Chinese Religion and Philosophy

Religion in China needs some explaining to a Westerner because in China it is not quite the same concept; in China ’religion’ might be better translated as ‘guiding philosophy’.

The Chinese Emperor

The Chinese Emperor


The institution of Emperor, as head of the Chinese family of people, lasted for thousands of years and to some extent lives on in the Presidency. In China there has been great respect for the Emperor/President who in turn is expected to rule wisely with the best interests of his subjects in mind. To early European visitors to China the structure was considered close to the ideal form of society.

Many Chinese follow the traditions of more than one religion without feeling a sense of disloyalty, as different times call for different perspectives. There is a phrase “Three ways to one goal” that aptly describes how someone can follow Buddhism; Daoism and Confucianism at the same time without apparent conflict. There is no sense of lack of faith by attending services of different religions all in one day. The lack of a concept of a ‘One True God’ makes the work of Christian missionaries very difficult. From about the 12th century Daoism and Buddhism became so entangled that it is difficult to distinguish them outside of monasteries. The famous book ‘Journey to the West’ tells the story of how Buddhism came to China but it has many Daoist and mythological elements. The non-absolutist attitude has led to limited religious strife, new ideas have been gradually and peacefully absorbed. Together with the main inter-woven strands of religion are the popular myths and local deities which have no theosophical grounding.

There is a light-hearted story that explains the key differences between the three religions. A representative of each of the three religions have tasted some rather bitter pickles. The Confucian would say ‘We must follow the correct recipe to make better pickles’; the Daoist would say ‘It is fine. They are both sour and bitter, that is the nature of pickles’; while the Buddhist would say ‘It is bitter. Only by resisting the desire for pickles can bitterness be avoided’..

An introduction to Chinese religion can not omit the reverence to the Emperor. The attitude to the Emperor had religious undertones, he was regarded as the ‘Son of Heaven’ and the main conduit to heaven. He was regarded as the representative of all people and to be universally respected and obeyed. The relative virtue of the Emperor's personal conduct reflected on all his people.

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During the fervent period of Communism 1965-78 all religions came under attack. Temples and shrines were demolished and the priests banished and persecuted. It has been only in relatively recent times that religion has been tolerated by the authorities. Although there was a freedom to preach religion the party gave out the message that Communism and modern science could explain all things; people adhering to old faiths were pitied and despised. Communism became the one true faith with its own sacred texts and rules, for many at that time the Party replaced the Temple. Since 1980 religion has been tolerated, but only under the strict control and guidance of the Communist Party.

The following sections describe each of the main religions in China. In broad summary Confucianism is more of a set of guiding principles than a religion although Confucius himself is revered; while Daoism is a mixed bag of beliefs and philosophies centered around harmonious living with nature. Buddhism is widespread and although it came from northern Indian it has been adapted to Chinese needs. Christianity now that it has lost its historical colonialist association is growing in strength particularly in the cities. Islam is strongest in the north-west reflecting its historical roots in Central Asia and Muslims now represent about 2% of the population. Lastly there are the ancient 'folk religions' of China which are a very mixed and often localized set of myths and beliefs, often just a good excuse to hold a local festival. We cover many of the deities of folk religion in a separate section.

Confucius [23 Aug 551 BCE - 479 BCE]

Qufu, Confucius
Statue of Confucius at Qufu, Shandong

No guide to China would be complete without a fulsome mention of Confucius. He is believed to have lived in the Warring States period of the Zhou dynasty. Every town used to have its temple with red walls dedicated to Confucius kǒng miào or wén miào.

Born at Qufu in Shandong Province he traveled widely among the kingdoms offering advice to rulers who all refused his help but gathered a dedicated band of disciples. It was his followers who had more impact, some took up appointments and promulgated his views of wise governance. Confucianism is not a religion in the same sense that Islam and Christianity are; but Confucius is revered far more than just an ordinary philosopher such as Socrates . This reverence is due in part to the fact that he managed to live up to his own strict principles.

His name in Chinese is kǒng zǐ or kǒng fū zǐ meaning “Master Kong”. As with many Chinese names the English version Confucius has evolved from the Wade-Giles system of writing his name phonetically with English sounds. Kong is the family name and his descendents (now at the 83rd generation) still live at his home town of Qufu and claim the longest documented family tree in the world. Every year his birthday on 23rd August is honored as a minor national festival.

Confucius was a teacher of the right way for a society to function. In his view human nature is naturally virtuous but needs careful control. His analogy was to the flow of water, water naturally flows down (the way of virtue) but circumstances can sometimes force it to flow up, as in the splashing at the base of a waterfall (a turn to the bad). He had no belief in an after-life or divine intervention, concentrating entirely on giving direction to the living. He is understood to have been a rather austere, inflexible and crusty man. His doctrine is grounded in the lives of men on earth and is not shrouded in superstitions. For many hundreds of years a student wishing to become a government official needed to know the Confucian classics by heart. These examinations began as early as the Han dynasty (over two thousand years ago). Confucianism was the guiding doctrine throughout many dynasties and still is very important today. In the last ten years Confucius Institutes have sprung up all over the world; even the structure of the Chinese Communist Party is based upon Confucian principles.

Benevolence and Empathy

Confucius identified the roles and responsibilities of everyone in society so that they can live together in harmony. The strict relationships included the ones between ruler to those ruled but just as importantly between husband and wife; father and son. He looked back from the turbulent times of the Warring States to the early years of the Zhou rule, which he considered a ‘Golden Age’ of peace and harmony. Broadly speaking Confucian doctrine defines the boundaries for relationships. When relationships are properly acknowledged people can live in harmony. Respect for parents (filial piety) is of the utmost importance, even after their death. One of the early fervent followers Lao Laizi went so far as behaving as a child in front of his parents - playing with toys - to keep them happy and feeling young even at the age of seventy. In essence he advocated to always take account of the wishes of others rather than just yourself, always choosing benevolent behavior and the most harmonious path. The guiding principles are rén benevolence and shù empathy. He placed great emphasis on following proper procedure and the due ceremony (rites) . Later dynasties had senior officials whose sole purpose was to ensure the proper rites were maintained at all costs. Over time over 300 ceremonies and 3000 rules of behavior were codified. The use of the kowtow to physically demonstrate due reverence was an important acknowledgment of hierarchical relationships. In particular he saw that rulers must be seen to lead a virtuous life if they were to retain the support of their subjects. This is a different perspective to that of Buddhism or Daoism where a more self-centered approach is taken. Support for the Confucian doctrine was always strong in the scholarly aristocratic circles rather than ordinary working people. From the Ming dynasty onwards the overly doctrinaire and reactionary interpretation of his teachings is widely regarded as preventing reform and progress. There have been periods when Confucian doctrine was rejected; these occurred in the Tang dynasty when Buddhism was dominant; the Taiping Rebellion and Mao's period as leader of the PRC. The Communist wish for continuous revolution and reform is at odds with a fixed hierarchy of relationships.

