What is the Religious Make-Up of China?

Diana Bocco

There are over 100 million believers in China, although it's difficult to estimate the percentage that belongs to each religion. One of the main difficulties in understanding religion in China is that the government discourages religious practices. Another is the fact that many Chinese residents adhere to ancestor worship, which cannot be considered officially a religion, since there is no concept of God in this type of belief system.

A map of China.
A map of China.

Folk religions are popular in China, especially in small villages with little foreign influence. Shamanism is an example of this. Shamans, or holy men, are popular in China. They're considered intermediaries between the forces of nature and men, and many people seek their help for healing and spiritual counseling. Shamans were highly prosecuted in China during Mao Zedong's government, but they are now a respected part of China's ancient history.

A person burning a facsimile of ancient Chinese money for a deceased person.
A person burning a facsimile of ancient Chinese money for a deceased person.

Despite the government's official position as atheist, China has five recognized religions. One of these is Taoism, which started as a philosophical school and developed gradually into a religion. According to Taoism, there is a natural energy that flows through every living creature. This energy, or Tao, can be cultivated through meditation, compassion, and the understanding of Yin-Yang, the dual nature of everything we know.

Another of China's recognized religions is Buddhism, which was introduced to China in the second century. Buddhism has adapted to the Chinese way of life rather than the other way around, becoming the predominant belief system in China. It's estimated that about 25% of Chinese now practice Buddhism. Like Taoism, Buddhism is a non-theistic religion that focus on the pursuit of personal enlightenment.

Islam has been recognized in China since the Tang Dynasty, around 700 CE. About two percent of the population in China practice Islam officially, and many more are thought to practice it in the safety of their home. One of the reasons China respects Islam is because the country maintains diplomatic and economic relationships with many Muslim states.

China also recognizes two forms of Christianity: Catholicism and Protestantism. There has been some hostility from part of the government towards Christian sects and practicants, so many are unwilling to reveal their beliefs.

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Discussion Comments


There are actually more Christians in China than anywhere else in the world. This is not a factor of percentage, but of sheer numbers, since China is the largest nation in the world.


China is a religiously diverse area with many regional ancestor worshipers. Different figures in the regional history of various locations have had a strong influence on their respective mythologies.


Much of Chinese calligraphy contains deeper meaning from expressions and associative patterns in Chinese thought. Many of these images and concepts may be completely foreign to Westerners, just as our generally accepted understandings are foreign to Easterners. It is necessary to understand the basic memes of Eastern society in order to fully grasp where the thinkers of that region are coming from, and to relate cross-cultural memes and mutual understanding.


Confucius established a basic social code which was based on early Chinese monotheistic beliefs and later came to blend with Buddhist ideals. This form of societal and religious thinking is what spread throughout the East and affected all modern Confucian societies. China is like the Mediterranean of the East in terms of the profound ethical influence it had on surrounding nations.

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