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Religion in China

A country as big as China is bound to be home to many different ethnic groups and religions. From the Han Chinese to the Mongols, Nakhi, and Zhuang, all the various Chinese ethnic groups have made their own contribution to China’s culture today. The different religions practiced in China, from Buddhism to ancestor worship, also add to the country’s diversity.
Learning the basics of Confucianism will help you understand the Chinese mindset.

As a Communist country, China has no official religion. That being said, the government does officially recognize five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. As of the last official census in 2010, 52.2% of the population said they were unaffiliated with any religion. The other circa 48% of the population is split between the officially recognized religions, as well as folk religions and very small populations of Jewish and Hindu believers.

Confucianism: Societal Order and Harmony

You will probably encounter Confucianism and Confucian thoughts and principles during your time in China. The first important thing to know about Confucianism is that it is not actually a religion, but rather a way of thinking and behaving. It was developed from the musings of Confucius (552–479 BC), who pondered the best way to establish societal order and harmony.

Within a couple centuries, Confucianism started to gain a popular following. This ethical and philosophical system centers around filial piety, kinship, loyalty, and knowing one’s proper place in society and acting accordingly. These Confucian principles and doctrines played an important part in shaping how Chinese people think and act today. If you understand Confucianism, you’ll be well on your way to understanding the Chinese mindset.

Buddhism: The Noble Eightfold Path

Buddhism is practiced by the largest number of people in China, about 18%. This religion first reached China circa 2,000 years ago. It subsequently developed into three sections: Han Buddhism (the largest branch), Tibetan Buddhism, and Southern Buddhism (the smallest branch). Buddhism has had a great influence on the local culture in China in terms of art, literature, and ideology. Today, Buddhism enjoys followers from all social classes. There are about 13,000 Buddhist temples with 180,000 monks and nuns in mainland China.

Taoism: The Balance between Yin and Yang

Taoism, unlike Buddhism, developed in China. It dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220). In Taoism, emphasis is placed on living in harmony with the tao (the “way”). Taoism’s influence on Chinese culture far outweighs its number of official followers today (less than 1%). Its legacy is mostly in the areas of literature and traditional medicine. Several well-known concepts, such as the importance of preserving the balance between yin and yang, are central teachings of Taoism. There are around 300 Taoist temples scattered around China.

Islam: Submission to God

Approximately 1.8% of the population in China practices Islam. This religion was introduced to areas of present-day China during the 7th century. Although Muslims live in all Chinese provinces, the highest concentration can be found in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Gansu Province, and Qinghai Province. Ten of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic groups practice Islam. The vast majority of Muslims in China are followers of Sunni Islam.

Christianity: State-Sanctioned Churches and Silent Believers

Christianity was first introduced to China in the 7th century. In the 19th century, many Christian missionaries came to China, especially to its port cities. This missionary activity was outlawed in 1949, but since the easing of restrictions in recent years the number of Christians in China has been increasing at a significant rate. Today, an estimated 5% of Chinese people identify as Christian. It is difficult to obtain an exact verified number, as many Chinese Christians do not belong to one of the government-sanctioned churches.

Traditional Folk Beliefs

In addition to the officially recognized religions in China, an estimated 22% of the population holds traditional folk beliefs. These range from ancestor worship to feng shui theory to worshipping Cai Shen (the God of Wealth). Chinese astrology is also very popular in China. Many believe that an individual’s sign can decide one’s character and future. At the beginning of each new year, many Chinese people gather in front of fortune telling programs to see if they will have a successful year and learn how to avoid bad luck. Even Chinese people who don’t officially follow any religion often take part in traditional folk customs and festivals.

 

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