Chinese Religions

January 10, 2008

While many textbooks name Buddhism as the main religion of China, most Chinese people are atheists. From a young age, children are taught by the government that there is no god.  Self-sufficiency is promoted to fill the void, and people are encouraged to work for the common good of the general populace.

In addition to atheism, which is most prevalent, many other religions are practiced in China. The government has established approved Buddhist temples, as well as government-run Christian and Catholic churches throughout the country, but most do not allow freedom of worship. Whole portions of key doctrine are banned in most of these churches. Most people who follow religions which are not approved by the atheistic government keep a low profile to avoid negative attention from authorities.


Background: Animism is one of the oldest belief systems in the world, and people on nearly every continent practice it. Animism is prevalent in east Asia, mostly in folk religions.

Sacred Book: Animism is not an organized religion with a written book and theology. Families and villages through the generations pass down their beliefs through daily life.

The Nature of God: An animist believes that spirits live in everything around them. Trees, animals, homes, and rocks are just a few of the many things that contain spirits. Many Animists believe there is a divine being, but that being is impersonal and distant from them. Some spirits are believed to be intermediaries to a divine god. Other spirits may be the dominant spiritual being themselves.

Human Condition: Animists believe that they can have control over spirits if they do the right things. Animists regularly offer sacrifices to the spirits so that the spirits will not create distress for them or their family. Belief in human souls is central to animism, as is the belief that animals, plants and celestial bodies have spirits.

Eternity: Many believe that their actions in this world will directly affect what happens to them in the next world.  Others believe the way a person dies will decide where they go after life here.

What is Salvation? Animism cannot provide a definite answer to the question of salvation. Through sacrifice and ritual, a person can appease the spirits and perhaps gain a higher status in the afterlife.

How is a person saved? Local Shamans, or other trained individuals, are often employed to conduct ritual ceremonies in which the spirits are contacted. Others seek to contact spirits through mediums or through divination. Because animists do not give a concrete definition to “salvation” it is difficult to provide a path to salvation.

Notes: When confronted with Christianity, many Animists will find that their beliefs are weak. The Animist finds he has no moral base and no answer to the meaning of life. He will generally acknowledge that more formal religions have relevance to “ultimate” issues, but have no relevance to everyday life.

Many people in China claim to belong to a formal religion, such as Islam, but their actual religious practices include a mix of formal religion and animistic practices. These animistic beliefs are often deeply ingrained into a people’s cultural history.


Background: Based on the teachings of one man, Siddhartha Gautama. Siddhartha was a Hindu, as Hinduism was practiced in India at that time, and he built his teachings upon the framework of Hinduism. To understand Buddhism it is helpful to understand the basic thoughts of Hinduism. 

Sacred Book: Literature includes the “Three Baskets” or three collections of the Buddha’s teaching and the commentaries on it. It also includes many sutras and tantras that have been recognized by the followers of the Mahayana and Tantric Buddhist traditions as “the word of the Buddha,” along with commentaries on these texts.

The Nature of God: There is no absolute God in Buddhism, although many have interpreted Buddhism as a search for God. The Buddha did not deny the existence of God outright, but said that the question of His existence “tends not to edification.” That is, those seeking enlightenment need to concentrate on their own spiritual paths themselves rather than relying on an outside support. Today there are some who refer to Buddhism as atheistic, and Buddhists teach that all that exists in the physical universe has always existed, without beginning and without end.

Human Condition: The Buddha based his entire teaching on the fact of human suffering. Existence is painful.  Limitation gives rise to desire, and, inevitably, desire causes suffering, since what is desired is transitory, changing, and perishing. It is the impermanence of the object of craving that causes disappointment and sorrow.  Central to Buddhism is the belief in “no self.” There is no soul or human spirit. The concept of the individual ego is a popular delusion.

Eternity: The belief in rebirth, or reincarnation, as a potentially endless series of worldly existences in which every being is caught up was already associated with the doctrine of karma in pre-Buddhist Hindu India.

