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Religion in China

Major Religions in China

The People's Republic of China is officially an atheist state, but the government formally recognizes five religions:

  • Buddhism
  • Taoism
  • Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism are recognised separately)
  • Islam


In China, Buddhism is represented by a large number of people following the Mahayana, divided between two different cultural traditions, namely the schools of Chinese Buddhism followed by the Han Chinese, and the schools of Tibetan Buddhism followed by Tibetans and Mongols, but also by minorities of Han. The vast majority of Buddhists in China, counted in the hundreds of millions, are Chinese Buddhists, while Tibetan Buddhists are in the number of the tens of millions. Small communities following the Theravada exist among minority ethnic groups who live in the southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, bordering Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, but also some among the Li people of Hainan follow such tradition.

With the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, religion came under the control of the new government, and the Buddhist Association of China was founded in 1953. During the Cultural Revolution, Buddhism was suppressed and temples closed or destroyed. Restrictions lasted until the reforms of the 1980s, when Buddhism began to recover popularity and its place as the largest organised faith in the country. While estimates of the number of Buddhists in China vary, the most recent surveys found an average 10–16% of the population of China claiming a Buddhist affiliation, with even higher percentages in urban agglomerations.


Taoism (also romanised as Daoism in the current pinyin spelling) encompasses a variety of related orders of philosophy and rite in Chinese religion. They share elements that go back to the 4th century BCE and to the prehistoric culture of China, such as the School of Yin and Yang and the thought of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Taoism has a distinct scriptural tradition, with the Dàodéjīng "Book of the Way and its Virtue") of Laozi being regarded as its keystone. Taoism may be described, as does the scholar and Taoist initiate Kristofer Schipper in The Taoist Body (1986), as a doctrinal and liturgical framework or structure for developing the local cults of indigenous religion.

Taoist traditions emphasise living in harmony with the Tao (also romanised as Dao). The term Tao means "way", "path" or "principle", and may also be found in Chinese philosophies and religions other than Taoism, including Confucian thought. In Taoism, however, Tao denotes the principle that is both the source and the pattern of development of everything that exists. It is ultimately ineffable: "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao" says the first verse of the Tao Te Ching. According to the scholar Stephan Feuchtwang, the concept of Tao is equivalent to the ancient Greek concept of physis, "nature", that is the vision of the process of generation and regeneration of things and of the moral order. 


Christianity in China comprises Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and a small number of Orthodox Christians. Mormonism also has a tiny presence. The Orthodox Church, which has believers among the Russian minority and some Chinese in the far northeast and far northwest, is officially recognised in Heilongjiang. The category of "Protestantism" in China also comprehends a variety of heterodox sects of Christian inspiration, including Zhushenism, Linglingism, Fuhuodao, the Church of the Disciples and Eastern Lightning or the Church of Almighty God.


The introduction of Islam in China is traditionally dated back to a diplomatic mission in 651, eighteen years after Muhammad's death, led by Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas. Emperor Gaozong is said to have shown esteem for Islam and to have founded the Huaisheng Mosque (Memorial Mosque) at Guangzhou, in memory of the Prophet himself. 

Muslims, mainly Arabs, travelled to China to trade. In the year 760, the Yangzhou massacre killed large numbers of these traders, and a century later, in the years 878–879, Chinese rebels fatally targeted the Arab community in the Guangzhou massacre. Yet, Muslims virtually came to dominate the import and export industry by the Song dynasty (960–1279). The office of Director General of Shipping was consistently held by a Muslim. Immigration increased during the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), when hundreds of thousands of Muslims were relocated throughout China for their administrative skills. A Muslim, Yeheidie'erding, led the construction project of the Yuan capital of Khanbaliq, in present-day Beijing.