What Are Chinese Traditional Religions?

In School Nutrition’s June/July issue celebrating diversity, author Susan Davis Gryder provides an overview of some of the most widely observed faith traditions across the globe. What about the religious practices in the world’s most populous country: China?

Many faith traditions are observed throughout China, including Islam and Christianity. About 400 million Chinese people—more than the total population of the United States—hold beliefs that comprise an overlap of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Scholars debate whether this constitutes a religion in the strictest sense of the word, or rather a philosophy or a cultural belief system. Others deem it a “folk religion” that combines elements of formal religion with folk beliefs, worship of heroes and ancestors and mythology.

Despite local diversity in specific elements of faith, Chinese traditional religion has some common elements, including concepts about spirituality and cosmology, the idea of a universal energy called ch’i, and the concept of yin and yang (order and disorder). Practitioners worship in temples, at family altars or at ancestral shrines.

Did You Know?

  • Ch’i (or Chi or Qi) is a fundamental concept that literally means “air” or “breath,” but refers to the energy flow or life force that is said to pervade all things. The quality, quantity and balance of Ch’i is believed to be essential to maintaining health and achieving long life. It can be regulated through practices like breath control and Ta’I Chi.
  • The seventh month of the Chinese calendar is called the Ghost Month, a period in which ghosts and spirits are believed to emerge out of the lower world to visit earth. The Ghost Festival is the climax of celebrations held during this time.
  • The opposing yin and yang have complementary representations and symbols. Among these are earth, female, dark, valleys/streams (yin) versus heaven, male, light, mountains (yang).

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