What is Salvation? Nirvana is the aim of religious practice, to be rid of the delusion of ego, thus freeing oneself from the fetters of this mundane world. One who is successful in doing so is said to have overcome the round of rebirths and to have achieved enlightenment. This is the final goal – not a paradise or a heavenly world.

How is a person saved? A liberating purification is effected by following the Noble Eightfold Path constituted by right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditational attainment.

Notes: Buddhism, as practiced in China, is not really Buddhism but simply borrows the name. What Chinese call Buddhism is a blending of ancestor worship and traditional Chinese folk religion, with a smattering of Buddhism.


Background: Based upon 1,600 years of revelation from Moses, ca. 1500BC, to John, ca. 90AD. Although the teachings of Jesus Christ are considered important to Christians, it his life, death and resurrection which form the foundation upon which Christianity is founded.

Sacred Book: The Bible, which took 1,600 years to write, is composed of 66 “books” with at least 40 authors. People who read the Bible discover the one common theme which runs through its entirety, revealing its ultimate Author, greater than the 40+ people who penned it. The Bible records prophecies regarding Jesus, written as much as 1500 years before his birth, which were fulfilled in his life in accurate detail.

The Nature of God: As revealed in Psalm 139, God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (He fills the universe), and omnipotent (all-powerful). He is Holy and absolutely righteous – all that we consider good is a definition of God’s character. But greater still, God is relational and desires to have a relationship with people. He is a loving, relational God, Who is also righteous and just.

Human Condition: People were created in God’s image, and thus have the capacity to love, exercise their free will, and choose between good and evil. All people, however, fall short of God’s perfect character and thus lose the relationship they could have with God.

Eternity: Man is a spiritual being, and that spirit will live for eternity – that is, forever. Those people who die outside a relationship with God will exist for eternity apart from God.

What is Salvation? People are saved by being restored to their relationship with God. After physical death, they will be in the presence of God, referred to as heaven, for eternity.

How is a person saved? Because God is perfect, any sin separates a person form God, and there is no way he can restore that relationship. Therefore, God sent His unique Son, Jesus Christ, to die in behalf of all mankind, paying the penalty for all sins committed by all people. Salvation is a gift offered to all people. One must accept that gift, by faith, trusting Jesus Christ for the payment for all sins ever committed.


Background: Based on the teachings of one man, Karl Marx.

Sacred Book: The Communist Manifesto. The writings of Lenin and Mao also form a basis for many of the major tenets of Communism.

The Nature of God: Marxist philosophy is based upon the thought of “historical materialism:” it teaches the denial of anything spiritual.  All that exists is the material, physical universe. There is no God.

Human Condition: Man is an animal, no different than any others except in his intellect. He is not good or bad, but is shaped by his society. Capitalist societies bring out the basest nature of man, while the pure communist society will bring out the best of man.

Eternity: Man is only an animal. At death, his bodily functions cease and he is no more.

What is Salvation? Salvation is only societal. Mankind is progressing to the eventual rule of the proletariat (the workers) and the communist state, where all property is owned by the people as a collective whole. Then marriage will be obsolete, children will be raised by the state, and all people will work toward the mutual good of the common society.

How is a person saved? With the philosophy of historical materialism, there is, of course, no personal “salvation.” A person can only try to rise in the communist hierarchy and hope to find some physical comfort in this life.

