China is one of the most ancient civilizations on Earth and religious practices in this country date back to more than 7000 years. In modern times, we recognize three major Eastern religions in China – Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. However, long before the philosophical and spiritual teachings of Confucius and Lao-Tzu and the arrival of the wisdom of the Buddha in China, religion in China has always thrived in one form and several others. And today, Chinese religion has become a complex amalgamation of folk religion, the Three Religions, and the anti-religious sentiment of the Communist doctrine.
Hence, the term “Chinese religion” as we know it now refers to a diverse and complex collection of many traditions and beliefs. And for us to understand the modern expressions of Chinese religion, it becomes necessary for us to learn how and when various religions formed and reigned supreme, and how much they developed and influenced Chinese civilization throughout its long history.
Orthodox Chinese religions are products of continuous historical development since prehistoric times. Ancient China was inhabited by many nomadic tribes that eventually developed agriculture, and archaeological records indicate that these small villages and communities gradually progressed toward more sophisticated technology and social stratification. There is also some evidence for prehistoric religious activities, particularly involving the dead, who were often buried in segregated cemeteries, with the bodies’ heads positioned toward a single cardinal direction. There was also some concern over the precise ordering of ritual acts, which is perhaps an early version over the importance placed on universal order and pattern in later Chinese cosmology. There is also evidence of people who acted as divination specialists as early as the 4th millennium BCE, while the 3rd millennium BCE saw the rise of interest in building tomb rams and coffin chambers. Early forms of ancestor worship also began during this period.
Shang Dynasty: 1600 BC – 1050 BCE
By the time of the Shang Dynasty, religion developed to the point that the people established a definite “king of the gods” referred to as Shangti along with many lesser gods of other names. The people also held a strong belief in ghosts, proven by evidence in the form of amulets and charms and the written ghost stories during this time considered to be the earliest form of Chinese literature. Divination also became a significant part of Chinese religious beliefs during the Shang dynasty, with some individuals performing mystical and psychic abilities by telling another person’s future through oracle bones.
Religion in the Zhou Dynasty: 1046 – 256 BCE
During the Zhou Dynasty, various regions of China started to become more unified, turning into a single civilization. At the same time, religious ideas from different regions of the area interacted with each other and began to assimilate. Both commoners and the elite believed in gods, ghosts, ancestors, and omens, and they practiced divination, sacrifice, and exorcism. Zhou ancestors were believed to live in a celestial court presided over by the Zhou high god Tian. During the Zhou Dynasty, the Mandate of Heaven concept developed and this Chinese civilization also eventually gave way to the teachings of Confucius and Mo-tzu whose teachings emphasized virtue, humanity, the value of social relationships, and just leadership.
Qin Dynasty: 221 – 206 BCE
In the time of the Qin Dynasty, the emperor Shi Huangti became infamous for his suppression of religion and other philosophical perspectives. During his reign, legalism was the state philosophy of the Qin government and the citizens were subjected to harsh penalties for violating even minor laws. The emperor also banned any books which were not about his family line, his dynasty or Legalism. Though he suppressed his people’s religious beliefs, he was obsessed in conquering death by searching for the key to achieving immortality. However, he failed to succeed in accomplishing this feat, having died in 210 BCE while searching for immortality on tour through his kingdom.
Han Dynasty: 206 BCE – 220 CE
The Han Dynasty was the first dynasty in China to embrace Confucianism, which became the ideological foundation of all regimes from then on until the day Imperial China met its end. The reign of the Han Dynasty was a period of great prosperity, with the emperors of this period having supported and encouraged the development of art, science, technology, literature, and religion. The emperors were seen ruling under the Mandate of Heaven with the important responsibility of mediating between the gods and the people. Then, sometime during the 1st century CE, Buddhism reached China, probably through the travelers who took the Silk Road from northern India. By the 2nd century CE, a variety of other beliefs, practices, and disciplines arose, which eventually gave rise to alchemy, scientific experiments and the Taoist religion.
Six Dynasties Period: 220 – 589 CE
The fall of the Han dynasty began a period of disunity referred to as the “Six Dynasties,” and during this time, Buddhism flourished and became a major religion in China ever since. While this period was almost in constant political upheaval, it is also considered to be an important time for religious development.
The uncertainty and brutality of the period influenced Buddhism in China and Buddhist monks had to meet the people's spiritual needs by developing rituals and practices of transcendence. And so, in the sixth century, new schools of Chinese Buddhism sought to adapt Buddhism to Chinese ways of thinking.
