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Chinese folk religion

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Title: Chinese folk religion  
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Chinese folk religion

Temple of Xuanyuan in Huangling, Yan'an, Shaanxi, dedicated to the worship of Huangdi, the "Yellow Emperor".[note 1]
The Temple of the Town God of Wenao, Magong, Taiwan.
Temple of Hebo, the god of the Yellow River, a prominent form of the Heshen (River God), in Hequ, Xinzhou, Shanxi.
Altar to the Five Officials worshipped inside the Temple of the Five Lords in Haikou, Hainan.

Chinese folk religion or Chinese popular religion is the religious tradition of the Han Chinese, in which government officials and common people of China share religious practices and beliefs, including veneration of forces of nature and ancestors, exorcism of harmful forces, and a belief in the rational order of nature which can be influenced by human beings and their rulers.[3] The gods or spirits (shen, meaning the forces that generate phenomena and make things grow)[4] can be nature deities, city deities or tutelary deities of other human groups, national deities, cultural heroes and demigods, ancestors and progenitors, and deities of the kinship. Stories regarding some of these gods are codified into the body of Chinese mythology. By the eleventh century (Song period) these practices had been blended with Buddhist ideas of karma (retribution) and rebirth, and Taoist teachings about hierarchies of gods, to form the popular religious system which has lasted in many ways until the present day.[5]

Chinese folk religion has a variety of sources, local forms, founder backgrounds, and ritual and philosophical traditions. Chinese folk religion is sometimes categorized inadequately as "Taoism" or "folk Taoism",[6] since institutional Taoism acts as a "liturgical framework" of local religions.[7] Zhengyi Taoism is especially intertwined with local cults, with Zhengyi daoshi (道士, "masters of the Tao") often performing rituals for local temples and communities. Various orders of ritual ministers operate in folk religion but outside codified Taoism. Confucianism advocates worship of gods and ancestors through proper rites, which have ethical importance.[8][note 2] Confucian liturgy (儒 or 正统 zhèngtǒng, "orthoprax", ritual style) led by Confucian ritual masters (礼生 lǐshēng), is used on occasions in folk temples and by lineage churches.[10] Taoism in its various currents, either comprehended or not within the Chinese folk religion, has some of its origins from Wuism.[11] Chinese religion mirrors the social landscape, and takes on different shades for different people.[12]

Despite their great diversity, all the expressions of Chinese folk religion have a common core that can be summarised as four spiritual, cosmological, and moral concepts[13]Tian (), Heaven, the source of moral meaning, the utmost god and the universe itself; qi (), the breath or substance of the universe; jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors; bao ying (报应), moral reciprocity—, and two traditional concepts of fate and meaning[14]ming yun (命运), the personal destiny or burgeoning; and yuan fen (缘分), "fateful coincidence",[15] good and bad chances and potential relationships.[15] Yin and yang is the polarity that describes the order of the universe,[16] held in balance by the interaction of principles of growth (shen) and principles of waning (gui),[17] with act (yang) usually preferred over receptiveness (yin).[18] Ling (numen or sacred) is the "medium" of the bivalency, and the inchoate order of creation.[18]

Both in imperial China and under the modern nation, the state has opposed or attempted to eradicate these practices as "superstition". Yet Chinese folk religions are currently experiencing a revival in both mainland China and Taiwan.[19][20] Various forms of culture have received forms of official recognition by the government of China, such as Mazuism and the Xia teaching in southeastern China,[21] Huangdi worship,[22] and other forms of local worship, for example the Longwang, Pangu or Caishen worship.[23]


  • Terminology and definition 1
  • Overview 2
    • History 2.1
    • 19th—20th century 2.2
  • Core concepts of theology and cosmology 3
    • Tian, its li and qi 3.1
    • Yin and yanggui and shen 3.2
    • Hun and po, and zu and xian 3.3
    • Bao ying and ming yun 3.4
    • Ling and xianling—holy and numen 3.5
  • Sociological typology 4
    • Types of indigenous—ethnic religion 4.1
      • Worship of local and national deities 4.1.1
      • Lineage religion 4.1.2
    • Philosophical and ritual modalities 4.2
      • Wuism and shamanic traditions 4.2.1
      • Confucianism, Taoism and orders of ritual masters 4.2.2
    • Organised folk religious sects 4.3
      • Tiandi teachings 4.3.1
      • Weixinism 4.3.2
    • Northern and southern typological differences 4.4
  • Features 5
    • Hierarchy of Tian, human divinity and polytheism 5.1
      • Deities and immortals—shenxian 5.1.1
      • Bixia and mother goddess worship 5.1.2
    • Worship and practical polytropy 5.2
      • Sacrifices 5.2.1
      • Thanksgiving and redeeming 5.2.2
      • Rites of passage 5.2.3
    • Places of worship 5.3
    • Symbolism 5.4
  • Demographics 6
    • Mainland China and Taiwan 6.1
      • Ritual economy 6.1.1
    • Southeast Asia 6.2
      • Indonesia 6.2.1
      • Malaysia 6.2.2
      • Thailand 6.2.3
    • India 6.3
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Sources 10
  • External links 11

Terminology and definition

Temple of the City God of Dongmen, in Xiangshan, Ningbo, Zhejiang.

While in the English language academic literature Chinese "popular religion" or "folk religion" (中国民间宗教 Zhōngguó mínjiān zōngjiào) or "folk belief" (民间信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng) have long been used to define the complex of

  • China Ancestral Temples Network
  • Bored in Heaven, a documentary on the reinvention of Chinese religion and Taoism. By Kenneth Dean, 2010, 80 minutes.

Media related to at Wikimedia Commons

External links

  • Fenggang Yang. Stand still and watch. In The state of religion in China. The Immanent Frame, 2013.
  • Prasenjit Duara. Chinese religions in comparative historical perspective. In The state of religion in China. The Immanent Frame, 2013.
  • Richard Madsen. Secular belief, religious belonging. In The state of religion in China. The Immanent Frame, 2013.
  • Nathan Schneider. The future of China’s past: An interview with Mayfair Yang. The Immanent Frame, 2010.
  • Zavidovskaya, Ekaterina A. (2012). "Deserving Divine Protection: Religious Life in Contemporary Rural Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces". St. Petersburg Annual of Asian and African Studies (Ergon-Verlag GmbH, 97074 Würzburg) I: 179–197. 
  • Zhou, Jixu (2005). "Old Chinese "*tees" and Proto-Indo-European "*deus": Similarity in Religious Ideas and a Common Source in Linguistics" (PDF).  
  • Chau, Adam Yuet (2005). Miraculous Response: Doing Popular Religion in Contemporary China.  
  • Chau, Adam Yuet (2005). "The Politics of Legitimation and the Revival of Popular Religion in Shaanbei, North-Central China" (PDF). Modern China (Sage Publications) 31 (2): 236–278. 
  • Cheng, Manchao (1995). The Origin of Chinese Religion. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.  
  • Clart, Philip (2014). Conceptualizations of "Popular Religion" in Recent Research in the People's Republic of China (PDF). (Conference paper) International Symposium on Mazu and Chinese folk religion「媽祖與華人民間信仰」國際研討會論文集. Boyang, Taipei. pp. 391–412. 
  • Clart, Philip (2003). "Confucius and the Mediums: Is There a "Popular Confucianism"?" (PDF). T'uong Pao (Leiden: Brill) (LXXXIX). 
  • Davis, Edward L. (2005). Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture. Routledge.  
  • Didier, John C. (2009). "In and Outside the Square: The Sky and the Power of Belief in Ancient China and the World, c. 4500 BC – AD 200".  . Volume I: The Ancient Eurasian World and the Celestial Pivot, Volume II: Representations and Identities of High Powers in Neolithic and Bronze China, Volume III: Terrestrial and Celestial Transformations in Zhou and Early-Imperial China.
  • Do, Thien (2003). Vietnamese Supernaturalism: Views from the Southern Region. Anthropology of Asia. Routledge.  
  • Fan, Lizhu; Chen, Na (2015). "The Religiousness of "Confucianism" and the Revival of Confucian Religion in China Today". Cultural Diversity in China (De Gruyter Open) (1): 27–43.  
  • Fan, Lizhu; Chen, Na (2013). "The Revival of Indigenous Religion in China" (PDF). China Watch.  Reprinted in The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion, 2014. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195338522.013.024
  • Fowler, Jeanine D. (2005). An Introduction to the Philosophy and Religion of Taoism: Pathways to Immortality. Sussex Academic Press.  
  • Goossaert, Vincent; Palmer, David (2011). The Religious Question in Modern China. University of Chicago Press.  
  • Jin, Ze (2005). Challenges and Choices Facing Folk Faith in China (PDF). Religion and Cultural Change in China. The Brookings Institution - Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, Washington: DC. 
  • Jones, Stephen (2013). In Search of the Folk Daoists of North China. Ashgate Publishing.  
  • Li, Lan (2015). Popular Religion in Modern China: The New Role of Nuo. Ashgate Publishing.  
  • Little, Stephen; Eichman, Shawn (2000). Taoism and the Arts of China. University of California Press.  
  • Littlejohn, Ronnie (2010). Confucianism: An Introduction. I. B. Tauris.  
  • Lü, Daji; Gong, Xuezeng (2014). Marxism and Religion. Religious Studies in Contemporary China. Brill.  
  • Madsen, Richard (2010). "The Upsurge of Religion in China" (PDF). Journal of Democracy 21 (4). 
  • Medhurst, Walter H. (1847). A Dissertation on the Theology of the Chinese, with a View to the Elucidation of the Most Appropriate Term for Expressing the Deity, in the Chinese Language. Mission Press.  Original preserved at The British Library. Digitalised in 2014.
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  • Overmyer, Daniel L. (1986). Religions of China: The World as a Living System. New York: Harper & Row. 
  • Overmyer, Daniel L. (2009). Local Religion in North China in the Twentieth Century: The Structure and Organization of Community Rituals and Beliefs (PDF). Leiden; Boston: Brill.  
  • Palmer, David A. (2011). "Chinese Redemptive Societies and Salvationist Religion: Historical Phenomenon or Sociological Category?" (PDF). Journal of Chinese Ritual, Theatre and Folklore 172: 21–72. 
  • Paper, Jordan (1995). The Spirits are Drunk: Comparative Approaches to Chinese Religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.  
  • Pas, Julian F. (2014). Historical Dictionary of Taoism. Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements. Albany, NY: Scarecrow Press.  
  • Pregadio, Fabrizio (2013). The Encyclopedia of Taoism. Routledge. Two volumes: 1) A-L; 2) L-Z.  
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  • Shi, Yilong 石奕龍 (2008). "中国汉人自发的宗教实践 — 神仙教 Zhongguo Hanren zifadi zongjiao shijian: Shenxianjiao (The Spontaneous Religious Practices of Han Chinese Peoples — Shenxianism)". 中南民族大学学报 — 人文社会科学版 (Journal of South-Central University for Nationalities (Humanities and Social Sciences) 28 (3): 146–150. 
  • Shen, Qingsong; Shun, Kwong-loi (2007). Confucian Ethics in Retrospect and Prospect. Council for Research in Values & Philosophy.  
  • Tay, Wei Leong (2010). Kang Youwei: The Martin Luther of Confucianism and His Vision of Confucian Modernity and Nation (PDF).  Chapter of: Haneda Masashi, Secularization, Religion and the State, University of Tokyo Center for Philosophy.
  • Sun, Xiaochun; Kistemaker, Jacob (1997). The Chinese Sky During the Han: Constellating Stars and Society. Brill.  
  • Teiser, Stephen F. (1996), "The Spirits of Chinese Religion", in Donald S. Lopez, Jr., ed., Religions of China in Practice (PDF), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press , extracts at The Chinese Cosmos: Basic Concepts.
  • Teiser, Stephen F. (1995). "Popular Religion". Journal of Asian Studies 54 (2): 378–395. 
  • Wang, Robin R. (2004). Chinese Philosophy in an Era of Globalization. State University of New York Press.  
  • Yang, Fenggang; Anning, Hu (2012). "Mapping Chinese Folk Religion in Mainland China and Taiwan". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (3): 505–521. 
  • Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui. Ritual Economy and Rural Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics (PDF).  Chapter of: David Held, Henrietta Moore. Cultural Politics in a Global Age: Uncertainty, Solidarity and Innovation, Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2007. ISBN 1851685502
  • Adler, Joseph A. (2011). The Heritage of Non-Theistic Belief in China (PDF). (Conference paper) Toward a Reasonable World: The Heritage of Western Humanism, Skepticism, and Freethought. San Diego, CA. 
  • Cai, Zongqi (2004). Chinese Aesthetics: Ordering of Literature, the Arts, and the Universe in the Six Dynasties. University of Hawaii Press.  
  • Chamberlain, Jonathan (2009). Chinese Gods : An Introduction to Chinese Folk Religion. Hong Kong: Blacksmith Books.  
  • Chan, Kim-Kwong (2005). "Religion in China in the Twenty-first Century: Some Scenarios". Religion, State & Society (Routledge) 33 (2). 
  • Chang, Ruth H. (2000). "Understanding Di and Tian: Deity and Heaven from Shang to Tang Dynasties".  
  • Chau, Adam Yuet (2013), "A Different Kind of Religious Diversity: Ritual Service Providers and Consumers in China", in Schmidt-Leukel, Perry and Joachim Gentz, ed., Religious Diversity in Chinese Thought, New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, pp. 141– 156,  