His teachings were only taken up widely in the Han dynasty long after his death. It was the work of his followers Mencius [372 - 289 BCE)] and Xunzi [313 - 238 BCE)] that cemented his reputation. Much later on in the Song dynasty, a new rigor was brought to the philosophy by Zhu Xi , founder of the neo-Confucian school. Confucius is believed to have written the classic Spring and Autumn Annals as well as the mainstay of Chinese study for centuries the Four Books and the Five Classics . His philosophical views are gathered into the 'Analects ' an assortment of sayings collected hundreds of years later. Typical sayings include: 'In serving one's master one should be focused on the task, not on the payment for carrying it out' (Book 15.37); 'To expect much from yourself and little from others is the way to cure discontent' (Book 15.14); 'When out walking with friends I am certain of learning from them. There are good qualities I will aim to emulate and bad ones I will seek to suppress in myself.' (Book 7.21); 'Slow to anger; resolute; rooted and loathe to speak - such a person is close to Goodness' (Book 8.27); and 'People who study but do not think are lost. People who think but not study are a great danger.' (Book 2.15)

Other important works include the ‘Great Learning’ Daxue and the ‘Doctrine of the Mean Zhongyong . In the doctrine of the mean the path to follow is always somewhere between extremes - often nowadays termed the 'third way'. Confucian thought has been subject to revision, during the Ming dynasty, scholars such as Wang Yangming updated and broadened the philosophy, but Confucian writings have poignancy today just as they did over 2,500 years ago.

Confucius, Qufu
Temple of Confucius, Qufu, Shandong

Mencius [372 BCE - 289 BCE] or Meng Tzu WG

Without Mencius it is unlikely that Confucius would be known about today. In a situation rather like Plato with regard to Socrates; it was Mencius that refined and championed the work of his idol Confucius.

Mencius, philosopher
Picture of the Confucian philosopher Mencius. Image available under a Creative Commons license .

Mencius is widely hailed as China's ‘Second Sage’, and studied with Confucius' grandson. He was born at Zoucheng, Shandong where there is a temple honoring the life of Mencius, which is not far from Confucius' own birthplace at Qufu. His name in Chinese is Mèng Zǐ. According to legend his mother taught him the importance of rigorous and concentrated study by moving house three times just to find the best place according to Feng Shui for her son to study (from the Three character classic). To demonstrate to him the folly of laziness and lack of concentration she deliberated wrecked the cloth she was weaving. Like Confucius he visited the courts of kingdoms during the Warring States Period expounding views on how to rule wisely and justly.

His opinions on the role of people and government have been widely used down the centuries. They are at times contrary to Confucius's own views. For example Mencius' maxim that Those who perform manual labor are to be governed; those who toil with their mind do the governing. reinforces the age old examination system and the rule by an intellectual elite. His views were compassionate at the universal level, for example promoting care for the elderly as a basic right. He believed everyone had an underlying caring nature to those less fortunate; people are inherently ‘good’ and the state should nurture this inherent trait. One quotation shows this compassion for others “I like living and I like doing my duty to my neighbor; but it I cannot do both, I will fore-go life in preference to foregoing my duty”. Some of his writings had far reaching repercussions, in terms of the reaction to foreign aggression he held the view that it was not degrading for a ruler to abase themselves to another power if it maintained the welfare of the people. This partly explains the acquiescence to Mongol and Manchu rule as well as the reaction to the European powers in the 19th century. If accepting foreign control protected the well-being of the people then that was the right thing to do. On the other hand he made it clear that the people had both the right and the duty to revolt against tyrannical rule.

The ‘Discourses of Mencius ’ were part of the official canon of learned works and a core subject for the state examinations. Unlike the ‘Analects of Confucius’ which were not written by Confucius himself, the Discourses are considered to be solely the work of Mencius and his immediate followers. Like Confucius he looked back from the troubled period of Warring States yearning for the Golden period of government under King Wen who established the Zhou dynasty.


Chinese Character Details

Chinese Character Details


The history and structure of many common Chinese characters is a fascinating study. In this section we look in details at a few hundred of them.

Daoism is one of the main 'religions' of China. [You will often see this is as 'Tao', 'Taoism' using the older Wade-Giles spelling of Chinese, Dao is the modern pinyin spelling]. dào means roughly the Way and the name reflects its chief principle, finding the correct path through life. However it is more dynamic than just a fixed path, it adapts and changes always seeking an equitable balance. There are three main aspects of Daoism: philosophy; meditative and folk religion. The philosophy is best known in the West through the book of aphorisms called the 'Dao De Jing' Tao Te Ching which can be very roughly translated as the 'Virtuous Way'. The philosophy seeks to find a balance of a person with the world, and is more concerned with self contemplation than with relationships by contrast to Confucianism. The more substantial work, written later is the Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu) with many philosophical thoughts; paradoxes; jokes and riddles. It seeks the virtuous way that people should follow. Politics and purely logical thought are rejected as pointless as they do not lead to harmony and peace.

As Daoism incorporates the contemplative study of nature, it is from the Daoist strand of Chinese philosophy that scientific inquiry developed. Many Daoist scientists made important discoveries; some as alchemists seeking the elixir of Immortal Life who as a by product contributed to chemistry and physics. The Han Emperor Wudi's quest for immortality stimulated the investigation of various legends concerning the Yellow Emperor.

