The situation of Native beliefs and religions in China is somewhat different from those in other countries of the world. There has never been a religion, native or foreign, that is dominant over all population in China. In other words, there is no so-called state religion in China.
A variety of religions have coexisted and have influenced each other and developed respectively. Furthermore, whatever the religion, after being introduced to China, it would inevitably merge with the Chinese culture and eventually absorb some Chinese characteristics.
The major religions practiced in China are Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism; with a total of nearly 200 million believers and more than 380,000 clerical personnel.
China has numerous Buddhist and Taoist believers, but it is difficult to accurately estimate their numbers as there are no se registration procedures which ordinary believers must follow as part of their religion. There are around 222,000 Buddhist clerical personnel and over 40,000 Taoist clerical personnel.
The 10 minority ethnic groups, the majority of whose population believe in Islam, total more than 20 million, with about 57,000 clerical personnel. Catholicism and Protestantism have 6 million and 38 million followers in China respectively, with 8,000 and 57,000 clerical personnel.
China also has many folk beliefs which are closely linked to local cultures, traditions and customs, in which a large number of people participate. The State requires the registration of places of Worship for group religious activities in accordance with the law, so as to provide legal protection and ensure that all activities are carried out in an orderly manner.
At present, there are about 144,000 places of Worship registered for religious activities in China, among which are 33,500 Buddhist temples (including 28,000 Han Buddhist temples, 3,800 Tibetan Buddhist lamaseries, and 1,700 Theravada Buddhist temples), 9,000 Taoist temples, 35,000 Islamic mosques, 6,000 Catholic churches and places of assembly spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 Protestant churches and places of assembly.
The traditional Chinese culture is agriculture-based. Farmers worked on their own fields, raised chickens and pigs to meet their living needs, and lived a self-sufficient life which made the Chinese people pay more attention to the present life, to the more realistic interests, and to ensuring a religion that gave direct assistance to the life and production.
For the masses of the people, as long as they could have some direct benefit for their life, and relief and comfort at the time of stress, they would consider any deity, Buddha Sakyamuni, Supreme Lord Lao Zi, or God, worthy of their faith.
Therefore, they often do not practice only one certain religion, but would worship both Buddha and Supreme Lord Lao Zi of Daoism. It is also for that there are not only Bodhisattva Guanyin, but also God of Fire and God o in some Chinese temples, for the convenience of worshipping.
Chinese folk beliefs refer to some large scale, spontaneous beliefs or worships by the Chinese people on certain gods, spirits, ancestors, sages and other supernatural forces. Every country has its own folk beliefs. However, it is not common for a society to have maintained rich folk beliefs even late in the modern history.
This may have something to do with the realistic nature of the Chinese people. Unexpected things do happen in life, and there are so many times one has to tum to divine spirit for help. In the eyes of the Chinese, everything has a deity in charge. For example, there are mountain gods, river gods, flower gods, tree gods, etc. Every trade or profession has a divine figure as a Sacred patron, for example, money god, Bodhisattva Guanyin who bestows children, kitchen god and earth god.
If there wasn’t a good harvest, a Chinese might think he had not paid enough respect and offerings to the earth god. If one didn’t make a lot of money, he might think he had not paid enough respect and offerings to the money god. Actually
The Chinese attach greater importance to money god, earth god and Bodhisattva Guanyin who bestows children than to the Jade Emperor the supreme deity in Daoism) and Buddha Sakyamuni. Some Chinese gods are revered nationwide, such as Lord Guan (Guan Yu, a famous general in the Three Kingdoms period): after the Yuan Dynasty, nearly every big village had a temple dedicated to Lord Guan.
Some gods are worshipped in some places, for example, Lady Mazu, who was popular among the people in the southeast coast of China but unknown to people in other places. Folk beliefs generally do not have a complete doctrine of teachings, and also there is a lack of scriptures. For example, Lord Guan was worshipped by people who knelt before him and burnt incenses for money and fortune, but there is no scripture for the followers to read, save a few prayers to be chanted.
There are also generally no strict organizations or complex rituals in the folk beliefs. For example, every village in China may have a temple for the earth god, but there are no clergies like monks or Daoists stationed there. The villages would make ceremonial offerings to the earth god twice a year, in spring and autumn, organized and chaired by the prestigious people in the village.
However, each village conducts the ceremonies according to their traditions. Some folk beliefs have strict rituals, such as the worship of Lady Mazu. In other instances, some beliefs have evolved, and have relatively fixed symbols, which become something similar to totems; for example, the image of the Chinese dragon has been commonly used for the rain god. The folk belief of Feng Shui is full of Chinese characteristics.
In the eyes of the Chinese people who believe in the concept of unity between man and nature, human beings are part of the environment and are naturally affected by the environment. Different locations and environments, due to the direction of a mountain range or of a river, would have different effects on the flow of wind, water and air, and then on the people and events, bringing good or bad luck to people within those environments.
Therefore, when choosing a site for residence of the living or a grave site for the deceased, the Chinese would always attach great importance to them, as the happiness and fortune of the offspring would be affected.
With the development and wider application of the Feng Shui theories, not only the locations of houses and grave sites are of great concern, but people also attach importance to the orientation of windows and doors, the arrangement of tables, chairs and furniture, and even the flowers and plants, because in the eyes of people who believe in Feng Shui, all of these could affect health and also the success of one’s career.
Cultural Notes Lord Guan: Lord Guan is a reverent title for Guan Yu, who was originally a military general in the time of the Three Kingdoms period tie won famous for his loyalty and righteousness. Later, he was gradually deified and regarded as the “Martial Sage”.
The Taoists referred to him as Sage King Guan. He was, in the eyes of the common people, a god of wealth.
There are more or less elements of ancestral worship in nearly all cultures in the countries around the world. Being an agricultural country, the Chinese people of the same origin would usually live together, and their worship to ancestors is more obvious.
Generally speaking, the ancient Chinese believed that the soul of their ancestors would affect the lives of their offspring. Therefore, the Chinese worshipped their ancestors and hoped that the spirits of their ancestors would protect and bless themselves.
With the development of the society, ancestral worship has become more of a way to express commemoration for their ancestors. This is a manifestation of gratitude and kinship. Of course, there are pragmatic purposes for ancestral worship, namely, to enhance the identity of the same clan, and to strengthen the cohesion of bigger families.
The Confucian concept of loyalty and filial piety also helped to emphasize ancestral worship. The Confucians believe the deceased shall be respected, and sacrificial ceremonies shall be conducted on certain festivals. During the time of the Zhou Dynasty, rites and music systems had been established, and ancestral worship had started to be implemented. Nobles, high and low alike, would start to set up ancestral temples for worshipping.
According to Confucianism, an emperor should have seven temples to commemorate and worship the founding emperor of the dynasty, and the six emperors that followed. (Tai Miao, the Grand Temple, in Beijing is the temple for emperors to worship their ancestors).
The common people were not allowed to set up ancestral temples, and the worship of ancestors could only take place in the hall of their house. It was the Ming emperors who first allowed the people to build ancestral temples. Those who had the means had built them to worship their ancestors. In the Qing Dynasty, almost every village had its ancestral temple, which later became the religious and political center of the village.