prayed for beauty and youth)
  • Yuexia Laoren (月下老人 Moon Deity who brings couples together)
  • Wu Ying Jiang Jun (五營將軍 The Five Celestial Generals)
  • Tai Sui (太歲 60 Heavenly Generals in charge of each year during the Chinese 60 year cycle)
  • Men Shen (門神 Door Gods)

Places of worship and practice[edit]

Chinese temples in Indonesia and Malaysia are called kelenteng, klenteng, tokong or pekong in local Malay languages, or alternatively bio, the southern Chinese pronunciation of Mandarin miao (). In Thailand their name is sanchao (Thai: ศาลเจ้า). Items for Chinese religious practices in Southeast Asia are supplied at shén liào shāngdiàn (神料商店 "shops of goods for the gods").

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Singapore Department of Statistics (12 January 2011). "Census of population 2010: Statistical Release 1 on Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 March 2011. Retrieved 16 January 2011.
  2. ^ "2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia" (PDF). Department of Statistics, Malaysia. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 November 2013. Retrieved 17 June 2012. p. 13
  3. ^ "Tao, Taoism Religion". Retrieved 2011-11-20.
  4. ^ Ambassadors for the Universal Peace Federation.
  5. ^ Bidang Litbang PTITD/Matrisia Jawa Tengah. 2007. Pengetahuan Umum Tentang Tri Dharma, First Edition (July 2007). Publisher: Benih Bersemi, Semarang, Indonesia.
  6. ^ a b Tsuda Koji. "Chinese Religion" in Modern Indonesia: Focusing on the Trend Toward Systematization in the Post-Soeharto Era. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
  7. ^ a b Encyclopedia of Malaysia, vol. Religions & Beliefs, edited by Kamal Hassan, Ghazali bin Basri. ISBN 981-3018-51-8 [1]
  8. ^ a b c d Tatsuki Kataoka. Religion as Non-religion: The Place of Chinese Temples in Phuket, Southern Thailand. In Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3, December 2012, pp. 461–485. Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.
  9. ^ Tong Chee Kiong; Chan Kwok Bun (2001). Rethinking Assimilation and Ethnicity: The Chinese of Thailand. Alternate Identities: The Chinese of Contemporary Thailand. pp. 30–34.
  10. ^ Jean Elizabeth DeBernardi (2006). The Way That Lives in the Heart: Chinese Popular Religion and Spirits Mediums in Penang, Malaysia. Stanford University Press. pp. 25–30. ISBN 0-8047-5292-3.
  11. ^ Bernard Formoso. De Jiao - A Religious Movement in Contemporary China and Overseas: Purple Qi from the East. National University of Singapore, 2010. ISBN 978-9971-69-492-0
  12. ^ Kazuo Yoshihara. Dejiao: A Chinese Religion in Southeast Asia. In Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2/3, Folk Religion and Religious Organizations in Asia (Jun. - Sep., 1988), pp. 199–221. Published by: Nanzan University
  13. ^ Chee Beng Tan. The Development and Distribution of Dejiao Associations in Malaysia and Singapore, A Study on a Religious Organization. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Occasional Paper n. 79. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1985. ISBN 978-9971988142 (Note: Book review has a typo in the ISBN)
  14. ^ a b Vincent Goossaert, David Palmer. The Religious Question in Modern China. University of Chicago Press, 2011. ISBN 0226304167 p. 108

External links[edit]