Religious Beliefs of the Chinese People

Zheng Qian. China’s Ethnic Groups and Religions. Singapore: Cengage Learning, 2011.

Don’t the Chinese Have Any Religious Beliefs?

The Chinese media once reported that many Africans had the impression that the Chinese did not have religious beliefs. In Africa, when people go to government offices, they always need to fill in a series of forms. However, they noticed that the Chinese nationals working in Africa would always leave the category of religion blank. Therefore, the Africans were puzzled: how could people not have any religious beliefs? And what made the Africans even more curious was that the Chinese work on Sundays instead of going to church.

Don’t the Chinese have any religious beliefs? Knowledge of Chinese history would help us to answer this question.

In many parts of the world, people always associate China with Confucius. The sage has become a “popular” representative of Chinese culture. Indeed, this philosopher who lived more than 2,500 years ago, had a great impact on Chinese culture with his doctrines. In that sense, it can be said that contemporary Chinese people’s lives are a product of Confucian culture.

Confucian culture holds a rational attitude toward society and life, and focuses on politics, ethics, and moral standards in practice. It believes that human rationality is the cornerstone of people’s happiness and that the pursuit of a moral life leads to the transcendence of life itself. Thus, Confucian culture does not pursue happiness based on fantasy.

How does Western culture look at Confucian culture? As early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Confucian philosophy shed new light on the philosophers in the Enlightenment period in Europe. Once, the great German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), argued that Confucian ethics was based on human rationality, and that China displayed characteristics of an “almost ideal state,” more or less realizing Plato’s “ideal state.” Another great French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778), also advocated Confucian culture. He once wrote, “It is ethics and law that the Chinese, taught by Confucius, understand best, nurture with the utmost care and devote all their time and energy to … the happiest ever and most delightful time in the world is when people followed Confucius’ laws.”

Interestingly enough, although Confucian culture did not pursue everlasting happiness, it later developed into a religious system called Confucianism. But it is still a hotly debated issue over whether there is a “Confucian religion” in China. However, in China, there is a common saying that Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism are regarded as the “three main religions” of China. The Chinese people once considered Four Books and Five Classics to be Confucian classics, and regarded the worship of ancestors and Confucius as prescribed rituals. As a matter of fact, Confucian philosophy in essence, is the knowledge of life. It is a combination of seeking enlightenment and obtaining knowledge, which resolves not only questions in beliefs but also in knowledge; thus it is a philosophy as well as a religion.

Ancient China experienced a special process of cultural development which was independent of the history of Western thought. As for religion, it may not work to simply “import” a set of Western concepts into China because Chinese culture has its own uniqueness.

Religious Beliefs in China

The massive influence that Confucian culture and Confucianism exerted on China does not indicate that the Chinese do not have any religions. In fact, there are five major religions in China. In addition, countless folk beliefs also exist in the country.

Buddhism, introduced from India in the first century, has the largest group of devotees in China. Currently, China has more than 13,000 Buddhist monasteries with some 200,000 monks and nuns. Since it does not have strict admittance rites, it is difficult to determine the exact number of Buddhists. According to the official statistics released by the national organization of Buddhism in China—the Buddhist Association of China—the country has about 100 million Buddhists.

Taoism is a local religion that was started in the second century based on the ancient philosophy of Tao in China. There are more than 1,500 Taoist temples nationwide with 25,000 Taoist priests and nuns. It is also difficult to account for the actual number of followers as Taoism, like Buddhism, does not have strict admittance rites.

Islam was brought into China in the seventh century. Muslims are mainly distributed among 10 ethnic minorities. Scholars usually use the total population of these 10 ethnic minorities, which amounts to 20 million, as a reference when they need to provide the total number of Muslims in China.

Catholicism was introduced into China in the thirteenth century, and experienced several ups and downs until the 1940s, when a large number of Catholic missionaries entered China. Now, the country is home to over five million Catholics with more than 5,000 churches.

Christianity (referred to as Protestantism in particular) made its way into China in 1807. By 2002, there were 16 million Christians and 8,000 Protestant churches in China.

Many Han Chinese are religious, but they only account for less than 10% of the total population of religious believers in China. Ethnic minorities in China have a large proportion of believers with deep faith in their religions. According to official statistics, religious believers account for over 50% of the total population in 55 ethnic minorities. In more than 20 ethnic minorities, everyone used to be a religious believer historically, and current religious believers still occupy a majority.

Introduction to the Five Major Religions


Chinese Buddhism

In the year 64, guided by a magical dream, Emperor Ming of the Eastern Han Dynasty (reigned 58-75) sent envoys to the Western Regions of China, in search of Buddhist doctrines. Three years later, envoys returned to the capital of Luoyang with two Buddhist monks from India, and also brought back Buddhist scriptures and statues. The White Horse Monastery was specially built near Luoyang by Emperor Ming, a place where Buddhist monks could settle down and translate Buddhist scriptures. It is the first Buddhist monastery in China and is still in existence today.

After arriving in China, Buddhism experienced a long period of interaction with two Chinese major schools of thoughts—Confucianism and Taoism. By the seventh century, Huineng (638-713), a Buddhist monk, founded Chinese Zen Buddhism based on traditional Chinese culture, and sinicized Buddhism in the aspects of mind and doctrine, self-cultivation, and attainment of Buddhahood. Zen Buddhism’s formation marked the complete sinicization of Buddhism in China.

Today, few Chinese point out that Buddhism is a foreign culture for China. In fact, over the past 2,000 years, Buddhism has merged into Chinese culture. The acceptance and localization of Buddhism by Chinese culture is a classic example of cultural integration in human history.

