China is so big and diverse so its beliefs and religious customs are. As you probably know China didn’t have and doesn’t have official religion. Therefore China was great country for development of various religions and teachings such as Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. In various areas different teachings were influencing life and beliefs of people but mostly Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
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, several gods, spirits , reincarnation and karma. Various beliefs , superstitions 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, respect of family, 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.
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. Those who identify themselves as Taoists are either Taoist priests or those who are registered at Chinese Taoist Association and mostly follow Taoist beliefs. Same is applicable for Buddhists in China. Those who are not members of any official groups are considered as followers of folk or traditional religion and they vary between those more related to Taoism or Buddhism and those who are following some principles of all these teachings. Chinese folk religion is not only created as influence by Taoism and Buddhism but folk beliefs influenced creation of Taoism, You will see many similar concepts in folk religion and Taoism.
Chinese folk religion has many names in China and most common is shenjiao what means religion of spirits.
Shenjiao doesn’t have single source neither one founder. It is collection of different beliefs, forms and rituals. Various legends, Yi Jing, Daodejing, Daozang and Zhuangtzu are major sources of Chinese folk beliefs. Things which Shenjiao has in common across all China are below:
Tian(Heaven)- as major cosmic and transcendent force often seen as source of creation, interaction and changes. Heaven worship is one of oldest and still present worships among people. People pray to Heaven for good harvest, success at job, health, stable family, fertility and love.
Qi- life energy which circulates through our bodies which can be felt and distributed by breathing in and out and with different moves from Qi Gong and Taiji. Qi is considered as strongest force in body which is important for connection between mind and body, physical and psychical well being and self control. Qi is considered as bodily reflection of universe and thus must be in balance on basis of yin yang. Qi is human manifestation of yin and yang in mind and body. Heaven and Earth and static and dynamic.
Jingzu– ancestor worship as Chinese people consider that ancestral spirits deserve respect and attention. Many houses have little shrines with tablets with written names of ancestors or photos of ancestors. People offer them incense, food and fake money as they believe that ancestors need money in spiritual realm too. They pray for well being of ancestors and ask them for blessings.
Ming Yun and Yuan Fen- Ming Yun is personal destiny. It is belief that it is given condition to a being in this world. It is considered as circumstance and choice thus isn’t completely fixed but is flexible as well. Yuan Fen is fateful coincidence what relates to positive and negative chances and potential relationships. Correlation of both sides creates one owns harmony and his harmony with other people and nature. It is considered that if something on surface appears as good or bad when it is deeper researched it can be found how it shapes destiny and life. It is considered that destiny isn’t completely fixed neither is completely in hands of individual but is created by moves and decisions of individual within some frame. Here is important concept of Wu which is actually ones own awareness to his/her destiny and possibilities and it produces his/her responsibility towards oneself and others.
Wu Wei is one of most famous Taoist concepts often important in folk religion too. It literally means non-action. Taoists believe that life is series of spontaneous changes and that we should take effortless action or action without action. It is often hard to interpret what they actually meant by it but I can try to interpret it on basis of some Taoist interpretations. It can be considered as not attaching too much into your emotions or actions since they can be non-permanent but can be permanent too. By non attaching it can be considered to enjoy them but if something bad happens contrary to your expectations to continue your way and to rise after the fall not to stay overinvolved and than suffer when you lost something. Also it of course calls for making efforts in private or professional life for achieving your goals but to be flexible with them to change goals or adapt to other circumstances that may unexpectedly appear. It can be said that you can do your best but not to go beyond borders which can disturb your balance and make you damage. It is important to know what are your limits and to try carefully to go beyond them but if it doesn’t go like that than to accept it and go further. You never have to exaggerate and exhaust yourself and bother with something that you cannot change and not to blame yourself when you didn’t achieve something.
