In China’s long history, religious views have been a traditional mix of Buddhism (the religion imported from India), Taoism (a school of religious and philosophical ideas started by the sage Lao Zi), and Confucianism (the ethical and sociopolitical teaching originating from the prestigious scholar Confucius).
As early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), the emperor Wu managed to combine the three ideas into one ruling doctrine: the Unification of Three Religions (三教合一). People were trained in this ruling doctrine both in academic teachings and through their daily life; inevitably, this belief system led to conflicts due to the three different sources it absorbed.
In the 2,000 years after the Han Dynasty, Chinese people, shaped by their hybrid beliefs and frequently encountering new dogmas like Communism and Maoism, prove to be quite capable of embracing and adapting to a highly inclusive and multicultural – yet more or less contradictory – ideology.
Buddhism had a significant amount of influence the lives of the Chinese: a famous Chinese poem “Spring of the South” (江南春绝句) by Du Mu (杜牧) has the lines, The four hundred and eighty temples of the South Dynasty, / How many terraces are in misty cold rains? (南朝四百八十寺，
多少楼台烟雨中). Confucianism, as well, has an indisputable impact in Chinese moral standards: modern codes governing the behaviors of a country, society, and person were developed from Confucian classics. Both Buddhism and Taoism are compatible with Confucianism, a benign worldview with a focus on harmony and uniformity.
From the late 19th- to the early 20th-century, Protestant missionaries entered China through rampant Western colonial activities in the country’s northern coast. They built churches and set up relief charities and schools for children to disperse the gospel of Christianity. Many Chinese village women were converted and trained by missionaries so they could help to preach the new religion in their own dialects. These Chinese women, called “Bible women” by country people, walked on their tiny bound feet into villages and spread the ideas to other peasants. Thus, in such backward conditions, Protestantism grew vigorously among Chinese villages, especially on the southeast coast of China. The multi-rooted Chinese beliefs system became even more complex.
Protestantism seems a little “foreign”, but it’s not unpopular because it represents, to many, the “advanced” Western civilization. Blame it on cultural imperialism: in my childhood, I perceived Christian spiritual leaders only as fair-skinned, golden-haired, and elegant images that I gleaned from watching and reading Western media. In comparison, with Buddhism, one often sees the scenarios of elderly women, some of them illiterate, kneeling before a golden Buddha statue and murmuring prayers with incense.
So how do other Chinese actually deal with these varied and often contradictory ideas?
From my observation, their behavior tends to be ambivalent. For example, unlike those who are born into Muslim families, whose family lineage and traditions tend to determine their religious beliefs for life, many Han people have had too many choices. (Or, sometimes, during the years of the Cultural Revolution, deadly choices.) While the ruling Communist Party is atheist, it allows the presence of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism in the country.
My aunt was a Buddhist from her youth to her forties, probably because her mother has been a pious Buddhist for over fifty years; yet, both of them believe in fengshui (风水), the philosophical Taoist concept. While my grandmother conducts Buddhist rituals, she also believes in ghosts and deities. A few years ago, a friend of my aunt persuaded her to convert to Christianity. They went to a local church together, and my aunt started to read the Bible; she still holds a belief in Taoist fengshui and still keeps a jade ornament of the Buddha. In her case and others, it seems perfectly natural for modern Chinese to have all of these religions present in their lives.
In my opinion, Chinese individuals are culturally acceptable to foreign religions, though it might take a long time to convince them in a new belief. Over time, Protestant idea was localized and absorbed by domestic cultures into China. Whether it – or something else – becomes a more compatible part of the Chinese beliefs system, remains to be seen.