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Chinese Folk Religion: From Ancient Shamanism to Modern Spiritual Movements

A Comprehensive Look at Chinese Folk and Traditional Religions: Tiandi, Weixinism, and Regional Beliefs

Chinese Traditional Religion

Chinese popular religion is the traditional religion of the Chinese people, focusing on the veneration of natural forces, spirits, and ancestors. This religion incorporates the exorcism of negative forces and the belief in a rational order of nature that can be influenced by human beings and their rulers.

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Central to this tradition are spirits, or Shen (神), which can be associated with specific phenomena, human behaviors, or ancestors. Many stories of these deities can be traced back to Chinese mythology. Starting from the 11th century and the Song dynasty, Buddhist practices such as the idea of Karma and rebirth, as well as Taoist practices like the hierarchy of divinities, have been assimilated to form a cohesive religious system that persists to this day. Chinese religions exhibit a wide variety of sources and local forms, influenced by local cultural backgrounds and different philosophical traditions. Despite this heterogeneity, common elements include the concept of Tian (天), the sky as the transcendent source of moral teaching; qi (气), the breath or energy that animates the universe; jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors; bao ying (报应), moral reciprocity; ming yun (命运), personal destiny; and yuan fen (缘分), the coincidences of fate. Yin and Yang (阴阳) describe the polarization of the universe’s order, balanced by the interaction of growth principles (shen) and contraction principles (gui), with yang (action) usually preferred over yin (passivity). Ling (灵), the numen, represents the intermediate state and the emerging order of creation.

In Chinese history, the Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as the current government of China, have effectively tolerated (if not encouraged) these beliefs when they contributed to stability but have sought to suppress them when they undermined the foundations of power. After the fall of the Chinese Empire in 1911, the government and elites opposed and sought to empty these traditions in favor of modern values, labeling them as feudal superstitions. In recent years, these traditions are experiencing a revival in Taiwan and China, some even gaining protection from governments that see them as a way to preserve Chinese cultural tradition, such as Mazuism (the deified form of Lin Mo or Moniang), the teachings of Sanyi in Fujian, the belief in Huangdi, and other forms of local beliefs like Longwang, Pangu, or Caishen.

There is no single Chinese religious practice; rather, traditions vary from province to province and even from village to village. In each locale, institutions and rituals have taken on significant organized forms. Temples and deities have taken on symbolic characters and assumed specific functions in everyday community life. Local religions have retained specific aspects of natural beliefs such as totemism, animism, and shamanism. These beliefs have come to influence all aspects of social life but do so differently than has occurred in the West with the Church. Instead, these beliefs are intrinsic to civic and familial life and do not organize into specific and unique structures. Furthermore, traditional Chinese religions do not require a form of conversion to participate. The primary criterion for participation is not to “believe” in an official doctrine but to “belong” to a local unit of Chinese religion, an association, which can be a village or a blood tie.

Nanputuo Si Temple, Xiamen, Picture by Matteo Damiani

Traditional Chinese Religions: A Historical Overview

Imperial China

During the Han dynasty, Chinese religion consisted of groups of people organized into shè 社 (“groups”) who believed in a divine principle. In many cases, the “lord of the shè” was the earth deity, in others a virtuous character who was divinified (the immortal xian 仙), such as in the case of Liu Zhang, a king from Shandong. From the third century, with the Northern Wei, Buddhism was introduced into China. Strong influences thus began to spread from the Indian subcontinent. The worship of Ganesha, 象頭神 Xiàngtóushén, “The Elephant-Headed God,” dates back to the year 531.

Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

Traditional Chinese religions were subject to persecution between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many temples were destroyed during the Taiping Rebellion and during the Boxer Rebellion in the late 1800s. After the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, most temples had been destroyed, while others had been converted into schools. During the Sino-Japanese War, many more temples were destroyed or used as refuges for Japanese soldiers and consequently destroyed during combat. These cults ended up regulating imperial government policies, promoting certain deities at the expense of others. In the twentieth century, with the decline of the empire, increasing urbanization, and Western influences, the new intellectual classes were no longer able, and perhaps no longer interested, to control unofficial deity cults, delegitimizing these beliefs as superstitions and obstacles to the country’s modernization.

