Anthropology: The History of Chinese Religion and Cultural Integration

Chinese civilization has lasted for 5000 years with numerous encounters of foreign religions. Many religions have integrated with Chinese culture. Although after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, the communist ideology didn’t promote any religions across the country. PRC urges its citizens to be atheists to promote proper natural science and health education. However, it is possible to have a religion in China since it’s not against the communist ideology. The Chinese constitution allows citizens to have the freedom to be religious.

There have been a lot of popular religions in history. It is still very common to see religious Chinese people going to temples or churches. China’s long and compatible culture integrates many foreign religions. This blog aims to provide an overview of the history of Chinese religions and many historical events behind them. There are five main religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Christianity. Each of them has developed unique characters after arriving in China. We shall have a glance at how different religions and cultures collide and how they manage to be compatible.


The Le Shan Giant Buddha. It is a stone sculpture of a Buddha in the mountain Le Shan. It's a religious symbol of Chinese Buddhism.
The Le Shan Giant Buddha in China, a signature Chinese Buddhist sculpture. Credit to TripAdvisor.

Some rumours say Buddhism arrived in China even earlier – around 317 BC. However, there is no literature to support these rumours. One plausible piece of literature supports Buddhism arriving in China around 317 BC is proved to be wrong. Some ancient Chinese people faked it in the Northern and Southern Dynasties (220-589). Another saying in the history of Buddhism shows that it was around 67 AC that two Indian monks brought Buddhism to China. But scholars believe that Buddhism was first introduced to Ancient China around 65 AD. Anyhow, nothing changes much with a two years’ difference. It is always accurate to say that Buddhism entered China around the late Han Dynasty. The only difference is the story of how Buddhism entered Ancient China and then became the once-dominant religion.

Two versions of the story: Where does Chinese Buddhism come from?

The first version of the story sounds more like folklore:

“Emperor Ming of Han had a dream at night. He dreamt about a golden man. The giant golden man floated in the air and had a halo behind his head. The emperor woke up and asked his advisors about the golden means in his dream. One of his advisors replied to him that the golden man was called Buddha, and Buddha was a god from the west. The emperor soon sent messengers to the west to learn about Buddha. Messengers brought back books and paintings about Buddha. The Emperor built a temple called The White Horse Temple at Luoyang.

The second version is more reliable. According to the history of Buddhism, two Indian monks brought Buddhism through the Silk Road. They travelled to China with white horses carrying books, paintings and other Buddhist instruments. To honour them, the Emperor Ming of Han built The White Horse Temple, which is the first Buddhist temple in China.

The “Oldest” Chinese religion

The White Horse Temple in Luoyang, China, is one of the oldest temples of Chinese Buddhism - the oldest Chinese religion.
The White Horse Temple in Luoyang, China, is one of the oldest temples of Chinese Buddhism. Credit to Top China Travel.

Buddhism is the oldest religion in China. It has more than 2000 years of history. However, it took over a century to become assimilated into Chinese culture. One of the key forces of Buddhism’s success was Taoism. To help the Chinese comprehend Buddhist concepts, Buddhists borrowed ideas from Taoism via the Chinese language. Both Buddhism and Taoism benefited from this exchange. The Taoists expanded their ideas about the cosmos and ways to structure their monastic orders. Buddhists gained a lexicon that made it easier to teach their tradition.

Also, Buddhism has developed several branches in China over time. There are two main branches: Tibetan Buddhism and Han Buddhism. Both of them are important parts of Chinese religion and traditional Chinese culture. Tibetan Buddhism and Han Buddhism both belong to the Mahayana, but they are slightly different from each other. Han Buddism is the one that integrated with the Taoism concept and has the most of the Chinese Buddhist population. Tibetan Buddhism has a smaller follower base, mainly from Tibet and Bhutan areas. It includes more features from central Asia and regions surrounding the Himalayas.

