Chinese-American Religions

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Chinese-American Religions

The Chinese were the first Asian group to immigrate in large numbers to the United States. In the first hundred years from the mid–nineteenth century, almost all Chinese immigrants were laborers from rural areas of Guangdong (Canton). They suffered exclusion and discrimination and had to stay in ghettolike Chinatowns in major metropolises. After World War II, especially since 1965, Chinese immigrants have come in large numbers in several waves. The Chinese population doubled between 1970 and 1980, doubled again between 1980 and 1990, and reached 2.3 million in 1997. Many new Chinese immigrants came first as college or graduate students, then found professional jobs in nonethnic companies or in governmental agencies, and have settled in ethnically mixed suburbs. The overall image of the Chinese in America is as one of the "model minorities" of successful assimilation.

The contemporary Chinese-American population is tremendously diverse. The immigrants come from very different societies (e.g., the Republic of China, or Taiwan; the People's Republic of China; Hong Kong, the British colony until 1997; Indochina) and speak many dialects, including Taishanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, and others, that are mutually unintelligible even though the written characters and grammar are the same. Some ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia speak none of the Chinese dialects but rather Vietnamese, Tangalo, or English. Among the American-born Chinese, while many are the second generation of the new immigrants, some are third- , fourth- , or even fifth-generation descendants of the earlier immigrants.

Contemporary Chinese-American religions are also diverse. In the traditional Chinatown, formal religious institutions were almost absent. However, huiguan (same-district and clan associations) and tang (triads or secret societies) had some religious elements. Same-district associations often kept shrines to their tutelary deities. Clan associations always performed rituals of venerating common ancestors, real or imagined. Triads commonly held cultic practices. Since the 1950s new Chinese immigrants have brought or joined a variety of religions. Generally speaking, Christianity has become the most practiced institutional religion, with Buddhism the second; traditional Chinese folk religions have revived since the late 1970s, but various sectarian or cultic traditions, such as Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses, have attracted few Chinese followers.

Chinese Folk Religion

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants brought along their gods and established many temples, which were commonly referred to as joss houses. The word joss is a corruption of the Portugese word deos, meaning "god." A joss house is thus a house of gods, which are often combinatively taken from Buddhism, Taoism, and local cultic deities. A joss house is primarily for individual rituals and devotions, not for adhering to a set of defined dogmas. The first two joss houses were believed to be the Kong Chow Temple and the T'ien Hou Temple, built in the early 1850s in San Francisco. The principal deity in the Kong Chow Temple was Guan Gong (Kuan Kung), and the T'ien Hou was the temple for the Queen of Heaven (Tian Hou, or T'ien Hou). In the second half of the nineteenth century, hundreds of joss houses were built in America, but most were abandoned soon after (Wells 1962).

Since the late 1970s the traditional Chinese folk religion has been revived, mostly by ethnic Chinese who are refugees from Vietnam. From Los Angeles to New York, from Washington, D.C., to Houston, many temples have been built in Chinatowns or suburbs. In Houston, for example, Chinese from Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) built three temples with magnificent Chinese-style architecture in the 1990s: Tien Hou, Teo Chew, and Guan Di. The Tien Hou Temple worships the Queen of Heaven along with Taoist deities and some other gods. Tian Hou (Heavenly Queen) is a popular goddess in the coastal provinces of China and among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. This sea goddess is believed to have the power to protect fishermen and sailors, to heal, and to answer all kinds of prayers. The Teo Chew Temple worships a major god named Bentougong, along with various Buddhist and Taoist deities. Bentougong is the tutelary god in Chao Zhou (Teo Chew) district of Guangdong Province. The newest Guan Di Temple is dedicated to worshiping Guan Di, a historical figure of the third century, who was praised as symbolizing loyalty and righteousness and deified as the god of wealth. A statue of Confucius stands among the gods as well.

Festival celebrations in these temples are based on the Chinese traditional calendar system, although adjustment to a weekend schedule is often made. Important gatherings include the Chinese New Year, the Qingming, and the birthdays of Tian Hou, Guan Di, Guan Yin (Kuan Yin), buddhas, and other gods. Buddhist sutras and Taoist scriptures sometimes can be found in these temples. They often have a weekend Chinese school in which children are taught the Chinese language, values, cultural customs, and martial arts.

