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Chinese folk religion Portal


Xuanyuan Temple in Huangling, Shaanxi, dedicated to the worship of the Yellow Emperor.

Chinese folk religion (Chinese popular religion or traditional Chinese religion) or Han folk religion or Shenism is the most widespread form of religion in China. It is the religious tradition of the Han Chinese, including veneration of forces of nature and ancestors, exorcism of harmful forces, and a belief in the rational order of nature which can be influenced by human beings and their rulers as well as spirits and gods. Worship is devoted to a multiplicity of gods and immortals (神 shén), who can be deities of phenomena, of human behaviour, or progenitors of lineages. Stories regarding some of these gods are collected into the body of Chinese mythology. By the 11th century (Song period), these practices had been blended with Buddhist ideas of karma (one's own doing) and rebirth, and Taoist teachings about hierarchies of gods, to form the popular religious system which has lasted in many ways until the present day.

Chinese religions have a variety of sources, local forms, founder backgrounds, and ritual and philosophical traditions. Despite this diversity, there is a common core that can be summarised as four theological, cosmological, and moral concepts: Tian (), Heaven, the transcendent source of moral meaning; qi (), the breath or energy that animates the universe; jingzu (敬祖), the veneration of ancestors; and bao ying (報應), moral reciprocity; together with two traditional concepts of fate and meaning: ming yun (命運), the personal destiny or burgeoning; and yuan fen (緣分), "fateful coincidence", good and bad chances and potential relationships.

Yin and yang (陰陽) is the polarity that describes the order of the universe, held in balance by the interaction of principles of growth (shen) and principles of waning (gui), with yang ("act") usually preferred over yin ("receptiveness") in common religion. Ling (), "numen" or "sacred", is the "medium" of the two states and the inchoate order of creation.

Featured concept

Xuanyuan Temple, dedicated to the worship of Huangdi, in Yan'an, Shaanxi.

Xian ling (Chinese: 显灵) is the notion of numinous, sacred (ling) presence of the god or gods in the Chinese traditional religion. The Chinese words can be variously translated as "divine efficacy", "divine virtue" or also "efficacious response", and describe the manifestation, activity, of the power of a god (灵气 ling qi, "divine energy" or "divine effervescence").[1]

Within the context of traditional cosmology, the interaction of these energies constitutes the universe (the All-God, Tian),[2] and their proper cultivation (bao ying) upholds the human world order.[3]

The term xian ling may be interpreted as the god revealing his presence in a particular area and temple,[4] through events that are perceived as extraordinary, miraculous.[5]

Divine power usually manifests in the presence of a wide public,[4] and once the event is witnessed and acknowledged, reports about it spread quickly and the cult of the deity strikes a root, grows in popularity, and temples are built.[4] The ling qi, divine energy, is believed to accumulate in certain places, temples, making them holy.[4]

Featured picture

Altar inside a temple of Thien Hau of the Chinese community in Saigon, Vietnam.

Featured scripture

Viewing the Way of the Gods, one finds that the four seasons never deviate, and so the sage establishes his teachings on the basis of this Way, and all under Heaven submit to him.

— From the Commentary on Judgment, to Yijing: 20, Guan ("Viewing").

Bagua, the "eight trigrams".

The I Ching or Yijing, also known as the Book of Changes in English, is an ancient divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics. The I Ching was originally a divination manual in the Western Zhou period, but over the course of the Warring States period and early imperial period was transformed into a cosmological text with a series of philosophical commentaries known as the "Ten Wings". After becoming part of the Five Classics in the 2nd century BC, the I Ching was the subject of scholarly commentary and the basis for divination practice for centuries across the Far East, and eventually took on an influential role in Western understanding of Eastern thought.

The I Ching uses a type of divination called cleromancy, which produces apparently random numbers. Four numbers between 6 and 9 are turned into a hexagram, which can then be looked up in the I Ching book, arranged in an order known as the King Wen sequence. The interpretation of the readings found in the I Ching is a matter of centuries of debate, and many commentators have used the book symbolically, often to provide guidance for moral decision making as informed by Taoism and Confucianism. The hexagrams themselves have often acquired cosmological significance and paralleled with many other traditional names for the processes of change such as yin and yang and Wu Xing.

The I Ching is an influential text that is read throughout the world. Possessing a formidable history of more than 2600 years of commentary and interpretation, it has provided inspiration to the worlds of religion, psychoanalysis, business, literature, and art.

Featured ancestral god

A statue of Wenchang Wang.

Wenchang Wang or Wenchang Dijun (Chinese:文昌王 / 文昌帝君), or simply Wen, is a god of culture and literature in the Chinese folk religion, worshiped as the Wéndì (文帝), god civilizer, in southern China (whereas in northern China the Wéndì is Confucius). The literal translation of his name would be King (王) of Flourishing (昌) Culture/Language (文).

