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Traditional Chinese Religion

Chinese folk religion must be considered in any study of Chinese people, even though it is difficult to define this religious form. In the past, Chinese folk religion was sometimes mistakenly considered a fusion of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, but it is now widely recognized as a separate system of belief and practice. Many Chinese who would self-consciously claim no religious identity are in fact often adherents of Chinese Folk Religion. Chinese folk religion is a modern idea conceived by contemporary scholars. The very idea of a religion as a differentiated part of culture is new. A Chinese term for religion (zongjiao) came to exist only in the late nineteenth century.

In addition to practicing religion, many persons also follow a collection of beliefs that are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture that can be referred to as "traditional Chinese folk religion." Chinese religion is a diverse mixture of beliefs. Daoism, Buddhism, and thereligious aspects of Confucianism are combined with local folk beliefs and practices to form the backboneof Chinese religion.

Unlike western religions, which are henotheistic - that is, requiring exclusive adherence - eastern religions often are not exclusionary but incorporate different belief systems. Furthermore, the syncretic nature of the Chinese folk religion allows easy incorporation of certain local beliefs and practices. There is no need to drop the Chinese religion in favor of that of the indigenous people.

Chinese Folk Religion is a combination of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism placed atop Chinese archaic Shamanism. In addition to practicing religion, many persons also follow a collection of beliefs that are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture that can be referred to as "traditional Chinese folk religion." These beliefs include, but are not limited to, shamanism, ancestor worship, magic, ghosts and other spirits, and aspects of animism. Such folk religion may overlap with an individual's belief in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, or other traditional Chinese religions.

Chinese Folk Religion is especially difficult to define, since it's a catch-all phrase for an unofficial mixture. The traditional religion of the Chinese people is often described as a blend of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. However, there is really a fourth element or tradition, which some label classical, that is, folk religion. Chinese folk religion is a faith whose theology, rituals, and officiants are widely diffused into other secular and social institutions. In spite of attempts at symbolic hegemony, Buddhism never came to dominate Chinese folk religion, either symbolically or institutionally.

This folk religion of China is the traditional worship of local deities, including both Buddhist and Taoist figures, astrology, the worship of animal totems, and ancestor worship. In the course of its historical development, the Chinese folk religion had been influenced by various schools of thought, especially Confucianism and Taoism. Taoism has roots in early Chinese folk religion and continues some aspects of it in mysticism. To some, Chinese folk religion is, in fact, simply folk Taoism, the less sophisticated forerunner of the “high Taoism” of the Taoist priests. The exchanges between Taoism and the Chinese folk religion led to the assimilation of religious elements such as local deities and cults into the domain of Taoism. In some countries the term Taoism is applied to the Chinese folk religion, which would otherwise not have a readily recognizable English name. However many, if not most, of its practitioners would not recognize "Taoism" (in any language) as the name of their religion. This is not to mean that Taoism is Chinese folk religion, but that it may be said to represent the most influential strand unifying many diverse manifestations of folk religion.

As ancient as Hinduism, Chinese folk religion is centered on forces of nature particularly its dualistic nature (yin and yang), and on folk deities. A good life and afterlife are attained through rituals and honoring of ancestors. Chinese Folk Religion, in its present form dating back to the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), includes elements traceable to prehistoric times (ancestor worship, shamanism, divination, a belief in ghosts, and sacrificial rituals to the spirits. The central aspect of Chinese folk religion is the performance of rituals for magical purposes. In Chinese folk religion, the belief that two classes of spirits inhabit the universe: kuei — malevolent yin spirits; and shen — benevolent yang spirits.

Chinese folk religion (with which locally derived traditions have often been mixed) involves household ancestor worship, spirit mediumship, and local temples housing various gods and festivals. The gods of the Chinese folk religion are hardly more than human beings deified, possessed of mysterious and supernatural powers, of course, and yet far closer to humans than the God of Western Christians. The Emperor Shen-Nung, who was mythological, is a component of Chinese folk religion, creator of agricufture, and one of the gods most widely worshipped in pre-revolutionary China. The Treatise on Medicine attributed to Shen was compiled by an early Han dynasty writer.

While Chinese folk religion is hard to define in the abstract, it does contain within itself numerous common elements. Chinese folk religion is not organized, nor is it equipped with theologies or theologians. Chinese folk religion has no fixed scripture. Partly for this reason, the Communist government regarded folk religion as "feudal superstition" unworthy of recognition.

Central to all Chinese folk religion is the family. It is in the family where the moral and ethical basis of society as a whole is thought to lie. Throughout Chinese history ancestors were worshipped and are respected. Chinese folk religion includes methods of communication with ancestors and deities. Satisfying the needs of departed humans is a constant concern in Chinese folk religion.

