Religion in China

From Academic Kids

Temple incense near Beijing China. Image provided by Classroom Clipart (
Temple incense near Beijing China. Image provided by Classroom Clipart (

A wide variety of religions have been practiced in China since the beginning of its history. Temples of many different religions dot the landscape of China. The most widespread religion of China is Chinese traditional religion and its constituent components, including Taoism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion.

The study of religion in China is complicated by several issues. Because many Chinese belief systems have concepts of a sacred and sometimes spiritual world yet do not invoke a concept of God, classifying a Chinese belief system as either a religion or a philosophy can be problematic. Thus, some regard Confucianism and Taoism as religions, while others regard them as solely philosophies of life.

Secondly, unlike other countries, Chinese belief systems allow for syncretism and it is common to profess a belief in multiple belief systems. It is possible for someone to claim to be a Buddhist while living life according to Taoist principles and participating in ancestor worship rituals. A Buddhist would have no trouble viewing Jesus as a Bodhisattva and incorporating some Christian concepts into Buddhism while the reverse is not necessarily the case.

Major belief systems that developed within China include ancestor worship, Chinese folk religion, Confucianism, shamanism, and Taoism. Most Chinese have a conception of heaven and yin and yang. The Chinese have also believed in such practices as astrology, Feng Shui, and geomancy.

Historically, the emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven, and he typically led the imperial court in performing elaborate annual rituals. He was not believed to be a deity, but rather someone who mediated between the forces of heaven and earth. A central idea of the dynastic cycle was that an unjust imperial dynasty that had lapsed into corruption could lose the Mandate of Heaven and be overthrown by a rebellion.

Minor religions introduced from abroad include Islam and Christianity.


Chinese folk religion

Main article: Chinese folk religion

Chinese folk religion is the largest religion in China. It is practiced in much of China for thousands of years which included ancestor worship and drew heavily upon concepts and beings within Chinese mythology.


Main article: Buddhism in China

Buddhism was introduced from India during the Han dynasty and has been very popular among Chinese of all walks of life, admired by commoners, and sponsored by emperors. Estimate of Buddhists in China range from 70 million to 150 million.


Main article: Taoism

Taoism is a Chinese indigenous religion. Its primary written work, the Dao De Jing is attributed to Lao Zi, who may or may not have been a real person. The philosophy is centered on 'the way', an understanding of which can be likened to recognising the true nature of the universe.


Main article: Islam in China

Islam was introduced into China via the Silk Road in the 7th century.

It is now practised by a vast number of Chinese, predominantly such minority groups as the Hui, the Uyghurs, and the Kazakhs. These make up majorities in Ningxia and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions. Islam in China, particularly in the western, minority-dominated regions, can be connected with non-Chinese nationalism and even separatist movements.

A few zealous Chinese Christians have started an effort to try and convert Chinese Muslims to Christianity.


Main article: Christianity in China

Some consider the first entry of Christianity into China was the introduction of Nestorianism spread by European or Middle-Eastern travellers who came to China in AD 635, as documented by the Nestorian Stone in Xi'an.

In 1289, Franciscan friars from Europe initiated mission work in China. This mission collapsed in 1368, as the Ming Dynasty abolished Christianity in China.

The first Jesuit attempt to reach China was made in 1552 by Francis Xavier, but he died the same year on the Chinese island of Shangchuan, without having reached the mainland. In 1582, Jesuits once again initiated mission work in China, introducing Western science, mathematics, and astronomy. One of these missionaries was Matteo Ricci.

In the early 18th century, the Chinese Rites controversy, a dispute within the Catholic Church, arose over whether Chinese folk religion rituals and offerings to the emperor constituted idolatry.

During the 1840s, Western missionaries spread Christianity rapidly through the foreign occupied coastal cities; the Taiping Rebellion was connected in its origins to the missionary activity. British and American denominations, such as the British Methodist Church, continued to send missionaries until they were prevented from doing so following the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Protestant missionaries played an extremely important role in introducing knowledge of China to the United States and the United States to China. The book The Small Woman and film Inn of the Sixth Happiness tell the story of one such missionary, Gladys Aylward.

Since loosening of restrictions on religion after the 1970s, Christianity has grown significantly within the People's Republic. It is still, however, tightly controlled by government authorities. The Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council (Protestant) and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which has disavowed the Pope and is considered schismatic by other Roman Catholics, have affiliations with government and must follow the regulations imposed upon them. Many Christians choose however to meet independently of these organisations, typically in house churches. These fellowships are not officially registered and are seen as illegal entities and are often persecuted heavily. For this reason some meetings take place underground, coining the term "underground church". These Christians have been persecuted throughout the 20th century, especially during the Cultural Revolution, and there remains some official harassment in the form of arrests and interrogations of Chinese Christians. At the same time, there has been increasing tolerance of house churches since the late 1970s.

