China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2003/Feb

China, Land of Many Faiths

Although most people think of China as an atheistic society, the fact of the matter is that China is a land of many faiths. The government has put its seal of approval on five of these faiths: Buddhism, Islam, Daoism, and Christianity, which is divided into Protestants and Catholics. The reason that China has chosen to approve these particular expressions of belief is that they have several important things in common. They all have a long history, their own scriptures, doctrines and rituals, a large membership and a good organizational structure. Of the five, only Daoism is indigenous to China.

Daoism, China’s only indigenous religion

Historians usually consider Zhang Ling, who lived during the reign of the Emperor Shundi (124-144 AD), as the founder of Daoism. Daoist scriptures include Laozi’s Five Thousand Words and Tai Ping Jing (Canon of Eternal Peace). Laozi’s Five Thousand Words is better known today as the Dao De Jing (Canon of the Dao and Its Virtues). The Dao has about 81 chapters filled with inspiring wisdom. One of Daoism’s basic teachings is that happiness is found in restraint. It is in getting rid of desires that one finds happiness.

Laozi writes the Dao Jing

Legend has it that a certain gentleman, an archivist in the court of the emperor, became disillusioned with what was happening in the world around him. He decided to escape from the court. As he tried to go through the imperial gate, he was stopped by a guard who recognised him. The guard would not let him go until he had written down the wisdom, which was within him. The man sat down and at one sitting wrote the now famous Dao De Jing. We know that man today by the name of Laozi. Some claim his real name was Li Er, who lived sometime during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-374 BC.)

Laozi was a mystic, whose teachings were more spiritual than practical. He taught that one’s approach to life must be in harmony with nature. Yin and Yang are important concepts in his teachings. Laozi claimed that all life is interplay of opposing forces, and these must be controlled. The yin is female, soft and pliant; the yang is the male, rationale and unbending. A half white, half black circle expresses the yin and yang symbolically. The circle expresses human life with its limitations, and the achievement of harmony without conflict. While the symbol reveals the tension in all human life, it also shows the balance and order that must be cultivated to live a fruitful life.

Daoists and the concept of God

Chinese Daoists have not organized their lives and beliefs around God. Rather, they have centred all of life in the human person. Daoism stresses the importance of benevolence expressed in a love of the universe and a life devoted to achieving universal harmony. Faithful Daoists must be pure in mind and body, modest, cultivate attitudes of humility and shun dominance and power. Daoists are pacifists, opposed to war, stealing, boasting and alcohol.

Statistical Data

There are no statistics for the actual number of Daoists in China today. Some claim there are 17,000,000, but, they do have 1,500 meeting points and 40,000 religious professionals. Although Daoism is native to China, there are Daoists in many foreign countries including the United States, Canada, Europe, and Singapore.


Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was born in the sixth century around the year 570 AD in Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. At the age of 24, he married a rich widow 15 years his senior, who encouraged him in his search for God. Mohammed claimed that God was speaking to him through the Angel Gabriel and calling him to preach that Allah was the one true God. Mohammed eventually attracted many disciples. In describing his mission, Mohammed said, “I am only a preacher of God’s words.” By verbal persuasion or by the might of the sword, Mohammed proclaimed to all the polytheists around him, “There is only one God, his name is Allah, and I, Mohammed, am his greatest prophet.”

Islam came to China through Arabian businessmen in the seventh century. In the early 13th century adherents of Islam, who had been recruited as soldiers and craftsmen, found themselves in northwestern China working as agricultural workers. They migrated to Yunnan to places south of the Changjiang River and north China.

At the end of the Ming and early Qing Dynasty, Chinese Islamic scholars began the translations of Arabian and Persian classics, and Islamic history. The first Chinese edition of the Koran appeared in 1927.

Muslims among the Minorities

Muslims can be found in 10 of China’s minority groups: the Hui, Uygurs, Kazakh, Dongxiang, Khalk-has, Salar, Tajik, Uzbek, Bonan and Tartar.

Five pillars govern the life of Muslims. The first is the creed: “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.” The second is prayer. Most are prayers of praise, gratitude, or petition to God. The third pillar is the month-long fast of Ramadan. The fourth is almsgiving, and the fifth is the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Koran is Islam’s bible composed of 114 chapters containing Mohammed’s revelations. The Koran approves divorce and polygamy – Mohammed himself had 14 wives and true to his belief in racial equality, one of these was black. Throughout the ages, to achieve its ends, and in the name of Allah, Islam has often resorted to the sword.