Notes: I. T. Ramsey on Marxism as a religion: Based on the socio-economic philosophical thought of the 19th-century thinker Karl Marx, Marxism can be said to be a quasi-religion on two counts.  First, Marxism had connections with the metaphysics of G.W.F. Hegel, an 18th-19th-century German philosopher who interpreted reality in terms of a spiritual Absolute.  Furthermore, the thinking of Marx had religious overtones, whether from his own Jewish background or from a Christian atmosphere, not least in Britain where he lived from 1849 to 1883.  Second, Marxism can be called a quasi-religion insofar as it calls from its follower’s devotion and a commitment that in their empirical character greatly resemble the commitment and devotion that characterize religious people.  Marxism has undoubtedly fired the spirit of man and given to revolutions, whether in Russia or China, a powerful direction that has maintained stability and avoided anarchy. Furthermore, like a religion, it has provided themes of fulfillment and hope – a revolution interpreted as the initiation of a Communist world society that would be a final consummation.  There are many logical similarities between the doctrine of the Marxist millennium and the Christian doctrine of Christ’s Second Coming.  Marxism has also stressed the significance of cooperating with the immanent spirit of the times – something comparable to the providence of God – in economic and military struggles that are viewed as the travail by which society would be reborn.  The main difference between Marxism and Christianity in the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to some scholars, was that for many the Christian vision encouraged men to endure tyranny, while the Marxist view inspired men to rebel.


Background: Confucius was born around 550 BC in Shandong province. He traveled around China working as a Civil servant, excelling in all his pursuits. People sought his counsel and he founded a school at the age of 22. He taught his pupils basic ethical principles that would create a good society and responsible government.  His aim was not to become a great religious leader, but instead to tell stories from the past, so that the successes could be applied to the present.

After the death of Confucius, two major schools of thought emerged. One was led by Mencius, who continued Confucius’ teachings on the innate goodness of human nature. The other school of thought was led by Hsun-tzu, who claimed men were born with an evil nature, but could regain goodness through moral education. Throughout Chinese history, many other different variations of Confucianism emerged and flourished.

Sacred Book: The main literature of Confucians is The Five Classics (Wu Ching) and the Four Books (Shih Shu).  These books were either written by Confucius or one of his disciples.

The Nature of God: Early Chinese writings indicate belief in a supreme or higher god. Confucius seemed to share this belief. Today, most Chinese look at Confucius as an atheist, someone who thought there was no God.

Human Condition: Confucius encouraged people to embrace their faults and shortcomings in order to become better. The goal of his teachings was to spur mankind onto moral perfection. As a foundation for this life of goodness, he relied on the values of love, goodness, humanity and “human-hardheartedness.”

Eternity: Confucius’ teachings did not address the issue of eternity in depth. He focused on this life, attaining moral goodness on earth.

What is Salvation? According to modern interpretations of Confucianism, a person is saved through their own moral goodness. However, Confucianism is lived out more as a lifestyle than a religion with definable beliefs about the afterlife.

How is a person saved? Moral goodness and sincerity are central to Confucianism. According to Hsun-tzu, man could eradicate his evil nature through moral education.

Notes: Confucianism is in many ways, a lifestyle. Confucius emphasized veneration or ancestors. He believed that people should keep a high moral standard. Confucianism taught that loyalty combined with reciprocity will bring people to act humanely. Sincerity, seriousness, wisdom, and faithfulness are other virtues that Confucius taught. He believed a life that combines these values will influence everyone who is around him. Having right relationships is central to Confucianism.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Confucianism was suppressed. However, it has become acceptable again in recent years as an alternative to Western thinking. Many Chinese cultural values seem to have roots in the ideals of Confucius’ thinking. Some examples include family loyalty and valuing others above oneself.


Background: Based on the teachings of one man, Lao Tze. The first mention of Lao Tze is found in an early classic of Daoist speculation, the Chuang-Tzu (4th-3rd century BC), so called after the name of its author. Since Lao Tze, many other Daoist writers have been recognized.

Sacred Book: Tao-te Ching or the “Classic of the Way of Power” by Lao Tze is the basic text of Daoist. Daoism also recognizes the Chuang-tzu, the Lieh-tzu, and related writings.

The Nature of God: The Dao (Way) is not a personal god, but a force which exists over all. It is something “formlessly fashioned, that existed before Heaven and Earth; Its name (Ming) we do not know; Tao is the by name that we give it. If I were forced to say to what class of things it belongs I should call it Immense.” Tao is the “imperceptible, indiscernible,” about which nothing can be predicated but that latently contains “the forms, entities, and forces of all particular phenomena. It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang; the Named is the mother that rears the Ten Thousand Beings, each after its kind.” 