Where Confucianism seeks to put people in their proper place in society, Daoism puts people in the proper place in the world. Lao Zi is the semi-legendary founder of Daoism, from about the same time as Confucius in the Warring States Period (6th century BCE or may be 5th/4th century BCE). The philosophy was refined by Zhuang Zi (399-295BCE).

daoism, people, ceremony
Daoist ceremony at Lingyun Mountain, Nanchong, Sichuan Copyright © Dreamstime see image license
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Daoism was popular during the Tang dynasty, particularly as it promised long life, if not immortality for those that followed its tenets. Development was stimulated by rivalry with Buddhism with which it shares a number of core beliefs. When Buddhism first arrived it was initially said that Laozi must have gone to the west (India) and founded Buddhism. In popular culture Daoism with its pantheon of minor gods and spirits offers a good excuse to hold festivals. For centuries Daoism was considered the religion of the ordinary people while Confucianism was the religion of the ruling elite. The folk religion strand of Daoism has even older roots than Laozi as it grew out of ancient beliefs in spirits and mediums when sorcerers and mediums possessed the power to appease angry local spirits. Somewhere in the range of thousands of deities will be one who may respond to offerings with the required good luck; money; rain or healing that the petitioner needs. This has echoes with the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods; goddesses and other spirits. Daoism is closely related to Feng Shui, which is concerned with the harmonious arrangement of people within the environment and Taijiquan with the emphasis on strengthening the life force or ‘Qi’. It is in Daoism that people seek the balance between the opposing forces of Yin and Yang.

Daoist Sacred Mountains

Daoists place great store on mountains. Many fine landscape pictures show a lone philosopher gazing from a mountain side musing on the Dao. There are many mountains sacred to Daoists (and also to many Buddhists). The five sacred mountains are Taishan (Dōngyuè) in Shandong; Huashan (Xīyuè) in Shanxi; Southern Hengshan (Nányuè) in Hunan; Northern Hengshan Běiyuè) in Shanxi; Songshan Zhōngyuè in Henan. The five represent the five compass points (center is included).


In reaction to the coming of Buddhism to China at the end of the Han dynasty, Daoism became more systematic and to counter the Buddhist belief in re-incarnation, the quest for immortality became the goal. During the Jin dynasty some Daoists reached high positions in government and formed a group known as the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove . Emphasis on introspection and self-knowledge gave Daoists the ability to think independently of the main stream; many Daoist philosophers would live as hermits cut off from civilization. Over the centuries, rebellions were started by Daoists that went on to overthrow the ruling dynasty; movements such as the Yellow Turbans grew from the rejection of worldly values and brought an end to the Han dynasty. During much of Chinese history, particularly when Confucianism was the leading doctrine at the Imperial Court, Daoism was despised by most scholars and treated as pure flummery for the uneducated. Because the study of nature and therefore science was associated with Daoism, periods of official rejection led to the neglect of scientific study. Daoism was the doctrine for the countryside and nature; Confucianism for the city and people. An exiled official sent into the countryside would turn to Daoism for solace.

Later on, the Daoist religion became formally acknowledged, the Emperor confirmed a Daoist leader as the official authority of the religion - he was called the 兲师 Tiān shī 'Master of Heaven'. This official position lasted from the 4th to the 20th century in south western China. It was Daoists who resisted the building of dams; railways and any constructions that affected the environment, disrupting the natural feng shui.

In recent years Daoism has had a resurgence. Westerners have taken to reading and appreciating the Dao De Jing. The Daoist wish to live in harmony with nature has widespread appeal now that environmentalism has become mainstream. Many people turn to Feng Shui practitioners to arrange and design their homes and gardens; for example the veteran cricketer Geoffrey Boycott is a firm believer in Feng shui .

Lao Zi [604 BCE - 531 BCE] or Lao Tzu WG

Fujian , laozi, deity
Large statue of Laozi, founder of Daoism, Fujian

Lao Zi is considered the founder of Daoism. Unlike Confucius details of his life are very sketchy; often based on myths and legends. His name just means ‘Old (or Venerable) Master’.

He is believed to be the author of the Daoist classic ‘Dao De Jing’, but this is contested by many experts. The text has been assessed as being written no later than the 2nd century BCE but could be based on a far older text. Lao Zi probably lived in the sixth or possibly the fourth century BCE. According to one tradition he was born in Henan 604BCE into a distinguished family. He may have served as an archivist at the Imperial capital at Luoyang before returning as a hermit to his native village.

Tradition has it that Confucius visited Lao Zi for instruction but this story is likely to have been invented to advocate the superiority of Daoism by an imagined encounter. Buddhism has some overlapping core values and beliefs with Daoism, so when Buddhism arrived in China the Daoists hit back by suggesting that Lao Zi had fled from China and founded Buddhism in India. He is often portrayed as an old man seated on a water buffalo while on a journey to the West. Legends have grown up about his life over the intervening 2,600 years. Some say he was conceived by a beam of light and that he was born already with white hair. Appropriately, then Lao Zi is associated with longevity and immortality.

Later Daoists have attributed their own works to him, partly as a homage and also to promote their writings; it is therefore very difficult to disentangle Laozi's personal contribution to Daoism. This is not altogether surprising considering the length of intervening time.

Zhuangzi [369 BCE - 286 BCE] or Chuang Tzu WG

Zhuangzi, philosopher
Zhuangzi dreaming of a butterfly (or a butterfly dreaming of Zhuangzi). Image from this page . Image available under a Creative Commons license .

Just as Mengzi (Mencius) promoted the Confucian philosophy of Kongzi (Confucius) it was Zhuangzi who refined and promoted the Daoist philosophic tradition of Laozi.

He is also known by his family name of Zhuang Zhou (Chuang Chou WG) (the 'Zi' means master and is an honorific). Details of his life are fragmentary, the great historian Sima Qian could only vaguely suggest where he was born in Anhui or Henan and describe a few key moments in his life. He was known as a very erudite and persuasive speaker; but he turned down an official position at court, choosing instead to live modestly. However, he did not live the ascetic lonely life of a hermit, he married and had a family. He is famous for teaching of the relativism of all things and the unattainability of absolute truth. It was Zhuangzi who postulated that while he was dreaming that he was a butterfly, he might actually have been a butterfly dreaming himself a man .

Over the centuries many tales have woven around him. Some Daoists consider him a god and have given the planet Jupiter as his realm.