Buddhist culture in China has created many world-class cultural landscapes. There are three famous grottoes in the north of China: the Dunhuang Grottoes were excavated in the fourth century, and Yungang and Longman Grottoes in the fifth century. These grottoes have been listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The Dazu Rock Carvings in Chongqing also made it on the list. It was excavated in the ninth century and completed 250 years later.

In China, there are Buddhist sites that represents the four Bodhisattvas of “great compassion,” “great wisdom,” “great vow,” and “great practice.” The four famous Buddhist mountains of China are: Putuo Mountain in Zhejiang is the Buddhist site of Guanyin Bodhisattva with “great compassion”; Wutai Mountain in Shanxi is the Buddhist site of Manjusri Bodhisattva with “boundless wisdom”; Jiuhua Mountain in Anhui is the Buddhist site of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, who claimed that “Not until all the hells are emptied will I become a Buddha”; Emei Mountain in Sichuan is the Buddhist site of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva with “great courage and practice.” Many Buddhists in China regard pilgrimages to the four famous mountains as their most sacred wish.

In China, current monasteries follow the system of selecting and appointing capable administrators based on democratic consultation. Buddhist monks in a monastery elect an abbot to manage monastery affairs. The tenure of the abbot is three years and the abbot can be re-elected. Monks have to be dressed in monastic robes, eat a vegetarian diet, remain celibate and not marry, and strictly follow religious disciplines and Buddhist etiquette. Buddhist monks should chant Buddhist scriptures in the morning and evening, learn scriptures by heart, and keep practicing Buddhist rules.

Shaolin Monastery is the most influential Chinese monastery in the world. At the mention of Chinese kungfu, Shaolin Monastery comes to mind. This ancient monastery was built in 495, which has become a symbol of Chinese martial arts. At the initial stage of its establishment, Shaolin Monastery, the cradle of Chinese Zen Buddhism, accepted Chinese martial arts as part of the monks’ daily life, and included it as part of scripture learning and selfcultivation. Fighting and martial arts is an extreme form of self-cultivation, since Buddhism advocates peace. However, Chinese Zen Buddhism founded the innate philosophy that no extremes can withhold for long. It discovered the combination of dynamic and static extremes, and the paramount truth beyond fighting and universal fraternity—the most contradictory thing for philosophy to transcend contradiction. This can be regarded as the mysterious great wisdom of Buddhism in China.

Since the 1980s, China has experienced an unprecedented upsurge in Buddhism. It is difficult to get an accurate figure of the number of Buddhists in China, but it is obvious that more devotees are going to Buddhist monasteries and offering more incense. So, we can easily estimate how fast the population of Buddhists in China is growing presently.

The Chinese government holds a positive attitude toward the development of Buddhism. China has held two large-scale World Buddhist Forums. In October 2004, when the seventh Buddhist Friendship Exchange Conference was co-organized in China, South Korea and Japan, a decision was made in Beijing by eight Buddhist leaders from these three countries across the Strait: to hold a World Buddhist Forum in China to improve the quality of life, purify the mind, enlighten people, and maintain peace. The planned forum was targeted at Buddhist disciples as well as spiritual friends who care for and respect Buddhism. On April 13, 2006, senior monks from 37 countries and regions attended the First World Buddhism Forum. Three years later, the Second World Buddhist Forum was held on March 28, 2009, attracting more than 1,700 senior Buddhist monks from about 50 countries and regions.

Tibetan Buddhism

In the seventh century, In the seventh century, Buddhism arrived in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism gradually took shape through its interactions with the local Bon religion in Tibet. In the thirteenth century, Kublai Khan, the emperor of Yuan Dynasty (reigned 1260-1294), honored Basiba (1235-1280) as Royal Preceptor, and began to establish the governance system of alliance between Tibetan Buddhism and state in Tibet. By the end of the fourteenth century, Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) founded the Gelug school, which gradually became the most dominant school of Tibetan Buddhism. The monks of the Gelug school have been traditionally known as the “Yellow Hats,” because of the color of their ceremonial headdress. The other main schools of Tibetan Buddhism are the Nyingma, Sakya, and Kagyu.

Under the system of alliance between Tibetan Buddhism and state, monasteries in Tibet have abundant production materials and wealth, and most of the senior monks are government officials at different levels. Monasteries also have courts and prisons.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese government carried out democratic reform in Tibet from 1959 to 1960, which abolished the serfdom of alliance between Tibetan Buddhism and state. However, democratic reforms in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries were only restricted to the abolishment of unreasonable traditional regulations. For example, monasteries are not allowed to interfere in the areas of administration, justice and marriage; monasteries are not allowed to appoint officials and establish courts and prisons without permission; people’s personal bondage to monasteries are abolished; behaviors such as practicing usury and apportioning duties are forbidden in monasteries; the hierarchical management system in monasteries and the affiliation between the parent and subsidiary monasteries are repealed; Buddhist monks could establish committees or groups responsible for democratic management with regards to religious affairs on their own through democratic elections. The country fully respects and protects the religious freedom of Tibetan citizens.

Tibetan Buddhism was introduced to the Mongol minority at the end of the sixteenth century, which made a tremendous impact on Mongolian society. In addition, Tibetan Buddhism also spread to the Monba, Tu, Qiang, and Yugur minorities, whose people converted to Tibetan Buddhism too.

Tibetan Buddhism now has more than 3,000 monasteries, 120,000 monks and nuns, and over 1,700 Living Buddhas. The historic Lhasa Jokhang Monastery was listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2000. The Gelug School has six famous monasteries; Ganden Monastery, Sera Monastery, and Drepung Monastery are all located in Lhasa, as well as Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai, and Labrang Monastery in Gansu. In inland China, Yonghe Temple (also known as the Palace of Peace and Harmony Lama Temple) in Beijing, and Puning Temple (also known as Temple of Universal Peace) in Chengde, Hebei, are important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.

