Religion in China: History and Statistics

Woman praying in a temple in China

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In 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong established atheism as the official religion of the People's Republic of China. Atheism has remained the official state religion, though there are now five alternative state-sanctioned religious affiliations: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. All religions must register under one of these denominations in order to legally worship or face criminal charges if caught worshipping without registration. 

Key Takeaways: Religion in China

  • The official religion of China is atheism, and it has been the official state religion since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. 
  • There are five state-sanctioned religious affiliations: Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Taoism. All religious organizations must register under one of these affiliations in order to legally worship. 
  • Confucianism in China is not recognized as a state-sanctioned religion, but it has influenced and shaped the Chinese socio-political system since 479 BC. 
  • Other religions that are known to be present in China are Hinduism, Falun Gong, Judaism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, and indigenous beliefs; none are sanctioned by the government.

The constitution of China explicitly protects the freedom of religious belief and prohibits the state from compelling a person to participate in a given religious practice. However, neither practice nor worship are included in this clause in the constitution. As a result, religious practice is intensely scrutinized by the government, especially for Muslims, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists.

Because of the difficulty in accessing accurate and current religious demographics, the number of religiously-affiliated Chinese people is widely considered to be skewed. Likely, more Chinese people practice religion than official reports indicate.

History of Religion in China

China’s first religions were ancient forms of animism and shamanism. As the centuries progressed, religion adopted more complex systems of belief and practice. Notably, the Zhou dynasty, which predates the Warring States period in China, saw the manifestation of the Mandate of Heaven, the philosophical belief that legitimized the power of the ruling family of China. If a family were to lose the Mandate of Heaven, the world was said to devolve into chaos, including violence between the people, poor harvests, and natural disasters, all events that, according to legend, led to the end of the Zhou dynasty.

During the decline of the Zhou dynasty, the Chinese philosopher, Confucius, emerged as a scholar of theology with an interest in restoring moral integrity and a harmonious society. Confucius traveled across the Warring States, teaching the system of morals, ethics, and societal guidelines that would become known as Confucianism. After his death in 479 BC, Confucius’ followers compiled his teachings into the Analects, the central doctrine of Confucianism.

The Qin and Han dynasties saw a stronger focus on human connection with nature, as well as a suppression of Confucianism in favor of a deified emperor. During this time, Taoism emerged, and Buddhism arrived via the Silk Road around 65 CE. If Confucianism provided a guideline for how to live, Buddhism provided a frame of reference for death and the afterlife. Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism expanded and ultimately shaped Chinese culture.

The first Jesuit missionaries arrived in China in the middle of the 15th century, immediately establishing a strong relationship with the Ming emperor. Less than a century later, the Ming dynasty had collapsed, replaced by the predominantly Confucian Qing dynasty. As Christianity spread, Christian leaders and groups attempted to eradicate Buddhism and Chinese folk religion, leading to civil unrest that only worsened as European and American occupation in Asia increased over the 18th and 19th centuries.

During the beginning of the 20th century, nationalist movements attempted to destroy local Chinese folk religions. Christianity was rejected as a mechanism of imperialism, as was evident by the Republic of China’s first presidents, Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. Both men openly identified as Christians, and both were supported by the western world for their attempts to rid China of communism.

By the middle of the 20th century, Mao Zedong had created the People’s Republic of China, establishing state atheism and trivializing religion as a useless relic of the past. In the 1960s, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in an attempt to revitalize communism by destroying all external influences within the country, including religion. This led to violent massacres and hundreds of thousands of deaths and continued until Mao’s death in 1976.

After Mao’s death, China underwent a series of cultural reforms, including the establishment of freedom of religion. Mao’s anti-Confucius, anti-religious values remained politically and socially influential until the early 2000s, when party leaders began to emphasize the role of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism in a harmonious society. 

State Atheism and Religious Policies in China

According to recent demographic reports, 52% of Chinese people are religiously unaffiliated, highlighting the official religion of China, atheism. However, there are five state-sanctioned religious affiliations under which all other religious organizations must register. These five religions are Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam.

All religious organizations are required to register under the umbrella of one of these denominations in order to be legally permitted to hold worship services. After registration, religious organizations are still subject to intense scrutiny by the Chinese government. Though reliable reports directly from the Chinese government are unavailable, several non-governmental organizations report significant religious discrimination and persecution, particularly toward Muslims, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists.