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  146. ^ Weixinism propagates Chinese culture and Yi-Ching. Hun Yuan's website.
  147. ^ a b Grand Master Hun Yuan leads Weixinism for world peace. Taiwan Weixin Association for World Peace.
  148. ^ Honoring the contribution of the Three-Great-Chinese-Ancestor Culture to develop world peace. Hun Yuan's website.
  149. ^ Build the City of the Eight Trigrams on Yunmeng Mountain, integrate the differences within Chinese culture, and support the union of the Chinese people. Hun Yuan's website.
  150. ^ Build temples for the Three Great Chinese Ancestors, solidify the national union, and pray together for Cross-Strait and worldwide peace. Hun Yuan's website.
  151. ^ Overmyer, 2009. pp. 12-13: "As for the physical and social structure of villages on this vast flat expanse; they consist of close groups of houses built on a raised area, surrounded by their fields, with a multi-surnamed population of families who own and cultivate their own land, though usually not much more than twenty mou or about three acres. [...] Families of different surnames living in one small community meant that lineages were not strong enough to maintain lineage shrines and cross-village organizations, so, at best, they owned small burial plots and took part only in intra-village activities. The old imperial government encouraged villages to manage themselves and collect and hand over their own taxes. [...] leaders were responsible for settling disputes, dealing with local government, organizing crop protection and planning for collective ceremonies. All these factors tended to strengthen the local protective deities and their temples as focal points of village identity and activity. This social context defines North China local religion, and keeps us from wandering off into vague discussions of ‘popular’ and ‘elite’ and relationships with Daoism and Buddhism."
  152. ^ Overmyer (2009), p. xii.
  153. ^ Overmyer, 2009. p. 10: "There were and are many such pilgrimages to regional and national temples in China, and of course such pilgrimages cannot always be clearly distinguished from festivals for the gods or saints of local communities, because such festivals can involve participants from surrounding villages and home communities celebrating the birthdays or death days of their patron gods or saints, whatever their appeal to those from other areas. People worship and petition at both pilgrimages and local festivals for similar reasons. The chief differences between the two are the central role of a journey in pilgrimages, the size of the area from which participants are attracted, and the role of pilgrimage societies in organizing the long trips that may be involved. [...] pilgrimage in China is also characterized by extensive planning and organization both by the host temples and those visiting them."
  154. ^ Overmyer, 2009. p. 3: "[...] there are significant differences between aspects of local religion in the south and north, one of which is the gods who are worshiped."; p. 33: "[...] the veneration in the north of ancient deities attested to in pre-Han sources, deities such as Nüwa, Fuxi and Shennong, the legendary founder of agriculture and herbal medicine. In some instances these gods were worshiped at places believed to be where they originated, with indications of grottoes, temples and festivals for them, some of which continue to exist or have been revived. Of course, these gods were worshiped elsewhere in China as well, though perhaps not with the same sense of original geographical location."
  155. ^ Overmyer, 2009. p. 15: "[...] Popular religious sects with their own forms of organization, leaders, deities, rituals, beliefs and scripture texts were active throughout the Ming and Qing periods, particularly in north China. Individuals and families who joined them were promised special divine protection in this life and the next by leaders who functioned both as ritual masters and missionaries. These sects were more active in some communities than in others, but in principle were open to all who responded to these leaders and believed in their efficacy and teachings, so some of these groups spread to wide areas of the country. [...] significant for us here though is evidence for the residual influence of sectarian beliefs and practices on non-sectarian community religion where the sects no longer exist, particularly the feminization of deities by adding to their names the characters mu or laomu, Mother or Venerable Mother, as in Guanyin Laomu, Puxianmu, Dizangmu, etc., based on the name of the chief sectarian deity, Wusheng Laomu, the Eternal Venerable Mother. Puxian and Dizang are bodhisattvas normally considered ‘male’, though in Buddhist theory such gender categories don’t really apply. This practice of adding mu to the names of deities, found already in Ming period sectarian scriptures called baojuan ‘precious volumes’ from the north, does not occur in the names of southern deities."
  156. ^ Claire Qiuju Deng. Action-Taking Gods: Animal Spirit Shamanism in Liaoning, China. Department of East Asian Studies, McGill University, Montreal, 2014.
  157. ^ Mark Juergensmeyer, Wade Clark Roof. Encyclopedia of Global Religion. SAGE Publications, 2011. ISBN 1452266565. p. 202
  158. ^ Benjamin Penny. Religion and Biography in China and Tibet. Routledge, 2013. ISBN 1136113940. pp. 185-187
  159. ^ Chan, 2005. p. 93. Quote: "By the early 1990s Daoist activities had become popular especially in rural areas, and began to get out of control as the line between legitimate Daoist activities and popular folk religious activities - officially regarded as feudal superstition - became blurred. [...] Unregulated activities can range from orthodox Daoist liturgy to shamanistic rites. The popularity of these Daoist activities underscores the fact that Chinese rural society has a long tradition of religiosity and has preserved and perpetuated Daoism regardless of official policy and religious institutions. With the growth of economic prosperity in rural areas, especially in the coastal provinces where Daoist activities are concentrated, with a more liberal policy on religion, and with the revival of local cultural identity, Daoism - be it the officially sanctioned variety or Daoist activities which are beyond the edge of the official Daoist body - seems to be enjoying a strong comeback, at least for the time being."
  160. ^ Overmyer, 2009. p. 185 about Taoism in southeastern China: "Ethnographic research into the temple festivals and communal rituals celebrated within these god cults has revealed the widespread distribution of Daoist ritual traditions in this area, including especially Zhengyi (Celestial Master Daoism) and variants of Lushan Daoist ritual traditions. Various Buddhist ritual traditions (Pu’anjiao, Xianghua married monks and so on) are practiced throughout this region, particularly for requiem services". (quoting K. Dean (2003) Local Communal Religion in Contemporary Southeast China, in D.L. Overmyer (ed.) Religion in China Today. China Quarterly Special Issues, New Series, No. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 32–34.)
  161. ^ Bai Bin, "Daoism in Graves," in Pierre Marsone, John Lagerwey, eds., Modern Chinese Religion I: Song-Liao-Jin-Yuan (960-1368 AD) Brill, 2014. ISBN 9004271643. p. 579
  162. ^ a b Lu, Gong. 2014. p. 63
  163. ^ a b c d e f g Yao, 2010. p. 158
  164. ^ Yao, 2010. p. 165
  165. ^ a b Yao, 2010. p. 161
  166. ^ a b c d Yao, 2010. p. 162
  167. ^ Lu, Gong. 2014. p. 38: Xian are described as individuals who achieve mastery of the way of Heaven and emulate it.
  168. ^ a b Raymond Barnett. Relax, You're Already Home: Everyday Taoist Habits For A Richer Life. J. P. Tarcher, 2004. ISBN 1585423661
  169. ^ a b Overmyer, 2009. p. 148
  170. ^ John Lagerwey, Marc Kalinowski. Early Chinese Religion: Part One: Shang Through Han (1250 BC-220 AD). Two volumes. Brill, 2008. ISBN 9004168354. p. 983
  171. ^ Max Dashu. Xiwangmu: The Shamanic Great Goddess of China., 2010.
  172. ^ a b Fowler (2005), pp. 206-207.
  173. ^ Pierre Marsone, John Lagerwey. Modern Chinese Religion I: Song-Liao-Jin-Yuan (960-1368 AD). Two volumes. Brill, 2014. ISBN 9004271643. p. 512
  174. ^ Overmyer, 2009. chapter 5: Gods and Temples. passim.
  175. ^ Pregadio (2013), p. 504, vol. 2 A-L: Each sector of heaven (the four points of the compass and the center) was personified by a di 帝 (a term which indicates not only an emperor but also an ancestral "thearch" and "god").
  176. ^ Sun & Kistemaker (1997), p. 121.
  177. ^ Journal of Chinese Religions, 24-25, 1996. p. 6
  178. ^ Fowler (2005), pp. 200-201.
  179. ^ Medhurst (1847), p. 260.
  180. ^ Little & Eichman (2000), p. 250. It describes a Ming dynasty painting representing (among other figures) the Wudi: "In the foreground are the gods of the Five Directions, dressed as emperors of high antiquity, holding tablets of rank in front of them. [...] These gods are significant because they reflect the cosmic structure of the world, in which yin, yang and the Five Phases (Elements) are in balance. They predate religious Taoism, and may have originated as chthonic gods of the Neolithic period. Governing all directions (east, south, west, north and center), they correspond not only to the Five Elements, but to the seasons, the Five Sacred Peaks, the Five Planets, and zodiac symbols as well. [...]".
  181. ^ Sun & Kistemaker (1997), pp. 120-123.
  182. ^ Pregadio (2013), pp. 504-505, vol. 2 A-L.
  183. ^ Sun & Kistemaker (1997), p. 120.
  184. ^ a b c d Keekok Lee. Warp and Weft, Chinese Language and Culture. Strategic Book Publishing, 2008. ISBN 1606932470. pp. 156-157
  185. ^ a b Yao, 2010. p. 202
  186. ^ Overmyer (2009), p. 144.
  187. ^ Overmyer (2009), p. 137.
  188. ^ Ann Elizabeth Barrott Wicks. Children in Chinese Art. University of Hawaii Press, 2002. ISBN 0824823591. pp. 149-150
  189. ^ a b c Jones, 2013. pp. 166-167
  190. ^ Louis Komjathy. The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013. ISBN 1441196455. Chapter: Daoist deities and pantheons.
  191. ^ a b Ann Elizabeth Barrott Wicks. Children in Chinese Art. University of Hawaii Press, 2002. ISBN 0824823591. pp. 149-150; some goddesses are enlisted in the note 18 at p. 191
  192. ^ Overmyer (2009), p. 135.
  193. ^ J. Hackin. Asiatic Mythology: A Detailed Description and Explanation of the Mythologies of All the Great Nations of Asia. Asian Educational Services, 1932. ISBN 8120609204. pp. 349.350
  194. ^ Jones, 2013. p. 167
  195. ^ a b Chamberlain, 2009. p. 235
  196. ^ a b c d Adam Yuet Chau. Modalities of Doing Religion and Ritual Polytropy: Evaluating the Religious Market Model from the Perspective of Chinese Religious History. On: Religion, 41:4, 547-568. Routledge, 2011. DOI:10.1080/0048721X.2011.624691
  197. ^ a b c Yao, 2010. p. 173
  198. ^ a b Yao, 2010. p. 172
  199. ^ a b Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 10
  200. ^ Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 191
  201. ^ a b Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 182
  202. ^ Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 187
  203. ^ a b c d e Yao, 2010. p. 176
  204. ^ a b c Yao, 2010. p. 177
  205. ^ Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 189
  206. ^ a b c d e Yao, 2010. p. 178
  207. ^ a b c d e Yao, 2010. p. 180
  208. ^ Zai Liang, Steven Messner, Cheng Chen, Youqin Huang. The Emergence of a New Urban China: Insiders' Perspectives. Lexington Books, 2013. ISBN 0739188089. p. 95
  209. ^ Rowena Pattee Kryder. Sacred Ground to Sacred Space. p. 298
  210. ^ The Almighty Dragon.
  211. ^ Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life (December 2012), The Global Religious Landscape: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Major Religious Groups as of 2010 (PDF), Pew Research Center, retrieved 9 October 2013 
  212. ^ ChartsBin (2009-09-16). "Chinese Folk Religion Adherents by Country". Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  213. ^ Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 8. Citing: Dean, Kenneth. Local Ritual Traditions of Southeast China: A Challenge to Definitions of Religion and Theories of Ritual. In China: Methodology, Theories, and Findings, eds. Fenggang Yang and Graeme Lang, 133-165, Leiden: Brill, 2011. p. 134
  214. ^ 2010 Chinese Spiritual Life Survey conducted by Dr. Yang Fenggang, Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society. Statistics published in: Katharina Wenzel-Teuber, David Strait. People’s Republic of China: Religions and Churches Statistical Overview 2011. Religions & Christianity in Today's China, Vol. II, 2012, No. 3, pp. 29-54, ISSN: 2192-9289.
  215. ^ "Taiwan Yearbook 2006". Government of Information Office. 2006. Archived from the original on 8 July 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-01. 
  216. ^ Graeme Lang, Selina Ching Chan, Lars Ragvald. Folk Temples and the Chinese Religious Economy. On Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, 2005, Volume 1, Article 4.
  217. ^ Mayfair Yang, 2007. p. 226
  218. ^ Hill Gates. China's Motor: One Thousand Years of Petty-Capitalism. Cornell University, 1996.
  219. ^ Mayfair Yang, 2007. pp. 226-230
  220. ^ Pui-lam Law. The Revival of Folk Religion and Gender Relationships in Rural China. Hong Kong Polytechnic University Press.
  221. ^ a b Mayfair Yang, 2007. p. 223
  222. ^ Singapore Department of Statistics (12 January 2011). "Census of population 2010: Statistical Release 1 on Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion" (PDF). Retrieved 16 January 2011. 
  223. ^ "2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia" (PDF). Department of Statistics, Malaysia. Retrieved 17 June 2012.  p. 13
  224. ^ "Tao, Taoism Religion". Retrieved 2011-11-20. 
  225. ^ Ambassadors for the Universal Peace Federation.
  226. ^ Bidang Litbang PTITD/Matrisia Jawa Tengah. 2007. Pengetahuan Umum Tentang Tri Dharma, First Edition (July 2007). Publisher: Benih Bersemi, Semarang, Indonesia.
  227. ^ a b Tsuda Koji. "Chinese Religion" in Modern Indonesia: Focusing on the Trend Toward Systematization in the Post-Soeharto Era. Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
  228. ^ a b c d Tatsuki Kataoka. Religion as Non-religion: The Place of Chinese Temples in Phuket, Southern Thailand. In Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3, December 2012, pp. 461–485. Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University.
  229. ^ Tong Chee Kiong; Chan Kwok Bun (2001). Rethinking Assimilation and Ethnicity: The Chinese of Thailand. Alternate Identities: The Chinese of Contemporary Thailand. pp. 30–34. 
  230. ^ Jean Elizabeth DeBernardi (2006). The Way That Lives in the Heart: Chinese Popular Religion and Spirits Mediums in Penang, Malaysia.  


