Popular Religion

Doctrines It is difficult to define Chinese popular religion in terms of specific doctrines because the term applies to many different forms of religious practice which generally lack system or structure. There are, however, certain beliefs and practices which are widespread throughout popular religion. Belief in heaven is common at all levels of Chinese religion. In popular religion heaven tends to be depicted anthropomorphically in the person of the Jade Emperor or the Emperor of Heaven. Yin and Yang and the five elements are also prevalent features of popular religion. (See Taoism.) So is the belief in fate and the character of Ssu Ming, who controls fate.
Since the 12th century CE the worship of ancestors has become increasingly important in Chinese life. Ancestor worship relates closely to the Chinese conception of the soul, which is understood in terms of yin and yang. The yin segment of the soul (called p'o) can become a ghost; the yang section of the soul (called hun) will look after the family. If the correct ancestral rites are performed then the p'o will rest and the hun will bless the family. In order for these rites to be performed the family line must be maintained through the son. This explains why the Chinese are so concerned to have male offspring.
There are a large number of deities (shen) in Chinese popular religion. Many of these deities originated as human beings who were deified because of their exceptionally virtuous lives. Cults of deities tend to be local. Their functions vary from protecting farms and households from evil spirits, mediating with heaven, curing illness, and controlling the weather. There are, however, a number of deities who are venerated throughout Chinese culture. Kuan-yin, for example, who is a female depiction of the Buddhist figure Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, was adopted into the Chinese pantheon as the Goddess of Mercy. She protects women, children and is the patroness of sailors.
There are a number of festivals in Chinese religion. Examples of these are the Chinese New Year, Ching Ming, the Dragon Boat festival, and the Hungry ghost festival.

History Popular religion dates back to the earliest periods of Chinese history. Evidence of divination, astrology, belief in spirits and demons have been a part of Chinese culture since time immemorial. These primitive beliefs were modified by the development of classical Chinese philosophy in the form of Confucianism and the transplantation of Buddhism into China.
Over time the Chinese pantheon came to reflect the order of the Chinese political system. During the T'ang dynasty (619-907 CE) the Jade Emperor was given the title 'Jade Emperor Lord on High'. During the Sung dynasty (960-1126 CE) the Jade Emperor came to be regarded as the ruler of the heavenly court and bureaucracy. Heaven became a form of bureaucratic system, with each department overseen by a particular deity or spirit - just like the political system on earth.
The closeness of the political order and the celestial order was best evidenced by the sacrifices on the days of the winter and summer solstices. At the time of the winter solstice the Chinese emperor, the Son of Heaven, had to offer a sacrifice to Shang Ti, the Lord on High on the Altar of Heaven. At the summer solstice the emperor offered a sacrifice on the Altar of Earth. These were done on behalf of the people in recognition of humanity's dependence upon higher powers.
This practice came to an end with the end of the Manta dynasty in 1911. But it was the ascendancy of communism in China that had the most significant impact on popular religion. While the Chinese communist government officially tolerated religions with clear doctrinal substructures (such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam) it did not tolerate what it regarded as superstition. Temples were converted for secular purposes such as schools, and local shrines have fallen into decay. It is in other parts of the Chinese speaking world (Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Chinese speaking community in south-east Asia) where popular religion continues.

Symbols Chinese popular religion is not to be understood in terms of abstract symbols. However, there are many visual forms that are associated with it. Images of deities are located in the house and in shrines. The Kitchen God and his consort, for example, are often located above the kitchen stove. The domestic altar will have a prominent location in the house. This will contain images of deities and ancestral tablets made of strips of bamboo on which are written the names of family forebears. On the domestic altar there are also candlesticks and an incense censer. Behind the altar are scrolls bearing characters which signify good fortune.
Deities which have played a particularly important role in Chinese popular religion are the Jade Emperor and Kuan-yin. The Jade Emperor can be approached only by the earthly emperor himself. Kuan-yin is the goddess of mercy who has been worshipped by women throughout China.

Adherents It is not possible to estimate the number of practitioners of Chinese popular religion.

Main Centre
 Chinese popular religion is based around household shrines or local shrines and therefore does not have a headquarters as such.