Chinese Religion

Chinese religion today defies neat categories. Though the government recognizes Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and both Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity, actual practice often blurs these boundaries and includes several traditional philosophies and beliefs. The ever-pragmatic and eclectic Chinese may go to a temple with images from the pantheons of several different faiths – with perhaps a local deity or two in addition – or worship at a neighborhood shrine. Most of all, traditional Chinese conduct rituals at home.

We’ll begin this survey with what is called “Popular,” “folk,” or “vernacular” Chinese religion. Recent studies estimate that at least 340 million people practice some form of this faith.

“Popular” Religion

Earth and Heaven

Heaven and Earth are seen as joined in a reciprocal relationship. Events in one arena affect the state of the other. As a traditionally agricultural people, the Chinese focus their attention on the earth and its produce and products. Earth gods were worshipped nationally, regionally, and locally, in shrines of corresponding size and by people of corresponding rank.

Heaven later assumed more importance in Chinese religious thought, both as the location of the supreme deity – Di (Ti), or Shang Di (Ti), or later, Tian (Tien, Heaven) – and as the realm of gods and some departed spirits.

“Correlative Cosmology” and the Mandate of Heaven

Although early Chinese religion, beginning with the Shang Dynasty, thought more in terms of placating or controlling capricious spirits in heaven, the focus changed with the Zhou Dynasty. Its rulers justified their rebellion against the Shang emperor on the grounds that he had lost the right to rule, for he had violated the moral laws of the universe. In this newer view, the intimate connection of heaven and earth was an ethical one. Tian – Heaven – stood for what was just and right. If those on earth transgressed the heavenly Way (Dao), catastrophe would ensue as well-deserved punishment.

Since heaven and earth were linked together in one organic cosmos, the actions of men on earth could bring heavenly response. In particular, if the Emperor failed to worship properly or to act justly, the mandate which legitimized his rule could be withdrawn. Each succeeding dynasty in China’s long history – including the present Communist Party – has claimed that the previous rulers were corrupt, unjust, and incompetent, and that their rebellion was Heaven’s way of bestowing the mandate of authority upon a more worthy regime.

All this helps to understand the core and heart of Chinese popular religion, the worship of ancestors.

Ancestor Worship

“I come from a Hong Kong family- presumably akin to what you would call neo-Chinese, liberal, not particularly steeped in (religious) tradition yet maintaining whatever rituals have been passed on. Despite being quite cordial about the degree of faith in our annual rituals, my extended family does insist on doing these rituals quite strictly, or making up for it. In particular, my grandmothers will likely disdain my abstinence from showing my respect to the ashes of my great-grand relatives at the Chinese (Buddhist?) temples. Since they are quite old, I do not wish to produce a breach which would last possibly before we could reconcile.”

For most Chinese, religion begins, and centers on, ancestor worship. The quotation above comes from a young college student from Hong Kong who does not believe the traditional faith but respects his elders who do.

He is not alone. Many millions of Chinese observe regular rites at the ancestral shrine. Worshipers are most common , in the countryside but are also found in the teeming cities of the South, as well as among “Overseas Chinese”* in Taiwan, Singapore, and throughout the world, Incense and food offered to the tablets with forebears’ names inscribed on them insure that the beloved departed will not go unnoticed, or, more importantly, hungry, in hell.

Reverence joins with fear to drive these rituals. For if a deceased ancestor does not receive the worship and nourishment he expects, he then becomes a “hungry ghost.” These malevolent spirits are said to issue forth during the seventh month of the lunar calendar to wreak all sorts of havoc on their non-filial descendants, but they do damage at other times as well.


Thus, if serious illness, financial misfortune, infertility, or some other calamity, strikes a family, an angry ghost may be considered the cause. In such a case, the family might hire a medium to diagnose the problem and prescribe a cure. This go-between between this world and the next might enter a trance to learn what has caused the offense and what remedy needs to be employed to restore harmony.


Other supernatural beings also receive attention. These include local heroes who have been deified, such as the immensely popular Madzu in coastal regions and especially in Taiwan. Once a teenage girl who is said to have saved drowning fishermen, she now resides in ornate temples, represented by immense statues. Annual birthday processions dedicated to her attract huge crowds to major and minor shrines. The air fills with the smoke of fireworks and the sounds of gongs and firecrackers as the faithful honor her as savior.

Other gods are national figures, such as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Originally a male Buddhist deity imported from India, Guanyin was transformed into a female who exemplifies compassion and kindness. Her gentleness contrasts with the fierce countenance of other members of the Chinese pantheon, most of whom are stern male figures who carry out the dictates of stern justice.

Small shrines are dedicated to the God of Wealth. Large, lavishly-furnished and brightly-painted temples usually house multiple images of various sorts, reflecting the vast diversity of popular Chinese religion.

The spirit world is divided into “good” and “bad” – shen and guei (kwei). As Chinese migrated towards the South, they encountered peoples who believed that a vast host of spirits inhabited the world around them. Forests, mountains, rivers, valleys, animals, and even plants could be infested with fearsome beings capable of inflicting great harm.To ward off such attacks, a variety of stratagems were – and are - employed, including firecrackers to frighten the demons away on important occasions, such as weddings.

Yin and Yang

Regardless of their formal religious affiliation, most Chinese would probably also agree with at least some form of yin and yang theory. This ancient teaching holds that the entire universe is constituted by two modes of energy. The yang is considered masculine, and includes all that is bright, active, warm, dry, positive, and generative. The yin represents the feminine, and includes things dark, passive, cool, wet, negative, and fertile.

These two types of being, or of activity, interplay with each other, not as opposites, but as complementary pairs. Each one contains the capacity to be the other – thus the white dot in the middle of the dark part, and the black dot in the middle of the white part. (including an image of yin and yang would be instructive, here) In other words, this is not a cosmic antithesis of absolute good and evil, as in some other religions, but an eternal dynamic of paired potentialities.

Events reflect this oscillating essence of energy. The strong become weak, while the weak become strong; success and failure follow upon each other. The fortunes of families and empires, among other things, rise and fall, grow and decline. Even the Mandate of Heaven finds theoretical basis in the theory of yin and yang, for dynasties rise and fall in an undulating pattern of growth and decline. With its stress upon restoring balance in the body, Chinese medicine also relies heavily upon yin and yang theory.

Chinese folk religion has changed and developed over the millennia, as it has encountered Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Regional experience and custom, as well as the “deification” of local heroes, has made it impossible to generalize about the wide variety of faith and practice. For example, you find more temples, shrines, and folk religious practices in the South of China and in the countryside than in the big cites of the North. Nevertheless, throughout the land we see evidence of a strong belief in supernatural forces. Even in Beijing, taxi drivers are known to suspend lucky charms from their rear-view mirrors, and untold numbers of Chinese will pay to have their fortune told. The pragmatism for which this great people are justly famous reflects the essentially functional essence of all Chinese religion: obtaining material benefits and avoiding trouble in this world and the next.

In addition to folk religions and superstitions, many more defined and organized religions, both legal and illegal, find a following in China.

Daoism (Taoism)

Planted later than the first seeds of Chinese popular religion, Daoism (Taoism) has grown up with it, and the two have often merged into an intertwining vine of rich variety.

Laozi (Lao Tzu) and the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching)

Though many scholars doubt the historical existence of Laozi, and do not attribute the Dao De Jing to him, most Chinese are joined by other learned men in their belief that the teacher did exist and did write this famous little book.

Tradition holds that Laozi granted an interview with his younger contemporary Confucius some time around 502 B.C. The old man rebuked Confucius for his strict adherence to rites and rituals and his preoccupation with government service. Since the Dao De Jing sings the praises of non-action, simplicity, and spontaneity, this story has the ring of truth.

Laozi is believed to have served as Royal Librarian for one of the kings in the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history. After many years in scholarly research and government employ, he retired and set out for the West. Approaching a narrow pass on the way, he was asked by the warden of that pass to write down the essence of his philosophy. The five-thousand-character Dao De Jing was the fruit of that request.

Composed in a pithy, even cryptic, style, this classic defies complete comprehension. The multitude of differing translations in English alone testify to the difficulty learned students have encountered as they have tried to comprehend its profound and often obscure chapters.

What is the Dao (Tao)? It cannot be precisely named or fully known, but the entire universe issues from it and depends upon it. Chapter One describes the Dao as “constant and unchanging; indescribable and unnameable; the origin of the universe; infinitely deep and remove; omnipresent; and the creator of the ten thousand things” – that is, of everything.

This “creator,” however, does not resemble the God of the Bible, for the Dao has no personality – which is one reason why it possesses no personal name. (Some writers have challenged this traditional view, claiming that the Dao is a foreshadowing of Christ, but most scholars reject this interpretation.)

If we continue to inquire, “What is the Dao?”, we find that it is the fundamental law, or principle, of the cosmos. The Dao permeates all, and operates as both vital force and inner .Working quietly but incessantly, the Dao drives the universe and all its recurring processes. In today’s parlance, the Dao might be identified with Nature and its “laws,” which operate without regard to persons, unseen and irresistible.

The Dao De Jing expresses in many places the yin/yang theory which we have already seen lies close to the heart of Chinese folk religion:

That being and nonbeing mutually generate, Difficult and easy mutually complement, Long and short mutually formulate, High and low mutually fulfill, Music and voice mutually harmonize, Front and back mutually follow. Hence, the sage man assumed the office of non-action.
— Chapter Two

In other words, as we adjust our lives to the flow of the Dao, we succeed. “Non-action, “ wu wei “, does not mean doing absolutely nothing, but rather not interfering with the flow of life and its undulating processes. Contrary to the ambitious activism of the Confucianists, Laozi advocates letting things take their natural course. In private life, the person who wishes to live according to the Dao will strive to follow what seems natural, not forcing things prematurely, abstaining from greed, lust, and ambition, and certainly not forcing his way upon others. Though one does not worship the Dao, he should strive, in public and private, to conform all of life to its undulating patterns. Here we have no formal religion (yet) but rather the basis for both personal and social ethics.

In particular, the people should be left alone to go about their life and work as they see fit. Intrusive politicians and greedy princes only make a mess of things.

Generate them without possessing; Lead without dominating – This is called deep and remote virtue.
— Chapter Ten

In public and in private, the follower of the Dao will abhor pride, possessiveness, and power. Instead, humility, patience, quietness, and contentment will rule both the heart and the hands. This manner of life will bear the fruit of harmonious personal relationships as well as inner peace and tranquility.