  1. ^ a b c The honorific Tiānhòu (天后 "Queen of Heaven") is used for many goddesses, but most frequently Mazu and Doumu.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g The cult of this deity is historically exercised all over China.[169]
  3. ^ a b c d e About the use of the title "duke": the term is from Latin dux, and describes a phenomenon or person who "conducts", "leads", the divine inspiration.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u The cult of this deity is historically exercised in northern China.[174] It is important to notice that many cults of northern deities were transplanted also in southern big cities like Hong Kong and Macau, and also in Taiwan, with the political changes and migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries.
  5. ^ The term "thearch" is from Greek theos ("deity"), with arche ("principle", "origin"), thus meaning "divine principle", "divine origin". In sinology is has been used to designate the incarnated gods who, according to Chinese tradition, sustain the world order and originated China. It is one of the alternating translations of 帝 , together with "emperor" and "god".[175]
  6. ^ The cult of the Dragon Gods is exercised all over China but has a prominence in droughty northern provinces.
  7. ^ a b c d e The cult of this deity is historically exercised in southeastern China.[169]
  8. ^ The cult of Mazu has its origin in Fujian, but it has expanded throughout southern China and in many northern provinces, chiefly in localities along the coast, as well as among expatriate Chinese communities.[186]
  9. ^ a b The cult of fox deities is characteristic of northeastern China's folk religion, with influences reaching as far south as Hebei and Shandong.
  10. ^ As the Lady of Mount Tai, Bixia is regarded as the female counterpart of Dongyuedadi, the "Great God of the Eastern Peak" (Mount Tai).
  11. ^ The "Nine Skies" (九天 Jiǔtiān) are the nine stars (seven stars with the addition of two invisibile ones, according to the Chinese tradition) of the Big Dipper or Great Chariot. Thus, Bixia and her nine attendants or manifestations are at the same time a metaphorical representation of living matter or earth, and of the source of all being which is more abstractly represented by major axial gods of Chinese religion such as Doumu.
  12. ^ Qixing Niangniang ("Lady of the Seven Stars") is a goddess that represents the seven visible stars of the Big Dipper or Great Chariot.
  13. ^ The cult of Canmu is related to that of Houtu ("Queen of Earth") and to that of the Sanxiao ("Three Skies") goddesses.[194]
  14. ^ Saoqing Niangniang ("Lady who Sweeps Clean") is the goddess who ensures good weather conditions "sweeping away" clouds and storms.
Notes about the deities and their names
  1. ^ Huangdi (黄帝 "Yellow Emperor"; or Huangshen, 黄神 "Yellow God"), also known as Xuanyuan shi (轩辕氏 "Venerable Regulator") and Zhongyuedadi (中岳大帝 "God of the Central Peak"), is the creator of Huaxia, the beginning of the civilization of China. He represents the man who embodies or grasps the axis mundi (Kunlun Mountain in Chinese myth), the hub of creation, identifying with the unfathomable source of the universe (Tian), bringing the divine order into physical reality and thus opening the gateways to immortality. The character 黄 huáng, for the color "yellow", also means, by homophony and shared etymology with 皇 huáng, "august", "creator" and "radiant", identifying the Yellow Emperor with Shangdi (the "Shining Deity") or his human form.[1] As a human, Xuanyuan, myth tells that he was the fruit of virginal birth; his mother Fubao conceived him after seeing the great lightning around the Big Dipper (swastika).[2]
  2. ^ Quote: "Confucius placed strong emphasis on the importance of rites for the individual who wishes to live the good life. He maintains that "benevolence (jen) is constituted by returning to the observance of the rites through overcoming of the self" (Analects 12:1, Lau: 112). [...] Confucius holds that these rites have an ethical dimension [...] But in order to live as one should, it is not enough to follow or perform these rites—rather these rites should be lived out. Confucius holds that, when one sacrifices to the gods, one must sacrifice as if the gods are present (Analects 3:12, Lau: 69). It is not enough to perform the sacrifice, one must take part in it."[9]
  3. ^ Commentary on Judgment about Yijing 20, Guan ("Viewing"): "Viewing the Way of the Gods (Shendao), one finds that the four seasons never deviate, and so the sage establishes his teachings on the basis of this Way, and all under Heaven submit to him."
  4. ^ "J. J. M. de Groot calls "Chinese Universism" the ancient metaphysical view that serves as the basis of all classical Chinese thought. [...] In Universism, the three components of integrated universe — understood epistemologically, "heaven, earth and man", and understood ontologically, "Taiji (the great beginning, the highest ultimate), yin and yang" — are formed."[37][38]
  5. ^ The graphical etymology of Tian 天 as "Great One" (Dà yī 大一), and the phonetical etymology as diān 颠, were first recorded by Xu Shen.[57] John C. Didier in In and Outside the Square (2009) for the Sino-Platonic Papers discusses different etymologies which trace the character Tian 天 to the astral square or its ellipted forms, dīng 口, representing the northern celestial pole (pole star and Big Dipper revolving around it; historically a symbol of the absolute source of the universal reality in many cultures), which is the archaic (Shang) form of dīng 丁 ("square").[58] Gao Hongjin and other scholars trace the modern word Tian to the Shang pronunciation of 口 dīng (that is *teeŋ).[58] This was also the origin of Shang's 帝 ("Deity"), and later words meaning something "on high" or "top", including 顶 dǐng.[58] The modern graph for Tian 天 would derive from a Zhou version of the Shang archaic form of 帝 (from Shang oracle bone script[59], which represents a fish entering the astral square); this Zhou version represents a being with a human-like body and a head-mind informed by the astral pole (→ ).[58] Didier furtherly links the Chinese astral square and Tian or Di characters to other well-known symbols of God or divinity as the northern pole in key ancient cultural centres: the Harappan and Vedic-Aryan spoked wheels,[60] crosses and hooked crosses (Chinese wàn 卍/卐),[61] and the Mesopotamian Dingir .[62] Jixu Zhou (2005), also in the Sino-Platonic Papers, connects the etymology of 帝, Old Chinese *Tees, to the Indo-European Deus, God.[63]
  6. ^ a b Tian, besides Taidi ("Great God") and Shangdi ("Primordial Deity"), Yudi ("Jade Deity"), simply Shen 神 ("God"), and Taiyi ("Great Oneness") as identified as the ladle of the Tiānmén 天门 ("Gate of Heaven", the Big Dipper),[67] is defined by many other names attested in the Chinese literary, philosophical and religious tradition:[68]
    • Tiānshén 天神, the "God of Heaven", interpreted in the Shuowen jiezi (說文解字) as "the being that gives birth to all things";
    • Shénhuáng 神皇, "God the King", attested in Taihong ("The Origin of Vital Breath");
    • Tiāndì 天帝, the "Deity of Heaven" or "Emperor of Heaven".
    • A slang Chinese term is Lǎotiānyé (老天爷), "Old Heavenly Father".
    Tian is both transcendent and immanent, manifesting in the three forms of dominance, destiny and nature. In the Wujing yiyi (五經異義, "Different Meanings in the Five Classics"), Xu Shen explains that the designation of Heaven is quintuple:[69]
    • Huáng Tiān 皇天 —"Yellow Heaven" or "Shining Heaven", when it is venerated as the lord of creation;
    • Hào Tiān 昊天—"Vast Heaven", with regard to the vastness of its vital breath (qi);
    • Mín Tiān 旻天—"Compassionate Heaven" for it hears and corresponds with justice to the all-under-heaven;
    • Shàng Tiān 上天—"Highest Heaven" or "First Heaven", for it is the primordial being supervising all-under-heaven;
    • Cāng Tiān 苍天—"Deep-Green Heaven", for it being unfathomably deep.
  7. ^ a b The characters 玉yu (jade), 皇huang (emperor, sovereign, august), 王wang (king), as well as others pertaining to the same semantic field, have a common denominator in the concept of 工gong (work, art, craft, artisan, bladed weapon, square and compass; gnomon, "interpreter") and wu 巫 (shaman, medium)[73] in its archaic form , with the same meaning of 卍wan (swastika, ten thousand things, all being, universe).[74] The character 帝 is rendered as "deity" or "emperor" and describes a divine principle that exerts a fatherly dominance over what it produces.[72] A king is a man or an entity who is able to merge himself with the axis mundi, the centre of the universe, bringing its order into reality. The ancient kings or emperors of the Chinese civilisation were shamans or priests, that is to say mediators of the divine rule.[75] The same Western terms "king" and "emperor" traditionally meant an entity capable to embody the divine rule: king etymologically means "gnomon", "generator", while emperor means "interpreter", "one who makes from within".
  8. ^ In Chinese cosmology, the world isn't created ex nihilo from an external god, but evolves from the primordial chaos (Hundun). One way this has been commonly expressed is in terms of the Taiji symbol of yin and yang. The outer circle represents the primordial chaos out of which spontaneously emerges the fundamental polarity of yin (dark) and yang (light), which then produce the "myriad things" or "ten thousand things" (wàn 卍) by combination and recombination."[80]
  9. ^ Temples are usually built in accordance with feng shui methods, which hold that any thing needs to be arranged in equilibrium with the surrounding world in order to thrive. Names of holy spaces often describe, poetically, their collocation within the world.
  10. ^ The po can be compared with the psyche or thymos of the Greek philosophy and tradition, while the hun with the pneuma or "immortal soul".[89]
  11. ^ a b By the words of the Han dynasty scholar Dong Zhongshu: "Heaven, Earth and humankind are the foundations of all living things. Heaven engenders all living things, Earth nourishes them, and humankind completes them." In the Daodejing: "Tao is great. Heaven is great. Earth is great. And the king [humankind] is also great." The concept of the Three Powers / Agents / Ultimates is furtherly discussed in Confucian commentaries of the Yijing.[96]
  12. ^ The White Sulde (White Spirit) is one of the two spirits of Genghis Khan (the other being the Black Sulde), represented either as his white or yellow horse or as a fierce warrior riding this horse. In its interior, the temple enshrines a statue of Genghis Khan (at the center) and four of his men on each side (the total making nine, a symbolic number in Mongolian culture), there is an altar where offerings to the godly men are made, and three white suldes made with white horse hair. From the central sulde there are strings which hold tied light blue pieces of cloth with a few white ones. The wall is covered with all the names of the Mongol kins. The Chinese worship Genghis as the ancestral god of the Yuan dynasty.
  13. ^ Overmyer (2009, p. 73), says that from the late 19th to the 20th century few professional priests (i.e. licensed Taoists) were involved in local religion in the central and northern provinces of China, and discusses various types of folk ritual specialists including: the yuehu 樂戶, the zhuli 主禮 (p. 74), the shenjia 神家 ("godly families", hereditary specialists of gods and their rites; p. 77), then (p. 179) the yinyang or fengshui masters (as "[...] folk Zhengyi Daoists of the Lingbao scriptural tradition, living as ordinary peasants. They earn their living both as a group from performing public rituals, and individually [...] by doing geomancy and calendrical consultations for fengshui and auspicious days"; quoting: S. Jones (2007), Ritual and Music of North China: Shawm Bands in Shanxi). He also describes shamans or media known by different names: mapi 馬裨, wupo 巫婆, shen momo 神嬤嬤 or shen han 神漢 (p. 87); xingdao de 香道的 ("practitioners of the incense way"; p. 85); village xiangtou 香頭 ("incense heads"; p. 86); matong 馬童 (the same as southern
  14. ^ The image is a good synthesis of the basic virtues of Chinese religion and Confucian ethics, that is to say "to move and act according to the harmony of Heaven". The Big Dipper or Great Chariot in Chinese culture (as well as in other traditional cultures) is a symbol of the axis mundi, the source of the universe (God, Tian) in its way of manifestation, order of creation (li or Tao). The symbol, also called the Gate of Heaven (天门 Tiānmén), is widely used in esoteric and mystical literature. For example, an excerpt from Shangqing Taoism's texts:
    "Life and death, separation and convergence, all derive from the seven stars. Thus when the Big Dipper impinges on someone, he dies, and when it moves, he lives. That is why the seven stars are Heaven's chancellor, the yamen where the gate is opened to give life."[161]
  15. ^ The natural order emanating from the primordial God (Tian-Shangdi) inscribes and structures the world (and China in particular) as a tán 壇, "altar", the Chinese concept equivalent of the Indian mandala, that is a reproduction of the work of God on the human and political plane.
    The traditional Chinese religious cosmology shows Huangdi (the Four-Faced God), embodiment of Shangdi, as the hub of the universe and the Wudi (four gods of the directions and the seasons) as his emanations. The diagram illustrated above is based on the Huainanzi.[176]
  16. ^ Scholar Kenneth Dean estimates 680 million people involved in folk temples and rituals. Quote: "According to Dean, "in the rural sector... if one takes a rough figure of 1000 people per village living in 680,000 administrative villages and assume an average of two or three temples per village, one arrives at a figure of over 680 million villagers involved in some way with well over a million temples and their rituals"."[213]
  17. ^ However, that the nature of Chinese folk religion requires a "belief" in addition to a "practice" is controversial. The Chinese folk religion is often considered one of "belonging" rather than "believing" (see: Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 5.)


See also

Some within the Chinese community in India practice the Chinese folk religion. The community of Kolkata have built some "churches" to the Chinese gods.


The Chinese in the city of Phuket are noted for their nine-day vegetarian festival between September and October. During the festive season, devotees will abstain from meat and mortification of the flesh by Chinese mediums are also commonly seen, along with rites devoted to the worship of Tua Pek Kong. Such traditions were developed during the 19th century in Phuket by the local Chinese with influences from Thai culture.[230]

The Chinese folk religion of Thailand has developed local features, including the worship of local gods.[228] Major Chinese festivals such as the Nian, Zhongqiu and Qingming are widely celebrated especially in Bangkok, Phuket, and other parts of Thailand where there are large Chinese populations.[229]

Thailand has a large population of Thai Chinese, people of Chinese or partial Chinese origin. Most of those who follow Buddhism have been integrated into the Theravada Buddhist tradition of the country, with only a negligible minority having retained Chinese Buddhism. However, many others have retained the Chinese folk religions and Taoism.[228] Despite the large number of followers and temples, and although they are practiced freely, these religions have no state recognition, their temples are not counted as places of worship, and their followers are counted as "Theravada Buddhists" in officially released religious figures.[228] In Thailand, Chinese temples are called sanchao (Thai: ศาลเจ้า).[228]

The Tao Kong Pa Temple in Sukhothai Thani, Thailand.


In Malaysia the Malaysian Chinese constitute a large segment of the population, mostly adherent of Mahayana Buddhism. The Chinese traditional religion has a relatively significant following in the states of Sarawak (6%) and Penang (5%). One prominent sect is that of Tua Pek Kong (大伯公 Dabo Gong), and it has incorporated the sect of the Na Tuk Kong (拿督公 Nadu Gong) of local Malay origin.

