Religion, beliefs and spiritual tradition have always been very specific topic in China. China since ancient times never had official state religion. Therefore it was a good ground for development of various religious and philosophical teachings.
Indigenous Chinese philosophic and religious teaching is Taoism and it roots from Chinese traditional folk beliefs. It is combination of philosophy, religion and mythology and teaches you how to cultivate yourself maintain positive energy and live life in harmony. Taoism originates basis of Chinese culture and tradition. It is based on folk and shamanic practices of worshiping heaven, moon, sun and earth and idea of living in harmony with nature.
Lao Tzu is one of key figures in Taoism even he isn’t founder he collected and conceptualized Taoist beliefs and activities in one book known as Tao Te Qing. Taoist teaching emphasizes on following a Tao( Way). It is considered as a Way of Nature of constant changes, movement and balance between sides of yin( night, woman, moon, earth, passive, evil) and yang.( day, man, sun, heaven, active, good). Taoists believe that all contradictory things exist in harmony. They consider all beings equal and believe that humans should respect nature and live in harmony with it. They worship nature, Heaven, Sun, Moon and some deities such as Jade Emperor, Three Pure Ones, 8 Immortals, Guan Yu, 4 Kings, 4 Mother Queens, Guanyin, Mazu( reincarnation of Guanyin) and other deities. These deities are human like and have all characteristics as ordinary humans have except that they achieved immortality and can have some healing abilities. These deities are divine because of their deeds not because of inheriting such status.
Taoists believe in connection and balance between 5 elements( water, fire, wood, metal and earth) in such way- from water tree rises, fire burns ashes fall down on earth and bears metal) also in their interconnection there is productive but also destructive interaction- fire can be good for heating but can cause damage too, water is very useful source of life but can cause floods. Taoists believe that people should be like water powerful, able to overcome barriers, constantly move and let any worries go and just continue to be still and flexible like water and follow Tao. They also believe that less striving brings more happiness and health. In order to be healthy you have to lead moderate and harmonized life.
Taoists see meditation and tai chi as a way to harmonize own mind and body but also to be closer to nature by breathing techniques and movements- with tai chi you stand firmly like a wood but you move fluidly like water or you are flexible and fast like dragon but firm like tiger. Taoists believe that visiting mountains is sacred thing and makes you closer to nature and will bring you balance as they see mountains as bridges between Heaven and Earth. Taoism was great source of development traditional medicine. It offers treatments for both physical and psychical illnesses in treated in natural way using acupuncture, energy therapy, massage, meditation… Taoism teaches you to be kind to other people and all living creatures and not to abuse alcohol or sex. It rare teaching that openly spoke about naturalness of sexual intercourse as a way of connection of yin and yang and energy exchange. Taoist teaching emphasizes that both genders should equally participate and have pleasure from sexual intercourse.
Taoist main values are simplicity, patience and compassion and aim is to attain still and peaceful mind, harmony with yourself and other people and mainly nature. Simplicity means that you have to be simple, relaxed, calm and simple in thoughts and deeds. Patience means to not to exaggerate in action, not to make arguments, to take things easy and step by step done. To be compassionate means to be kindhearted, friendly and kind to all beings. Still, but flexible mind are core to inner peace ,happiness and own stability. They have concept of Wu Wei what means to let things go- things that you cannot change as nature and everything moves and changes around you and you cannot influence everything but you should adapt to changes and accept things as they are and move on with that what you can influence and change. It is same as change of winter, spring, autumn and summer you cannot influence it but you can adapt and change clothes and enjoy every season as much as possible.
Taoism was used in worships of Heaven by emperor and de facto was official teaching same as Confucianism.
Taoism uses to promote love. Lao Tzu used to say that if you love someone it gives you strength and being loved gives you courage.
Taoism currently has two main sects- Zhengyi and Quanzhen. Zhengyi sect doesn’t strictly require living in temples but many Taoist monks belonging to this sect can live in own house, have families and eat meat while they have compulsory daily temple service. However some monks that have services in remote temples at mountains go home during weekends. On another hand Quanzhen sect is much more strict and requires life in temple, strict vegetarian diet and celibate. Female monks are welcome in both sects and are not separated from men and do not have to hide beauty of face and hair.
Confucianism- This teaching isn’t religious despite fact that it considered worshipping Heaven and ancestors as important thing for society. Confucius believed that basis for happiness is ideal family in which younger give respect to older. Such concept was considered by Confucius to be inevitable for functioning of society where morality must dominate and where you should be subordinated to those who are more superior. He stresses focus on yourself and self-perfection by education and respecting moral principles. By education he believed you can achieve higher status and respect in society.
