Religious Beliefs and Practices. Han religion is conveniently, though oversimplistically, divided into three elite, literate traditions—State Religion, Daoism, and Buddhism; a series of folk beliefs and practices that varies widely in regional detail but contains a common substratum; and the beliefs and practices of various syncretic sects. None of these religious traditions is completely independent of any of the others, and with the exception of the sects, adherents of one tradition rarely reject or oppose the others.
Han folk religion is centered around the efforts of individuals and communities to create and maintain harmony in relationships between the human and the cosmic order. The soul is a necessary complement to the body in forming a whole person; as the physiology of the body must harmonize internally and with the external environment, the soul must harmonize with cosmic forces of time and space. If the soul leaves the body unintentionally, listlessness, madness, and eventually death can result, but the soul can intentionally leave the body in mediumistic séance, to be replaced by a deity, or in shamanistic travel to the realms of the dead. Upon death, the soul disperses to the Earth, where it remains in the bones, to the realm of the dead, where it takes up an existence roughly similar to that on Earth, and to the wooden or paper spirit tablet where people worship it as an ancestor.
Like society, the cosmos has an ideal order, represented by the relationships of time and space. Every person, through the soul, is part of this order, and it is prudent to maintain a position that is harmonious with the order. To do so, people harmonize important actions in time by consulting specialist horoscope readers or widely available almanacs; they harmonize their use of space by consulting geomancers, specialists in the harmonious siting of houses, public buildings, and especially graves—where the bones must be placed in a site and a direction that will preserve harmony between soul and environment and bring good fortune to descendants.
In addition to living humans, the cosmos is inhabited by purely spiritual beings, souls without bodies, which are of three kinds. Ancestors are the souls of agnatic forebears, worshiped at graves and in tablets with daily incense and food offerings on holidays. They are ordinarily benign beings and will harm their descendants only if neglected or insulted. Ghosts are the souls of people who are angry at having died an unnatural death or being without descendants; they are malicious and capricious—dangerous particularly to children. People propitiate them on regular occasions and when they have cause to expect ghostly attack. Gods are the souls of people who have lived particularly meritorious lives and have retained spiritual power that they can use to benefit worshipers. People worship them at home and in temples; specific gods are often patrons to particular neighborhoods, villages, cities, guilds, or even social clubs, and the yearly religious ritual to a community's god is one of its most important occasions.
This folk religion has, over the years, absorbed and assimilated elements from the State Religion, Daoism, and Buddhism. Folk religion is not an independent system, since specialists trained in one or another of the elite traditions are necessary to carry out many rituals on behalf of folk believers. Magistrates and officials up to the emperor performed rituals for harmony that would prevent natural and human disasters; Buddhist monks and Daoist priests performed exorcisms, funerals, soul-retrievals, and healing rituals. Yet each of the elite traditions also has its literary, specialist side, engaged in only by the specialist practitioners or literate lay adherents.
State Religion was the ritual basis of the imperial regime, the site of the emperor's and the officials' cosmic ordering functions. In postimperial times, it has largely been supplanted by the secular rituals of the Republican and Communist regimes, though adulation and worship of Mao Zedong, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, amounted to a sort of deification.
Daoism is still an active force in China. Beginning from the late Zhou period, Daoism developed both as a philosophy of living in harmony with nature and as a system of esoteric rituals designed to confer personal immortality, cure disease, and superimpose a superior, eternal order of unchanging life on the earthly order of daily and seasonal change, life and death, growth and decay. The priests of this latter tradition were important in the development of science and medicine in imperial China, though their actions seem at odds with the natural harmony practices advocated by the philosophical Daoists.
Buddhism was introduced to China from India beginning in the early centuries of the Common Era and by Tang times was firmly established as one of the primary religions of China. Chinese Buddhist monks went on to develop some of the most sophisticated Mahayanist philosophies, some of which spread to Japan and Korea as well. Mahayana Buddhism combines the original Buddhist goals of realization of the transitoriness of material existence with a posited cosmology of myriad Buddhas and bodhisattvas (Buddhas-to-be) who are potential helpers of those who believe. The Buddhist tradition in China thus afforded its adherents everything from a sophisticated system of philosophy and psychology, to the opportunity for monastic meditative practice toward the goal of relief from existence, to help from Buddhist divinities enshrined in local temples. Over the last thousand years, many Buddhist and Daoist divinities, beliefs, and practices were absorbed into the folk religion, so that bodhisattvas function as local gods, for example, and Buddhist monks are as likely as Daoist priests to perform funerals, exorcisms, and other rites for the common people.
