Religion in China


Much of the mysticism of old China comes from its ancient spiritualities, both indigenous (Taoism and Confucianism) and foreign (Buddhism, Islam and Christianity). Taoism and Confucianism are roughly 2,500 years old, but Buddhism first entered the Middle Kingdom 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty. The three religions complimented each other in many ways: Confucianism taught how to build an orderly society, Taoism focused on understanding the natural world through contemplation of nature’s complementary forces, and Buddhism addressed death with its views on reincarnation. Over time, these three religions became known as China’s Triple Religion, all taking bits and pieces from each other to form a set of unique and fascinating religious philosophies.


Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism developed distinct traits in their respective lands, and Islam entered China via the Silk Road during the 8th century, converting the Uighurs of China’s northwest and other minorities like the Hui into followers of the Prophet Muhammad. Other ethnic minorities, especially in rural areas, have animistic and shamanistic beliefs, and some of these tribes’ practices have even mixed with other major religions, particularly Buddhism. In the late 1800s, European missionaries introduced Christianity, and nowadays every major Chinese city has at least one Christian church.


Despite thousands of years of deep spiritual influence, China was nearly gutted of its aged mysticism when an especially influential ideology gripped the nation in the 20th century. Communism, especially during the Cultural Revolution, derided all religion as “superstition” and sought to eradicate the practice in the early days of Communist China. From the burning of temples to the destruction of countless relics and the torture of holy men and women, the chaos reaped by the Communists on China’s spiritual side all but ruined the country’s timeless religious leanings. Today, the majority of Chinese consider themselves atheists.

Public worship ceremony at the Temple of Shennong-Yandi, in Suizhou, Hubei


Buddhism derived from Hinduism, similarly to how Christianity came from Judaism, and it originally came to China from the Indian subcontinent, making it one of the strongest foreign ideologies to ever impact China. It was adopted and adapted to fit Chinese beliefs and needs once it arrived, and aspects of Buddhist dharma are related to Taoism in many ways. The fact that Buddhism didn’t outlaw recognition of other gods allowed it to perfectly mesh with traditional folk religions and take off in China.

Xuanzang's Journey to the West

During the early Tang dynasty, between 629 and 645, the monk Xuanzang journeyed to India and visited over one hundred kingdoms, and wrote extensive and detailed reports of his findings, which have subsequently become important for the study of India during this period. During his travels he visited holy sites, learned the lore of his faith, and studied with many famous Buddhist masters, especially at the famous center of Buddhist learning at Nālanda University. When he returned, he brought with him some 657 Sanskrit texts. With the emperor's support, he set up a large translation bureau in Chang'an (present day Xi'an), drawing students and collaborators from all over East Asia. He is credited with the translation of some 1,330 fascicles of scriptures into Chinese. His translation of the Heart Sutra (Xīn Jīng; 心经) became and remains the standard in all East Asian Buddhist sects. The proliferation of these sutras expanded the Chinese Buddhist canon significantly with high quality translations of some of the most important Indian Buddhist texts.

Statue of Xuanzang (Tang Monk) at the Great Goose Pagoda in Xi'an

Life of Prince Siddhartha
Statue of Siddhartha

Buddhism is a religion that began with a Nepali prince known as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. Sheltered from the harsh realities of the world by his life within the palace walls, Siddhartha was shocked by all the pain and suffering he witnessed when he finally experienced the outside world. From then on, he renounced his earthly possessions to escape the cycle of life, death and rebirth. After several years as an ascetic, Prince Siddhartha realized that physical vigilance in the form of fasting and contortion was not the answer to break the cycle. After having realized this, he achieved nirvana (enlightenment) under the now-famous Bodhi Tree in India, becoming the Buddha (or the Enlightened One). Unlike other prophets, the Buddha never claimed to be anything more than a man, just a regular guy who “got it” and found a better way to live life through meditation and relinquishment of the desire for all worldly things. However, over time, some followers disregarded this notion and began to treat him as a god in certain sects of Buddhism.

