Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion are the four main forms of religion in China; their beliefs and practices have intermingled and interchanged over thousands of years, and most local communities combine parts of all of them1,2,3,4,5. China's earliest dynasties continued folk practices that have existed since pre-history, with religious leaders being shamans and guides speaking on behalf of the spirit world6 and a multitude of local gods and practices, and some of those ancient practices persist today in rural areas. Despite liberalisation over the past several decades, large numbers of Chinese - two thirds - do not consider themselves religious at all7 and most new religious movements are suppressed8,9.
“In China there are now more Catholics than in Ireland and on any given Sunday there are almost certainly more Protestants in church in China than in all of Europe. The presence of more than twenty million Muslims places China among the top twenty countries in Muslim population size - almost equal to that of Saudi Arabia, for instance, and nearly double that of all twenty-seven European Union countries combined.”
“It has long been the case in China that different doctrines and practices can harmoniously coexist. Contemporary Chinese often select various elements of different native religions to call their own. This plurality of worship, ritual, and creed, reflects the sweeping landscape of China's geography and history.”
“The same person may follow Confucian principles at home, celebrate Taoist festivals, and be buried according to Buddhist rites.”
“There were some scholars who studied Buddhism in connection with Taoism and Confucianism, and led a secluded life. To the last class of scholars belonged Chwen Hih (Hu dai shi), known as Chwen the Great [6th Century BCE]. He is said to have been accustomed to wear a Confucianist hat, a Buddhist robe, and Taoist shoes.”
A problem arises with simple polls that enquire about "what religion are you?" because there is often no way to put multiple answers. As such, the rates of Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist followers could be under-estimated, although the total numbers of people involved are the same.
The Shang Dynasty from the 18th or 17th century BCE ran for several hundred years, until 1045 BCE. From this very early point, archaeological evidence from burials and historical evidence from writings show us that worship of ancestors and of rulers was already established.
“The veneration of ancestors (pai tsu) is one of the most ancient, persistent and influential themes in Chinese religion and traditional Chinese society. [...] The principal deity, Shang Ti, was quite possibly a supreme royal ancestor in origin.”
“The ancestors of the aristocratic class [of the Shang dynasty] in particular were believed to reside in a high court with other gods and spirits. They were seen as somewhat temperamental ghosts who must constantly be appeased through rituals and sacrifices. Offerings were made on a ten-day cycle. Shang-era people believed in an afterlife, a kind of heaven were they would be reunited with their ancestors.”
Over time, a pantheon emerged, anthropomorphising elements of nature as per pagan religions in the rest of the world:
“Di, or Shangdi, [was] an omnipotent deity, sometimes called the Lord on High. Di ruled over a pantheon of lesser gods, most of them related to elements in nature. There were gods of rain, wind, sun, and gods of fertility and harvest. There were malevolent gods who caused mayhem and destruction. But Di was the supreme deity over all.”
Taoism, or Daoism, is an atheist (non-theist)15,16,17 religion based on "The Way" - an all-pervading natural force and controlling principal of the Universe18,19, the source of all existence20. To live in accordance with The Dao one has to be at peace, to accept the events of life21, to be at one with nature, to 'go with the flow'.20,22. Although some Westerners accuse Taoism of being a "philosophy" instead of a religion, sociologists count it as a religion23 and Taoism is counted as one of the great world religions24,25,26 and is becoming increasingly popular outside of China19, where it first developed out of a mix of traditional Chinese beliefs.
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A new, more assertive form of organized religious Daoism arose in the Yellow Turban movement of the 3rd century CE as the Han dynasty fell amidst conflict and famine. They restored the influence of Daoism27.
A Chinese religion that demands the strict observant of social rituals, the pursuit of humanness, virtuous behaviour and veneration of elders, and obedience29,2 as a means to achieve peace. Those in power are commanded to rule justly, in order to create as harmonious system as possible. The key virtues are filial piety (respect for parents and ancestors), honor, integrity, study, self-reflection, and most important of all, ren - benevolence30. There is much emphasis on the correct observance of formal social rituals30.
Confucianism is counted as one of the world's great religions31,32,26. Confucian ideas are essential parts of the cultures of China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam30. In addition to South-East Asia, there are also some followers in Europe.
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After his death, followers collected his writings and Confucianism became a distinct movement. It was violently suppressed by the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE)33. But Han emperor Wu Di (141-87 BCE declared Confucianism to be state ideology34, "with exemplary rulers governing a people whose civil actions stem from an internalized sense of duty", leading four centuries of prosperity and expansion. But this didn't last forever, and during famine and uncertainty, a new sect of "religious Daoists" arose, called the Yellow Turbans, who indirectly helped end the Han dynasty. Daoism and Buddhism took the place of Confucianism.27
By the 17th century CE, Neo-Confucianism dispelled a large portion of Buddhist ideas, and wound itself more tightly into the Chinese state in every area, with its prescribed rites, formal rules of etiquette and social rigidity. Confucianism was the central doctrine of the civil service and used as the basis for entrance and employee exams34. With such a large country to rule, the Confucian approach allowed strong central control.
