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Measuring Religion in China | Pew Research Center

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Many Chinese adults practice religion or hold religious beliefs, but only 1 in 10 formally identify with a religion

Local residents burn paper offerings as a ritual for deceased ancestors during the Zhongyuan Festival in Rongan, China. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

This report aims to explain the challenges of measuring religion and religious trends in China. These challenges include the shortcomings of available data, the awkward fit of categories used in other parts of the world, and the impact of culture and politics on religious activity in China.

Since Pew Research Center, like other non-Chinese organizations, is not allowed to conduct surveys in China, in this report we analyze surveys conducted by academic groups in China, including the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS), the China Family Panel Studies (CFPS), the China Labor-force Dynamics Survey (CLDS) and the World Values Survey (WVS). We also analyze Chinese government data, which is primarily released by China’s State Council and the National Religious Affairs Administration (formerly known as the State Administration for Religious Affairs), and data from state-run religious associations, such as the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (CCC and TSPM) and the Islamic Association of China.

We explain how religion in China – and in East Asia more broadly – is distinct from religion elsewhere. Questions that measure Abrahamic forms of religion (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are not sufficient to describe the breadth of religious beliefs and customs in East Asia. To capture the Chinese religious landscape as fully as possible, we consider a wide range of survey questions. For example, we present findings from questions about cultural beliefs and practices that also have spiritual or religious elements, such as gravesite visits and belief in fengshui (风水).

Throughout the report, we include Chinese terms because translations to English are often imprecise or incomplete. The Key terms section explains words and phrases that appear in the report’s Overview. A complete glossary can be found in Appendix A.

For context, we provide a summary of the recent history of the Chinese government’s policies toward religion. Refer to the Methodology for technical details, as well as a discussion of why surveys by Chinese universities may or may not be trustworthy. Read the section on current scholarship to understand other reasons why social scientists may shy away from research on religion in contemporary China.

This report is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, a broader effort by Pew Research Center to measure religious change and assess its impact on societies around the world. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation fund the Global Religious Futures project.

In Chinese, there’s no single, literal equivalent of the English word “religion.” Various terms are used for different kinds of beliefs and practices, reflecting nuances that get lost in translation. Chinese authorities show varying levels of tolerance for different categories of “religion,” even though the lines between them are often blurry. Appendix A has a complete glossary.

zongjiao (宗教) = religion: The most common Chinese translation of “religion,” zongjiao is usually understood as a form of organized religion. The Chinese government officially recognizes five zongjiao: Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism. Affiliations, beliefs and practices closely associated with these religions are typically described as zongjiao. Confucianism, as well as folk beliefs and practices, are not typically considered zongjiao.

xisu (习俗) = traditional custom: Many popular rituals, such as Confucius veneration and temple festivals where folk deities – e.g., the goddess of the sea/Mazu (妈祖) and other local deities – are worshipped are characterized as xisu rather than zongjiao. Similarly, it is often considered a custom to venerate ancestors’ spirts, observe the (Hungry) Ghost Festival in Lunar July, and make offerings and pray to the god of wealth or burn incense and make wishes at a temple during Chinese New Year. The government often tolerates and even encourages these practices because they are considered Chinese cultural traditions, even though they are centered on spirits or deities.

mixin (迷信) = superstition: Most traditional Chinese religious activities outside zongjiao and xisu are categorized as mixin and officially banned. For instance, Chinese law forbids sorcery and witchcraft, which the government associates with fraud and other crimes. Practices it deems benign – such as fortune telling and fengshui (风水) – are tolerated. The line between custom and superstition is fuzzy. For example, some Chinese people consider fortune telling and fengshui to be customs, not superstitions. And while rituals such as burning “spirit money” and offering sacrifices of food and drink at ancestors’ gravesites are generally considered customs, they may be viewed as slipping into superstition when the ritual involves setting off firecrackers at the gravesite to ward off evil spirts or burning paper models of houses or cars.