Basics of Buddhism


Buddhism features the Four Noble Truths about life and existence:


1. Life is Suffering
2. The Origin of Suffering is Attachment
3. The Cessation of Suffering is Attainable
4. The Eightfold Path


The way to achieve enlightenment is detailed in the Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Though it may seem easy off the back, in reality it takes thousands of lifetimes to reach nirvana, so you better start practicing now!


Schools of Buddhism


Buddhism has many sects. The two biggest are Mahayana (Greater Vehicle), as practiced in China, and Theravada (Lesser Vehicle), common in Southeast Asia. Theravada is the version which originally came to China, but its focus on gaining nirvana as an individual had little hold with the collective group mentality of China. Mahayana – which indicated that attainment could only be achieved as a whole and that arhats (known in China as luohan) and bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who choose to stay on earth) would guide others to enlightenment – was far more suited to China.


Gradually, bodhisattvas and arhats came to be worshipped in their own right, and local deities were brought into the fold. Zen Buddhism, a meditation school, also found its feet in China and has gained standing around the world, partly because of its belief that you don’t have to be a monk or recluse to achieve enlightenment. The various Tibetan Buddhist schools are collectively known as Lamaism, of which Gelugpa (or Yellow Hat) is the most widespread today (the Dalai Lama is a follower of Yellow Hat).

Ivory carvings of 18 arhats

Tibetan pilgrims prostrating themselves in Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet

Buddhist Tenets and Customs

Buddhist temples, like many hallowed spiritual sites, have customs and adherences pertaining to their traditions. Most of the temples in China are understood as tourist destinations, and tourists are not necessarily expected to follow customs. However, attempting to respect a few guidelines during your visit will earn the respect and appreciation of those around you. These are just guidelines, and you shouldn’t worry too much about being stringent; you won’t be scolded or scoffed at for forgetting anything.

Remove Your Hat: Not a strict rule, but removing your hat is a courteous gesture.

General Respect: Those around you may not always show a dignified side, but you can show common respect by turning off mobile phones, removing headphones, not shouting, avoiding inappropriate conversation and not smoking or chewing gum.

Respect the Buddha Statues: It should go without saying: do not sit near or climb on a Buddha statue or the raised platform. Seriously, we can’t believe we have to say this one, but you’d be surprised.

Avoid Conspicuous Pointing: Pointing at things or people around the temple can be a bit uncouth. To indicate something, it’s better to use your right hand with the palm facing upwards. When sitting, avoid pointing your feet at a monk or image of Buddha.

Stand vs Sit
: If you happen to be sitting in the worship area when monks or nuns enter, standing will show respect. Wait until they have finished their prostrations before sitting again.

Prostrating: Prostration is not required, but those who wish to make a wish or prayer to Buddha should place their knees on the cushion, feet facing away from the statue, and bow three times.

No Inside Photography: Photography is not permitted inside the halls, but you are free to click away outside in the courtyards.


Interacting With Buddhist Monks


Monks are generally very kind and have a high regard for life. Do not worry about being strict around them – they do not expect it – but knowing a bit about them can enrich your experience.

Eating: Monks do not eat after noon; be mindful about eating or snacking around them.

Body Language: If a monk is sitting, show respect by sitting before starting a conversation. Try to avoid pointing your feet at any Buddhist while sitting.

Right Hand Only: Only use your right hand when giving or receiving something from a monk.

Greeting A Monk: The traditional greeting for a monk is to place the hands together in a prayer-like gesture and give a slight bow.

Entering and Exiting: Entering a building with your left foot first and exiting by leading with your right foot symbolically represents a whole.

: If you enjoyed your visit, giving a little extra cash is certainly appreciated. A typical donation is ¥10-100 (US$2-15). You can find metal donation boxes throughout the complex.




