For many outsiders, looking at China’s religion would reveal a rather sterile landscape when compared to other cultures’ spiritual practices. Ancestor worship and other folk practices at family shrines pale when compared with the lavish churches, cathedrals, and temples used by the world’s major religions. Some may even feel that China is actually lacking in native spiritual beliefs altogether. But nothing could be further than the truth. Religion in the People’s Republic of China is diverse and quite interesting.
In ancient China, religion may have begun thousands of years ago with shamanistic practices that honored the spirits of nature. Fortune was believed to be a result of living in harmony with these spirits, so it was in a person’s best interest to forge a good relationship with then. Otherwise, misfortune could follow a person, his or her family, and spoil all of their endeavors.
From these beliefs eventually Taoism emerged. Although it was China’s religion centuries ago, Taoism (pronounced Daoism) was originally more of a philosophy. It proposed following the flow of nature, moving with its flow and cycles, as the path to being in harmony both with oneself and the world. This philosophy spread throughout China, forming the basis of such arts as Feng Shui, the use of the I Ching, or Book of Changes, as a source of divination, Tai Chi, and the healing arts.
Along with Taoism, Confucianism emerged as another one of the famous beliefs systems practiced in China. It was not a religion originally but it opposed Daoism. While it proposed that following laws, strict moral codes, and obeying authority were the path to a harmonious society, Taoism supported individual responsibility and morality. Both of these philosophies enjoyed periods of popularity, and in some ways even blended over time.
The arrival of Buddhism also showed the way China’s religion and spiritual practice adapts to new concepts. The only foreign religion to become a widespread practice in China, Buddhism became so popular that at one time it was considered a threat to those in power. Buddhism spawned two schools that even now are the most popular sects in China, Ch’an or Zen Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism. In China the main religion may well be Buddhism.
Together, these three philosophies formed the main branches of China’s religion with Taoism and Buddhism continuing strong to this day. Even Confucian ethics are still an important part of the lives of many people.
Other Outside Influences on China’s Religion
Buddhism is not the only religion to arrive in China and make an impression. With trade and exposure to the outside world came both Islam and Christianity. While the indigenous religions and philosophies are a part of daily life for many people, Christian and Muslim Chinese are a minor but influential part of China’s religion.
- Taoism (Daoism)
Arab traders brought Islam with them in the seventh century AD. As time went on, people converted to Islam from Buddhism and the Nestorian Church, and increased the influence of the religion in the northern regions. A community, called the Hui, grew as male settler arrived and married Chinese women, while maintaining their beliefs and practices. Today nearly half of the Muslims in China are Hui. As China seeks to maintain relations with the Middle East, Islam is tolerated although there have been disputes. These have been based more on the need for autonomy, however, than actual persecution.
Also arriving in the seventh century, the Nestorian Church was established in the foreign quarters of large cities. These did not survive the end of the Tang dynasty. In fact, even during the Mongol dynasties, the Church served the Mongols more than the native Chinese. This changed in the late 1500s, when churches began to establish themselves as a growing part of China’s religion and actually gained a sizable number of Chinese converts.
Even an edict in 1721 by Qing Emperor Kang XI failed to eliminate Christianity, so when missionaries returned in the mid nineteenth century they found Christian communities that were still thriving well. At this time, however, due to the forced opening of China’s borders, many rejected this ‘invading’ religion at first. Christianity continued to grow, however, and despite a crisis during the Liberation of 1949, a resurgence of growth on the 1970s to 80s, greatly expanded its influence, making it a powerful part of China’s religion.
The following article, The Growth of Buddhism in China, explores the philosophies arrival and how the Chinese mindset altered its practices. It will also explore its core beliefs and the most popular sects in China today.
The Growth of Buddhism in China:
Finally, The Core Beliefs of Taoism will discuss how that way of life evolved, its practices and its relevance today in Chinese culture.
The Core Beliefs of Taoism: