In this section we look at all the strands of religious belief in China. This page gives an overview of religion in general, we have separate pages that cover Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism - the three main religious beliefs. There are also pages on the more recently imported religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Perhaps most important of all is Ancestor veneration - the oldest tradition. There is also an encyclopedia of all the vast pantheon of gods and goddesses that are so important to understanding festivals and sculptures at temples. The historically important philosophies of Mohism and Legalism are described later on in this page.
Religion in China needs some explaining to a Westerner because in China it is not quite the same concept. In China ’religion’ might be better translated as ‘guiding philosophy’; indeed some have said China has no religion only ethics and it is true that China is unusual for not having a 'national religion' for much of its long history.
Many Chinese follow the traditions of more than one religion without feeling a sense of disloyalty, as different times call for different perspectives. There is a phrase “Three ways to one goal” that aptly describes how someone can follow Buddhism; Daoism and Confucianism at the same time without apparent conflict. Another saying is that “for a hundred people there are a hundred different beliefs”. There is no sense of disloyalty in attending services of different religions all in one day. God is not a concept exclusively ‘owned’ by only one religion, different facets of god are revealed in different religions. The lack of a concept of a ‘One True God’ makes the work of Christian missionaries very difficult. From about the 12th century Daoism and Buddhism became so entangled that it is difficult to distinguish them outside of monasteries. The famous book ‘Journey to the West’ tells the story of how Buddhism came to China but it has many Daoist and mythological elements. The non-absolutist attitude has led to limited religious strife, new ideas have been gradually and peacefully absorbed. Together with the main inter-woven strands of religion are the popular myths and local deities which have no theosophical grounding.
There is a light-hearted story that explains the key differences between the three main religions. A representative of each of the three religions have tasted some rather bitter pickles. The Confucian would say ‘We must more carefully follow the recipe to make better pickles’; the Daoist would say ‘It is fine. They are both sour and bitter, that is the nature of pickles’; while the Buddhist would say ‘It is bitter. Only by resisting the desire for pickles can bitterness be avoided’.
An introduction to Chinese religion can not omit the reverence to the Emperor. The attitude to the Emperor had religious undertones, he was regarded as the ‘Son of Heaven’ and the main conduit to heaven and so the representative of all people and to be universally respected and obeyed. The virtue or otherwise of the Emperor's personal conduct reflected on all his people. This continues to the current day with the President maintaining this paternal responsibility.
One of the remarkable facts about Chinese religion is that there has never been a large scale ‘religious’ war in China. People of different beliefs have been tolerated far more than elsewhere.
It’s difficult to express the attitude in a way a westerner might understand. Somerset Maugham in his book ‘On a Chinese Screen’ comes pretty close:
“She was an old woman, and her face was wizened and deeply lined. In her grey hair three long silver knives formed a fantastic headgear. Her dress of faded blue consisted of a long jacket, worn and patched, and a pair of trousers that reached a little below her calves. Her feet were bare, but on one ankle she wore a silver bangle. It was plain that she was very poor. She was not stout, but squarely built, and in her prime she must have done without effort the heavy work in which her life had been spent. She walked leisurely, with the sedate tread of an elderly woman, and she carried on her arm a basket. She came down to the harbour; it was crowded with painted junks; her eyes rested for a moment curiously on a man who stood on a narrow bamboo raft, fishing with cormorants; and then she set about her business. She put down her basket on the stones of the quay, at the water’s edge, and took from it a red candle. This she lit and fixed in a chink of the stones. Then she took several joss-sticks, held each of them for a moment in the flame of the candle and set them up around it. She took three tiny bowls and filled them with a liquid that she had brought with her in a bottle and placed them neatly in a row. Then from her basket she took rolls of paper cash and paper ”shoes,“ and unravelled them, so that they should burn easily. She made a little bonfire, and when it was well alight she took the three bowls and poured out some of their contents before the smouldering joss-sticks. She bowed herself three times and muttered certain words. She stirred the burning paper so that the flames burned brightly. Then she emptied the bowls on the stones and again bowed three times. No one took the smallest notice of her. She took a few more paper cash from her basket and flung them in the fire. Then without further ado, she took up her basket, and with the same leisurely, rather heavy tread, walked away. The gods were duly propitiated, and like an old peasant woman in France who has satisfactorily done her day’s housekeeping, she went about her business.”
All religion suppressed
During the fervent period of Communism 1965-78 all religions came under attack. Temples and shrines were demolished and the priests banished and persecuted. It has been only in relatively recent times that religion has been tolerated by the authorities. Although there was a freedom to preach religion the party gave out the message that Communism and modern science could explain all things; people adhering to old faiths were pitied and despised. Communism became the one true faith with its own sacred texts and rules, for many at that time the Party replaced the Temple. Since 1980 religion has been tolerated, but only under the strict control and guidance of the Communist Party.
