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Introduction to Chinese Religion

There are five major religions/philosophies in China: Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Among them, Taoism and Confucianism are uniquely Chinese. The other three were later imports.

The two major indigenous systems of thought in China, Confucianism and Taoism, arose at about the same time in the 5 BC. Neither was originally a religion. Confucianism emphasized a reiteration of current moral values and Taoism developed a system of based upon a harmonization of man with the natural order. These two popular philosophies, however, developed into popular religions eventually.

Besides the major religions, ancestor worship and animism also have strong support in China. Chinese people are very pragmatic, worshipping gods that might answer their prayers. A lot of rich people used to support several kinds temples, not unlike the donations to both Republican and Democratic parties by wealthy individuals and corporations in the States.


Buddhism was introduced to China around the first century A.D. Since the fourth century A.D, it was widely spread and gradually became the most influential religion in China. Buddhism in China is divided into three branches according to varied language families, namely, Chinese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Pali Buddhism and there are about 200 thousand Buddhist monks and nuns under these three branches.

At present, there are more than 13 thousand Buddhist temples that are open to the public, 33 Buddhist colleges and nearly 50 types of Buddhist publications in China.

As one branch of Buddhism in China, Tibetan Buddhism is mainly spread in China¡¯s Tibet Autonomous Region, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Qinghai Province with some 7 million believers from Tibetan, Mongolian, Yugu, Monba, Luoba and Tu nationalities. Pali Buddhism is popular in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture and Simao region in southwestern China¡¯s Yunnan Province with over one million believers from Dai, Bulang, Achang and Va nationalities. The believers of Chinese Buddhism are mainly Han people, who live all over China.


Catholicism was first introduced to China in the seventh century and widely spread across the country after the Opium War in 1840.

At present, Chinese Catholic Church boasts one hundred parishes, some five million believers, nearly five thousand cathedrals and places for religious activities and twelve theological seminaries. Over the past two decades, the Catholic Church in China have cultivated more than 15 hundred young bishops who are able to hold consecration and among them over one hundred have been sent abroad for further study. In addition, three thousands young girls have been crowned the nunhood after their admission and two hundred nuns have decided to dedicate all their lives to the church.

Every year, more than 50 thousand clerics from the Chinese Catholic Church preside over baptism and the church prints over three million copies of Bible.


Christianity was introduced to China in early 19th century and widely spread after 1840s. The most famous Christian was probably Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Republic of China. Most churches in China are transplants from Europe.

In 1950, the church called on its believers to shake off the vestige of foreign imperialist influence and uphold patriotism in order to achieve self-administration, self-supporting and self-propagation, which are the cardinal principle of Chinese Christianity. At present, there are about ten million Christian believers, 18 thousand priests and 12 churches or religious sites in China.


With a history of over 2,500 years, Confucianism started as rules of conduct or right behaviors. Despite the fact that Confucius himself rejected the supernatural, he was made a god after his death.

Confucianism is a complex system of moral, social, political, and religious teaching built up by Confucius on the ancient Chinese traditions, and perpetuated as the State religion down to the present day.

Confucianism aims at making not simply the man of virtue, but the man of learning and of good manners. The perfect man must combine the qualities of saint, scholar, and gentleman. Confucianism is a religion without positive revelation, with a minimum of dogmatic teaching, whose popular worship is centered in offerings to the dead, in which the notion of duty is extended beyond the sphere of morals proper so as to embrace almost every detail of daily life.

The Confucius temples usually have no statues, but simply tablets with the names of ancestors written on them. This is probably a combination of ancestor worship and Confucius' teaching of respect for the elderly. The largest Confucius temples are in Beijing and Qufu.


Islam was introduced to China in the seventh century A.D with nearly 18 million believers from Hui, Uygur, Tartar, Kirgiz, Kazakh, Ozbek, Dongxiang, Sala and Baoan nationalities.

There are two varieties of Islamic mosques. The ones seen in the northwest of China are just like the ones in the Middle East. The other ones look like Chinese temples.

Most of the Muslims in China live in compact communities in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan Provinces; besides, some Muslims in small groups live in other provinces or cities in China. At present, there are more than 30 thousand mosques in China with over 40 thousand imams or ahungs.


Taoism is a typically traditional religion in China with a history of more than 18 hundred years since the second century A.D. It advocates the worship of natural objects and ancestors as was practiced since time immemorial and had various factions in the history; later, it evolved into two major factions, namely, Quanzhen and Zhengyi Taoism, and was fairly influential among Han people.

Taoism was probably best known by its symbol of the dual Ying-Yang (as seen on many westerners' wrists and ankles). The symbol conveys the basics of Taoism: everything exists through the interplay of two opposite forces: male-female; positive-negative; hot-cold; light-dark; heaven-earth; yang-yin, etc.

The most famous characters of Taoism are the Eight Immortals who were originally eight humans that discovered the secrets of nature and acquired supernatural power. One of these eight immortals is a woman.

Feng Shui or geomancy is also related to Taoism.

It is difficult to calculate the exact number of Taoist believers because there are no formal ceremonies or specific regulations concerning the admission to Taoism. At present, there are more than 15 hundred Taoist temples in China with over 25 hundred male and female Taoists there.

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