On this principles Chinese state and society functioned for 2000 thousand years. Today Confucius teaching is very respected and his principles still considered as valuable. He believed that basis for happiness is ideal family in which younger give respect to older and women are submissive to men. Such concept was considered by Confucius to be inevitable for functioning of society where morality must dominate and where you should be subordinated to those who are more superior. He stresses focus on yourself and self-perfection by education and respecting moral principles. Confucius stressed that rulers of state should be moral and honest and not to oppress people. He considered that each ruler and member of society must think about his own behavior, morality and educate himself in order of perfection. In order to get respect leader must be self-disciplined and to respect others too. He believed that you must be compassionate and positive to motivate others to follow law. By education he believed you can achieve higher status and respect in society and only if you have high morality and are self-disciplined. Confucius idealized concept of 4 professions and their contribution to society. Hierarchy, respect, self-discipline are a must according to him. Confucius emphasized highly on worship of Heaven and ancestors and with aim to keep order worship must be highly detailed. Which chants and when, number of vessels and all steps of ritual had to be according to some order done. Many of his teachings are selectively chosen or followed by people today.
Buddhism- Is another very important and influential teaching in China. It came to China Central Asia T Its main principles are compassion, tolerance and end of suffering of all beings. Buddhism teaches you to be kind hearted to all beings. Its main aim is to reach state of nirvana in which you do not respond to any kind of pleasure or desire or feeling and respect strict vegetarian diet. They believe that all desires cause more desire and suffering so they don’t want to attach to anything what leads to happiness. There are two schools of Buddhism in China. One of them is Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism believes in achieving nirvana through proper moral behavior, compassion and meditation. Tibetan Buddhism is mostly situated in Tibet Autonomous Region but is moderately present in Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan provinces. Tibetan Buddhist monks must live very modestly eat a little and retain from all of the joys in order to prevent desire and suffering. They must be very compassionate in order to gain good karma and main goal is to achieve enlightenment which will break the circle of reincarnation. Diet is strictly vegetarian and celibacy is a must.
Buddhism in other parts of China was adapted to Taoist teaching and changed significantly. It is known as Chan Buddhism or Zen in Japan, Seon in Korea and Thien in Vietnam. Its main essence is emphasize on power of mind and on balance between mind and body as Taoism teaches. Chan Buddhism speaks about equality of all being, reincarnation, respect to nature and to other people. Chan Buddhism emphasizes on empting mind by meditation and breathing and relaxed approaching to life. All Buddhist monks must respect celibate and vegetarian diet. It calls on good luck, harmony and happiness which is symbolized in lotus flower, Taoists derived from Buddhism concept of reincarnation and started to respect Chan Maitreya Buddha and Ji Gong monk as immortals and some other deities are mixed between Taoism and Buddhism as are respected and worshiped by both teachings. Such version of Buddhism was later expanded to Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Taoism and Buddhism developed some kind of coexistence. Mount Tai is perfect example of coexistence where you can find both Taoist and Buddhist religious sites. They do not interfere in each others affairs but they derive from another teaching that what is best. Unlike Buddhists Taoists do not aim to break the cycle of rebirth.
Within Chan Buddhism there is special sect known as Pure Land Sect. Followers of this version of Chan Buddhism aim to achieve nirvana by constant meditation just before death. Such meditation has purpose to visualize Buddha and achieve nirvana before death in order to assure that you will be saved from circle of reincarnation. After death they believe that they will be reborn in Pure Land where they will easier achieve enlightenment.
For Chan Buddhists Buddha is not just a person or deity but synonym of peaceful mind, enlightenment, tolerance and compassion. Buddha is a aim to achieve by meditation, kindness and your deeds.
Mostly respected deities in Buddhism are except Buddha( Fo in Chinese), Maitreya Buddha( Mi La Fo in Chinese), Healing Buddha( riguang bianzhao pusa in Chinese), Ksitigarbha( , Manjusri( Wenshou in Chinese), Avalokitesvara( Chinese version is female Guanyin) and Samantabhadra( in Chinese Pu Xian Pusa). Except main deities in Buddhism are respected 18 Arhats a first line of enlightened ones who were disciples of Buddha. Arhats have own incarnations too and among them is Ji Gong. Each of them has different symbol and has different function in bringing happiness, health, love or prosperity.
