Jinghao ZHOU

Historical illustration of worship of Heaven and Earth at New Year. Ancestral religion during imperial China involved worshipping ancestors as well as four types of gods: heavenly gods, earthly gods, human spirits, and material gods. Correspondingly, it sanctioned four types of worship: of heaven, of land (Earth), of ancestors, and of grain. The Chinese people believed that their dead ancestors were still alive in heaven and had the power to bring harm or good fortune to their descendants.

The global exchange of religious belief was part of China’s imperial history. The populace practiced China’s three main religions—Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism—along with traditional folk beliefs and imported faiths such as Christianity and Islam.

During China’s imperial era, the religions that had the most influence on Chinese culture and intellectual thought were Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Of these, the first two were homegrown; Buddhism came to China from India by way of Central Asia.


Of China’s three traditional religions, Confucianism is considered the basis. Confucius (551–479 BCE) was one of China’s first great teachers and philosophers, and his teachings were studied by centuries of Chinese scholars. Confucius taught the principles of benevolence, loyalty, righteousness, propriety, and knowledge. He also espoused the five relationships: between ruler and subject, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder brother and younger brother, and between friend and friend. Confucianism went through two phases in imperial China. The first stretched from Confucius’s lifetime to the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) and is known as traditional Confucianism. In the Song dynasty (960–1279), Confucianism entered its second phase known as neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism assimilated Buddhist cosmology and made Confucian ethics and political theory more metaphysical. The most significant neo-Confucian scholars—such as Wang Yangming, Zhu Xi, Cheng Hao, and Cheng Yi—introduced important new interpretations of Confucian theory.

Confucianism has served both secular and religious functions throughout history. Some scholars refuse to call Confucianism a religion because Confucius did not perform miracles or discuss death and the existence of gods and because Confucianism does not have religious texts, systematic rituals, and formal organizations. The Analects (a collection of Confucius’s teachings), however, records Confucius’s prayers, fasting, and regular attendance of worship services. Confucius discusses god using the term shàng dì ?? (heavenly god, or ancestors) and heaven using the term tian ?. Confucius as a sage was worshipped by the majority of Chinese people in imperial China. Confucian temples were established everywhere, using identical designs. In a Confucian temple, religious rituals were held twice a year, in midspring and midautumn, to worship the ancestors of Confucius. These ritual services were convened by state officials and Confucian scholars, not by priests.


Daoism comprises many disparate components, including witchcraft, yin–yang theory, ideas regarding ghosts, the theory of Chinese medicine, and the religious ideas of Laozi, sometimes known as Lao Tzu (c. sixth century BCE according to some scholars, while others date him to the forth or third centuries BCE). Daoists synthesized these sources and formed a unique religious system, which is reflected in the Daoist canon, comprising about 1,120 volumes. Daoism is a salvation religion that guides its believers beyond this transitory life to a happy eternity. Daoism associates human weakness and sickness with sin and tries to heal such ills with the confession of sin, forgiveness, and prayer and penance. Early on Daoism was associated with Chinese peasant rebellions, but in the third century CE it shifted its emphasis from the present world and its concerns to the transcendental values of nihilism, the belief in nothing. Daoist priests live in temples and can marry and have children.


Buddhism began its journey in China in the first century BCE, arriving via the Silk Roads from India. At first Buddhism was treated as a foreign religion, but it gradually became integrated into the Chinese way of life after its concepts were made understandable with Daoist terminology. As Buddhist scriptures and teachings were translated into Chinese, Buddhism opened the way of Buddhahood to Chinese believers. By the fourth century, Buddhism had penetrated into the highest social and economic circles. Wealthy Buddhists founded temples, supplied the monks with necessities, and paid for the translation of Buddhist texts. Buddhist scholars became advisers to the imperial court. Although Buddhism faced resistance from supporters of Confucianism, it continued to develop and spread rapidly among the populace. Buddhism in China reached maturity during the Tang dynasty and reached its peak at the beginning of the Song dynasty, after which it began to decline. The four most important factors contributing to this decline were the moral corruption of high-level clergy, the institution of civil service examinations that forced Chinese scholars to seek office through a study of the Confucian classics, diminishing support of Buddhism from India, and the introduction of Western culture.