Sectarian traditions emerged periodically in Chinese history; by late imperial times most sectarian groups held a syncretic series of beliefs taken from Daoism, folk religion, the official tradition, and particularly from the Maitreya (Buddha of the Future) tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. Exclusivist in their membership, often secret in their activities, many sects fomented millennarian uprisings, especially at times of dynastic turmoil and decline. Other sects were quietistic, striving for personal salvation rather than social revolution. Because of their exclusivist practices and their intermittent advocacy of violent social change, imperial, Republican, and Communist governments have all persecuted the sectarians, but they have reemerged after the Reforms in mainland China, and draw a large following in Taiwan, where they have entered a quietistic phase and currently pose little threat to the sociopolitical order.
Foreign religions other than Buddhism have historically had limited appeal to Han people. Islam has been present in China for over a thousand years, and there are Muslims throughout the northwest and in most cities of China. Muslims, however, are not considered Han in mainland China; they are given the separate ethnic designation of Hui. There was a Jewish community at Kaifeng in Henan for several hundred years; its members were largely assimilated by the late nineteenth century. Christian missionaries have proselytized in China intermittently since the Tang period; their most recent period of intense activity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced perhaps 4 million converts to both Protestant and Catholic Christian churches—suppressed in the Cultural Revolution, they are reviving in the Reform period. But Christians remain a tiny minority of Han people, probably no more than 10 million converts and adherents.
During the most radical periods of the People's Republic, all Han religion was suppressed, and very little activity went on. Since the Reforms, folk religion in particular has revived in many areas, particularly in the south and southeast, with many temples rebuilt and traditional funerals and other rituals quite common. A certain number of Buddhist monasteries and Daoist temples have been allowed to reopen, but it seems unlikely that the elite practitioners of either of these traditions will soon regain their former numbers or prominence.
Arts. Early Chinese literature consists primarily of historical and philosophical prose as well as various kinds of poetry. The earliest extant poems, probably transcriptions of folk songs, date from the eighth century B.C.E. ; since then there is an unbroken tradition of poetry both as a folk form and as a gentlemanly literary endeavor. In classical poetry, lyric and narrative forms are both found, but the epitome of the tradition is the short lyric on the themes of nature, the transience of life, or male friendship.
Fiction is a rather late entrant to Chinese literature, with the earliest extant stories written in a semivernacular style in the Tang period. In the late imperial period, the multivolume episodic novel, written in vernacular style, gained great popularity; its themes range from historical romance to Buddhist fantasy to psychological family chronicle. Fiction and political essays, now written entirely in the vernacular or baihua, have been the primary genres in the postimperial period.
Painting has been preeminent among the visual arts. The earliest extant paintings reside on the walls of Buddhist temples and caves; painting on paper or silk survives from as early as the Song period. The two major traditions of classical painting were the court tradition, depicting urban or rural scenes in meticulous detail, along with portraiture, and the literati tradition of more suggestive and evocative landscapes and still lifes. In recent times, Chinese painters have pursued a mix of traditional literati styles, adaptations of Western oils and other media, and systematization of folk styles. Communist attempts to institute Stalinist-style Socialist Realism in arts and literature have been largely abandoned by serious artists in the Reform period.
Along with painting goes calligraphy, an art engaged in by almost all literati in the imperial period and still widely learned and practiced today. Not only professional artists but also political leaders and other prominent persons are asked to inscribe their characters on important public buildings and monuments, and good calligraphy is still universally admired.
Other visual arts have not been accorded the same status as painting or calligraphy, but the works, usually by anonymous artists, show every bit as much skill and style. Wood carving, jade and other stone carving, and the architecture of palaces, private homes, and gardens are all highly sophisticated.
Medicine. For more than 2,000 years Han people developed a complex system of medical theory based on humoral balance and imbalance, and a series of diagnostic and therapeutic modes used to maintain and restore such balances. Diagnosis is primarily by history taking and a complex system of twelve or twenty-four different pulses; therapeutic modes include the administration of humorally active medicines orally and topically as well as the stimulation of a series of surface points with needles (acupuncture) or burning moxa (moxibustion). Practitioners of this tradition included both professionals and literati-amateurs, and they developed an extensive literature of manuals and pharmacopoeias.
In twentieth-century China there have been ongoing debates over the scientific validity and practical utility of this tradition and whether it still has a place in a world dominated by Western allopathic medicine. At present, traditional Chinese medicine is still practiced in mainland China, and there are special medical schools to train Chinese doctors. There is also considerable research on the biochemistry and physiology of traditional pharmaceuticals and point-stimulating procedures. In recent years as well, acupuncture has received attention and respect in Western countries, and several states in the United States now regulate its practice and license its practitioners.
At the same time, allopathic medicine is now the dominant form of practice in both the mainland and Taiwan. More important than clinical practice, however, have been the extensive public-health measures taken by the Japanese colonial and Republican governments in Taiwan and by the People's Republic on the mainland; these have brought the morbidity and mortality patterns of both Chinese areas close to those of the industrialized nations.