Yin and Yang which I often mentioned before. In roots these two words mean shady and sunny. Simply yin yang can be described as polarity that holds universe in balance and is composed of one static or passive side and one dynamic and active. This concept existed before Taoism but also was expanded in Taoism in following manner- Wuji represents constant stillness, non changes and statics. Second is Taiji which is translated as supreme ultimate. It is something that constantly changes, moves, circles and is constantly flexible. Taiji is constant change of day and night, winter and summer, spring and autumn, good and bad, flowing water, rain and sun, beautiful and ugly, new and old, love and hate…It is considered that Taiji is name for all relative things and that nothing is absolute that there is thin line between all contrary things. Wuji and Taiji together give a Yin Yang which symbolizes contradictious harmony. Taoists believe that all things in nature, in life and in world exist in harmony even when they are contrary to each other and thus make good balance. Simply Yin Yang is also a depiction of concept of growth and waning. With development of duality Tian( Heaven) is often not seen as completely supreme but as being in harmony with Di( Earth). Thus Heaven is seen as dynamic and flexible and Earth as static and rigid and they create perfect balance in nature. They are considered as supreme contradictory and harmonized poles. Lets just imagine all interactions between Heaven and Earth- rain, snow, sunny weather, day, night, light or dark. It shows us really which pole is active and which passive in this interaction. Nature is seen as manifestation of interaction between Heaven and Earth. It is believed that humans also exist in this energetic field which are created by these two forces Heaven and Earth. Therefore humans should pray and worship these forces in order to regulate these two energies on their own behalf. Humans should look to find balance within own minds and bodies by navigating qi energy. Between these two supreme poles there is water which mediates and can be both active and passive as we know that water can be in form of river, lake or ice. Mountains are often seen as connections between Heaven and Earth and therefore people in China go there to pray for both energies and for better balance between Heaven and Earth believing it will affect their inner balance of qi energy. That’s reason why mountains are sacred for Chinese people. Another manifestation of Yin Yang is seen in mountains and rivers. Here mountains represent rigidity, static and passivity while rivers present flexibility, dynamic and activity. Therefore mountains and water are seen as perfect example of Yin Yang together with Heaven and Earth. It is believed that Yin and Yang are everywhere and in everyone. Yin and Yang is seen as manifestation of Dao or path.
Gods and spirits
Spirits and Gods in Chinese Folk Religion count up to 1000. Not all of them are worshipped today neither all people worship same deities or spirits. Initially most of them were spirits of nature such as sun, moon, stream, lake, mountains, woods and so on. Various mythological beings such as dragons were worshipped. Later these shamanic beliefs transferred to human like deities. It is believed that humans are not completely inferior to spiritual forces and dities but that they can actively engage with them in order to shape their destinies.
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).
Considered as one of first humanlike Chinese gods and first manifestation of Dao in shape of human. He is considered to be god of strength and success and therefore often worshipped. He is among 5 most popular Chinese deities today. Jade Emperor originates from pre Daoist beliefs.
Guanyin- goddess of compassion, fertility and guardian of women and children. She is worshipped at least since Han dynasty when Buddhism arrived to China. Daoists believe that she is incarnation of Queen Mother of the West( originates a long ago before Daoism) or incarnation of Cihang Zhenren( a pre Daoist deity from Shang dynasty). Buddhists consider her as female incarnation of Avalokitesvara a Buddhist deity of same mission. She is among most popular Chinese deities today.
3 Pure Ones- Daoist trinity of 3 supreme gods- Yuanshi Tianzun( Lord of Primordial Beginning) considered as manifestation of Jade Emperor, Lingbao Tianzun( a supreme pure one who considered as manifestation of Yin Yang ) and Taishang Laojun( a deification of Lao Tzu). They are definitely among most frequently worshipped Chinese gods and Jade Emperor is mostly worshipped together as member of 3 Pure Ones in form of Yuanshi Tianzun. Lao Tzu is only worshipped in his divine manifestation of Taishang Laojun as member of 3 Pure Ones. They are mostly worshipped for balance, good fortune and family happiness. This concept of 3 Pure Ones was defined during Han dynasty mostly by Way of Celestial Masters.
