Chinese traditional religion

Chinese folk religion (traditional Chinese: or ; simplified Chinese: 中国民间宗教 or 中国民间信仰; pinyin: Zhōngguó mínjiān zōngjiào or Zhōngguó mínjiān xìnyăng) or Shenism (pinyin: Shénjiào, 神教),[1][2][3] are labels used to describe the collection of ethnic religious traditions which have historically comprised the predominant belief system in China and among Han Chinese ethnic groups up to the present day. Shenism describes Chinese mythology and includes the worship of shens (神, shén; "deities", "spirits", "awarenesses", "consciousnesses", "archetypes") which can be nature deities, Taizu or clan deities, city deities, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, dragons and ancestors. "Shenism" as a term was first published by A. J. A Elliot in 1955.[4]

Chinese folk religion is sometimes categorized with Taoism, since over the centuries institutional Taoism has been attempting to assimilate or administer local religions. Chinese folk religion is sometimes seen as a constituent part of Chinese traditional religion, but more often, the two are regarded as synonymous. With around 454 million adherents, or about 6.6% of the world population,[5] Chinese folk religion is one of the major religious traditions in the world. In China more than 30% of the population adheres to Chinese folk religion.[6] Chinese religion mirrors the social landscape, and takes on different meanings for different people.[7]

Both in imperial China and under the modern nation, the state has opposed or attempted to eradicate these practices as “superstition.” Yet these practices are currently experiencing a modern revival in both Mainland China and Taiwan.[8][9] Various forms have received support by the Government of the People's Republic of China, such as Mazuism in Southern China (officially about 160 million Chinese are Mazuists),[10] Huangdi worship,[11][12] Black Dragon worship in Shaanxi,[13][14][15] and Caishen worship.[16]


Chinese folk religion holds aspects of ancestral belief systems such as animism and shamanism,[17][18] which include the veneration of (and communication with) ancestors, and energetic streams such as Qi, but also physical phenomena such as the Sun, the Moon, the Earth, the Heaven, and various stars, as well as communication with animals, such as auspices from birds. Related practices have been held by the Chinese people for over three thousand years (such as written in Oracle bone scripts), and alongside Buddhism, Taoism, and various other religions for the past two thousand years. Even in ancient China, religion emphasized documentation and was quite bureaucratic in nature.[19]

Rituals, devotional worship, myths sacred reenactment, festivals and various other practices associated with different folk gods and goddesses form an important part of Chinese culture and Chinese spiritual world concepts today. The veneration of secondary gods does not conflict with an individual's chosen religion, but is accepted as a complementary adjunct, particularly to Taoism. Some mythical figures in folk culture have been integrated into Chinese Buddhism, as in the case of Miao Shan. She is generally thought to have influenced the beliefs about the Buddhist bodhisattva Guanyin. This Bodhisattva originally was based upon the Indian counterpart Avalokiteśvara. Androgynous in India, this Bodhisattva over centuries became a female figure in China and Japan. Guanyin is one of the most popular Bodhisattva to which people pray.

There are many public-domain folk religion texts such as Journeys to the Underworld distributed in temples (often without charge) or sold in religious goods stores or vegetarian shops. Temples for Shenist worship are different from Taoist temples and Buddhist monasteries, being administered by local managers, associations and worship communities.


The Chinese deities (gods and goddesses)

There are hundreds of Chinese Deities (local gods and goddesses) as well as demigods. After apotheosis, historical figures noted for their bravery or virtue are also venerated and honored as ancestral "saints", xians, or heightened to the status of shens, deities. Song Dynasty registered them.[20] Deities reflect the Chinese imperial bureaucracy, and exemplify many characteristics of human officials, such as their fallibility.[7] The following list represents some commonly worshipped deities.

