Chinese Popular Religion

Chinese religion today defies neat categories. Though the government recognizes Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity (both Protestant and Roman Catholic), actual practice often blurs these boundaries.The ever—pragmatic and eclectic Chinese may go to a temple with images from the pantheons of several different faiths – with perhaps a local deity or two in addition – or worship at a neighborhood shrine. Most of all, traditional Chinese conduct rituals at home.We’ll begin this survey with what is called “Popular,” “folk,” or “vernacular” Chinese religion. Recent studies estimate that at least 340 million people practice this faith.

Earth and Heaven

Heaven and Earth are also joined in reciprocal relationship. Events in one arena affect the state of the other. Being an agricultural people, the Chinese focused their attention on the earth and its produce and products. Earth gods were worshipped, nationally, regionally, and locally, in shrines of corresponding size and by people of corresponding rank.Heaven later assumed more importance in Chinese religious thought, both as the location of the supreme deity – Di (Ti), or Shang Di (Ti), or later, Tian (Tien, Heaven) – and as the realm of gods and at least some departed spirits.

“Correlative Cosmology”

Although early Chinese religion, beginning with the Shang Dynasty, thought more in terms of placating, or controlling, capricious spirits in heaven, the focus changed with the Zhou Dynasty. Its rulers justified their rebellion against the Shang emperor on the grounds that he had lost the right to rule, for he had violated the moral laws of the universe.In this newer view, the intimate connection of heaven and earth was an ethical one. Tian – Heaven – stood for what is just and right. If those on earth transgressed the heavenly Way ( Dao), catastrophe would ensue as well-deserved punishment.

The Mandate of Heaven

Since heaven and earth were linked together in one organic cosmos, the actions of men on earth could bring heavenly response. In particular, if the Emperor failed to worship properly or to act justly, the made which legitimized his rule could be withdrawn. Each succeeding dynasty in China’s long history – including the present Communist Party rule – has claimed that the previous rulers were corrupt, unjust, and incompetent, and that their rebellion was Heaven’s way of bestowing the mandate of authority upon a more worthy regime.All this helps to understand the core and heart of Chinese popular religion, the worship of ancestors.

Ancestor Worship

“I come from a Hong Kong family- presumably akin to what you would call neo-Chinese, liberal, not particularly steeped in (religious) tradition yet maintaining whatever rituals have been passed on. Despite being quite cordial about the degree of faith in our annual rituals, my extended family does insist on doing these rituals quite strictly, or making up for it. In particular, my grandmothers will likely disdain my abstinence from showing my respect to the ashes of my great-grand relatives at the Chinese (Buddhist?) temples. Since they are quite old, I do not wish to produce a breach which would last possibly before we could reconcile.”For most Chinese, religion begins, and centers on, ancestor worship. The quotation above comes from a young college student from Hong Kong who does not believe the traditional faith but respects his elders who do.He is not alone. Many millions of Chinese, especially in the countryside but also in the teeming cities of the South, as well as among “Overseas Chinese”* in Taiwan, Singapore, and throughout the world, observe regular rites at the ancestral shrine. Incense and food offered to the tablets with forebears’ names inscribed on them insure that the beloved departed will not go unnoticed, or – more importantly – hungry, in hell.Reverence joins with fear to drive these rituals. If a deceased ancestor does not receive the worship and nourishment he expects, he then becomes a “hungry ghost.” These malevolent spirits are said to issue forth during the seventh month of the lunar calendar to wreak all sorts of havoc on their unfilial descendants, but they do damage at other times as well.


Thus, if serious illness strikes a family, or financial misfortune, or infertility, or some other calamity, an angry ghost may be considered the cause. In such a case, the family might hire a medium to diagnose the problem and prescribe a cure. Going into a trance, such a go-between between this world and the next might learn what has caused the offense and what remedy needs to be employed to restore harmony.


Other supernatural beings receive attention, also. These include local heroes who have been deified, such as the immensely-popular Madzu in coastal regions and especially in Taiwan. Once a teenage girl who is said to have saved drowning fishermen, she now resides in ornate temples, represented by immense statues. Annual birthday processions from major to minor shrines dedicated to her attract huge crowds. The air fills with the smoke of fireworks and the sounds of gongs and firecrackers as the faithful honor her as savior.Other gods are national figures, such as Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. Originally a male Buddhist deity imported from India, Guanyin was transformed into a female who exemplifies compassion and kindness. Her gentleness contrasts with the fierce countenance of other members of the Chinese pantheon, most of whom are stern male figures who carry out the dictates of strict justice.Small shrines are dedicated to the God of Wealth. Large, lavishly-furnished and brightly-painted temples may – and usually do – house multiple images of various sorts, reflecting the vast diversity of popular Chinese religion.The spirit world is divided into “good” and “bad” – shen and guei (kwei). As Chinese migrated towards the South, they encountered peoples who believed that a vast host of spirits inhabited the world around them. Forests, mountains, rivers, valleys, animals, and even plants could be infested with fearsome beings capable of inflicting great harm.To ward off such attacks, a variety of stratagems were – and are - employed, including firecrackers to frighten the demons away on important occasions, such as weddings.

Yin and Yang

Regardless of their formal religious affiliation, most Chinese would probably agree with at least some form of yin and yang theory. This ancient teaching holds that the entire universe is constituted by two modes of energy. The yang is considered masculine, and includes all that is bright, active, warm, dry, positive, generative. The Yin represents the feminine, and things dark, passive, cool, wet, negative, fertile.These two types of being, or of activity, interplay with each other, not as opposites, but as complementary pairs. Each one contains the capacity to be the other – thus the white dot in the middle of the dark part, and the black dot in the middle of the white part. In other words, this is not a cosmic antithesis of absolute good and evil, as in some other religions, but an eternal dynamic of paired potentialities.Events reflect this oscillating essence of energy. The strong become weak, while the weak become strong; success and failure follow upon each other. Things – including the fortunes of families and empires – rise and fall, grow and decline.Thus, even the Mandate of Heaven finds theoretical basis in the theory of yin and yang, for dynasties rise and fall in an undulating pattern of growth and decline. With its stress upon restoring balance in the body, Chinese medicine also relies heavily upon yin and yang theory.Chinese folk religion has changed and developed over the millennia, as it has encountered Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Regional experience and custom, as well as the “deification” of local heroes, has made it impossible to generalize about the wide variety of faith and practice. For example, you find more temples, shrines, and folk religious practices in the South of China, and in the countryside, than in the big cites of the North.Nevertheless, throughout the land we see evidence of a strong belief in supernatural forces. Even in Beijing, taxi drivers are known to suspend lucky charms from their rear-view mirrors, and untold numbers of Chinese will pay to have their fortune told. The pragmatism for which this great people are justly famous reflects the essentially functional essence of all Chinese religion: obtaining material benefits and avoiding trouble in this world and the next.

ArticlesJason Truell