Chinese Religious History

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Religion in China has varied widely since the beginning of Chinese history. Temples of many different religions dot China's landscape, including Heaven worship, Taoism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion. Mahayana Buddhism remains the largest organized religion in China since its introduction in the 1st century.

The study of religion in China is complicated by several factors. Because many Chinese belief systems have concepts of a sacred and sometimes spiritual world yet do not always invoke a concept of God, classifying a Chinese belief system as either a religion or a philosophy can be problematic. Although Taoism clearly developed a religious organization with priests, monks and temples, Confucianism remained chiefly an intellectual pursuit, with some influence from the Chinese Heaven worship practices (that included serving[1] an omnipotent, just, monotheistic, and supreme being called Shangdi).

The Chinese religions are family-oriented and do not demand the exclusive adherence of members, unlike many Western religions. Chinese people may visit Buddhist temples while living according to Taoist principles and participating in local ancestor veneration rituals.

Major forms of religion that developed within China include ancestor veneration, Chinese folk religion, shamanism, Taoism and the veneration of localized deities. Most Chinese have a conception of heaven and yin and yang. Many Chinese have also believed in such practices as astrology, Feng Shui, geomancy, and numerology.

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.

Minority faiths introduced from abroad include Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Heaven worship[edit | edit source]

The "official" orthodox faith system subscribed to by most dynasties of China until the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty is a panentheism system, centering on the worship of "Heaven" as an omnipotent force. This faith system pre-dated the development of Confucianism and Taoism or the introduction of Buddhism and Christianity. It has features of a monotheism in that Heaven is seen as an omnipotent entity, endowed with personality but no corporeal form. "Heaven" as a supernatural force was variously referred to as Shang Di (literally Emperor Above) or Huang Tian Shang Di (Sagely Heaven, Emperor Above). Worship of Heaven includes the erection of shrines, the last and greatest being the Altar of Heaven in Beijing, and the offering of prayers. Manifestation of the powers of Heaven include the weather and natural disasters. No idols were permitted in heaven worship. Especially evil people were believed to be killed by Heaven through lightning, with their crimes inscribed on their (burnt) spines.

Although it gradually diminished in popular belief after the advent of Buddhism and Taoism, among others, some of its concepts remained in use throughout the pre-modern period. These concepts, often influenced heavily by Confucianist theory, include the Mandate of Heaven, the Emperor's role as Son of Heaven, and the legitimate overthrow of a dynasty when its "mandate" ended. As a result, the worship of Heaven remained the official cult or religion of Chinese empires. Emperors who favoured Taoism or Buddhism and neglected the worship of Heaven were oftentimes seen as anomalous. Elements were also incorporated into Chinese folk religion. Execution by lightning, for example, became one of the roles of the thunder gods. The concept of the almighty Heaven remained in popular expressions. Where an Anglophone would say "Oh my God" or "Thank God", a Chinese person might say "Oh Heaven" ("老天!" or "天哪!") or "Thank the heavens and the earth" ("謝天謝地").

Along with Heaven, other major elements of the traditional Chinese universe are also venerated. These include the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon.

Ancestor worship[edit | edit source]

Chinese veneration of ancestors dates back to ancient times (10,000 BC), predating Confucianism and Taoism. Traditional Chinese culture, Confucianism, and Chinese Buddhism all value filial piety as a top virtue, and the act is a continued display of piety and respect towards departed ancestors. The veneration of ancestors can even extend to legendary figures or historical, such as the patriarch or founder of one's Chinese surname, virtuous individuals such as Confucius or Guan Yu, or the mythological figures like the Yellow Emperor, supposed as the ancestor of all Chinese people.

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 wading, funerals, and triad initiations. Worshipers generally offer prayers and food for the ancestors, light incense and candles, and burn offerings of spirit money. These activities are typically conducted at the site of ancestral graves or tombs, at an ancestral temple, or at a household shrine.

Whether this act constitutes a form of veneration or of worship, it became part of the Chinese Rites controversy, which brings up the debate over whether or not the practice conflicted with the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church.

Taoism[edit | edit source]

Taoism ("Tao Jiao," Religious Taoism) is an indigenous religion of China and is traditionally traced to the composition of the Tao Te Ching or to the founding of the Way of the Celestial Masters by Zhang Daoling, although some Taoist schools trace their origin much earlier. Taoist religion builds on earlier concepts found in classic wisdom texts such as the Book of Tao and Its Virtues or Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching). This work is attributed to the sage Lao Zi, a mythological person who subsequently came to be venerated by some as a god. The philosophy of Taoism is centered on 'the way', an understanding of which can be likened to recognizing the true nature of the universe. Taoism (in its unorganized form) is also considered the folk religion of China.

