Religion in China

  Publication data:Kim-Kwong Chan ,entry“Religion in China ”in Religionof the World:A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices,

  by J Gordon Melton and Martin Baumann ,to be published in June 2002.

  Religion in China

  China is a nation with diverse religious beliefs,some of which originatedfrom China and others that were introduced from elsewhere.Both continue to playa significant role as the new century begins,especially in the era initiated bythe establishment of the People ‘s Republic of China in 1949.

  Traditional religions :Confucianism could be considered a philosophy ratherthan a religion ,but in either case ,it is central to any consideration of theChinese cosmic view.Originally the teachings of Confucius(c.550-480B.C.E.)focused on humanistic ethics and moral conduct.He dismissed speculation about thesupernatural and insisted on the need for personal responsibility in the contextof formal relationships between men and women ,parents and children ,rulersand subjects.In later centuries,Confucianism was adopted as the state orthodoxyand came to dominate official thinking,culture,and education.Its politicalexpression was the veneration of the emperor as the supreme ruler by virtue of aheavenly mandate and the creation of an elaborate ritual around him.

  Folk Religion profoundly influenced society throughout China.Every districthad its own particular traditions ,practices and beliefs related to gods,ghostsand ancestors.All over China ,local deities made up a varied pantheon includingspirits of local heroes ,versions of Daoist and Buddhist deities and local oranimistic spirits.Celebrations of gods often took the forms of colorful processions.Ancestor worship was most common in Southern China where it played a central rolein kinship,lineage,and clan systems.Most households had a small altar whererespect would be paid to previous generations.Ancestors and deities were expectedto answer petitions.If they failed to do so,the supplicant was perfectly entitledto switch allegiance to others.Temples were often dedicated to several gods andthere was no concept of exclusivity.The entire system was decentralized,unsupervisedand subject to local conditions.The complexities of rituals and divination gaverise to religious specialists such as shamans ,diviners ,mediums,ritual leaders,astrologers and healers.

  Daoism is a term applied to the philosophy attributed to figures of uncertainhistoricity ,Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi ,who asserted the existence of an unseen,inexpressible absolute,known as the Dao ,pervading the Universe.Their works,dating from about the third century B.C.E.,discuss how a person could become asage by following the Dao ,abandoning worldly desires ,and acting spontaneously.Daoism later evolved into an esoteric system of religious beliefs centered on theachievement of immortality by a variety of occult means including alchemy ,rituals,exercises akin to yoga,and chanting of scriptures.All these practices greatlyinfluenced the various Daoist-like sects popularized as forms of Folk Religion.The poem Dao De Jin (XX Dao De Jing),attributed to Lao Zi ,is one of the mostcelebrated works of Chinese spirituality.The typical Daoist figure is the hermit,and Daoism was regarded by many of the elite as an alternative to the conventionalstate philosophy of Confucianism.Scholars who became disillusioned with the lifeof the court had the option of wandering away from the mundane world.There aremany accounts of such men who retired to remote rural areas where they devoted themselvesto meditation ,the study of the Dao ,medicinal herbs,music or poetry.Thesesages ,it was thought ,could attain the blessed state of immortality.

  Foreign Religions :Buddhism was introduced to China in the early centuriesC.E.Having originated in India in the fifth century B.C.E.,it was at first mostlyconfined to foreign residents but in the fifth century C.E.began to spread amongnative Chinese.The following centuries saw a rapid expansion of Buddhism ,whichreached its peak in the Tang Dynasty(seventh to ninth centuries)。The most popularsects were the Pure Land and the Chan (later being known in the West via its Japanesederivative Zen)。It is difficult to summarize the range of doctrines preachedby different schools,but most of them advocated compassion,piety,and devotionto Buddha.