Although both of them try to attain enlightenment, the ability to break away from the cycle of rebirth and suffering, they practice differently. Han Buddhism promotes a step-by-step approach by helping other people and self-baptism of suffering. Whereas Tibetan Buddhism provides a faster technique: the practitioner uses the perception that he or she has already achieved enlightenment, as the main vehicle of practice to attain enlightenment quickly.


The Taoism symbol of Ying and Yang, a circle which is half black and half white. It is an important concept in traditional Chinese culture.
The Taoism symbol, which formed an important part of traditional Chinese culture. Credit to AsianInspirations.

Taoism, or Daoism, is another fundamental religion in China that has a significant influence on the formation of Chinese culture. The philosopher Lao Tzu created it. Around 500 BC, he wrote the doctrine of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching (In English: The Doctrine of moral sense). Taoism holds that humans and animals should live in balance with the Tao, in other words, the universe. Taoists believe in spiritual immortality, where the spirit of the body joins the universe after death. Moreover, the concept of balance has also evolved. The current symbol of Tai Chi and the concept of Yin and Yang are all hires of the concept of balance. Besides, Taoism also affected traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Because TCM believes that the most important thing to keep a healthy body is to keep a balance between the flow of Yin qi and Yang qi.

The Concept of Qi: An important concept in Chinese religion

Qi or Chi is another important concept in Taoism. It is the energy present in and guiding everything in the universe. The Tao Te Ching and other Taoist books provide guides for behaviour and spiritual ways of living in harmony with this energy. Lots of TCM practices promote “the balance of qi”, such as acupuncture ( helping the flow of the Qi) and cupping ( letting out excessive Yin qi or Yang qi). Drinking hot water helps the balance of qi as well.

Qi not only exists in our bodies but also dominates the development of the world. Yin and yang show that everything in the universe has relations with each other and that nothing makes sense by itself. In some ways it is correct. The fame Butterfly Effect is very similar to the Taoist balance: a small change can cause huge consequences in a later state. Because everything is connected, any change can cause imbalance. Thus, it is vital to maintain a “balance”.

The “Original” Chinese religion

Taoism is a completely “Chinese-born” religion because it originated in China. Taoism was once very popular around the 8th century in China, which was in the Tang Dynasty. It was also once the national religion in China, but soon Buddhism took over its place. Taoism is well-integrated with the traditional Chinese culture as well.

There is an ancient novel called Investiture of the Gods, written by Zhonglin Xu around the Ming Dynasty. The novel establishes a Taoism worldview, where the world has human kinds, Taoist immortals and natural spirits. Many C-dramas and C-mangas borrow the concepts and important figures from the novel. For example, a recent anime movie on Netflix, New Gods: Nezha Reborn, borrows the figure “Nezha” in the book. However, these Taoist immortals such as Nezha do not represent “Qi”. They are Taoist gods, but Taoist temples do not worship any of them. They don’t worship the “Qi”, either. Rather, Taoist temples are more like places for people to meditate and search for harmony.

During the Cultural Revolution, the early PRC government banned all religions in China, including Taoism. This caused a decline in the practice of Taoism in China. Many modern Taoists live in Taiwan, although recent reforms in China have increased the number of Chinese Taoists.


A characterised Chinese Islamic temple with both Arabic and Chinese characters stating "be loyal to the country".
The characterised Chinese Islamic temple. Credit to China Law Translate.

Islam entered China through the Silk Road as well. Ancient China actively participated in trade, war, subordination or domination with steppe tribes and empires in Central Asia. The Islamic community connected with Ancient China by serving as administrators, generals, and other leaders who were transferred to China from Persia and Central Asia to administer the empire under the Mongols. The Chinese government nowadays recognizes it as one of the official religions in China.

According to Chinese Muslims’ traditional accounts, Islam was first introduced to China in 616–18 AD by the Sahaba (companions) of the Islamic prophet Muhammad: Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, Sayid, Wahab ibn Abu Kabcha and another Sahaba. While some other sources date the introduction of Islam to China to 650 AD, it is correct to say the introduction happened during the Tang Dynasty. The early Tang dynasty had a multiracial and very inclusive culture. It maintained intensive contacts with significant communities of Central and Western Asian merchants resident in Chinese cities, which helped the introduction of Islam. The Islamic population peaked in the Yuan Dynasty when the Mongol Empire brought Muslim communities to China.