Statistical Data

Today, Islam claims to have 21,600,000 believers in China, with 30,000 meeting points and 40,000 Muslim religious professionals.

Buddhism in China

Centuries before Christ appeared on earth, the Buddha, Siddartha Gautama, taught that the life of human beings is filled with suffering and unhappiness. This condition, he maintained, is caused by the person’s own selfish desires. Eliminating selfish desires can therefore eliminate unhappiness. The way to eliminate selfish desires is to follow the eightfold path. This eightfold path requires the mastery of right dispositions and actions such as: right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right means of earning a living, right effort, right mind control, and right meditation.

Buddhists are called to reverence and adhere to the five precepts. These are abstention from: aggression against others, deceitfulness in word and deed, illicit sexual activity, theft and abstention from drugs and alcohol. Buddhists also honour the four great vows: to deliver sentient beings from suffering, to eliminate inordinate passions, to learn meditation (Dharma) and attain enlightenment. The Buddhists have many other precepts to be followed to arrive at happiness and nirvana.

The exact date that Buddhism entered China from India is still a matter of scholarly discussion, however, many historians consider 67 AD as a probable date. This was during the reign of Emperor Mingdi. As Buddhism developed, it underwent many changes that resulted in a variety of different Buddhist sects. China’s most popular Buddhist sects are the Chan Sect brought into China by Bodhidharma, an Indian monk, and the Pure Land Sect.

Buddhism, which seems to have adapted and assimilated itself well into Chinese culture, has played a significant role in the development of Chinese philosophy, Chinese literature, Chinese art and architecture. Buddhism has also made a significant contribution in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, gymnastics, and medicine.

Statistical data

Today China’s Buddhists number 67,400,000, with 17,600 meeting places, and 200,000 religious professionals.


Christianity has had a long and stormy history in China. Some historians now maintain that Christianity came to China as early as 86 AD but the usual date given is the year 635 AD, with a monk named Alopen.

Christianity, however, eventually disappeared and only reappeared in 1294, in Beijing, with the Franciscan John of Montecorvino. Although he was very successful in making converts during his sojourn in Beijing, he died without any successor to continue his work. Once again Christianity fell into oblivion, and only reappeared with the famous Jesuits missionaries and scientists, in the 16th century.

History’s impact on Christianity

The Rites Controversy, the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 all had tremendous impact on the Church. More often than not, this impact was negative.

Protestants arrive in China

The Protestants arrived in China at the beginning of the 19th century with the missionaries of the London Missionary Society and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission. By 1869, more than 30 Protestant denominations were working in China. With zeal their numbers increased until by 1926 they had more than 8000 missioners in the field.

Both the Protestant and Catholic missionaries made a huge impact on China. They brought a new kind of education. They were pioneers in the education of women; they helped eliminate foot binding that had virtually kept women crippled and under male domination for over one thousand years.

A legacy of suffering

All religions suffered greatly during the war with the Japanese, then during China’s Civil War, the Second World War and during the years of the founding of the People’s Republic. The Cultural Revolution followed. Prisons were soon filled with clergy and laity from all religious beliefs. Churches were demolished or appropriated, schools were closed and religious and other books burned in huge bonfires. Mao died in 1976, but it took some time for Christianity to rise from the ashes. Division among Christians themselves keeps slowing down the pace of recovery. Catholics have both open and underground segments of the church, and unresolved Sino-Vatican relations. The Protestants have their Three-Self-Movement and their house churches.

Statistical data

Both the Protestants and Catholics, however, continue to grow in numbers and in influence. The latest figures available indicate that there are 19,000,000 Protestant among China’s religious believers. They have 37,000 meeting points and 18,000 religious professionals. Catholics have 12,000,000 adherents, 5,400 churches, and 5,650 religious professionals.

The future of religion in China

While China keeps denouncing the proliferation of sects, sects continue to arise. While the Party keeps hoping that religion would disappear altogether, all the major religions keep growing daily. More and more universities are studying the ever-growing phenomenon of religion in China, a phenomenon that will not soon go away.

A Journey of One Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step – Laozi