Religious practice in China today has elements as old as the Shang and Zhou dynasties and, dating from the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE), is marked syncretism–the combining of different forms of belief or practice. A good example is the construction of temple altars. It’s not uncommon to find Buddhist and Confucian figures in a Daoist temple. Nor is it extraordinary to see a self-professed Buddhist offer incense at a Daoist temple to a historical figure known for his Confucian virtues. China has been a multi-religion country since the ancient times.
It is well known that Confucianism is an indigenous religion and is the soul of Chinese culture, which enjoyed popular support among people and even became the guiding ideology for feudalism society, but it did not develop into a national belief. It makes the culture more tolerant to others, thus, many other religions have been brought into the country in different dynasties, but none of them developed powerful enough in the history of China and they only provide diverse people more spiritual support.
Confucianism, not a real religion, is just an ethical and philosophical system, which developed from Confucius’ thoughts and later was treated as a kind of belief to educate common people. Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (“Master Kong”, 551–479 BC). The Confucius’ teachings contained the beginning of a system of thought and behavior that developed into a sophisticated ethico-religious tradition. Confucianism was adopted by the Han dynasty (206 B. C. E-220 C. E. ) as the intellectual basis for its system of government and its educational program for training officials. Confucius emphasized principles for self-guidance. The key to producing a harmonious life, he wrote, is in how we treat others–our ancestors, leaders, parents, spouses, neighbors, and friends. Two other concepts that were predominant in Confucius’s worldview were Tian (Heaven) and Dao (Way). His heaven represented a celestial power connected with the will of mighty ancestors, such as the widely known Yao, Shun, and Yu.
The Way, on the other hand, constituted a natural path for humanity. Whereas Heaven emphasized choice, the Way required a yielding heart-mind (xin); both were crucial for achieving harmony in the earthly realm. Daoism is one of China’s major religions indigenous to the country. The primary belief is in learning and practicing “The Way” (Dao) which is the ultimate truth to the universe. Also known as Taoism, Daoism traces its roots to 6th Century BC Chinese philosopher Laozi wrote the iconic book Dao De Jing on the tenets of the Dao.
In the 1,800 years, Taoism influenced the local culture deeply, especially on traditional medicine and literature. Based on some theories of alchemists such as Wei Boyang in Eastern Han Dynasty, different kinds of medicine prescriptions were created by Sun Simiao and many other doctors. In literature, many fictional characters are closely related with Taoism, such as the Jade Emperor. Their philosophies, though, are like two sides of a coin. Laozi emphasized harmony with the Dao–a referent to something that cannot be named–in order to achieve balance in life.
To assist this process, Laozi taught his followers the concepts of non-action (wuwei) and shade and light (yin/yang–primordial, dynamic balancing of opposites). The principle of non-action meant that one should discern the natural course of things and cooperate with that movement. The teachings of Laozi and Confucius were not incorporated into a religious movement until the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). The result was a mix of philosophy and religion.
Over the centuries that followed, both Confucianism (Rujiao—the teachings of the scholars) and Daoism (Daojiao—the teaching of the Way) developed elaborate rituals and sacred writings. To this day the philosophies of Laozi and Confucius, and the religious movements their lives and teachings inspired, exist in vibrant forms in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese culture as well. When first introduced, Buddhism faced competition from followers of Daoism. While Daoism (also called Taoism) is as old as Buddhism, Daoism was indigenous to China.
Daoists do not view life as suffering. They believe in an ordered society and strict morality, but they also hold strong mystical beliefs such as ultimate transformation, where the soul lives after death and travels to the world of the immortals. Because the two beliefs were so competitive, many teachers from both sides borrowed from the other. Today many Chinese believe in elements from both schools of thought. Buddhism’s popularity, led to the quick conversion to Buddhism by later Chinese rulers. The subsequent Sui and Tang Dynasties all adopted Buddhism as their religion.
The religion was also used by foreign rulers of China, such as the Yuan Dynasty and the Manchus, to connect with the Chinese and justify their rule. The Machus strived to draw a parallel between Buddhism. a foreign religion, and their own reign as foreign leaders. Despite China’s shift to atheism after the Communists took control of China in 1949, Buddhism continued to grow in China, especially after the economic reforms in the 1980s. Today there are an estimated 100 million followers of Buddhism in China and over 20,000 Buddhist temples. It is the largest religion in China.
For most people in China, there is no problem with mixing religious practices. Unlike some other cultures, where religious syncretism and even tolerance are viewed with skepticism or condemnation, the Chinese have always had the ability to select the religious practices and teachings that work best for them at the moment. If a certain deity doesn’t answer a supplicant’s petition, then it’s on to the next temple and deity. In general religious pluralism simply adds to the many options from which the Chinese can choose on their journey toward a harmonious life.