In 1904, a new late-empire law approved the constitution of new schools by confiscating temple properties. Various anti-superstition campaigns followed. The Guomindang later intensified the suppression of local cults with a 1928 edict. This act abolished all deity cults except for human heroes like Yu the Great, Guan Yu, and Confucius. These new regulations laid the groundwork for further tightening that occurred with the advent of communism after 1949. The Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 was the last major effort to break down this religious system. After 1978, Chinese religions began to recover rapidly. Millions of temples were rebuilt. From 1980, the local government began to lose interest in the religious life of rural communities.

Rare images: the destruction of a Confucian temple triggers the Cultural Revolution
During the Cultural Revolution, the burial site of Hai Rui, situated in Haikou on Hainan Island, was demolished. The act was perpetrated by groups of young individuals who would later be known as the Red Guards. The tomb was targeted as it represented historical symbols that the movement aimed to eradicate.

Main Texts

Traditional Chinese religion developed by gathering the legacy left by numerous sacred texts on cosmology, history and mythology, mysticism and philosophy—topics that were reworked as different aspects of the same thing. Historically, the transition from oral tradition to written texts occurs around the first century. However, oral traditions were not set aside; rather, they were supplemented by the written word. Scriptures continued to be recited and listened to in order to be effective. Both Taoism and Confucianism had compilations of classical texts. Confucian classics, the jing, include the “Four Books and Five Classics,” and the Classic of Filial Piety, the Mozi, the Huainanzi, the Shizi, and the Xunzi.

The “Interactions between Heaven and Mankind” is a set of Confucian doctrines compiled during the Han era by Dong Zhongshu that discusses policies in terms of a personal Tian, of which humanity is seen as its incarnation. Taoism has a separate philosophical, theological, and ritual corpus, which of course includes the Daodejing, the Daozang (the Taoist Canon), the Liezi, and the Zhuangzi and a large number of other texts that can be included in the Taoist canon from time to time. In addition, with the discovery of the Guodian Texts in 1990 and the Huangdi sijing (the Four Books of the Yellow Emperor) in the 1970s, they have blurred the dichotomy between the Confucian and Taoist traditions.

The Guodian texts include among others the Taiyi Shengshui (The Great One Generates Water), while a book attributed to the Yellow Emperor, the Huangdi yinfujing, is one of the most important texts of the Four Books. Other fundamental classics are the Shanhaijing, the Classic of Mountains and Seas, the Shíyíjì, the Táohuayuánjì, the Fengshén yanyì (the Investiture of the Gods), and the Xiyóujì (Journey to the West).

Four Models of Traditional Religious Organization

Belief in Local and National Deities

Chinese religion includes belief in deities who are guardian spirits and represent the generative power of a particular locality or aspects of nature (deities of water, rivers, fire, mountains), or deities who are common ancestors of a village or the Chinese nation (Huangdi, Pangu, Shennong). The social structure of this religion is the shénshè 神社 (society of a god), synonymous with shehui 社會, where shè 社 originally indicated the altar of a community’s earth god, while huì 會 signifies an association, assembly, or church.

This type of belief can be dedicated to a god tied to a single village or temple, or to deities who enjoy a broader following, extending to a group of villages, provinces, or of national importance. These societies organized gatherings or festivals (miaohui 廟會) attended by members of the entire community on occasions believed to be, for example, the deities’ birthdays, to seek protection from destructive events such as famines, epidemics, or other disasters. During these festivals, the god’s power was invoked for practical purposes—to bless and ward off looming evil.

Some of these currents can be identified as Mazuism (媽祖教 Mazujiào), the belief in Wang Ye, or the cult of the Silk Worm Mother. This type of religion is most prevalent in northern China, where lineage religions are absent, private, or historically present in certain southern-origin families and where villages are composed of families with different surnames. In these contexts, divine societies function as civil bodies. For this reason, numerous villages in northern China derive their names from deities or temples, such as Léishénmiào (Thunder God Temple Village), or Mashénmiàocun (Horse God Temple Village).

Ancestral Religions

A second group of traditional Chinese religions is based on the worship of deities and ancestors tied to family altars or private temples or ancestral altars. Lineage-based churches are congregations of people with the same surname belonging to the same family line. These associations build temples where deified ancestors are celebrated, such as for the Chens and Lins. These temples serve as a gathering center for related people.