  • Shangdi (上帝) is originally the supreme unknowable god, synonymous with the concept of Tian. All the other gods are seen as his hierophanies or intercessors. This title/name was later applied to the supreme deity of various religions, including Yu Huang Dadi and the Christian God.
  • Pangu (盘古), the creator god in certain myths. He is usually depicted as a primitive, hairy giant with horns on his head and clad in furs. Pangu set about the task of creating the world: he separated Yin from Yang with a swing of his giant axe, creating the Earth (murky Yin) and the Sky (clear Yang). According to other sources, after Pangu died, his body became the land and other celestial bodies.
  • Fuxi (伏羲), also known as Paoxi, a divine patriarch reputed to have taught to humanity writing, fishing, and hunting. Cangjie is also said to have invented writing.
  • Nüwa (女娲), also Nüwa, an ancient mother goddess, attributed for the creation of mankind. In later traditions she is described as the twin sister or/and wife of Fuxi. It was said she used rainbow coloured stones to mend the sky when it opened a hole.
  • Shennong (神农), also identified as Yandi (炎帝), a divine patriarch said to have taught the ancient Chinese the practices of agriculture. He is often represented as a human with bull horns.
  • Huangdi (黃帝), or "Yellow Emperor", the divine patriarch of the Huaxia culture lineage. He is regarded as the founder of China.
  • Guan Yu (关羽), also known with the templar names of Guandi and Guan Gong (literally 'Emperor Guan' and 'Lord Guan' respectively), the red-faced, bearded hero of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and symbol of loyalty. He is the patron god of policemen (and also gangsters), war, fortune, and law, as he shows forgiveness, and often also serves as Wu Sheng, the Martial Saint.
  • Baosheng Dadi (保生大帝), a divine physician born in the Song Dynasty, whose powers extend to raising the dead. Worship is especially prevalent in Fujian and Taiwan.
  • Caishen (财神 "God of Wealth"), who oversees the gaining and distribution of wealth through fortune. He is often the deified manifestation of certain historical personalities such as Zhao Gongming or Bi Gan. His shape is sometimes that of a black and fierce tiger.
  • Shoushen (寿神 "Star Lord of Longevity"), who stands for a healthy and long life. He is portrayed as an old balding man with a walking stick in his right hand and a peach in his left.
  • Fushen (福神 "Star Lord of Happiness"), he looks like a traditional Chinese feudal lord with red clothing. He symbolizes happiness and joy.
  • Lushen (禄神 "Star Lord of Prosperity"), a god of success in work and life. In ancient times he was the patron god of success in imperial bureaucracy.
  • The Baxian (八仙), the "Eight Immortals", are important literary and artistic figures who were deified after death and became objects of worship. In Taoism they're worshipped as xians.
  • Huye (虎爺), a guardian spirit, often found at the bottom of Taoist temple shrines. Worshipers revere the tiger spirit to curse spiritual enemies. Rituals include stomping an effigy of a spiritual enemy in front of the tiger spirit, as well as sacrificing meat offerings, paper gold, and others.
  • The Jiuhuang Dadi (九皇大帝) refer to manifestation of nine stars of the Great Dipper of the North. Their manifestation festival is held over the first nine days of the ninth lunar month to celebrate the return from heaven to earth of the Nine Emperor spirits.
  • Mazu (妈祖 "Ancient Mother"), the patroness, also considered as the goddess of sailors. Shrines can be found in coastal areas of Eastern and South-Eastern China. Today, belief in Mazu is especially popular in the South and South-East, including Fujian (福建), Guangdong (廣東), Hainan (海南), Taiwan (台灣), and Hong Kong (香港). She is also a significant deity where emigrants from the provinces have settled, including in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.
  • Qiye (七爺) and Baye (八爺), two generals and best friends, often seen as giant puppets in street parades. 8 is black, because he drowned rather than miss his appointment to meet with 7, even though a flood was coming. 7 has his tongue sticking out, because he hanged himself in mourning for 8.
  • Cheng Huang (城隍), commonly known as "City God" in English, a class of protective deities: each city has a Cheng Huang who looks after the fortunes of the city and judges the dead. Usually these are famous or noble persons from the city who were deified after death. The Cheng Huang Miao (城隍廟) or "City God Temple" was often the focal point of a town in ancient times.
  • Tudi Gong (土地公 "God of the Earth"), a genius loci who protects a local place (especially hills), and whose statue may be found in roadside shrines. He is also the god of wealth, by virtue of his connection with the earth, and therefore, minerals and buried treasure.
  • Wenchangdi (文昌帝), god of students, scholars, and examination. He is worshiped by students who wish to pass their examinations. Inept examiners in ancient times sometimes sought "divine guidance" from him to decide rank between students.
  • Xi Wangmu (西王母), the "Queen Mother of the West", also known as Yaochi Jinmu (瑤池金母 "Golden Mother of the Jade Pond"), a mother goddess who reigns over a paradisaical mountain and has the power to make others immortal. In some myths, she is the mother of the Jade Emperor (玉帝).
  • Yuexia Laoren (月下老人 "Old Man Under the Moon"). The matchmaker who pairs lovers together, worshiped by those seeking their partner.
  • Zaoshen (灶神), the "God of the Kitchen", also Zao Jun (灶君), mentioned in the title of Amy Tan's novel, The Kitchen God's Wife. He reports to heaven on the behavior of the family of the house once a year, at Chinese New Year, and is given sticky rice to render his speech less comprehensible on that occasion.
  • Songzi Niangniang (送子娘娘) or Zhusheng Niangniang (註生娘娘), a fertility goddess. She is worshiped by people who want children, or who want their child to be a boy.
  • Lu Ban (鲁班), the legendary master craftsman from the 5th century BC; patron deity of Chinese craftsmen

Places of worship

Shenist temples can be distinguished into miao (庙), called "joss houses", "deity houses" and ci (祠), called "ancestral halls" or simply "temples" in English. Both the terms actually mean "temple" in Chinese, and they have been used interchangeably many times. However miao is the general Chinese term for "temple" understood as "place of worship", and can be used for places of worship of any religion. In Chinese folk religion it is mostly associated to temples which enshrine nature gods and patron gods. Instead ci is the specific term for temples enshrining ancestry gods, human beings apotheosized as gods.