All members of China’s dominant political party, the Communist Party of China, and members of the military are prohibited from any religious practice.

Confucianism

Though not formally recognized as a religion by the Chinese government, Confucianism has had an undeniable impact on Chinese history and culture since its conception by the Chinese philosopher Confucius around 479 BC.

The primary goal of Confucianism is to achieve social harmony through the strict observance of rituals and deference to social hierarchy. The teachings of Confucius, particularly concerning the patriarchal hierarchy, laid the foundation for the Chinese socio-political system.

It is possible that Confucianism isn’t recognized by the Chinese government because it is commonly viewed as a system of ethics rather than a religion. It is also possible that Mao’s anti-Confucian sentiments influenced government policy well beyond his death. Either way, the Chinese government began a campaign in the early 21st century to revitalize Confucianism in an attempt to strengthen social harmony.

Buddhism

Buddhism is the largest religious organization in China, though only about 18.2% of the population identifies as Buddhist. Buddhism in China is largely of the Mahayana school, though there are minority groups of Theravada Buddhists, mostly concentrated in the southern parts of the country.

There are two significant sub-organizations of Mahayana Buddhism in China: Chinese Buddhists and Tibetan Buddhists. Chinese Buddhism is practiced most commonly by ethnically Han Chinese people, and it includes elements of Taoism and Confucianism. Tibetan Buddhism is practiced mostly in Tibet, which has historically conflicted with China over autonomy.

Tibetan Buddhists recognize the Dalai Lama as a political and spiritual leader, though the Dalai Lama fled China in the 1950s. Tibetan Buddhists are often the object of public scrutiny and discrimination based on ethnicity and religious beliefs.

Christianity

European Jesuits are considered to be the first Christians to preach in China, arriving during the 16th century and taking up council with the emperor of the Ming Dynasty. However, some sources indicate groups of Chinese Christians dating back to the 7th century.

Today, about 5.1% of the population identifies as Christian, though this number is likely inaccurate as many Christian groups are known to practice in secret. Additionally, this percentage is small, but given the enormous population of China, it reflects millions of people.

The two officially sanctioned Christian religious groups are Protestant and Catholic, which is officially unaffiliated with the Holy See, as reverence for the Pope conflicts reverence for authority in China. There are also unknown numbers of unregistered Christian churches.

Islam

About 1.8% of Chinese people identify as Muslim. The majority of Muslims in China are Sunni, and most are ethnic minorities. Uighur and Hui Muslims are the largest Muslim ethnic minorities, but there are also significant numbers of Kazakh Muslims.

Muslims in China face strong persecution and religious discrimination as a result of what the Chinese government labels religious extremism. Since 2017, at least 800,000 Uighur Muslims have been detained, tortured, or disappeared, though this number could be as high as three million.

Folk Religion

Approximately 21.9% of Chinese people identify as followers of folk religion, also known as Chinese popular religion. Like other religious statistics, this number is likely to be understated, as many Chinese people view traditional practices to be cultural rather than religious. Most followers of folk religion are ethnically Han Chinese. 

Though folk religion varies regionally, it maintains similar elements of reverence for ancestors and natural forces. The religion is passed down through rituals and historic texts, and it is considered to be a foundation for other religious practices, such as Taoism and Confucianism. 

Other Religions in China

Only about 1% of Chinese people identify as another religion, but this number is difficult to determine considering the legal status of religions in China. These other religions include Falun Gong, Hinduism, Judaism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, and a handful of indigenous faiths.

Notably, Falun Gong—a spiritual practice associated with Buddhism and Taoism that originated in China in the 1990s—was banned by the Chinese government in 1999 as a result of its rapid independent growth. It was declared a cult organization by the Communist Party and banned, but estimates suggest millions of participants still practice in secret.

Sources

  • Albert, Eleanor. “The State of Religion in China.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, 2018.
  • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom: China. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State, 2019.
  • Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook: China. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2019.
  • Johnson, Ian. The Souls of China: the Return of Religion after Mao. Vintage Books, 2018.
  • Koesel, Karrie J. Religion and Authoritarianism: Cooperation, Conflict, and the Consequences. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Li, Jianglin. Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959. Translated by Susan Wilf, Harvard University Press, 2016.
  • Thum, Rian Richard. The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History. Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Wang, Hui. China from Empire to Nation-State. Translated by Michael Gibbs. Hill, Harvard University Press, 2014.