According to the CIA World Factbook (2010), just over half of the Chinese population is unaffiliated with a religion (52.2%). It should be noted that traditional Chinese philosophies such as Confucianism are not always considered to be religions by Chinese people. They are more commonly perceived as a way of viewing life that can coexist with other religions – such as Buddhism. Most Chinese people (including those who identify as non-religious) have some affiliation with or understanding of traditional Chinese philosophies, as the tenets and values of these belief systems still tend to have a strong influence on social behaviours and practices.
With that being said, 21.9% identify with a folk religion, 18.2% identify as Buddhist, 5.1% identify as Christian and 1.8% identify as Muslim. Of the remaining population, 0.7% identify with some other tradition, less than 0.1% identify as Hindu and less than 0.1% identify as Jewish.
Religion in China
The political and social upheavals during the first half of the 20th century in China had a disintegrating effect on Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism (excluding Tibet). From the late 1940s onwards, the country has been officially atheist but allows those who are religious to practise their faith within certain guidelines. Today, many Taoists, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians practise their faith in China. Indeed, there are various temples, mosques and churches open to the public. Religious groups are able to hold meetings, produce materials and worship; however, their activities are monitored. Breach of government guidelines can result in imprisonment or further restrictions on the practice of their faith. Foreigners can be charged under the law for distributing religious books and flyers when travelling in China.
Some religions have been persecuted, the most notable being Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese government continues to curtail those considered to be threats to the social and political order (such as the new religious movement known as Falun Gong). Unauthorised religious activities can lead to imprisonment and other restrictions. Nonetheless, the Chinese government has gradually relaxed many of its previous restrictions on religious practices and institutions.
Confucianism – a body of traditional practices rather than a religion – plays a significant role in the personal beliefs of many Chinese. The foundations of Confucianism are derived from the teachings of Confucius, who emphasised the importance of healthy relationships. It promotes the idea that relationships between people are unequal and that everyone has defined hierarchical roles (for example, ruler and subject, husband and wife, father and son). When this natural inequality is accepted and respected, it becomes easier to maintain harmonious, stable relations between individuals and, therefore, in society as a whole. These core values are reflected in respect and a sense of duty towards others, as well as maintaining loyalty and honour for oneself and their family. A major part of daily life for Chinese is ancestor veneration, as well as respecting their elders (filial piety). Although modernisation has posed challenges to the tradition, Chinese are finding ways to reconcile and uphold Confucian values.
Taoism, also referred to as ‘Daoism,' is rooted in the philosophical teachings of Laozi, a great thinker from China in the 6th century BCE. The tradition is based on the perception that the universe is a reality in which everything that exists is connected; the main emphasis is placed on a deep connection with nature and self-development. While difficult to accurately convey in English, the central tenet of Taoism is that of ‘Tao’ (‘the Way'). The essence of Tao is ‘the One,' namely the notion of unification and harmony. A tenet of Taoism perhaps most familiar to Westerners is the concept of Yin and Yang. This explains the world as full of opposites working in harmony, unified in how they complement one another (e.g., light and dark, high and low, etc.). Taoist beliefs relate to seeking harmony with nature, spiritual immortality, Tai Chi and the cultivation of ‘virtues' manifest through practices of meditation and in ‘feng shui’.
The religious and philosophical tradition of Buddhism originates in the teachings of the Buddha. The core Buddhist teaching is the doctrine known as the ‘Four Noble Truths,' which states that it is through practising the ‘Noble Eightfold Path' that one may be liberated from the perpetual suffering that underpins all existence. The most popular variant of Buddhism in China is Mahāyāna Buddhism, which somewhat differs from the earliest known formulation originating in India (known as Theravāda Buddhism). Mahāyāna Buddhism emphasises the ‘Bodhisattva’ ideal of seeking full awakening through attaining perfection in morality and knowledge while endeavouring to assist others on their path towards enlightenment.
In China, there are two main types of Mahāyāna Buddhism: ‘Ch’an’ (also known as ‘Zen’ in Japanese) and ‘Pure Land’. The Ch’an tradition emphasises the role of meditation in the midst of our day-to-day lives as a way to reaching liberation. The Pure Land tradition provides an alternative for those who struggle with meditation. In this tradition, the emphasis is on chanting and concentration.
Another form of Buddhism practised in China is known as Vajrayāna Buddhism. Because of its association with Tibet, it is often referred to as ‘Tibetan Buddhism'. Within Tibetan Buddhism, teachers (also known as a ‘Lama’) are given high status. Well known to the West is the 14th Dalai Lama, Lhamo Dondrub, who is considered to be the spiritual leader of Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism also emphasises a variety of practices such as those relating to the tantric tradition and mantras (a repeated word, sound or phrase to assist concentration).
Tibetan Buddhism has often been used as a vehicle to promote Tibetan ethnic identity. Indeed, Buddhism has played a central role in the ongoing troubles between China and Tibet. In summary, China has long-held claims over Tibet. Before China's claim to Tibet, the region was a theocracy whereby the Dalai Lama was the head of state. In the late 1950s, massive uprisings occurred in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. During this time, the Dalai Lama and most of his ministers fled to northern India, followed by another 80,0000 Tibetans. In the mid-1960s, China declared Tibet to be an autonomous region of China. Thus, Tibet was subject to the Cultural Revolution, whereby many temples and monasteries were destroyed.
Many Tibetan monasteries have been rebuilt since the 1960s by Tibetan exiles in the Indian subcontinent and beyond, and since the 1980s by Tibetans in China. A more recent development is the proliferation of Tibetan ritual symbols in foreign environments, such as the use of mandalas. In Tibet itself, many are cautiously reviving Buddhism and enhancing the Tibetan identity while also co-operating with Chinese authorities. Protests have been ongoing throughout Tibet since the late 2000s over its autonomy and religious freedom.