The reincarnation of the Living Buddha is a system adopted by Tibetan Buddhist monasteries to resolve the problem of leadership succession. It was first created by the Karma Kagyu school in the thirteenth century and then gradually accepted by other schools.

The Living Buddha is identified through a strict set of procedures. Before his death, a Living Buddha always predicts the place where his soul is reincarnated in a baby boy; if not, Buddhist monks will need to get inspiration through divination and séances.

According to clues provided in the Living Buddha’s last words, indications, signs, oracles, and mirages on the lake, monasteries with the lineage of the Living Buddha send monks to different destinations, searching for children with signs or behavior of the reincarnated Living Buddha. There may be more than one candidate for the Living Buddha, but only one is selected eventually.

The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama are two Living Buddhas with the highest positions in the Gelug school. In 1653, the Fifth Dalai Lama was conferred a title by the central government of the Qing Dynasty. After that, it became a rule that every reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was bestowed a title by successive imperial courts. In 1713, the imperial court of the Qing Dynasty offered a title to the Fifth Panchen Lama. Since then, every reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was honored by either the imperial courts or central governments.

In Tibet’s history, Chuizhong (the lama that protects and maintains the Buddhist dharma) was once in charge of identifying the Living Buddha by casting a spell and asking the gods at a séance. However, some of them engaged in frauds, and as a result, many of the “reincarnated” Living Buddhas came from royal and aristocratic families, thus religious power was manipulated by the upper nobilities or senior lamas. In 1793, the government of the Qing Dynasty issued regulations that created a selection system of drawing lots from a golden urn. The balloting went this way: each ivory strip was engraved with the name and birthday of each candidate and deposited into a golden urn. The ivory strip was then drawn and identified as the “reincarnated” Living Buddha, under the supervision of representatives of the Qing government. In addition, two urns were specially designed for this method: one was used to select the “reincarnated” Living Buddhas for Tibet, such as the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, and is currently housed in the Potala Palace; the other is used for the selection of the Living Buddha in the Mongolian area, which is now housed in the Yonghe Temple in Beijing. Since then, the system of drawing lots from the golden urn became a rule and remains in use till today.

On January 28, 1989, the 10th Panchen Lama passed away in Tibet. The Chinese government announced a mission to locate and identify the “reincarnated” Living Buddha according to historical conventions and etiquettes of Tibetan Buddhism. It took six years to search for candidates and three children were selected. On November 29, 1995, after drawing lots, Gyancain Norbu, a six-year-old boy, was confirmed as the 11th Panchen Lama.

Pali Buddhism

Pali Buddhism is also known as Hinayana Buddhism or Theravada Buddhism. Around the seventh century, Theravada Buddhism was introduced into Yunnan Province. The religion first exerted influence on the Dai minority in Xishuangbanna and Dehong, which made every member of the Dai minority a Theravada Buddhist. After that, Theravada Buddhism gradually spread among the Blang, Achang, and De’ang minorities, converting them to Buddhism.

The Dai minority has fully integrated Theravada Buddhism into their daily lives. In almost every Dai village, there are solemn and peaceful monasteries as well as beautiful white pagodas. The Dai people once wrote Buddhist scriptures on patra leaves in the ancient Dai language, leaving behind a precious cultural heritage. Historically, monastic education is an important form of education for the Dai minority. When a boy reaches the age of seven or eight, he must be ordained as a monk in Buddhist monasteries and study Buddhist scriptures as well as secular culture. After a period of study, ranging from several months to years, most of them resume secular life, while the others remain as monks in Buddhist monasteries.

The Blang, De’ang, and Achang minorities are all pious believers in Theravada Buddhism although they have their own ancient style of worship. In the villages of the Blang and De’ang minorities, Buddhist monasteries and pagodas are everywhere.

Currently, in China, Pali Buddhism has nearly 10,000 bhikshus and elders, and more than 1,600 Buddhist monasteries.


Lao-Tzu (about 580-500 B.C.) was revered as the father of Taoism for his contribution to later Taoism. His concepts laid the foundation of Taoism. Distinctions should be made between Taoism, which was established in the second century and the Taoist philosophy of Lao-Tzu. However, Lao-Tzu wrote the Taoist classic Tao Te Ching that was fully embraced by successive elders of Taoism in later ages.

The Taoist societies of “Everlasting Peace” and “Five Buckets of Rice” in the Eastern Han Dynasty marked the start of Taoism. Also, the publication of these Taoist books; Tai Ping Doctrines, Zhouyi Cantong Qi and Lao-Tzu Xiang’er Zhu, initiated the maturing and formation of Taoist belief and theories. Most Chinese scholars tend to believe that, although Taoist doctrines contain shades of Lao-Tzu’s thoughts, it is far from representative of the spirit of Taoism and Lao-Tzu. The beliefs of Taoism are:

  • Tao is the essence of everything in the universe;
  • Tao is the ultimate reality, a presence that existed before the universe was formed and continues to guide the world and everything in it;
  • society and humans should follow the way of the Tao;
  • if humans follow the rules of Tao and concentrate on self-cultivation, they can eventually achieve peace of mind, improve their health, eliminate diseases, prolong their lives, and even become immortals.
  • The utmost goal of Taoism is to achieve immortality through self-cultivation.
  • Many religious doctrines believe that life is full of pain. However, life is a source of joy for Taoists, and they encourage others to enjoy their lives. Therefore, Taoism developed many mystical methods of self-cultivation, such as spiritual, dietary, breathing, and physical practices, among which the most amazing one is Dan Tao.
  • Dan Tao includes external Dan and internal Dan. The former refers to pills of immortality made by Taoists by smelting minerals like cinnabar and lead in stoves and bronze urns. This cultivation method reached its zenith in the Tang Dynasty, followed by a gradual decline, and was replaced by internal Dan. The latter refers to Taoists using their bodies as a form of “stoves and bronze urns,” through deep breathing to gather and convert energy (qi) into pills of immortality within their bodies; once this is carrid out successfully, devout Taoists would eventually become immortals.

