Chinese Religious History

China is one of the most ancient civilizations on earth, and Chinese religion is one of the oldest forms of religion. Evidence of burial practices has been dated to as early as 5000 BCE. Today, Chinese religion is a complex mix of Chinese folk religion, Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Communist anti-religious sentiment.

In order to understand modern expressions of Chinese religion, it is important to learn about the past. Where did the ideas and convictions of adherents come from? Who was influential in thei development? This article traces the history of Chinese religion, from the Neolithic Era, through the many powerful Chinese dynasties, to the present-day People's Republic of China.

Religion in Neolithic China

Archaeological evidence from Neolithic China shows a remarkable amount of care and ritual with regard to burial practices. Characteristics of 5th millennium BCE burial practices include:

  • consistency of orientation and posture - the dead of the northwest were given a westerly orientation and those of the east an easterly one.
  • segregation of the dead into what appear to be kinship groupings
  • graveside ritual offerings of liquids, pig skulls, and pig jaws
  • collective secondary burial, in which the bones of up to 70 or 80 corpses were stripped of their flesh and reburied together

There is evidence of persons who acted as divination specialists as early as the 4th millennium BCE, and the 3rd millennium BCE saw the rise of lavish expenditures on tomb ramps and coffin chambers. There is occasional evidence of human sacrifice in the 4th and 3rd millennia, primarily in the form of a dependent accompanying his or her superior in death. Early forms of ancestor worship also appear during this period.

The 3rd and 2nd millennia saw the rise of bronze casting, as well as increased warfare, increased wealth, status distinctions, private property, and religious and administrative hierarchies.

Religion in the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC - 1046 BCE)

In the Shang Dynasty, the first historical Chinese dynasty, divination played a major role. Encyclopedia Britannica describes early Chinese divination practices as follows:

Cattle scapulae or turtle plastrons, in a refinement of Neolithic practice, were first planed and bored with hollow depressions to which an intense heat source was then applied. The resulting T-shaped stress cracks were interpreted as lucky or unlucky. After the prognostication had been made, the day, the name of the presiding diviner (some 120 are known), the subject of the charge, the prognostication, and the result might be carved into the surface of the bone. Among the topics divined were sacrifices, campaigns, hunts, the good fortune of the 10-day week or of the night or day, weather, harvests, sickness, childbearing, dreams, settlement building, the issuing of orders, tribute, divine assistance, and prayers to various spirits.

Divination practices evolved somewhat over the course of the Shang dynasty. By the reigns of the last two Shang kings, Ti-i and Ti-hsin (c. 1100 to 1045 BC), divination had become considerably simplified: predictions were uniformly optimistic, and divination topics were limited mainly to the sacrificial schedule, the coming 10 days, the coming night, and hunting.

Religion in the Ch'ou Dynasty (1111–255 BCE)

During the Ch'ou Dynasty, the various regions of China began to be unified into a single civilization. Likewise, religious ideas from different regions interacted and began to assimilate. Although some local differences remained, a general Chinese pantheon developed in which each god had a specific function. This reflected the unified Chinese empire with its bureaucratic society.

The Ch'ou Dynasty also included the teachings of Confucius and Mo-tzu, who emphasized virtue, humanity, the importance of social relationships and a just ruler.

Religion in the Ch'in Dynasty (221-206 BCE)

During the Ch'in Empire, the feudal system was abolished completely and China was divided into 40 prefectures. A network of highways was built for the emperor's troops, and several hundred thousand workers were enlisted to connect and strengthen the walls on the northern border of China. The resulting wall (now known as the Great Wall of China) extended from Gulf of Chihli westward across the pastureland of what is today Inner Mongolia and through the fertile loop of the Huang Ho to the edge of Tibet. The emperor also simplified and unified and writing system and codified the law.

The Ch'in emperor, Shih huang-ti, is infamous for his suppression of intellectual ideas, censorship of books, and the deaths of many Chinese in the service of his grand projects. He was also terribly afraid of death. He made every effort to achieve immortality: deities were continually propitiated and messengers were dispatched to search for the elixir of life. Shih huang-ti died in 210 or 209 BCE while on a tour of the empire. Excavation of his tomb, near modern Sian (ancient Ch'ang-an), revealed more than 6,000 life-sized statues of soldiers keeping him company.