His main work is the ‘The book of Zhuangzi’; which is considered a masterpiece of Chinese literature. It is a much longer and insightful book than the Dao De Jing. It is set out as a series of stories that recount riddles and paradoxes. They are intended to give pause for thought and contemplation, a mission they have most ably served through the centuries. Over the first few centuries other tales were added to the book by various authors as an anonymous homage. As they are written in his style it has proven impossible to tease out exact authorship. The text stabilized under the editorship of Guo Xiang who died 312CE.

The Great Wall

One of China's great accomplishments that is genuinely awe-inspiring is the Great Wall. On our page describing the wall we debunk some of the many myths surrounding its construction. For centuries the wall has stood unused and so large sections have fallen into disrepair. The sections to the north of Beijing are the most visited and here the Great Wall snakes its way up and over mountains.
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Doing Nothing

Although Daoism introduces a fair amount of mysticism it did not seek to stop adherents contemplating and describing nature. Many of China's early scientists followed the Daoist tradition. He describes the action of 'wuwei ' that generates action through inaction. This key Daoist rationale teaches us not to expend useless effort by opposing the inevitable but instead ‘go with the flow’. Its basis is reinforced by analogy in nature where there is no point in resisting the natural order of things: reeds bend with the wind and even stones are worn away by water. Solitary contemplation is one of the key aims of the Daoist practitioner and many followers went to live out their lives as hermits on remote mountains.

Mozi [470 BCE - 391 BCE] or Mo Tzu WG

Mozi is considered the founder of another strand of ancient Chinese thought ‘Mohism’, and comes from the same ancient times as Lao Zi and Kong Zi. He grew up in humble circumstances and may have worked as a carpenter. Mohists followed ten core beliefs and defended them with logical argument and debate.

Where Confucianism stands for proper ritual and relationship, Mozi took a more egalitarian view ( dà tóng 'great comradeship') and considered ritual as humbug. He attacked injustice and all acts that harmed the people, especially war. Mohists believed in appointment on merit not by birth or favor, people were by nature good at heart.

“When all the people of the world love one another, then the strong will not over-power the weak, the many will not oppress the few, the wealthy will not despise the poor, the honored will not disdain the humble, the cunning will not deceive the simple.”

The love of freedom, universal benevolence, frugality, peacefulness and equality were in direct opposition to the Legalist philosophy of the Qin and was violently suppressed. Not many works survive, and those that have were 'modified' by copyists through the centuries. It never became a leading philosophy in China, however in his day he had more active supporters than Confucius attained in his. It has many of the qualities of Christianity but without the promise of Heaven or threat of Hell; however they did believe in ghosts and spirits. With a rosy-eyed view of achieving a Utopia of universal love, Mozi never found favor among the ruling elites. It was the Communists who took up some of his teachings 2,000 years after his death.

Buddhism in China

Dazu, buddha, deity, Chongqing
Sleeping Buddha at Dazu caves, Chongqing Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Buddhism has had a profound effect on China ever since it made its way from northern India into China during the Han dynasty. Buddhism began in Southern Nepal in the 5th century BCE and has developed into two main strands ‘Theravada’ and ‘Mahayana’. Theravada (Doctrine of Elders) has its stronghold in Sri Lanka; Thailand and Burma. The Mahayana (Great Wheel) strand, developed in the 1st century BCE and teaches the gradual accumulation of merit through good acts leading eventually to life free from suffering in Paradise. Enlightened Bodhisattvas remain in the world to help others reach enlightenment or nirvana . Mahayana is the school of Buddhism adopted in Japan; Mongolia; Vietnam; Korea; Tibet and China. In addition there is the Tibetan Tantric strand of Buddhism which is strong in Tibet; Sichuan and Mongolia.

Shanxi, Buddhism, ceremony, people
Buddhist ceremony at Xiantong Temple, Mount Wutai, Shanxi Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Siddhartha Gautama

The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama was born as the son of an Indian nobleman in 623BCE. He lived a pampered childhood, never venturing outside the family's palace in Nepal. When at the age of 29 he saw the suffering of people in the outside world he determined to renounce all worldly pleasures. After traveling widely, seeking a cure to suffering, he achieved enlightenment under a banyan tree. He concluded that much misery was caused by craving for the unattainable, and so the removal of desires is the key to peace and contentment. The best known belief is that the spirit is immortal and that all creatures are re-incarnated after death, the kind of creature you become will depend on the virtuousness of the previous life. This led to strict vegetarianism, as otherwise you may end up eating your relatives! The strong belief in re-incarnation led to a weaker hold on the sanctity of life. Suicide, never a crime in China, would lead, if done for the right reasons, to a reward in the next re-incarnation. Similarly if a family is close to death from starvation then infanticide could be justified on the grounds that children will most likely have better chances of a good life when they are reborn.

The story of the journey taken by Buddhist scriptures into China began with Fa Xian in the early fifth century and later in the famous tale of Xuanzang with the 'Journey to the West '. Buddhism initially gained popularity among the north-western tribes in the 3rd century; during the Period of Disunity it was adopted as the imperial religion by the northern emperors of China. Choosing Buddhism distanced the emperors from their Confucian advisers. To promote wider acceptance in China, Chinese Buddhists allowed for a family life rather than insisting on monkish celibacy; they also permitted the veneration of ancestors. The Buddhist concept of Karma , bad luck caused by bad deeds, was well received in China. As Buddhists are allowed to worship other gods it was still acceptable to practice Buddhism and at the same time take part in Daoist festivals. The non-exclusive nature of Buddhism proved attractive to the Chinese.

Hong Kong, Buddhism, gateway
The Po Lin Monastery Hong Kong with its famous Big Buddha statue

In China, Buddhism reached its zenith during the Tang dynasty. The study of Buddhist scripts and the printing of Buddhist texts brought literacy to many people. Ten schools of Buddhism emerged of which only two have remained influential: Chan (Zen or Meditation) and Amitabha (Pure Land). Many shrines and statues are dedicated to Guanyin , the Goddess of Mercy. She sympathetically listens to the requests of supplicants at her temples. Another common Buddhist image is of Budai 布袋 known as the ‘Laughing Buddha’ a fat figure representing the Future Buddha or Miluo Fo the god of happiness and contentment.