It does not matter whether immortals exist by the method of external Dan or internal Dan, but it is undeniable that external Dan and internal Dan have made unexpected contributions to Chinese culture. External Dan resulted in the achievements in metallurgy and chemistry in China, even leading to the invention of gunpowder. While internal Dan has greatly contributed to medical knowledge in China. For instance, the practice of qigong (a breathing exercise), which benefits people’s health, is very popular in China today and other countries.

The “paradise” that Taoists yearn for, does not entirely refer to an imaginary heaven because it also exists on earth. On earth, lands governed by gods are known as Dongtianfudi (literally heavenly caves and lands of happiness). Taoism points out that there are 10 major heavenly caves, 36 minor heavenly caves, and 72 lands of happiness in China. These are all located at famous mountains and rivers, where many historical Taoist temples are located. Some are even historical sites where legendary Taoist immortals practiced their selfcultivation. Nowadays, these scenic spots of high heritage value have become popular destinations for Chinese tourists. Some of the scenic spots have been listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, such as Qingcheng Mountain in Sichuan (also known as the “Fifth Heavenly Cave”), Wuyi Mountain in Fujian (also known as the “16th Heavenly Cave”), Wudang Mountain in Hubei (also known as the “Ninth Land of Happiness”), and Mount Lu in Jiangxi (also known as the “71st Land of Happiness”).

A Taoist priest is one who conducts Taoist rites and activities in a Taoist temple. In the twelfth century, after the rise of the famous Quanzhen school in Taoism, Taoist temples began to use the best practices of temple management of Buddhist monasteries.

The Chinese Taoist Association was founded in 1957. It is located in the White Cloud Temple in Beijing. It was the first Chinese Taoist association that included all schools of Taoism. In addition, there are 133 Taoist organizations of various sizes throughout China. In 1990, the Chinese Taoist Association set up the Chinese Taoist Academy, the first nationwide academy devoted to the study of Chinese Taoism.


The open and liberal character of the great Tang Dynasty encouraged a lot of foreign merchants to trade with China. Due to their advanced maritime technology, more than 70 foreign countries traded with China during this period. At that time, a large number of Arabian and Persian merchants came to China. Attracted by the prosperous economy and tolerant atmosphere of politics and culture, some of them remained in China, married and had children, and worked for the imperial court after passing the imperial examinations. These Arabian and Persian merchants, known as Fanke (literally foreign guests) in China, were the first group of people that brought Islam to China.

The second crucial stage of the spread and development of Islam in China was during the Yuan Dynasty. For 50 years since the start of the thirteenth century, during the large-scale westward expansion by the Mongols, a group of Arabs, Persians, and Central Asians were conscripted for the war against China during the Song Dynasty. These people, together with the descendants of the Arabs and Persians are known as the Huihui.

As the Huihui people lived together and has a long history of intermarriage with the Han Chinese and Mongolians, by late Yuan and early Ming dynasties, a new ethnic group had finally been formed; the Hui ethnic minority. The formation of the Hui ethnic minority laid a stable social foundation for the spread of Islam in China. Meanwhile, this also indicated that Muslims were no longer immigrants, and after living in China for as long as 700 to 800 years, their descendants became native Chinese ethnic minorities. This also transformed Islam from a foreign religion into one that was rooted in China and became an important part of Chinese culture.

Chinese language is commonly used by the Hui ethnic minority, while Arabic and Persian languages are usually used in religious activities. As to when and how these Muslims stopped speaking their mother tongues, some scholars explain that because there were few women among merchants and soldiers, they had to marry local women of Han Chinese ethnicity in order to have children.

Then, the children of the Hui ethnic minority gradually became more familiar with their mothers’ language of Chinese, as it was passed down from mother to child, so later generations of the Hui ethnic minority eventually adopted it for daily use. Furthermore, they mastered Chinese for the purpose of trading. In fact, the Hui ethnic minority integrated Islamic ethics with the traditional Chinese concept of “respect for God and ancestors” in the aspects of ethics and code of conduct. As for the religious education system, the Hui ethnic minority combined Islamic monastic education with Chinese traditional private schooling, which forms the unique “Mosque Education” in Chinese Islam.

The Sinicization of Islam made further progress during the Qing Dynasty: some scholars not only explained Islamic doctrines, disciplines, decrees, and regulations in the Chinese language, but also dedicated themselves to the combination of Confucian and Islamic doctrines. During the same period, Chinese Islam evolved into different Islamic schools with Chinese characteristics and also the Menhuan system. Menhuan was the product of Islamic mysticism (also known as Sufism) and the patriarchal system in China. Furthermore, mosque architecture at that time began to adopt the style of traditional Chinese architectures. In addition, Chinese Muslim families started assimilating traditional Chinese etiquette and habits in their daily lives.

Islam arrived in Xinjiang as early as the tenth century. Prior to her arrival, the ethnic groups were all pious believers of Buddhism, which had a history of more than 1,000 years in Xinjiang. Around A.D. 1 of the Gregorian calendar, Xinjiang was a crucial route along the Silk Road, hence many important religions in the world, including Shamanism, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, and Zoroastrianism were found there. The Uygur people used to be believers of the above-mentioned religions, as well as Buddhism. After the spread of Islam for more than four centuries and the Islamic holy war against Buddhism, Islam was finally accepted by the Uygur ethnic minority. Islam was only accepted by other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang from the eighteenth century onwards.