  When Buddhism was introduced to Tibet ,it became influenced by Tibet‘s owntraditional religion,and developed into a unique branch of Buddhism that is predominantamong the Buddhists in Tibet,Nepal,Bhutan ,Sikkim ,and Northern India.TibetanBuddhism also spread into China ,under the patronage of several emperors.Today,Tibetan-influenced forms of Buddhism play a significant role,together with Chanand Pure Land ,even in mainstream Chinese monasteries.Buddhism never fully recoveredfrom a severe persecution in the ninth century,but it still remained an integralpart of the Chinese religious scene with thousands of temples and monasteries allover the country.

  The first documented Christian missionary to China was the Nestorian Aloben(or Alopen )of Persia who came to China in 635C.E.Later Nestorian Christianityflourished in China until the ninth century when the Emperor suppressed all non-Daoistreligions ,including Nestorianism.Many Nestorians,including Mongolians ,wereexiled to Central Asia and only returned to China with Genghis Khan in 1215,afterwhich they built a sizable Nestorian Church in China.However ,when the Mongoliansleft China as the ruling class in 1385,the Nestorian Church in China also ceasedto exist.What remains in China is the Nestorian Tablet and the Nestorian Pagoda(built in 700C.E.)—the only standing architectural monument of the ancientNestorian Church in the world.

  Zoroastrianism was introduced to China in 516C.E.and enjoyed a steady developmentfor several hundred years.It gradually declined in China beginning in the tenthcentury and totally disappeared during the thirteenth century.Manichaeism cameto China in the sixth century C.E.,flourished for a few hundred years ,and disappearedin the sixteenth century.Judaism came to China along with the Jewish merchantssince the seventh century C.E.The Jews had synagogues in China for more than amillennium.Apart from those Jews who came to China in the mid-nineteenth centuryas merchants,there has been a Chinese Jewish community in Kaifeng ,Henan Province,who had their rabbi and synagogue since at least the late eighteenth century,andlives as a distinct community even up to now.

  Arab and Persian merchants took Islam to China in the eighth century C.E.Bythe sixteenth century ,many Muslims were integrated into Chinese society;thesesinified Muslims are known as the Hui people.The Hui are descendants of Muslimswho settled in China often gaining administrative posts under the Mongol regime.They intermarried with Han;quite often the only sign of their former belief inIslam is some lifestyle features like headdress and diet.Several minority groups,such as the Uygurs and Salas are people of Turkic ethnicity who were Muslim farback in history ,and who occupied the oasis regions of what was formally Turkestan,which was integrated into China in the 19th century.In the nineteenth century,under the influence of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order,there was a fierce Muslim revoltby the Chinese Muslims.Some have since been exiled to present Kazakhstan are nowknown as the Donggan People.There has since been tension between the Muslims andthe non-Muslims in China.

  Among the prisoners of war of the Czar‘s army in Siberia taken by the ChineseQing army in 1685was a Russian Orthodox Priest ,Maksim Leontbev,who broughtan Icon of St Nicholas and a few Bibles.These few captives formed the first RussianOrthodox community in Beijing ,where the Emperor granted them a special area tolive,as well as a temple to be used as an Orthodox Church.The Orthodox in Chinagrew steadily and attracted many Chinese followers until the Boxer Rebellion in1900when many of the Chinese Orthodox were killed,among which 120of the ChineseOrthodox martyrs were canonized as Saints.The Orthodox Church remained under theauthority of the Moscow Patriarch until 1956when the Eastern (Russian )OrthodoxChurch of China (KHP )became an independent ecclesiastical entity headed by ArchimandriteVasyliy.

  The Catholic Church sent the Franciscan Bishop John of Monte Corvino as thefirst missionary to China.He arrived in 1294.However,the first Roman Catholicsin China would be the Catholic merchants from Europe,such as Marco Polo who wasin China in the mid-thirteenth century.Bishop John built a small Catholic community,but it died off when the Mongol Empire collapsed a few decades later.The Catholicmission to China was re-established by the Jesuits in the late sixteenth centuryand was based in Macao.Michael Ruggerius ,later joined by Matteo Ricci ,establishedthemselves in China in 1583.