Religion in the Han Dynasty (206/202 BCE-220 CE)

The Han Dynasty was the first dynasty to embrace Confucianism, which became the ideological underpinning of all regimes until the end of imperial China. Knowledge of the Five Classics of Confucius became necessary to hold any important post. The emperors of the Han Dynasty also supported and encouraged the development of art, science, technology, literature and religion. It was a period of great prosperity.

During the Han Dynasty, emperors were seen as ruling under the Mandate of Heaven. They also had the important responsibility of securing spiritual blessings for the Chinese people. In earlier periods, one of the nine ministries of state took care of this duty, but later the emperor came to be more directly involved in official worship and ritual.

The rituals of the state religion were initially addressed to the Five Elements (fire, water, earth, wood, and metal), the Supreme Unity, and the Lord of the Soil, but in 31 BCE these cults were replaced by sacrifices dedicated to Heaven and Earth. The sites of worship were moved to the outskirts of Ch'ang-an and a new series of altars and shrines was inaugurated. The Han emperor sometimes paid his respects to supreme powers and reported on the state of the dynasty at the summit of Mt. T'ai. Emperor Wu-ti's desire for immortality for himself and deceased loved ones led him to employ a number of intermediaries who claimed to be able to make contact with the world of the immortals. A few philosophers, such as Wang Ch'ung (27–c. 100 CE), reacted against these beliefs by propounding a rational explanation of the universe, but their skepticism received little support.

Sometime during the 1st century CE Buddhism reached China, probably by travelers who had taken the Silk Road from north India. The establishment of Buddhist foundations in China and the first official patronage of the faith followed shortly. From the 2nd century CE there arose a variety of beliefs, practices, and disciplines that gave rise to alchemy, scientific experiment and the Taoist religion.

Religion in the Three Kingdoms (220-263 CE)

The Yellow Turban Rebellion broke out in 184, ushering in an era of warlords. The period from 190 to 220 was marked by chaotic infighting between warlords in various parts of China. The middle part of the period, from 220 and 263, was marked by a more militarily stable arrangement between three rival states, Wei, Han, and Wu. The later part of this period was marked by the destruction of Shu by Wei (263), the overthrow of Wei by the Jin Dynasty (265), and the destruction of Wu by Jin (280).

The term "Three Kingdoms" itself is somewhat of a mistranslation, since each state was eventually headed by an Emperor who claimed legitimate succession from the Han Dynasty, not by kings, so "Three Empires" would be more factually accurate. Nevertheless the term has become standard among sinologists and will be used in this article.

Although relatively short, this historical period has been greatly romanticized in the cultures of China, Japan, Korea and throughout Southeast Asia. It has been celebrated and popularized in operas, folk stories, novels and in more recent times, films, television serials, and computer games. The best known of these is undoubtedly the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fictional account of the period which draws heavily on history. The authoritative historical record of the era is Chen Shou's Sanguo Zhi, along with Pei Songzhi's later annotations of the text.

The Three Kingdoms period is also one of the bloodiest period in the history of China. A population census in late Eastern Han dynasty reported a population of approximately 56 million, while a population census in early Western Jin dynasty (after Jin re-unified China) reported a population of approximately 16 million.

Religion in the Period of Many Dynasties and New Buddhist Schools (263-618 CE)

Though these three kingdoms were reunited temporarily in 280 by the (Western) Jin dynasty, the contemporary non-Han Chinese (Wu Hu) ethnic groups ravaged the country in the early 4th century and provoked large-scale Han Chinese migrations to south of the Chang Jiang. In 303 the Di people rebelled and later captured Chengdu. Under Liu Yuan the Xiongnu rebelled near today's Linfen County; his successor Liu Cong captured and executed the last two Western Jin emperors. More than Sixteen states were established by these ethnic groups. The chaotic north was temporarily unified by Fu Jian who was defeated at the Battle of Feishui when he attempted to invade South China. Later on, Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei reunified north China again, marking the beginning of the Northern Dynasties, a sequence of local regimes ruling over regions north of Chang Jiang.

