Religion in Ancient China

Ancient Chinese developed their first religion over 7000 years ago. They had their gods centuries before the teachings of Confucius and Lao-Tzu became influential, and before Buddhism appeared in China.

the Great Temple of Shennong Yandi in Suizhou, Hubei

Early Chinese worshiped natural forces, fortune, and wealth. They also believed that the spirits of their ancestors had supernatural powers.

The Chinese believed that gods and spirits affected human life and death, health, warfare, weather, and many other things that were important to people. Because of that, people made sacrifices to them.

Early Religion

  • Researchers have found 250 tombs from the Neolithic Yangshao culture (5000-3000 BCE). The tombs were oriented toward the east, and they contained various goods, as those people believed in life after death. This society was matriarchal; women had more influence, and their goddesses were more important than male gods.
  • The Qijia culture (around 2200-1600 BCE) had a bit different religion. They believed in several gods, both male and female, who were ruled by the supreme king of gods.

Gods, Ghosts, and Zombies

    • Chinese religious beliefs were fully formed before the beginning of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). People believed in a number of gods. The most powerful god was Shangti, the king of the gods. Surprisingly, people rarely sacrificed to that god. People believed he was too busy to be bothered with their personal problems.

Guan Yin of the South Sea of Sanya

  • There were many other important gods too. Among them, there were the Tudi Gong, local spirits who inhabited and ruled specific areas. Yinglong was a dragon god who ruled over the rain and sea and protected kings and warriors.Nuwa and Fuxi were the mother and father gods of the humankind. Nuwa created the first people, and Fuxi was their teacher and defender.Sun Wukong was a naughty monkey who tricked the god of the underworld and became immortal. Lei Shen was the short-tempered god of thunder who killed people with his thunderbolts.
  • Ancient Chinese also believed in the spirits of their ancestors. According to that belief, if someone lived a good life, died of natural causes, or at least was buried properly, with honors – they would become gods.They were minor gods, but they could speak to Shangti and help their living descendants if needed. That’s why the living paid respect to their dead, prayed, and sacrificed to them rather than to Shangti.Also, ancient Chinese used oracle bones to ask the spirits of the dead about the future.
  • There was another reason why the Chinese honored their ancestors. If they failed to give proper honors or if there was an unresolved issue (for example, if an ancestor was killed) – according to the ancient belief, their ghosts would remain on earth to haunt the living.
  • There are several names and descriptions of those ghosts. They were known as guei or kuei, which means ghosts, or jiangshi, which literally means “stiff body” or what we today would call a zombie.
  • Since the dead were seen as a powerful force that could either help their descendants or become jiangshi and haunt them, ancient Chinese made sure to perform their religious duties.They offered them sacrifice in the form of food and drink, which often included human sacrifice. Also, they established a holiday (that still exists today, and it is called the Tomb Sweeping Day) to take care of tombs and pay respect.

Priests and Worship

    • Ancient Chinese priests and monks were mostly male. Women were allowed to enter monasteries and dedicate their lives to gods, but they had no influence over men; they could not hold any important office or be in charge over temples and shrines.


  • Religious services had various forms, depending on the deity they celebrated. The services were held in temples, followed by music, usually bells, and the smell of burning incense.
  • Physical health, fitness, and hygiene were just as important as spiritual wellbeing. Monasteries had so-called hygiene schools, where people were instructed on how to take care of their bodies, eat healthy, and exercise. The ever-popular practice of Tai Chi was originally developed in hygiene schools.

The Mandate of Heaven

  • The idea of the Mandate of Heaven appeared during the rule of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046-226 BCE). People believed that certain rulers and dynasties were ordained to rule and that they could stay on the throne as long as they pleased Shangti.When they failed to take care of the people responsibly, they would be replaced by another because they had lost the Mandate of Heaven.
  • People believed the gods were watching over them, so they wore amulets that were supposed to give them the protection of a god or ancestor.The emperor did that, as well. As he was responsible for other people, the gods observed him even more closely. He needed support from the above to keep the mandate and avoid being overthrown.

Between Religion and Philosophy: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Legalism

  • Old religious practices declined during the Eastern Zhou and the Spring and Autumn Period (772-476 BCE).New philosophical ideas were challenging old beliefs. The most influential figure of that period was Confucius (c. 551-479 BCE).
  • Confucius thought it was good to honor one’s ancestors, but he criticized people for relying too much on supernatural powers.His main idea was that people had individual responsibility in making decisions.
  • Taoism was probably developed before Confucius declared his ideas, but the origin of this worldview was traditionally assigned to Lao-Tzu (c. 500).In its essence, Taoism was just the opposite of Confucianism, because it highlighted the importance of spiritual forces – and not reason and individual responsibility – in people’s lives.
  • Legalism was developed under the Qin dynasty. Now human laws replaced divine ones. The main idea was that people were evil in their hearts, that everyone was thinking only of their own interest, and therefore, everyone’s actions needed to be restricted by the law.
    Religion was banned until the rule of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty, who declared Confucianism the state religion.
  • Buddhism arrived in China in the first century CE. It became very popular during the Three Kingdoms Period. Its idea of inner peace, called Zen, helped people cope with the brutality of war.


What was the name of ancient Chinese king of all gods?

It was Shangti.

Which gods were regarded as the mother and father of humankind?

Nuwa and Fuxi

Why did ancient Chinese worship their ancestors?

People sought protection, and also they believed it they didn’t respect their dead properly, they would return to haunt them.

What does the Mandate of Heaven stand for?

It was the belief that gods directly chose and gave a mandate to emperors and dynasties, and that only gods could overthrow them and chose someone else instead.

What was the state religion under the Han Empire?

It was Confucianism.