The Differences between Taoism, Buddhism and Shenism (“Chinese Folk Belief”) | Core Spirit
March 29

The Differences between Taoism, Buddhism and Shenism (“Chinese Folk Belief”)

Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 6 minutes

Chinese Traditional Religions

With around 400 million adherents Chinese folk religion is the third major religion in the world comprising about 6% of world population. In China, more than 30% of the population adheres to Shenism or Taoism. In Taiwan, Shenism is highly institutionalised and adhered to by 33% of the population. In Singapore about 8.5% of the total population is Taoist, and 10% of the Chinese Singaporeans identify as Taoists. In Malaysia, 0.6% of Chinese Malaysians are Shenists-Taoists, corresponding to 3% of the whole country population. In Indonesia, Taosu Agung Kusumo, leader of the Majelis Argama Tao Indonesia claims there are 5 million Taoist followers in the country as at 2009.

Chinese folk religion retains traces of some of ancestral primal religious belief systems such as animism and shamanism, which include the veneration of (and communication with) the Sun, the Moon, the Earth, the Heaven and various stars, as well as communication with animals. It has been practiced by the Chinese people for thousands of years, and since the start of the Common Era alongside Buddhism, Taoism and various other religions.

Rituals, devotional worship, myths, sacred re-enactment, festivals and various other practices associated with different folk gods and goddesses form an important part of Chinese culture today. The veneration of secondary gods does not conflict with an individual’s chosen religion, but is accepted as a complementary adjunct, particularly to Taoism.

Some mythical figures in folk culture have been integrated into Chinese Buddhism, as in the case of Miao Shan. She is generally thought to have influenced the beliefs about the Buddhist bodhisattva Guanyin. This bodhisattva originally was based upon the Indian counterpart Avalokiteshvara. Androgynous inIndia, this bodhisattva over centuries became a female figure inChina andJapan. Guanyin is one of the most popular bodishisattvas to which people pray.

There are many free folk religion texts such as Journeys to the Underworld distributed in temples, or sold in gods, material or vegetarian shops. Temples for Shenist worship are different from Taoist temples and Buddhist monasteries, being administered by local managers associations and worship communities.

Shenist temples can be distinguished into miao (庙), called “joss houses”, “deity houses” or simply “temples” in English, and ci (祠), called “ancestral halls” or simply “temples” in English. Both the terms actually mean “temple” in Chinese, and they’ve been used interchangeably many times. However miao is the general Chinese term for “temple” understood as “place of worship”, and can be used for places of worship of any religion. In Chinese folk religion it is mostly associated to temples which enshrine nature gods and patron gods. Instead ci is the specific term for temples enshrining ancestry gods, human beigns apotheosized as gods.

“Joss” is a corrupted version of the Portuguese word for “god”, deus. “Joss house” was in common use in English in western North America during frontier times, when joss houses were a common feature of Chinatowns. The name “joss house” describes the environment of worship. Joss sticks, a kind of incense, are burned inside and outside of the house.

Shenist temples are distinct from Taoist Temples (观 guan or 道观 daoguan) and Buddhist Monasteries (寺 si) in that they are established and administered by local managers, associations and worship communities; only few or none priests stay in folk temples. Shenist temples are usually small, very colourful (by contrast with Taoist temples which by tradition should be black and white in color, and Buddhist temples which are characterised by a prevalence of yellow and red tones), and decorated with traditional figures on their roofs (dragons and deities), although some evolve into significant structures. Other terms associated to templar structures of Shenism and other religions in China are 宫 gong (“palace”), often used for large temples (even if mostly Taoist) built by imperial officials, and 院 yuan, a general term for “sanctuary”, “shrine”.

Chinese folk religion

(…) The ”’Chinese folk religion”’ or ”’Chinese traditional religion”’ ( or 中国民间宗教 or 中国民间信仰 / Zhōngguó mínjiān zōngjiào or Zhōngguó mínjiān xìnyăng), sometimes called ”’Shenism”’ (pinyin: ”Shénjiào”, 神教).

The term ”’Shenism”’ (神教, ”Shénjiào”) was first used in 1955 by anthropologist Allan J. A. Elliott, in his work ”Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore”.

During the history of China it was named ”’Shendao”’ (神道, ”Shéndào”, the “way of the gods”), apparently since the time of the spread of Buddhism to the area in the Han period (206 BCE–220 CE), in order to distinguish it from the new religion. The term was subsequently adopted in Japan as ”Shindo”, later ”Shinto”, with the same purpose of identification of the Japanese indigenous religion. The oldest recorded usage of ”Shindo” is from the second half of the 6th century. is the collection of grassroots ethnic religious+ traditions of the Han Chinese+, or the indigenous religion of China+.Lizhu, Na. 2013. p. 4. Chinese folk religion primarily consists in the worship of the ”shen” (神 “gods”, “spirits”, “awarenesses”, “consciousnesses”, “archetypes”; literally “expressions”, the energies that generate things and make them thrive) which can be nature deities, city deities or tutelary deities of other human agglomerations, national deities, cultural+ hero+es and demigods, ancestors and progenitors, deities of the kinship. Holy narratives regarding some of these gods are codified into the body of Chinese mythology. Another name of this complex of religions is ”’Chinese Universism”’, especially referring to its intrinsic metaphysical perspective.

The Chinese folk religion has a variety of sources, localised worship forms, ritual and philosophical traditions. Among the ritual traditions, notable examples includes Wuism and Nuoism. Chinese folk religion is sometimes categorized inadequately as “Taoism”, since over the centuries institutional Taoism has been assimilating or administering local religions. Zhengyi Taoism+ is especially intertwined with local cults, with Zhengyi ”daoshi” often performing rituals for local temples and communities. Faism, the tradition of the ”fashi” (“masters of rites”), inhabits the boundary between Taoism and folk religion. Confucianism advocates worship of gods and ancestors through proper rites, which have an ethical importance. Taoism in its various currents, either comprehended or not within the Chinese folk religion, has some of its origins from Wuism.Libbrecht, 2007. p. 43. Chinese religion mirrors the social landscape, and takes on different shades for different people.Wolf, Arthur P. “Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors.” ”Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society.” Ed. Arthur O. Wolf. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974. pp. 131-182. (…)

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng-en

A mix of Buddhist, Taoist and Shenist dieties appear in the the “Journey to the West” (16th century):

(…) The Jade Emperor then ordered all the gods of the Department of Thunder to split up and invite the Three Pure Ones, the Four Emperors, the Five Ancients, the Six Superintendents, the Seven Main Stars, the Eight Points of the Compass, the Nine Bright Shiners, the Ten Chiefs, the Thousand Immortals, and the Ten Thousand Sages to a banquet to thank the Buddha for his mercy. Then he ordered the Four Great Heavenly Teachers and the Nine Heavenly Maidens to open the golden gates of the jade capital, and Palace of the Great Mystery, and the Tong Yang Jade Palace, invite the Tathagata to take his seat on the Throne of the Seven Precious Things, arrange the places for all the different groups of guests, and set out the dragon liver, phoenix bone−marrow, jade liquor, and magic peaches. (…)

Shenism in the 21st Century

Offerings made to the ancestors including modern computer equipment at the Chinese Qingming Festival. It is the Shenist equivalent of the Christian All Souls’ Day (Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed / Feast of All Souls).

by Michael Devitt For Massage Today