Human Condition: At birth a person is nearest its perfection; it is free of rules and compulsions, not restricted by morality, and has no sense of obligation to society; it is in the undiminished vitality of the newborn state. Daoist think of the newborn as an “Uncarved Block (p’u) of wood. P’u is uncut, unpainted wood, simplicity.” After birth, however, society and government “tamper” with the original nature. Society carves this wood into specific shapes for its own use and thus robs the individual piece of its original totality. “Once the uncarved block is carved, it forms utensils (that is, instruments of government); but when the Sage uses it, he would be fit to become Chief of all Ministers. Man should equally renounce all concepts of measure, law, and virtue.”

Eternity: Life and death are but one of the pairs of cyclical phases, such as day and night or summer and winter.  Since life and death are each other’s companions, why worry about them?  All beings are one.”Man “goes back into the great weaving machine: thus all beings issue from the Loom and return to the Loom.”

What is Salvation? To return to the simplicity of the newborn, unfettered, uncluttered, and unfashionable.

How is a person saved? A person returns to the Way by means of quietism: variously called “non-intervention” (wu-wei), “inner cultivation” (nei yeh), or “the art of the heart and mind” (xin-shu). Whereas worldly ambitions, riches, and especially discursive knowledge scatter the person and drain his energies, the saint “embraces Unity” or “holds fast to the One.” That is, “he aspires to union with the Tao in a primordial undivided state underlying consciousness.” Embracing Unity also means that he maintains the balance of Yin and Yang within himself and the union of his spiritual (hun) and vegetative (p’o) souls, the dispersion of which spells death.

Notes:  Daoism has a multitude of expressions and teachings, some of which are quite divergent from others. In this short capsule Daoism is presented in its most basic, oldest form.

Eastern Lightning

Background: This group appeared in the early 90’s in China’s Heilongjiang province. Eastern Lightening (Dongfang Shandian) was founded by Zhao Weishan. Breaking away from a Christian sect, the group began to call themselves “Church of the Everlasting Fountain.” After being outlawed, Zhao and his followers fled to Henan province. In 1993, Zhao claimed he had received a divine revelation from Matthew 24:27, which refers to “lightning from the east.” Hence, the group became known as “Eastern Lightning.”

Sacred Book: Eastern Lightning (EL) was founded on a twisted interpretation of Matthew 24:27, which at first impression seems to indicate their adherence to the Bible. However, they refuse to accept the authority of scripture and attack the Bible vehemently. They also claim that since we have entered into the “kingdom age,” (see “The Nature of God” below) all the words of Jesus Christ are worthless.

The Nature of God: They believe that there is only one God, but there is no trinity. They believe God has manifested himself in three Eras: the Era of Law, the Era of Grace, and the Era of Kingdom. During each Era, God had different names, Jehovah, Jesus and the current almighty god. In this “third age,” they believe God has changed his name again to “Lightning.” According to their beliefs, Jesus has already returned, disguised as a 30-year old Chinese female. Anyone who does not believe in this female messiah will not be saved. However, since no believers have actually seen this “female messiah,” she is probably a fictional character rather than a real person.

Human Condition: Eastern Lightning divides people into five groups:

1) The Many Elder Sons come from God and were somehow “born of God” before creation. They have the nature of God, including the ability to judge, punish and curse.

2) The Many Sons were sinners, but now accept the female messiah. They spend “all their good” and “all their energy” for her. They are believed to have obtained the “ten standards.” These include having a pure understanding, a sensitive conscience, a willing submission and a deep love for God.

3) The People have heard the Word of God (as EL interprets it) and are seeking to obtain the ten standards.

4) The Servants are those who believe in Jesus and reject the female messiah. According to the cult, they are “servants of Satan” and will not enter the kingdom of God. All Christians who refuse to join the movement would be put in this category.

