Religion in China is a hard topic to pin down. The country has been officially atheist since 1949 - a policy that was rigorously enforced through the early years of the People's Republic of China but was relaxed in the 1970s.
Since 1978 the Constitution of the People's Republic of China has guaranteed "freedom of religion" and the Chinese government recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism (or Daoism), Islam, Catholicism and Protestanism. Religions that are accepted by the Chinese are treated with a fair degree of tolerance; however, new religious movements are, on the whole, considered cults and are banned and harshly repressed. This is likely in large part due to the history of religious cults threatening political stability. A notable example of which was the Taiping Rebellion of 1845-1864, led by Christian convert Hong Xiuquan. Hong, who believed himself to be the Son of God, established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom in Nanjing and proceeded to try to instill his brand of Christianity on much of southern China, which led to a civil war and the deaths of 20 million civilians.
Today, the Chinese government supports the practice of Buddhism and Taoism, seeing these as an integral part of Chinese culture. Buddhism, introduced to China in the 1st century, is considered the largest single religious group in China, but the many varieties of Shenism (the worship of spirit gods, sometimes known as Chinese folk religion) is the largest group overall. Shenism is closely linked to Taoism which combines elements of Hinduism (multiple dieties and festivals) with the ethics of Buddhism (compassion, moderation, humility) - although organized Taoists would, on the whole, distinguish themselves from those who follow folk religions.
A survey by Shanghai University in 2007 estimated that about 300 million Chinese adults (31%) consider themselves religious. Of this number, two-thirds considered themselves Buddhists, Taoists or Shenists, and about 12% (~4% of total population) consider themselves Christian - approximately 40 million people.
All religions in China are tightly controlled by the Chinese government. For example, the government does not recognize the primacy of the Pope as leader of the Catholic church, thus all legal worship is conducted through State-approved churches belonging to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The Protestant church is also tightly controlled by government authorities - it is thought that Protestant churches affiliated with the government have up to 15 million members but unofficial house churches may have up to 30 million.
It is estimated that up to 2% of the Chinese population are Muslim (upwards of 20 million). Although there are concentrations of Muslims in various areas, they can be found across the country. Most Chinese Muslims are Sunni, with some communities led by female imams.
Strangely, Confucianism does not appear to be recorded in surveys of Chinese religious beliefs. Perhaps this is because many consider it a philosophy (but some scholars would consider Buddhism and Taoism philosophies as well); perhaps it is because Confusianism is overlaid with other beliefs (for example, Chinese Muslims practice Confucianism); or perhaps it is because Confucianism is so ingrained into the Chinese psyche that it is an inseparable part of the cultural heritage?
Interesting Link: More about Chinese religious beliefs at the PewForum.org
Christianity in China
Nestorian missionaries from the Church of the East* are believed to have been the first to visit China around AD 635. For a time Christianity flourished in places, but was effectively wiped out by the end of the 9th century.
The Church of the East was a Persian branch of Christianity that followed the thinking of Nestorius, a 5th century Archbishop of Constantinople who believed that Jesus's human and divine essences were separate not joined and thus challenged the title of Mary as Theotokos (literally, Bearer of God). Nestorius was condemned for heresy and removed from his position. While Nestorius retired to a monastery, many of his supporters split to form the Nestorian Schism centered in Persia, thus Nestorianism became the official position of the Church of the East.
A second wave of Nestorian missionaries arrived with the Mongol invasion, and established a foothold during the Mongol/Yuan dynasty of 1271-1368. Around the same time, Franciscan missionaries, commissioned by the Pope, arrived. Neither survived the end of the Mongol dynasty.
Jesuits arrived in Peking and Canton towards the end of the 16th century, the most famous of whom was Italian mathematician and priest Matteo Ricci. Ricci settled in Peking in 1600 and, welcomed at the imperial court, introduced Western learning to China. The acceptance of Catholic beliefs stemmed in large part from the Jesuits endorsing a brand of Catholicism that accommodated traditional Chinese ancestor worship - an approach later condemned by the Pope, after which the Catholics enjoyed less success.
Russian Orthodoxy arrived in 1715, Protestantism in 1807. The pace of missionary expansion increased considerably after the first Anglo-Chinese war (known as the First Opium War, 1839-1842) with Christian missionaries, working under the protection of Western powers, playing a major role in Westernizing China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Foreign missionaries of all stripes are banned in China today.
This article was originally published in October 2010, and has been updated for the
October 2011 paperback release.
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