Although China has known many other religions, such as Manichaeism, Islam, Christianity, its religious history appears to be dominated by the various fortunes and reciprocal relations of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. In this regard, it should be noted that Confucianism is not a religion but a doctrinal arrangement developed by Confucius of the classical religion of ancient China, whose origins are one with the very origins of the Chinese communities and which, as the official religion of the Empire, remained formally alive until the establishment of the Republic (1912). Buddhism, on the other hand, is a foreign religion in origin, but rooted in Chinese civilization, both in depth and in extent, to such an extent that even a simple comparison with other equally imported religions is impossible. The three great formations performed an entirely different kind of function. Classical religion, both in its Confucian elaboration and in its original state in the countryside, is of a ‘national’ or ‘ancient’ type; its area of interest concerns only the proper functioning of the life of the community and of the natural cosmos within which and in which the community lives, without wanting to constitute itself as a soteriological religion with respect to individuals taken individually as such. Buddhism and Taoism, on the other hand, responded to a problem that includes aspirations for individual and personal salvation, with the difference that the latter, although by nature tendentially universalistic like all religions of salvation, never surpassed in the reality of its history the strongly ethnic limits of its Chinese origins, while Chinese Buddhism fully fulfilled its function, becoming a fundamental moment in a religious history that affects the whole of Asia.
Characteristics of the classical religion of China were a great figure of supreme celestial being (Shangdi or Tian), attributable to the same type of divinity as the primitive religions; a complex series of figures responsible for human activities and natural manifestations, good or bad; a very conspicuous vitality of the world of the ancestors to whom worship was paid. Beliefs about the afterlife were very complex. The concept of soul envisaged two categories: three superior souls (or intellectual: hun) and five inferior souls (or vegetative: po), gathered in life under the common denominator of the body and subject, after death, to various destinies; with the disappearance of the body the souls hun and the souls po separated: the psychic circuit po remained attached to the body and fed on the offerings (if these were missing, became a cruel starving demon, called Gui), while the hun ascended to the Shangdi to be judged. In ancient times human sacrifices were practiced, but the victims were later replaced with simulacra of straw or wood.
According to Relationshipsplus, these ancient beliefs were settled in Confucianism starting from the 6th century. B.C; Buddhism was introduced during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), while Taoism, based on the doctrines of Lao Zi, was established as a religion by Zhang Daoling (1st-2nd century AD). Characteristic of the Chinese mentality through the centuries has been that of merging and uniting the elements common to the three religions, so that each of the three welcomes elements of the others and, above all, of the ancient popular religion.
Manichaeism and Islam entered China during the Tang dynasty (618-907). Christianity was introduced for the first time during the Tang dynasty in 635 by the Nestorian missionaries and despite the persecutions it managed to spread throughout the China so much that Marco Polo was able to meet communities of Nestorians. In the 13th century, during the Mongol Empire, Franciscan missionaries arrived. Then with the fall of the Mongol Empire and the beginning of the Ming dynasty in 1368 all traces of these missions, both Nestorian and Catholic, were erased. In the 16th century. Catholicism was reintroduced by the Jesuits Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri, who managed to enter the country, then closed to foreigners, followed by other missionaries, including the Dominicans. The lack of agreement between the various orders and the persecutions prevented the continuation of the missionary work, which resumed only in the 19th century. In 1946 the ordinary ecclesiastical hierarchy was formed and the first Chinese cardinal (Thomas Tien) was appointed. The number of converts still remained small compared to the mass of the population: in mid-1948 they did not reach 3,500,000, counting the catechumens.
At the time of the revolution, the religions of China showed many signs of weakness, especially the traditional beliefs, which showed traces of wear and tear even before the overthrow of the imperial system and whose crisis increased in the first decades of the 20th century. The first Constitution of the People’s Republic (1954) sanctioned the freedom of religious belief, but the policy of the new socialist state of clear separation between church and state was interpreted as the exclusion of religion from the field of education and from the vital sectors of social life. The government also reserved the right to downsize and reform the various religious groups: many Buddhist and Taoist monks were eliminated in the land reform movement, which stripped the monasteries of vast possessions; in a few years all the foreign personnel of the Christian missions were expelled; not a few Chinese priests and pastors were condemned for trying to defend the independence or legitimate interests of their respective Churches. In the meantime, within the 5 great religions that had obtained official recognition (Taoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism), ‘patriotic associations’ were set up, which was entrusted with the control and representation of their respective groups. In the Catholic camp, the resistance was particularly strong and was paid for by many with prison and forced labor camps; when the Patriotic Association of Catholics was established in 1957, the bishops found themselves practically reduced to a purely ritual and liturgical function, while the management of the Church passed to the committees of the association; the situation worsened in 1958, when various committees of the association decided to independently elect and consecrate the bishops without the approval of the Holy See (between 1958 and 1962 about fifty patriotic bishops were elected). During the cultural revolution, ministers of worship and simple faithful were persecuted to death; mosques, temples and churches were looted and even demolished; precious libraries and works of inestimable historical value destroyed. Meanwhile, the 1975 Constitution, while reaffirming the right to freedom of belief, proclaimed in the same paragraph “the freedom not to believe and to propagate atheism”. With the new policy established by Deng Xiaoping, even religion was able to return to the light of the sun. The 1982 Constitution committed the state to guaranteeing the exercise of worship and non-discrimination against believers. In the consequent resurgence of the religious fact, however marginal with respect to the interests of the Chinese masses, Taoism, although not very conspicuous in number, exerts an evident influence on popular religiosity, especially in rural areas; the number of practitioners is difficult to calculate, but there are 1,500 temples and more than 25,000 monks. The vitality of Buddhism is testified by the presence of 13,000 temples, 33 Buddhist institutes and 50 publications. Muslims, mostly spread in the autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Ningxia Hui, in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan, run 30,000 mosques, in which 40,000 imams practice. Christianity presented the most conspicuous increase of adherents. Protestantism has 10 million followers, 18,000 pastors, 12,000 churches and 25,000 places of business. For Catholics we are talking about 12 million faithful, but reliable statistics are lacking: of these 5 million belong to the patriotic Church, the others, who refer to the authority of the pope, are illegal immigrants.
Faced with the unexpected growth of religions, the authorities have multiplied restrictions and controls, which have taken on the character of real persecution against the religious movement of Falun Gong, a practice of meditation and physical exercises inspired by the Buddhist and Taoist traditions, defined ” evil cult ”,“ threat to social and political stability ”.