Prior to 1949, the peoples of China practiced a diversity of religions, which had their regional, class, and ethnic variants. The government tolerated and in some instances encouraged religions, except for those seen as heterodox cults with political aims. The preference of the Han Chinese elites was for the canon of Confucian teachings. These teachings did not comprise a theology as such: Confucianism is a secular set of ethical teachings focused on individual behavior, human relationships, and the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. Popular Confucianism is expressed in ancestral commemoration, recognition of age and gender hierarchy within the family, and care and respect for the senior generation. Household ancestral altars and family grave sites receive careful attention. Ancestral spirits are invited to join in major family feasts during the year, and their birth and death anniversaries are observed with special food offerings. Wealthier patrilineages kept genealogies and established ancestral temples in which they stored and periodically venerated the name tablets of successive generations. Proper practice of ancestral commemoration is a key marker for distinguishing between the Chinese and the "barbarians." After 1949, the state strongly discouraged the focus on ancestral rites. Government authorities criticized Confucius and his followers as feudal and reactionary until the early 1980s. Since then, elaborate ceremonies honoring the birthday of Confucius have resumed at the Confucius Temple complex in Qufu, Shandong (his birthplace), and in some places families have restored ancestral temples and family altars.
Among the Han Chinese, concern with the spirits of the dead extends to a concern with ghosts. These ghosts are thought to be lonely spirits, uncared for by any of their descendants. They will cause harm to the living unless they are fed and propitiated. The government continues to strongly discourage belief in ghosts.
Among many of the minority peoples, expression of concern with ancestors and ghosts takes different forms and is often overshadowed in importance by animistic belief systems concerned with honoring or appeasing the spiritual forces in all natural phenomena. Shamans and diviners are respected and sometimes feared members of the community. Their services are crucial for dealing with illness, death, and family crises as well as at times of community festivals. A similar shamanistic tradition continues among the Han Chinese, as well as divination, pilgrimages to sacred mountains, myths of the "Dragon King" who controls the seas and rivers, beliefs in witchcraft, and other elements of folk belief. However, the Chinese educated elites have long regarded these beliefs as superstitions. At the popular level, the Chinese shifted to temple-centered worship of Buddhist and Daoist gods who are represented in human form. Some can be identified as historical or literary personages, now transformed into deities.
Between the third and first centuries B.C. , monks from India brought Buddhism to China. For this reason, some Chinese scholars today regard it as a "foreign religion." The State formally recognized it at the start of the first millennium, and it spread rapidly through preaching and scriptures. In some periods—for instance, in the Tang and Yuan—the ruling dynasty actively supported it. Formal, monastic Buddhism divides into several branches: the most widespread is Mahayana Buddhism, whose texts are written in Chinese. Lamaist Buddhism developed in Tibet and spread among the Mongols and some southwestern minorities. A branch of Theravada Buddhism, using Pali texts, is found among the Dai and neighboring minorities. Monastic Buddhism is renunciatory of the world and celibate. The number of monks and nuns declined greatly after 1949; the government forcibly closed monasteries and assigned the clergy to ordinary labor. In the post-Mao period, some temples and monasteries have reopened for worship and the training of young monks and nuns has resumed. These establishments receive some aid from the government for restoration of their buildings, but for the most part it is expected that they will be self-supporting and that the able-bodied monks and nuns will engage in productive labor.
Folk Buddhism, often mixed with elements from Daoism and localized cults, traditionally was widespread among peasants and the less-educated urban populations. The concepts of punishment of sin, an afterlife or rebirth, and a variety of gods referred to as Buddhas were popular among the Chinese as well as some of the minorities. Even the Confucianized elites turned to Buddhist monks to perform the needed rituals surrounding death and burial.
Daoism, like Confucianism, is of Chinese origin and is rooted in a philosophical school, in this case a mystical one stressing harmony with all things. In its religious forms, which took shape in the Han dynasty, it bears resemblances to Buddhism, and most people do not distinguish clearly between the two. It has its own monastic traditions as well as lay priests who can marry and live within the wider community. At the popular level of worship, temples in villages, market towns, and cities often mix Buddhist and Daoist gods and spirits together and invite clergy of both religions to perform rituals on behalf of the local community. It is impossible to estimate how many people within China still follow Buddhism or Daoism, and figures on reinstituted or new clergy are inconsistent. After 1949, many Buddhist and Daoist temples were taken over for other purposes, with only a small percentage retained as museums or tourist attractions. In recent years, some have resumed their religious functions.
Islam is the dominant religion among at least ten of China's ethnic minorities, and there are thriving communities of Hui (Muslim Chinese) in all regions of China. It was introduced in various forms between the seventh and fourteenth centuries, entering China from Central Asia along the Silk Road and being carried by Arab traders via sea routes to southeastern China. Estimates of the number of practicing Muslims today range from 12 million to 30 million or more. They are mainly Sunni, divided into a number of sects. Sufi orders entered through northwest China during the Qing and were proscribed by the government in late Qing because of their tie to the Muslim rebellions in the area. Because of its identification with some of China's largest minority groups, Islam appears to have been less restricted than other major religions after the 1949 Revolution, but even so the authorities closed a number of mosques and schools and restricted the training of clergy. Since the post-Mao reforms, the government has allowed mosques to reopen and the number of active followers has been growing. Conversion by Han Chinese comes mainly through intermarriage, since the state views Islam as a religion of the shaoshu minzu (minority nationalities) rather than a universalist creed.
Since the start of Western contacts with China, a small number of Han and minorities have converted to Catholicism. As with the other religions noted above, the government closed places of worship and banned religious activity from the early 1950s until the 1980s, though there is strong evidence that many congregations continued to meet in secret and grew during the decades after 1949. Accurate figures are impossible to obtain. The figure of 3.3 million Catholics, commonly repeated in the Chinese media, is identical with the 1949 figure. The Catholic church in China is required to be independent of the Vatican in all regards. Thus, China may be the only place in the world where one hears the Mass and other liturgies in Latin.
Protestant church activities began in the nineteenth century. There are at least 5 million Protestants in churches and meeting places recognized and supervised by the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council. A number of small seminaries have opened in recent years to train new recruits or to upgrade lay pastors and priests. Authorities discourage denominational differences. Wider estimates of Protestant adherents, which include the estimated number outside of the Three-Self churches, vary from 10 million to 25 million or higher.
All of the major religions are under the supervision of the Bureau of Religious Affairs of the central government and its provincial and lower-level departments. This organization is a secular state bureau that has regulatory control over the Chinese Buddhist Association, the Chinese Daoist Association, the China Islamic Association, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the Chinese Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and the China Christian Council. Representatives from these groups have seats reserved for them in the National Peoples Congress. Despite this official linkage and the legal guarantee of the right to believe or not believe, religion—in the sense of concerns with God or gods, spirits, theological teachings, belief in an afterlife, and so on—is discouraged by the state. Religious belief disbars one from membership in the Communist party or its Youth League affiliate and is viewed as unscientific. The state-approved ideology is Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. In a number of different campaigns over the decades, the government has held up various persons as secular models of moral and ethical behavior appropriate to a socialist society. In recent years Party ideologists have attempted to set the guidelines for a "socialist spiritual civilization" and similarly, a secular body of teachings focusing on individual behavior, human relationships, and the relationship between the rulers and the ruled.