Christianity and Islam

Beginning in the seventh century, Western religions found a footing in China. The Persian Bishop Alopen (d. c. 451 CE), of the Nestorian Christian Church, was the first Christian missionary to China, beginning the Nestorian mission in 635 in Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), the capital city of the Tang. Emperor Taizong (reigned 627– 649) honored Alopen after his death with a monument, erected in 781 outside the city. Although there was considerable collaboration between Buddhists and Nestorians, the Nestorians had little impact on Chinese society.

The second wave of the Christian mission was the Franciscan mission, a Roman Catholic missionary movement of short duration. Giovanni da Montecorvino (1247–1328), the first Catholic missionary and a zealous monk, arrived in China from Italy in 1292 during the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), which had adopted a tolerant religious policy. Catholic missionaries were allowed to build churches and to baptize Chinese believers. But the Catholic mission did not have much influence until Jesuit missionaries came to China in 1583 during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

At the beginning of the Ming dynasty, foreigners were permitted to establish churches only in Macao, but the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) finally opened the way for a Christian mission in the rest of China. Ricci, who was originally from Italy but ordained in Goa, India, developed the Christian mission in new ways, learning Chinese culture and tradition and using the Chinese concepts of ti?n and shàng dì to explain Christian principles. As a result, the Christian missionary movement in the sixteenth century was relatively successful.

Protestant Christian missionaries did not make much progress in China until China was defeated in the First Opium War (1840–1842), which resulted in five treaty ports being opened to Western countries and their citizens. Soon thereafter, large numbers of Christian missionaries made their way to China, but Christianity continued to be regarded as a foreign religion, only just tolerated by the Chinese government.

ugh Christian missionaries worked in China for centuries, the Chinese response was always minimal, and the church never constituted more than 1 percent of the national population. Theologically, the central Christian doctrines—creation, sin, and incarnation—contradicted traditional Chinese culture. Politically, the contacts between China and Christians from the West before the nineteenth century were mutually beneficial, but then the interaction became more unbalanced, with the West in an exploitative position. Some Western missionaries disparaged Chinese culture and went so far as to assume that destroying traditional Chinese culture was the first task of the Christian mission in China.

In the seventh century Islam came to China from Southeast Asia. Unlike Christian missionaries, the Muslims came to China as immigrants or traders, setting up their families in China and continuing to practice their Muslim faith. Muslims in China gradually assimilated into Chinese culture and society and became isolated from the rest of the Islamic world. The development of Islam in China was a slow process, and Muslims did not build their own religious temples until the Song dynasty. There was a large Muslim infiltration in the Yuan dynasty, especially in the western provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. The Muslim population continued to increase throughout the Ming and the Qing (1644–1912) dynasties. It is estimated that there were about 15 million Chinese Muslims in 1912.

Characteristics of Chinese Religion

The English word religion had no equivalent term in Chinese until the Chinese created the word zong jiao ?? in the late nineteenth century. Zong refers to clan, tribe, and ancestor; jiao refers to teaching. When the Chinese people put the words zong and jiao together to mean “religion,” they were reinforcing the Chinese understanding of the role of ancestral religion. The basic content of the ancestral religion in imperial China was to worship ancestors as well as the land, clouds, sun, moon, mountain, river, and spirits. The ancestral religion recognized four types of gods: heavenly gods, earthly gods, human spirits, and material gods. Correspondingly, there are four types of worship: heaven worship, land worship, ancestor worship, and grain worship. The Chinese people believed that their ancestors were still alive in heaven after their death and had the power to bring harm or good fortune to their descendants. Sacrifices to honor them were a basic part of religious ritual from the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE). The I Ching (Yijing) is a classic text from that time that codified ancestral religion for the first time. Some important concepts, such as the Mandate of Heaven (the notion that heaven bestowed authority to rule upon the emperor) and the Son of Heaven (the emperor), were employed to justify social order and religious rituals. In imperial China there was no meaningful distinction between divine power and political power.

