Chinese Folk Religion

Chinese folk religion is the religious tradition of the Han people, including veneration of forces of nature and ancestors, exorcism of harmful forces, and a belief in the rational order of nature which can be influenced by human beings and their rulers as well as spirits and gods. Worship is devoted to a multiplicity of gods and immortals, who can be deities of phenomena, of human behavior, or progenitors of lineages. Stories regarding some of these gods are collected into the body of Chinese mythology. By the eleventh century (Song period) these practices had been blended with Buddhist ideas of karma (one’s own doing) and rebirth, and Taoist teachings about hierarchies of gods, to form the popular religious system which has lasted in many ways until the present day. 


Chinese religions have a variety of sources, local forms, founder backgrounds, and ritual and philosophical traditions. Despite this diversity, there is a common core that can be summarised as four theological, cosmological, and moral concepts: Heaven, the transcendent source of moral meaning; the breath or energy that animates the universe; the veneration of ancestors; moral reciprocity; together with two traditional concepts of fate and meaning: the personal destiny or burgeoning; “fateful coincidence”, good and bad chances and potential relationships. Yin and yang (阴阳) is the polarity that describes the order of the universe, held in balance by the interaction of principles of growth and principles of waning, with yang usually preferred over yin (“receptiveness”) in common religion. “numen” or “sacred”, is the “medium” of the two states and the inchoate order of creation.

Both the present day government of China and the imperial dynasties of the Ming and Qing tolerated village popular religious cults if they bolstered social stability but suppressed or persecuted those that they feared would undermine it. After the fall of the empire in 1911, governments and elites opposed or attempted to eradicate folk religion in order to promote “modern” values, and many condemned “feudal superstition”. These conceptions of folk religion began to change in Taiwan in the late 20th century and in mainland China in the 21st. Many scholars now view folk religion in a positive light. In recent times Chinese folk religions are experiencing a revival in both mainland China and Taiwan. Some forms have received official understanding or recognition as a preservation of traditional Chinese culture, such as Mazuism and the Sanyi teaching in Fujian, Huangdi worship, and other forms of local worship, for example the Longwang, Pangu or Caishen worship.

Among the Chinese folk beliefs, respecting heaven and worshiping ancestors is the most basic religious belief in China. This tradition can be traced back to the primitive society and has not changed in successive dynasties. In addition, Confucianism, as the guiding ideology of the imperial period, also emphasized respecting god and abiding to ancients. Therefore, heaven worship and the ancestors worship are always the most important part of the Chinese folk religious beliefs.

Four Historical Stages

In the history of Chinese feudal society, the development and evolution of folk religion can be divided into four stages.

1. Folk Taoism from the late Eastern Han dynasty to the Northern and Southern dynasties

Including Taiping Taoism of Zhang Jiao(张角的太平道); Zhang Lu’s Five-Dou-Grain Taoism(张鲁的五斗米道), and so on. From the three Kingdoms to the Northern and Southern dynasties, the mainstream of folk Taoism continued to develop along the track of feudalization. Finally, after the transformation of Ge Hong(葛洪), Kou Qianzhi(寇谦之), Lu Xiujing(陆修静) and Tao Hongjing(陶弘景), the mainstream of folk Taoism was transformed into an orthodox religion.

2. Folk Buddhism heresy and Manichaeism from Southern and Northern dynasties to the Northern Song dynasty

The ethereal ideal dreamland depicted by Buddhism in the Southern and Northern dynasties contrasted sharply with the deep suffering of reality, thus making the concept of Maitreya widely spread in the lower social strata. It is the origin of the Maitreya society. In the Southern Song Dynasty, the concept of Maitreya was absorbed by White Lotus Society, and Maitreya Buddha was regarded as the highest worshiped god. Even in the Ming and Qing dynasties, the folk religion’s belief to Maitreya continued.

In the early Tang Dynasty, Manichaeism was introduced into China from Persia and was soon banned. Later, the Uighurs took the opportunity to bring Manichaeism, which had become the state religion, into the Central Plains and spread it widely in the Tang Dynasty by relying on the strength of the Uighurs. Mani division successively in Changan, Jingzhou, Hongzhou, Yuezhou, Yangzhou, Taiyuan and Henan set temples and do missionary work, until the emperor Wuzong in Tang dynasty destructed Buddhism, Manichaeism was also suppressed at the same time. Later, Manichaeism had to go underground, flowed into the folk, evolved into folk religion.

3. The rise of White Lotus Society from the Southern Song Dynasty to the Middle of Ming Dynasty

With the combination of Zen Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism in the Song Dynasty, the Buddhist belief was popularized to the lower classes, and a large number of folk Buddhist worship groups rose one after another. As a result, the emergence of White Lotus religion is more suitable for the general public belief needs. The doctrine originates from the Buddhist Pure Land sect. During the Yuan Dynasty, the white lotus society was widely spread in many provinces in the south of the Yangtze River, and was once recognized by the Yuan regime and enjoyed the privilege of not paying taxes and not serving corvee.

But it was not long before it was banned by the imperial court. At this point, the White Lotus society had to go into the folk, conducts religious activities secretly. At the end of Yuan Dynasty, the social class contradiction and the national contradiction became more and more sharp, the peasant masses took the white lotus society as the organization form, staging the uprising. After Zhu Yuanzhang(朱元璋) gained political power, he knew the power of peasant insurrection, and adopted an attitude of interdiction and repression against white lotus society and other folk religions. However, the white lotus society revolt continues to occur.

4. Folk religions from the middle of Ming Dynasty to the end of Qing Dynasty

This stage, is the most active period in the history of folk religions. The new folk religion flourished again, and hundreds of sects emerged, forming the central content of the lower social movement in the later period of feudal society. The main folk sects of Ming and Qing dynasties, in addition to Luo religion(罗教), also included Yellow Day Religious(黄天教), West Mahayana(西大乘教), East Mahayana(东大乘教), Hongyang Religion(弘阳教), Longtian Religion(龙天教), immortality religion(长生教), three-in-one religion(三一教), Jizu Mountain Mahayana(鸡足山大乘教), Qinglian sect(青莲教), the eight diagrams society(八卦教), A Joss stick Religion(一炷香教) and vacuum religion(真空教), etc. In the long course of history, these religions rejected each other and merged with each other, forming a complicated situation. Each sect, in order to survive and establish its religion independently, generally compiles one or more scriptures of the original religion, the so-called treasure book(宝卷), which is used to explain its doctrine and ideas. Most of these scrolls are easy to understand, easy to chant and satire, enjoyed by the masses, and had a great impact on the people’s cultural thoughts. Chinese folk religion has a great influence, especially in the Ming and Qing dynasties and in modern times, it played a special role in people’s ideology, social life and even political system together with secret association.

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