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Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in China


In post-Mao China, the Communist government's policy on religion has marked a departure from the repressive policies of the Maoist period. The official "Document No. 19" issued by the Chinese Communist Party in 1982 states that the party's basic policy on religion is one of respect for and protection of the freedom of religious belief, pending such future time when religion itself will disappear. This more tolerant policy on religion brought about a revival of religious traditions, including their activities and organizations, in many parts of China. Temples, churches, and mosques, most of which were destroyed by the Red Guards or occupied by nonreligious organizations during the Cultural Revolution (19661976), have been restored and rebuilt. This revival is an aspect of a greater social and academic freedom in China. The reform policy also led to a gradual loosening and opening of the conditions for academic research on religion. As a result, academic religious studies in mainland China have prospered, despite some problems with the country's education system, standards of publication, and methods of research. The most significant changes are in the following three areas: the development of academic religious studies, including the basic conception of religion and its study; religious studies in educational institutions and scholarly publications; and the relationships of academic religious studies to the academic, religious, and general communities in China.

Thought: The Development of Academic Religious Studies in China

The development of academic religious studies in China since the 1910s began with the problem of the modern concept of "religion." There is no equivalent indigenous term in Chinese for the generic term religion. Neither had there been any systematic, comparative, and critical studies of religions in premodern China, but only apologetic learning within a particular school of jiao, a term that means both instruction and teaching. In traditional China, there were the "three teachings" (sanjiao) of Confucius (rujiao), Laozi (daojiao), and Buddha (fojiao). As a result of contact with Japanese scholars of religion in the late nineteenth century, Chinese intellectuals brought the Japanese translation of the Western term religion (i.e., shūkyō ) into China and began to refer to the three schools of teaching as three Chinese religions (zongjiao ). Without clearly taking into account the critical difference between the Western term religion and the native characters zong and jiao, the translation of zongjiao into Western languages as "religion" gave rise to serious misunderstandings and confusion among Chinese intellectuals whenever they discussed the religious nature of Chinese traditional jiao in the beginning of the twentieth century and even today.

The traditional Chinese characters of zong and jiao were not used to discern theism in the Western European sense nor were they used to designate an isolatable aspect of human life. Zong means to honor, revere, and obey; jiao means teaching and learning. The very difficulty of defining, or even finding, "religious" qualities within rujiao, daojiao, or fojiao reflects the problems encountered when uncritically using the Western concept of "religion" to correspond to non-Western traditional cultures. In spite of these differences, almost all Chinese scholars today are used to defining Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and folk belief and ritual as "religion." Few are aware of the origin of the concept of religion, let alone the changes in meaning the term has undergone in the West.

While the Western term religion does not correspond to the native Chinese term zongjiao, the difference does not mean that the scholarly study of religion has not occurred in modern China. Beginning in the early twentieth century, skeptical and rational studies of religion by Chinese scholars began to appear. The spread of Western learning brought Chinese scholars some entirely new ideas, theories, and methodologies. Distancing themselves from traditional and apologetic attitudes, Chinese scholars in this period, including Liang Qichao, Hu Shi, Chen Yinque, Tang Yongtong, Chen Yuan, Xu Dishan, and Zhen Hanzhang, were able to study Buddhism, Daoism, and Islam on a scholarly and objective level by applying modern historical, linguistic, and literary-critical approaches to their studies. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, owing to these scholars' strength and interest in history, literature, and philosophy, the major achievement of academic religious studies in China was largely concentrated on the history and philosophy of particular religious traditions. Consideration of common assumptions and methodological principles of religious studies as a scientific and autonomous discipline was not evident in the religious studies field during this period. This was due in part to the antireligious attitude generally adopted by Chinese intellectuals who were calling for a critical overhaul of Chinese traditional culture, including all of its religious, superstitious, and feudal elements, during the May Fourth/New Cultural movement of 1920s China. At that time, therefore, religious studies was not generally seen as a scientific discipline, and with the exception of the School of Religious Studies (zongjiao xueyuan) of Yanching University, founded by an American missionary in Beijing in 1926, there were no known major programs of religious studies established in universities in China.