Along with the refugees from the North, Emperor Yuan of Jin China reinstated the Jin regime at Nanjing in the south; from this came the sequence of Southern dynasties of Song, Qi, Liang and Chen, which all had their capitals at Jiankang (near today's Nanjing). As China was ruled by two independent dynasties, one in the south and the other in the north, this is called the era of Southern and Northern Dynasties. The short-lived Sui Dynasty managed to reunite the country in 589 after almost 300 years of disjunction.

This period of almost continuous political upheaval was an important period of religious development. In the sixth century, new schools of Chinese Buddhism sought to adapt Buddhism to Chinese ways of thinking. The T'ien-t'ai school was a syncretistic movement based on the Lotus Sutra. The southern Ch'an (Zen) school was heavily influenced by Taoism. Pure Land Buddhism also gained popularity.

Religion in the Tang Dynasty (618-907)

The Tang dynasty, with its capital at Chang'an (modern day suburb of Xi'an), the most populous city in the world at the time, is regarded by historians as a high point in Chinese civilization — equal, or even superior, to the Han period. Its territory, acquired through the military exploits of its early rulers, was greater than that of the Han.

Stimulated by contact with India and the Middle East, the empire saw a flowering of creativity in many fields. The Tang period was the golden age of literature and art. A government system supported by a large class of Confucian literati selected through civil service examinations was perfected under Tang rule. From Tang times until the closing days of the Qing empire in 1911, scholar officials functioned often as intermediaries between the grassroots level and the government.

Although the royal family officially supported Taoism because they claimed to be descended from Lao-Tzu, Buddhism enjoyed great favor and imperial patronage throughout the period. In 629, the Chinese monk and scholar Hsüan-tsang traveled to India. He returned in 645 and carefully translated many Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese. The T'ien-t'ai, Ch'an and Pure Land schools of Buddhism continued to rise in popularity. Many monasteries and temples were built, both state-sponsored and large and local and small. The larger monasteries acquired wealth and land from those taking monastic vows and from gifts of pious laymen.

Buddhism suffered a great blow with the ascension of emperor Wu-tsung to the throne. A fanatical Taoism, Wu-tsung persecuted Buddhism between 843 and 845 for a combination of religious and economical reasons. China was suffering from great financial hardship and seizing the lands and holdings of the many Buddhist monasteries was a quick way of increasing the empire's holdings. 40,000 shrines and temples were closed and 260,000 monks and nuns were returned to lay life. The suppression was short-lived, but Buddhism in China would never be the same.

Religion in the Sung Dynasty (960-1279)

After a brief period of instability known as the "Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms," the Sung Dynasty was established in China. The founders of the Sung dynasty built an effective centralized bureaucracy staffed with civilian scholar-officials. Regional military governors and their supporters were replaced by centrally appointed officials. This system of civilian rule led to a greater concentration of power in the emperor and his palace bureaucracy than had been achieved in the previous dynasties.

The Sung dynasty is notable for the development of cities not only for administrative purposes but also as centers of trade, industry, and maritime commerce. The landed scholar-officials, sometimes collectively referred to as the gentry, lived in the provincial centers alongside the shopkeepers, artisans, and merchants. A new group of wealthy commoners - the mercantile class - arose as printing and education spread, private trade grew, and a market economy began to link the coastal provinces and the interior. Landholding and government employment were no longer the only means of gaining wealth and prestige.

Culturally, the Sung refined many of the developments of the previous centuries. Included in these refinements were not only the Tang ideal of the universal man, who combined the qualities of scholar, poet, painter, and statesman, but also historical writings, painting, calligraphy, and hard-glazed porcelain. Sung intellectuals sought answers to all philosophical and political questions in the Confucian Classics. This renewed interest in the Confucian ideals and society of ancient times coincided with the decline of Buddhism, which the Chinese regarded as foreign and offering few practical guidelines for the solution of political and other mundane problems.

The Sung Neo-Confucian philosophers, finding a certain purity in the originality of the ancient classical texts, wrote commentaries on them. The most influential of these philosophers was Zhu Xi (1130-1200), whose synthesis of Confucian thought and Buddhist, Taoist, and other ideas became the official imperial ideology from late Sung times to the late 19th century. As incorporated into the examination system, Zhu Xi's philosophy evolved into a rigid official creed, which stressed the one-sided obligations of obedience and compliance of subject to ruler, child to father, wife to husband, and younger brother to elder brother. The effect was to inhibit the societal development of pre-modern China, resulting both in many generations of political, social, and spiritual stability and in a slowness of cultural and institutional change up to the 19th century. Neo-Confucian doctrines also came to play the dominant role in the intellectual life of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.

