(Last updated on: 11/11/2020)
Chinese religion is an important part of life in many parts of China. You see signs of it everywhere, from the monks walking past you in the street to the beautiful temples that you may visit on your travels. Sadly, most visitors to China just look at the architecture, take some pretty pictures and then move on. But in actual fact, if you look a little deeper, you can learn a lot of fascinating things about life in China!
If you are thinking of travelling in China or even moving to China (like I did), then I suggest you learn the basics of Chinese religion. Not only is this helpful in some social and cultural situations, but it is also soooo interesting!
Ready to learn more? Read on…
An introduction to Chinese religion
The average visitor to China might reasonably assume that the country was largely secular and that any practising of religion would be behind closed doors, perhaps clandestine. Instead, temples are popular places for Chinese people to publicly celebrate special occasions.
When travelling through China you will surely witness people queuing to light incense sticks and openly pray to their deities. It is quite an amazing sight.
In tourist destinations, temple courtyards are thronged with local people alongside visitors from all over China and overseas. Many gather to walk in the grounds, admire the buildings or pay their respects.
In the past, religion was heavily repressed in China, but today’s Government officially allows some forms of religions to practise.
The Chinese Communist Party actively encourages strong patriotism and places emphasis on living in harmony.
Religions in China are therefore not completely discouraged, but rather they are tolerated.
Atheism in China
One thing that I found very surprising is that China has the world’s biggest non-religious population. OK, I guess there are A LOT of people in China…. but there are also soooo many temples!
There is a long history of atheism in China dating back millennia. Many influential figures have demonstrated anti-religion perspectives; from poets, to philosophers to members of the government. This undoubtedly impacted the number of people who were openly religious.
Religious freedom, however, has officially been a constitutional right since 1978. Article 36 states: ‘No state organ, public organisation 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 Lonely Planet guide (2017) states that more than half (52%) of the Chinese population continue to be unaffiliated with any specific religion.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to be officially atheist and prohibits party members from holding religious beliefs. At times, it has demanded expulsion of party members who held religious convictions; officials believe party membership and religious beliefs are incompatible.
Many people perceive China to be a non-religious or atheist country today, but this is not the case at all. All you have to do is walk the streets in Shanghai or Beijing and you will see evidence of religion all around you!
The major Chinese religions
The CCP is officially atheist, but it recognises five religions:
Authorities tightly monitor registered and unregistered groups, but this doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
There are a growing number of religious believers, including those who practice folk religions and more than a dozen other banned faiths.
The graph below demonstrates the percentage of make up of Chinese religion by population percentage.
What I find it especially interesting is the distribution of Chinese religion throughout the country. As you can see in the map below, Islam is found mainly in the north-west, Protestant in the east and Buddhism is largely in the south.
OK, so lets take a look at the major Chinese religions….
Chinese Folk Religions are a combination of Confucianism and Taoism and, together with Buddhism, are seen as the most authentic.
- Confucianism is a philosophy for social harmony and the common good. Based on the work of Confucius who lived in the 6th century during a time of warfare and upheaval, the basic belief is that each individual person has a role in society. For example, a son serves his father and a father provides for his son. Through this belief, social order can be achieved.
- Taoism is a mix of philosophy and religion which connects with shamanism and pre-dates Buddhism. Based on the writings of Laotzu (c580-500BC), the faith is founded on how the universe works which allows things to occur naturally without interference. Some Chinese believe Laotzu’s travels took him westward where he became Buddha.
There is more tolerance of these religious practices than of Christianity or Islam. The building of new temples and the restoration of old ones shows a growth in folk beliefs and Buddhism.
The following sites are worth a visit if you are interested in learning more about these folk religions:
Buddhism is the religion most associated with China and neighbouring Tibet.
China has the world’s largest Buddhist population. Buddhism arrived from India in c100 BC and quickly became assimilated into Chinese culture.
Chinese towns and cities with any history often have several Buddhist temples and some house communities of monks. Buddhism centres on the worship of ancestors, spirits and other local deities.
Popular Buddhist sites that you may encounter on your travels include:
- Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai
- Bid Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an
- Dazu Rock Carvings in Chongqing
- Mt. Emei in Sichuan Province, close to Chengdu
The Tibet Autonomous Region is home to more than 6million Tibetans, most of whom practice a distinct form of Buddhism.
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of one of the main schools of Buddhism, but he lives in exile in India.
Tibetan Buddhists face high levels of religious persecution and the Chinese authorities have demanded that pictures of the Dalai Lama be replaced by Chinese leaders.
Christianity first arrived in China during the 7th century from ancient Persia via the Silk Road.
Large numbers of Christians were established in the 19th century when the Taiping Rebellion fused Christianity with revolutionary principles.
Since 1980s, there has been significant growth and today, Protestantism is the fastest-growing religious group in China.
In addition to state-regulated official churchgoers, large numbers of unregistered people attend services in underground house churches.
If you are interested in visiting some Christian faith attractions in China, you might want to check out:
- Saint Ignatius’ Cathedral in Shanghai
- Saint Sophia’s Orthodox Church in Harbin
- Saint John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong
Islam was introduced into China around 615AD as the Silk Road provided links to Islamic culture.
Islam is considered as the newest world religion, arriving after Buddhism and Christianity.
China now has ten predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, most of whom are freely able to practice their religion.
During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese Muslims were unable to complete the Hajj, but since 1979, many have travelled to Mecca and this contact has bolstered the Muslim communities in China.
The Uighurs, however, have been subjected to repression, with claims that the people hold extremist and separatist ideas. Many of these are reported to have been sent to re-education camps.
Some fascinating Islamic attractions in China include:
- The Great Mosque in Xi’an City
- Idgar Mosque in Kashgar City, Xinjiang Province
- Dongguan Mosque in Xining City, Gansu Province
Originating in Iran some 170 years ago, Baha’i is a fast-growing religion, popular in many parts of Asia.
The number of Baha’i followers in China has grown rapidly since 1990, but it is not officially registered with the Chinese government. Figures are hard to obtain as the worship is flexible and informal, often in people’s homes.
China has long been considered as a country with a great future for the Faith and parallels have been drawn between the traditional folk religions and Baha’i.
The essential message is one of unity of all peoples into a peaceful and integrated society. Baha’i translates as “the religion of great unity” in Chinese.
Banned Religious groups
Several religious and spiritual groups dubbed as ‘cults’ by the Chinese government are regularly subjected to crackdowns. Those banned include quasi-Christian groups and spiritual movements which blend forms of Buddhism with the folk religions.
Chinese religion: Further reading
As you can see, Chinese religion has a long and fascinating history. There are also many interesting religious areas and buildings that you can visit on your travels through China.
With the rapid rise in communications and expanding relationships with the outside world, increasing numbers of Chinese people appear to be looking to fulfil their spiritual needs. This is fuelling the growth of a number of religions throughout China. So much has changed in China in such a short time- I wonder where Chinese religion will be in another decade or two?
If you would like to learn more about Chinese religion, I recommend the following texts-
- Chinese Religions: Beliefs and Practices– This book brings together the studies of Jeaneane Fowler in Taoism, Chinese popular religion and the broader canvas of Chinese cosmogony, and those of Merv Fowler in Confucianism, Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism.
- Chinese Philosophy: An Introduction– An introduction to the philosophical traditions of China and the indigenous philosophical traditions of Confucianism and Daoism.
- Paradigm Shifts in Early and Modern Chinese Religion– This book explores the four periods of paradigm shift in the intertwined histories of Chinese religion, politics, and culture.