Wenchang Wang is physically represented by a constellation of six stars near the Big Dipper. The stars all have names of their own: Shangjiang (上將), Cijiang (次將), Guixiang (貴相), Siming (司命), Sizhong (司中), and Silu (司祿). Wenchang Wang is often depicted as an elderly scholar accompanied by two attendants, Tianlong (天聾 "Heaven-Deaf") and Diya (地啞 "Earth-Mute").

There are quite a few accounts of Wenchang Wang; most depict him as a man by the name Zhang Yazi (張亞子), of a county in Sichuan Province called Zitong. A particular account cites him as a war hero, having died an honorable death in a rebellion against Emperor Fú Jiān in 374. Other accounts of Wenchang Wang appear rather sporadically at different time periods; he has been given seventeen reincarnations over a period of 3,000 years. A notable account of an appearance of Wenchang Wang was as the Spirit of Zitong, during the suppression of a rebellion in Chengdu, Sichuan, in 1000 A.D. A man allegedly climbed a ladder in midst of battle and declared that the Spirit of Zitong told him the "town [of rebels] would fall on the twentieth day of the ninth moon". The town fell on the day indicated, and the general in charge of repressing the rebellion had the temple repaired.

In addition to being a respected warrior, Wenchang Wang was well respected as a model for filiality. The Book of Emperor Zi Tong records: "Wenchang was had a mature mind at birth. His mother breastfed him even though she was perilously ill and malnourished. In the middle of the night, Wenchang cut flesh from his own thighs and fed it to his mother. She was then cured of her illness".

Wenchang Wang also appears in other texts, where he is praised for other noble virtues. The book Emperor Wenchang and the States He Stabilized states: "He descended into the mortal world seventy-three times as a shidafu" (a scholar-bureaucrat position in the emperor's government of feudal China). Wenchang was uncorrupted, upright and just, and never dealt out harsh punishments to the people. He allegedly helps people when they have hardships, saves those who are in trouble, has compassion for the lonely, forgives people's mistakes, and leaves peace and stability everywhere he goes. Because of this, the Jade Emperor put him in charge of the elections of village leaders.

Featured practice

A seller of offerings (flowers, joss sticks, oranges and other ones) in Singapore.

Jingxiang (敬香), shangxiang (上香), baishen (拜神) is a ritual of offering joss incense accompanied by tea and or fruits. It is observed by a devotee holding joss incense with both hands in front of an altar while praying or meditating. For added respect the devotee or descendat is expected to kneel during and after placing the incense in the urn or at the altar.

The number of joss stick varies. When a devotee uses five, the sticks each represent respect for Tian Di Jun Qin Shi (天地君親師), where tian and di denote the realms of heaven and earth; jun the ruler—which could be Guan Shengdi, the prime minister, or another leader; qin the kins and relatives; and shi one's teacher or teachers.

When offered with three joss sticks, each stand for Tian Di Ren (天地人), again tian and di for the two realms, and ren for all humanity as well as those who are deceased. Lastly it can also be practiced with one joss stick, denoting all creation, including both heaven and earth. Rarer still would one use nine josses which come to denote all of creation and all of heavens.

Joss incense is sandalwood or sandalwood-scented (檀香), as the scent of sandalwood is believed to calm the human spirit or yuanshen. The same effect is believed to affect the spirit of a deceased ancestor. In this connection it also serves as a notice to the deity an adherent is respecting. It is not a form of food to gods.

Usually Jingxiang is done with an offering of tea, in a number corresponding to the gods, typically three cups. Fruit is generally offered to accompany Jingxiang, again the specification differs for temples or deities.



Featured natural god

A statue of Leishen.

Lei Gong (Chinese: 雷公; pinyin: léi gōng; literally: 'Lord of Thunder') or Lei Shen (Chinese: 雷神; pinyin: léi shén; literally: 'God of Thunder'), is the god of thunder in Chinese folk religion and Taoism. He is depicted as an eagle-faced creature, usually blue or green-skinned, wearing only a loincloth. He carries a drum and a mace or a hammer to produce thunder, and a chisel to punish evildoers, in the behest of Tian-Shangdi.

His worship is not very widespread, with a small number of temples. Lei Gong is said to be extremely prudish, and will not enter a house where copulation is taking place. Pictures of this act are also supposed to have the same effect.

Place of worship

A small temple in Shuitou.

Temples of the Chinese folk religion can be distinguished into miao (庙) or dian (殿), meaning "temple"; family altars or private temples (simiao 私庙 or jiamiao 家庙), or ancestral temples or shrines (citang 祠堂 or zongci 宗祠, or also zumiao 祖庙).

The terms have often been used interchangeably. However miao is the general Chinese term for "temple" understood as "sacred space", "worship place". In Chinese folk religion it is mostly associated to temples which enshrine nature gods and patron gods. Instead ci is the specific term for temples enshrining ancestry gods, deified virtuous men.

