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Religious Beliefs

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 Chinese culture.

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.