The religions of China

The religions of China

Every people has the religion they inherit from their ancestors. This widely spread aphorism is truer in China than in other countries. Scholars say that the primitive religion of the Chinese, as of the peoples who lived near them, was the cult of the ancestors, and of the forces of nature, which they believed to be endowed with spirits of their own. Precisely these two primitive religions have clearly permeated the two most important philosophical and religious systems of Chinese history, respectively Confucianism and Taoism.

Ancestor worship in China

Possibly the most widespread religious practice in China is ancestor worship. A cult that somehow extends from the first manifestations of their culture to the present day, and that appropriates or uses the three main religions Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Although ancestor worship is usually related to Confucianism, its origin is much older, extending its practice to all spheres of Chinese religious life. Throughout this time as the primary religion of the Chinese, it has become the cornerstone of their family and social life, and the very essence around which the character of each person is built.

From the remote past, the Chinese considered that a person consisted of a body and several souls, which did not die with the body, but after death went on to live in the spirit world. In that world, the dead had the same needs as when they were alive, food, clothes, weapons, ornaments, etc. Objects that were provided to them by their living descendants, generally buried with them in the tombs, or through sacrifices before the ancestors’ tablets. That is the reason that in the ancient tombs of kings and emperors magnificent treasures have been discovered that reflect the needs that the deceased may have had in the spirit world, including objects of worship, soldiers, guardians, and items of their daily life.

Just as when they were alive the elders were respected, when they died and became ancestors, they were even more revered, for although in that state they became dependent on their living descendants, who during each meal offered them a few grains of rice or a little wine at their home altars, they, in turn, acquired the ability to bless and help their descendants, providing them with prosperity, happiness, and fortune. While ancestors were believed to be continuously present, as evidenced by the presence in every home of the ancestors’ tablet, their presence was most evident during certain festivities and celebrations, when they were believed to share in the offerings their descendants provided. But if these ancestors are not provided with the things they need, they become angry and harm their descendants. They become demons.

The ancestors of the most powerful clans, of the royal clans, became in ancient times, the gods of all their subjects.

Remnants of these primitive beliefs are still found today in the religions of some of the minorities inhabiting the mountainous areas of the South and Southwest. In fact, the myth of Pangu, the creator of the universe and all that it contains, cornered by the Chinese in the realm of fable many centuries ago, maintains today a living presence in the culture and religion of several indigenous peoples of South China.

When talking about religion in China, there is an ongoing discussion between those who believe that the Chinese are atheists by nature and those who claim the opposite. Perhaps it will help to better understand the relationship of the Chinese with religion if we consider that these primitive religions have been the basis on which subsequent national and imported religions have been superimposed.


The first European missionaries who arrived in China thought that Confucianism was a religion. In fact, they found the existence of temples dedicated to it, a priestly body differentiated from the rest of the population, in charge of propagating its ideas, that of the learned, and a complex liturgy that was put into practice both before numerous events of private life, as well as in public festivities.

Later, scholars have denied this impression, assuring that Confucius does not propose the belief in any god, but only establishes a series of social norms. Without entering into further discussion about the essence of religions. The moral rules on which the lives of citizens should be based, the so-called five relationships (ruler and subject, father and son, elder and younger brother, husband and wife, and between friends), are but a development of the ancestor worship of the primitive Chinese. As is the emphasis placed on fulfilling the funeral rites, in which the presence of Buddhist or Taoist priests is only a coating of varnish over the ceremony celebrated for thousands of years, in which the relatives of the dead led his soul into the realm of darkness. The universal presence before the Revolution in Chinese homes of a small altar where Buddha or ancestors, or both, were venerated is but a legacy of those altars that were kept among the primitive Chinese in case the soul of the ancestors decided to spend a season among the living.

The need for a god, if it has ever been necessary, was supplied in a somewhat ingenious way with the figure of the emperor, who, considered son of heaven, was placed at the top of the human pyramid, with a semi-divine category. Thus we can see that Confucianism is indeed a religion. The Empire is its god (represented by the emperor of the day) and Confucius its prophet. Its liturgy is millenary, and its basic principles are as old as the Chinese people themselves.


Taoism is said by the Chinese to be the only religion originating in their own country. And in reality, it is not true either, first because throughout history there have been numerous religions and cults, of which a good number of them have reached our days after a troubled history, and second because in its origin Taoism was not a religion, but a philosophical system, developed among others by Lao Zi and his disciple Zhuang Zi. A somewhat esoteric philosophy that explored and developed the second of China’s primitive religions, the cult of nature, advocating the integration of man in nature, and the distancing of government affairs.

