Chinese Folk Religion
To look at the statistical data today, one would assume the
Chinese are not vastly a religious people. Starting in 1966
with the Cultural Revolution, organized religion has been
frowned upon by the communist government as superstitious
and tainted by foreigners. There are five religions officially
recognized by the state today (Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism,
and Protestant Christianity); and although freedom of religion
(with limitations) has been declared since the Cultural Revolution
ended in 1977, the Communist party has said religious belief
and party membership are incompatible. Since membership is
required for most high-level careers and posts, statistical
reports may be skewed. In addition, many Chinese maintain
informal ties to local temples and house churches, without
claiming affiliation with any one group.
Historically, non-religious spiritual belief and folk tradition
have been widespread across China, having surviving centuries
of conflict. Some of these practices, such as feng shui, astrology,
and herbal medicine, are even now finding footholds in the
West. The discussion that follows shows that there is indeed
a strong spiritual folk tradition in China, threads of which
are still prevalent in Chinese culture.
While Western theology finds focus on one or more established
gods, Chinese folk tradition suggests the existence of numerous
gods and spirits, present within every aspect of nature, even
one’s own body. Benevolent and helpful spirits, associated
with bright and cheerful areas are called shen; while devious
and mean spirits, associated with dark and gloomy areas are
referred to as kuei. Rituals and sacrifice must be made to
appease both types of spirits. To this end, regular gifts
might be offered the spirits in small, personal shrines.
Occasionally a particularly troublesome kuei may need to
be exorcised. For this, a priest would be sought who might
appease or banish the spirit through the means of loud noises
or fire in any of its numerous forms: bonfires, fireworks,
candles, torches, or lanterns. Some priests have even scorched
their own skins to produce the desired results.
A medium may also be sought out to learn one’s fortune, or
to get advice on a matter of concern. These individuals divine
the future through randomly scattered objects such as stalks
of wheat, dice, corn, or coins. The shell of a tortoise or
the cracks in a dried bone may also provide the skilled medium
with valuable insight.
These readings are based on belief in the opposing forces
of yin and yang, and their interplay with wu-hsing, or the
five elements (earth, water, fire, metal, and wood). Anciently,
Chinese sages believed that the unified universe governed
by these balancing forces and cyclical successions, and therefore
could be interpreted through signs in nature. The reading
of these patterns resulted in developing a series of trigrams
and hexagrams, which formed the basis for the I, Ching, or
Book of Changes, which is one of most provocative and influential
books to come out of China.
Chinese philosophy concentrates on the operation of natural
law and on living well in this existence, rather in some later
life. This focus resulted in the practice of herbal medicines
(the earliest prescursor to pharmalogical medicine) and magical
potions, as well as ritualistic breathing and gymnastic exercise,
all to become hsien, or immortal. Long life is much valued
as proof of good, orderly living.
Finally, no discussion of Chinese tradition would be complete
without mention of the respect due to one’s elders and ancestors.
While consideration is given the gods, greater veneration
is owed the elderly living and deceased members of one’s family.
Traditionally, children have honored and obeyed their elders.
As long as they live, parents and grandparents are to be provided
for, and their comfort seen to. Children are also obligated
to provide proper burial, maintain gravesites, and perform
ritual sacrifices each year, sometimes at great personal expense.
The accomplishments of ancestors are to be held in remembrance
from generation to generation. While this aspect of tradition
has changed much since the Cultural Revolution, when Chairman
Mao set loyalty to the government above loyalty to family,
and upset the formerly rigid structure of family and home
life, filial obligation still is a distinguishing aspect of
The face of religion in China has changed over the ages,
a result of the many internal and external forces. It was
once written that Chinese religion “mirrors the social landscape
of its adherents,” and that “there are as many meanings as
there are vantage points” (William Debary). It may be that
the very adaptability of its spiritual traditions account
for their resiliency, for glimpses of these ancient folk traditions
can be witnessed in Chinese culture even today.