Sui Dynasty: 581 – 618 CE
After three and a half centuries of political fragmentation, China was reunified by the Sui dynasty in 581. The founder of this short-lived dynasty supported Buddhism, particularly the Tiantai school, and used this religion and philosophical movement as a unifying ideology shared by many of the citizens in both North and South.
Tang Dynasty: 618 – 906 CE
However, after four decades of rule, the Sui was overthrown in a series of rebellions and ended up getting replaced by the Tang dynasty – a time regarded by historians as a high point in Chinese civilization. The royal family of this dynasty officially supported Taoism because of them claimed blood relations to Lao-Tzu. However, Buddhism also enjoyed great favor and imperial patronage throughout the period. The T'ien-t'ai, Ch'an and Pure Land schools of Buddhism continued to rise in popularity, and many monasteries and temples were built during this time.
Sung Dynasty: 960 – 1279
After a short unstable period, the “Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms,” the Sung Dynasty rose to rule China. Sung intellectuals sought answers to philosophical and political inquiries in the Confucian Classics, and this renewed interest in the Confucian ideals arose alongside the decline of Buddhism. The Sung Neo-Confucian philosophers found a certain purity in the originality of the ancient classical texts and wrote commentaries about them. However, the rigidity of the state’s official creed and philosophy led to the inhibition of societal development in pre-modern China. While this resulted to several generations of political, social and spiritual stability, it also decelerated cultural and institutional advancement in the country up to the 19th century.
When the Mongols conquered North China and established the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century, they did not attempt to impose their religion – which consisted of a cult of Heaven as well as nature and shamanistic practices – on the Chinese people. And so, the existing three religions in China enjoyed comparative freedom under these foreign rulers. During the Yuan dynasty that a large number of Muslim people were brought in to help in the administration of China. During this time that Islam spread all over the empire, establishing major population bases in the western provinces of Yunnan and Gansu.
Ming Dynasty: 1368 – 1644
The populace’s strong feelings against the rule of foreigners led to the peasant revolt that forced the Yuan dynasty out of Chinese territory and the subsequent establishment of the Ming Dynasty in 1368. During this period, Taoism and Buddhism had become poorly-organized popular religions, which led to the rise of new blends of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist elements so, this paved the way for the rise of many private academies in the 16th century, opening an avenue for widespread philosophical discussions and conflicts.
With the eventual collapse of the Ming empire, the Qing Dynasty came to power - an empire that was founded by the semi-nomadic Manchus. In public policy, the Manchus were strong supporters of Confucianism, but in their private lives, the Qing rulers were devoted to Tibetan Buddhism. Most religious developments during the Qing dynasty were continuations of Ming traditions, except Protestant Christianity as well as the Taiping movement – which is the most significant innovation in Qing religion. The teachings of the Taiping Tianguo or the Celestial Kingdom of Great Peace combined the motifs of Christianity, shamanism and popular sectarian beliefs. Then, in the 19th century, traditional Chinese religions were subjected to waves of persecution, and many religious and institutional religious temples ended up getting destroyed.
The Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911, and with the fall of imperial China, Chinese intellectuals became free to invest themselves in new ideas and political forms. They also were given a chance to avidly study and translate Western writings, including those that spoke of Marxism. The result of this Westernization and secularization left Confucianism and other Chinese traditions vulnerable from attacks which led to the destruction or occupation of thousands of temples. Nevertheless, while these new ideas heavily affected the larger cities, the majority of the Chinese people continued to practice popular religions and traditions as before.
People’s Republic of China: 1949 – present
After the Communist Party’s triumph in the Chinese Civil War under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949. In the early parts of its governance, the People’s Republic of China kept a hostile stance toward religion, which was considered to be emblematic of feudalism and foreign colonialism. Places of worship were then converted into non-religious buildings intended for secular use. Religious beliefs or practices were discouraged because and labeled as "backward" and "superstitious" by the government, later being completely condemned during the Cultural Revolution. Millions of innocent people were killed by the military or injured by fellow citizens poisoned by communist propaganda. It was only in the late 1970s that this attitude relaxed because the 1978 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China supposedly "guaranteed" religious freedom, with a number of restrictions, and as long as religious practices were not perceived to challenge the communist authority of the state.
Today, popular, or folk, religious practice in China has combined elements of the old ancestral rites of previous dynasties and is marked by a propensity for syncretism. For most people in China, there is no problem with combining different beliefs and religious practices, unlike some other cultures that condemn those who follow religious or philosophical movements that are different from their own. While religion in China has several millennia of tumultuous periods of decline and prosperity, what has remained constant is the Chinese people’s ability to select the religious practices and teachings that work best for them at a particular point in time. They have always exercised the freedom to choose which religion could help them in their journey toward a harmonious life.