The construction of large ancestral temples traditionally symbolizes the well-being of a certain group, its influence, and historical legacy. If these temples and their deities gain popularity, the value of ling, efficacy, increases. The belief in ancestors is represented in major festivals like the Qingming festival. This type of religion is prevalent in southern regions, where blood ties are stronger.

Chinese Shamanism and Nuo Folk Religions

According to Paul R. Goldin (2005), the importance of the shaman in guiding a community for daily spiritual needs is unquestionable. The Chinese distinguish the Wu (Wuism) tradition from the Tongji tradition, of non-Han origin and influenced by Altaic shamans, practiced in the northern provinces. According to Andreea Chirita (2014), even Confucianism, with its emphasis on hierarchical rites and rituals, stems from the shamanism of the Shang dynasty, marginalizing the “dysfunctional” elements of old shamanism. Clear traces of the shamanic tradition are present in traditional religions and in the practical components of Taoism.

During the Shang and Zhou dynasties, shamans played a role in the political hierarchy and were institutionally represented by the Minister of Rites. The emperor himself was considered the supreme shaman, acting as an intermediary between the realms of Heaven, Earth, and Man. The shaman’s mission, Wu 巫, is to repair dysfunctions in nature generated by the separation between Heaven and Earth. “Female shamans, called Wu, like males called Xi, represent the voice of spirits, repair natural dysfunctions, predict the future based on dreams and the art of divination, where shamans can observe yin and yang.” Since the 1980s, the practice and study of shamanism have undergone a significant revival in Chinese religion, as a means to re-harmonize the world after industrialization.

Shamanism is seen by many scholars as the foundation for the emergence of civilization, and the shaman is a guide and the spirit of the people. The Chinese Society for Shamanic Studies was founded in Jilin in 1988. Nuo folk religions are a system of traditional Chinese religion with distinct institutions and cosmology present in central and southern China. They originated as exorcist religious movements, inter-ethnic but intimately connected to the Tujia.

Confucianism, Taoism, and Orders of Ritual Masters

Confucianism and Taoism, which have specific philosophical traditions, doctrines, rites, and reference texts, can be considered the most important category of Chinese religions. In any case, traditional Chinese religions often use Confucian theology and rites, alternating with Taoist liturgy and popular rituals. There are numerous organized groups that have adopted Confucian liturgy and identity, such as the Way of the Gods according to Confucian tradition or Luanism (the churches of the Phoenix), Confucian churches and schools like Yidan xuetang in Beijing, Mengmutang in Shanghai, the Confucian company in Northern Fujian and the ancestral temples of Confucian lineage.

In November 2015, a Holy Confucian Church was established, with the institution of numerous Confucian leaders. Taoism, on the other hand, offers a liturgical framework for the development of local religions. Some currents of Taoism are deeply integrated into Chinese popular religions, especially in the Zhengyi school. However, Taoists always emphasize the difference between true Taoists and these Taoism-influenced traditions. Zhengyi Taoists are called sanju daoshi or huoju daoshi because they can officiate rituals and offerings and perform exorcisms, but can also marry, thereby relegating religious activity to a temporary occupation. Zhengyi Taoists, educated by other members of the same sect, must nevertheless be framed within the Celestial Masters.

Picture by: Matteo Damiani

Organized Popular Sects

China has a long history of traditional sects characterized by eschatological and soteriological aspects, which have emerged from common religions but are not attributable to specific ancestor cults or progenitors nor to local religions linked to temples of local or national deities. This group of religions is characterized by egalitarianism, the emergence of charismatic figures, direct divine revelation, out-of-body experiences, evangelization, and philanthropy. These practices are generally oriented to improve body cultivation, to combat mortality, and to recite scriptures. Many of these religious movements born in the 20th and 21st centuries aspire to become the recipients of the entire Chinese tradition, in opposition to Western modernism and materialism.