The Snake Temple in Penang, Malaysia, hosting a Chinese sect of the snake that is unique to the area.


Another movement in Indonesia is the Tridharma (Sanskrit: "religion of the Three"), syncretising elements of different religions, the Chinese three teachings amongst others.[227] After the fall of Suharto rule it is undergoing a process of systematisation of doctrines and rituals.[227] Tridharma temples always consist of three main rooms: the front room for Tian or God, the middle for the main deity of the temple, the back room for the three teachers and their pantheon: Confucius, Laozi, and Buddha. There are also many Taoist associations in Indonesia.

The Master said, "Great indeed was Yao as a sovereign! How majestic was he! It is only Heaven that is grand, and only Yao corresponded to it. How vast was his virtue! The people could find no name for it. How majestic was he in the works which he accomplished! How glorious in the elegant regulations which he instituted!" (VIII, xix, tr. Legge 1893:214)

The first precept of Pancasila (the Five Basic Principles of the Indonesian state) stipulates belief in the one and only God. The Confucian philosophy is able to fulfill this, for Confucius mentioned only one God in his teaching, the Heaven or Shangdi. The Heaven possess the characteristic of Yuan Heng Li Zhen, or Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent, Just.[226]

All religions insist on peace. From this we might think that the religious struggle for peace is simple... but it is not. The deep problem is that people use religion wrongly in pursuit of victory and triumph. This sad fact then leads to conflict with people who have different beliefs.[225]

The Chinese folk religion of the Chinese Indonesians is named "Confucianism", and officially recognised by the government as Agama Khonghucu or religion of Confucius, which was chosen because of the political condition in Indonesia before the end of Suharto rule in 1998, which saw the Chinese religions forbidden and the Chinese forced to convert to Buddhism or Christianity. The Chinese Indonesians had their culture and religious rights restored only after the fourth president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, issued a regulation that recognised "Confucianism" among the legal religions of the country. He said that:

Confucian temple in Jakarta, Indonesia.


Chinese temples in Indonesia and Malaysia are called kelenteng or klenteng in local Malay languages, or alternatively bio, the southern Chinese pronunciation of Mandarin miao ().

In Singapore about 11% of the total population is Taoist, composed by a 14.4% of the Chinese Singaporeans identifying as Taoists.[222] In Malaysia, around 3% of Chinese Malaysians practice Chinese folk religions, corresponding to around 1% of the whole country population.[223] In Indonesia, Taosu Agung Kusumo, leader of the Majelis Agama Tao Indonesia, claims there are 5 million Taoist followers in the country as of 2009.[224]

Being the Chinese folk religion an Yiguandao and Deism, have also succeeded in spreading amongst Southeast Asian Chinese communities.

Southeast Asia

This groundwork, which was already there in imperial China and plays an important role in modern Taiwan,[218] is seen as the driving force in the rapid economic development in parts of rural China, especially the southern and eastern coasts.[219][220] It is an "embedded capitalism", which preserves local identity and autonomy.[221] The drive for individual accumulation of money is tempered by the religious and kinship ethics of generosity in sharing wealth for devotion, ritual, and the construction of the civil society.[221]

Scholars have studied the economic dimension of Chinese folk religion,[216] with its ritual and templar economy that constitutes a form of grassroots capitalism, that produces well-being among local communities through the circulation of wealth and its investment in the "sacred capital" of temples, gods and ancestors.[217]

Folk temple on the rooftop of a commercial building in the city of Wenzhou.

Ritual economy

In Taiwan, Chinese folk religions are mostly subsumed under the label and the institutions of "Taoism", which is the religion of 33% of the population.[215]

A 2010 survey has found the following numbers: 754 million (56.2%) people practice Chinese ancestral veneration, but only 216 million people (16%) believe in the existence of ancestral shen (spirits).[note 17] The same survey says 173 million (13%) adopt Taoist practices on a level which is indistinguishable from the Chinese folk religion.[214]

The Pew Research Center has collected statistics saying that in China 22%[211] of the population practices the Chinese indigenous religion. Another estimate puts it at over 30% of the total population.[212] Kenneth Dean estimates a higher proportion.[note 16]

Mainland China and Taiwan

The Kanteibyo (Temple of Guandi) in Kobe, Japan.


The Chinese dragon (long ) is a very important symbol in Chinese indigenous tradition: it is a positive creature representing yang, and thus the life-giving creative force, the universal generating power (Tian-Shangdi) and qi,[70] from which also the kin lineage.[209][210]

As in Taoism, also in the Chinese folk religion the yin and yang concept can be represented through the taijitu symbol, but also in pairs of complementary figures such as the dragon and the phoenix, heaven and earth, or water and fire. The taijitu is often represented in the hands of creator deities such as Pangu, who represent the originating principle separating into heaven and earth. The bagua of I Ching is also a symbol used in Chinese folk religion.

Chinese folk religion followers and temples make use of different symbols, from symbols with cosmological or generative significance to symbols peculiar of specific deities, lineages or areas.

Detail of the Nine Dragons scroll painting by Chen Rong, 1244, Song dynasty.


Ancestral shrines are sacred places in which lineages of related families, identified by shared surnames, worship their common progenitors. These temples are the "collective representation" of a group, and function as centers where religious, social and economic activities intersect.[208]

Folk religious temples are distinct from Taoist temples in that they are established and administered by local managers, village communities, lineage congregations and worship associations, and don't have professional priests, although Taoist daoshi, fashi, Confucian lisheng, and also wu and tongji shamans, may perform services within these temples. Folk temples are often decorated with traditional figures on their roofs (dragons and deities).

Temples of the Chinese folk religion can be distinguished into miao () or dian (殿), meaning "temple"; private temples (simiao 私庙 or jiamiao 家庙), or ancestral shrines or temples (citang 祠堂, zongci 宗祠 or zumiao 祖庙; dedicated to ancestory gods and heroes, deified virtuous men). The terms have often been used interchangeably. However miao is the general Chinese term for "temple" understood as "sacred precinct". In Chinese folk religion this term is mostly associated to temples which enshrine nature gods and patron gods, especially when these temples are focal points of a deity's cult. The term 祠, literally "shrine", or shéncí (神祠 "shrine of a god"), besides referring to the ancestral shrines, also refers to lesser, informal, places for the worship of a god. Another term of common usage is gong ("palace"), referring to a temple complex of multiple buildings. The jing is a broader "territory of a god" that is constituted by multiple temples or complexes of temples and delineated by the processions.

Temple of the Highest Goddess (Taimu dian) in Fuding, Ningde, Fujian. The compound has a small ancient pavilion and a larger modern one behind of it.

Places of worship

In the holistic view about nature and the human body and life, as macro and microcosmos, the life process of a human being is equated with the rhythm of seasons and cosmic changes.[207] Hence, birth is likened to spring, youth to summer, maturity to autumn and old age to winter.[207]

A variety of practices are concerned with personal well-being and spiritual growth.[207] Rites of passage are intended to narrate the holy significance of each crucial change throughout a life course.[207] These changes, which are biological and physical and at the same time also social and spiritual, are marked by elaborate social customs and religious rituals.[207]

Guan Li, Confucian coming of age ceremony.

Rites of passage

This rite, of great political importance, can be intended for the whole nation.[206] In fact, as early as the Song dynasty, emperors asked renowned Taoists to perform such rituals on their behalf or for the entire nation.[206] The modern Chinese republic has given approval for Taoists to conduct such rituals since the 1990s, with the aim of protecting the country and the nation.[206]

The aims of rituals and sacrifices may be of thanksgiving and redeeming, usually involving both.[204] Various sacrifices are intended to express gratitude toward the gods in the hope that spiritual blessing and protection will continue.[204] The jiào 醮, an elaborate Taoist sacrifice or "rite of universal salvation", is intended to be a cosmic community renewal, that is to say a reconciliation of a community around its spiritual centre.[206] The jiao ritual usually starts with zhai, "fasting and purification", that is meant as an atonement for evil-doing, then followed by sacrificial offerings.[206]

Thanksgiving and redeeming

Both in past history and at the present, all sacrifices are assigned with both religious and political purposes.[204] Some gods are considered carnivorous, for example Heshen (河神) or the Longwang (龙王), and offering to them requires animal sacrifice.[205]

Sacrifices usually differ according to the kind of deity they are devoted to.[203] Traditionally, cosmic and nature gods are offered uncooked (or whole) food, while ancestors are offered cooked food.[203] Moreover, sacrifices for gods are made inside the temples that enshrine them, while sacrifices for ancestors are made outside temples.[203] Yearly sacrifices (ji) are made to Confucius, the Red and Yellow Emperor, and other cultural heroes and ancestors.[203]

Classical Chinese has characters for different types of sacrifice, probably the oldest way to communicate with divine forces, today generally encompassed by the definition jìsì 祭祀.[197] However different in scale and quantity, all types of sacrifice would normally involve food, wine, meat and later incense.[203]

Animal sacrifice held for a miaohui (temple gathering) at the Temple of Earth, one of the major imperial ceremonial centers of Beijing dedicated to gods of nature.


Deities can also be respected through moral deeds in their name (shanshi 善事), and self-cultivation (xiuxing 修行).[200] Some forms of folk religion develop clear prescriptions for believers, such as detailed lists of meritorious and sinful deeds in the form of "morality books" (shanshu 善书) and ledgers of merit and demerit.[201] Involvement in the affairs of communal or intra-village temples are perceived by believers as ways for accumulating merit (gongde 功德).[201] Virtue is believed to accumulate in one's heart, which is seen as energetic centre of the human body (zai jun xin zuo tian fu 在君心作福田).[202] Practices of communication with the gods comprehend different forms of Chinese shamanism, such as wu shamanism and tongji mediumship, or fuji practice.

A simple form of individual practice is to show respect for the gods (jing shen 敬神) through jingxiang (incense offering), and the exchange of vows (huan yuan 还愿).[110] Sacrifice can consist of incense, oil, and candles, as well as money.[199] Religious devotion may also express in the form of performance troupes (huahui), involving many types of professionals such as stilt walkers, lion dancers, musicians, martial arts masters, yangge dancers, and story-tellers.[199]

[52] Leaders are usually selected among male heads of families or lineages, or village heads.[52] Being Chinese culture a

Generally speaking, the Chinese believe that spiritual and material well-being ensues from the harmony of humanity and gods in their participation in the same cosmic power, and also believe that by taking the right path and practice anybody is able to reach the absolute reality.[197] Religious practice is therefore regarded as the bridge to link the human world to the spiritual source,[197] maintaining the harmony of the micro and macrocosmos, protecting the individual and the world from disruption.[110] In this sense, the Chinese view of human life is not deterministic, but one is a master of his own life and can choose to collaborate with the deities for a harmonious world.[110]

  • Discursive-scriptural mode, involving the composition, preaching, and recitation of texts (classics, Taoist scriptures and morality books);
  • Personal cultivation mode, involving a long-term cultivation and transformation of oneself with the goal of becoming a xian 仙 (immortal), zhenren 真人 ("true person"), or shengren (wise), through the practice of different "technologies of the self" (qigong 气功, Taoist inner and outer alchemy, charitable acts for merit, memorisation and recitation of texts);
  • Liturgical mode, involving elaborate ritual procedures conducted by specialists of rites (Taoist rites, Confucian rites, Nuo rites, fengshui 风水);
  • Immediate practical mode, aiming at quick efficacious (ling 灵) results through simple ritual and magical techniques (divination, talismans, divine medicine, consulting media and shamans);
  • Relational mode, emphasising the devotional relationship between men and deities and among men themselves (organising elaborate pilgrimages, processions, and religious communities) in "social comings and goings" (laiwang 來往) and "interconnectedness" (guanxi 关系).

Adam Yuet Chau (2011) identifies five styles of "doing" Chinese religion:[196]

Scholars have defined the Chinese traditional religion as "polytropic" (poly, "many"; tropoi, "turnings")[196] that is to say an underlying way of being that expresses itself through different "modalities" or "styles" of "doing religion".[196] This creates a context of dialectical competition between different modalities of doing religion and within each modality itself.[196]

A Taoist rite for ancestor worship at the Xiao ancestral temple of Chaoyang, Shantou, Guangdong.
People reciting scriptures and other worshipers at the Mengjia Longshan Temple in Taipei.
Procession with a traveling image of a god (xíngshén 行神) in central Taiwan.

Worship and practical polytropy

Other goddesses worshipped in China include Canmu[lower-roman 13] (蚕母 "Silkworm Mother"; or Cangu 蚕姑, "Silkworm Maiden"),[189] identified with Leizu (嫘祖, the wife of the Yellow Emperor), Magu (麻姑 "Hemp Maiden"), Saoqing Niangniang (扫清娘娘 "Goddess who Sweeps Clean"),[lower-roman 14][195] Sanzhou Niangniang (三洲娘娘 "Goddess of the Three Isles"),[195] and Wusheng Laomu, the goddess that is the central idea of many of the folk religious sects.[189]

Altars of goddess worship are usually arranged with Bixia at the center and two goddesses at her sides, most frequently the Lady of Eyesight and the Lady of Offspring.[191] A different figure but with the same astral connections as Bixia is the Qixing Niangniang (七星娘娘 "Goddess of the Seven Stars").[lower-roman 12] There is also the cluster of the Holy Mothers of the Three Skies (三霄聖母 Sanxiao Shengmu; or "Ladies of the Three Skies", 三霄娘娘 Sanxiao Niangniang), composed of Yunxiao Guniang, Qiongxiao Guniang and Bixiao Guniang.[192] In southeastern provinces the cult of Chen Jinggu (陳靖姑) is identified by some scholars as an emanation of the northern cult of Bixia.[193]

  • Banzhen Niangniang (癍疹娘娘), the goddess who protects children from illness;
  • Cuisheng Niangniang (催生娘娘), the goddess who gives swift childbirth and protects midwives;
  • Naimu Niangniang (奶母娘娘), the goddess who presides over maternal milk and protects nursing;
  • Peigu Niangniang (培姑娘娘), the goddess who strengthens young girls;
  • Peiyang Niangniang (培养娘娘), the goddess who protects the upbringing of children;
  • Songzi Niangniang (送子娘娘) or Zisun Niangniang (子孙娘娘), the goddess who presides over offspring;
  • Yanguang Niangniang (眼光娘娘), the goddess who protects eyesight;
  • Yinmeng Niangniang (引蒙娘娘), the goddess who guides young children.

