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Freedom to practice religion is enshrined in the Chinese constitution. In reality, of course, this right is subject to frequent and occasionally violent suspension -- during times of political upheaval like the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) or, as in the case of Tibetan Buddhism and the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, when specific groups are thought to pose a threat to Communist rule. Despite this, China has maintained what must rank among the world's most eclectic collection of religious traditions, encompassing not only native belief systems -- Confucianism and Daoism -- but Buddhism, Islam, and several strains of Christianity as well.

Those on tours of Chinese temples, churches, and mosques in the 1980s and early 1990s were wise to exercise a robust skepticism. The monks and nuns you encountered were invariably a specially selected bunch, likely to bombard foreigners with tales of how wonderfully supportive the government was. And the prettiest and best-restored temples were often barely more than showpieces, where it seemed incense was burned only to cover the sour smell of an Epcot-style cultural commodification.

But as faith in Communism wanes (to the point where some Chinese use the greeting tongzhi, or comrade, with thinly veiled sarcasm), religious buildings are slowly recovering their vitality as places of genuine worship, sources of guidance in the moral vacuum of a new market-driven society.

Maps of pre-Communist Beijing show an astoundingly large number of religious structures, from the grandest of glazed-tile complexes in the city's imperial quarter to hundreds of tiny shrines nestled in the maze of hutong. Most were destroyed or converted to other uses immediately following the Communist victory in 1949 and during the Cultural Revolution. Several dozen more have been bulldozed as part of modern reconstruction efforts, and all but the most prestigious will probably disappear in the future.

China has always been a secular state, but as in European capitals prior to the 20th century, the line between religion and government in Ming- and Qing-era Beijing was usually blurred. The most direct example is the Lama Temple (Yonghe Gong;), an immense imperial residence-turned-temple that houses a ritual urn used during the reign of the Qing Qianlong emperor to determine reincarnations of the Dalai Lama, leader of the dominant Buddhist sect in distant Tibet.

The tradition continues today, with Communist leaders playing a controversial role in selecting the most recent Panchen Lama (second from the top in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy) and threatening to do the same after the death of the current Dalai Lama, the exiled Tenzin Gyatso.

Confucianism

The moral philosophy said to have originated with Kongzi -- a 5th-century-B.C. figure also known as Kong Fuzi (Latinized to "Confucius" by Jesuit supporters enthusiastic about his "family values") -- is not really a religion or even a well-defined thought system. Indeed, there is no word in Chinese for Confucianism but only ru, a rather vague term that connotes scholarship and refinement. The ideas about proper conduct and government as remembered by Kongzi's disciples in works like the Lunyu (Analects) have nevertheless exerted more influence on China than either Buddhism or Daoism and have proven more resilient than anything written by Marx or Mao.

The Analects offer pithy observations on dozens of topics ("Those who make virtue their profession are the ruin of virtue," "The noble person is not a pot," and so on), but the three most important concepts are filial piety, proper execution of ritual, and humanity toward others. Kongzi had little trust in Heaven or nature. The ultimate concern is with tangible human relationships: those of the son with the father, the subject with the emperor, and friends with each other. These relationships are rigidly defined, and acknowledgment of them is the highest virtue. Chinese rulers recognized early on that this philosophy was perfectly suited to governing their vast empire. Mastery of Confucian classics, proven through a series of increasingly difficult Imperial Examinations, was a prerequisite for all government officials up until the very end of the 19th century.

Confucian ideas were denounced as "feudal thought" after the Communists took over, but visitors to Beijing need only go as far as a restaurant to realize how little this has meant. At any large table, diners will take seats according to their relationship with the host, toasts will be carried out with ritual precision, and forms of address will vary depending on who is speaking to whom. The Imperial Examinations, too, have been resurrected in the nationwide College Entrance Exam, success in which is considered vital to any young person's future. Some students even study for the exam at Guo Zi Jian (the old Imperial College) in northeast Beijing while their parents burn incense for them next door at the Kong Miao, the second-largest Confucian temple after the one in Kongzi's hometown of Qufu in Shandong Province.

Although even the most modern Chinese display an attachment to family and ritual, cynical observers note that the emphasis on humanity seems to have disappeared. It is debatable, however, whether this was ever as forceful an idea in China as Kongzi wanted it to be.

Daoism

China's only native-born religion, Daoism (Taoism) began, like Confucianism, as a philosophical response to the chaos and bloodshed prevalent in China during the Warring States period (403-221 B.C.). It later split into several schools, certain of which absorbed elements of folk religion and concentrated on alchemy and other practices it was hoped would lead to immortality. With its emphasis on change and general distrust of authority, Daoism was the antithesis of Confucianism and remained largely on the fringes of Chinese civil society, more at home in the mountains than in the cities.

The oldest Daoist texts are the esoteric Dao De Jing (or Tao Te Ching, "Classic of the Way and Virtue") and the Zhuangzi, a prose book sometimes compared in its sly playfulness with the work of Nietzsche. Both deal with the Way (Dao), a broad philosophical concept also mentioned by Kongzi but described in a wholly different manner.

The Daoists' dismissal of language, their habit of asking absurd questions, and their frequent self-contradictions are attempts to shake readers free of reason, which is said to obscure an understanding of the Way because it seeks to impose a rigid framework on a universe that is constantly changing.

There has been a revival of interest in both folk Daoism (particularly in the countryside) and the philosophical side of Daoism in recent years, but this is largely invisible. Daoist complexes like Beijing's immense Baiyun Guan are garish and loud, reflecting the religious branch's fondness for magic potions and spells, with little of the contemplative feel most Westerners expect.