NOTE: Do not confuse Gautama Buddha and Fat Buddha they are not same person as many people think it is. Fat or Happy Buddha is a different person and deity than founder of Buddhism. Gautama Buddha( Sidhartha or Shakyamuni) was a founder of Buddhism and he is more or less similarly depicted in all schools of Buddhism. Also in Buddhism there is concept of Maitreya Buddha- a future Buddha who has to appear to bring happiness and luck. In Vajrayana( Tibetan) school of Buddhism this Buddha didn’t appear yet but is often described on paintings, carvings and sculpturing. He looks somewhat different than first one. In Chan tradition of Buddhism Maitreya Buddha already lived and it is Fat or Happy Buddha that you probably have mistaken with Gautama. He is one of thousands of Maitreya Buddhas that have appeared or will appear as Chan school considers that many of them were not discovered. According to legend Happy Buddha was a cheerful eccentric monk from China who lived in 10th century whose name was Qie Ci. He was fat bald man often with naked stomach large ears and always laughing. Mi La Fo was bringing joy and happiness wherever he was going. Children were following him and he used to play with them and to give them sweets. He was very compassionate and kind to all beings. Legend says that he was smiling for 30 years. Just before death he was recognized by monks as incarnation of Maitreya. Mi La Fo became one of main deities of Chinese Buddhism and is widely respected by Taoists as well. His big belly symbolizes good fortune, luck, good health and well-being. Fat Buddhas long and large year lobes mean that he is good listener and always willing to help. Except in China he is very important deity and considered as incarnation of Maitreya in Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
Between 1949 and 1978 religion wasn’t so popular as Communism installed new ideas. But after 1978 religious and philosophic teachings became popular again and freedoms in this area restored.
In China state and religion are separate and China doesn’t have official state religion. Chinese constitution guarantees religious freedom and recognizes Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam as religions of China. There are primary Buddhist, Taoist, Christian and Islamic associations that deal with their affairs: teaching new future monks, ordain monks, manage temples, organize events and so on.
Around 70% of Chinese claim that they are no religious but they are not atheists in European terms. Most of them do not believe in one god but in some higher power, energy, power of nature and karma. Various beliefs , supersitions and ethical principles are part of their tradition, culture and spirituality. Most of them respect Taoist or Buddhist traditions and often do worships. It is according to preference of people which teaching influences them more. Some of them inherit it from ancestors while others can choose according to their preference whether they find themselves more familiar to Taoist or Buddhist beliefs. Many of them worship ancestors what is Confucian tradition and have some Confucian ethical beliefs such as importance of education, self-achievement and respect of elders. For example one my Chinese friend founds himself more as a Taoist and goes to temple few times per year. Another of mine Chinese acquaintance finds Buddhism more close to him than Taoism, wears chaplets and occasionally goes to temple while his mother is declaring herself as Buddhist.
You will see thousands of people in temples and going to religious sites to give worships daily. I think that more Taoism has influence on people because Chinese New Year- main family holiday, Full Moon Festival, Chinese Zodiac, wedding and many other customs are based on Taoist teaching. When it is about deities people personally choose which deities they prefer and can set small home altar based from smaller or bigger figures of deities that they respect. They can combine both Buddhist or Taoist deities but that doesn’t determine whether their beliefs are more Taoist or Buddhist. Custom is to worship deities by giving them fruits and tea in front of altar twice a month and burn 3 incense sticks twice a day. However not all people do the same some do it more often some more rare. While they pray they believe that incense smoke will reach Heaven or deities and make your prayers heard. Except praying and offerings they often wear beads or pendants( of some deity). These 70% are often said to belong Chinese folk religion what is combination of all different Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian beliefs, teachings principles and customs. To this category belong also most of party and government officials and even army officers.
Other around 10% of population declares as Taoist. They are more devoted to Taoism and determine themselves as Taoist or belong to Taoist monks. Buddhist compose 15% and they definitely consider themselves as Buddhist or are part of monks.
Christianity in China- it came by Silk Road in 7th century. Later it was introduced by Jesuits. It composes around 2% of population that include Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic Church. In Beijing there is very famous St.Joseph Catholic Church near Wangfujing Street. There is small number of Orthodox Christians as well and most famous Orthodox church is in Harbin and it is Russian style church.
Islam in China- also came by Silk Road through Central Asia in 7th century. Today there are around 2% of Muslims in China. Most of them are Sunni Muslims. Most of Muslims are Uyghur and Hui ethnic minorities.
There are many local folk beliefs that belong to various ethnic minorities. Those are various spiritual beliefs and shamanic practices that belong to Manchu, Xibe and Mongols in northern and northeastern China. Shamanism also exist among southern ethnic minorities such as Hmong, Miao, Dai, Naxi, Yi, Lisu, Wa and some other residing in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. Also some Han Chinese practice Taoist shamanism in Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan and Yunnan provinces.
ENJOY CHINA 😉