Among these groups, we recall Yiguandao and other sects belonging to Xiantiandao, Jiugongdao, Luo’s teachings, Zaili’s teachings and more recently De’s teachings, Weixinism, Xuanyuan and Tiandi teachings, the last two of which focus mainly on the worship of Huangdi and the universal god. Qigong schools all develop in this context. Some of these movements have been banned during Republican China and during Communist China. Many are still illegal, or are clandestine or unrecognized, while others, such as De’s Teachings, Tiani and Xuanyuan, Weisinimo and Yiguandao, have developed in cooperation with Chinese non-governmental or academic organizations. The Sanyi teachings is a popular religion founded in the 14th century, present in the Putian region of Fujian, where it is legally recognized. Some of these sects have registered as branches of the Taoist Association since the 1990s. Another category sometimes confused with these sects is the secret societies huidaomen, mimi shehui, or mimi jieshe.

They are initiatory and secret cults that include rural militias like the Red Spears or the Great Knife sect, and fraternal organizations like The Green Gang or the society of elders. They became very popular at the beginning of the Republican era and have often been branded as heretical societies. Recently, scholars have coined the umbrella term “secret societies” to distinguish the peasant character of the ancient brotherhoods of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing eras from a predominantly negative view of these secret societies of the Republican era that soon became an anti-revolutionary tool. The last type of sects are those related to martial arts, which combine two aspects: wenchang, the cultural field, which concerns the doctrinal aspects of elaborate cosmologies and theologies, initiations and ritual patterns and often have a secretive character, and wuchang, the martial field, which identifies body cultivation and some practices as the public aspect of the sect. An example of these sects is Meihuaism, the plum blossoms, which has become very popular in northern China.

Tiandi Teachings

Tiandi is a religion that developed in two branches: the Holy Church of Celestial Virtue (Tiande Shengjiao) and the Church of the Celestial Divinity (Tiandijiao). Both emerged from the teachings of Xiao Changming and Li Yujie in the early 20th century. The focus of these religions is on the worship of Tiandi, the celestial divinity or the Heavenly Emperor, through the cultivation of qi and teaching a style of qigong called Tianren qigong. According to some scholars, Tiandi teachings stem from the Taoist tradition of Huashan, where Li Yujie studied for eight years. The church is very active in Taiwan and China, with significant connections.


Weixinism, literally the “Sacred Religion of the Single Heart,” primarily focuses on the orthodox lineage of the Yijing and Feng Shui, the Hundred Schools of Thought, and the worship of the three great ancestors (Huangdi, Yandi, and Chiyou). The movement promotes the restoration of the authentic roots of Chinese civilization and Chinese reunification. The Church is based in Taiwan and is very active in China. It has its roots in Henan, where it established the City of the Eight Trigrams, a complex of temples on Yunmeng Mountain. Some temples are also present in Hebei.

Divisions Between North and South

In 2011, Vincent Goossaert published an academic work where the popular religions of northern and southern China are treated as distinct phenomena. Unlike southern religions, which are primarily focused on the lineage of their churches, emphasizing ancestral deities, the religions of northern and central China prefer to focus on the communal belief in protective deities of nature as a symbol of identity for villages populated by families of different surnames. These are structured into “communities of gods” that organize ceremonies in temples, processions, and pilgrimages, led by local ceremonial masters (fashi) who often inherit their positions.

The religions of the north and the south also have different pantheons. Those in the north are based more on Chinese mythology, including a greater importance placed on the cult of the mother goddess and shamanism, as well as written transmission. Confucian churches are more widespread. During the 1930s, the Universal Church of the Way and Its Virtue encompassed around 25% of the Manchurian population, and during the same period, Shandong was experiencing significant growth in Confucian groups. In the south, traditional rituals are more influenced by Taoism, both in registered and unregistered forms, especially after the 1980s.

Although this distinction is a simplification, according to Goossaert, it is correct to speak of a Taoist South and a Confucian/traditional Central-North, even though both realities have influenced each other. Religions in northeastern China also share some common points with Manchu and Tungus shamanism, such as chūmǎxiān shamanism (riding the immortals), the belief in fox spirits, and other zoomorphic deities, with the Great Lord of the Three Foxes (Húsān Tàiyé) heading the pantheon. The religious context of Inner Mongolia has been integrated into Chinese popular religions.


Featured image: wikipedia

Topics: Differences between Northern and Southern Chinese religions, How Tiandi and Weixinism shape Chinese spirituality, Confucian influence in Northern Chinese religious practices, Taoist impact on Southern Chinese belief systems, The role of Qi in Tiandi, Yijing in Weixinism

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