Confucianism is seen as the “most Chinese” of them all, though it was never intended to be a religion, but rather a philosophy that introduced rules on how to create a harmonious society. But if you visit a Confucian temple and witness people bowing and burning incense in his name, it’s obvious that it’s not just a philosophy. Confucianism has also spread outside of China, especially to Korea, where his system of hierarchical values continues to affect modern Korea the same way it has affected Chinese thought and interaction.


The life of Confucius (551 – 479 BCE)


Confucius (or Kongzi in Chinese) is said to have been born in 551 BCE and experienced poverty in the early part of his life, but he eventually managed to become a junior official through dedicated study. Struck by the chaos of the Zhou Dynasty’s decline into the Warring States Period, Confucius sought to implement a system that would restore order. To accomplish this goal, he opened a number of private schools where he instructed thousands of students in his code of moral values. His instruction style was more in sync with modern methods than those of the day, promoting student participation and discussion over traditional learning by rote.


Confucius traveled around China giving lectures on his beliefs about hierarchy within all structures, from families to governments. Despite the fact that many rejected his ideas, he continued his teachings until he was old. Eventually, Confucius’ ideology would contribute to The Five Classics, which includes the Book of Songs and the I Ching (Yì Jīng; 易经), or Book of Changes. The Analects (Lún  Yǔ; 论语) is a collection of Confucius’ sayings (i.e. “Confucius says…”) that was published many years after his death, and it, along with the rest of the Confucian canon, became required reading for civil officials.


The Analects


I Ching


His philosophy


Confucius promoted a patriarchal hierarchy to create social harmony within the family unit and society at large. At the top of the scale was the emperor, and moving down were advisors, scholars, officials, merchants, craftsmen, soldiers, peasants, beggars, prostitutes, slaves, etc. Respect was based on benevolence, propriety, righteousness, trustworthiness and wisdom: the five Confucian virtues.


Confucianism as a religion


Confucius didn’t see his system as religious, and it wasn’t until after he died that he became something of a deity, with temples around the country dedicated to him. Religion aside, his impact on the Chinese bureaucracy is apparent in the fact that his teachings formed the basis of civil service examinations until the early 20th century. Even today, Confucian values remain in some sense, and worship has re-emerged in recent times.


For proof of this, look no further than Qufu, a town devoted to Confucius, where you’ll find hordes of visitors exploring a palace complex that almost beats the Forbidden City, along with a vast green space containing the headstones of the entire Confucian clan (which numbers in the thousands). Furthermore, being the great sage and all, many students go to Confucian temples to pray for high grades before the important gaokao (college entry) examination.

Statue of Confucius at the Confucian Temple in Qufu, Shandong




A way that can be the Way, is not the usual way (道可道,非常道).
A name that can be a name, is an unusual name (名可名,非常名).


The lines above are the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching (The Way of Power and Virtue Scripture, 道德经) that is the main religious text of Taoism. How to translate the words into English and what the words mean is obviously the mystery of Dao. The word Dao means the Way.

Tao Te Ching

Taoism is the only religion native to China (since Confucianism isn’t technically a religion), and it was also developed by a potentially-mythical figure, Laozi, who is traditionally held to have lived in the sixth century BCE. Laozi (Old Boy) is also credited with writing Taoism’s elemental work, the Tao Te Jing (The Classic of the Way and Power), though this was possibly compiled some time after his death and is suspected by some to be more of a collaboration than a book by a sole author.

A statue of Laozi in his hometown of Luyi (鹿邑), Henan

Zhuangzi was another great teacher of Taoism, who supposedly lived in the fourth century BCE, rejecting rank and luxury for a humble life of reflection. His book of parables, The Zhuangzi, is Taoism’s second great text. Though Taoism began as a religion without deities, over time it acquired a plethora of them, most notably the Eight Immortals. It also attracted imperial patronage and established a formalized priesthood. Taoism was soon an all-encompassing religion, and its chaotic view of the world somehow nestled in perfectly next to the rigidity of Confucianism. But with increasing popularity came dilution and the quest for immortality became the primary goal for some Taoists, leading purists to separate themselves from the mainstream.