Shen temples are distinct from Taoist temples in that they are established and administered by local managers, village communities, lineage congregations and worship associations, and don't have professional priests, although Taoist daoshi, fashi, Confucian lisheng, and also wu and tongji shamans, may perform services within these temples. Shenist temples are usually small and decorated with traditional figures on their roofs (dragons and deities), although some evolve into significant structures.

Other terms associated to templar structures of Shenism and other religions in China are 宫 gong ("palace"), referring to a templar complex of multiple buildings, and 院 yuan, a general term for "sanctuary", "shrine".

Featured holiday

Temple of the Filial Blessing in Wenzhou, Zhejiang.

The Qingming Festival (simplified Chinese: 清明节; traditional Chinese: 清明節; pinyin: Qīngmíng Jié) is the holiday for grand-scale Chinese ancestral worship, usually occurring around April 5 of the Gregorian calendar (see Chinese calendar). Astronomically it is also a solar term (Qingming).

The Qingming festival falls on the first day of the fifth solar term, named Qingming. Its name denotes a time for people to go outside and enjoy the greenery of springtime (踏青 tàqīng, "treading on the greenery") and tend to the graves of departed ones.

Along the River During the Qingming Festival is a famous ancient Chinese painting by Zhang Zeduan which portrays the scene of Kaifeng city, the capital of the Song dynasty during a Qingming festival.

Did you know?

Tian or Di as the square of the north astral pole.[6]
«Tian is dian 顛 ("top"), the highest and unexceeded. It derives from the characters yi 一, "one", and da 大, "big"
  • In the Chinese tradition the idea of God is simply that of the source and order of nature. In the Shang dynasty this universal principle was named Shangdi, the "Primordial Deity", and identified as the line of imperial power, and in the Zhou dynasty he was identified with the more abstract and impersonal concept of Tian, the "Great One", "Great Whole", "Great All".[7]
  • In the early history of China, the Shang dynasty gave prominence to the worship of ancestral gods and cultural heroes while the Zhou dynasty preferred the worship of gods of nature.[8]
  • The Chinese dragon (龙 lóng) is a symbol representing the universal generating power and qi.[9]
  • The Sanxing is a cluster of three astral gods who embody the concepts of "Happiness" (Fuxing), "Prosperity" (Luxing), and "Longevity" (Shouxing) in Chinese folk religion, and the Lu is also represented as a symbol that in turn refers to the constellation Ursa Major, like the swastika and related Indo-European symbols.

Demographic map

The demographic diffusion of Chinese Indigenous Religions according to recent estimates of the Pew Research Center.

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Learning resources



  1. ^ Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 183-184
  2. ^ Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 183-184
  3. ^ Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 183
  4. ^ a b c d Zavidovskaya, 2012. p. 184
  5. ^ Zavidovskaya, 2013. p. 184
  6. ^ Didier, 2009. Represented in vol. III, discussed throughout vols. I, II, and III.
  7. ^ Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43
  8. ^ Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43
  9. ^ Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43

Sources used

  • John C. Didier. In and Outside the Square: The Sky and the Power of Belief in Ancient China and the World, c. 4500 BC – AD 200: Volume I: The Ancient Eurasian World and the Celestial Pivot, Volume II: Representations and Identities of High Powers in Neolithic and Bronze China, Volume III: Terrestrial and Celestial Transformations in Zhou and Early-Imperial China. On: Sino-Platonic Papers, n. 192, 2009. Victor H. Mair, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Fan Lizhu, Chen Na. The Revival of Indigenous Religion in China. Published on China Watch, Fudan-UC Center for China Studies, Fudan University, 2013.
  • Ekaterina A. Zavidovskaya. Deserving Divine Protection: Religious Life in Contemporary Rural Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces. St. Petersburg Annual of Asian and African Studies. Ergon-Verlag GmbH, 97074 Würzburg, Vol. I, 2012, pp. 179–197.
  • Joseph A. Adler. The Heritage of Non-theistic Belief in China. Department of Religious Studies, Kenyon College. For: Toward a Reasonable World: The Heritage of Western Humanism, Skepticism, and Freethought, San Diego, September 2011.
  • Qingsong Shen, Kwong-loi Shun. Confucian Ethics in Retrospect and Prospect. Council for Research in Values & Philosophy, 2007. ISBN 1565182456
  • Ronnie Littlejohn. Confucianism: An Introduction. I. B. Tauris, 2010. ISBN 184885174X
  • The Chinese Cosmos: Basic Concepts, extracts from: Stephen F. Teiser. The Spirits of Chinese Religion. In: Religions of China in Practice. Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • Thien Do. Vietnamese Supernaturalism: Views from the Southern Region. Series: Anthropology of Asia. Routledge, 2003. ISBN 0415307996
  • Ulrich Libbrecht. Within the Four Seas...: Introduction to Comparative Philosophy. Peeters Publishers, 2007. ISBN 9042918128