Religion in China – a brief overview

Buddhism and “Shenism”, the ethnic religion of the Hans, are family-oriented and do not demand the exclusive adherence of members. Some scholars doubt the use of the term “religion” in reference to these, and suggest “cultural practices” or “thought systems” as more appropriate names. Shenism encompasses Taoism and the worship of the shens. The shens are a collection of various local ethnic deities, heroes, ancestors, and figures from Chinese mythology, among which the most popular ones in recent years have been Mazu (goddess of the seas, patron of Southern China), Huangdi (divine patriarch of all the Chinese and folk god of the Chinese nation), the Black Dragon, Caishen (god of prosperity and richness), and others.

With respectively over 30% and 18–20% of the population adhering to them, Shenism-Taoism and Buddhism are thriving throughout the country as the government is allowing them to spread. Almost 10% of the population is composed of those regarded as non-Han ethnicities who following their traditional tribal religions. Christians associated with sanctioned churches comprise 3–4% of the population. Muslims comprise 1–2%. However, the biggest part of the population, ranging between 60% and 70%, is mostly agnostic or atheist.

With its establishment on October 1, 1949, the officially atheist government of People’s Republic of China, viewed religion as emblematic of feudalism and foreign colonialism . In 1966-67, the Cultural Revolution attacked religions and destroyed a massive number of places of worship of all types.]

This policy relaxed considerably in the late 1970s at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Since the 1980s the government has allowed religious activity but tightly controls it. There are five religions recognized by the state: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. State-allowed religious groups may meet only at state-approved places of worship. In Shanghai, there may be as many as 160 such places of worship. To some degree, the government also controls the institutions of the religions it recognizes.

The 1978 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees “freedom of religion” in Article 46. The policy regarding religious practice in China states that “No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens because they do, or do not believe in religion. The state protects normal religious activities”, and continues with the statement that: “nobody can make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt social order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state.”

Since the mid-1980s the government has viewed Buddhism and Taoism-Shenism as an integral part of Chinese culture. Across the country the government has undertaken a massive program to rebuild Buddhist and Taoist temples. To some extent the government has supported these by organizing the 2006 World Buddhist Forum and the 2007 International Forum on the Daodejing.

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