Chinese Christian Brother Yun's book "The Heavenly Man" achieved the Christian Book of the Year award in 2003. The book describes Yun's life from his call to preach the gospel across China and the enlargement of the house church movement.

Estimates of Christians in China are difficult to obtain because of the numbers of Christians unwilling to reveal their beliefs, the hostility of the national government towards some Christian sects, and difficulties in obtaining accurate statistics on house churches.

See also: Protestantism in China, Catholicism in China, Chinese house church and Persecution of Christians.


Main article: Judaism in China

During the Tang Dynasty (7-10 cent. CE) or earlier, small groups of Jews settled in China. The most prominent were the Kaifeng Jews, who established themselves in the city of Kaifeng, Henan province. In the 20th century, many Jews arrived in Hong Kong and Shanghai during those cities' periods of economic expansion in the first decades of the century, as well as for the purpose of seeking refuge from the Nazi-led Holocaust in Western Europe. Shanghai was particularly notable for its volume of Jewish refugees, most of whom left after the war, the rest relocating prior to or immediately after the establishment of the People's Republic. Today, Judaism in China is functionally extinct. However, some descendants of Chinese Jews may still live in the Chinese population. Morever, many Chinese as well as Jews around the world, are beginning to revive their interest in this heritage. Additionally, two of the most well-known international immigrants in the history of the PRC, Israel Epstein and Sidney Shapiro, were Jewish. Also, the study of Judaism and Jews in China as an academic subject began to blossom in the late 20th century, alongside the study of religion generally.

Recent sects

Falun Gong

Main article: Falun Gong

Way of Former Heaven

Main article: Way of Former Heaven

  1. I-Kuan Tao ("Way of Unity")
  2. T'ung-shan She ("Society of Goodness")
  3. Tien-te Sheng-chiao ("Sacred Religion of Celestial Virtue")
  4. the Tao-yuan ("Sanctuary of the Tao")
  5. the Tz'u-hui Tang ("Compassion Society")

Mainland China

The People's Republic of China was established in 1949 and for much of its early history maintained a hostile attitude toward religion which was seen as emblematic of feudalism and foreign colonialism. Houses of worship, including temples, mosques, and churches, were converted into non-religious buildings for secular use. In the early years of the People's Republic, religious belief or practice was often discouraged because it was regarded by the government as backwards and superstitious and because some Communist leaders, ranging from Vladimir Lenin to Mao Zedong, had been critical of religious institutions. During the Cultural Revolution, religion was condemned as feudalistic and thousands of religious buildings were looted and destroyed.

This attitude, however, relaxed considerably in the late 1970s, with the end of the Cultural Revoluion. The 1978 Constitution of the People's Republic of China guarantees freedom of religion with a number of restrictions. In practice, the Communist Party of China will react harshly against groups such as Falun Gong which it perceives as challenging its authority while in general ignoring groups that are not seen as challenging the state. Since the mid-1990s there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist temples that were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

The Communist Party has said that religious belief and membership are incompatible. Party membership is a necessity for many high level careers and posts. That along with other official hostility makes statistical reporting on religious membership difficult. There are five recognized religions by the state, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholic Christianity, and Protestant Christianity.

Most people report no organized religious affiliation; however, belief in folk traditions and non-religious spiritual beliefs, such as ancestor worship and feng shui, along with informal ties to local temples and unofficial house churches is in the hundreds of millions. The United States Department of State, in its annual report on International Religious Freedom [1] (, gives possibly the most reliable statistics about organized religions. In 2004 it reports the following:

  • Buddhists 8%, with more than 200,000 monks and nuns. This value is seen as extremely low because the more than 16,000 Buddhist temples do not maintain traditional congregations.
  • Taoists, unknown as a percentage, there are more than 25,000 Taoist monks and nuns at more than 1,500 temples. Taoist belief is often intertwined with both Buddhism and traditional folk religions.
  • Muslims, 1.4%, with more than 45,000 Imams.
  • Protestant Christians, 1.5% with official churches. It is estimated another 2.5% of the population is a Protestant Christian worshipping through an unofficial house church.
  • Catholic Christians, .8% with official churches, and the Vatican believes another 1.2% are Catholics that attend Catholic services at underground churches.

The People's Republic of China remains an officially atheist state, as reported by the CIA Factbook [2] (


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