Religion in the Yuan/Mongol Dynasty (1271-1368)

Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, became the supreme leader of all Mongol tribes in 1260. He began his reign with great aspirations and self-confidence — in 1264 he moved the capital of the expansive Mongol Empire to Beijing, in recently acquired North China. He began his drive against the Southern Song, establishing, in 1271 — eight years prior to Southern conquest — the first alien dynasty to rule all China: the Yuan. The creation of a dynasty prior to conquest, keeping in mind that Dynasty was not a Mongol concept, shows political and military tact. The name was significantly in Chinese — neither his native tongue, nor a language he spoke at all. In 1279, Guangzhou fell into Mongol hands, which marks the end of the Southern Song and the onset of China under the Mongols.

The Mongols did not attempt to impose their religion (which consisted of a cult of Heaven and nature and shamanistic practices) on the Chinese people. The existing religions in China thus enjoyed comparative freedom under the foreign rulers. The Mongol rulers referred to the "three teachings" of the Chinese people: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

In 1223 Genghis Khan granted to the Taoist leader Ch'ang-ch'un and his followers full exemption from taxes and other duties demanded by the government (this was later extended to all clergies, including Buddhist). Imperial orders also outlawed some apocryphal Taoist texts, in which Buddhism was presented as a branch of Taoism.

However, Buddhism was also attractive to the Mongols. Although turned off by the high intellectualism of the Ch'an school, the Mongols were attracted to the more magical and symbolic practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Kublai Khan appointed a young Tibetan lama as Imperial teacher (ti-shih); he became the head of Buddhism in all Mongol dominions, including China. In 1284, a special government agency was founded to deal with Buddhist and Tibetan affairs. This agency caused great resentment amongst the population for its brutal and avaricious procedures and the arrogance of the Tibetan lamas. The Chinese elite was especially shocked when Tibetan clergy introduced the court to sexual rites.

Although Tibetan Buddhism was favored under the Mongol Dynasty, Chinese Buddhism generally suffered during this period. The financial exemptions for clergy led many to leave society and join monasteries for purely utilitarian reasons, which had a negative impact on both society and Buddhism. In about 1300 the number of monks throughout China was estimated at 500,000, and was probably much greater during the last decades of Mongol rule. Monks played a great role in the rebellions to which the Yüan Empire eventually succumbed, and the first Ming emperor was a former monk.

Religion in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

Among the populace there were strong feelings against the rule of "the foreigners," which finally led to a peasant revolt that pushed the Yuan dynasty back to the Mongolian steppes and established the Ming Dynasty in 1368. This dynasty began as a time of renewed cultural blossom, with Chinese merchants exploring all of the Indian Ocean and Chinese art (especially the porcelain industry) reaching unprecedented heights. Under Ming rule, a vast navy and army was built, with four masted ships displacing 1,500 tons and a standing army of one million troops. Over 100,000 tons of iron per year were produced in North China, and many books were printed using movable type. Some historians argue that Early Ming China was the most advanced nation on Earth at the time.

By the Ming period, Taoism and Buddhism had become poorly organized popular religions. What little organization they had was controlled by the state. The state continued to support Chu Hsi thought and enforced philosophical uniformity. In response, new blends of Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist elements appeared in a sequence of efforts to find ways of personal self-realization through contemplative and mystical means. The 16 th century saw the rise of many private academies and widespread philosophical discussions and conflicts. The search for personal fulfillment only intensified with the collapse of the empire.

Religion in the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1912)

The Ch'ing Dynasty was founded not by the Han Chinese people who form the overwhelming majority of the population of China proper, but by the Manchus, a semi-nomadic people not even known by that name when they first rose to prominence in what is now northeastern China. Taking advantage of the political instability and popular rebellions convulsing the Ming dynasty, the highly organized military forces of the Manchus swept into the Ming capital of Beijing in 1644, and there remained until the Ch'ing dynasty was overthrown in a revolution in 1911, with the last emperor abdicating early in 1912.

