Living in the Chinese Cosmos | Asia for Educators

21st Century: Tradition and the Question of Identity


In the 1970s it was commonly asserted that “Chinese religion,” at least as it had existed during Qing dynasty times, had ceased to exist altogether. But something rather curious occurred between the 1970s to the late 1990s and the present. If one goes to China today one can see local temples blossoming and being reconstructed at a rapid rate. Periodically there is another crackdown on religious activity, but it would certainly appear that religion in China today, which is clearly derivative of traditional Chinese religion, with certain modern additions, has come back with increasing force. For example, the farmer’s almanac, which helps one determine auspicious days for conducting various life events such as building a house or getting married, is once again being widely printed and used in China today. As well the practice of fengshui, a form of geomantic divination based on the workings of yinyang and qi, is on the rise. And some would even assert that Mao Zedong (1893-1976) himself has been made a god among the people. Indeed, in what is in a sense an ironic commentary on both Mao and the power of traditionally derived beliefs, the Communist leadership made the decision to place Mao’s mausoleum in the middle of Tiananmen Square on the erstwhile site of the Gate of China (Zhonghuamen), which was the southern gate of the old Imperial City and aligned with the central axis of Beijing.

Still, Chinese religion as it was under the Qing dynasty clearly is not coming back. We can say, however, that contemporary Chinese religion is being reinvigorated, and this new religion has its roots in the religious patterns of late-imperial times. What we see today is late-imperial religion with adaptations to present day circumstances and all the history that has transpired between the end of the Qing dynasty until today.

Prayer Ribbons, Jade Buddha Temple, Shanghai, 2006
© Carol Webb


The contemporary reemergence of religion in China is quite revealing, for it makes it clear, in retrospect, that religion was never completely destroyed. Even at the height of the Cultural Revolution, which was fiercely anti-traditional, only the physical evidence of religion -- not religious practice itself -- was destroyed. Ancestral tablets and the images of the gods were destroyed, sometimes by Red Guards and sometimes by people who kept the objects but feared discovery by the Red Guards. But all this did not stop traditional religious practices altogether. In fact, they continued widely, though only within the family. Thus, the reemergence of religion can be understood as something coming out of hiding rather than something that disappeared altogether and is now being resurrected.

But there is a major issue here yet to be resolved. How can these revised traditional beliefs be related to some sense of Chinese nationhood, of a unified Chinese culture and of a Chinese cultural presence? In the late-imperial period the notion of being “Chinese” was intimately involved with the notion of being in a cosmos of which China was the central part. One of the ironies of the anti-traditionalism associated with the first wave of elite Chinese nationalism was that the nationalists were attacking a traditional source of Chinese identity by attempting to destroy a major cultural framework within which people saw themselves as being “Chinese.” At the same time, the nationalists saw themselves as being strongly “Chinese” and were ardent supporters of Chinese strength against foreign aggression. The issue today is of how a contemporary sense of Chinese national identity will or will not relate to some of these earlier traditions. That issue is one that is very much in the air in Chinese culture and society today.


Throughout Chinese history there have been heterodox traditions of popular religion that could at times come under attack from the government. Drawing on inspiration from local tradition, or from the mythologies of Buddhism, Daoism, and (in the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s) Christianity, these religious groups sometimes broke into waves of violence and provoked government sanctions.

Any religious movement that claimed inspiration from a source beyond the traditional Chinese cosmos or that had a social structure (monkhood, parish organization) that claimed independence from the Chinese state risked being labeled by the state as a licentious cult or a heterodoxy. Once that happened, government response and suppression occurred swiftly.

Falun Gong. The Chinese government today keeps careful watch over any organized group, religious or otherwise, not under state control. The Falun Gong movement, which began as a traditional form of mental and physical training and faith healing, was identified by the government in 1999 as an unlicensed religious group. It therefore became subject to government control and was ultimately outlawed, as were many sects in the history of Chinese popular religion.(1)

Catholicism, House Churches, and Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese government today similarly monitors the activity of followers of unregistered Catholic groups, Protestant house churches, and Buddhism practiced outside of the licensed Buddhist groups. The government asserts the right to appoint the religious leaders of the five major organized religions: Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Islam. The exercise of this traditional claim of government authority has led to frequent conflict with those who follow the Catholic pope, on the one hand, and the Dalai Lama, on the other.