5) The Damned are those who reject the female messiah and strongly reject her teaching. They will be thrown into the lake of eternal fire.

What is Salvation? Salvation is to believe in and following this “female messiah.” According to the cult, in this third age there is “only judgment and punishment, without any grace.”

How is a person saved? Salvation is achieved through the female Christ, a woman in Henan, China. A believer must unquestioningly obey the orders of this messiah to receive salvation and avoid eternal damnation.

Notes: The Eastern Lightning cult steals all of its followers from the Christian church. While they do target nominal Christians, their main targets are church leaders. Their “insider handbook” contains detailed instructions for spying out and infiltrating existing churches in order to “convert” their members. EL members enter a Christian church pretending to be a sincere seeker, but once they have gained the trust of the members, they begin pushing EL beliefs on the members. Because most Christians are not willing to convert, Eastern Lightning reverts to blackmail and torture to convince people to join the cult. There is evidence that thousands of Christians across China have been physically tortured by EL. Believers are often separated from each other to weak their resistance.

Although the cult is still young, much has been published on their group. Clear doctrinal statements are difficult to find, but reports of abuse, blackmail, torture and unethical behavior are too numerous to count.

*Much of this information was taken from the article “When Christians Wish They Were in Prison: An Examination of the Eastern Lightning Cult in China.” by Paul Hattaway. It was published on the website of Asia Harvest.

Falun Gong

Background: Falun Gong was introduced in 1992 by Hongzhi Li as a higher form of Qigong, a breathing technique meant to bring peace and spiritual support to the one practicing. He traveled for the next 2 years giving public lectures. In the following years, there was a rapid growth of Falun Gong and the followers swelled to one hundred million.

Sacred Book: There is none, but the word of Mr. Li continuously adds new elements to his teachings.

The Nature of God: They believe that there are different gods and heavens in different dimensions in the universe. If you follow a certain system, you may end up in a higher or lower universe. There are many systems with some benefit, but Falun Gong is the highest cultivation system.

Human Condition: Mr. Li teaches that live was originally formed at a higher level (and different dimension) in the Universe. Because of sin, that live has fallen down to a lower dimension. Once reaching earth, a person accumulates “karma” – debt and his/her virtue is decreased.

Eternity: Each person can follow one of many systems or gods to reach that heaven. Each heaven is segregated, and different races are not to be intermingled.

What is Salvation? The purpose of life is to return to our original starting point in the universe where we will not be a human, but god.

How is a person saved? Restoration to a god is achieved by choosing a cultivation system to increase one’s virtue and deal with the karma problem.

Notes: Mr. Li says that the Christianity is good and the Bible contains truth, but the time for Christianity has passed. He says that because of the new world situation, Christianity is outdated.


Background: Based on the teachings of one man, Mohammed. He was a merchant in the Arabian city of Mecca, had Christian in-laws and did business with the Jewish community outside Mecca. From these contacts he built his teachings upon a vague understanding of Judaism and Christianity.

Sacred Book: The Qur’an is a record of the words of Mohammed as written down by his followers. The Koran is believed to have existed in heaven for all eternity before Mohammed recited it. It is called “The one great miracle.”

The Nature of God: The majesty and might of Allah is often portrayed in the Qur’an, and it is emphasized that his purposes are always serious. Justice is Allah’s most important feature for Muslims. Allah is also merciful and compassionate, but mercy is shown mainly in his sending messengers who proclaim the truth of man’s responsibility to live according to Allah’s dictates.

Human Condition: Islam teaches that all people are sinners (Qur’an 16,61). Man is endowed with Taqwa, a sort of divine spark manifested in his conscience that enables him to perceive the truth and to act on it. Conscience is thus is of the greatest value in Islam.

Eternity: Those who do not conform their lives to the demands of Islam will surely be thrown into hell, a place of extreme physical pain (56,42-45; 94-95).

