China is widely considered to be the least religious country in the world or a country where “religion” has never existed. The historical, anthropological, and sociological evidence makes it clear that religion is not absent from China and that, indeed, the vast majority of Chinese people have some type of belief or practice that anthropologists or sociologists would define as religious. However, most Chinese people do not consider such beliefs or practices to be religious. In this chapter, I formulate a substantive definition of religion and adopt a bottom-up methodology to demonstrate that, in everyday practices and conceptions, as shown by historical and ethnographic data, the basic building blocks of religion in China are much the same as elsewhere. It is at the higher-level modes of organization of these basic building blocks—institutionally, conceptually, and politically—that we find unique patterns in different cultures and civilizations, in China as elsewhere.
- Religious institutions
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout
Purchases are for personal use onlyLearn about institutional subscriptions
Official website of the State Administration for Religious Affairs of the P.R.C., accessed 12 Feb. 2017: http://www.sara.gov.cn/zwgk/17839.htm
Ahern, E. (1973). The cult of the dead in a Chinese village. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Bastid-Bruguière. (1998). Liang Qichao yu zongjiao wenti 梁啟超與宗教問題 (Liang Qichao and the question of religion). Toho Gakuho: Journal of Oriental Studies, 70, 329–373.
Chau, A. Y. (2006). Miraculous response: Doing popular religion in contemporary China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Chow, T. T. (1960). The May Fourth movement: Intellectual revolution in modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chung, S. F., & Wegars, P. (2005). Chinese American death rituals: Respecting the ancestors. Guilford, CT: AltaMira Press.
de Groot, J. J. M. (1892–1910). The religious system of China (Vol. 1–6). Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill.
Dean, K. (1993). Taoist ritual and popular cults of Southeast China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Dean, K. (1998). Lord of the three in one: The spread of a cult in Southeast China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Dean, K. (2003). Local communal religion in contemporary South-East China. In D. Overmyer (Ed.), Religion in China today (pp. 338–358). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual alliances of the Putian Plain (Vol. 1–2). Leiden, The Netherlands/Boston: Brill.
Duara, P. (1988). Superscribing symbols: The myth of Guandi, Chinese god of war. The Journal of Asian Studies, 47(4), 778–795.
Duara, P. (2014). The crisis of global modernity: Asian traditions and a sustainable future. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Fan, L. (2011). The dilemma of Chinese religious studies within the framework of Western religious theories. In F. Yang & G. Lang (Eds.), Social scientific studies of religion in China: Methodology, theories, and finding (pp. 87–108). Boston: Brill.
Feuchtwang, S. (2010). The anthropology of religion, charisma and ghosts: Chinese lessons for adequate theory. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Feuchtwang, S., & Wang, M. (2001). Grassroots charisma: Four local leaders in China. London: Routledge.
Goody, J. (1962). Death, property and the ancestors: A study of the mortuary customs of the Lodagaa of West Africa (p. 1962). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Goossaert, V. (2000). Dans les temples de la Chine. Histoire des cultes, vie des communautés. Paris: Albin Michel.
Goossaert, V. (Ed.). (2002). L’anticléricalisme en Chine. Saint-Denis, France: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes.
Goossaert, V. (2007). The Taoists of Peking, 1800–1949: A social history of urban clerics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Goossaert, V., & Palmer, D. A. (2011). The religious question in modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Grim, B. J. (2008). Religion in China on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Pew Research Center. http://www.pewforum.org/2008/05/01/religion-in-china-on-the-eve-of-the-2008-beijing-olympics. Accessed 20 July 2016.
Hsu, F. L. K. (1948). Under the ancestors’ shadow. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hu, S. (1998). Ming Jiao名教. In Hu shi wen ji 胡適文集 (The collected works of Hu Shi) (Vol. 2, pp. 135–145). Beijing, China: Renmin wenxue chubanshe.
Kenyatta, J. (1937). Kikuyu religion, ancestor-worship, and sacrificial practices. Africa, 10(3), 308–328.
Insoll, T. (2011). Sub-Saharan Africa. In T. Insoll (Ed.), Oxford handbook of the archaeology of ritual and religion (pp. 425–441). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Jensen, L. M. (2003). Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese traditions & universal civilization (2nd ed.). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Jordan, D. (1972). Gods, ghosts and ancestors: Folk religion in a Taiwanese village. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Lagerwey, J. (1995). China: A religious state. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Liang, Q. (1995). Zhongguo lishi yanjiufa 中国历史的研究法 (Methodology for studying Chinese history). Shanghai, China: East China Normal University Press.