Buddhism[edit | edit source]

Buddhism was introduced from South Asia and Central Asia during the Han dynasty and was very popular among Chinese of all walks of life, admired by commoners, and sponsored by emperors in certain dynasties. Buddhism today has grown quite popular as well as gaining support from the government. It is the largest organized faith in the country. Estimates of the number of Buddhists in China range widely from 100 million to 607.4 million, or about 8 to 46.5 percent of the Chinese population, thus making China the country with the most Buddhist adherents in the world, followed by Japan. It should be noted that many Chinese identify themselves as Taoist and Buddhist at the same time.

Islam[edit | edit source]

Islam was introduced into China via the Silk Road in the 7th century (other accounts state that some of Prophet Muhammad's companions arrived there at AD 650 when the Tang Emperor Gaozong showed significant esteem for Islam and believed that its teachings are compatible with the values espoused by Confucius). Islam was later more substantially spread by merchants and craftsmen as trade routes improved. During the Yuan Dynasty, many Mosques and learning centers were constructed. Today, there are well over 30,000 Mosques around China.

The Great Mosque of Tongxin, Ningxia

Islam is now considered the second or third largest organized faith in the country (depending on the statistics of the local Christian population, which claims to have 4 to 6 percent of China's population). It is practiced by an estimated 1.5 to 2.5 percent of Chinese, predominantly such minority groups as the Hui, the Uyghurs, and the Kazakhs. These make up large percentages in Ningxia and Xinjiang, which are autonomous regions.

According to government statistics, there are 20 million Muslims in China. In 2006, a record number of Chinese pilgrims departed to Mecca for the hajj.

Christianity[edit | edit source]

The first entry of Christianity into China was the introduction of Nestorianism spread by Middle-Eastern travellers who came to China in AD 635, as documented by the Nestorian Stone in Xi'an. In 1289, Catholic 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, who 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.

Since loosening of restrictions on religion after the 1970s, Christianity has grown significantly within the People's Republic of China (PRC). The Three-Self Patriotic Movement, 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 the government. These groups follow the regulations imposed upon them.

Many Christians choose to meet independently, typically in house churches. These fellowships are not officially registered, are seen as illegal entities, and are sometimes harassed. Although there has been increasing tolerance of house churches since the late 1970s, many Chinese Christians have been jailed because of their faith, especially from the house churches. However, the movement of house churches continues to grow, including Bible study groups and unofficial seminaries.

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. In a recent survey, it was found that about 3 percent of the population, roughly 70 million, are Christians. In 2007, according to an official at the Chinese government religions affairs department, there are 130 million Catholic and Protestant Christians in China.

Judaism[edit | edit source]

During the Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th century AD) or earlier, small groups of Jews settled in China. The most prominent early community was at Kaifeng, in 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 Holocaust in Western Europe and from the communist revolution in Russia.

Shanghai was particularly notable for its volume of Jewish refugees, most of whom left after the war. The rest relocated prior to or immediately after the establishment of the PRC. Today, the Kaifeng Jewish community is functionally extinct, although 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.

Recent Sects[edit | edit source]

  • Way of Former Heaven
  • Falun Gong
  • I-Kuān Tao ("Way of Unity")
  • T'ung-shan She ("Society of Goodness")
  • Tien-te Sheng-chiao ("Sacred Religion of Celestial Virtue")
  • Tao-yuan ("Sanctuary of the Tao")
  • Tz'u-hui Tang ("Compassion Society")

The People's Republic of China (PRC)[edit | edit source]

The PRC 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 PRC, 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 relaxed considerably in the late 1970s, with the end of the Cultural Revolution. The 1978 Constitution of the PRC guarantees "freedom of religion" with a number of restrictions. Since the mid-1990s there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist temples that were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

The Communist Party has said that religious belief and membership are incompatible with Communist ideology. 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. The state recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholic Christianity, and Protestant Christianity.

Most people report no organized religious affiliation. However, the number of people with belief in folk traditions and non-religious spiritual beliefs (such as ancestor veneration and fengshui, 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, gives possibly the most reliable statistics about organized religions. In 2004 it reports the following:

  • Buddhists: 8 percent, with more than 200,000 monks and nuns. This value is seen as extremely low because there are more than 16,000 Buddhist temples that 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 percent, with more than 45,000 Imams. Other estimates are much higher.
  • Protestant Christians: 0.8 to 1.2 percent, with official churches. It is estimated that another 2.5 percent of the population is Protestant Christians worshiping through an unofficial house church.
  • Catholic Christians: 0.4 percent, with official churches; another 0.4 to 0.8 percent estimated to be attending unofficial Catholic services.

It should be noted, however, that statistics relating to Buddhism and religious Taoism are, to some degree, incomparable with statistics for Islam and Christianity. This is due to the traditional Chinese belief system that blends Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, so that a person who follows a traditional belief system would not necessarily identify theirself as either Buddhist or Taoist, despite regularly attending Buddhist or Taoist places of worship.

References[edit | edit source]