Overview of Religion in China
The People’s Republic of China is officially a secular state, meaning that it adopts no state religion. The Communist Party of China, as an atheist party, forbids its members from professing or publicly displaying shows of faith. However, the people of China are guaranteed freedom of religion, as per the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, Article 36.
The majority of Chinese citizens do not profess faith in religion. This figure possibly includes both avowed atheists or agnostics as well as traditionally “spiritual” Chinese citizens who instead take a more synthetic approach to religion (aka “Chinese folk religion”).
Historically, China has successfully synthesized and Sinicized a couple of religions. Most notably, the “three teachings” (sānjiào) of the social philosophy Confucianism, the native institutional religion Taoism, and the Indian dharmic religion Buddhism can be considered an adequate catch-all of Chinese people’s religion approach. A statue of Confucius graces an otherwise Buddhist temple in Austin, Texas, United States; Guan Yu is venerated both in Taoist temples and Buddhist monasteries (in Buddhism he is referred to as Qíelán Bodhisattva); and in the present day there are no major schisms or conflicts between “Taoists” and “Buddhists” in China on the same scale as other sectarian controversies in other parts of the world. This approach can be seen even in literature, such as the famous Journey to the West, in which a Buddhist monk travels to India for Buddhist sutras accompanied by lively characters such as the Monkey King, among whose crimes include offending the celestial bureaucracy, a hallmark of native Chinese religious worldview. Indeed, given this, it is rare for a Chinese person to profess faith exclusively in one sect the same way followers of other religions may do so.
The base of Chinese spirituality is ancestor worship and cults of nature. Because these base spiritualities are not organized religions, and as a consequence of the Cultural Revolution which destroyed aspects of traditional culture, these cults and institutions have not recovered on the same scale of Buddhism in China, and some of these, in particular the cult of Mazu/Tianhou, are better discovered in oversea territories and communities. Nonetheless, private household shrines largely preserve the function of private devotion to ancestors (as well as any other entities a person may want to pay devotion to). The multitude of traditional Chinese holidays are also tied to native Chinese religion (Qingming Tomb Sweeping Day, Dragon Boat Festival commemorating the poet Qu Yuan, Double Ninth Festival, Ghost Festival, etc.)
Confucianism in fact was less concerned with these spiritual practices and was more interested in the social utility of rites and religious rituals. As such, Confucianism’s spiritualism is mostly restricted to veneration of Confucius and the reinforcement of the practice of ancestor worship.
Taoism can be thought of as the “native” religion of China, although as an institution, it mostly arose as a response to the early incursion of Buddhism. Taoism seeks balance and the good life through auspicious practices that maximize qi or life force, as opposed to the focus on nirvana/extinguishment in Buddhism, or the afterlife in Islam and Christianity. This sort of “naturalism” ensured Taoism would have a large role in developing traditional Chinese medicine, astrology, and thought, via alchemy, qigong, feng shui, and other practices. Taoism possesses a large, vibrant pantheon, encapsulating some of the popular deities of folk religion such as the God of Wealth, the Kitchen God, Queen Mother of the West Xiwangmu, and the Eight Immortals.
Buddhism is perhaps the religion most popularly ascribed to China despite its Indian origins. While early Buddhism as taught by Siddharta Gautama was, somewhat akin to Confucianism, not as focused on “Heaven” or the afterlife so much as the path to Enlightenment and the end of suffering, Buddhism in China later adopted a pantheon of bodhisattvas, adopting more the showings of religion and spirituality. Buddhism has many schools and methods of practice; the most popular in China is Pure Land Buddhism, which centers Amitabha (Emítuófó) Bodhisattva and promises a favorable rebirth in the Pure Land for believers who mindfully recite the name and praise of Amitabha and other bodhisattvas.
In contrast, Chán Buddhism is often the practice of monks and nuns, who aim to achieve enlightenment now instead of waiting for a favorable rebirth. Chan, known popular in the world as Zen, involves meditation practice, the contemplation of gong’an (koan, sort of like Buddhist riddles), and meticulous study of sutras. This is not to say that monastics practice Chan to the exclusion of Pure Land. While the Chinese laity will tend to focus on Pure Land, monastics will be knowledgeable about Pure Land, Chan, and the myriad other teachings and schools of Chinese Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhism is its own potent religion that has been widely influential in its own right, particularly in Mongolia, Russia, and now the West. Like Chinese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism contains many schools and sects, the most prominent of which is the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect, of which the Dalai Lama is the preeminent leader (followed by the Panchen Lama, who currently sits in China). Tibetan Buddhist practices have a more esoteric feel to them, including the extensive use of prayer wheels, the use of painted thangkas to aid meditation, and the use of prayer flags.
Islam is traditionally the dominant religion in the interior of China, particularly in Xinjiang, Gansu, and Ningxia. Many of Islam’s adherents in China are either of the Hui minority or of one of Xinjiang’s many Central Asian minorities. There are also many Muslims in Guangzhou, historically China’s entrepôt towards the Baghdad-centered medieval Islamic world, and now the focal point of African migrants to China. Most are of the Sunni sect, although the Tajiks of Tashkurgan County, Xinjiang follow the Shi’a Ismaili sect, whose religious authority is the Aga Khan (the Aga Khan is currently in contact and dialogue with the Chinese government after a period in which he was barred from entry). Halal food is prominent in China, and a popular cuisine among non-Muslims and more than 11,000 Muslims from China went on Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 2018.
Christianity only found significant footing in China after the 19th Century European incursions, although Christianity has ancient origins in China via the Church of the East, commonly referred to as Nestorian Christianity.
As the most common sect of the European imperialists, Catholicism has left the largest architectural footprint in China. Almost all of the state-sanctioned Catholic bishops in China today are not in communion with Rome (see below).
Eastern Orthodoxy, established by the Russian Orthodox Church, arrived with the Russian missions. It is practiced among the Russian minority in China, who live mostly in Xinjiang and Heilongjiang.
Protestantism gained a wider following relatively later in Chinese history, around the late 19th and early 20th Century, during which heavy American missionary presence accompanied larger American efforts in China (such as in education projects). This trend has continued as Protestant missionaries have proven especially fervent, leading to a noticeable volume of conversions as well as the phenomenon of “house churches”, or churches not sanctioned by the State and thus subject to scrutiny and closure.
In addition to these are of course the many folk religions of China’s minorities.
Government Regulations on Religion
China uses governmental organs to regulate the major religions present in the country (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism). These organizations include the Buddhist Association of China (中国佛教协会), China Taoist Association (中国道教协会), Islamic Association of China (中国伊斯兰教协会), Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (中国天主教爱国会), Bishops Conference of Catholic Church in China (中国天主教主教团), National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China (中国基督教三自爱国运动委员会), and the China Christian Council (中国基督教协会). This has led to some rifts with the outside world, most notably with the Catholic Church, which insists on the right to appoint all Catholic bishops and church officials, thus running up against China’s non-interference policy that internal matters are the exclusive domain of their respective states. As Catholics value communion with Rome, this has also led to the development of underground churches led by church leaders not sanctioned or approved of by the state. China and the Vatican have recently made strides to repair this relation, and the first bishop sanctioned by both China and the Vatican was installed in Ulanqab, Inner Mongolia in 2019.