The worship of mother goddesses for the cultivation of offspring is present all over China, but predominantly in northern provinces. There are nine main goddesses, and all of them tend to be considered as manifestations or attendant forces of a singular goddess identified variously as Bixia (Bìxiá Yuánjūn 碧霞元君, the "Princess of the Blue Dawn"; also known as Tiānxiān Niángniáng 天仙娘娘, "Heavenly Immortal Lady", or Tàishān Niángniáng 泰山娘娘, "Lady of Mount Tai",[lower-roman 10] or also Jiǔtiān Shèngmǔ 九天圣母,[187] "Holy Mother of the Nine Skies"[lower-roman 11])[188] or Houtu, the goddess of the earth.[189] Bixia herself is identified by Taoists as the more ancient goddess Xiwangmu,[190] Goddesses are commonly entitled (母 "mother"), lǎomǔ (老母 "old mother"), shèngmǔ (圣母 "Holy Mother"), niángniáng (娘娘 "lady"), nǎinai (奶奶 "granny"). The additional eight main goddesses of fertility, reproduction and growth are:[191]

Temple of Houtu in Jiexiu, Shanxi.

Bixia and mother goddess worship

  • Huashen (花神 "Flower Goddess"), Huxian (狐仙 "Fox Immortal"; also called Hushen 狐神, "Fox Goddess", or Huxian Niangniang 狐仙娘娘, "Fox Immortal Lady"),[lower-roman 9] the two other great fox deities Husan Taiye (胡三太爷 "Grandfather Fox") and Husan Tainai (胡三太奶 "Grandmother Vixen") representing the yin and yang,[lower-roman 9] Mashen (马神 "Horse God"; also called Mawang 马王, "Horse King"),[lower-roman 4] Niushen (牛神 "Ox God"; also called Niuwang 牛王, "Ox King"),[lower-roman 4] Langshen (狼神 "Wolf God"),[lower-roman 4] Shushen (树神 "Tree God(s)"), Wugushen (五谷神 "Five Cereals God(s)"),[lower-roman 4] Zhimashen (芝蔴神 "Sesame God").[lower-roman 4]
Animal and vegetal life gods
  • Wéndi (文帝 "Culture Deity"): in southern provinces this deity is mostly personified as Wenchangwang (文昌王 "King who Makes Culture Thrive") or Wenchangdi (文昌帝 "Deity who Makes Culture Thrive"), while in the north he is frequently Confucius (Kongzi 孔夫子). Another god of culture and literature, as well as examination, is Kuixing (魁星 "Chief Star", a personification of the man who awakens to the order of the Great Chariot).
  • Wǔdì (武帝 "Military Deity"): Guandi (关帝 "Deity Guan"; also called Guangong 关公, "Duke Guan",[lower-roman 3] and commonly Guanyu 关羽).[lower-roman 2] A different class is that of the Zhanshen (战神 "Fight God") who can be personified by Chiyou (蚩尤) or Xingtian (刑天, who was decapitated for fighting against Tian).
  • Baoshengdadi (保生大帝 "Great Deity who Protects Life"),[lower-roman 7] Baxian (八仙 "Eight Immortals"), Caishen (財神 "Wealth God"),[lower-roman 2] Cangjie (仓颉) the four-eyed inventor of the Chinese characters, Chenghuangshen (城隍神 "Boundary God", "City-Moat God", the god of the sacred boundaries of a human agglomeration; he is often personified by founding fathers or noble personalities from each city or town),[lower-roman 2] Chen Jinggu (陈靖姑; also called Linshui Furen 临水夫人, "Water-Margin Lady"),[lower-roman 7] Cheshen (車神 "Vehicle God"),[lower-roman 4] Erlangshen (二郎神) the god of engineering, Guangzi Zunwang (广泽尊王 "Honourable King of Great Compassion"),[lower-roman 7] Guanyin (观音 "Hearing the Cries of the World") the goddess of mercy,[lower-roman 2] Huang Daxian (黄大仙 "Great Immortal Huang"), Jigong (济公), Longmu (龙母 "Dragon Mother", an exemplary figure of filial piety), the god of carpentry Lu Ban (鲁班), Lushen (路神 "Road God"),[lower-roman 4] Mazu (妈祖 "Ancestral Mother" often entitled Tianhou[lower-roman 1]),[lower-roman 8] Qingshui Zushi (清水祖师 "Venerable Patriarch of the Clear Stream"),[lower-roman 7] Taoshen (陶神 "Pottery God"),[lower-roman 4] Tuershen (兔儿神 "Leveret God") the god of love among males, Wuxian (五显),[lower-roman 7] Xishen (喜神 "Joy God"), Yaowang (药王 "Medicine King"; or Yaoshen 药神, "Medicine God"),[lower-roman 4] Yidi (儀狄; or Jiushen 酒神, "Wine God"),[lower-roman 4] Yuexia Laoren (月下老人 "Old Man Under the Moon", the matchmaker who pairs lovers together), Yùshen (狱神 "Jail-Purgatory God"),[lower-roman 4] and the household deities including Ceshen (厕神 "Toilet God"), Chuangshen (床神 "Bed God"), Zaoshen (灶神 "Hearth God") and Menshen (门神 "Gate God(s)").
  • Li Jing, the Tuotali Tianwang (托塔李天王 "Tower-Wielding Heavenly King") and his three sons, the warlike protector deities Jinzha (金吒), Muzha (木吒) and Nezha (哪吒).
  • Sanxing (三星), a cluster of three astral gods of well being:
    • Fuxing (福星 "Prosperity Star"), a god of happiness.
    • Luxing (禄星 "Firmness Star"), a god of firmness and success in life and examinations.
    • Shouxing (寿星 "Longevity Star"), who stands for a healthy and long life.
Temple of Mazu Tianhou[lower-roman 1] in Qingdao, Shandong.
Temple of Longmu in Deqing, Guangdong.
Guan Yu (middle), Guan Ping (his right) and Zhou Cang (his left) at a Chinese folk religious temple in Osaka, Japan. Guandi is one of the most beloved gods of the Chinese.
Gods of human phenomena (virtue, craft and civilisation)
  • Longshen (龙神 "Dragon Gods") or Longwang (龙王 "Dragon Kings"),[lower-roman 6] also Sihai Longwang (四海龙王 "Dragon Kings of the Four Seas"), are gods of watery sources, usually reduced to four, patrons of the Four Seas (sihai 四海) and the four cardinal directions. They are the White Dragon (白龙 Báilóng), the Black Dragon (玄龙 Xuánlóng), the Red Dragon (朱龙 Zhūlóng), and the Blue Dragon or Green Dragon (青龙 Qīnglóng). Corresponding with the Five Deities as the chthonic forces that they sublimate (the Dragon Gods are often represented as the "mount" of the Five Deities), they inscribe the land of China into an ideal sacred squared boundary. The fifth dragon, the Yellow Dragon (黄龙 Huánglóng), is the dragon of the centre representing Huangdi and the source of the universe itself.
  • Baoshen (雹神 "Hail God"),[lower-roman 4] Bazha (八蜡)[lower-roman 4] and Chongwang ("Insect King")[lower-roman 4] the gods of insects, Doushen (痘神 "Smallpox God"),[lower-roman 4] Fei Lian (飞帘; or Fengshen 风神, "Wind God"),[lower-roman 4] Heshen (河神 "River God"; any watercourse god among which one of the most revered is the god of the Yellow River),[lower-roman 4] Gushen (谷神 "Valley God", in the Daodejing a name used to refer to the Way[185]), Huoshen (火神 "Fire God") often personified as Zhurong (祝融),[lower-roman 4] Jinshen (金神 "Gold God") often identified as the Qiushen (秋神 "Autumn God") and personified as Rushou (蓐收), Jingshen (井神 "Waterspring God"),[185] Leishen (雷神 "Thunder God", or Leigong 雷公, "Thunder Duke"[lower-roman 3]) and his consort Dianmu (电母 "Lightning Mother"), Mushen (木神 "Wood God") usually the same as Chunshen (春神 "Spring God") and Jumang (句芒), Shanshen (山神 "Mountain God", a type of gods of hills and mountains), Shuishen (水神 "Water God"), Tudishen (土地神 "God of the Local Land"; also called Tushen 土神, "Earth God", or Tudigong 土地公, "Duke of Local Land"[lower-roman 3]) the tutelary deity of any locality whose female counterpart is Houtu (后土 "Queen of the Earth"),[lower-roman 2] Wēnshen (瘟神 "Plague God"),[lower-roman 4] Xueshen (雪神 "Snow God"), Yǔshen (雨神 "Rain God"),[lower-roman 4] Xihe (羲和; also called Taiyangshen 太阳神, "Great Yang Goddess", or Shirizhimu 十日之母, "Mother of the Ten Suns") the solar deity,[lower-roman 2] the lunar deities Changxi (常羲; or Yueshen 月神, "Moon Goddess", or also Shi'eryuezhimu 十二月之母, "Mother of the Twelve Moons") and Chang'e (嫦娥).
Temple of Fengshen (Wind God) in Tainan.
Gods of astral and terrestrial phenomena

Mythologically, Huangdi and Yandi fought a battle against each other; and Huang finally defeated Yan with the help of the Dragon (the controller of water, who is Huangdi himself).[184] This myth symbolises the equipoise of yin and yang, here the fire of knowledge (reason and craft) and earthly stability.[184] Yan 炎 is flame, scorching fire, or an excess of it (it is important to notice that graphically it is a double 火 huo, "fire").[184] As an excess of fire brings destruction to the earth, it has to be controlled by a ruling principle. Nothing is good in itself, without limits; good outcomes depend on the proportion in the composition of things and their interactions, never on extremes in absolute terms.[184] Huangdi and Yandi are complementary opposites, necessary for the existence of one another, and they are powers that exist together within the human being.

  • Sancai (三才 "Trinity", "Three Powers") or Sanhuang (三皇 "Three Augusts"); they are the "vertical" manifestation of the primordial God, representing the yin and yang and the medium between them, that is the human being:[177]
    • Fuxi (伏羲) the heavenly august (天皇 Tiānhuáng), also called Bagua zushi (八卦祖师 "Venerable Inventor of the Bagua") by the Taoists, is a divine man reputed to have taught to humanity writing, fishing, and hunting.
    • Nüwa (女娲) the earthly august (地皇 Dehuáng), is a goddess attributed for the creation of mankind and mending the order of the world when it was broken.
    • Shennong (神农) the human august (人皇 Rénhuáng), identified as Yandi (炎帝, "Flame Deity" or "Fiery Deity"), a divine man said to have taught the techniques of farming, herbal medicine and marketing. He is often represented as a human with horns and other features of an ox.[178]
  • Wǔdì (五帝 "Five Deities"),[179] also Wufang Shangdi (五方上帝 "Five Manifestations of the Primordial Deity"), Wufang Tianshen (五方天神 "Five Manifestations of the Heaven God"), Wufangdi (五方帝 "Five Manifestation Deities"), Wutiandi (五天帝 "Five Heavenly Deities"), Wulaojun (五老君 "Five Ancient Lords"), Wudaoshen (五道神 "Five Ways Gods"); they are the five main "horizontal" manifestations of the primordial God and according with the Three Powers they have a celestial, a terrestrial and a chthonic form. They correspond to the Wuxing (五行, five phases of creation), the five constellations rotating around the celestial pole, the Wuyue (五岳 "Five Mountains") or five directions of space (their terrestrial form), and the five Dragon Gods which represent their mounts, that is to say the material creative forces they preside over (their chthonic form).[180][181]
    • Huangdi (黄帝 "Yellow Emperor"; or Huangshen, 黄神 "Yellow God"), also known as Xuanyuan shi (轩辕氏 "Venerable Regulator") and Zhongyuedadi (中岳大帝 "God of the Central Peak"): he represents the essence of earth and the Yellow Dragon.[1] The character 黄 huáng, for "yellow", also means, by homophony and shared etymology with 皇 huáng, "august", "creator" and "radiant", identifying the Yellow Emperor with Shangdi (the "Shining Deity").[182] Huangdi represents the hub of creation, the axis mundi (Kunlun) that is the manifestation of the divine order in physical reality, that opens to immortality.[1] Symbolically, he is the intersection between the Three Powers and the Five Deities; in the Shizi he is described as "Yellow Emperor with Four Faces" (黄帝四面 Huángdì Sìmiàn).[183] As a human, myths tell that Xuanyuan was fruit of virginal birth; his mother Fubao conceived him after seeing the great lightning around the Big Dipper (swastika).[2] He is reputed to be the founder of Huaxia, initiator of China, and the Han Chinese identify themselves as the descendants of Yandi and Huangdi.
    • Cangdi (蒼帝 "Green Deity"; or Qingdi, 青帝 "Blue Deity"), the Dongdi (东帝 "East Deity") or Dongyuedadi (东岳大帝 "God of the Eastern Peak"): he is Taihao 太昊, associated with the essence of wood, and is a god of fertility and spring. The Green Dragon is both his animal form and constellation.[1] His female consort is the goddess of fertility Bixia.
    • Heidi (黑帝 "Black Deity"), the Beidi (北帝 "North Deity") or Beiyuedadi (北岳大帝 "God of the Northern Peak"): he is Zhuanxu (颛顼), today frequently worshipped as Xuanwu (玄武 "Dark Warrior") or Zhenwu (真武), and is associated with the essence of water and winter. His animal form is the Black Dragon and his stellar animal is the tortoise-snake.[1]
    • Chidi (赤帝 "Red Deity"), the Nandi (南帝 "South Deity") or Nanyuedadi (南岳大帝 "God of the Southern Peak"): he is Shennong (the "Divine Farmer"), Yandi ("Fiery Deity"), and his essence is fire, his animal form the Red Dragon and the stellar animal the phoenix. He is the god of agriculture, animal husbandry, medicinal plants and market.[1]
    • Baidi (白帝 "White Deity"), the Xidi (西帝 "West Deity") or Xiyuedadi (西岳大帝 "God of the Western Peak"): he is Shaohao (少昊), and is the god of the essence of metal and autumn. His animal form is the White Dragon and his stellar animal the tiger.
  • Sanguan (三官 "Three Observers [of the Way of Heaven]"): Yao 尧 the "Observer of Heaven" (Tiānguān 天官), Shun 舜 the "Observer of Earth" (Deguān 地官), and Yu 禹 the "Observer of Water" (Shuǐguān 水官).
  • Yi the Archer (后羿), who sought for immortality reaching Xiwangmu on her mountain Kunlun.
Temple of the Great God of the Eastern Peak in Jian'ou, Fujian.
Altar of the Three Observers at a temple in Taichung, Taiwan.
Statue and ceremonial complex of Huangdi and Yandi in Zhengzhou, Henan.
Emanation of the primordial God (Tian) and great thearchs[lower-roman 5][note 15]
  • Yudi (玉帝 "Jade Deity") or Yuhuang (玉皇 "Jade Emperor" or "Jade King"),[note 7] the human-like representation of Tian (Shangdi). Jade traditionally represents purity, so it is a metaphor for the unfathomable source of creation.
  • Doumu (斗母 "Mother of the Meaning" or "Great Chariot"), often entitled with the honorific Tianhou (天后 "Queen of Heaven")[lower-roman 1] is the heavenly goddess representing the Big Dipper (Great Chariot), which seven stars in addition to two not visible ones are the Jiuhuangdadi (九皇大帝 "Nine Great Divine Kings") her sons. She is the consort of Shangdi, also named Doufu (斗父 "Father of the Great Chariot").
  • Pangu (盘古), a macranthropic metaphor of the cosmos. He separated yin and yang creating the earth (murky yin) and the sky (clear yang), and from his body all things were made after he died.
  • Xiwangmu (西王母 "Queen Mother of the West"),[lower-roman 2] identified with the Kunlun Mountain, shamanic inspiration, death and immortality.[170][171] She is the dark, chthonic goddess, pure yin, at the same time terrifying and benign, both creation and destruction, associated with the tiger and weaving.[172] Her male counterpart is Dongwanggong (东王公 "King Duke of the East";[lower-roman 3] also called Mugong, 木公 "Duke of the Woods"),[173] who represents the yang principle.[172]
  • Yanwang (阎王 "Purgatory King")[lower-roman 4] the ruler of the underworld, assisted by the Heibai Wuchang (黑白无常 "Black and White Impermanence") representing the alternation of yin and yang principles, alongside Ox-Head and Horse-Face, who escort spirits to his realm.
  • Yinyanggong (陰陽公 "Yinyang Duke"[lower-roman 3]) or Yinyangsi (陰陽司 "Yinyang Controller"), the personification of the union of yin and yang.
Main gods representing axial ideas, metaphysical and mystical concepts