There are 10 main Muslim ethnic groups in China. Besides the Hui and Uygur ethnic minorities, they also include the Kazak, Kirgiz, Ozbek, Tatar, and Tajik ethnic minorities in Xinjiang; the Salar ethnic minority in Qinghai Province; the Dongxiang and Baoan ethnic minorities in Gansu Province.

Currently, there are over 34,000 mosques and 20 million Muslims in China. This indicates that there is a mosque for every 600 Muslims in China. Many of these mosques were either restored or built in the 1980s.

The Islamic Association of China was founded in Beijing in 1953, serving as the nation’s main religious organization for Islam. The association’s magazine, Chinese Muslims, is published in both the Chinese and Uygur languages. Some provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities where Muslims live, also have their own Islamic associations as well as local publications. China has since published the Koran in 10 languages to meet the needs of Muslim readers among various ethnic groups.

Currently, China has 11 Islamic academies for mosque education. China Islamic Institute, founded in Beijing in 1955, is the highest institution of learning in Chinese Islam.


In 1294, the Franciscan missionary John of Montecorvino (1247-1328) arrived in the capital (Dadu, now known as Beijing) of the Yuan Dynasty and received the government’s permission to establish Catholic churches. This marked the introduction of Catholicism into China. However, with the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, Catholicism withered away in the country.

In the sixteenth century, with the expansion of Western colonialism, Catholicism re-entered China. During this period, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), an Italian Jesuit missionary, laid the foundation for Catholicism in China.

Many Chinese view Matteo Ricci as an important figure in the cultural interaction between the East and the West, rather than as a Catholic missionary. His huge success in China was due to his flexibility in adapting to Chinese culture.

Before setting foot on mainland China, Ricci first learned Chinese in Macau. In 1583, he arrived in Guangdong, where he made friends with Chinese officials and scholars. His daily life became localized. He once shaved his head, wore the monastic robes, and called himself a “Western monk.” Later, he took off his cassock, let his beard and hair grow, and wore Han Chinese clothing. Through this change, he discovered that Confucianism really dominated China. Thus, he began to study Confucian teachings, and even translated Confucian classics, attempting to reconcile Confucianism with Catholicism.

Although people speak highly of Ricci, his main aim was still to spread Catholicism in China. In 1601, Ricci visited Beijing, and was received by the emperor. Ricci’s extensive knowledge won the respect and appreciation of the emperor. He received the emperor’s permission to do missionary work, and was granted an official position in the Ming Dynasty. Thereafter, Catholicism secured a place in China.

By the time Ricci passed away in 1610 in China, there had been more than 2,000 baptized Catholics in the country. In 1637, China had over 40,000 Catholics. The Vatican decided to install a Vicar Apostolic in China, entrusting missionaries from Spain, France, and Italy with missionary districts in China. These three colonial empires struggled fiercely for missionary influence in China.

Tributes paid to Confucius and ancestors are Chinese traditions with a long-standing history. Ricci had once proposed to adapt such a practice in China. However, after Spanish and French missionary organizations entered China, a heated debate over whether to tolerate this practice began. It became known as the “Chinese Rites Controversy” in the history of Catholicism. After swaying between the two opinions, the Vatican eventually forbade Chinese Catholics to practice traditional Chinese rites and sent special envoys to implement that decree.

This move caused the Catholic Church to lose the support of many intellectuals in China, and widened the gap particularly between the Chinese elite and Catholicism. Owing to the Vatican’s negative attitude toward Chinese rites, Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (reigned 1662-1722) imposed a ban on Catholicism in China, which lasted for more than 100 years.

When the Opium War broke out in 1840, Western powers used gunboats to open up China. Soon after that, the Chinese government was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties and repeal her ban against Catholicism. The 1860 Sino-France Beijing Treaty stipulated that the Qing government should return and compensate previously seized Catholic property. A French missionary serving as a translator added an article to the treaty without permission in the process of translation, which stated that “French missionaries are allowed to rent or purchase land, and construct estates as they wish.” This treaty indicated that France had gained a political privilege that gave an all-rounded protection to Catholicism. Meanwhile, after more than 10 years of diplomatic negotiations, the Vatican and the government of Portugal finally reached an agreement to turn the mission fields in Beijing and Nanjing that once was under Portugal patronage into French mission fields. After the 1880s, German and Italy, through military powers, also gained the same privilege from the Chinese government.

During this period, Catholic missionaries relied on colonial forces to acquire political privileges enjoyed by the dukes of medieval churches, which had long been abolished in Western Europe. In 1899, the Qing government was forced to issue “Rules for Reception of Missionaries by Local Officials,” officially admitting that Catholic Bishops enjoyed a political status equivalent to that of a governor-general and inspector-general; the General Secretary of the Church was equivalent to the status of the Sidao (literally Governor’s Office); while missionaries were the equivalent of state and county officials. During the same period, conflicts arose between Catholicism and the Chinese society. The main reasons were that some missionaries purchased or took possession of land by force; some viewed themselves as war victors, and interfered with local government affairs and laws. Under these circumstances, the Boxer Uprising broke out on a grand scale, and later swept across the northern provinces in China. The Boxer Uprising was an anti-imperialist and patriotic movement started by Chinese farmers who formed the bulk of the Boxers. It was also a phenomenon of the accumulated conflicts between Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Chinese during the last half century. This movement made the Catholic Church aware of its own problems. The Vatican began to ban missionaries from interfering in the litigations of Chinese Catholics, and churches were ordered to refrain from intervening in political and diplomatic activities. Meanwhile, the Vatican began enhancing its social influence by running schools, practicing medicine, and participating in charities. From then on, Catholicism grew at a faster speed in China. By 1949, there were 3.18 million Catholics in China.