"Joss" is a corrupted version of the Portuguese word for "god", deus. "Joss house" was in common use in English in western North America during frontier times, when joss houses were a common feature of Chinatowns. The name "joss house" describes the environment of worship. Joss sticks, a kind of incense, are burned inside and outside of the house.

Shenist temples are distinct from Taoist temples (觀/观 guàn or 道观 daoguan) and Buddhist monasteries (寺 si) in that they are established and administered by local managers, associations and worship communities; only few or no priests stay in folk temples; most are invited. Shenist temples are usually small, very colourful (by contrast with Taoist temples which by tradition should be black and white in color, and Buddhist temples which are characterised by a prevalence of yellow and red tonalities), and decorated with traditional figures on their roofs (dragons and deities), although some evolve into significant structures. Other terms associated to templar structures of Shenism and other religions in China are 宫 gong ("palace"), often used for large temples (even if mostly Taoist) built by imperial officials, and 院 yuan, a general term for "sanctuary", "shrine".

Organizational religions

There are also many controversial folk religious movements known as secret religions (zh:中国秘密宗教) with different names.[21][22]

Societal impact

Scholars have studied how Chinese folk religion-inspired society, elastic and polytheistic in spirit, provided the groundwork for the development of dynamic grassroots Chinese-style pre-modern capitalism in Song Dynasty China and modern capitalism in contemporary Taiwan.[23][24][25][26] Chinese folk religion with its ritual economy is also a key in the contemporary economic development in rural Mainland China.[27][28] .


With around 400 million adherents Chinese folk religion is one of the major religions in the world, comprising about 6% of world population.[29][30] In China more than 30% of the population adheres to Shenism or Taoism. In Taiwan, Shenism is highly institutionalised under the label and the institutions of "Taoism", which is adhered by 33% of the population.

In Singapore about 11% of the total population is Taoist, and 14.4% of the Chinese Singaporeans identify as Taoists.[31] In Malaysia, 10.6% of Chinese Malaysians are Shenists-Taoists, corresponding to 3% of the whole country population. In Indonesia, Taosu Agung Kusumo, leader of the Majelis Agama Tao Indonesia, claims there are 5 million Taoist followers in the country as of 2009.[32]

Practice around the world

Tridharma in Indonesia

The Chinese folk religion is one of six state religions in Indonesia. The official name is Agama Khonghucu or The Religion of Confucius. The name was chosen because of the political condition in Indonesia at the time, despite all of the Chinese already aware that Confucian should be described as a philosophy, and not a religion. The Chinese in Indonesia had their culture and religious rights restored only after the fourth president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid or popular by the name of Gus Dur, issued a regulation that states: the acknowledged religions in Indonesia are Islam, Christian, Catholic, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Khonghucu. He said that:

All religions insist on peace. From this we might think that the religious struggle for peace is simple... but it is not. The deep problem is that people use religion wrongly in pursuit of victory and triumph. This sad fact then leads to conflict with people who have different beliefs.[33]

The first precept of Pancasila (i.e, the Five Basic Principles of the Indonesian state) stipulates belief in the one and only God. The Confucian philosophy is able to fulfill this, for Confucius mentioned only one God in his teaching, i.e. the Heaven or Shangdi. The Heaven possess the characteristic of Yuan Heng Li Zhen or Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent, Just.[34]

The Master said, "Great indeed was Yao as a sovereign! How majestic was he! It is only Heaven that is grand, and only Yao corresponded to it. How vast was his virtue! The people could find no name for it. How majestic was he in the works which he accomplished! How glorious in the elegant regulations which he instituted!" (VIII, xix, tr. Legge 1893:214)

Actually, people always refer to the religion as Tridharma. The term was taken from Sanskrit which means Three Teachings or San Jiào in Chinese, the syncretism of three philosophical beliefs of Chinese: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.[34] Indonesian Chinese uses a temple of their own style which is named Kelenteng or Klenteng, which always consist of three main rooms: the front room for Tian or God, the middle for the main deity of the temple, the back room for the three teachers and their pantheon: (Confucius, Laozi, and Buddha).


See also

Further reading

  • Jonathan Chamberlain. Chinese Gods : An Introduction to Chinese Folk Religion. (Hong Kong: Blacksmith Books, 2009). ISBN 9789881774217.
  • Manchao, Cheng, The Origin of Chinese Deities, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1995. ISBN 7-119-00030-6
  • Paper, Jordan D., The Spirits are Drunk: Comparative Approaches to Chinese Religion, Albany, New York : State University of New York Press, 1995. ISBN 0-7914-2315-8
  • 中國宗教歷史文獻集成總目
  • 《明清民间宗教经卷文献》简目
  • 《明清民间宗教经卷文献》(续编)目录
  • 中國寶卷研究 - 教學計畫表
  • China Morality Association
  • 善書寶卷數位典藏計畫
  • 中国主要宝卷目录概述


External links


  • Fujian Ancestral Temples Network
  • 神话网
  • Illuminating Goodness - Some Preliminary Considerations of Religious Publishing in Modern China
  • 中国民间宗教研究
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