With the passing of the centuries, philosophy was not enough to satisfy the people’s desire to believe in a god, and gradually it became a religion, of which some clever people also took advantage, and after deifying Laozi, and other legendary characters they began to erect temples and offer religious services to the population.

Taoist temples, in general, have not endured this transformation of Taoism from philosophy to religion. In fact, the real Taoist monks do not live in temples, but as hermits in the mountains that are sacred to them. This again evokes the cult of nature to which they are heirs.


Buddhism is the most important religion practiced in China and the one with the largest number of adherents. As everyone knows, Buddhism originated in India, and although it is said that a few years after the death of Buddha the first news of Buddhism reached China, the religion spread very slowly, since communications through the Himalayas were very poor, and the detour along the later Silk Road was not an easy way.

The first strong push that the new religion received was given in the year 68 of our era, when an emperor of the Han dynasty sent some officials to India to learn about this religion, building on his return the Temple of the White Horse, near its capital Luoyang, from where the study of the texts brought precisely on the back of a horse of the mentioned color began. During the following centuries, Buddhism gained strength in Chinese territory, although it was not until the 5th century that its true expansion took place, reaching the most remote parts of the country. Nevertheless, the Buddhism of those centuries was still a foreign religion, many of whose concepts, not having equivalence in Chinese, were translated following the concepts of the Taoists with whom they kept some similarities.

It was not until the monk Xuanzang made his great journey to India in search of the Buddhist scriptures and founded in 652 the Great Goose Pagoda in Xi’an to preserve them, that a systematic process of translation and reflection on the teachings of this religion began in China. It was the glorious era of the Tang dynasty and Buddhism soon permeated all aspects of Chinese life, culture, and art. Numerous schools of Buddhist thought emerged around Xi’an. Monks from Korea and Japan brought Buddhist doctrines to their respective countries. But just as secular philosophical doctrines become a religion, Buddhism acquired too much power, its monasteries possessed large tracts of land. The emperors took matters into their own hands and limited its power so that by the Song dynasty, the splendor of Buddhism had already been eclipsed, maintaining its importance in society as one of the religions practiced by the Chinese, who returned to govern their lives by the teachings of Confucius, updated by the thinkers of the new school.


The teachings of Muhammad penetrated China through the Silk Road, by the hand of merchants and travelers who came to Xi’an from Muslim countries. Simultaneously, there was a penetration of Islam through the ports of the coast, such as Canton and Quanzhou, where Muslim merchants also settled. It was in these cities that the first mosques were built, some of which have maintained their worship to the present day. And although the religion of Islam spread from these centers to the different cities and regions of China, most of its followers remained among the minorities of the West and South, as well as their descendants established in the big cities, without ever exercising an important influence on Chinese life and culture.


The first Christians to arrive in China were the Nestorians, again via the Silk Road, and from Xi’an, they tried to spread their religion to the rest of the empire. They were not very successful, and today only the stele called «Daqing Nestorianism Propagation Tablet», in the Xi’an Stele Museum reminds us of their presence.

Even less successful were some missionaries who reached the Celestial Empire during the 12th and 13th centuries. It was not until the 16th century when the Jesuits put all their efforts into the evangelization of these lands that Christianity, and with it the West, became known in China, and the first news about China began to circulate in Europe. The Jesuits made some progress during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, even securing a presence at court, but neither the favor of the emperors and some important people spared them from persecution, nor the construction of some churches allowed them to gain a foothold among the Chinese.

Christianity made a strong comeback in China during the 19th century, generally accompanied by the aggressive policies of France and England, achieving good implantation and carrying out numerous works of a social nature. But their interests were too closely intertwined with those of the governments of their countries that were colonizing China so that after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China most of the foreign missionaries were expelled from the country.

The situation of Catholicism in China is currently very curious. The government assures that it allows and guarantees freedom of belief and worship, but considers it illegal for a religious organization to swear allegiance to a government other than the Chinese government, as in fact, Christians do with the Pope and the Vatican. As a result, there are two Catholic churches. The legal Chinese one, which is independent of the Vatican, and the one that abides by the authority of the Vatican, which is illegal.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The religions of China," in Ethnic China, 2 junio 2021,
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