A Trinity of Teachings
Myth, religion, and philosophy are so intertwined in China that it can be difficult to separate the three. Likewise, the three principal "religions" known as the Three Teachings (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism) are inextricably linked and you will often find elements of all three in a single temple. Under Mao the doctrine of the day was undoubtedly socialism, but these days, as the Three Teachings are experiencing a renaissance, cynics claim that capitalism and the pursuit of money is the new religion.
Confucianism, based on the life of Confucius (Kong Fu Zi; 551-479 B.C.), is arguably a philosophy rather than a religion, but to visit a Confucian temple and see believers worshipping, you'd never know the difference. Kong Fu Zi lived during the Warring States Period, a fractious, uncertain time, and thus it is unsurprising that his belief system focuses on social order. The Five Confucian Virtues (benevolence, propriety, righteousness, trustworthiness, and wisdom) form the pillars of the philosophy and such was the importance attributed to his body of work that the Confucian texts remained the standard for imperial civil exams until early in the 20th century. If you're interested in learning more about the great man and his works, a trip to his birthplace and finally resting place at Qufu in Shandong province is worthwhile.
Taoism, China's other native born religion, developed in the same time period as Confucianism under the semi-mythical Lao Zi, but could not be more different. Understanding Taoism is a complicated business, but suffice it to say, it focuses on following the Tao (or the Way), balancing soft, flowing yin, with hard, male yang to create harmony. Worldly possessions were seen as contrary to the Way, and many Taoists lived reclusive lives away from the wants and needs of the world.
China's third major religion, Buddhism, came from India but quickly found a new home in China; its popularity was aided by its willingness to incorporate pre-existing local deities, a factor that hindered the advancement of the less adaptive Christianity and Islam. Buddhism is based on the life of Siddhartha Gautama, a Nepali prince who relinquished his worldly possessions in search of a higher calling. After spending time as an ascetic wandering the plains of India, the former prince realized that ascetism wasn't the way and finally, in Bodhgaya in northern India, he achieved nirvana (enlightenment) under the Bodhi Tree. Reborn as Sakyamuni (the Enlightened One) he spent the rest of his days traveling the Indian plains, giving sermons. When Buddhism first reached China in 67 A.D., its form was little different from that practiced in India, but, over time, like so many ideologies before it, it was sinicized (made Chinese). This transformation is evidenced by the gradual change in appearance of Buddhist iconography in China; early examples featuring slim, Indian looking deities can still be seen in cave art along the Silk Road, but by the Tang dynasty, more rounded, Chinese-looking gods were gracing temples. As well as assimilating local gods into the Buddhist pantheon there was a fundamental belief shift, replacing the individualist Theravada school developed in India, with Mahayana Buddhism, a concept far more in keeping with the conformist group nature of Chinese society. In Tibet, Buddhism was fused with aspects of the native shamanist Bon religion to produce Tibetan Buddhism.
The Three Teachings aren't the only religions to be found in China though; there are huge numbers of Christians and Muslims, although it's difficult to ascertain exact figures because only officially recognized versions are tolerated, meaning that millions practice in secret.
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