Meynard, T. (2011). The religious philosophy of Liang Shuming: The hidden Buddhist. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
Middleton, K. (Ed.). (1999). Ancestors, power and history in Madagascar. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.
Naquin, S. (2000). Peking: Temples and city life, 1400–1900. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Nedostup, R. A. (2009). Superstitious regimes: Religion and the politics of Chinese modernity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univeristy Press.
Padma, S. (2013). Vicissitudes of the goddess: Reconstructions of the Gramadevata in India’s religious traditions. New York: Oxford University Press.
Palmer, D. A. (2011a). The body: Health, nation and transcendence. In D. A. Palmer, G. Shive, & P. L. Wickeri (Eds.), Chinese religious life (pp. 87–106). New York: Oxford University Press.
Palmer, D. A. (2011b). Gift and market in the Chinese religious economy. Religion, 41(4), 1–26.
Palmer, D. A., Shive, G., & Wickeri, P. L. (Eds.). (2011). Chinese religious life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pew Research Center. (2011). Table: Christian population in numbers by country. http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/table-christian-population-in-numbers-by-country. Accessed 20 July 2016.
Pew Research Center. (2015). Adherents of folk religions. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/adherents-of-folk-religions. Accessed 20 July 2016.
Scott, J. L. (2007). For gods, ghosts and ancestors: The Chinese tradition of paper offerings. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Sena, D. (2012). Arraying the ancestors in ancient China: Narratives of lineage history in the “Scribe Qiang” and “Qiu” bronzes. Asia Major, 25(1), 63–81.
Tam, W. L. (2011). Communal worship and festivals in Chinese villages. In D. A. Palmer, G. Shive, & P. L. Wickeri (Eds.), Chinese religious life (pp. 30–49). New York: Oxford University Press.
Van der Veer, P. (2001). Imperial encounters: Religion and modernity in India and Britain. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Van der Veer, P. (2014). The modern spirit of Asia: The spiritual and the secular in China and India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Watson, J. L. (1985). Standardizing the gods: The promotion of T’ien Hou (“empress of heaven”) along the South China coast, 960–1960. In D. Johnson, A. J. Nathan, & E. S. Rawski (Eds.), Popular culture in late imperial China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Watson, J. L., & Rawski, E. S. (Eds.). (1990). Death ritual in late imperial and modern China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Yang, C. K. (1961). Religion in Chinese society: A study of contemporary social functions of religion and some of their historical factors. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Yang, F. (2010). The state of religion in China: The first glimpse through a survey. Newsletter of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society, Purdue University, 3(2), 1.
Yang, F. (2011). Religion in China: Survival and revival under communist rule. New York: Oxford University Press.
Yang, F. (2016). Exceptionalism or Chinamerica: Measuring religious change in the globalizing world today. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 55, 7–22. doi:10.1111/jssr.12253.
Yang, F., Hu, A., Jiang, F., Leamaster, R., Lu, J., & Tang, Z. (2010, July 26–27). Quantifying religions in China. In Proceedings from the 7th annual conference of social science of religion in China: The present and future of religion in China. (pp. 1210–1212). Beijing, China: Renmin University of China.
Yang, F., & Hu, A. (2012). Mapping Chinese folk religion in mainland China and Taiwan. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 51, 505–521. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2012.01660.x.
Yang, M. (2008). Introduction. In M. Yang (Ed.), Chinese religiosities: Afflictions of modernity and state formation. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Yao, A. (2013). Engendering ancestors through death ritual in ancient China. In L. N. Stutz & S. Tarlow (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of the archaeology of death and burial (pp. 581–596). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Editors and Affiliations
© 2017 Springer International Publishing AG
About this chapter
Cite this chapter
Palmer, D.A. (2017). Is Chinese (Lack of) Religion Exceptional?. In: Hornbeck, R., Barrett, J., Kang, M. (eds) Religious Cognition in China. New Approaches to the Scientific Study of Religion , vol 2. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-62954-4_2
Publisher Name: Springer, Cham
Print ISBN: 978-3-319-62952-0
Online ISBN: 978-3-319-62954-4