About China's Major Religions

Category: Culture & Society

About China

There are three main religions in China. They consist of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Each religion is practiced in all different parts of China, as well as the rest of the world. It is rare for only one of these religions to be practiced solely. It is usually a combination of two or more beliefs and practices that Chinese people use in conjunction with each other.


  • Buddhism began in India about 2,500 years ago, but spread to other countries such as China and Japan. While it is the dominant religion in the Far East region of China, it is becoming more popular in the Western regions, as well. Wherever Buddhism is practiced, Buddha is recognized as the "Enlightened One," meaning to have full spiritual insight into the nature of the world.
    Although Buddhist beliefs vary across different areas, they all share an admiration for the figure of the Buddha and the goal of ending suffering, as well as the cycle of one's rebirth (transmigration) until he lives a life that does not require he be reborn: he has paid his karmic debts and can enter nirvana.
    The sacred texts that the Buddhists read are the Tripitaka, Mahayana Sutra and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. These ancient texts are now available in English translations, as Buddhism is often practiced in Western countries.
    The Buddhists practice rituals such as meditation and mantras (sacred verbal sayings included in prayer and incantation).
    Like many religions, Buddhist believers have symbols. One of these symbols is the Zen Circle, which represents the universe in a single, simple stroke of ink that can only be done properly when the artist has complete focus on his drawing. Another popular Buddhist symbol is the Buddha eyes, which represent wisdom. Between Buddha eyes is a symbol for the number 1, which signifies the way to reach enlightenment through the Buddhist religion.

    Taoism is based on the teaching of the "Tao-Te Ching," which is embodied in the philosophy of total tranquility. It emphasizes spiritual harmony. The text consists of 81 short poetic sections. The author of this text is not fully known, but is believed to be Lao-Tze. The oldest manuscript of the text dates back to 200 BC, according to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions, 2000. You may also hear Taoism referred to as Daoism.
    Ch'i is a very important part of Taoism. It is literally translated to mean "air" or "breath." It refers to the belief that there is a life force (energy) that is in all things, whether that force is good (yin; female) or evil (yang; male).
    One can change this life force to promote good health and a long life through breath control. It is a meditative breathing called "hsing-chi." Ch'i is being used in some Western countries today as a form of medicine and treatment in patients through the use of acupuncture and massage, among other techniques. Ch'i not only controls physical well-being, but psychological health, too.
    Life and death in Taoism is considered reality and death is not something to fear. Death only means changing from being to non-being (yang to yin). While death is not looked upon as a favorable thing, it will happen to all, and it is accepted.
    The spiritual beings of primary importance are the eight Immortals. These beings are perfect and live far away in a happy place. They have complete freedom and are ageless. They eat only air, drink dew and can fly. The main focus of Taoism is attaining immortality. They achieve this by focusing their attention on their bodies through diet, exercise, and mindfulness.

    Confucianism is a way of life taught by Confucius in the 6th to 5th century BC. It began when Confucius took his education very seriously and began to develop basic concepts about how humans could learn from their ancestors and things that happened in the past. He began teaching these beliefs to others, and soon became well known for his wisdom and insightfulness. Confucius himself did not start this religion, but rather his teachings were adopted as a true way of life by others who followed his practices and devoted themselves to his teachings.

    Confucianism is sometimes viewed more as a philosophy rather than a religion. It has a very optimistic view of human nature. They insist humans can be taught, improved and perfected. The religion is deep-seeted in beliefs of ren (benevolence), li (ritual performances), zhong (loyalty to oneself), shu (loyalty to others), and xiao (respect for parents and ancestors).
    The books that are important to Confucianism are the Lun-yu and the Confucian Canon. The Lun-yu is the most revered, holding the sacred scriptures of Confucius. It is based mainly on the Master's sayings. The Confucian Canon consists of the Five Classics and the Four Books, which are the Five Classics:

    Shu Ching (History)
    Shih Ching (Odes)
    I Ching (Changes)
    Ch'un Ching (Spring and Autumn Annals)
    Li Ching (Rites)

    Four Books:

    Lun Yu (Analects) of Confucius
    Chung Yung (Doctrine of the Mean)
    Ta Hsueh (Great Learning)
    Meng Tzu (Mencius)

    These books contain poetry, documents, speeches, and Analects of Confucius. They were presented during the Sung Dynasty by Chu Hsi.


  • China has many other religions that are being practiced as minor religions. One of the most practiced of these is Chinese folk religion. This religion could arguably be considered a major religion, and some Chinese scholars have placed Chinese folk religion under an umbrella with Confucianism. There is still much debate about this fact.
    Chinese folk religions stem from a belief in the worship of gods and goddesses. Along with this belief are many festivals and holidays that celebrate these immortal beings. What makes this type of religion unique is that it does not conflict with the other major Chinese religions, including Buddhism, Taoism, or Confucianism, but rather complements and embraces those beliefs as well. In other words, they work together. Many Chinese people practice familiar folk religions in conjunction with other major Chinese religions.
    Just as there are hierarchies within the Chinese government system, the thousands of gods and goddesses of the folk religions have hierarchies. There are primary gods and goddesses, secondary ones and so forth. The importance of an immortal being is based on legends that have been passed down through many generations. In fact, Chinese folk religions are as old as China itself.
    It was the ancient Book of Rites that outlined the difference between mortal and immortal supremacies. Immortal rulers live in tien (heaven) and influence physical and psychological events on earth. Mortal rulers are those who are in human form and rule in the physical realm. As far as power to rule, gods and goddesses are given as much honor and respect as human leaders.
    Learn more about Chinese folk religions, specific gods and goddesses, and festivals at the Chinese Folk Religions website. See Resources.


  • Other types of religions of growing popularity in China are the Muslim (estimated 15 million followers) and Christianity (estimated 10 million followers) religions. Christians are under great persecution in China, so this estimated figure could be higher or lower because of fear of persecution for stating belief in this religion. The Muslim religion was brought to China by Arab traders during the Tang Dynasty in 7th century. Christianity was introduced in China by missionaries from Peru in the 7th century as well. These facts and figures can be found at the Sacu.org website.

Expert Insight

  • Below are some interesting facts surrounding the major religions of China. The statistics are taken from Adherents.com, and are considered accurate as of 2005. The link is provided below in the Resources section.
    Chinese folk religion, Taoism and Confucianism are sometimes considered to fall under an umbrella called "Traditional Chinese Religions," and are by far the most practiced religions in China with an estimated 394 million followers in China alone. Buddhism comes in second with an average of 376 million followers. Keep in mind that this Buddhism statistic is an average of all believers in the world, not just in China.
    A side note regarding Buddhism and Confucianism is that many don't see these two as a "religion," but more of a philosophy. This is why one can be a Jewish Buddhist or a Catholic Buddhist. You can easily see in this situation how Chinese will often intertwine their beliefs and use them to work together.


  • One common ground that all of the major Chinese religions seem to have is the fact that they are based around the belief that not only one "being" created the universe. There are many gods and higher powers that have accomplished this task. Another basic belief that still prevails in China is the fact that ancestors are to be revered and honored, and many festivals and rituals are based upon helping ancestors enjoy a prosperous afterlife.
    Religion is a very important part of a Chinese person's life, no matter what religion he practices. It is inspiring to see how so many legends and beliefs have been passed down through the centuries and the Chinese are still as committed to their religions as they were a long time ago.

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