Religion and Ethnicity. In theory the fifty-five officially recognized ethnic minorities in China are guaranteed the right to practice their culturally distinctive traditions, including the exercise of religion. Often, however, the government asserts that such rights are subsidiary to the need to maintain public order and to register any large social movement. Islam is practiced in China primarily by non-Han ethnic minority groups within China, such as the Uygurs in Xinjiang province. The fact that these Islamic minorities sometimes constitute the majority population of China’s western provinces and autonomous regions (some of which also share a border with other Muslim-majority countries) increases the tendency of the Chinese government to suppress the activities of these Muslim populations and perceive them as a threat to the stability of Chinese governmental control. In recent years, this control has intensified, with large numbers of Uyghur placed in internment camps. The Hui, or Chinese-speaking Muslims, form yet another recognized ethnic minority, and are also subject to surveillance and control.

Religious and political activities of Tibetan Buddhists residing in the Chinese autonomous region of Tibet, as well as those residing in neighboring Chinese provinces and regions, are similarly monitored and suppressed by the Chinese government because of the conflict between governmental control, ethnic identity, and religious organization. For both Tibetan Buddhists, and Uyghur Moslems, the Chinese government’s present-day “Sinicization” campaign represents another element in its effort to control and remake the beliefs and practices of China’s ethnic minorities.


Under China’s current leadership, and increasingly since 2017, the Chinese government has added to its anti-religion campaign the element of “Sinicization,” or assimilation into Chinese culture, targeting Christianity and Islam as a “foreign” religions that must be changed. Initially, the Sinicization campaign was linked to an increasing tolerance of popular religion, continuing a trend apparent since the onset of the reform era in the late 20th century. However, most recently the Chinese government’s anti-religious activity has once again come to include popular region as well as Daoism and Buddhism. The contemporary anti-religion campaign aims as much to control religion in terms of organization and content as it does to eliminate it.

The Chinese government’s current policy on religion was provided a legal framework on February 1, 2020, when officially there put into effect another set of anti-religion regulations, the new “Administrative Measures for Religious Groups.” These regulations represents a push by the Communist state to enhance its control over religion, in terms of organization, membership, and the content of religious activity. All told, there are 41 articles, with the two given below serving to illustrate the severity of the latest government anti-religious action:

Article 3. A religious organization can be recognized as such only when it has been examined and approved by the religious affairs department of the people’s government, and registered with the civil affairs department of the people’s government, in accordance with the national regulations on the administration of social organizations, and on religious affairs. Without the approval of the religious affairs department of the people’s government, or registration with the civil affairs department of the people’s government, no religious activities in the name of religious organizations are allowed.
Article 17. Religious organizations should publicize the guidelines and policies of the Communist Party of China, national laws, regulations, and rules to the clergy and religious citizens, in order to instruct and direct the clergy and religious citizens to support the rule of the Communist Party of China, support the socialist system, follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by the laws, regulations, rules and policies, correctly treat the relationship between state laws and religious rules, and strengthen their national consciousness, consciousness of rule by law, and consciousness of one’s duty as a citizen. (English translation provided by Bitter Winter, January 15, 2020,

Aside from government policy, during the 21st Century China’s rapid economic development and urban expansion are major forces impinging on religious practices and beliefs. Community religion, as based upon village society, or traditional urban neighborhoods, finds little room for expression in the modern high-rise apartments where increasing numbers of Chinese live. Such urban settings, however, do provide a rich environment for individualized, faith-based religions, hence the notable spread of Christianity and Buddhism, including a recent surge of interest in Tibetan Buddhism among urban Han Chinese. It seems clear from recent developments that state efforts to eliminate or control religion have yet to produce the desired outcome, as far as the state is concerned.



(1) According to the 2004 International Religious Freedom Report of the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor: “In 1999, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress adopted a decision, under Article 300 of the Criminal Law, to ban all groups the Government determined to be ‘cults,’ including the Falun Gong. The Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate also provided legal directives on applying the existing criminal law to the Falun Gong. The law, as applied following these actions, specifies prison terms of 3 to 7 years for ‘cult’ members who ‘disrupt public order’ or distribute publications. Under the law, ‘cult’ leaders and recruiters may be sentenced to 7 years or more in prison.”