Taoist beliefs

According to Taoist philosophy, the world is a chaotic place with conflicting forces of energy that fight each other. However, Taoism is centered on attaining harmony within the natural world, balancing its positive, hard, male, light yang aspects with the negative, soft, female, dark yin forces. The taiji, commonly known as the yinyang in the West, is a symbol of this harmony. When there is balance, and these opposite forces work together, there is natural order. When the opposite occurs and they are offset, there is pandemonium.


Taoist philosophers often speak of following the Tao (or the Way) which is what the belief is based off of. Understanding the Tao takes years of careful meditation, so it’s best to get started now to achieve enlightenment. Taoism also speaks of the concept of wuwei (inaction), or just “going with the flow” when there is a problem or dilemma, because more often than not, conflicting energy has a way of balancing itself out to return matters to a natural state. Taoism also believes that there are five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) that are the founding basis of the universe, with each complementing or conflicting with another.

A Dao master practicing Kung Fu

Superstitions & Traditional Folk Beliefs

While China is in many ways less religious than most other countries, it can often seem more superstitious. Traditionally, Chinese belief systems involve more different variables and direct influences on one’s daily life and fortunes than Western religious traditions. Essentially China has its own set of lucky and unlucky signs and numbers, as well as a healthy belief in ghosts and the malleability of fate.

It’s important to remember, however, that these kind of things spring from the traditions and beliefs that make China unique and fascinating, so don’t denigrate or look down on people for having superstitions that you don’t believe in. Try to avoid doing anything that others will find unlucky, but don’t worry too much about breaking smaller taboos. As a foreigner you generally have a lot of leeway; people won’t expect you to automatically know what’s lucky and unlucky.

The following are some common superstitions to be aware of in China:

Number Four. The number four is considered unlucky in China because it sounds similar to death (both death and four are pronounced si in Mandarin). A lot of buildings will not list the fourth floor, and people will try to avoid having phone numbers or even addresses with the number four in them.

Number Eight. Unlike four, the number eight is considered lucky, supposedly bringing good fortune.

Chopsticks in Rice. When eating, it’s considered rude to stick your chopsticks straight up into your rice or food. This is because it looks like two sticks of incense, which you light to commemorate or worship the dead. To do so would be like wishing death to those around you.

Writing Names in Red. Generally red is considered a positive color in China, but it’s also the color with which names were written on gravestones, so writing someone’s name in red is like wishing death upon them.

Chinese New Year. There are a lot of superstitions involving the Chinese New Year in China. People won’t sweep during the New Year for fear of sweeping out good fortune. They also might set off firecrackers to scare off ghosts.

Ghost Money. You’ll likely see people burning piles of paper in the streets. This paper is ghost money: fake money meant for their ancestors to spend in the afterlife.

Feng Shui. Feng Shui is the concept of constructing buildings to maximize energy flow in order to bring the best and most harmonious quality of life to those within it. Expect many Chinese buildings to be determined by the principles of Feng Shui, or at least to not have any aspects that are considered unlucky according to its principles.

Ghost Month/Day. Depending on where you are this might be a whole month or just a single day. You’re supposed to make offerings to your ancestors during this period and are also supposed to avoid doing things like moving houses or going swimming that might invite supernatural disaster or bad fortune.

The Chinese Zodiac. You probably already know the Chinese Zodiac from the paper placemat of your local Chinese restaurant back home. There’s a rotating roster of 12 animals, and people born in each animal’s year are supposed to have certain associated characteristics. Certain animals on the zodiac are supposed to be romantically compatible with other animals. Probably not mentioned at your local Chinese restaurant back home is that you’re also supposed to wear red underwear (this time the color red is lucky) when the current year matches your birth year.

The Zodiac. Yes, as in the Western Zodiac, like the kind you see in the horoscopes section of the newspaper. Among younger people in major cities, the Western Zodiac is often taken more seriously than the Chinese one. It might make you feel like you’re a 1970s swinger, but expect to often be asked by Chinese people what your sign is.



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