There are many books with lists and hierarchies of gods and immortals (神仙 shénxiān), among which the Completed Record of Immortals (神仙通鉴 Shenxian tongjian) of the Ming dynasty,[94] and the Biographies of Immortals (神仙传 Shenxian zhuan) by Ge Hong (284-343).[165]

A temple dedicated to Pangu in Zhunan, Miaoli.
Main altar and statue of Doumu inside the Temple of Doumu in Butterworth, Penang, Malaysia.

Deities and immortals—shenxian

Deities reflect the pattern or structure of development of the universe, in a hierarchy in which each god presides an aspect of reality.[12] The multifarious representation of God and deities in the Chinese cultural tradition indicates a hierarchical, multiperspective experience of divinity.[162] There are the great ancestral gods—the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors; the sky gods—Sun, Moon and the Stars; the gods of weather—Wind, Rain, Cloud, Thunder and Lightning; the scenery gods—the Five Mountains, the Three Hills, River, Lake and Sea; the vegetal gods—the Five Cereals, Flower, Wood; and the animal gods—Dragon, Phoenix, Crane, Unicorn and Turtle.[76] There are also many gods of Taoism and folk sects with long kataphatic names.[76]

In comparison with gods of an environmental nature, who tend to remain stable throughout human experience and history, individual human deities change in time. Some endure for centuries, while others remain localised cults, or vanish after a short time.[163] Immortal beings are conceived as "constellations of qi", which is so vibrant in certain historical individuals that, upon the person's death, this qi nexus does not dissipate but persists, and is reinforced by living people's worship.[168] The energetic power of a god is thought to redound on the worshipers influencing their fortune.[168]

Among those worshipped as immortal heroes (xian, exalted beings) are historical individuals distinguished for their worth or bravery, those who taught crafts to others and formed societies establishing the order of Heaven, ancestors or progenitors (zu 祖), and the creators of a spiritual tradition.[92][167] The concept of "human divinity" is not self-contradictory, as there is no unbridgeable gap between the two realms; rather, the divine and the human are mutually contained.[166]

Taoist schools in particular espouse an explicit spiritual pathway which pushes the earthly beings to the edge of eternity.[96] Since the human body is a microcosm, enlivened by the universal order of yin and yang like the whole cosmos, the means of immortality can be found within oneself.[96]

In the Doctrine of the Mean, one of the Confucian four books, the zhenren (wise) is the man who has achieved a spiritual status developing his true sincere nature.[166] This status, in turn, enables him to fully develop the true nature of others and of all things.[166] The sage is able to "assist the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth", forming a trinity (三才 Sāncái, the "Three Powers") with them.[166] In other words, in the Chinese tradition humans are or can be the medium between Heaven and Earth, and have the role of completing what had been initiated.[note 11]

In folk religions, gods (shen) and immortals (xian 仙) are not specifically distinguished from each other.[165] Gods can incarnate in human form and human beings can reach immortality, which means to attain higher spirituality, since all the spiritual principles (gods) are begotten of the primordial qi before any physical manifestation.[94]

In Chinese tradition, there is not a clear distinction between the gods and their physical body or bodies (from stars to trees and animals);[163] the qualitative difference between the two seems not to have ever been emphasised.[163] Rather, the disparity is said to be more quantitative than qualitative.[163] In doctrinal terms, the Chinese view of gods is related to the understanding of qi, the life force,[163] as the gods and their phenomenical productions are manifestations of it.[163] In this way, all natural bodies are believed to be able to attain supernatural attributes by acting according to the universal oneness.[163] Meanwhile, acting wickedly (that is to say against the Tian and its order) brings to disgrace and disaster.[164]

Chinese religions are polytheistic, meaning that many deities are worshipped as part of what has been defined as yǔzhòu shénlùn (宇宙神论), loosely translated as "cosmotheism", a worldview in which divinity is inherent to the world itself.[76] The gods (shen 神; "growth", "beings that give birth"[162]) are interwoven energies or principles that generate phenomena which reveal or reproduce the way of Heaven, that is to say the order (li) of the Great One (Tian).[note 6]

Hierarchy of Tian, human divinity and polytheism

Kui Xing, the god of exams, made up of the characters describing the four Confucian virtues (Sìde 四德), standing on the head of the ao (鰲) turtle (an expression for coming first in the examinations), and pointing at the Dipper (斗)".[note 14]


Along the southeastern coast, ritual functions of the folk religion are reportedly dominated by Taoism, both in registered and unregistered forms (Zhengyi Taoism and unrecognised fashi orders), which since the 1990s has developed quickly in the area.[159][160]

In recent years there has also been an assimilation of deities from Tibetan folk religion, especially wealth gods.[157] In Tibet, across broader western China, and in Inner Mongolia, there has been a growth of the cult of Gesar with the explicit support of the Chinese government, a cross-ethnic Han-Tibetan, Mongol and Manchu deity (the Han identify him as an aspect of the god of war analogically with Guandi) and culture hero whose mythology is embodied as a culturally important epic poem.[158]

The folk religion of northeastern China (Dongbei) has unique characteristics deriving from the interaction of Han folk faiths with Tungus and Manchu shamanisms; these include chuma xian (出馬仙 "riding (for the) the immortal gods") shamanism, the worship of foxes and other animal deities, and the fox god and goddess—Húsān Tàiyé (胡三太爷) and Húsān Tàinǎi (胡三太奶)—at the head of pantheons.[156] Otherwise, in the religious context of Inner Mongolia there has been a significant integration of Han Chinese into the traditional folk religion of the region.

Northern and southern folk religions also have a different pantheon, of which the northern one composed by more ancient gods of Chinese mythology.[154] Furthermore, folk religious sects have historically been more successful in the central plains than in southern China and central-northern folk religion shares characteristics of the sects, especially the heavy importance of mother goddess worship.[155]

In contrast with the folk religion of southern and southeastern provinces—which fabric is constituted fundamentally by the miaohui 庙会), involving processions and pilgrimages,[153] and led by indigenous ritual masters (fashi) who are often hereditary and linked to secular authority.[note 13]

Altar to Baoshengdadi, whose cult is mostly Fujianese and Taiwanese.
The Temple of the Mother Goddess of the Yellow River (黄河女神 Huánghé Nǚshén), a folk religious focus of a new residential suburb of the city of Qingtongxia, Ningxia, is possibly one of the biggest temples in China.

Northern and southern typological differences

The Weixinist church, which headquarters are in Taiwan, is also active in Mainland China in the key birthplaces of the Chinese culture. It has a contract with Henan government for building the "City of Eight Trigrams" templar complex on Yunmeng Mountain (of the Yan Mountains),[149] and it has also built temples in Hebei.[150]

Weixinism (Chinese: 唯心聖教; pinyin: Wéixīn shèngjiào; literally: "Holy Religion of the Only Heart" or simply 心聖教; Wéixīnjiào) is a religion primarily based on the "orthodox lineages of Yijing and feng shui",[146] the Hundred Schools of Thought,[147] and worship of the "three great ancestors" (Huangdi, Yandi and Chiyou).[148] The movement promotes the restoration of the authentic roots of the Chinese civilization and Chinese reunification.[147]


The religions focus on the worship of Tiandi (天帝), the "Heavely God" or "Heavenly Emperor",[142] on health through the proper cultivation of qi,[142] and teach a style of qigong named Tianren qigong.[143] According to scholars, Tiandi teachings derive from the Taoist tradition of Huashan,[144] where Li Yujie studied for eight years.[145] The Tiandi church is very active both in Taiwan and mainland China, where it has high-level links.[142]

The Tiandi teachings (Chinese: 天帝教; pinyin: Tiāndìjiào; literally: "teachings of the Heaven God") is a religion that encompasses two branches, Tiandi and Tiande (天德, "Heavenly Virtue"), emerged from the techings of Xiao Changming and Li Yujie, disseminated in the early 20th century.[142] Tiandi is actually a later sprout of Tiande, established in the 1980s.[142]

Tiandi teachings

A further distinctive type of sects of the folk religion, that are possibly the same with the positive "secret sects", are the martial sects. They combine two aspects: the wenchang (文场 "cultural field"), that is the doctrinal aspect characterised by elborate cosmologies, theologies, initiatory and ritual patterns, and that is usually kept secretive ; and the wuchang (武场 "martial field"), that is the body cultivation practice and that is usually the "public face" of the sect.[141] They were outlawed by Ming imperial edicts that continued until the fall of the Qing dynasty in the 20th century.[141] An example of martial sect is the Meihuaquan (梅花拳 "Plum Flower Boxing"), that has become very popular throughout northern China.[141] In Taiwan, virtually all of the "redemptive societies" operate freely since the late 1980s.

[140]).Japan or Guomindang) to distinguish the paesant "secret societies" with a positive dimension of the Yuan, Ming and Qing periods, from the negatively viewed "secret societies" of the early republic that became instruments of anti-revolutionary forces (the mìmì jiàomén Recent scholarship has created the label of "secret sects" (祕密教門 [140]).zōngjiào yìduān doctrines" (宗教異端 heretical, and often labeled as "early republican period They became very popular in the [140] They are religious communities of [139]).mìmì jiéshè, or 秘密結社 mìmì shèhuì, 祕密社會 huìdàomén Another category that has been sometimes confused with that of the sects of salvation by the scholarly narrative, is that of the secret societies (會道門

Many of the redemptive religions of the 20th and 21st century aspire to become the repository of the entirety of the Chinese tradition in the face of Western modernism and materialism.[135] This group of religions includes[136] Putian region (Xinghua) of Fujian where it is legally recognised.[21] Some of them began to register as branches of the official Taoist Association since the 1990s.[138]

They are characterised by egalitarianism; a foundation through a charismatic figure and a direct divine revelation; a millenarian eschatology and a voluntary path of salvation; an embodied experience of the numinous through healing and cultivation; and an expansive orientation through good deeds, evangelism and philanthropy.[134] Their practices are focused on their moral teachings, body cultivation, and recitation of scriptures.[128]

The 20th-century expression of this kind of religions has been studied under Prasenjit Duara's definition of "redemptive societies" (救世团体 jiùshì tuántǐ),[130][131] while modern Chinese scholarship tends to describe them as "folk religious sects" (民間宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào, 民间教门 mínjiān jiàomén or 民间教派 mínjiān jiàopài),[132] abandoning the ancient derogatory definition of xiéjiào (邪教), "evil religion".[133]

China has a long history of sect traditions characterised by a soteriological and eschatological character, often called "salvationist religions" (救度宗教 jiùdù zōngjiào),[128] emerged from the traditional folk faith but neither ascribable to the lineage cult of ancestors and progenitors, nor to the communal-liturgical religion of village temples, neighbourhood, corporation, or national temples.[129]

Tianyuanggong, a temple of Yiguandao in Tamsui, New Taipei, Taiwan.