Unfortunately, the Vatican refused to accept the newly-founded People’s Republic of China. Some members of the Catholic Church took an anticommunist stance and forbade followers from joining any organizations led by the Chinese government. Others even collected information about China under the cover of priests.

Under such circumstances, in November 1950, 500 Catholics and the Chinese priest Wang Liangzuo from Guangyuan County, Sichuan Province, issued the “Three Self-Declarations” calling for a Catholic Church that is selfgoverned, self-supported, and self-propagated. This appeal aroused much heated discussions among Chinese Catholics, but shortly afterward, the Catholics in other regions of China began releasing similar statements. In 1957, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association was founded.

The resolution adopted by the First Catholic Congress stated: “To maintain a purely religious relationship with the Vatican City on the premise that, no one violates the interests and independent dignity of the country; to obey the Pope’s teachings that are creditable and practical; and to cut off political and economicties with the Vatican City.”

Around 1949, many missionaries left mainland China willingly, while some were deported for anti-China activities. There were only 20 bishops left in 137 mission fields nationwide, which greatly hindered the religious development of Catholic activities in China. In March 1958, the Hankou and Wuchang mission fields in Hubei selected Dong Guangqing (1917-2007) and Yuan Wenhua (1905-1973) as bishop candidates, and asked for the Vatican’s approval for the consecration date by telegram. However, the Vatican sent a reply saying that selection not done by the Vatican was invalid; due to whatever ritual or status, if a bishop consecrates another “bishop” without the nomination or approval of the Holy See, consecrators and consecratees were both subject to “super-excommunication.”

The Chinese Catholic Church was stuck in a dilemma: the Vatican’s ban on the one hand, and the needs of Chinese Catholics for a normal religious life on the other hand. It had no choice but to select and consecrate bishops by themselves. This method was determined then and has continued to this day.

Although the Catholic Church in China adheres to the principle of independence, self-management does not mean that it refuses all contact and communication with Catholic churches around the world. In fact, since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, especially with the reform and opening up, the Chinese Catholic Bishops College and mission fields throughout the country have received a large number of Catholic clergies from around the world, among whom are many well-known religious leaders. In return, the Chinese Catholic Church has also received invitations to visit Catholic churches all over the world, and to attend events such as the “World Conference on Religion and Peace.”

Currently, the number of Catholics in China has increased from three to five million since 1949. In 1983, the Chinese Catholic Academy of Theology and Philosophy was established. It is a national Roman Catholic seminary under the direct management of the Chinese Catholic Bishops College, with a six-year school system, serving as the highest institution of Catholicism in China and also functions as a theological research center.


The British missionary, Robert Morrison (1782-1834), arrived in China in 1807, marking China’s first encounter with Protestantism. Due to the Qing government’s ban on the spread of Catholicism and Protestantism, Morrison and other missionaries who arrived in China after the ban could only do missionary work in secrecy along the southeastern coastal areas.

The Opium War in 1840 opened China’s doors to the rest of the world. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were about 1,500 Protestant missionaries and around 80,000 followers in China.

Protestantism entered China together with the colonial invasion of Western powers. Therefore, many Chinese linked the spread of Protestantism with the country’s decline and fall, betrayal and humiliation. Jiang Menglin (1886-1964), the President of Peking University in the 1920s, provided an explanation: “When a religion is connected with military power, its image will definitely be changed. And when it comes to Protestantism, it is inevitable for people to link it to intimidation. Gradually, people got the idea that Tathagata came to China by riding on a white elephant, while Jesus Christ flew to China on artillery shells.”

Under the protection of unequal treaties, some Protestant missionaries had nothing to fear in China. That belief frequently led to conflicts and disputes between the populace and Western missionaries, which was historically known as a “church case.” From 1840 to 1900, there were more than 400 “church cases” all over China. Various “church cases” became an excuse for Western powers to make further demands to the Qing government and even wage a war of aggression that led to the Boxer Uprising. With large-scale bloody conflicts, the Protestant Church suffered a serious setback in China, forcing Protestants to tone down their behavior. Some missionaries began to realize that missionary methods should be reformed to reduce the Chinese people’s resentment and resistance to foreign missionaries. They decided to change tack and started schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions instead of preaching to people directly.

While the Western missionaries started their new missionary strategy, China was entering a new era where the decline of the country caused profound cultural reflections. It became a major cause in society that in order to save the nation from doom, Chinese people strove for self-support and innovation, and accepted Western culture either consciously or unconsciously. This was a golden opportunity to spread Protestantism.

By 1922, the number of Protestants in China had increased to about 400,000, and by 1949, there were almost 700,000 believers. The Protestant Church not only delivered sermons in China’s large cities, but also established churches in remote and rural places. Meanwhile, it continued with the “Self-Support” and “Indigenization” movements. The “Self-Support” movement started from the 1870s, a time when the development of Protestantism was hindered, so this became a concern for some people in Chinese Protestant churches. They were keen in establishing an independent Protestant Church with Chinese characteristics. Through which, they hope to change the Chinese people’s impression of Protestantism as a “foreign religion.”

In the beginning, the “Self-Support” movement was merely a one-off spontaneous action by some Chinese Protestants. However, by the twentieth century, it had developed into a church movement. In 1922, the National Christian Conference of China was held in Shanghai, which set up a national organization—the National Christian Council of China. This organization put forth the slogan of establishing an indigenous church, and advocated that followers in China should assume responsibilities and promote traditional Chinese culture in order to remove the title of “foreign religion” from Protestantism.