Caishen- god of wealth, one of oldest Chinese deities
Amituofo- a Buddha from Pure Land, if people chant his name believe will be reborn in Pure Land where it is easier to achieve enlightenment.
Milafo- Maitreya Buddha depicted as fat laughing bald man. He is god of wealth, prosperity and luck. He is worshipped at least since 10th century and is one of most important Chinese deities today.
8 Immortals- 8 Taoist mythological beings and each of them helps in different sphere of life.
Ji Gong– a god of luck and joy. Believed to be one of Buddhist Arhats. Ji Gong is worshipped since 13th century.Ji Gong is worshipped both among Daoists and Buddhists.
Wenshou or Manjushri- a Buddhist deity of wisdom and is widely worshipped in China. Worshipped at least since arrival of Buddhism to China.
Di Zang or Ksitigarbha- a Buddhist deity widely worshipped in China. Ksitigarbha is a guardian in hell with mission to relief from suffering those who are in hell. Worshipped since at least arrival of Buddhism to China.
Xiwangmu(Queen Mother of the West)- a queen of Kunlunshan a mountain where fictionally paradise exists. She is goddess of immortality and is still quite frequently worshipped.
Mazu- Goddess guardian of sailors and fishermen, believed to be incarnation of Guanyin.
Jiutian Xuannu- goddess of sexuality, war and longevity.
4 Dragons- Gods of 4 directions, Black Dragon, Red Dragon, White Dragon and Purple Dragon.
Guan Yu- god of war and guardian of property, worshipped at least since 3rd century.
There are much more of Chinese gods, deities and spirits.
In Chinese folk religion important is Yellow Emperor as ancient Chinese since his rule legendarily count time and today it is year 4727 in accordance with traditional calendar.
Chinese folk religion isn’t systematized teaching neither single institution with hierarchy. It is often composed of rural or urban self-taught teachers and priests who can teach some of their students as well. All of this is mostly on unofficial level. They usually act as feng shui advisors, fortune tellers, astrologists, cosmologists, healers and consecrators. All this is allowed and legal until they act irrationally when they propose extremist or apocalyptic beliefs or lie to people. Those people are usually called fashi what means magician. Fashi are on lower rank than Daoshi( Daoist priest) and must be ordained by Daoist priest to perform rituals. Magicians can perform some exorcism rituals, make fortune telling, healing, perform rituals on some festivals, consecrate house, calculate feng shui of objects and give business advices.
Magicians can also act as medians between humans and spirits. Both in cities and villages many constructors still ask fashi for advice about best position for new construction in order to have a balance in nature. Higher Daoshi priests are higher educated Daoist priests who perform more complex rituals related to burial, birth, marriage, festivals, making talismans, cleaning house or objects from evil spirits. They can communicate on higher level than fashi with spirits, deities and ancestors.
There are really much more than many of them and vary by region. Some of them are:
- Red is color of luck and thus must be worn during New Year day and on wedding day in order to attract good fortune for next year and for marriage.
- Number 4 should be avoided since it reminds on pronunciation of death.
- 8, 5 and 9 are considered as lucky numbers.
- Nails shouldn’t be cut after midnight as noise of cutting them can be heard by ghosts.
- Newborn for the first month shouldn’t be praised neither birth should be celebrated in order not to attract evil spirits.
- Day before New Year house should be cleaned during New Year shouldn’t in order to avoid cleaning of good luck.
- Front part of new house should never face North.
- If a baby cries without stopping in night it is believed it hears or sees ghosts.
- Turtle shouldn’t be kept as pet as it is believed it will bring slow progress in the family.
- If dog barks during night for too long it is believed that someone died somewhere.
- Relationship between partners with age difference 3 or 6 years should be avoided as it is believed it will bring bad luck.
- While eating noodles they shouldn’t be cut since it is believed that noodles length symbolizes longevity.
Similar concepts of folk beliefs and practices exist in Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.
Some used sources: