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Is Chinese religion really a thing? And how many follow it?

Some statistics define Chinese as one of the most atheistic people on the planet. It is a huge mistake to think there is no Chinese religion, or that Chinese are not spiritual.
Chinese are actually very religious, and anybody who has been in China would know that. But then, why there is such a big misunderstanding?

The three main Chinese religions

China, as a country with a long history, has a fairly complex culture. The culture, history, religion, society and philosophy influenced each other to a great extent. Understanding one without knowing the others is much harder. Only who has a deep understanding about all these topics can have a clear vision about Chinese as a whole.
Three religions influenced China for most of its time: Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism.

Confucianism: the root of Chinese culture

Confucianism, or Ruism, is the name given to the teachings of Confucius, or Kong Fuzi. Confucius was a politician and philosopher during the Spring and Autumn period, 2500 years ago. His experience in politics and government allowed him to understand many important lessons that shaped students’ minds for millennia. Confucianism has a strong focus on society, and on respecting others. These values, Confucius said, were part of the legendary Xia dynasty and the following ones. An heritage that today would be more than 4000 years old.
Some of the important concepts of Confucianism are Filial Piety, Benevolence, Loyalty, Integrity and Modesty, but there are many more. These values still shape Chinese culture and mindset.
Considering the importance given to good government and management of people and state, Confucianism became quickly an important subject for all the future state officers to learn, giving way to imperial exams based on the ancient texts of Confucius and other wise.
More than 1000 years ago, Confucianism was reformed to react to the “new” religions: Buddhism and Daoism. From then on, Neo-confucianism replaced the older one.
Just one hundred years ago, Confucianism was reborn once more and named Modern Neo-Confucianism.
It is not easy to define how many believe in Confucianism, because of how much it is influencing Chinese culture. Confucianism is so deep in Chinese culture to the point it is not considered as a religion by the People’s Republic of China. It is just part of the Chinese tradition.

Buddhism: the religion from the West

Buddhism is one of the East’s most famous religions. It originated in India more than 2500 years ago. Due to geographical borders (Himalaya) and the distance itself, Buddhism did not influence China immediately. Buddhism also split in different schools of thought, very different from each other, and influenced the South-East Asian populations. More than 500 years later, as Indian states managed to control the Silk Road, Buddhism spread into China. Chinese values then influenced Buddhism, and the different schools of thought somehow merged. Although the base is Mahayana, Chinese Buddhism is very different from other branches.
The beliefs of Buddhism include an almost endless cycle of life and death, the existence of a force that balances good and bad, a path of self-improvement and the importance of understanding ancient texts. These who could reach the highest level of human condition would become a Buddha and an example for the future generations.
China itself has more than half of the total Buddhists of the world, with more than 240 million believers.

Daoism: a Chinese religion to challenge Confucianism

Daoism, also known as Taoism, originated more than 2300 years ago from the teachings of Lao Zi (or Lao Tsu) and Zhuang Zi. The Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching), the book of Dao, includes most of the early teachings of Daoism.
Frugality, humility and compassion are the three important treasures of Daoism, which focuses on a natural approach to life and events. As such, there are many schools of thought around Daoism, to the point it is hard to make a clear definition of it outside the core beliefs.
This contributes to the opposition of Daoism to Confucianism, which is actually all about the importance of justice, social order and rules, and is based on clear principles deriving from tradition.
As such, Daoism became an opposing movement to the widespread Confucianism, as a reaction coming from these who could not suffer the principles of Confucianism.
Around 170 million people in China are following Daoism.

A pervading influence: Chinese religion as ancestor worship

Although in the past there were always said to be three main religions, a huge influence was coming from something so powerful that was not even considered as a separate religion. It pervaded every single one of them.
Chinese traditional beliefs and ancestor worship managed to find their way in any religion getting into China, making them something different from a religion. For Chinese, respecting ancestors is important: doesn’t matter if you are Buddhist, Daoist or Christian. If you are Chinese, you will respect your ancestors and follow Chinese traditional ways. According to these, periodical offerings should be given to dead ancestors, often being paper (resembling money) and food.
Similar beliefs (while not identical) exist also in other countries in South East Asia and in East Asia. As for Confucianism, it is not possible to estimate how many are practicing these rites, since they merged with Chinese traditional beliefs.

The Five Religions according to the PRC

According to PRC, the main religions of China are: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Chinese ancestor worship and Confucianism are instead part of the Chinese tradition and folklore.
Furthermore, as many Chinese do not consider the traditional Chinese beliefs as opposed to modern religions, it is hard to calculate exactly how many followers there are, because some may consider themselves Christians while practicing a form of ancestor worship.
This makes it hard for statistics to actually provide realistic data about religion in China.
In the end, it is often deemed easier to consider all Chinese as non-believers (except for the adherents to the main five religions), but it is very far from being accurate. We could say that Confucianism and Chinese ancestor worship influences to a certain degree the vast majority of Chinese. This includes, often, those who follow other religions.

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