By the time of the Tang dynasty, a good proportion of the national wealth and land had been gifted to the Buddhist temples over the centuries; a similar situation to that of the accumulation of wealth by Christian churches and monasteries in medieval Europe. As Buddhist monasteries carried out charitable work (helping the poor, hospitals, planting trees), they were exempt from tax. Crafty landowners would give their land to the monastery in return for being maintained as tenants, thus avoiding tax. Emperor Wuzong brought this to an abrupt end in 845 when he chose Daoism as his religion. Huge accumulations of Buddhist land and treasures were confiscated and monks were sent back to their families. Buddhism never again regained its place as the state religion of China. Later on in the 19th century Buddhism was suppressed during the Taiping Rebellion and again in the 20th century under the Cultural Revolution.

Important Buddhist sites in China include Dunhuang; Longmen Caves and Yungang Caves. These sites have many thousands of carved images of Buddha and his entourage. Buddhist monasteries are scattered throughout China, offering refuge and support for people in hard times.

Xuanzang 玄奘 [602 - 664] or Hsüan-tsang WG

Xuanzang is remembered as the monk who brought the Buddhist scriptures into China. He was born near the then capital of Luoyang and was initially a follower of Confucius before converting to Buddhism at the age of 13 and becoming a monk. At the age of 27 he set off on his epic trek to study the Sanskrit Buddhist texts in India. He had been refused permission to go by the Chinese authorities but went anyway. Xuanzang's outward journey took him on the Silk Route via the Tarim basin (visiting Gaochang; Kuqa and Ha Noi near Kashgar) to Central Asia and then south into India. There he studied and traveled extensively for fifteen years. His return trip took him on the southern branch of the Silk Route.

Xuanzang, Buddhism, Shanxi, Xian
Statue of Xuanzang at the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an, Shaanxi
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Buddhism and the Silk Road - Xuanzang

Journey to the West

Xuanzang brought back to Emperor Taizong not only scriptures but an in depth knowledge of India, he was fêted by the Imperial court who by then favored Buddhism. He was given personal audiences with the emperor and worked at the Temple of Goodwill translating the scriptures. The Great Goose Pagoda, Xi'an was built to house the scriptures and keep them safe from fire. The name of the pagoda honors the story of how Buddha, as a strict vegetarian, overcame the temptation to eat a wild goose. Xuanzang and a group of scholars, including some Indians, translated a huge amount of material at least 25 times the length of the Bible. He wrote a detailed account of his trip ‘The Record of Travels in the Western Countries ’ which was much read and sparked interest in foreign cultures. Some of his translations have been found in the caves at Dunhuang. He died in 664CE and was given a lavish state funeral, his remains were deposited at the Xingjiao temple in Chang'an - although the Linggu Pagoda near Nanjing also lays claim to house his remains.

It was Wu Cheng'en 's book ‘The Journey to the West’ 西 xī yóu jì or ‘Monkey’, written c. 1580CE, that popularized the monk's journey to India. This famous book spawned many other stories about the antics of the monk and his strange attendants which are still very popular all over China.


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Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau all stand around the estuary of the Pearl or Yu River. Although shorter than the Yellow and Yangzi rivers its basin drains areas with high rainfall and so has a high flow rate.
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The Legalist doctrine in China was important in the early phase of Chinese history. Its name reflects its key attribute: the importance of law, it was a strategy for rule with no religious connotation. At the heart of Legalism was the belief that without strict laws people would be ungovernable, as they are by nature wicked and wayward. Clearly written laws would define proper conduct and so avoid conflict. The ruling elite that decide the laws are set apart from the people and the ruler is above the law, ruling by 'divine right'. However, in its favor, the laws were applied uniformly and fairly to all the people, they knew where they stood. The laws laid out rewards for good conduct as well as punishment for bad. It is not hard to guess that it was China's more autocratic rulers that found this philosophy to their liking.


It was the state of Qin in the Warring States period that adopted legalism enthusiastically and contributed to its eventual conquest of China. Legalism allowed a ruler to ignore tradition and enact whatever he thought fit for the benefit of himself and the people. When the Kingdom of Qin became hell bent on military conquest they required farmers to supply more food to support his large army and laws forced an increase in agricultural yields. The fields were closely monitored and if crops failed or animals died, people were punished. Responsibility for crime was considered that of the whole family not just an individual, and so each family had to police their own conduct to avoid brutal punishment. Under Legalism, people had to avoid the ‘six lice’ that represent unproductive effort: care for the elderly; unemployment; beauty; love; ambition and benevolence. On the positive side, Legalist rule brought in standardization of all kinds, as everything was dictated by strict laws. A leading proponent Han Feizi described how the philosophy could be understood: “If a baby has boils that need to be lanced, the mother will hold back from inflicting temporary pain, the wise man is not swayed by emotion, he performs what needs to be done in the best interest of the baby”.

In the death throes of the Qin dynasty all the leading proponents of the Legalist philosophy came to a violent death, some may consider that in itself a comment on the doctrine. The following Han dynasty replaced Legalism with Confucianism, the harsh laws were tempered with the dual responsibility of ruler to the people just as strongly as people to the ruler. Legalism came back briefly to some extent under the second unification under the Sui dynasty. The harsh Communist rule under Mao Zedong had some connection to Legalism and that is one reason why it remain an important philosophy to this day.

Christianity in China

church, Suzhou
A modern Catholic church in Suzhou

Christianity reached China as early as the 7th century. This was the Eastern form of Christianity sometimes known as Nestorianism ; in China it was called Jingjiao and associated with the Roman world. Jesus is transliterated as 耶稣 Yē sū in Chinese. The faith converted some senior officials and had a brief but wide influence. The famous Nestorian stele (an inscribed stone slab) was erected in 781 at Chang'an. The stele's discovery in 1625 was used by the Jesuit missionaries in Beijing as evidence of Christianity's long standing status as a religion in China. The Manichean faith which is considered a mix of Christianity and Zoroastrianism also prospered during the Tang dynasty before the brutal suppression of all 'foreign religions' in 843. A visitor to Baghdad in 987 reported that all the Christian churches lay in ruins and there were no Christians to be found.

An isolated Jewish community at Kaifeng fared better, it lasted about one thousand years and when it was discovered in the 19th century it caused great excitement.

During the Yuan dynasty, the Mongols welcomed people from many countries including Christians such as Marco Polo. However during much of the following Ming dynasty this 'foreign' religion dwindled. From about 1365 onwards nothing is known of the fate of the Nestorian Christians in China. At the start of the Ming, in 1371, an ambassador was sent to Rome (Da Qin ) to inform the pope of the founding of the new dynasty.