  Other Jesuits as well as missionaries from other religious orders such as theDominicans and Franciscans followed them.Soon these missionaries had differentviews on the Chinese tradition of ancestral worship —whether it was pagan worshipcondemned by Catholic teaching,XX or a non-religious tradition that could be toleratedif not honored.This conflict gave rise to the famous Rites Controversy that ledto the official ban of Catholicism in China for almost a century along with intensepersecution.The Catholic mission continued when China was opened up to foreignmerchants and missionaries after losing the Opium War in 1842.The Catholic populationgrew rapidly in spite of the Boxer Rebellion that killed at least 25,000Catholics.When the Holy Hierarchy of the Chinese Catholic Church in China was establishedin 1946,it numbered 3millions followers.

  The first Protestant mission to China were the Dutch missionaries who came toTaiwan(Formosa ,occupied by Dutch colonial forces)in 1626and established churchesand schools with more than a thousand converts.They were driven away by Chinesemilitary forces in 1662and failed to re-establish their mission despite severallater attempts.In 1807,Robert Morrison of the London Missionary Society wentto Guangzhou(Canton)via Macao as a staff for the East India Company and claimedto be the first Protestant missionary to China.In 1808he returned to Macao.Itwas not until after 1842,when China signed the Nanjing(Nanking )Treaty afterthe defeat in the Opium War ,that Protestant missionaries were allowed to workin China.After that,China became the largest mission field ,with more than10,000missionaries,mostly from UK and USA ,in the 1930s establishing the Protestantpresence through building churches,schools,hospitals and other social serviceagencies.By 1949,there were slightly less than one million believers under virtuallyall major denominational banners—from Anglican ,Lutheran ,Pentecostal to FreeChurches.There were also major indigenous groups such as the Little Flock(theLocal Church),the True Jesus Church,the Jesus Family ,and the Church of Christin China.

  Religion in the People‘s Republic of China :The Chinese Communist Party governsthe People’s Republic of China.Marx-Leninism is state orthodoxy ,so atheism ,rather than religious belief,is the official ideology.The Party has formulatedthe “Policy of Freedom of Religious Belief ”and the government has establishedthe Religious Affairs Bureau to implement that policy ,which is defined as follows:

  1)All citizens can have the right to believe ,and not to believe religion.The Government officially recognizes only five religions in China —Buddhism,Daoism,Islam ,Catholicism and Protestantism.The Government has the authority to definewhat is ,and what is not,a religion.Those that are not defined as one of thefive accepted religions ,are regarded as cults or feudal superstitions and arepunished by law.The only exception is the Orthodox Church of China ,which isregistered with the Harbin Municipal Government to represent the only recognizedOrthodox community in China.2)All five religions are organized into respectivepatriotic organizations under the supervision of the Government ,namely the BuddhistAssociation of China,China Taoist (Daoist)Association,China Islamic Association,Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association,Chinese Catholic Bishops ‘College ,andthe Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee of the Protestant Churches of China/ChinaChristian Council.All religious groups have to affiliate with one of these groupsand to register with the Government.All religious groups have to support the Partyand co-operate with the Government’s interest.3)Religious activities are allowedwithin designated religious venues under the auspices of these organizations.4)Religions are not allowed to instruct people less than 18years of age.Religionsare not allowed to interfere with the Government‘s social,education and marriagepolicies.5)Party members,Government cadres,military personnel ,and publicsecurity officers are not allowed to embrace religious belief.6)National minoritygroups can have special allowance to embrace religions that are not one of the fiveofficially recognized ones as long as such religion symbolizes the cultural heritageof this particular minority group.7)Foreigners in China are under separate ruling.They are allowed to have their own sanctioned religious activities even outsideof the five officially-accepted religions ;but foreigners ’religious activitiescannot involve local nationals.Further ,all missionary activity is forbiddenin China,and contacts between foreign and national religious groups must receiveprior approval from the civil authority.

  Currently ,the Government reports that there are more than 100million followersof various religious faiths ,more than 85,000sites for religious activities,some 300,000clergy,and over 3,000regional religious organizations(underthe above mentioned national religions organizations)。In addition,there aremore than 75religious schools to train religious personnel.Buddhist groups areseparated into three divisions:Tibetan Buddhism ,Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada(Pali)Buddhism.There are 13,000temples and 200,000monks and nuns(amongthem 120,000are lamas ,nuns and 1,700living Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism,and 10,000Bhiksu of Pali Buddhism.There are 25,000Daoist priests and nunswith 1,700temples ,and the priests are classified into two groups :Zhengyiand Quanzhen.The Muslims are mostly Sunnis with a few Sh ‘ites with a total populationof more than 18million.Most of the Muslims are Hui and Uygur;in addition thereare another 10national minority groups who are all Muslim.There are 30,000mosqueswith 40,000Imams and Akhunds.These statistics are only approximate suppliedby the Government ,accurate numbers of religious believers and their institutionshas not yet been ascertained by reliable surveys.

  The Protestant Church ,with 15million members,is officially declared aspost-denominational but with various traditions within this context.The Seventh-dayAdventists are treated as a separate entity within the China Christian Council.Similarly the followers of the True Jesus Church and the Little Flock (the Assembly)have their separate churches in many places.There are many Protestant groups ,with membership of perhaps 10million ,not affiliated with the TSPM/CCC ,whooperate clandestinely and illegally.

  The Catholic Church in China broke its formal relationship with the Holy Seein 1957when it consecrated its bishops without Papal approval.From the mid-1950suntil now ,relations between Beijing and the Vatican have been very bad as theVatican has kept diplomatic relationship with the Republic of China (Taiwan)asthe legitimate representation of China.

  Currently there is an “underground ”Chinese Catholic hierarchy in full communionwith Rome claiming a membership of more than 6million.There is also a separatedGovernment-approved Catholic Church in China with independently consecrated bishops(however ,the majority of them having received Papal approval)with a totalmembership of 6million and at least 5,000clergy.

  Sino-Vatican rapprochement was in the horizon as both parties engaged in intensivenegotiation in 1999-2000but both parties broke this off over the controversy ofthe Pope‘s Canonization of 120Martyred Saints of China on October 1,2000,the National Day of the People’s Republic of China.

  Since the death of the last Government recognized Chinese Orthodox Priest —Gregory Zhu —in October 2000,there is ,officially ,no longer a functionalOrthodox Church of China.However there are a dozen communities of Orthodox believersin Beijing,Shanghai ,Heilongjiang ,Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang as well asseveral validly ordained Chinese Orthodox priests that the Government has not(as of 2001)recognized.In February 1997the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church(Moscow Patriarchate )declared that it had the religious obligation to care forthe Orthodox Church of China(KHP )。In 2000the Moscow Patriarch informed theChinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs of his willingness to send Russian Orthodoxclergy to China but the Chinese authority rejected such a proposal.The currentstatus of the Orthodox Church of China(KHP )is in a limbo.

  Kim-Kwong Chan &Alan Hunter

  Sources :

  Yang,C.K.Religion In Chinese Society.Berkeley:University of CaliforniaPress ,1961.

  Hunter,Alan ,and Kim-Kwong Chan.Protestantism In Contemporary China.Cambridge:Cambridge University Press ,1993.

  Information Office of the State Council Of the People ‘s Republic of China.Freedom of Religious Belief in China.Beijing :State Council of People’s Republicof China,1997.

  MacInnis,Donald E.Religion in China Today:Policy &Practice.Maryknoll ,NY:Orbis Books,1989.

  Zhufeng ,Luo,ed.Religion under Socialism in China.Trans.By Donald E.MacInnis and Zheng Xi'an.Armonk,NY :M.E.Sharpe ,1991.

  Madsen Richard,China‘s Catholics.Berkeley :University of California Press,1998.


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