However, during the Ming Dynasty, the rulers imposed lots of restrictions out of discrimination on the lifestyles of Muslims. Also, because of the promotion of Confucianism, Muslims had to localize through marriage and education with people from other ethnic groups and religions. Besides, the rulers of the Ming Dynasty published the “Ethnic Assimilation” policy. It further “blended” Muslim people with other Chinese ethnic groups, integrating Islamic culture with Chinese culture, and became a part of traditional Chinese religion. The assimilation created the early stage of the current Hui people.

The “Ethnic Diverse” Chinese religion

As the PRC government officially announced, there are a total of 56 ethnic groups in China, with Han taking over the majority of the population. Specifically, 10 groups are predominantly Muslim. The largest groups in descending order:

However, individual members of traditionally Muslim groups may have other religions or be atheists. Muslims live in the areas that border Central Asia, Tibet and Mongolia, which is known as the “Quran Belt”. There are Han Muslims as well. Muslims can be found in every city in China, though they mainly live in Gansu, Xinjiang and Qinghai provinces in Northwest China.

Because of historical policies in Ancient China, Muslim immigration from Central Asia drastically decreased. The Chinese Muslims are isolated from the rest of the Islamic world. They complete sinification and adopt Chinese lifestyles and culture. For example, Chinese Muslims wear Chinese-style clothing rather than Islamic robes. They also adopt Chinese surnames, which are similar to the pronunciation of Islamic surnames: Ma for Muhammad, Mai for Mustafa, Mu for Masoud, Ha for Hasan, Hu for Hussain and Sa’I for Said and so on. If there’s no similar pronunciation, they adopt the most similar Chinese characters to replace the Islamic surnames.

Government suppression

In 2018, the news worldwide reported there were hundreds of thousands of Muslims worldwide were being detained in massive extra-judicial internment camps in Western Xinjiang. The Western media compared these camps to Nazi camps and accused the Chinese government of being inhumane.

However, these camps are for re-education purposes. There have long been terrorist issues around the Northwest border in China. Many religious extremists try to sneak in and bring instability to China. In 2009, their Uyghur-Chinese Conflict was believed to be a series of terrorist attacks by extreme Muslims trying to promote separationism. Ever since that, the government started harsh national security strategies in Xinjiang, such as the re-education camps for religious extremists. The government presumes those extreme Islamic doctrines are harmful to China. Thus, Muslims should learn how to practice their religion without extremism.


A bishop consecration ceremony group photo in China.
A bishop consecration ceremony group photo in China. Credit to ChinaCatholic.

Catholicism entered Ancient China during the Tang Dynasty. It has a fairly long history in China. During the Yuan Dynasty, because of the harsh religious policies published by the rulers, Catholicism almost died out. However, not until the 16th century had Catholicism gained popularity again in China with Western colonialism. After 1840 and the Opium Wars, China entered a half-colonised and half-feudal social status. Missionaries from Europe expanded Catholicism under the protection of their governments. They established churches, schools, hospitals and orphanages to spread the religion in China.

While the majority of the world recognize Protestantism, the Orthodox church and Catholicism together as Christianity, it is different in China. Only Protestantism counts as Christianity in China. Catholicism stands out as a different religion when referring to Christianity.

Arriving in China during the Tang dynasty, the earliest Christian missionaries from the Church of the East referred to their religion as Jǐngjiào (“bright teaching”). Originally, some Catholic missionaries and scholars advanced the use of Shàngdì (“The Emperor from Above”), as being more native to the Chinese language, but ultimately the Catholic hierarchy decided that the more Confucian term, Tiānzhǔ (“Lord of Heaven”), was to be used, at least in official worship and texts. Within the Catholic Church, the term ‘gōngjiào‘ (“universal teaching”) is not uncommon, this being also the original meaning of the word ” Catholic”. When Protestants finally arrived in China in the 19th century, they favoured Shangdi over Tianzhu. Many Protestants also use Yēhéhuá (Jehovah)or Shén (God), which generically means “god” or “spirit”, although Catholic priests are called shénfù (“spiritual father”). Meanwhile, the Mandarin Chinese translation of “Christ”, used by all Christians, is Jīdū.