When the Communist Party took over China in 1949, all academic activities, like all other cultural and social activities, became subject to Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism, and all academic institutions were placed under the control of the Communist Party. Like every branch of the study of literature, the arts, and culture, serious religious studies became nonexistent, and neither were there any research and teaching institutions in the field of religious studies. Religion was severely attacked and dismissed as superstitious and counterrevolutionary, and academic religious studies was considered something of a "bourgeois pseudoscience." That era saw few new articles and publications on the subject of religion. What little was produced was used as an instrument of the party's policy on political campaigns and became part of its atheist propaganda. For example, from the late 1950s on, Hou Wailuand Ren Jiyu criticized Buddhist thought and analyzed its social basis in terms of Marxist historical materialism.

The most dramatic change in religious studies in China occurred when Deng Xiaoping's new policy of "reform and opening" was adopted and implemented at the end of 1978, two years after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. The more tolerant policy on religion led to the lifting of the prohibition on religious activities and academic research on religion. Beginning in the early 1980s, Buddhist and Daoist temples, Muslim mosques, and Christian churches were rebuilt one by one and opened to the public. The speed of restoration and reconstruction of religious centers accelerated in the following two decades. The rapid revival of religions in the 1980s was not unrelated to the "spiritual crisis" of the Chinese people, who were disillusioned with Communist values. An enthusiastic turn to studying religious traditions and culture also occurred within scholarly groups. First, the former extremely "leftist" attitude toward religion, which considered religion to be "the opium of the people," was no longer trusted by scholars in China. Second, facing a serious chaos in values in post-Mao China, many Chinese intellectuals chose to return to studying traditional Chinese culture, including religion, in an attempt to search for some new cultural value system that might help Chinese people disentangle themselves from the past decades of political and cultural disturbance.

This cultural tendency is referred to as a "fever" for religious culture. On the one hand, it liberates scholars from the dogmatic Marxist theory of religion by repositioning religion as a form of human culture. On the other hand, this new tendency shapes studies of religions in a way that treats religion as one cultural phenomenon among others. Such journals as Jidujiao wenhua pinglun (Christian cultural review), Fojiao wenhua (Buddhist culture), Zongjiao yu wenhua (Religion and culture), and Daojia wenhua (Daoist culture) have begun to appear. In addition, numerous books and articles on religion's relationship to art, morality, literature, culture, philosophy, science, economy, and law are published for general consumption.

Aside from popular interest in religious culture, since the early 1990s academic religious studies in China have advanced enormously. This is due in part to the fact that many research institutions focused on religious studies and many religious studies programs came to be established in universities as a result of the expansion of higher education in China. In particular, many graduate theses on diverse religious traditions brought a new direction to religious studies scholarship in China. Among the subject areas included are Buddhism, Chinese Christianity, Daoism, Tibetan Buddhism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, folk religion, and the religions of ethnic nationalities in many parts of China. In contrast to the scholarship of the previous decade, which focused only on the general history of a particular religion, more religious studies are devoted to rituals, village lineages, social changes, sectarian developments, and cross-cultural and local interactions within diverse religious traditions.

In the area of theories and methods of religious studies, Lu Daji, He Guanghu, and Zhuo Xinping are leading scholars introducing Western theories of religion to Chinese students. Many of the works available in translation, however, are more concentrated on the subject areas of philosophy of religion, theology, sociology of religion, and anthropology of religion. As examples, works by James Frazer, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Peter Berger, John Hick, John Macquarrie, and Paul Tillich are widely translated and well known to Chinese scholars and have had a definite impact on academic work. Nevertheless, a broader introduction to the variety of theories of religion in the West would help Chinese students to be able to scrutinize critically the Western category of "religion" and the changes in meaning that it has undergone since the late twentieth century. As of 2005, there were few if any university courses that discussed the nature of religion and religions or the methods of religious studies in Chinese cultural contexts.