Besides these temples, some Chinese maintain tablets of ancestors and altars of gods at home, observe fengshui, consult fortune tellers, conduct divination, and practice qigong, most of which may be regarded as part of the traditional Chinese folk religion. Fengshui is a type of astrology using the concepts of yin, yang, five elements, eight gua, and stars to maximize harmony and minimize conflicts of a person with his or her surrounding environment. Practitioners consult fengshui masters in choosing the location of their houses and graveyards, decorating rooms, and selecting the best time for doing certain things, such as opening a store. In the past few decades, fengshui has spread among many non-Chinese people. Qigong is a type of still or moving meditation for the purpose of physical health, psychological peace, and spiritual enrichment. In the last two decades, hundreds of qi-gong schools have emerged throughout China, and a few qigong masters have adventured into North America. In the United States, two qigong schools have gained large numbers of practitioners, including some Caucasians. One is Yan Xin Qigong; the other is Falun Gong or Falun Dafa. It is interesting that the spread of fengshui, qigong, and other traditional Chinese folk religious practices has extensively involved the latest technology—the Internet.


Chinese Buddhism, in more organized and less combinative forms, appeared in America only along with the coming of post–World War II immigrants. In the 1950s some Chinese Buddhist immigrants organized to sponsor monks and nuns from Asia to lead them. The first to do so was the Chinese Buddhist Association of Hawaii, which was formed in 1953; it sponsored a monk from Hong Kong in 1956 and constructed the Hsu Yun Temple in 1965. In San Francisco, an important group was the Sino-American Buddhist Association, which was organized in 1959; it sponsored a monk from Hong Kong in 1962, built the Gold Mountain Temple in 1970, and since then has established several branch temples on the West Coast. In New York, the first Chinese Buddhist group was the Eastern States Buddhist Association, which was started in 1962 and completed the Mahayana Temple in 1971. This association has sponsored more than a dozen monks and nuns from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Burma, and mainland China; most of them then left to start up their own groups in New York or other places. Later more monks and nuns came to gather their own followers and establish their own temples. In the late 1970s Buddha Light Mountain Sect, under Hsing Yun, came and constructed the grandiose Hsi Lai Temple near Los Angeles, the largest and best-known Chinese temple in America (Lin 1996). In the mid-1980s, a Taiwanese immigrant, Lu Shengyan, came to Seattle, Washington, and founded his True Buddha Sect, which has established more than a dozen branch temples in several metropolises in North America.

By the end of the 1990s, there were about 120 to 150 Chinese Buddhist groups (temples, associations, and centers) in the United States. Most of them were concentrated in the largest metropolitan areas—New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston. These Chinese Buddhist groups tend to be organizationally independent; practice a combination of Pure Land, Chan, Tian Tai, and other Chinese Buddhist traditions; and primarily serve Chinese immigrants. Some non-Chinese, especial Caucasians, have been drawn into a few well-established Chinese temples under renowned monks. Overall, most of the regular participants in temple activities are middle-aged and old immigrants, with a clear majority of women.


The history of Chinese Christianity in America is almost as long as that of Chinese immigration. However, Christianity was not a traditional Chinese religion. Unlike European immigrants, who transplanted their Protestantism and Catholicism to the New World, earlier Chinese Christian churches were missions started by American denominations. The first such church was established in San Francisco in 1853 with the support of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. By 1892 eleven denominations established 10 Chinese churches (including three in Canada), 10 Chinese Christian associations, and 271 Chinese Sunday schools and missions in thirty-one states. Up to the 1950s the mission churches had only very limited success in converting the Chinese.

Since the 1950s the number of Chinese churches has rapidly increased, and it had reached eight hundred in the mid-1990s. Most of the new Chinese churches were founded by Chinese immigrants themselves, and many evolved from Bible study groups on university campuses. These Chinese-American churches have tended to be theologically conservative and organizationally independent. About half of Chinese churches have no denominational affiliation; the denominations most attractive to Chinese Christians are conservative in theology and less centralized in organization, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Christian and Missionary Alliance. In many Chinese churches, members are from widely divergent backgrounds, and a majority of immigrant members are adult converts from non-Christian family backgrounds. Meanwhile, these churches also selectively preserve Chinese traditional values, rituals, and symbols. Many churches have a Chinese school to teach the Chinese language and traditional Chinese values that are perceived as compatible with their Christian beliefs, including respecting parents, thrift, and strict moral codes regarding smoking and sexuality.

In the last decade or so, some American-born Chinese have joined other Asian-American Christians to establish Asian-American churches in metropolitan areas, especially on the West Coast. These churches are monolingual (English), and consciously target descendants of various Asian immigrants, especially East Asians.

See alsoBuddhism; Confucianism; Feng Shui; Taoism.


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Pang, Wing Ning. "The Chinese American Ministry." In Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, 1995, edited by Kenneth B. Bedell, pp. 10–18. 1995.

Wells, Mariann Kaye. "Chinese Temples in California." M.A. thesis, University of California, 1962.

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Yang, Fenggang. "Tenacious Unity in a Contentious Community: Cultural and Religious Dynamics in a Chinese Christian Church." In Gatherings in Diaspora: Religious Communities and the New Immigration, edited by R. Stephen Warner and Judith G. Wittner, pp. 333–361. 1998.

Fenggang Yang