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Caroline Shapiro

Chinese Customs & Rituals
Research Paper
Religions Present in China in the 21st Century
“Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ,
public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any
religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any
religion” (Constitution). As stated in Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of
China, all Chinese citizens have complete religious freedom. However, the document also states,
“The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in
activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational
system of the state.” This clause summons the question, what exactly is a normal religious
activity? Since this constitution was established, the republic has divided into five major
religious groups, which are classified as “normal” by the government. Buddhism has the largest
religious following in China, with about 18.2% of the population (Liu, J), followed by
Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam. Although Christianity and Islam are present in
Chinese culture, they are religions which are more present in Western culture than in Eastern
culture. Because of this, this paper will only delve into the first three of the five religious groups
in depth, describing the other two briefly, and will discuss the impact that each of them have on
Chinese Culture.

The religion known today as Buddhism is one which varies greatly from many of the other
largely prevalent religions in today’s society. Buddhism is not a religion that is centered around
any form of sacred writing, or list of beliefs that was sent to its followers by any “greater being”.
In fact, the ‘Buddha’ himself never wrote any of his teachings down—all of his lessons were
given orally, and thus, all records of these teachings were written by his disciples, not from the

Buddha himself. To understand the history of this religion, we must first learn the story of its

The man who is known today as the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in what is
now Nepal, several millenniums ago. There is much dispute amongst historians as to when
exactly he was born, but it appears to have been sometime within either the 500 BCE century or
the 400 BCE century. Siddhartha Gautama was around 30 years old when he left his home and
family to seek out personal and religious happiness. While wandering through villages, he sat
under a pipal tree and meditated; by the time the sun came up, he had become the Buddha, which
literally translated, means the enlightened one. The Buddha then began to gather followers, and
teach them all that he had discovered about finding inner peace and enlightenment within
yourself, rather than searching for it in the world around you.

The teachings of Buddha spread rapidly, and are now recognized worldwide. Although they have
been altered through time, the main beliefs of Buddhism have stayed relatively constant. The
teachings of the Buddha are very complex, and so this section of the paper will attempt to
describe in simple terms, the most basic of Buddhist beliefs. Two of the most widely recognized
of the Buddha’s teachings are known as the “Four Noble Truths” and the “Eightfold Path.”

The Four Noble Truths are used to describe human suffering, and are: Dukkha, Samudaya,
Nirodha and Magga. In English, these translate to: Dukkah (suffering exists), Samudaya (there is
a cause for suffering), Nirodha (there is an end to suffering), and Magga (in order to end
suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path). Siddhartha Gautama’s sense of enlightenment
derived from his understanding of the world and of human life. He understood simple facts of
life, and strove to teach his disciples to also accept those facts, and to learn to find inner peace
despite of them. The Four Noble Truths are a perfect example of that fact.

The second of Buddha’s main teachings that I will describe in this paper is the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path is considered by many who practice Buddhism to be the heart of the

religion’s beliefs. The goal of these eight sectors of the path is to teach followers to live a life
without delusions—a realistic life, but a happily realistic life. The eight steps are as follows:
Right View, Right Intention, Right Action, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right
Mindfulness and Right Concentration. The first of these, Right View, describes the need to view
the world around you without delusions of greed, hate, etc., and to see that which surrounds you
for what it really is. Right Intention regards focusing on where your intentions are coming from.
If they seem to be stemming from a place of anger or resentment, there is a large chance that they
will do more harm than good. However, if your intentions come from a place of helpfulness or
kindness, there will be better results. Right Action speaks to ensuring that your actions will have
positive repercussions, rather than negative ones. Right Speech is ensuring that your right
intentions are communicated properly through appropriate language choices, and are not
misinterpreted or misconstrued to mean something that they don’t. Right Livelihood refers to
your behavior in the workplace. It is important to not only choose a career in which you feel
good about, but also to ensure that you are acting rightfully while working in that work field.
Right Effort is making sure to put your concentration and effort into acts of compassion and
rightness, rather than into acts of greed or hate. Right Mindfulness eludes to paying attention to
your surroundings, and training yourself to be present and aware of all that which is happening
around you. And finally, Right Concentration or Right Meditation, is the act of keeping your
mind focused on the task at hand, and concentrating on all eight steps of the path (Nourie.) Many
Buddhists find that the best way to achieve Right Concentration is through meditation.

Buddhism is the oldest foreign religion to exist in China. Within the second century BC,
Buddhist teachings were put into writing and the scriptures soon thereafter made their way to
China. When Buddhism was first introduced into China, there was some backlash from the
rulers. It was even at one point said to be banished by the Qin Emperor. Because there were
times when the religion was not entirely accepted into society, its presence has an interesting
history in China. It was practiced in many parts of the country, and therefore has split into
several different sects. It is now the most commonly practiced religion in China.