Towards the end of the Ming dynasty an important Jesuit mission to China was led by Matteo Ricci SJ. They decided to focus their efforts on converting the Emperor and senior court officials to the faith. Although they made early advances the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 led to a gradual diminution of their influence and the numbers of Christians dwindled. The last Dowager Empress Wang of the Ming dynasty converted to Christianity and her son (Zhu Youlang) was baptized a Christian in 1648 but he fell into Manchu hands and died in captivity. This move was partly made in the hope that the European Christians would help her restore the Ming dynasty to power. In the seventeenth century other missions by Dominican; Franciscan and Jesuits established brief footholds in the southern coastal ports. The Dominicans and Franciscans went among ordinary working people, Jesuits among the educated elite. This led to tensions because the Jesuits thought ancestor veneration was compatible with Christianity, while the other missionaries did not. When the Pope proclaimed that the Ancestral rites were indeed incompatible with Christianity, the Jesuit mission returned back to Europe in failure. For ordinary Chinese, these missions were greeted, in the main, by incomprehension and hostility and did not persist. Part of the problem was that traders had infiltrated the missionary ranks, in 1703 Emperor Kangxi commented that among the missionaries were: ‘mere meddlers ... out for profit, greedy traders who should not be allowed to live here... I fear that some time in the future China will get into difficulties with these Western countries’.

shū book; write

Made up of [ gǔn line radical 2]


Originally a pen over a mouth so a pen that speaks, now much simplified
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Western Missions to China of many different denominations began in the nineteenth century. As they were seen as part of Western colonial plans they were widely distrusted; missionaries were targeted and killed during the Boxer rebellion (thousands of Chinese converts; about 200 foreign Protestants and many Catholic missionaries). The Missionaries for their part often had a very patronizing attitude to the poor, barbarians and had little to do with them. Attitudes began to change from the 1880s when T. Richard; W.A.P. Martin; Y.J. Allen and others began to take account of Chinese traditions and founded schools; libraries and universities. Their message became one of salvation through reform of the Chinese state and reached the ears of such men as Li Hongzhang and Sun Yatsen.

Modern adoption

A second spurt of Christian missions in the 1920s was brought to an abrupt end in 1951 when the Communists sought to extinguish all influence by foreign countries and all religions. Because many Christian missions were supported by unfriendly foreign states (especially America) all the local Chinese who attended church were suspected of sympathy with foreign powers. It has only been since the 1980s that Christianity has been allowed to grow in China, particularly in urban centers; even so because control by foreign agencies is not permitted by the Communist Party there remains a particular problem for Roman Catholics who are not allowed to take direct orders from their leader the Pope.

Matteo Ricci 玛窦 [6 Oct 1552 - 11 May 1610]

Matteo Ricci, christianity
Matteo Ricci and Paul Xu Guangqi From Athanasius Kircher, La Chine … Illustrée, Amsterdam, 1670. Image from web page Image available under a Creative Commons license .

The Italian Matteo Ricci was one of the first to build a bridge of understanding between Europe and China in the late 16th Century. Members of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola sought to convert the vast population of China to Catholic Christianity. Up to 900 Jesuits took their European knowledge to China. They had been carefully taught in the disciplines such as astronomy that they believed would be of interest in China. It soon became clear that the way to convert the Chinese was to persuade the Emperor and his court to embrace or at least endorse the religion.

Ricci reached Macau, China in 1582 and spent some years in the southern provinces where he mastered the language and culture. He took to wearing the garb of a Confucian scholar to gain acceptance. Ricci came to court in 1601 where he described China as ruled by a philosopher élite - close to the Platonic ideal for state governance. Although never meeting Emperor Wanli himself he was feted by the Imperial court. The insular and paranoid scientific culture at the time banned the independent study of science, science was only for the appointed elite at court; so Ricci had his mathematics books confiscated. Matteo Ricci became skilled in the language and culture of China, and wrote books in Chinese. His Chinese friends admired his memory skills; he is believed to be able to instantly memorize a page of 500 Chinese characters recalling them in either forward or reverse order; he used a technique called memory palaces . Matteo devised the first transcription of Chinese into Latin letters, centuries before pinyin was created. They also appreciated the artifacts he had brought from Europe and the latest maps of the World.

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Ricci, Schall and Verbiest

Ricci succeeded in converting three leading scholars at court (the Three Pillars of the Early Christian Church : Xu Guangqi; Li Zhizao and Yang Tingyun). The fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644 proved fatal to the Jesuits' ambitions. Some Jesuits stayed with the Ming loyalists who fled south, others turned their efforts to convert the new Manchu conquerors. Seeking support from the 'foreign' Manchus for a 'foreign' religion further alienated the Han Chinese at court and led to a long term decline in Christianity.

Papal intervention

Another stumbling block for the Jesuit mission was one of doctrine. Matteo Ricci believed that the way to convert the Chinese was to adapt the Christian message to reflect Chinese heritage. To achieve this the ancient rite of 'ancestor worship' had to be accommodated. After a century of debate the Pope outlawed the Chinese rites in 1707, undermining the efforts of hundreds of missionaries in China.

Jesuits were men of science as well as religion. European skills in cartography led the Qing emperor Kangxi to task the Jesuits with production of a map of the entire Chinese empire; however it was the new European methods in astronomy that really impressed the Chinese. The Jesuits who followed Ricci won a competition to make the most accurate prediction of a solar eclipse. They won because Chinese astronomical knowledge had relied on methods that were no longer fully understood and so could not be refined. The Jesuits took up Imperial posts at the Bureau of Astronomy in 1629 and revolutionized Chinese astronomical methods. Some of the instruments still to be seen at the Beijing Observatory were designed and installed by them. They also helped design parts of the new Qing Old Summer Palace using the latest European architectural style.

It is misleading to think of the Jesuit mission as one of imparting European knowledge to China, it was very much a two way transfer. Documents at the Vatican demonstrate the huge interest in Chinese science and technology back in Europe. It has been suggested that leading philosophers such as Liebniz based their discoveries on this new information. Fascination with all things Chinese led to the fashion for Chinoiserie in Europe, many stately homes had a 'Chinese room' in the 17th-18th centuries.

