Unlike Filipinos, most Chinese do not clearly adhere to a particular religion. Buddhism and Taoism have long histories in China, but there are not many serious followers. What then, is the Chinese religious sensibility, and what spiritualities go along with it?
There are five recognized religions in China, namely Buddhism, Taoism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Islam. Most of the Muslims belong to the Hui people and other ethnic minorities. The Han people, the largest ethnic group accounting for 90% of the population, has very few Muslims. Protestantism and Catholicism are far less popular than Buddhism and Taoism.
Aside from the five recognized religions, many more Chinese believe in folk religions, which include worship of ancestors, the fortune god, kitchen god, medicine god, Guan Gong (a folk hero in Chinese history), the dragon god, the Emperor Wenchang, the earth god, Mazu, and so on.
Chinese folk religions are characterized by openness, diversity, utilitarianism, and polytheism. The Chinese people reorganized the gods and goddesses of various religions and endowed them with supernatural power according to specific needs. Thus, the fortune god rules one’s economic luck; the dragon god controls water and wind; Guan Gong ensures safety and prosperity.
When faced with problems, the Chinese turn to these gods. If a drought occurs, they pray to the dragon god. If they desire good luck, they go to the fortune god. If they are about to take an exam, they would go to Emperor Wenchang to pray for success. And if they want to have a child, Guanyin can be of help. In the Chinese mind, the coexistence of many gods and goddesses is not a problem—and it doesn’t matter which religion the gods or goddesses belong to.
Although most Chinese do not belong to a particular religion, they do not experience a sense of emptiness in their hearts. This is due to their rootedness in Confucian values. Confucian ideas serve as the spiritual food of the Chinese people.
What we know as Confucianism is rooted in a system developed by Confucius (551–479 BCE), a great philosopher, thinker, and educator in the Spring and Autumn period (770 BC–475 BCE) more than 2,000 years ago. Confucianism emphasizes loyalty, filial piety, benevolence, and morality. Loyalty is directed towards the nation, people, and leaders; filial piety, for parents; benevolent love, for others; and morality and propriety must be observed in one’s words and actions.
Confucianism emphasizes the present reality, order in society, and the roles each person must play in society. Each one must be socially responsible and keep the common good in mind. The “golden mean” of moderation in behavior is the norm for Confucians. Extremes must be avoided and harmony be sustained in human relations. Hence, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to you” is the basic moral principle in the Confucian system.
Chinese people respect and worship Confucius, and his ideas are often referred to as a religion called Confucianism. However, the Confucian ideas are far from being a religion because Confucianism is not concerned about the human being’s ultimate origin and final destination. It does not consider where the human soul goes. Confucianism’s concern is the individual’s role in society, and should be regarded as an ethical system. Thus, the Chinese do not regard Confucianism as a matter of religious faith.
The predominance of Confucian values in China can be traced back to the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago. Its influence is deeply embedded in Chinese society up to the present day, and it is the most important spirituality that rules the Chinese mind.
Taoist ideas, established by the philosopher Laozi (also in the Spring and Autumn Period), is another system that deeply influences the Chinese mind. The Taoists worship nature and practice “non-action.” This primarily means following the rules of nature, pursuing harmony between humans and nature, never doing anything that would harm nature.
Taoists have only contempt for the “wisdom” and “civilization” that have brought continuous disasters and struggles to nature and to the people. True happiness lies in simplicity and tranquility, which also lead to genuine spiritual freedom.
Taoism, as a religion, was created 2,000 years ago at the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty. It is considered a completely native Chinese religion. Taoists look to Laozi as their founder, but their ideas were not completely the same as Laozi’s. Taoism emphasizes the happiness of the present life, rather than the afterlife. The followers developed a set of rituals to pursue happiness, to avoid evil, to boost their health, and to achieve longevity.
Qigong, a highly popular exercise, is believed to have originated from the Taoist rituals. The Taoism believed by many Chinese can remove bodily poisons, heal illness, and strengthen the body. It still has many adherents in China today.
Buddhism is the religion that has influenced Chinese people the most. It was brought to China from India 2,000 years ago during the Eastern Han dynasty. The basic doctrines of Buddhism include the truth of suffering (life is suffering, including birth, disease, old age, and death), the truth of cause (suffering is caused by desire and by ignorance, which ultimately depend on each other), the truth of cessation (suffering can be ended if its causes, desire and ignorance, are removed), and the truth of the Way (it refers to the middle way, between the extremes of asceticism and indulgence).
Buddhism holds that the world is filled with bitterness and suffering, which is rooted in human desire. That is to say, human desire is the cause and bitterness is the effect. The key to avoid bitterness lies in the absence of desire.
According to Buddhist doctrine, the world is empty or is nothing, and everything in it is just like the flowers in a mirror, beautiful but fake. To pursue the fulfillment of desire, just like the flowers in a mirror, is to pick up the shadow of the moon in a lake.
Buddhism also teaches that all people have equal chances of gaining freedom. Ordinary Chinese pray for happiness and fortune by lighting incense, worshiping the Buddhist gods and goddesses, freeing caged animals, and making donations as a plea for the fulfillment of their wishes.
Whereas most religions differ in their conceptions of the afterlife, Chinese people put their hope in achieving peace and happiness in the present life, and in this the influence of Confucian values (not as a religion) has been the strongest. As a result, they do not have a definite religious belief and are very tolerant toward religion.
If belief in a certain god can give them a better life here and now, they will believe in that god, and if it cannot provide them with any benefits, they will forget that god. There is no need to offer one’s life for any god, and that is why there have been no religious wars in thousands of years of Chinese history.
The Chinese religious sense and spirituality is composed of Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist ideas mutually influencing each other.
print ed: 06/08