Chinese students of religious studies also need to be introduced to the field of religious studies with an emphasis upon the search for the transdisciplinary nature of religious experience and for the perennial patterns underlying the myths, rites, and symbols of diverse religious traditions. Indeed, some Chinese scholars of religion often compare the actual practice of religious tradition with the most idealized or outmoded theories of the West, theories that were the product of the Enlightenment. Recently, some Chinese scholars have voiced the opinion that it is of paramount importance for students of religious studies in China to pay more attention to the well-established scholarly tradition of Religionswissenschaft in the West and to recognize this field as a scholarly effort to study religious values that can account for not just why people do certain religious things in this or that historical context, but why they do them in the first place.

Institutionalization: Religious Studies in Educational Institutions and Scholarly Publications

Before the early 1980s, one could not find any religious studies programs established as part of the undergraduate study of humanities in universities in China, nor were there academic research institutions for serious religious studies. In 1963, because of Mao Zedong's words to the effect that "One cannot write well on histories of philosophy, of literature, and of the world without criticism of theology," the first state-founded institution for studying religion was set up in Beijingthe Institute of World Religions. But during the 1960s and 1970s political campaigns and dogmatic Marxist theories of religion undermined the development within the institute of serious religious studies. In 1978, with the restoration of schools, universities, and research institutions, the Institute of World Religions regained its academic status and started research activities anew, marking the first time in the educational history of religious studies in mainland China that more than twenty graduate students were admitted into the institute for academic religious studies. Their major subject areas included Protestant Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Daoism, Confucianism, and atheism. In 1979, the first national Chinese Association of Religious Studies was established. In addition, three journals or magazines of religious studies began to be published in Beijing and Nanjing, namely, Shijie Zongjiao Yanjiu, Shijie Zongjiao Ziliao, and Zongjiao. These three developments are usually regarded as milestones for the revival of academic religious studies in post-Mao China.

Despite these advances, institutionally-based academic religious studies saw little growth during the early 1980s. This was due in part to the ongoing influence of Marxist ideology upon scholars and educational institutions in China. Evidence of this during the early 1980s may be found in an influential scholarly debate on Marxist theory of religion that occurred among scholars from Beijing and Shanghai. The second problem that prevented more rapid development of academic religious studies in the 1980s was the dominant cultural agenda that shaped religious studies. In retrospect, some Chinese scholars today admit that studying religions as culture is too subjective and pragmatic, and, as a result, ignores complex religious phenomena as an autonomous subject for serious study.

From the late 1980s to the 1990s, a new pattern of change in academic religious studies occurred in universities in China. Institutional education on religious studies ceased to be the preserve of the stated-founded Institute of World Religions, which, in 1978, was put under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, with ten regional institutes in various provinces. Between 1978 and 1998, twenty-seven doctoral students completed their research theses at the Institute of World Religions. In the mid-1980s, Beijing University and Wuhan University became the first to set up religious studies programs for undergraduates in their own departments of philosophy. Subsequently, Sichuan University, Nanjing University, Renmin University, Fudan University, and Shandong University founded institutes or centers for academic religious studies. Thus the number of professional researchers increased greatly. Among the major characteristics shared by these university-based religious studies programs, the goal of fostering understanding of religious traditions supplanted the traditional ideological criticism of religion. However, the location of religious studies programs within departments of philosophy obviously prevented students from broadening their approaches to studying religious traditions within both disciplinary and multidisciplinary contexts. Apart from the philosophical and historical aspects of religion, the field of Religionswissenschaft and different methods of comparative, linguistic, anthropological, archaeological, sociological, and literary approaches to the complex phenomena of religious belief and practice would appear to be neglected in religious studies programs in China today; as a result, a comprehensive curriculum of religious studies programs has yet to emerge. In the early 2000s, some Chinese universities received official approval from the state to set up undergraduate programs of religious studies, despite the unchanged practice of locating such departments within the department of philosophy. However, it remains to be seen whether there will be more faculty members with full-time appointments in religious studies and whether greater contributions of faculty from a variety of humanities and social science disciplines will be permitted in the future.