On his deathbed in 1610 Matteo Ricci was confidant of the eventual success of his Christian mission he said ‘I leave before you an open door’. Matteo Ricci is buried with a number of his Jesuit fellow missionaries in a small Christian cemetery in Beijing. His work was carried on by the German Johann Adam Schall von Bell and others in China.

Islam in China

Ningxia, mosque, muslim
Mosque for Hui people, Ningxia

Islam is the dominant religion in Xinjiang and other north western Chinese provinces. Islam made its way along the Silk Route into northern China and by Arab sea traders into southern China. The earliest records go back as far as the early Tang dynasty when about 40 missions were received in China. The Huaisheng 怀 mosque in Guangdong is considered one of the oldest in the world, traditionally said to have been founded by the prophet's uncle Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas but there is no evidence to support this, it is more likely that it marks the tomb of the Muslim scholar Ibn Wahab who met the Emperor in about 880. During the Song dynasty Muslims were heavily involved in the sea trade from the southern ports chiefly Guangzhou and it is likely that they founded the first Muslim communities and built the first mosques. The Muslim community was virtually wiped out in the Guangzhou Massacre of 878-9. While in the north (chiefly Xinjiang) it was the Uyghur people of Turkic origin that converted to Sunni Islam.

Imperial Examinations

Imperial Examinations


One of China's most important exports was the respect for scholarship and learning. China was the first nation to appoint on basis of academic merit. Strict Imperial examinations were set up two thousand years ago and were the passport to a quieter life with a steady income.

The defeat of China by Arabs at the Battle of Talas in 751 cut China's influence over much of the Silk Route. Thereafter Central Asia was controlled by Muslims not the Chinese. Arab mercenaries were sent by Caliph al-Mansur to help the Tang Emperors put down the An Lushan rebellion and some of these soldiers settled permanently in China.

Prince Amir Sayyid is widely regarded as the founder of the Muslim community in China, he founded a community of Muslims in the area between Kaifeng and Beijing in the early Song dynasty. Elsewhere in China many Muslim Hui people ( huí) are to be found in Ningxia; Qinghai and Gansu provinces. Some of these people are the descendents of Silk Road traders with ancestors in Central Asia. With the opening of China under the Mongols (Yuan dynasty) central Asian people flooded into China. The Mongols put foreigners including Muslims into the top posts in government, for instance the design of the new capital of Dadu (Khanbaliq present day Beijing) was under the control of architect Amir al-Din . Influence continued into the Ming dynasty, as exemplified by people such as the famous Muslim explorer Zheng He. With the annexation of East Turkestan as Xinjiang in the Qing dynasty, many more Muslims came under Chinese rule and when they forbade some Muslim practices there were a number of revolts by Muslim people followed by brutal reprisals. The Panthay Rebellion (1855-73) in Yunnan led to as many as a million deaths. The Dungan revolt in northern China (1862-77) was even bloodier with about ten million victims.


If you have ever wondered where to find 'Shangrila' the fabled place of peace and tranquility then you need to go to Yunnan province. A Chinese town lays claim to be the genuine location and so Zhongdian has renamed itself as Shangrila. However the most likely location is further up in the mountains, near the Buddhist holy mountain of Kawagarbo.
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When Mao suppressed all religions on the foundation of the People's Republic in 1949 there were revolts in Muslim dominated areas. Mosques and other religious buildings were destroyed. It was not until 1978 when some religious freedom was permitted that the suppression came gradually to an end.

There are now mosques in most of China's large cities with between 20 and 130 million people following Islam. Traditional Muslim clothing became a frequent sight on Chinese streets but now with fears of Jihad inspired separatists, some Muslim practices are being outlawed again.

mosque, Islam, religion
The Niujie Mosque niújiē qīngzhēnsì) is the oldest mosque in Beijing, China. It was built in 996 and completely rebuilt under the Kangxi Emperor (1622-1722). June 2006.
Photo by smartneddy available under a Creative Commons license

Ancestor Veneration

Qingming, tomb, ancestor veneration
Making offerings at the family tomb, Qingming festival Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

What has often been translated as ‘ancestor worship’ may be more helpfully be called ‘veneration’. The use of the word ‘worship’ immediately makes it sound more religious than it actually is. The belief is not associated with any particular Chinese religion, indeed it has remained the unchanging bedrock of Chinese tradition. Veneration of ancestors can be traced back to the rituals carried out by the dynastic rulers as far back as the Shang dynasty 3,500 years ago. Ancient Shang tombs have been found with ceramic vessels of food left for the dead. The ancient characters found on Shang 'oracle bones' confirm the widespread rituals associated with the ancestors. The Chinese classic, the 'Book of Songs' describes elaborate and emotional rituals from the Zhou dynasty. The ancient belief is that people have two souls the provides a person's physical movement while the hún is the personality and is the immortal part. Both aspects have to be properly handled after death. The 'hun' is destroyed by cremation and that is why bodies were for centuries buried and not burned. There are also shén which are helpful (ancestors of the male line) and the evil spirits guǐ which may be malevolent to other families.

China's Ancient Script

China's Ancient Script


The discovery of a huge number of 'oracle bones' has added greatly to the knowledge of the origins of China's written script. It pushes back the written language to at least 3,500 years ago. Careful study of the inscriptions is still revealing information about life in Shang dynasty times.

Ancestor veneration is based on a long held belief that the ancestral spirits are monitoring the lives of their descendents from the after-life. The ancestors are kept informed of all important events in the family, especially marriages. The souls of the departed are believed to have the power to bring retribution upon the living, and so the appropriate offerings must be provided to keep them content. Importantly only men could perform the rites and this led to a higher value placed on sons rather than daughters. Without a son there was no-one to venerate the ancestors and their spirits would then bring misfortune on the remaining family. The duty went both ways, if ancestors had failed in their duty to their descendents during their lives, by not maintaining land for instance, they could be removed from the shrine and lost from the lineage. At least twice a year the family must visit the ancestral graveyard, light incense sticks and leave food and presents. Often the family would have an ancestral hall that has tablets listing all members of the extended clan or family. Ceremonies led by the clan elders pass on family traditions and make the family decisions. The most important times to visit are at Qingming festival in April and then Hungry Ghost Day in August. At Chinese New Year many Chinese people travel back to their ancestral home village which has the ancestral burial ground.