xiejiao (邪教) = evil cults: Since 1999, the government has intensified crackdowns on groups it labels as xiejiao, including Falun Gong (法轮功), the Children of God, the Unification Church, and the World Elijah Gospel Mission Society.

xinyang, xin, xiangxin= belief/believe: Chinese surveys use these words to ask about belief. Each has slightly different meanings. In this report, all three are translated as “belief” or “believe,” but we note the corresponding Chinese term when appropriate.

xinyang (信仰) = firm belief in or commitment to a theory, thought or philosophy. Commonly used to indicate formal commitment or serious conviction.

xin (信) = trust/have no doubts in or worship/venerate. Common usage includes “xin jiao,” meaning to “believe in a religion.”

xiangxin (相信) = trust/have no doubts in. Typically implies weaker commitment than xin. Does not connote worship or veneration.

By virtue of its huge population, China is important to any effort to assess global religious trends. But determining how many people in China are religious today, and whether their religious identities, beliefs and practices have changed over the past decade, is difficult for many reasons. The challenges facing independent researchers include not just the Chinese government’s tight control of information and the Communist Party’s skepticism toward religion, but also linguistic and conceptual differences between religion in East Asia and other regions.

Chart shows in China, religious beliefs and practices are more common than formal religious identity

Because Pew Research Center has not conducted its own survey about religion in China, the Center’s demographers combed through data from various other sources – primarily surveys run by Chinese universities – to discern recent trends.

Depending on the source used, estimates of the share of Chinese people who can be described as religious in some way – because they identify with a religion, hold religious beliefs or engage in practices that have a spiritual or religious component – range from less than 10% to more than 50%.

For example, only 10% of Chinese adults identified with any religious group in the 2018 Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS). The Chinese language wording of this question – “What is your religious (zongjiao 宗教) belief (xinyang 信仰)?” – is understood in China to measure formal commitment to an organized religion or value system. Similarly, just 13% of Chinese adults say religion (zongjiao) is “very important” or “rather important” in their lives, according to the 2018 World Values Survey. Although these measures have fluctuated over time, none have clearly risen over the last 10 to 15 years.

Chart shows survey questions that focus on formal measures of organized religion suggest that religious commitment in China remains low

On the other hand, surveys indicate that religion plays a much bigger role in China when the definition is widened to include survey questions on spirituality, customs and superstitions.

For example, 33% of Chinese adults say they believe in Buddha and/or a bodhisattva, according to the 2018 China Family Panel Studies (CFPS) survey. The 2016 CFPS shows that 26% of Chinese adults burn incense at least a few times a year – a practice that, in China, typically involves making wishes to Buddha, a bodhisattva or other deities and often indicates hope in divine intervention. However, just 4% of Chinese adults claim Buddhism as their religious belief (zongjiao xinyang), according to the 2018 CGSS.

What ‘religion’ means in China

The discrepancy is partly due to linguistics: The closest translation of the English word “religion” in Chinese is zongjiao, a term Chinese scholars adopted in the early 20th century when they were working with Western texts and needed to translate “religion.” To this day, zongjiao – like the terms shūkyō in Japanese and jonggyo in Korean – refers primarily to organized forms of religion, particularly those with professional clergy and institutional or governmental oversight. Zongjiao does not typically refer to diffuse religious beliefs and practices, which many Chinese people consider to be matters of custom (xisu 习俗) or superstition (mixin 迷信) instead. (For more explanation of Chinese terms used in this Overview, refer to the Key terms section.)

Moreover, many Chinese people’s understanding of zongjiao may be influenced by the government’s view that religion reflects a backward mindset incompatible with socialism. In state media, for example, the term zongjiao is used alongside superstition to indicate corruption and wavering loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.

But there is another reason why it is hard to pin down the number of people in China who are religious. It is a conceptual problem: Western definitions of religion and measures of religious participation – such as attendance at congregational worship services – fit the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism but are less suited to traditional beliefs and practices in East Asia.

How important is religion in China compared with other places?