The religion of Taoism, or known as Daoism in western cultures, is a dominantly Chinese
religion. Some, in fact, believe that it is very difficult to understand Chinese culture without
understanding Taoism. Taoism was founded in China between the years of 25 and 220, during
the late Eastern Han Dynasty, but wasn’t considered a legitimately popular religion until the time
of the Northern and Southern Dynasties between 385 and 589. It is still widely practiced in
China and in other parts of the world to this day. Taoism focuses heavily on humans’
relationships with nature.

The term tao is a vital key to grasping the concepts behind the religion of Taoism. The term
means “path” or “way,” but over time has come to hold a deeper meaning. The word has been
used heavily in Confucian teachings, often times used as a principle, not necessarily a thing.
Confucianism used the term tao as a way of life, or a method. However, in the Taoism religion,
the term tao is used to describe something else entirely. Tao is described to be “the only
substance and the only thing, for it is the totality of all things whatsoever,” and is said to be
completely indivisible, thus, “cannot be described in words or even comprehended by thought”
(Creel.) Tao is a vital part of understanding Taoism. It has gone through many different
definitions throughout time. With its original definition being “path,” it has since held several
different meanings, ultimately ending with this definition which is “absolutely indivisible.” Upon
diverging from its original definition, tao soon came to be known as “norm of conduct,” then
transitioning into “the rational principle in man,” and then to “reason in man and reality” (Liu,
K). The tao, although indefinable, can be discovered by Taoists, however must not be sought out,
but rather discovered naturally over time.

Although like most other religions, Taoism has split into many segments over time, and is now
practiced in several different ways, shapes and forms, the underlying concepts have stayed rather
constant. Beyond attempting to connect with the tao, the main goal of Taoists is to find a way to
connect their lives with nature, and the world around them. This is achieved in different ways,
however, it is extremely common for this to be achieved through creating a set of personal
guidelines to follow, as well as a personal routine and list of practices that will urge you to stay

connected with your tao. Many Taoists believe that finding your tao is achieved by first finding

Taoism’s presence in China has not been entirely stable throughout its whole existence. It was
once the most prevalent religion in the country. Its place as a recognized religion was secured in
the fourth and third centuries BCE—the writing of the Tao Te Ching (the famous book guiding
Taoists’ beliefs) was a leading factor in this. However, the religion hit a speed bump during the
Communism takeover of China. When this took place in 1949, Taoism was banned by the
government, and all citizens were re-educated. This caused the number of citizens practicing
Taoism to drop by 99% within 10 years. During this time, Taoism moved to Taiwan, where
religious freedom was within reach of citizens. However, within recent years, religious freedom
has become available to citizens of the People’s Republic of China, and Taoism has been revived
in the country.

The third religion that I will discuss in this paper is Confucianism. Confucianism is very similar
to Buddhism in the sense that it is all based on the teachings of one founder, whose teachings
were recorded by disciples and have spread throughout the world over time. In the case of
Confucianism, the founder and teacher of the philosophy and religion was Confucius. Confucius
lived in China in the fifth or sixth century BC. Confucius felt strongly about his ideas about
education, government and society, and spent his life pursuing a career in law and government,
in hopes that he could put some of these policies into action. However, after years of trying, he
eventually realized that those superior to him had no intention of hearing him out or taking his
advice. Upon realizing this, Confucius fled the country and found a group of students who were
willing to listen to and embrace his teachings. He then began to spread his ideas to all those who
would listen, and he gathered many followers. Many say, however, that Confucius did not
generate the ideas that make up Confucianism, but rather took ideas of the past and brought them
into the present. His teachings were recorded by some of his disciples, thus forming the Analects
of Confucius, the main writing of Confucianism which showcases many of Confucian’s quotes,
beliefs and general teachings.

Although Confucianism is much more complex than just this, its main concept is the idea of
humaneness, and thus its teachings revolve a lot around the concepts of ethics and morals. In the
Book II of the Analects, it is written:
“The Master said, 'At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. At thirty, I had planted my feet
firm upon the ground. At forty, I no longer suffered from complexities. At fifty, I knew
what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with docile ear. At seventy, I
could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the
boundaries of right'" (The Analects).
This quote from the Analects of Confucian Teachings demonstrates Confucius’s belief that
finding the tao, or the way, and becoming a “gentleman” is a lifelong quest, and does not simply
happen overnight. Confucius often used the word junzi, translated in English to gentleman. To be
a gentleman according to Confucian beliefs, is to be a person who is full of good intention and
good sportsmanship, one who strives to create good in the world, rather than to create good only
for himself—a man of principle, rather than a man of greed. Although the English translation is
gentleman, this concept applies to human in general, not only men. Those who follow Confucian
beliefs spend their lives seeking out this humaneness, and becoming a true gentleman.