Rituals honor the ancestors, help the ancestors in the other world, or seek help (guidance, power) from the ancestors. In Chinese folk religion, prayer is essentially petitionary, seeking health and wealth in particular. Chinese folk religion promoted collectivity by giving symbolic, spiritual meaning to the unity and loyalty the group. Chinese folk religion can be seen as a celebration of ongoing life. The ancestors are worshipped by their descendents, and the descendents are preparing to be ancestors themselves.

Despite the spread of formal or high religions and modernity, folk religious beliefs dominate around the world. Some argue that Chinese folk religion is in decline because it does not mesh with modern culture. Some put the number of Chinese folk religion believers alone at nearly 300 million. In the first edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia (1982) Barrett listed 23.1 percent of China's population and 5.2 percent of the global population in mid-1975 under the title of 'Chinese Folk-Religionists'. Based on a 2005 survey of Encyclopedia Britannica, 33% of the worlds' spiritual adherents follow Christianity, 20% follow Islam, 13% follow Hinduism, 6.3% follow Chinese folk religion, and 5.9% follow Buddhism. And a 2012 estimate concluded that there were about 2.1 billion Christians (32% of the world population); 1.3 billion Muslims (19%); 0.8 billion Hindus (13%); 0.4 billion practise Chinese folk religion (6%).

But these numbers are probably a substantial under-estimation of the actual number of practioners of Chinese folk religion. In addition to practicing another religion, many persons also follow a collection of beliefs that are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, referred to as "traditional Chinese folk religion." Until recently, these quite varied beliefs and practices, which are now called Chinese folk religion, were simply elements of Chinese-ness. For most Chinese, the core of their ethnic identity was ideas such as filial piety. Through the evolution and adaptation of Chinese folk religion in America, parents hoped to perpetuate Chinese traditions. Worship in “joss houses”—a term derived from a corruption of the Portuguese deos, “god” — followed the patterns of Chinese folk religion and was a mixture of elements derived from Taoism, Confucianism, and Pure Land Buddhism.

In Taiwan, by one estimate 65 percent of all adults are believers in Chinese folk religion. By another estimate, the largest number of Taiwanese believe in Chinese folk religion (51 percent), followed by Buddhism (21 percent). Ancient Chinese folk religion focused first upon the departed ancestors, and today houses in Taiwan have an altar room where the spirits of the departed are properly honored and fed their favorite foods. Chinese folk religion is intimately associated with the traditional festivals that are celebrated with pomp and ceremony throughout Taiwan. These festivals clearly mirror the Chinese love for color, ritual, and grandeur.

In Hong Kong, traditional Chinese folk religion also flourishes. In Malaysia, the Chinese folk religion continues to thrive. In Chinese folk religion as practiced in Singapore the world of spirits and demons is well accepted as an everyday reality. They observe feng shui, consult fortune-tellers, conduct divination, Feng shui [a type of astrology using the concepts of yin and yang], and practice qigong, all of which may be regarded as part of the traditional Chinese folk religion. Chinese folk religion in Malaysia also includes beliefs in local guardian spirits, Na Tuk Kong, which originated from traditional animism and mysticism. In Korea, many of the folk deities have particular functions or territorial domains, but unlike the deities of Chinese folk religion, the Korean gods are not believed to be organized into a vast supernatural bureaucracy.

There is an overlap between practitioners in China of such religions as Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, and practitioners of Falun Gong, whose numbers have grown rapidly in recent years to as many as 100,000. One of the most dramatic changes during this century has been in Chinese folk religion, whose membership fell sharply during China's turbulent political transitions and revolutions. By one 1995 estimate, the followers of traditional Chinese folk religion, combining elements of Confucian ethics, Taoism, veneration of ancestors, worship of local deities, universism, and some Buddhist beliefs, comprised over 236 million people. In the new century, observers have estimated that as much as 80 percent of the Chinese population believes in some form of traditional folk religion.

Chinese folk religion is the most explicit and common form of religious practice in the immediate lives of the bulk of Chinese people who live in rural villages. Believers in Chinese folk religion represent the largest category of the religious. Folk religion or Baishen (worship of various deities) is diffused in the family-based or individual religious life in the urban as well as rural areas.

Believers in traditional forms of Chinese "folk" religion, which the Party had long disdained as feudal superstitions, hoped that a category for popular religion may be added to the official five religions. Chinese folk religion had no official status until around the turn of the 21st Century, when some of the regional offices of the Religious Affairs Bureau issued provisional regulations to govern folk religion such as Mazu.

As Bingzhong Gao noted in 2011, "In the past 100 years in China, folk religion experienced constant changes. When “the folk” became “people,” “religion” became the worst superstition. When “the people” became citizens, superstition became “intangible heritage.” The case of the Dragon Tablet Fair, which has been observed by multidisciplinary scholars over the last 15 years, represents the whole story of Chinese folk religion. When local believers revived their temple fair, accusations of superstition were a deadly problem for them. As temple fairs revived across China, both sides have found intangible heritage as a practical solution for how to revive ritual without being condemned as superstition."




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