The “Indigenization” movement of Chinese Protestants aimed to make Protestantism indigenous. It was characterized by the following: opposing total Westernization; advocating the combination of traditional Chinese culture with Christian doctrines, organizations, and rites; advancing the inherent Chinese culture while maintaining a certain degree of cooperation with the Western Church.

In reality, it was not easy to assimilate Protestantism into Chinese culture. After proposing the “Indigenization” movement, Chinese Protestants made efforts by adopting the architectural style of Chinese temples when constructing churches and singing hymns in folk tunes. Obviously, that was only integration in form as people were still uncertain about the means of integrating Protestantism into the essence of Chinese culture.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, although she advocated religious freedom, many religious followers still held a skeptical attitude and sensed gloomy prospects due to anti-communist propaganda by some foreign missionaries. During this time, some farsighted members of Protestant churches realized that by purging the past influence and effects of Western powers, undergo a complete self-transformation to match the evolving Chinese society, could the churches break new grounds in missionary work.

For this reason, 40 leading figures from various Christian denominations headed by Wu Yaozong (1893-1979), declared The Plan for Chinese Christianity to Support New China’s Nation-Building on September 23, 1950. It requested all Chinese Protestants to achieve the dictum of the “Three-Self” (i.e., selfgovernance, self-support and self-propagation) of Chinese churches as soon as possible. That marked the start of the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Church in China.”

The declaration was met with enthusiastic responses from patriotic Protestants. By 1954, more than 410,000 followers had signed up to uphold the declaration, accounting for two-thirds of the total number of Protestants in China.

In 1954, the First National Conference of the Chinese Christian Church was held in Beijing. It established the National Committee of the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China” with Wu Yaozong as the chairman. The “Three-Self Movement,” to some extent, marked China’s Protestantism’s metamorphosis from a foreign to a local religion.

Protestant churches in China have sought self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation, but this does not mean self-isolation. For more than 50 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese Protestant churches have established formal relationships with Protestant organizations from other countries. They have hosted overseas visiting groups, organized delegations for visits abroad, and attended international conferences of Protestantism. In 1991, the China Christian Council officially joined the World Council of Churches.

After the reform and opening up, Protestantism grew exponentially. In 1979, there were more than three million followers, and by 2002, the number had surged to over 16 million and there were close to 50,000 Protestant churches in China.

It was once reported by the foreign media that there was an acute shortage of The Holy Bible in China. In fact, from 1988 to the end of 2002, China published 30 million Bibles in various languages, such as Chinese, English, Korean, as well as the Miao, Jingpo, Lahu, Kawa, Lisu, and Yi languages. In some ethnic regions, most Bibles are given to followers free of charge. The Nanjing Amity Development Co., Ltd. specializes in printing The Holy Bible. It is a joint venture started in 1987 between the United Bible Societies and the Amity Foundation.

Apart from the National Committee of the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China,” the China Christian Council, founded in 1980, is another nationwide Protestant organization. These two organizations are located in Shanghai. Throughout China, there are more than 1,700 local “three-self” patriotic associations and Protestant associations.

In China, there are 17 Christian theological seminaries. Established in 1952, the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary is a nationwide theological seminary.

The Policy of Religious Freedom in China

In a country governed by an atheist party, can theistic religions be tolerated and accepted? Generally speaking, current religious policies in China mainly include the following characteristics:

  1. Citizens enjoy the freedom of religious beliefs. One has the right to believe in any religion out of his/her own free will, to express one’s own religious belief and religious identity.
  2. The country follows the principle of separating religion from the state. No religion is allowed to interfere in government administrative and judicial systems; the government is not allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of religions, and no single religion is granted a special position.
  3. Religious organizations must act within the scope of the State Constitution as well as the relevant laws and policies. When exercising the right of religious freedom, no individual should use religion as a pretext for doing harm to the country, society, and individuals. The country protects religious activities in line with the State Constitution, relevant laws, and policies. The country protects the legitimate rights and interests of religious organizations as well as the rights of professional religious personnel performing religious duties.
  4. All religions are equal. The government provides equal treatment to all religions; all religions are politically and legally equal regardless of the number of believers and influence.
  5. Mutual respect should be built between atheism and theism. In China, as non-believers are the majority, the government stipulates that religious activities should be carried out only in religious venues. No individual is
  6. permitted to conduct atheist propaganda in religious venues, or to launch a debate on theism and atheism among religious believers; no religious organization is allowed to conduct a sermon, preach, and publicize theism beyond religious venues.
  7. All religions in China shall follow the principles of independence and self management, and shall develop mutual exchanges and cooperation with overseas religious organizations and personages on the basis of equality and friendliness. The country does not allow foreign countries to interfere in China’s internal affairs in the name of religion.

Story of Bingzhongluo: Religious Harmony in Contemporary Society

Bingzhongluo1 is located in the upper reaches of the Nujiang River, where A-Nong, a branch of the Nu ethnic minority, thrives here. Due to migration by the Tibetan and Lisu ethnic minorities from the north and south, respectively, the A-Nong people gradually had neighbors and relatives from these two ethnic groups. They purchased Lisu ironware and Tibetan butter buckets and meanwhile added the supernatural beliefs of Lisu folklore and Tibetan Buddhism to their primitive beliefs. In modern times, Catholicism and Protestantism in the Western world entered China consecutively. After experiencing a series of painful experiences, the A-Nong people received “Mary” and “Jesus” into their lives.

He Lin is a doctor working in a research institute of ethnic minorities at Yunnan University as well as in a research center for ethnic minorities in southwest China. In 2005, He Lin stayed for a year in a A-Nong village. After some time, he made in-depth observations and research on a phenomenon—the peaceful coexistence among ethnic minorities of different religious beliefs in Yunnan.

