Chinese folk religion comprises the religion practiced in much of China for thousands of years which included ancestor veneration and drew heavily upon concepts and beings within Chinese mythology. Chinese folk religion is sometimes seen as a constituent part of Chinese traditional religion, but more often, the two are regarded as synonymous. It is estimated that there are at least 800 million adherents to Chinese folk religion worldwide.
Chinese folk religion is composed of a combination of religious practices, including Confucianist ceremonies, ancestor veneration, Buddhism and Taoism. Chinese folk religion also retains traces of some of its ancestral neolithic belief systems which include the veneration of (and communication with) the sun, moon, earth, the heaven, and various stars, as well as communication with animals. It has been practiced alongside Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism by Chinese people throughout the world for thousands of years.
Ceremonies, veneration, legends, festivals and various devotions associated with different folk gods/deities and goddesses form an important part of Chinese culture even today. The veneration of secondary gods does not conflict with an individual’s chosen religion, but is accepted as a complementary adjunct to Buddhism, Confucianism or Taoism. Some mythical figures in folk culture have even been integrated into Buddhism as in the case of Miao Shan who is generally thought of having evolved into the Buddhist bodhisattva Kuan Yin. Other folk deities may date back to pre-Buddhist eras of Chinese history. The Chinese dragon is one of the key religious icons in these beliefs.
Gods and goddesses
There are hundreds of gods and goddess as well as “saints,” immortals and demigods. Historical figures noted for their bravery or virtue are also venerated and honored with their own festivals after they are apotheosized. The following list represents some commonly worshipped deities:
(Note: This list is incomplete and should not be considered a full representation)
* Guan Yu (關羽), the red-faced, bearded hero of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and symbol of loyalty. He is the patron god of policemen and law, and gangsters, as he shows forgiveness, and often also serves as “Wu Sheng”.
* Baosheng Dadi (保生大帝), the “Great Emperor Protecting Life.” A divine physician, whose powers extend to raising the dead. Worship is especially prevalent in Fujian and Taiwan.
* Cai Shen (財神 “god of wealth”), named Gongming Zhao, who oversees the gaining and distribution of wealth through fortune. He is often the deified manifestation of certain historical personalities. His shape is that of a giant blue whiskered cat.
* The Eight Immortals (ba xian, 八仙) are important literary and artistic figures who were deified after death, and became objects of worship.
* Hu Ye (虎爺 “Lord Tiger”), a guardian spirit.
* Jiu Wang Ye (九皇爺 “Nine Emperor God”) refer to spirits of nine emperors, worshiped as emanations of Mazu, patron goddess of sailors. A festival is held over the first nine days of the ninth lunar month to celebrate the return from heaven to earth of the Nine Emperor spirits.
* Mazu (媽祖), the patron goddess of sailors. Shrines can be found in coastal areas of Eastern and South-Eastern China. Today, belief in Mazu is especially popular in the South and South-East, including Fujian (福建), Guangdong (廣東), Hainan (海南), Taiwan (台灣), Hong Kong (香港), and Vietnam (越南).
* Qiye (七爺 “Seventh Lord”) and Baye (八爺 “Eighth Lord”), two generals and best friends, often seen as giant puppets in street parades. 8 is black, because he drowned rather than miss his appointment to meet with 7, even though a flood was coming. 7 has his tongue sticking out, because he hanged himself in mourning for 8.
* Shangdi Shangdi (上帝) (lit. Supreme Emperor) is originally the supreme god, synonymous with the concept of Tian. This title/name was later applied to the supreme deity of various religions, including Yu Huang Dadi and the Christian God.
* Cheng Huang (城隍), a class of protective deities: Each city has a Cheng Huang who looks after the fortunes of the city and judges the dead. Usually these are famous or noble persons from the city who were deified after death. The Cheng Huang Miao (城隍廟) or “Shrine of the Cheng Huang” was often the focal point of a town in ancient times.
* Sun Wukong (孫悟空，齊天大聖； “The Monkey King” or “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”) is the stone monkey born from heaven and earth who wreaked havoc in heaven and was punished by the Buddha under the five fingers mountain for 500 years. Released by the Tang Monk, Xuanzang (or Tang Sanzang), he traveled under Xuanzang as his disciple to the Thunder Monastery in the West (presumably India) for the Buddhist scriptures to redeem himself. Depending on which version of the Journey to the West legend, where Sun Wukong supposedly originates, Sun Wukong is only sometimes referred to as an actual god.
* Tu Di Gong (土地公, tǔ dì gōng), the “God of the earth”, a genius loci who protects a local place (especially hills), and whose statue may be found in roadside shrines. He is also the god of wealth, by virtue of his connection with the earth, and therefore, minerals and buried treasure.
* Wenchangdi (文昌帝 “Emperor Promoting Culture”), god of students, scholars, and examination. He is worshipped by students who wish to pass their examinations. Inept examiners in ancient times sometimes sought “divine guidance” from him to decide rank between students.
* Xi Wangmu (西王母), the “Queen Mother of the West” who reigns over a paradisial mountain and has the power to make others immortal. In some myths, she is the mother of the Jade Emperor (玉帝).
* Yuexia Laoren (月下老人 “Old Man Under the Moon”). The matchmaker who pairs lovers together, worshipped by those seeking their partner.
* Zao Shen (灶君|灶神), the ‘Kitchen God’ mentioned in the title of Amy Tan’s novel, The Kitchen God’s Wife. He reports to heaven on the behavior of the family of the house once a year, at Chinese New Year, and is given sticky rice in order to render his speech less comprehensible on that occasion.
* Zhusheng Niangniang (註生娘娘 “Birth-Registry Goddess”). She is worshipped by people who want children, or who want their child to be a boy.Western views
The absence of a proper name for this religion, associated with the absence of any canonical literature, have for a long time caused Chinese folk religion to be viewed by Westerners as a popularized version of an “authentic” religion, in the same way that the cult of the saints is viewed. Both in China and outside, adherents often describe themselves, or are described by others, as followers of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, or a mix among these.
Many publications on religion in China do not include statistics on the number of adherents of traditional religion, with most adherents registered under the category of Taoist or Buddhist. However, despite the critical influence of those two belief-systems, Chinese traditional religion is not coterminous with them and, strictly speaking, marked distinctions exist. Nonetheless, such overlaps or blurring of distinctions are consistent with East Asian cultural understandings of religion and identity that do not require exclusive identification as an adherent of solely one distinct tradition.