Traditions and Belief Systems

Chinese cultures emerged as agriculture spread across the Yellow River and the Yangzi River systems approximately ten millennia ago. Like many early civilizations, the Chinese ways of seeing the world began with an awe of nature and the imagination of an afterlife. Mythical animals and symbols of nature are depicted on the jades, bronzes, and pottery that were produced during early periods of Chinese civilization. Chinese people believed that as their ancestors died and entered heaven—the top of the three tiers that constituted the world—they would guide their descendants in understanding the future and protect them from evil spirits. This notion became the root of many philosophical ideas, folk traditions, and literary stories that existed in Han Chinese culture. Approximately 2,500 years ago, Confucianism and Daoism emerged and were prominent in re-shaping Chinese belief systems. China also has a longstanding history of adopting foreign religions and beliefs through cultural or political exchange. Buddhism was brought into China in the first century CE, followed by the introduction of Islam around the seventh century CE and Christianity in the sixteenth century CE. Like in other cultures worldwide, foreign religions were understood and accepted by blending new concepts with established belief systems in China. This complex, intertwined system of beliefs is seen in the artistic legacy that has persisted through the centuries.

Key Points

  • There is no single religion in China. Chinese belief systems appear in diverse forms, both philosophically and religiously, and fluctuated with political power shifts.
  • Belief systems that came from outside China were spread mostly via trade and diplomatic exchange, and almost all of them have been assimilated into Chinese culture.
  • There is a mutual influence in China between the development of traditions and beliefs and the advances in technology and production.
  • Today, people in China and those of Chinese heritage continue to embrace a range of religious beliefs.