Ancestral shrine

Traditionally, every home will have a shrine dedicated to the family's ancestors. An ancestral tablet bears the names of the ancestors. Often a parcel of 'ancestral' land gave income that was used to pay for the maintenance of the shrine and the offerings. For many villages long ago, all the villagers were related and bore the same surname. The veneration of ancestors was then a communal act of solidarity and confirmation of shared heritage. Tradition has it that a part of the deceased spirit is locked in the ancestral tablet. Sometimes chicken blood was offered as sustenance to the spirit locked in it. A small ancestral shrine is usually placed on the north wall of the house with incense burners around it. A mother's name is added to the inscribed list on the tablet alongside the father on her death. As it was so important to have your name inscribed on a tablet, a problem arose on the death of unmarried daughters as there was no place alongside a man on the tablet for their names to be added. Sometimes a special marriage with an unmarried, single, dead man was arranged so her name could be put on his family's tablet. Sometimes a marriage was made to a bachelor on the agreement that he would, after a brief period of mourning, marry another daughter of the same family. If these options were not possible, the unmarried daughter could pay to have her name to be added to a special tablet at a Buddhist temple.


The import of opium from India had a devastating effect on China. Although opium had been graown and used in China for centuries the import of huge quantities of the British controlled trade into Guangdong proved far more addicitive. It was the government officials who were most affected and even Dowager Empress Cixi used opium. Attempts to stop the trade led to two wars with Britain which China lost.
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Respect for ancestors is deeply enshrined in Confucian writings and the belief has its strongest roots in Confucianism. The rules of filial piety require that a son must honor and obey his father in all things even after death. It remained as the common shared belief even if someone believed in Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity or Islam. The veneration of ancestors caused great problems for the Jesuits when they introduced Christianity to China. The strong belief in the need for venerating the ancestors was not compatible with Christian doctrine. The missionaries decided to try to accommodate the belief within an adapted form; however the Pope in 1707 did not accept this compromise and the number of Christians soon dwindled.

Source references used for this page: Ancestor worship (archive) ; Ancestor worship (gutenberg) ; Book : 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, Gavin Menzies, Harper Collins, 2008 p. 132-134; Book : A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, Eberhard, Routledge, 1983 pp. 18-19, 160-161, 270-274; Book : A glossary of reference on subjects connected with the Far East,Herbert Giles, Rowman and Littlefield,1900 p. 146-148; Book : A Map History of Modern China, Catchpole, Heinemann, 1976 pp. 4, 8, 14, 24; Book : China : A short cultural history, G.P. Fitzgerald, The Cresset Press, 1950 pp. 46-47, 96-97, 265-290, 330-337, 408-421, 485, 566-569; Book : China : Eyewitness Travel, Dorling Kindersley, 2012 pp. 31, 143, 164; Book : China and the Chinese, Herbert Allen Giles, Kindle, 1902 p. 141-172; Book : China: A Concise History, Meyer, Littlefield Adams, 1984 pp. 57-58, 143, 209, 244; Book : China: A Macro History, Huang, Sharpe,1990 p. 10-12; Book : Chinese Characteristics, Arthur Henderson Smith, North China Herald, 1890 p. 26; Book : Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs, C.A.S. Williams, Tuttle, 1993 p. 349-355; Book : Chronicles of the Chinese Emperors, Ann Paludan, Thames and Hudson, 1998 pp. 14-39, 97, 117, 186; Book : Disputers of the Tao, A.C. Graham, Open Court, 1989 pp. 111-132, 214-217; Book : History: China Handbook Series, Foreign Languages Press, 1982 p. 1-12; Book : Insight Guides: China, APA publications, 1994 pp. 70-71, 75-77, 237; Book : It's All Chinese to Me, Pierre Ostrowski and Gwen Penner, Tuttle Publishing, 2011 p. 30-45; Book : Lonely Planet: China, 1988 pp. 10-14, 32-35, 48-60; Book : Modern China: A companion to a rising power, Graham Hutchings, Harvard University Press, 2003 pp. 86, 356-360; Book : Myths and Legends of China, Werner, Dover, 1922 pp. 80, 325-360; Book : Nagel's Encyclopedia guide: China, Nagel, 1978 pp. 93, 131-182; Book : Nearly a Chinese: A life of Clifford Stubbs, Charles Tyzack, Book Guild Publishing, 2013 p. 135-139; Book : Nine Dragon Screen, The China Society, Percy Lund, 1965 p. 50-60; Book : Symbols of China, Feng Jicai, Compendium, 2010 p. 135; Book : The book of Chuang Tzu, translated by Palmer and Breuilly, Arkana, 1996 p. 1; Book : The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China, ed. Brian Hook, Cambridge University Press, 1991 pp. 210, 291-319; Book : The Cambridge Illustrated History of China, Patricia Embury, Cambridge University Press, 2010 pp. 21, 42-46, 52-53, 71, 95-103, 212-213; Book : The Civilization Of China, Herbert A. Giles, Bickers and Dagny, 1911 p. 170-175; Book : The First Emperor of China, Frances Wood, Profile Books, 2007 p. 57-67; Book : The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Jonathan Spence, Faber and Faber, 1984 p. 250-256; Book : The Sextants of Beijing, Waley-Cohen, Norton, 1999 pp. 32-33, 66-68; Book : The Treasures and Dynasties of China, Bamber Gascoigne, Jonathan Cape, 1973 pp. 35-45, 46-49, 53-54, 96, 212-213; Book : The Walled Kingdom, Witold Rodzinski, Fontana, 1984 pp. 30, 34-39, 107; Book : Through the Chinese Revolution, Ralph and Nancy Lapwood, Spalding and Levy, 1954 p. 197-208; Book The Shorter Science and Civilization in China, Needham and Ronan, Cambridge University Press, 1978 [1] pp. 79-81, 87-126, 273-275; Buddhism (wikipedia) ; Christianity (chinahistoryforum) ; Confucius (rice) ; Confucius (wikipedia) ; Daoism (fofweb) ; Islam (islam) ; Islam (wikipedia) ; Lao Zi (wikipedia) ; Mencius (humanistictexts) ; Religion (sacu) ; Religion (wikipedia)
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