The following is his story about Bingzhongluo:

Peach blossoms are blooming during springtime in Bingzhongluo. Ancient lamaseries, Protestant churches and Catholic churches are located no more than one kilometer away from each other. During each religion’s festivals, the winding mountain paths are full of well-dressed people, including the A-Nong, Tibetan, and Lisu people. In the Shuangla village of Bingzhongluo, there is a Protestant church and a Catholic church. They are sited opposite each other and separated by a river; while aSongdebu is near the stone houses surrounded by barley fields, a clear indication of the homeowner’s religious beliefs. However, it may not be completely correct to judge the religion of a household just by the Songdebu and the holy Lama’s symbol on the house, a cross painted on the door, or a Madonna statue placed in the house. This is because you may see two or more of the above religious symbols in many households. Sometimes, you may not see any of these symbols in a household because its family members may have different religious beliefs.

If people describe the paradise in their hearts as a “harmonious coexistence between human and nature,” then in the paradise of the A-Nong people, there is still mutual tolerance and harmony among the relationships between humans, between human and god, and between the gods. People are curious how a “harmonious coexistence” among different religions and among different ethnic minorities can be achieved.

At the end of 2004, Bingzhongluo had a population of 6,205, among which there were 3,159 A-Nong people, 2,027 Lisu people, 520 Tibetan people and 305 Dulong people. The number of religious believers was 3,887, accounting for 63% of the total population.

Calling themselves “A-Nong,” these people actually belong to the Nu ethnic minority. People of the Nu ethnic minority were ancient inhabitants in the areas around the Nujiang River and hence were named after this river. The A-Nong people speak their own language and do not have a written language, but almost all the people there understand the Lisu and Tibetan languages. And increasingly, the A-Nong people are becoming proficient in the Chinese language.

Tibetan Buddhism entered Bingzhongluo in 1733 and soon became the dominant religion. In 1889, Catholicism was introduced by the French missionaries. At that time, the spread of Catholicism triggered a violent religious conflict. Due to repression from the Qing government and the then Western imperialist powers, Catholicism finally gained a foothold. Christianity was introduced in 1930 by American missionaries and it spread very fast.

So, how do the A-Nong people view the different religions in their village?

Historically, the A-Nong people used legends to explain their relations with the Lisu, Tibetan, Dulong ethnic minorities, and the Han Chinese who are their neighbors and relatives. According to an ancient legend, these ethnic minorities were all brothers and sisters who were born from the same “Father Moon” and “Mother Sun.” Subsequently, the A-Nong people used a new legend to explain the relations among various religions. The new legend was that Tibetan Buddhism, Catholicism, and Christianity are “brothers and sisters of a large family.”

A long, long time ago, the religions of A-Nong were like a family. They came from India, later moved to Tibet and lived at the foot of Mount Kawagebo. There were four children in the family, but they did not get along well. The eldest son went to Jinshajiang River and became Buddhism (Chinese Buddhism). The second son remained in Tibet and became Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism). Of the two stubborn daughters, one was stuffed into a bag by their mother and thrown into the Lancang River, and later drifted to a place called France. The other was thrown into the Nujiang River and finally reached the United Kingdom. After some time, the two daughters came back: one was Catholicism, who called herself Mary and was later rescued by a Tibetan caravan, and thus Catholicism started her missionary work from the Tibetans. The other sister became Christianity (Protestantism), who drifted to the place where the Lisu people live, and Therefore Christianity started spreading from the Lisu ethnic minority.

In this legend, the A-Nong people used family ties to explain the relations among different religions. In addition, they used family scenarios to describe the memories of the conflicts and fights among different religions in the past and to express a desire for a harmonious coexistence for the future.

In Bingzhongluo, Tuesday is market day. People speaking different languages conduct trade, engage in the latest gossips, eat and drink freely among each other. Although they dress in almost the same manner, you can still distinguish their religious beliefs within a short time: a person with a circle of woolen thread (red or multicolored) around his or her neck is likely to be a Tibetan Buddhist; one who does not wear such a thread around his or her neck but is smoking a tobacco pipe or drinking water or alcoholic beverages is likely to be a Catholic; a person, who only consumes soft drinks, is likely to be a Christian.

In fact, the ancient primitive religion of nature worship still exists among the A-Nong people and its priests are called Nanmusa (sorcerers).

There is a story of a family with numerous religious beliefs: Zhao Guoqiang’s eldest and second sons are Catholics and they go to church every Sunday. His youngest daughter and her husband believe in Tibetan Buddhism, while his wife and a daughter-in-law are Christians, and go to church every Wednesday evening and Sunday. Zhao Guoqiang himself has no religious beliefs, and thus he goes nowhere but stays at home to look after his farm.

Religions in Bingzhongluo are not in contact with one another, and even religious ceremonies between Catholicism and Christianity, have no similarities, even though both are of the same origin. Under such a situation, how can close relationships be established among believers of different religions? Surely, in Bingzhongluo, a Christian would not go to a Catholic church nor would a Catholic attend a Protestant Church, nor would a Christian or a Catholic participate in the Lamas’ chanting. Catholic priests and Christian pastors in Bingzhongluo all say that they have no religious connections, and no cooperation with regards to Christmas celebrations. However, when the Catholic Church was established there in 1996, congratulatory gifts were sent by the Protestant Church in Shuangla Village—the A-Nong people often congratulate relatives and neighbors in such a manner. This shows that the A-Nong people make a clear distinction between religion and daily life, and nobody likes to meddle in other people’s matters.

The A-Nong people would never have two or more than two religious beliefs because they are loyal to their own beliefs. Due to the unforgettable memories of disharmony among the “brothers and sisters” in the legend and a desire for a peaceful life, the A-Nong people are always striving for a harmonious coexistence among different religions.