Besides offering religious studies programs, these universities are also expanding their graduate enrollments and research activities by establishing research institutes for religious studies. Among these research institutes, Sichuan University is the best for Daoist studies, and Nanjing University and Renmin University are the leading institutions for Buddhist studies. By the turn of the century, Sichuan University and Renmin University had further developed as the state-supported humanities research bases for academic religious studies because of the excellence of their academic programs.

Besides the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and university-based institutions, religious studies are conducted in the State Bureau for Religious Affairs. The High Party School of the Central Committee of the Chinese Community Party has also set up institutes for the study of religions under its direct supervision. In addition, some government sanctioned religious associations (e.g., national associations of Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity) have established their own colleges for recruitment and education of their young professionals.

Contextualization: Relationships of Academic Religious Studies to the Academic, Religious, and General Communities in China

It is difficult to deny that the Communist state retains political control and enforces legal restrictions on religion and religious studies in China. According to the Chinese constitution, people have the freedom to believe or not believe in religion, but this refers to government-approved forms of the five major traditionsDaoism, Buddhism, Islam, and Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity. For Chinese scholars of religions, the problem with this limited definition of approved religions is that it prevents them from studying beliefs and practices of other religious traditions. As examples, Chinese popular religious sects are labeled as "feudal superstition" unworthy of recognition as religion. In addition, academic studies of China's fifty-six ethnic minority groups may put scholars in jeopardy of being accused of dividing the country if their publications contravene state policy over the governance of minority communities. Furthermore, since the relationship between the Chinese government and the Vatican remains conflictual, China's underground Catholic churches, with six to eight million adherents, are subject to repression. Circumscribed by the official stance on underground churches, Chinese scholars are unwilling to take up this subject of study. These are but a few examples among many that show how the party's policy on religion continues to determine the scope and character of academic religious studies in China. In the late 1990s, party authorities reiterated the call for the adaptation of religion to socialism. Required to respond to this call, some Chinese religious studies scholars immediately proposed research projects aimed at promoting such adaptation.

Despite this, there is no doubt that academic religious studies have had a remarkable influence on Chinese society by giving the public more accurate and objective information about the growing reality of religious activities and faith among the Chinese people today. According to Communist Party law, normal religious activities must be confined within registered religious buildings and organizations. Because of this kind of control over religious organizations and their activities, academic studies of religions are an alternative means by which nonbelievers in the society can relate to religion. The public effect of serious religious studies may be to help the larger community build a more sympathetic and sensible understanding of religion. The influence of the flourishing publications of religious studies can be traced in such public media as newspapers, television, films, and broadcasting, all of which reflect an increased interest in religion.

The effect of academic religious studies upon China's religious communities is twofold. First, because religious organizations have very limited resources for developing systematic studies of their own traditions, religious studies scholars, through invitations to lecture, publications, and good relationships, can increase and deepen believers' understanding of their own faith. Some religious leaders highly appreciate the work of scholars for their contribution to improving the quality of believers. Second, some religious studies scholars are named by the public as "Cultural Christians," "Cultural Buddhists," or "Cultural Daoists," because of the influence of their publications in increasing the public's knowledge of Christianity, Buddhism, or Daoism. In this regard, religious studies scholars sometimes play a more influential role in spreading religions in society than such insiders as clergy, sagha members, or Daoist masters.

The future of religious studies in China is linked to the fate of the government's policy on religious and academic freedom. The success of academic studies, including religious studies, in China is dependent on the extent of the Communist regime's open, tolerant, and pluralistic policy. Along with this political factor, religious studies programs have not yet taken root in higher education in China. It will require substantial effort on the part of scholars to warrant the state's recognition that religious studies should constitute a separate discipline with its own methods and curriculum in Chinese universities.


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Overmyer, Daniel L. "From 'Feudal Superstition' to 'Popular Beliefs': New Directions in Mainland Chinese Studies of Chinese Popular Religion." Cahiers d'Extrême-Asia 12 (2001): 103126.

Overmyer, Daniel L., ed. Religion in China Today. Cambridge, U.K., 2003.

Chi-tim Lai (2005)

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