For over 2500 years, religion has had an important role in Chinese society and culture, both through its widespread acceptance and its outright banishment. Historically, religious ideals and values in China have permeated from daily life in the home up through the ruling class of government and many of these values are indistinguishable from what many consider traditional Chinese culture. The country and its people have strong ties to religions that include Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Islam despite the fact that China has the world’s lowest percentage of its population that considers itself religious.
Prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in the mid-20th Century, religion was widespread and accepted in China. However, the Communist Party adhered to the Marxist philosophy that religion is the “opiate of the masses” and believed that the ruling class used it to maintain power. Consequently, religion was banned in China and many religious sites and relics were damaged. The most extreme actions occurred during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, when a vast majority of temples, monasteries and other religious sites were destroyed. In 1982, during the post-Mao reform period, the government amended its constitution to allow religious freedom and some of these sites have since been repaired or restored. Today there is no official religion of China, though only atheists are admitted to become members of the Chinese Communist Party. Ethnic minority de facto cannot be admitted to serve the Party.
Confucianism dates back to the 5th Century BCE in China and can be considered just as much of a philosophy as it is a religion, if not more so. It is based on the teachings of Confucius, though these were not put into practise and widely accepted until after his death. Confucianism encapsulates many commonly held Chinese values such as honouring the hierarchy of the family structure with respect flowing upwards, and from females to males. There were very strict patterns of obedience that are still held accepted within family and government systems. Because of this, it was both widely encouraged by the emperors and equally detested by the Communists, who destroyed their temples and artefacts.
Taoism dates back to the 6th Century BCE, and is attributed to Laozi. He left a brief record of the teachings and beliefs during his lifetime, known as “The Way and Its Power”.
The main focus is the concept of Tao, which is the guiding force for all things, and the key to living a harmonious life. Taoism became widely accepted during the Han dynasty, and remained an important part of Chinese society for centuries.
Since its arrival from India in the 1st Century AD, Buddhism has played an interesting, and at times controversial role in China. It has been practised by millions of people within China’s borders and even endorsed by the Sui, Tang and Song Dynasties. It is generally accepted as coinciding with Taoism for many people, and throughout Chinese history the two have often been practised together as complementary religious and philosophical guidelines. However, Buddhism has historically been at odds with Confucianism due to its emphasis on the afterlife and karma, in contrast to rigid order and social stability, arousing suspicion and ire from the Confucian emperors and ruling class.
In China, the most common association is with Buddhism Tibetans, who have a long and turbulent history in China. They faced especially hard times during the Communist emergence and consequent Cultural Revolution, when most of the country’s temples were demolished and the Tibetan rulers were forced to flee the country. Recent reforms allow today’s Tibetans to practise their religion, albeit with some restrictions and under close surveillance by the central government. Many of the ethnic minorities in Yunnan and Guangxi also practise some form of Buddhism.