The Influence of the Ancestral Religion

Traditional ancestral religion had a profound impact on Chinese society. It deeply influenced all religions in China. Traditional Chinese ancestral religion had more adherents than any other religious faith in China and was an important unifying force within China. In imperial China almost every city had a temple to the city god, every village had a temple to the village god, and every Chinese home had a religious shrine for ancestor worship. For most people, both noble and common, ancestor worship came first, and belief in other religions came second. Traditional ancestral religion actually dominated other religions even though it did not have a formal religious structure. Other religions were not permitted to contradict the ancestral religion in ideas, moral code, belief, or rites.

Ancestral religion affected daily life. Everyday religious rites, prayers, festivals, and ceremonies arose from it. Ethically, it maintained human moral behavior and social order through ancestor worship; economically, it maintained order through grain worship, land worship, and nature worship, and it sanctified the process of agricultural production and the natural environment.

Ancestral religion affected Chinese culture. Confucianism, the mainstream of Chinese culture, had a profound influence on Chinese society because the central principles of Confucianism preserved traditional Chinese familial values. Filial piety is not merely an ethical value but a religious principle.

Ancestral religion also affected Chinese politics. The development of ancestor worship in China went hand in hand with the evolution of the dynastic political system. Important sacrificial rites were national events and were presided over by the emperor, thereby indicating that the emperor’s power was received from heaven.

The Influence of the Government

In imperial China the central government controlled religions—not only Daoism and Buddhism but, later, also Islam and Christianity—from the national level to local levels through ideology and force. Beginning in the Zhou dynasty, all local religious officials were appointed by the central government, and that degree of control continued in subsequent dynasties. During the Han dynasty, Dong Zhongshu, a Confucian scholar and chief minister, suggested that the dynasty espouse only Confucianism and abolish all other religions. But after the Han dynasty, adherents of Daoism and Buddhism gradually gained ground and even participated in politics. During the Tang dynasty, the government laid equal stress on all three religions. After Islam and Christianity came into China, the central government extended its reach to regulating foreign religions. The state of affairs in contemporary China, with the government exercising considerable oversight and control of religion, can be seen as the continuation of a pattern that was established in the imperial period.

Further Reading

Dawson, R. (Trans.). (1993). Confucius: The Analects. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Goldstein, J. (Ed.). (2000). The Jews of China: A sourcebook and research guide (Vol. 1). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Kohn, L. (Ed.). (2000). Daoism handbook. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

Leslie, D. (1986). Islam in traditional China: A short history to 1800. Canberra, Australia: The Canberra College of Advanced Education.

Standaert, N. (Ed.). (2001). Handbook of Christianity in China. Vol. 1: 635–1800. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Wright, A. F. (1959). Buddhism in Chinese history. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Yang, C. K. (1961). Religion in Chinese society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Source: Zhou, Jinghao. (2009). Religious Practice, Historical. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1886–1890. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A supplicant puts paper money into a vat. Believers think that the cash will be delivered to their ancestors who will find good use for it in their afterlife. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Historical illustration of worship at an ancestral grave site. Sacrifices to hono
r ancestors were a basic part of religious ritual from the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) on. The classic text I Ching from that period was the first text to define and ritualize ancestral religion.

Joss sticks (incense) are put into a vat to be burned as offerings. The aroma is sent up to gods and ancestors for their pleasure in the afterlife. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Religious Practice, Historical (Sh?shàng z?ngjiào huódòng ??????)|Sh?shàng z?ngjiào huódòng ?????? (Religious Practice, Historical)

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