The “Independent” Chinese religion

From 1840 to 1949, Catholicism developed over 3 million followers in 100 years or wherever the leadership of the church was always with foreigners.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Holy See took the wrong position against the new Chinese government, inciting followers to oppose the Chinese Communist Party. The Holy See repeatedly issued ” annual “commands” to stop the Chinese religious believers from siding with the new government. Chinese believers are not allowed to participate in any organizations and activities supported by the new government. These actions made the masses of believers uncomfortable. On November 30, 1950, Father Wang Liangzuo and 500 believers in his church in Guangyuan County, Sichuan Province first issued the Declaration of Self-Reliance and Reform, advocating Chinese Catholicism to establish an autonomous, self-supporting, and autobiographical new church. The declaration received a strong response from the Catholic community.

The Chinese Catholic anti-imperialist movement rapidly expanded. From June to August 1957, the first meeting of Chinese Catholics was held in Beijing. The meeting decided to establish the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and passed the decision to cut off political and economic relations with the Holy See and establish independence and self-management of the church. The meeting elected Archbishop Pi Shushi as the first chairman of the Patriotic Association. In May 1980, the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference was formally established.

The Chinese Catholic Church then became the first church that elects its top rather than accepting the appointment from the Holy See. There have been a lot of criticisms that saying this way is harmful to religious freedom.


A newly built Christian church in China with characterized Chinese decorations, such as red
A Christian church in China with characterized decorations. Credit to Gospel Herald.

We have mentioned that Christianity in China only refers to Protestantism. Protestantism entered China around the 19th century. In 1807,  Robert Morrison of the London Missionary Society began work in Macau. He also brought Protestantism with him. It was the beginning of Protestantism history in China.

After the Opium Wars, Western Christianity gained privileges through unfair treaties and began to spread to the mainland of China on a large scale. There were more than 130 foreign missions in China. Because missionary activities are protected by unfair treaties, and the church is controlled by foreign missions, Christianity is called “a foreign religion” in China. In 1949, there were only about 700,000 believers.

In July 1950, 40 leaders, including Wu Yaozong of the Chinese Christian community, jointly launched the Three-Self-Patriotic Movement, calling for church autonomy, self-support, and autobiography. Churches of various beliefs and ritual backgrounds implemented “joint worship” in 1958. Since then, the Chinese church has entered the “post-denominational period”, and Christian denominational organizations no longer exist in China.

During the Cultural Revolution, all activities were suspended due to the harsh suppression of religions. Even domestic Taoism shut down during that periperiodhe. The “Latest” Chinese religion.

Protestantism is a relatively new religion in China compared to the other four religions above. Since the loosening of restrictions on religion after the 1970s, Christianity has grown significantly within the People’s Republic. The Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement and China Christian Council have affiliations with the government and follow the regulations imposed upon them. The three-self-Patriotic Movement by 2005 had 10-15 million worshippers, while the total number of Protestants, including unofficial house churches, is 30 million members. Christianity is reportedly the fastest-growing religion with an average annual rate of 7% as of 2015.


Most foreign religions have been localized after they arrived in China. Some say it is a destruction of subcultural groups or religious culture. However, from the perspective of cultural integration, we have to admit that Chinese people did a good job. Foreign religions keep their doctrines and beliefs while they adopt Chinese culture to explain the core of the religion. Also, it is upsetting to see the Chinese government step in the way of religious freedom. But, it is also worth knowing that China is such a big developing country and stability is more than important to them. We can not expect too much from a country that was without feudal society one century ago. There is still a long way for Chinese people to go to achieve their religious freedom.

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