Organised folk religious sects

Lineages of ritual masters (法師 fashi), also referred to as practitioners of "Faism", also called "Folk Taoism" or (in southeast China) "Red Taoism", operate within the Chinese folk religion but outside institutional or official Taoism.[126] The ritual masters, who have the same role of the sanju daoshi within the fabric of society, aren't considered Taoist priests by the daoshi of Taoism who trace their lineage to the Celestial Masters. Fashi are defined as of "kataphatic" (filling) character in opposition to professional Taoists who are "kenotic" (of emptying, or apophatic, character).[127]

Some currents of Taoism are interwoven with the Chinese folk religion, especially the Zhengyi school, developing aspects of local cults within their doctrines;[7] however Taoists always highlight the distinction between their traditions and those which aren't Taoist. The daoshi (道士, "masters of the Tao") of the Zhengyi school, who are called sanju daoshi (散居道士) or huoju daoshi (火居道士), respectively meaning "scattered daoshi" and "daoshi living at home", because they can get married and perform the profession of priests as a part-time occupation, may perform rituals of offering (jiao), thanks-giving, propitiation, exorcism and rites of passage for local communities' temples and private homes.[125] Local gods of local cultures are often incorporated into their altars.[125] The Zhengyi sanju daoshi are trained by other priests of the same sect, and historically received formal ordination by the Celestial Master,[126] although the 63rd Celestial Master Zhang Enpu fled to Taiwan in the 1940s during the Chinese Civil War.

There are many organised groups of the folk religion that adopt Confucian liturgy and identity, for example the Way of the Gods according to the Confucian Tradition or phoenix churches, or the Confucian churches, schools and fellowships such as the Yidan xuetang (一耽学堂), a of Beijing,[122] the Mengmutang (孟母堂) of Shanghai,[123] the Kongshengtang (孔圣堂) started in Shenzhen,[124] the Confucian Fellowship (儒教道坛 Rújiào Dàotán) in northern Fujian, and ancestral temples of the Kong (Confucius) lineage operating as well as Confucian-teaching churches.[123]

Confucianism and Taoism—which are formalised, ritual, doctrinal or philosophical traditions—can be considered as both embedded within the larger category of Chinese traditional religion, or as separate religions. In fact, one can practice certain folk cults and espouse the tenets of Confucianism as a philosophical framework, Confucian theology instructing to uphold the moral order through the worship of gods and ancestors[8] that is the way of connecting to the Tian and awakening to its harmony (li, "rite").[121] Folk temples and ancestral shrines on special occasions may choose Confucian liturgy (that is called 儒 , or sometimes 正统 zhèngtǒng, meaning "orthoprax" ritual style) led by Confucian ritual masters (礼生 lǐshēng), that in many cases are the elders of a local community. Confucian liturgies are alternated with Taoist liturgies and popular devotion.[10]

Effigy of god Erlang inside the Taoist-managed Erwang Temple in Dujiangyan, Sichuan.
The Temple of the God of Culture (文庙 wénmiào) of Jiangyin, Wuxi, Jiangsu. In this temple the Wéndì (文帝, "God of Culture") enshrined is Confucius.
A fashi-led ceremony.

Confucianism, Taoism and orders of ritual masters

Nuo traditions are ritual forms of the Chinese folk religion present especially in central-southern China and representing much of the religious life of the Tujia people. Nuo ceremonies revolve around the worship of gods and ancestors represented by characteristic wooden masks and idols. Ritual performances and dramas are carried out by circles of ritual masters wearing masks of the gods. [120]

Since the 1980s the practice and study of shamanism has undergone a massive revival in Chinese religion as a mean to repair the world to a harmonious whole after industrialisation.[118] Shamanism is viewed by many scholars as the foundation for the emergence of civilisation, and the shaman as "teacher and spirit" of peoples. The Chinese Society for Shamanic Studies was founded in Jilin City in 1988.[119]

The female shamans called wu as well as the male shamans called xi represent the voice of spirits, repair the natural dis-functions, foretell the future based on dreams and the art of divination ... "a historical science of the future", whereas shamans are able to observe the yin and the yang ...

In the Shang and Zhou dynasty, shamans had a role in the political hierarchy, and were represented institutionally by the Ministry of Rites (大宗拍). The emperor was considered the supreme shaman, intermediating between the three realms of heaven, earth and man. The mission of a shaman (巫 wu) is "to repair the dis-functionalities occurred in nature and generated after the sky had been separated from earth":[118]

According to Andreea Chirita, Confucianism itself, with its emphasis on hierarchy and ancestral rituals, derived from the shamanic discourse of the Shang dynasty.What Confucianism did was to marginalise the "dysfunctional" features of old shamanism. However, shamanic traditions continued uninterrupted within the folk religion and found precise and functional forms within Taoism.[118]

"The extent to which shamanism pervaded ancient Chinese society", says scholar Paul R. Goldin, "is a matter of scholarly dispute, but there can be no doubt that many communities relied upon the unique talents of shamans for their quotidian spiritual needs".[117] The Chinese usage distinguishes the Chinese wu tradition (巫教 wūjiào; properly shamanic, with control over the gods) from the tongji tradition (童乩; mediumship, without control of the godly movement), and from non-Han Chinese Altaic shamanisms (萨满教 sàmǎnjiào) that are practiced in northern provinces.

Temple of the White Sulde of Genghis Khan in the town of Uxin in Inner Mongolia, in the Mu Us Desert. The worship of Genghis is shared by Chinese and Mongolian folk religion.[note 12]

Wuism and shamanic traditions

Philosophical and ritual modalities

If their temples and their deities enshrined acquire popularity they are considered worthy of the virtue of ling, "efficacy".[116] Ancestor veneration in China (jingzu 敬祖) is observed nationally with large-scale rituals on Qingming Festival and other holidays.

The construction of large and elaborate ancestral temples traditionally represents a kin's wealth, influence and achievement.[115] Scholar K. S. Yang has explored the ethno-political dynamism of this form of religion, through which people who become distinguished for their value and virtue are considered immortal and receive posthumous divine titles, and are believed to protect their descendants, inspiring a mythological lore for the collective memory of a family or kin.[116]

Another dimension of the Chinese folk religion is based on family or genealogical worship of deities and ancestors in family altars or private temples (simiao 私庙 or jiamiao 家庙), or ancestral shrines (citang 祠堂 or zongci 宗祠, or also zumiao 祖庙).[113] Kinship associations or churches, congregating people with the same surname and belonging to the same kin, are the social expression of this religion: these lineage societies build temples where the deified ancestors of a certain group (for example the Chens or the Lins) are enshrined and worshiped.[114] These temples serve as centres of aggregation for people belonging to the same lineage, and the lineage body may provide a context of identification and mutual assistance for individual persons.[114]

People forgather for a worship ceremony at an ancestral shrine in Hong'an, Hubei.
Guanji temple (left) and Huang ancestral shrine (right) in Wenzhou, Zhejiang.

Lineage religion

This faith expresses into large-scale festivals participated by members of the whole village or larger community on the occasions of what are believed to be the birthdays of the gods or other events,[54] or to seek protection from droughts, epidemics, and other disasters.[54] Such festivals invoke the power of the gods for practical goals to "summon blessings and drive away harm".[54] Special devotional currents within this framework can be identified by specific names such as Mazuism (Mazujiao),[111] Wang Ye worship, or the cult of the Silkworm Mother.[112]

Chinese religion in its communal expression involves the worship of gods that are the generative power and tutelary spirit (genius loci) of a locality or a certain aspect of nature (for example water gods, river gods, fire gods, mountain gods), or of gods that are common ancestors of a village, a larger identity, or the Chinese nation (Shennong, Huangdi, Pangu). This type of religion has local and village-based temples or temples with a wider geographical importance (for example the Heilongdawang Temple in Shanbei) and even national importance.

Putou Damiao, the "First Great Temple by the Riverside", in Zhangzhou, Fujian.

Worship of local and national deities

Types of indigenous—ethnic religion

Sociological typology

The most common display of divine power is the cure of diseases after a faithful asks for aid.[106] Another manifestation is the fulfillment of a request of children.[106] The deity may also manifest through mediumship, entering the body of a shaman-medium and speaking through his or her lips.[106] There have been cases of people curing illnesses "on behalf of a god" (ti shen zhi bing 替神治病).[109] Gods may also speak to people when they are asleep (tuomeng 托梦).[106]

Within temples, it is common to see banners bearing the phrase "if the heart is sincere, the god will reveal his power" (心诚神灵 xin cheng shen ling).[110] The relationship between men and gods is an exchange of favour.[110] This implies the belief that gods respond to the entreaties of the believer, if his or her religious fervor is sincere (cheng xin 诚心).[110] If a person believes in the god's power with all his heart and expresses piety, the gods are confident in his faith and reveal their efficacious power.[110] At the same time, for faith to strengthen in the devout's heart, the deity has to prove his or her efficacy.[110] In exchange for divine favours, a faithful honours the deity with vows (huan yuan 还愿 or xu yuan 许愿), through individual worship, reverence and respect (jing shen 敬神).[110]

[109] While the opera was being played, large white snakes appeared, not afraid of people and not attacking them, seemingly watching the opera; the snakes were considered by locals as incarnations of Zhenwu, who came to watch the opera held in his honour.[109] A temporary altar with a statue of Zhenwu and a stage for performances was set up in an open space at the foots of a mountain.[109] Another example of Zavidovskaya is that of the cult of god Zhenwu in Congluo Yu,

Zavidovskaya (2012) has studied how the incentive of temples restoration since the 1980s in northern China was triggered by numerous instances of gods becoming "active", "returning", and claiming back their temples and place in society.[106] She brings the example of a Chenghuang Temple in Yulin, in Shaanxi, that during the Cultural Revolution was turned into a granary; in the 1980s the temple was restored to its original function because the seeds kept into the temple always rotted, and this event was recognized as god Chenghuang giving signs to empty his residence of grain and let him back in.[106] The ling qi, divine energy, is believed to accumulate in certain places, temples, making them holy.[106] Temples with a longer history are considered holier than newly built ones, which still need to be filled by divine energy.[106]

The term xian ling may be interpreted as the god revealing his presence in a particular area and temple,[106] through events that are perceived as extraordinary, miraculous.[107] Divine power usually manifests in the presence of a wide public.[106] The "value" of human deities (xian) is judged according to his or her efficacy.[108] The perceived effectiveness of a deity to protect or bless also determines how much he or she should be worshipped, how big a temple should be built in his or her dedication, and what position in the pantheon he or her would gain.[108]

The notion of xian ling (显灵), variously translated as "divine efficacy, virtue" or simply the "numen", is of foremost importance in the Chinese folk religion, in the relationship between men and gods.[104] It describes the manifestation, activity, of the power of a god (灵气 ling qi, "divine energy" or "effervescence"), the evidence of the holy.[105]

In Chinese religion the concept of ling () is the equivalent of holy and numen.[103] Ling is the state of the "medium" of the bivalency (yin-yang), and thus it is identical with the inchoate order of creation.[18] At times shen is used as a synonym.[17] Everything inspiring awe or wonder because it is not measured by yin and yang, because it crosses the polarity and therefore can't be conceptualised, is regarded as numinous.[17] These entities possess unusual spiritual characteristics, and possess the power to disrupt the balance of yin and yang.[17]

A shrine dedicated to Zhenwu in Wuqi, Taichung, Taiwan.
Temple of Brahma, or Simianshen (四面神 "Four-Faced God") in Chinese, in Changhua, Taiwan. The Thai-style worship of Simianshen, from its origins among Thai Chinese, has spread over the latest decades among mainland Chinese and other overseas Chinese populations.

Ling and xianling—holy and numen

As part of the trinity of being (the Three Powers), humans are not totally submissive to spiritual force.[96] While under the sway of spiritual forces, humans can actively engage with them, striving to change their own fate to prove the worth of their earthly life.[96] In the Chinese traditional view of human destiny, the dichotomy between "fatalism" and "optimism" is overcome; human beings can shape their personal destiny to grasp their real worth in the transformation of the universe, seeing their place in the alliance with the gods and with Heaven to surpass the constraints of the physical body and mind.[96]

  • Wu (), "awareness" of bao ying. The awareness of one's own given condition inscribed in the ordered world produces responsibility towards oneself and others; awareness of yuan fen stirs to respond to events rather than resigning.[102] Awareness may arrive as a gift, often unbidden, and then it evolves into a practice that the person intentionally follows.[102]

These three themes of the Chinese tradition—moral reciprocity, personal destiny, fateful coincidence—are completed by a fourth notion:[102]

Ming yun and yuan fen are linked, because what appears on the surface to be chance (either positive or negative), is part of the deeper rhythm that shapes personal life based on how destiny is directed.[98] Recognising this connection has the result of making a person responsible for his or her actions:[99] doing good for others spiritually improves oneself and contributes to the harmony between men and environmental gods and thus to the wealth of a human community.[101]

  • Ming yun (命运), the personal destiny or given condition of a being in his world, in which ming is "life" or "right", the given status of life, and yun defines both "circumstance" and "individual choice"; ming is given and influenced by the transcendent force Tian (), that is the same as the "divine right" (tianming) of ancient rulers as identified by Mencius.[14] Personal destiny (ming yun) is thus perceived as both fixed (as life itself) and flexible, open-ended (since the individual can choose how to behave in bao ying).[14]
  • Yuan fen (缘分), "fateful coincidence",[15] describing good and bad chances and potential relationships.[15] Scholars K. S. Yang and D. Ho have analysed the psychological advantages of this belief: assigning causality of both negative and positive events to yuan fen reduces the conflictual potential of guilt and pride, and preserves social harmony.[100]

The cosmic significance of bao ying is better understood by exploring other two traditional concepts of fate and meaning:[14]

The Chinese traditional concept of bao ying ("reciprocity", "retribution" or "judgement"), is inscribed in the cosmological view of an ordered world, in which all manifestations of being have an allotted span (shu) and destiny,[97] and are rewarded according to the moral-cosmic quality of their actions.[98] It determines fate, as written in Zhou texts: "on the doer of good, heaven sends down all blessings, and on the doer of evil, he sends down all calamities" (《书经•汤诰》).[99]

Altar to the Stone Generals, protective deities, at the Kantai Tianhou Temple in Anping, Tainan, Taiwan.

