Religion in China: Pluralism and
Diversity in Beliefs

Religion in China reflects the country's pluralism and cultural diversity. China is home to over 3,000 religious organizations and 100,000 religious sites. The 5,000 years of history facilitating development of hundreds of cultural systems and introduction of equally impressive foreign thoughts has created a fertile ground for religions in China to prosper and sustain.

About 85 percent of Chinese population follows some kind of religion. All major world religions have their footprint in China while the ancient Chinese folk religion still exudes its vibrancy. The secular character of the state allows citizens to practice their religious beliefs freely while the pluralistic social nature has led to emergence of colorful religious assimilation.

What many people do not know is that the official religion of China was the worship of the monotheistic God “Shang Di” which means the emperor above from which all the Huang Di or Yellow Emperors below obtained their right to rule (thus the term “Mandate of Heaven”).  

In the Imperial Vault of Heaven (in the Temple of Heaven), there exists an alter (with no idols) to the Huang Tien Shang Di (Supreme Lord of the Great Heavens). The border sacrifice was continued to be carried out at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing until the end of Qing Dynasty.  There is a view amongst some Christians like CH Kang and Ethel R. Nelson points to the fact that the Judeo Christian God “El Shaddai” was known to the Chinese since the beginning of the empires in China.

Popular Chinese Religions

Buddha statue - religion in China

Buddhism in China

Buddhism is the most popular religion in China. It made its journey to China from India via the Silk Road in the first century AD and became a dominant religious practice 300 year later. The Sui emperors accepted it as the official religion toward the end of the sixth century AD, and Buddhism steered the national culture for centuries. At present, China has 13,000 Buddhist religious places, 33 Buddhist institutions and more than 200,000 monks. Followers of Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese Buddhists are divided into three categories, Tibetan, Pali and Han-Chinese.

Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Uygur, Inner Mongolia and Qinghai are the centers of Tibetan Buddhism. It has more than 120,000 lama monks, 3,000 temples and 1,700 venerated religious figures in Tibet alone. Pali Buddhism, the Indian form, is popular in southwestern China around Yunnan.  The Han-Chinese Buddhism came into existence following interaction of Buddhism with ancient religions of China. The form became the official religion in China for centuries and widely accepted by Han ethnic people. It has more than 8,000 temples across China.

The key symbols of Buddhist religion in China include Mt. Wutai in Shanxi,  Potala Palace in Lhasa, Shanghai‘s Jade Buddha Temple, Wild Goose Pagodas of Xian, Shaolin Temple in Henan, Beijing’s Yonghe Lamasery, Hangzhou-based  Temple of Soul and Longmen Grottoes and White Horse Temple in Luoyang.

Taoism

With a history that dates back to the sixth century BC, Taoism is the oldest organized religion in China. Based on the individualistic thoughts focusing on good living, compassion and humility, it derives its strength from the teachings of Laozi, a revered ancient saint. It advocates harmonized coexistence, simple living and worship of ancestors and nature. Taoism is mainly adopted by the Han Chinese people and divided into two schools, Quanzhen and Zhengyi. The Chinese cultural heritage of today includes 1,500 Taoist temples. It had a profound influence on Chinese inventions in medicine, art, agriculture and ancient lifestyle.

Chengdu’s Mt Qingcheng and Mt. Huashan in Xian are two foremost learning centers of Taoist religion in China. Beijing’s White Cloud Temple and Wudang Mountain located in Shiyan of Hubei Province are other centers of this religion.   
 
Islam in China

Close to 18 million people in China follow the tenets of Islam. The first Muslims to reach China were merchants of Persian and Turkish origins. As a religion, Islam was first introduced in China 1,400 years ago by Arab traders coming through the Silk Road, and it gained a foothold in the northwest. It spread further around the eight century during the Tang Dynasty and became a prominent religion in China.

Muslims in China mostly belong to Uygur, Dongxiang, Sala, Tartar, Hui and Baoan ethnic groups residing in Xinjiang, Ningxia, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai. There are about 30 thousand mosques in the country, including Xian’s Great Mosque,  Yu Baba  Sufi shrine in Gansu’s Linxia City, Taizi Mosque in Yinchuan and the Dongguan Mosque of Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province.

Christianity in China

The first Christian missionaries reached Tang imperial capital Xi’an in 635 AD and their leader Alopen established places of worship. Many high-ranking royal officers and queens of the Yuan rulers were Christians. Following the European victory in the first Opium War in 1842, the missionaries stepped up their activities and soon Christianity became a major religion in China. At the same time, missionaries representing Protestant faith also came to China and started preaching. A small number of Orthodox Christians now live in southern China. Beijing’s St Joseph's Church, Saint Sophia Church of Habin and the St. Ignatius Cathedral in Shanghai are among the best known Christian religious places in China.

Religious Confucianism

The high acceptance of Confucianism as a distinct philosophy of life led to its crystallization as a religion in China. Han Emperor Wu adopted it as the official state philosophy and it became the symbol of Chinese society. Based on teachings of Confucius, it preaches self-cultivation of virtues, humane quality, goodness in thoughts, ethical conduct and focus on knowledge.

Almost all cities in China have temples dedicated to Confucianism since ancient times. The Confucian temple complex at Qufu in Shadong Province is the third largest specimen of Chinese architecture. Two other old Confucian temples at Nanjing and Beijing are among the most visited tourist attractions in China.

Folk Religions

There are many minor but interesting religions prevalent in China. Known as Chinese traditional folk religions, they had their origin in the ancient history and culture of the country. These include faiths promoting belief in Fengshui theory, heaven worship, ancestor worship, mythological heroes, demigods, and natural forces. The followers of Shenism worship many deities, such as creator God Pangu, mother goddess Nüwa, wealth God Caishen, God of success Lushen and earth God Tudi Gong.

Read more about ancient Chinese culture.

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