Chinese folk religion: Wikis


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Clothed statues of Matsu/Mazu (Chinese goddess of the Sea)

Chinese folk religion (simplified Chinese: 中国民间宗教 / 中国民间信仰) is a collective label given to various folkloric beliefs that draw heavily from Chinese mythology. It comprises the religion practiced in much of China for thousands of years, which included ancestor worship and drew heavily upon concepts and beings within Chinese mythology. Chinese folk religion is sometimes seen as a constituent part of Chinese traditional religion, but more often, the two are regarded as synonymous. It is estimated that there are at least 394 million adherents to Chinese folk religion worldwide (see Major world religions).



Chinese folk religion is composed of a syncretistic combination of religious practices, including Confucianist ceremonies, ancestor worship, Buddhism and Taoism. Chinese folk religion also retains traces of some of its ancestral neolithic belief systems, which include the veneration of (and communication with) the sun, moon, earth, the heaven, and various stars, as well as communication with animals. It has been practiced by Chinese people for thousands of years, for much of that time alongside Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.

Ceremonies, veneration, legends, festivals and various devotions associated with different folk gods/deities and goddesses form an important part of Chinese culture today. The veneration of secondary gods does not conflict with an individual's chosen religion, but is accepted as a complementary adjunct to Buddhism, Confucianism or Taoism. Some mythical figures in folk culture have been integrated into Buddhism, as in the case of Miao Shan. She is generally thought to have inflluenced the beliefs about the Buddhist bodhisattva Kuan Yin. This bodhisattva originally was based upon the Indian counterpart Avalokiteshvara. Androgynous in India, this bodhisattva over centuries became a female figure in China and Japan. Kuan Yin is one of the most popular bodishisattvas to which people pray. Other folk deities may date back to pre-Buddhist eras of Chinese history. The Chinese dragon is one of the key religious icons in these beliefs.

Gods and goddesses

One of many local shrines, in various states of disrepair or renovation, in Yangxin County, south-eastern Hubei. The menorah-like structure on top may be a derivative of the character 寿 ('longevity').

There are hundreds of gods and goddess as well as "saints," immortals and demigods. After apotheosis, historical figures noted for their bravery or virtue are also venerated and honored with their own festivals. The following list represents some commonly worshipped deities:

(Note: This list is incomplete and should not be considered a full representation)

  • Guan Yu (關羽), the red-faced, bearded hero of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and symbol of loyalty. He is the patron god of policemen, war, fortune, law, and gangsters, as he shows forgiveness, and often also serves as Wu Sheng.
  • Baosheng Dadi (保生大帝), the "Great Emperor Protecting Life." A divine physician, whose powers extend to raising the dead. Worship is especially prevalent in Fujian and Taiwan.
  • Cai Shen (財神 "god of wealth"), named Gongming Zhao, who oversees the gaining and distribution of wealth through fortune. He is often the deified manifestation of certain historical personalities. His shape is that of a giant blue whiskered cat.
  • Shou Xing (寿星 "god of longevity"), who stands for a healthy and long life. He is portrayed as an old balding man with a walking stick in his right hand and a peach in his left.
  • Fu Shen (福神 "god of happiness"), he looks like a traditional Chinese feudal lord with red clothing. He symbolizes happiness and joy.
  • The Eight Immortals (八仙) are important literary and artistic figures who were deified after death and became objects of worship.
  • Hu Ye (虎爺 "Lord Tiger"), a guardian spirit, often found at the bottom of Taoist temple shrines. Worshipers revere the tiger spirit to curse spiritual enemies. Rituals include stomping an effigy of a spiritual enemy in front of the tiger spirit, as well as sacrificing meat offerings, paper gold, and others.
  • Jiu Huang Ye (九皇爺 "Nine Emperor God") refer to spirits of nine emperors, worshiped as emanations of Mazu, patron goddess of sailors. A festival is held over the first nine days of the ninth lunar month to celebrate the return from heaven to earth of the Nine Emperor spirits. This is celebrated primarily in Malaysia.
  • Mazu (媽祖), the patroness, also considered as the goddess of sailors. Shrines can be found in coastal areas of Eastern and South-Eastern China. Today, belief in Mazu is especially popular in the South and South-East, including Fujian (福建), Guangdong (廣東), Hainan (海南), Taiwan (台灣), Hong Kong (香港), and Vietnam (越南).
  • Qiye (七爺 "Seventh Lord") and Baye (八爺 "Eighth Lord"), two generals and best friends, often seen as giant puppets in street parades. 8 is black, because he drowned rather than miss his appointment to meet with 7, even though a flood was coming. 7 has his tongue sticking out, because he hanged himself in mourning for 8.
  • Shangdi Shangdi (上帝) (lit. Supreme Emperor) is originally the supreme god, synonymous with the concept of Tian. This title/name was later applied to the supreme deity of various religions, including Yu Huang Dadi and the Christian God.
  • Cheng Huang (城隍), a class of protective deities: Each city has a Cheng Huang who looks after the fortunes of the city and judges the dead. Usually these are famous or noble persons from the city who were deified after death. The Cheng Huang Miao (城隍廟) or "Shrine of the Cheng Huang" was often the focal point of a town in ancient times.
  • Tu Di Gong (土地公, tǔ dì gōng), the "God of the earth", a genius loci who protects a local place (especially hills), and whose statue may be found in roadside shrines. He is also the god of wealth, by virtue of his connection with the earth, and therefore, minerals and buried treasure.
  • Wenchangdi (文昌帝 "Emperor Promoting Culture"), god of students, scholars, and examination. He is worshiped by students who wish to pass their examinations. Inept examiners in ancient times sometimes sought "divine guidance" from him to decide rank between students.
  • Yaochi Jinmu (瑤池金母), also known as Xi Wangmu (西王母), the "Queen Mother of the West" who reigns over a paradisaical mountain and has the power to make others immortal. In some myths, she is the mother of the Jade Emperor (玉帝).
  • Yuexia Laoren (月下老人 "Old Man Under the Moon"). The matchmaker who pairs lovers together, worshiped by those seeking their partner.
  • Zao Shen (灶君|灶神), the 'Kitchen God' mentioned in the title of Amy Tan's novel, The Kitchen God's Wife. He reports to heaven on the behavior of the family of the house once a year, at Chinese New Year, and is given sticky rice to render his speech less comprehensible on that occasion.
  • Zhusheng Niangniang (註生娘娘 "Birth-Registry Goddess"). She is worshiped by people who want children, or who want their child to be a boy.

Western views

The absence of a proper name for this religion has for a long time caused Chinese folk religion to be viewed by Westerners as a popularized version of an "authentic" religion. Both in China and elsewhere, adherents often describe themselves, or are described by others, as followers of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, or a mix among these.


Many publications about religion in China do not include statistics on the number of adherents to traditional religion, with most adherents registered under the category of Taoist (four hundred million) or Buddhist. However, despite the significant influence of those two belief-systems, Chinese traditional religion is not coterminous with them and, strictly speaking, marked distinctions exist. Nonetheless, such overlaps or blurring of distinctions are consistent with East Asian cultural understandings of religion and identity that do not require exclusive identification as an adherent of solely one distinct tradition.

See also

Further reading

  • Manchao, Cheng, The Origin of Chinese Deities, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1995. ISBN 7-119-00030-6
  • Paper, Jordan D., The Spirits are Drunk: Comparative Approaches to Chinese Religion, Albany, New York : State University of New York Press, 1995. ISBN 0791423158

External links



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