The following sections describe each of the main religions in China. In broad summary Confucianism is more of a set of guiding principles than a religion although Confucius himself is revered; while Daoism is a mixed bag of beliefs and philosophies centered around harmonious living with nature. Buddhism is widely observed and although it came from northern India it has been adapted to Chinese needs. Christianity, now that it has lost its historical colonialist association, is growing in strength particularly in the cities. Islam is strongest in the north-west reflecting its historical roots in Central Asia and Muslims now represent about 2% of the population. Lastly there are the ancient 'folk religions' of China which are a very mixed and often localized set of myths and beliefs, often just a good excuse to hold a local festival. The most important belief system is the veneration of ancestors. We also cover many of the deities of folk religion.
Other Philosophic traditions
Mohism and Legalism were important strands of philosophic thought in the early days of Chinese history.
Mozi is considered the founder of another strand of ancient Chinese thought ‘Mohism’, and comes from the same ancient times as Lao Zi and Kong Zi. He grew up in humble circumstances and may have worked as a carpenter. Mohists followed ten core beliefs and defended them with logical argument and debate.
Where Confucianism stands for proper ritual and relationship, Mozi took a more egalitarian view (大同 dà tóng ‘great comradeship’) and considered ritual as humbug. He attacked injustice and all acts that harmed the people, especially war. Mohists believed in appointment on merit not by birth or favor, people were by nature good at heart.
“When all the people of the world love one another, then the strong will not over-power the weak, the many will not oppress the few, the wealthy will not despise the poor, the honored will not disdain the humble, the cunning will not deceive the simple.”
The love of freedom, universal benevolence, frugality, peacefulness and equality were in direct opposition to the Legalist philosophy of the Qin and was violently suppressed. It can be considered a 'puritan' belief with frugality and simplicity central aims. Not many works ➚ survive, and those that have were somewhat modified by copyists through the centuries. It never became a leading philosophy in China, however in his day he had more active supporters than Confucius ever personally attained. It has many of the qualities of Christianity but without the promise of Heaven or threat of Hell; however they did believe in ghosts and spirits. With a rosy-eyed view of achieving a Utopia of universal love, Mozi never found favor among the ruling elites. It was the Communists who took up some of his teachings 2,000 years after his death.
The Legalist doctrine in China was important in the early phase of Chinese history. Its name reflects its key attribute: the importance of law, it was a strategy for rule with no religious connotation. At the heart of Legalism was the belief that without strict laws people would be ungovernable, as they are by nature selfish, wicked and wayward. Clearly written laws would define proper conduct and so avoid conflict. The ruling elite that decide the laws are set apart from the people and the ruler is above the law, ruling by ‘divine right’. However, in its favor, the laws were applied uniformly and fairly to everyone irrespective of power or position, so that they knew where they stood. Another positive aspect is that appointments are made on merit not patronage. The laws laid out rewards for good conduct as well as punishment for bad. The laws were not based on an understanding of moral right and wrong, they were enacted and had to be followed. People did not need to distinguish 'good' and 'evil', they just needed to follow the laws. The arbitrariness of law required tight control of the people with a secret police force. It is not hard to guess that it was China's more autocratic rulers that found this philosophy to their liking.
It was the state of Qin in the Warring States period that adopted legalism enthusiastically and contributed to its eventual conquest of China. Legalism allowed a ruler to ignore tradition and enact whatever he thought fit for the benefit of himself and the people. When the Kingdom of Qin became hell bent on military conquest they required farmers to supply more food to support his large army and laws forced an increase in agricultural yields. The fields were closely monitored and if crops failed or animals died, people were punished. Responsibility for crime was considered that of the whole family not just an individual, and so each family had to police their own conduct to avoid brutal punishment. Under Legalism, people had to avoid the ‘six lice’ that represent unproductive effort: care for the elderly; idleness; beauty; love; ambition and benevolence. On the positive side, Legalist rule brought in standardization of all kinds, as everything was dictated by strict laws. A leading proponent Han Feizi ➚ described how the philosophy could be understood: “If a baby has boils that need to be lanced, the mother will hold back from inflicting temporary pain, the wise man is not swayed by emotion, he performs what needs to be done in the best interest of the baby”. Some individual sacrifices are needed for the greater good.
In the death throes of the Qin dynasty all the leading proponents of the Legalist philosophy came to a violent death, some may consider that in itself a comment on the doctrine. The following Han dynasty replaced Legalism with Confucianism, the harsh laws were tempered with the dual responsibility of ruler to the people just as strongly as people to the ruler. Legalism came back briefly to some extent under the second unification under the Sui dynasty. Some Emperors can be regarded as Confucian on the outside, Legalist on the inside: 外儒内法 wài rú nèi fǎ. The harsh Communist rule under Mao Zedong had some connection to Legalism and that is one reason why it remain an important philosophy to this day.
Please wait... Downloading information about character