Confucianism remained popular until the 19th Century. Its rigidity had slowed dynamism, and Chinese society had not adapted, leading to a series of disastrous encounters with external powers, especially with British forces in the Opium Wars, and then Japan between 1894-1895. In 1912, the final imperial dynasty collapsed. When the Communist Party under Mao Zedung rose to power, they dismissed Confucianism and burnt its books.34
Confucianism has, in total, enjoyed over 2000 years of hefty influence over Chinese culture29 and is again undergoing a revival, "Xi´s predecessor, Hu Jintao, based his 'harmonious socialist society' doctrine, which was designed to counter the inequality created by rapid economic growth, on Confucian teachings. As of , the Chinese government has established 525 Confucius Institutes around the world. (The goal is to have 1,000 by 2020.) And since taking power, Xi has repeatedly extolled Confucianism in his speeches as they key to understanding China's history and distinctive national character"35.
The historical evidence does not make it easy to trace the beginnings of Buddhism except that it sprung out of, and shares many basic beliefs, with Hinduism and other Vedic Faiths. "During the reign of emperor Ashoka (3rd century BCE) Buddhism became a major Indian religion and was subsequently established across the whole subcontinent and beyond"36 and is now counted as one of the great world religions24,25,26,37. It has grown so diverse that it is very hard to define its core nature - in 1913 one scholar pointed out that "in Japan alone it has differentiated itself into thirteen main sects and forty-four sub-sects". Buddhism is a well-liked and respected religion in the West; many attend Buddhist retreats, meditation centres and classes, and western Buddhist communities nearly all run such events for the general public. But in the West many who put "Buddhist" on census forms have merely attended some of these and who have an interest, but are not committed Buddhists, which artificially inflates the numbers.
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Although Buddhism can be found in China from the 1st century CE, it didn't have much influence2 until after the tumultuous era at the end of the Han dynasty in the 3rd century CE when Confucianism fall out of favour27.
“... although it was not until at least the fifth century that reliable translations and scholarly study were being carried out in China. Buddhism complemented existing Chinese thought by adding a religious dimension related to the explanation of suffering and the path to liberation. Buddhist thought also added to Chinese metaphysics.”
China is one of a small batch of communist countries where religion overall has been actively suppressed. Mao Zedong's government was especially intolerant of religion, but from his death in 1976 China has been slowly liberalizing38. There are still many restrictions, but they are unevenly applied9. It is difficult for new religious groups to establish if they do not have a recognized presence. The Chinese state also pushes its power into Tibet, severely restricting religious freedom there39.
“The government restricts religious practice to five officially recognized religions in officially approved religious premises. Authorities retain control over religious bodies' personnel appointments, publications, finances, and seminary applications. The government classifies many religious groups outside its control as "evil cults," and subjects members to police harassment, torture, arbitrary detention, and imprisonment.”
In China, religion is perceived as a threat to the state and is closely monitored by multiple state agencies, most extensively by the Religious Affairs Bureau. [...] China is a prominent member of a group of countries in which religion is viewed as a political threat to the state and religious freedoms are denied. [... Suppression can include] physical abuse of groups' members.”
“In September, China passed revisions to the 2005 Regulations on Religious Affairs. The document, which comes into effect in February 2018, introduces new restrictions designed to “curb extremism” and “resist infiltration,” including banning unauthorized teaching about religion and going abroad to take part in training or meetings.”
“On April 25, 1999, more than ten thousand Falun Gong adherents surrounded the Beijing leadership compound in a silent protest. Objecting to recent criticisms of their movement, they sought to be recognized as a legitimate spiritual movement. In less than three months, however, they were officially banned and labeled as an evil cult. By February 2000, an estimated 35,000 practitioners had been detained, 300 jailed, 5,000 sent to labor camps, and 50 committed to mental hospitals. The numbers detained and arrested have increased sharply over the past ten years, with some now estimating that Falun Gong adherents constitute more than half of the 250,000 inmates in reeducation-through-labor camps. In an official statement, the government justified the crackdown because "Falun Dafa had not been registered according to law and had been engaged in illegal activities, advocating superstition and spreading fallacies, hoodwinking people, inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardizing social stability". But Chinese scholars have found that more credible explanations acknowledge that the Chinese government is especially wary of well-organized religious groups.”
Once a group has earned the ire of the Chinese state apparatus, there's no way back. Eighteen years later, members are still being arrested, regardless of pressure from the rest of the world to allow religious freedom.
“In February 2017, Beijing police detained Sun Qian, a businesswoman and Canadian citizen, on suspicion of "using cults to sabotage law enforcement." Sun is a follower of the Falun Gong, a meditation-focused spiritual group banned since1999. Sun was reportedly pepper-sprayed, put in handcuffs attached to foot shackles, and deprived of sleep.”
After lengthy detention, she was given eight years' sentence and under duress, had been forced to renounce her Canadian citizenship.