When you do a quick internet query of ‘religion of China’, several answers appear: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Islam and Christianity. Some will be quick to note that the first three answers don’t easily fall into the category of ‘religion’, but are often placed under a ‘philosophy’ branch instead. Regardless, this post will treat them all as having equal governance and significance to their followers’ lives.
Islam has strength in the west of China, along the Central Asia border. Of the three largest ethnic groups that follow Islam (the Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Hui) the Hui can be found throughout China due to early migrations east. I certainly recommend visiting a Chinese Muslim restaurant while in China – the handmade noodles are beyond delicious!
The number of Christians is hard to authenticate, given, for one instance, that many Christians practise in underground “house-churches”. A 2014 report by The Economist suggested that, between the different denominations, Christianity has more members in China than the Communist Party (which has 87 million) and is the fastest growing religion, potentially resulting in 250 million followers by 2030.
The role of Confucianism in the Chinese mindset I have already discussed in my article “Human Rights in China” and will discuss again soon.
One of the most commonly recognised symbols of Taoism (also known as Daoism) is the YinYang. Daoism teaches of balance and harmony, with the achievement of immortality the “ultimate goal of [Chinese] Taoist practice”. Other common known practises that have arisen out of Taosim are feng shui and tai chi.
Originally from India, but no longer thought of as a foreign religion, Buddhism in China differs from the original in describing the Buddha as “a super-powerful god”, as opposed to a human being who found Enlightenment, and came to understand existence and earthly suffering through a long journey of meditation. Chinese followers traditionally worship the Buddha and pray to him.
A different alternative is offered by author Barry Li. He claims that the dominant religion in China is not Buddhism or Taoism, but instead Chinese folk religion. This is not a systematic religion, rather “a collection of various supernatural beliefs scattered across the country”. Superstition plays a highly important role in this folk religion, and Li states that it doesn’t just belong to the older generations. “In this polytheistic system”, he says, “it is believed that there is a supernatural spirit in everything (the mountains, the rivers, a snake, a turtle, even a flower). Some spirits can be powerful; you might not want to pray to them, but you certainly do not want to offend them.”
Two texts, written in the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), record the structures governing folk religion. Investiture of the Gods , a narrative starting at the end of the Shang dynasty and the beginning of the Zhou dynasty (about 1027 BC) tells of how many of the dead generals were made gods. The other text is Journey to the West, published around 1592. This story contains one of the most popular characters of Chinese mythology – the Monkey King. The Monkey King is present in today’s China in advertising, stuffed toys and cartoons and certainly someone you should get used to seeing everywhere if you’re in China!
Photo taken along the City Wall, Xi’an, March 2017.