The varieties of Chinese religion are spread across the map of China in different degrees. Quanzhen Taoism is mostly present in the north, while Sichuan is the area where Tianshi Taoism developed and the early Celestial Masters had their main seat. Along the southeastern coast, Taoism reportedly dominates the ritual activity of popular religion, both in registered and unregistered forms .

  • With the rise of Confucian orthodoxy in the Han period (206 BCE–220 CE), shamanic traditions found an institutionalised and intellectualised form within the esoteric philosophical discourse of Taoism.
  • According to Chirita , Confucianism itself, with its emphasis on hierarchy and ancestral rituals, derived from the shamanic discourse of the Shang dynasty (~1600 BCE–1046 BCE).
  • Taoism was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s but its traditions endured in secrecy and revived in following decades.
  • Small communities following the Theravada exist among minority ethnic groups who live in the southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, bordering Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, but also some among the Li people of Hainan follow such tradition.
  • In 1956 a national organisation, the Chinese Taoist Association, was established to govern the activity of Taoist orders and temples.

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Missionaries worked to abolish practices such as foot binding, and the unjust treatment of maidservants, as well as launching charitable work and distributing food to the poor. They also opposed the opium trade and brought treatment to many who were addicted. Some of the early leaders of the early republic (1912–49), such as Sun Yat-sen, were converts to Christianity and were influenced by its teachings. By 1921, Harbin, Manchuria’s largest city, had a Russian population of around 100,000, constituting a large part of Christianity in the city. At the end of the Ming dynasty in the 16th century, Jesuits arrived in Beijing via Guangzhou.

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Individuals may realise their humanity and become one with Heaven through the contemplation of this order. This transformation of the self may be extended to the family and society to create a harmonious fiduciary community. Confucianism conciliates both the inner and outer polarities of spiritual cultivation, that is to say self-cultivation and world redemption, synthesised in the ideal of “sageliness within and kingliness without”. Broadly speaking, however, scholars agree that Confucianism may be also defined as an ethico-political system, developed from the teachings of the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE).

Worshippers generally offer prayers through a jingxiang rite, with offerings of food, light incense and candles, and burning joss paper. These activities are typically conducted at the site of ancestral graves or tombs, at an ancestral temple, or at a household shrine.

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It spread significantly much later, with Tibetan influence in the west, and with the Mongols and Manchus in the north, especially under the dynasties which they established in China, the Yuan and the Qing dynasty. In contemporary China, the most popular forms of Chinese Buddhism are the Pure Land and Chan schools. Pure Land Buddhism is very accessible for common people, since in its doctrine even lay practitioners may escape the cycle of death and rebirth. The goal for followers of this popular form of Buddhism is to be reborn in the Pure Land, which is a place rather than a state of mind. In the 2000s and 2010s, the influence of Chinese Buddhism has been expressed through the construction of large-scale statues, pagodas and temples, including the Great Buddha of the Central Plains, the second highest statue in the world.

Guy Alitto points out that there was “literally no equivalent for the Western concept of ‘Confucianism’ in traditional Chinese discourse”. He argues that the Jesuit missionaries of the 16th century selected Confucius from many possible sages to serve as the counterpart to Christ or Muhammad in order to meet European religion categories. They used a variety of writings by Confucius and his followers to coin a new “-ism”—”Confucianism”—which they presented as a “rationalist secular-ethical code”, not as a religion. This secular understanding of Confucianism inspired both the Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century, and Chinese intellectuals of the 20th century. Liang Shuming, a philosopher of the May Fourth Movement, wrote that Confucianism “functioned as a religion without actually being one”.

The most famous amongst them was Matteo Ricci, an Italian mathematician who came to China in 1588 and lived in Beijing. Ricci was welcomed at the imperial court and introduced Western learning into China. The Jesuits followed a policy of adaptation of Catholicism to traditional Chinese religious practices, especially ancestor worship. However, such practices were eventually condemned as polytheistic idolatry by the popes Clement XI, Clement XII and Benedict XIV. Roman Catholic missions struggled in obscurity for decades afterwards.

Understanding religion primarily as an ancestral tradition, the Chinese have a relationship with the divine that functions socially, politically as well as spiritually. The Chinese concept of “religion” draws the divine near to the human world.

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In 1895, another Dungan Revolt (1895–96) broke out, and loyalist Muslims like Dong Fuxiang, Ma Anliang, Ma Guoliang, Ma Fulu, and Ma Fuxiang massacred the rebel Muslims led by Ma Dahan, Ma Yonglin, and Ma Wanfu. A few years later, an Islamic army called the Kansu Braves, led by the general Dong Fuxiang, fought for the Qing dynasty against the foreigners during the Boxer Rebellion. The Taiping Rebellion (1850–1871) was influenced to some degree by Christian teachings, and the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901) was in part a reaction against Christianity in China. Christians in China established the first clinics and hospitals practising modern medicine, and provided the first modern training for nurses.

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Today, this school of Buddhism is popular among the Dai people, and also the Palaung, Blang, Achang, and Jingpo ethnic groups. After the liberalisation of religions in China in the 1980s, there has been a growing movement of adoption of the Gelug sect, and other Tibetan-originated Buddhist schools, by the Han Chinese. This movement has been favoured by the proselytism of Chinese-speaking Tibetan lamas throughout China. Lǎmajiào, “Lamaism”) also have an influence throughout China that dates back to historical interactions of the Han Chinese with neighbouring populations. Tibetan Buddhism and its clergy, the lamas, were introduced in China proper since the 7th century; its emphasis on ritual action was a shared element with Taoism.

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In the decades following the Second World War, however, many Chinese intellectuals and academic scholars in the West, among whom Tu Weiming, reversed this assessment. Confucianism, for this new generation of scholars, became a “true religion” that offered “immanent transcendence”. Their practices are focused on improving morality, body cultivation, and on the recitation of scriptures. Since the 1980s Chinese folk religions experienced a revival in both mainland China and Taiwan.



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