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

Based on formal religious identity, China is the least religious country in the world. Just 10% of Chinese adults self-identify with a religion, and only 3% say religion is very important to them. But religion seems to play a much bigger role in Chinese life when its definition is widened to include spiritual practices and traditional beliefs.

• Learn more about the religions of China: Confucianism, Taoism and folk religions | Buddhism | Christianity | Islam
• Chinese government policy toward religion
• Is China a religious country or not? It's a tricky question to answer

Measuring Religion in China

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

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.

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).1 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.

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.2 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.3 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?

In China, as well as in neighboring countries such as Japan and South Korea, there are many beliefs (such as in spirits) and practices (such as visiting shrines and making offerings to ancestors) that might be considered religious, broadly speaking. But there is little emphasis on membership in congregations or denominations, except among Christians and Muslims in these countries.

In East Asia, the boundaries between philosophical, cultural and religious traditions -- such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Taoism and folk religions with local deities and regional festivals -- are often unclear. People may practice elements of multiple traditions without knowing or caring about the boundaries between those traditions, and often without considering themselves to have any formal religion.4

Government restrictions on religion

Another challenge in measuring religion in China is that some affiliations, beliefs and practices are less officially acceptable than others -- and thus, presumably, less comfortable for Chinese people to disclose in surveys.

Although the government formally recognizes five religions -- Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism -- it closely monitors their houses of worship, clergy appointments and funding. Many activities that could help to maintain or expand these five zongjiao groups are banned, including proselytizing and organized religious education for children, such as Sunday schools or religious summer camps.

Enforcement has varied over time and by province, but since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, local officials have been less likely to overlook such activities. Religions that are not officially recognized, including those practiced mainly by ethnic minorities or foreigners, also are subject to a host of controls. Some groups, such as Falun Gong (法轮功), are completely banned.

(For more detail, read the section on how Chinese government policies toward religion have changed in recent decades.)

In addition, some zongjiao groups, particularly Muslims, face harsh treatment. The U.S. government estimates that Chinese authorities have detained more than 1 million Chinese Muslims, primarily Uyghurs, in "specially built internment camps." The U.S. State Department has described abuses against Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as crimes against humanity and genocide. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said the detention of predominantly Muslim groups and deprivation of their fundamental rights "may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity," though the UN report avoids the controversial term "genocide." For its part, the Chinese government has denied all allegations of genocide, torture, forced organ harvesting and sterilizations involving Muslims. Chinese authorities describe their treatment of Muslims as education and counter-terrorism efforts.

Christian groups also have accused China of religious persecution. For example, the government has arrested "underground" Catholic bishops and priests who are not affiliated with the official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, as well as Protestants who attend unauthorized places of worship also known as "house churches" (jiating jiaohui 家庭教会). Some Christians reportedly have been held in internment camps.

Because of these policies toward Muslims, Christians and other religious groups, China consistently ranks among the countries with the highest levels of government restrictions on religion, according to Pew Research Center's annual reports on the topic.

For all the linguistic, cultural and political reasons described above, many Chinese people may be reluctant to associate themselves with religion (zongjiao) or to consider themselves to have a religious belief (zongjiao xinyang). Some zongjiao adherents may choose not to reveal this identity in surveys. (For more discussion of this issue, read "Can Chinese survey data be trusted?")

Because of political sensitivity, studying religion in China also can be a minefield for scholars.

Challenges facing scholars of religion in China

Scholarly interest in the scientific study of religion in contemporary China seemed to be rising at the beginning of this century. In 2004, Purdue University sociologist Fenggang Yang organized the first annual Conference of the Social Scientific Study of Religion in China and a related training program. The conference was held each year until 2020. Hundreds of Chinese scholars attended for training on social scientific approaches to religion, opportunities to present research, and publishing advice. Training programs emerged in the United States for scholars from China and non-Chinese scholars studying religion in China, especially at the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, which later evolved into the Center on Religion and the Global East. New journals and edited volumes emerged to publish the results of this scholarly activity.

However, in recent years, studying modern religion in China has become more problematic. While some scholars continue to research the current state of religion in China, others have abandoned the field due to Chinese government policies that discourage the study of sensitive topics. Scholars who continue to focus on religion do so with increased caution about the scope of their research and how they present their findings. Such trepidation is not limited to scholars living in China, nor is it exclusive to those studying religion. A 2018 survey of more than 500 scholars outside mainland China who study Chinese society, conducted by political scientists at the University of Missouri and Princeton University, found that the Chinese government monitors research activity and sometimes retaliates against researchers.

About 9% of the survey's respondents said they had been "invited to tea" to discuss their research with Chinese authorities. Access to archives was denied to roughly a quarter of those who asked for it. In addition, 5% reported difficulties getting travel visas, and about 2% were formally banned from visiting China. Scholars researching Xinjiang and Muslims were among those most likely to report visa complications and interviews with authorities.

In their analysis of this survey data, researchers Sheena Chestnut Greitens and Rory Truex conclude that the Chinese government creates ambiguity to intimidate scholars. Two-thirds of respondents said their research was sensitive, and some changed a project's focus or abandoned a project altogether because of its sensitivity. However, most did not report any direct intervention from a government official. Respondents were slightly more likely to say that a government official had issued a warning to them through a colleague than to say an official had approached them directly.

Another factor limiting knowledge about the state of religion in China is restrictions on survey research and ambiguity about what may be permissible in surveys. In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult and, in some cases, impossible for foreign organizations to partner with Chinese institutions to conduct surveys in China. Furthermore, the staff of Chinese survey organizations may be uncertain which religion questions will elicit pushback from the government, and they may be highly cautious when considering whether to include religion measures in surveys of general attitudes and behaviors.

To our knowledge, the only surveys still collecting national data on religion in China are academic surveys, such as the Chinese General Social Survey and the China Family Panel Studies, which are supported directly or indirectly by Chinese government funding. For many years, Pew Research Center has been interested in collaborating on a survey of religion and spirituality in China. However, after investigating the possibility of doing so with various partners in China, we concluded that, given government restrictions, we could not carry out a survey dedicated to religion at this time.

Cultural traditions with spiritual underpinnings

In addition to the formal zongjiao measures and explicitly spiritual ones (belief in Buddha, burning incense) previously discussed, this report also analyzes several widely practiced rituals and customs that are considered cultural but may have religious or spiritual dimensions.

These traditions are observed by many Chinese people with and without a zongjiao affiliation. Chinese surveys have not asked respondents whether they perceive spiritual significance in these beliefs and practices, and the available data does not tie these activities to specific religions.


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