What is Salvation? If a man is capable of achieving salvation, he will find in paradise an eternal life of gratification of physical desires: he will have one or more virgins, will live in comfort, and will have all desires met.

How is a person saved? Salvation can be attained through observing the Five Pillars of Islamic practice: 1) the belief that Allah is the only god and Muhammad is his messenger; 2) performing the five daily prayers; 3) fasting throughout the month of Ramadan; 4) giving to the poor; 5) the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.  By performing these works, the Muslim hopes that at the judgment day his good deeds will exceed the bad ones, and so he will reach the paradise of material and sensual delights (56, 16-41).  Yet, despite all deeds, Allah reserves the absolute right to send the deceased to wherever he pleases, paradise or hell.

Traditional Chinese Religions

Background: For centuries, the Chinese have practiced traditional folk religions. It is difficult to define these beliefs, but they often coexist with a person’s chosen religion. So, many people will officially say they are “Buddhist” or “Daoist,” but once they leave the temple, their lives reflect a much different belief system. The common religions in China are not exclusive, so mixing elements is common.

Astrology is also a common theme in traditional religions. This is related to the gravitational pull of objects in space and how they all relate to one another. So, many people believe that the energy at work when a person is born can influence their whole life.

Sacred Book: Much has been written about folk religions, but those who practice traditional religions do not follow any sacred book. Chinese folk religion is wrapped up in their culture and is passed down from one generation to another. Traditional religion is just that: traditional. It cannot be classified as an “organized” religion, but follows a very loose organizational structure.

The Nature of God: The Chinese people worship hundreds of different gods. Sometimes famous historical figures or legends are also worshipped. Some people would acknowledge the existence of a “most high” god, but if he exists, he is far removed and impersonal.

Chinese culture follows a structured social hierarchy. As a reflection of this, the gods have a similar hierarchy. The gods with higher rank have more power, and those lower in the hierarchy have less. Often, the gods are named for certain places of activities. Examples of gods include the “kitchen god,” “door gods” and the gods of happiness, wealth and longevity. People will often pray to or worship a certain god depending on their specific needs.

Eternity: Traditional religion has a hard time defining the nature of eternity. However, how one acts in this world has a direct relationship with how comfortable they will be in the afterlife.

Ancestor worship is an integral part of their religion. There is much interaction between the dead and the living, and so dead family members are still honored by the living. People offer sacrifices and offerings to their dead ancestors to provide what they need for comfort in eternity. Without this worship, the ancestors might haunt those still on earth.

What is Salvation? There is no concrete definition of salvation, nor is there a sure way to attain salvation. Traditional religions emphasize doing the best you can to appease the gods and to live right. If you do enough good works and if you are honored by your family, perhaps you will secure a good place in the afterlife.

How is a person saved? Since there is no real definition of salvation, there is no clear path to salvation either.  However, emphasis is put on ancestor worship. Through honoring their dead ancestors, many people believe they will appease their ancestors and ensure a good afterlife for themselves as well. Emphasis is put on “good deeds” and it is believed that good deeds will be rewarded and bad behavior will be punished.

Notes: Some of the gods of the Chinese Folk religions come from the stories of ancient heroes.  Kuan Kung is one of these gods. In the 3rd century, he was a military hero against the Han dynasty. He is known as a model of patriotism, civic, and family virtue. Matzu is another heroine who is worshiped in China. During a terrible storm, she set her house on fire, so that the fisherman would have light to guide their way home. Other fishermen tell stories of Matzu appearing in the clouds to help them. There are many temples set up to her in South Eastern china and the city of Macao was named after this god. There are deities to family life, prosperity, protection, heaven and hell, agriculture, trade, healing, and many more. People will go to the temple to ask for something related to any of gods. If a woman wants a child, she will bring an offering and burn joss sticks to send out her request.

Many of the Chinese people will blend their Daoist, Confucius, and Folk Religion beliefs in their religious practices. People in different parts of the country have a varied mixture in their practices.