The 268 years of Ch'ing dynasty China saw glorious successes, humiliating defeats, and profound changes to virtually all aspects of life. Today's China has in many ways been shaped by these experiences. The consolidation of Ch'ing power was accompanied by territorial expansion, and the borders of modern China largely reflect successful Ch'ing military campaigns. The incorporation of new lands and peoples required careful handling, and Manchu experience of nomadic culture and a willingness to adopt different postures toward different groups such as Mongols and Tibetans enhanced Ch'ing diplomatic effectiveness.

Many great works of art and literature originated during the period and projects were undertaken to preserve important cultural texts. The novel form became widely read and one of China's most famous novels, Dream of the Red Chamber, was written in the mid-eighteenth century.

Religion in the Republic of China (1912-1945)

The Republic of China succeeded the Ch'ing Dynasty. It ruled mainland China from 1912 to 1949 and has ruled Taiwan (along with several islands of Fujian) since 1945.

Failure of reform from the top and the fiasco of the Boxer Rebellion convinced many Chinese that the only real solution lay in outright revolution, in sweeping away the old order and erecting a new one patterned preferably after the example of Japan. The revolutionary leader was Sun Yat-sen, a republican and anti-Qing activist who became increasingly popular among the overseas Chinese and Chinese students abroad, especially in Japan. In 1905 Sun founded the Tongmeng Hui (United League) in Tokyo with Huang Xing, a popular leader of the Chinese revolutionary movement in Japan, as his deputy. This movement, generously supported by overseas Chinese funds, also gained political support with regional military officers and some of the reformers who had fled China after the Hundred Days' Reform.

Sun's political philosophy was conceptualized in 1897, first enunciated in Tokyo in 1905, and modified through the early 1920s. It centered on the Three Principles of the People (san min zhuyi): "nationalism, democracy, and people's livelihood." The principle of nationalism called for overthrowing the Manchus and ending foreign hegemony over China. The second principle, democracy, was used to describe Sun's goal of a popularly elected republican form of government. People's livelihood, often referred to as socialism, was aimed at helping the common people through regulation of the ownership of the means of production and land.

The republican revolution broke out on October 10, 1911, in Wuchang, the capital of Hubei Province, among discontented modernized army units whose anti-Qing plot had been uncovered. This would be known as the Wuchang Uprising, which is celebrated as Double Tenth Day in Taiwan. It had been preceded by numerous abortive uprisings and organized protests inside China. The revolt quickly spread to neighboring cities, and Tongmeng Hui members throughout the country rose in immediate support of the Wuchang revolutionary forces. By late November, fifteen of the twenty-four provinces had declared their independence of the Qing empire. A month later, Sun Yat-sen returned to China from the United States, where he had been raising funds among overseas Chinese and American sympathizers.

On January 1, 1912, Sun officially declared the Republic of China and was inaugurated in Nanjing as the first provisional president.

Educational reforms in the early republican period allowed thousands of Chinese to study in Japan, Europe and the United States. Taking influential positions upon their return to China, such foreign-educated Chinese were a modernizing force in society, at least in the cities. However, the rural areas remained largely unchanged.

People's Republic of China

The People's Republic of China was proclaimed in the aftermath of the Communist Party's triumph in the Chinese Civil War by Mao Zedong on October 1, 1949.

For much of its early history, the People's Republic of China maintained a hostile attitude toward religion which was seen as emblematic of feudalism and foreign colonialism. Houses of worship, including temples, mosques, and churches, were converted into non-religious buildings for secular use. In the early years of the People's Republic, religious belief or practice was often discouraged because it was regarded by the government as backwards and superstitious and because some Communist leaders, ranging from Vladimir Lenin to Mao Zedong, had been critical of religious institutions. During the Cultural Revolution, religion was condemned as feudalistic and thousands of religious buildings were looted and destroyed.

This attitude, however, relaxed considerably in the late 1970s, with the end of the Cultural Revolution. The 1978 Constitution of the People's Republic of China guarantees freedom of religion with a number of restrictions. In practice, the Communist Party of China will react harshly against groups such as Falun Gong which it perceives as challenging its authority while in general ignoring groups that are not seen as challenging the state. Since the mid-1990s there has been a massive program to rebuild Buddhist temples that were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.


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