The main staple of Confucianism is the strong moral code that accompanies it. The
religion/philosophy is centered around this concept. One aspect of this moral code, is the
Confucian concept of filial piety. This concept is one that is extremely important within
Confucianism, and has thus become a large part of Chinese culture as a whole throughout time. It
is first introduced in Book II of the Analects, with this quote:
“Meng I Tzu asked about the treatment of parents. The Master said, 'Never disobey!'
When Fan Ch'ih was driving his carriage for him, the Master said, 'Meng asked me about
the treatment of parents and I said, Never disobey!' Fan Ch'ih said, 'In what sense did you
mean it?' The Master said, 'While they are alive, serve them according to the ritual. When
they die, bury them according to ritual and sacrifice to them according to ritual'" (The

Filial piety is commonly described as loyalty and respect for one’s parents, relatives and
ancestors. However, it goes much deeper than this. Filial piety is the root of many Chinese
traditions and customs. It has become a cornerstone of the structure of the Chinese family. In
fact, the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China even states, “Parents have the duty to
rear and educate their minor children, and children who have come of age have the duty to
support and assist their parents” (Constitution.) Although family is important in many different
cultures around the world, it is not common for the constitution of a republic to list loyalty to
one’s family as an official duty of every citizen. Filial piety is present in many ancient Chinese
customs, for example the history of Chinese linages and ancestral halls, or Chinese rituals
revolving around the death of a loved one.

Although once the main set of beliefs in Chinese culture, Confucianism has had its share of
struggles throughout time. Inspired by Western culture and the augmentation of Christianity,
there was a revolt against Confucianism in the early 1900s, near the end of the Qing Dynasty.
China had suffered many issues, and there was a large group of people who believed that China’s
old Confucian ways were to blame for these problems. It is still very prevalent in Chinese
culture, but it this revolt has decreased its popularity over the last 100 years. That being said,
Confucianism is still an extremely important part of Chinese culture, and many current day
customs and rituals are derived from original Confucian teachings. Confucianism is often
described as an “implicit part of Chinese culture.”

Christianity and Islam
Christianity and Islam are religions whose roots are found more within western cultures, but over
time they have made their way into China and other eastern countries. Although Christianity has
been present within Chinese culture for almost two thousand years, it did not begin to really
spread until only a few centuries ago, and has now split into several different categories, such as
Catholicism and Protestantism. There are currently somewhere between 67 million and 100
million Christians living in China (Rauhala). Islam, on the other hand, is less prevalent, but is
growing quickly. Islam has also been around for over one thousand years, but was made up of a

very small population. Today Muslims are still a small minority within China, but it is far more
common for them to exist there. Islam is currently the fastest growing religion in China.

These five religions make up Chinese culture, however, the descriptions of Buddhism, Taoism
and Confucianism do a nice job of showing what religious beliefs in Chinese culture are really
all about. Each of these three sets of beliefs have many similarities—all three of them are more
about finding a peace within yourself than aiming to please a higher power. They all largely
incorporate philosophy amongst their religious practices. They all aim to make life better by
making the world around you better. They have all changed, evolved and split into sectors
throughout time. However, although they have similarities, they each have their own distinct set
of practices, of values, and of ways to reach their ultimate end goal. They have different beliefs
and different traditions. They contain different world views, and worship different beings. They
come from different places, and have spread in different ways.

These three religions together make up a large part of Chinese culture. Although only two of the
three actually had their roots in this country, all three religions play a large role in Chinese
history and make up Chinese culture as the world knows it today.

Works Cited
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Chow, N. "The Practice of Filial Piety and Its Impact." Asian Journal of Gerontology &
Geriatrics (2006): n. pag. Apr. 2006. Web. 3 Aug. 2016.
"Constitution of China, Article 36: Freedom of Religion." Constitution of China, Article 36:
Freedom of Religion. Berkley Center at Georgtown, n.d. Web. 21 July 2016.
Creel, H. G. "What Is Taoism?" Journal of the American Oriental Society 76.3 (1956): 139-52.

Liu, Joseph. "Buddhists." Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS. N.p., 18 Dec.
2012. Web. 21 July 2016.
Liu, King Shu. "THE ORIGIN OF TAOISM." The Monist 27.3 (1917): 376-89. Web.
Nourie, Dana. "What Is the Eightfold Path?" The Secular Buddhist Association, 03 May 2013.
Web. 02 Aug. 2016.
Peressini, Mauro. "Buddhism: Origins, Diversification, Teachings and Practices." Choosing
Buddhism: The Life Stories of Eight Canadians. U of Ottawa, 2016. 19-52. Web.
Rauhala, Emily. "Asia & Pacific Christians in China Feel Full Force of Authorities’ Repression."
The Washington Post. N.p., 23 Dec. 2015. Web. 3 Aug. 2016.
Sun, Anna. "The Confucianism as a Religion Controversy in Contemporary China."
Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities.
Princeton UP, 2013. 77-94. Web.