Buddhism

Buddhism traveled from India through Central Asia and along the Silk Routes to China sometime in the 1st century and began to flourish after a crisis of confidence in Confucianism caused by the fall of the Later Han dynasty (A.D. 25-220). But it would never achieve the same dominance as Confucianism, in large part because of the Buddhists' insistence that they exist beyond the power of the state, the monks' rejection of traditional family relationships, and the populace's xenophobic wariness of a foreign philosophy. Buddhism did become sufficiently pervasive during the Tang dynasty (618-907) to merit its own department in the government, but a neo-Confucian backlash under the succeeding Song dynasty (960-1279) saw it lose influence again. Although it never fully recovered the power it held under the Tang, Buddhism continued to have wide popular appeal and is still China's most prevalent organized religion.

All Buddhists believe human suffering can be stopped by eliminating attachment. But where the older Buddhism of India was a sparse atheistic tradition concerned with little more than the individual's achievement of Nirvana (enlightened detachment and extinction), Buddhism in China gradually absorbed elements of Daoism and local folk religion to become an incredibly complex belief system with various gods and demons, an intricately conceived heaven, several hells, and dozens of bodhisattvas (beings who have attained enlightenment but delay entry into Nirvana out of a desire to help others overcome suffering).

Buddhist temples in Beijing often contain large images of Milefo (Maitreya, the Future Buddha) depicted in both Chinese (fat and jolly) and Tibetan (thinner and more somber) guises, and of Guanyin (Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion), a lithe woman in the Chinese style and a multiarmed, multiheaded man in the Tibetan pantheon, now incarnated as the Dalai Lama. The Manchu rulers of China's final dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911), tried to maintain cultural ties with several ethnic groups on the fringes of the Chinese empire, which explains the unusual prevalence of Tibetan Buddhist architecture in Beijing. Most noticeable are the two dagobas (Tibetan-style stupas), towering white structures like upside-down ice-cream cones, at Bei Hai Gongyuan and Bai Ta Si.

Islam & Christianity

Islam entered China through Central Asia in the 7th century, staying mostly in the northwestern corner of the empire, in what is now the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. It was introduced to more central regions through the occasional eastward migration of Xinjiang's Uighur people, and through the arrival of Arab trading vessels in southeastern ports like Quanzhou during the Song dynasty (960-1270), but it failed to catch on with Han Chinese the way Buddhism did. Those Han who did convert are now lumped into a separate ethnic group, the Hui. Beijing's Hui and Uighur populations don't mix as much as their shared religious beliefs might lead you to expect, the former dominating southeastern Beijing around the Niu Jie Libai Si and the latter kept mostly in a series of constantly shifting ghettos. A visit to the mosque on Niu Jie reveals Chinese Islam to be pretty much the same as Islam anywhere else; the glazed-tile roofs and basic layout resemble those of Buddhist or Daoist temples, but the main hall faces west (toward Mecca) rather than south, women and men pray separately, and there are absolutely no idols anywhere.

The first Christian missionary push to make much headway in China came in the 17th century, when Jesuits, led by Italian Matteo Ricci, sought to convert the country by first converting the imperial court. Ricci and his cohorts wowed the Qing rulers with their knowledge of science, art, and architecture (see Jonathan Spence's The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci for more about this) but ultimately failed to make Catholics of the Manchus. Subsequent missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, continued the war on Chinese superstition and met with some success, but they were also seen as a nuisance. Christianity was linked with both major popular uprisings in the Qing period -- the Taiping Rebellion, led by a man named Hong Xiuquan, who claimed to be Jesus' younger brother; and the Boxer Rebellion, a violent reaction to the aggressive tactics of missionaries in northern China which led to the siege of Beijing's Legation Quarter.

Beijing is particularly leery of Catholics, many of whom refused to join Protestants in pledging first allegiance to the state after 1949 and instead remained loyal to the Pope. Missionaries, it goes without saying, are not allowed in China anymore, but many sneak in as English teachers (a favorite tactic of the Mormons in particular). Separate churches in Beijing for foreigners are off-limits to Chinese, although foreigners are allowed to attend Chinese services. The Gothic-style church built in 1904 on the site of Ricci's house still stands near the Xuanwu Men metro stop, and replicas of the Jesuits' bronze astronomical devices can be seen at the Ancient Observatory northeast of the main railway station.

Religion & Spirituality Today

Outside of monks and nuns, few Chinese people limit their devotion to a single tradition, instead choosing elements from each as they suit their particular circumstances. "Every Chinese," a popular saying goes, "is a Confucian when things are going well, a Daoist when things are going badly, and a Buddhist just before they die." But even this is a relatively rigid formulation -- a Chinese person will often cross religious boundaries in the space of a single day if he thinks his problems merit the effort.

This pragmatic approach to beliefs allows not just individuals but also groups to create new religious systems with bits stolen from older traditions. Despite the government insistence that it is a cult, the Falun Gong's combination of Buddhism with qigong exercises and Daoist-like claims to impossible physical feats is very much in keeping with the Chinese tradition of religious collage. Unfortunately, its success has put Chinese leaders in mind of another tradition -- the violent overthrow of dynasties by popular religious movements.

Despite the rise in religious participation, most visitors to Beijing still complain of a made-for-tourists feel in most of the city's temples. Given the tidal wave of foreigners' cash that flows into places like the Lama Temple, this will probably never change, or at least not in Beijing proper. For those willing to make the trip, however, the seldom-visited areas just outside Beijing are home to several temples, such as Tanzhe Si and Jietai Si, where tourism plays a secondary role to genuine religious practice. It is in places like these that you're most likely to witness the reawakening of China's older belief systems.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.