Bao ying and ming yun

In fact, in the Chinese tradition there is no distinction between gods (shen) and immortal beings (xian), transcendental principles and their bodily manifestations.[93] Gods can incarnate with a human form and human beings can reach higher spiritual states by the right way of action, that is to say by emulating the order of Heaven.[94] Humans are considered one of the three aspects of a trinity (三才 Sāncái, "Three Powers"),[95] the three foundations of all being; specifically, men are the medium between Heaven that engenders order and forms and Earth which receives and nourishes them.[95] Men are endowed with the role of completing creation.[95][note 11]

Ancestors are means of connection with the Tian, the primordial god which does not have form.[44] As ancestors have form, they shape the destiny of humans.[44] Ancestors who have had a significant impact in shaping the destiny of large groups of people, creators of genetic lineages or spiritual traditions, and historical leaders who have invented crafts and institutions for the wealth of the Chinese nation (culture heroes), are exalted among the highest divine manifestations or immortal beings (xian 仙).[92]

The shen of men who are properly cultivated and honoured after their death are upheld ancestors and progenitors (zuxian 祖先 or simply zu ).[82] When ancestries aren't properly cultivated the world falls into disruption, and they become gui.[82] Ancestral worship is intertwined with totemism, as the earliest ancestors of an ethnic lineage are often represented as animals or associated to them.[44][91]

To extend life to its full potential the human shen must be cultivated, resulting in ever clearer, more luminous states of being.[17] It can transform in the pure intelligent breath of deities.[89] In man there's no distinction between rationality and intuition, thinking and feeling: the human being is xin (), mind-heart.[78] With death, while the po returns to the earth and disappears, the hun is thought to be pure awareness or qi, and is the shen to whom ancestral sacrifices are dedicated.[90]

Like all things in matter, also humans have a soul that is a dialectic of hun and po (魂魄), respectively the yang spirit or mind, and the yin animal soul that is the body.[87] Hun (mind) is the shen (that gives a form to the qi) of humans, and it develops through the po, stretching and moving intelligently in order to grasp things.[88] The po is the "feminine" soul which controls the physiological and psychological activities of man,[89] while the hun, the god attached to the vital breath, is the "masculine" soul that is totally independent of corporeal substance.[89] The hun is virile, independent and perpetual, and as such it never allows itself to be limited in matter.[89][note 10]

Temple of the Filial Blessing (Xiaoyou gong) in Ouhai, Wenzhou, Zhejiang. It is a place for the worship of ancestors.

Hun and po, and zu and xian

While in popular thought they have conscience and personality,[84] Neo-Confucian scholars tended to rationalise them.[85] Zhu Xi wrote that they act according to the li.[81] Zhang Zai wrote that they are "the inherent potential (liang neng) of the two ways of qi".[86] Cheng Yi said that they are "traces of the creative process".[81] Chen Chun wrote that shen and gui are expansions and contractions, going and coming, of yin and yangqi.[81]

In Taoist and Confucian thought, the supreme God and its order and the multiplicity of shen are identified as one and the same.[83] In the Yizhuan, a commentary to the Yijing, it is written that "one yin and one yang are called the Tao [...] the unfathomable change of yin and yang is called shen".[83] In other texts, with a tradition going back to the Han period, the gods and spirits are explained to be names of yin and yang, forces of contraction and forces of growth.[83]

The concept of shén (cognate of shēn, "expansion, growth"[81]) is translated as "gods" or "spirits" (from Latin spiritus, "insufflation"), as they are the essences or energies that generate and grow the different things and phenomena.[17] In poetic speech "they draw out the ten thousand things"; they make phenomena appear and things extend themselves.[17] As forces of growth the gods are regarded as yang,[17] opposed to a yin class of entities called 鬼 guǐ (cognate of 归 guī, "return, contraction"[81]), chaotic beings.[17] The dragon is a symbol of yang, the principle of generation.[70] There are gods of nature, gods of the place, and ancestral gods (zu or zuxian).[82]

Yin 阴 and yang 阳, whose root meanings respectively are "shady" and "sunny", or "dark" and "light", are modes of manifestation of the qi, not material things in themselves. Yin is the qi in its dense, dark, sinking, wet, condensing mode; yang denotes the light, and the bright, rising, dry, expanding modality. Described as Taiji (the "Great Pole"), they represent the polarity and complementarity that enlivens the cosmos.[79] They can also be conceived as "disorder" and "order", "activity" or "passivity", with act (yang) usually preferred over receptiveness (yin).[18] In Neo-Confucian terminology this polarity is li, the natural order.[79]

Quanjunxi Linggong, the "Numinous Palace (linggong), by the Brook (xi) in the Land of Springs (quanjun)", in Quanzhou, Fujian.[note 9]
Yin and yang as earth (and the mountain) and heaven-sky (and the seven stars of the north astral pole).[note 8]

Yin and yanggui and shen

The qi 气 is the breath or substance of which all things are made, including inanimate matter, the living beings, thought and gods.[77] It is the continuum energy—matter.[78] Neo-Confucian thinkers such as Zhu Xi developed the idea of li 理, the "reason", "order" of Heaven, that is to say the pattern through which the qi develops,[17] that is the polarity of yin and yang.[79] In Taoism the Tao 道 ("Way") denotes in one concept both the impersonal absolute Tian and its order of manifestation (li).

Tian is defined in many ways, with many names, the most widely known being Tàidì 太帝 (the "Great Deity") and Shàngdì 上帝 (the "Primordial Deity").[note 6] The concept of Shangdi is especially rooted in the tradition of the Shang dynasty, which gave prominence to the worship of ancestral gods and cultural heroes. The "Primordial Deity" or "Primordial Emperor" was considered to be embodied in the human realm as the lineage of imperial power.[70] Di () is a term meaning "deity" or "emperor" (Latin: imperator, verb im-perare; "making from within"), used either as a name of the primordial god or as a title of natural gods,[71] describing a principle that exerts a fatherly dominance over what it produces.[72] With the Zhou dynasty, that preferred a religion focused on gods of nature, Tian became a more abstract and impersonal idea of God.[70] A popular representation is the Jade Deity (玉帝 Yùdì) or Jade Emperor (玉皇 Yùhuáng)[note 7] originally formulated by Taoists.[76]

In Chinese religion, Tian 天 ("Heaven" or "Sky"; translated philologically as "Great One", "Great Whole", "Great All") is the absolute principle that is spring of the universal reality, of moral meaning and of all creativity inherent to the nature.[64] This creativity or virtue (de), in humans is the potentiality to transcend the given conditions and act wisely and morally.[65] Tian is therefore both transcendent and immanent.[65] Various interpretations of the idea of Tian have been elaborated by Confucians, Taoists, and other schools of thought.[66]

Tian or Di as the square of the north astral pole.[56]
"Tian is dian 顛 ("top"), the highest and unexceeded. It derives from the characters yi 一, "one", and da 大, "big"."[note 5]

Tian, its li and qi

Despite their great diversity, all the expressions of Chinese folk religion have a common core that can be summarised as four spiritual, cosmological, and moral concepts:[13] Tian (), Heaven, the source of moral meaning; qi (), the breath or substance of which all things are made; the practice of jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors; bao ying (报应), moral reciprocity.

Core concepts of theology and cosmology

Instead of signing the demise of traditional religiousness, China's economic development has brought a spiritual renewal.[55] The worldview of the Chinese indigenous religion is distinctive;[55] its images and practices are shapen by the codes of Chinese culture, helping Chinese people to face the challenges of modernisation.[55]

Since then, Chinese folk religion is exhibiting a dramatic revival throughout China,[53][54] with millions of temples being rebuilt or built from scratch.[54] Since the 1980s the central government moved to a policy of benign neglect or wu wei (无为) in regard to rural community life, and the local government's new regulatory relationship with local society is characterized by practical mutual dependence; these factors have given much space for popular religion to develop.[54] In recent years, in some cases, local governments have taken an even positive and supportive attitude towards indigenous religion in the name of promoting cultural heritage.[54]

The Chinese folk religion was subject to persecution in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many local temples were destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion and the Boxer Rebellion in the late 1800s;[52] others suffered severe damage during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.[52] The Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 brought a third systematic effort to destroy folk religious devotion.[52]

Altar inside a Tudigong temple in Quanzhou, Fujian. The back statue represents Tudigong (土地公 "Lord of the Local Land"), the one on the right Kuixing.

19th—20th century

From the 3rd century on by the Northern Wei, accompaining the spread of Buddhism in China, strong influences from the Indian subcontinent penetrated the Chinese indigenous religion. A cult of Ganesha (象头神 Xiàngtóushén, "Elephant-Head God") is attested in the year 531.[51] Pollination from Indian religions included processions of carts with images of gods or floats borne on shoulders, with musicians and chanting.[50]

By the she" was the god of the earth, and in others a deified virtuous person (xiān 仙, "immortal"). Some cults such as that of Liu Zhang, a king in what is today Shandong, date back to this period.[50]


There are many public-domain folk religion texts such as Journeys to the Underworld, The Peach Blossom Spring, the Shi Yi Ji, the Investiture of the Gods, the Shanhaijing, and notably the Yijing divination book, distributed in temples (often without charge) or sold in religious goods stores.

The prime criterion for participation in Chinese folk religion is not "to believe" in an official doctrine or dogma, but "to belong" to the local unit of Chinese religiousness, that is the "village" or the "kinship", with their gods and rituals.[47] Scholar Richard Madsen describes Chinese religion, adopting the definition of Tu Weiming,[48] as characterised by "immanent transcendence" grounded in a devotion to "concrete humanity", focused on building moral community within concrete humanity.[49]

Village temple associations and kinship-lineage associations with their temple-congregations, pilgrimage associations and formalised prayers, rituals and expressions of virtues, are the common forms of organisation of Chinese folk religion on the local level.[43] Neither initiation rituals nor official membership into a church organisation separate from one person's native identity are mandatory in order to be involved in religious activities.[43] Contrarywise to institutional religions, Chinese indigenous religion does not require "conversion" for participation.[46]

The Chinese folk religion is a [46]

Chinese folk religion is very diverse, varying from province to province and even from a village to another, for it is bound to local communities, kinship, and environments.[43] In each setting, institution and ritual behaviour assumes highly organised forms.[43] Temples and the gods enshrined acquire symbolic character, with specific functions involved in the everyday life of the local community.[43] Local religion preserves aspects of natural beliefs such as totemism,[44] animism and shamanism.[45]

Statue of Mazu inside a temple in Chiayi, Taiwan.
Communal ceremony at the Temple of Shennong-Yandi in Suizhou, Hubei.


  • substance (ti 體): religiousness (zongjiaoxing 宗教性);
  • function (yong 用): folkloricity (minsuxing 民俗性);
  • quality (xiang 相): Chineseness (zhonghuaxing 中華性).

According to Chen Jinguo 陳進國, folk religion is a core element of Chinese cultural and religious self-awareness (wenhua zijue 文化自覺, xinyang zijue 信仰自覺).[40] He has proposed a theoretical definition of Chinese indigenous religion in "three inseparable attributes" (sanwei yiti 三位一體), apparently inspired to Tang Junyi's thought:[42]

Contemporary Chinese scholars have also identified what they find to be the essential features of the folk (or indigenous—ethnic) religion of China. According to Chen Xiaoyi 陳曉毅 local indigenous religion is the crucial factor for a harmonious "religious ecology" (zongjiao shengtai 宗教生態), that is the balance of forces in a given community.[39] Professor Han Bingfang 韓秉芳 has called for a rectification of distorted names (zhengming 正名). Distorted names are "superstitious activities" (mixin huodong 迷信活動) or "feudal superstition" (fengjian mixin 封建迷信), that were derogatorily applied to the indigenous religion by leftist policies. Christian missionaries also used the label "feudal superstition" in order to undermine their religious competitor.[40] Han calls for the acknowledgment of folk religion for what it really is, the "core and soul of popular culture" (suwenhua de hexin yu linghun 俗文化的核心與靈魂).[41]

"Chinese Universism", not in the sense of "universalism", that is a system of universal application, but in the original sense of "uni-verse" which is "towards the One", that is ShangdiTian in Chinese thought, is a coinage of Jan Jakob Maria de Groot that refers to the metaphysical perspective that lies behind the Chinese religious tradition.[note 4]

"Shendao" (神道 Shéndào, the "Way of the Gods") is a term already used in the Yijing referring to the divine order of nature.[note 3] Around the time of the spread of Buddhism in the Han period (206 BCE-220 CE), it was used to distinguish the indigenous religion from the imported religion. Ge Hong used it in his Baopuzi as a synonym for Taoism.[33] The term was subsequently adopted in Japan in the 6th century as Shindo, later Shinto, with the same purpose of identification of the Japanese indigenous religion.[34][35] In the 14th century, the Hongwu Emperor (Taizu of the Ming dynasty, 1328-1398) used the term "Shendao" clearly identifying the indigenous cults, which he strengthened and systematised.[36]

With the rise of the study of traditional cults and the creation of a government agency to give legal status to this religion,[27] intellectuals and philosophers in China have proposed the adoption of a formal name in order to solve the terminological problems of confusion with folk religious sects and conceptualise a definite field for research and administration.[28] The terms that have been proposed include "Chinese native religion" or "Chinese indigenous religion" (民俗宗教 mínsú zōngjiào), "Chinese ethnic religion" (民族宗教 mínzú zōngjiào),[29] or also simply "Chinese religion" (中華教 Zhōnghuájiào) viewed as comparable to the usage of the term "Hinduism" for Indian religion,[30] and "Shenxianism" (神仙教 Shénxiānjiào, "religion of deities and immortals"), partly inspired by the term "Shenism" (神仙教 Shénjiào) that was used in the 1950s by the anthropologist Allan J. A. Elliott[31] and earlier by the Qing dynasty scholars Yao Wendong and Chen Jialin in reference to Japanese Shinto.[32] Other definitions that have been used are "folk cults" (民间崇拜 mínjiān chóngbài),"spontaneous religion" (自发宗教 zìfā zōngjiào), "lived (or living) religion" (生活宗教 shēnghuó zōngjiào), "local religion" (地方宗教 dìfāng zōngjiào), and "diffused religion" (分散性宗教 fēnsàn xìng zōngjiào).[6]

[26]) is a technical term with little usage outside the academia.minjian xinyang "Folk beliefs" ([25]

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