Religion in China

Population and ethnography

The Han Chinese, that is, the ethnic Chinese, make up about 95 percent of China’s population, while the majority of the rest belong to a total of 55 officially recognized national minorities. The largest groups are zhuang, manchu, hui, miao and Uyghurs. There are a number of other minor ethnic and linguistic minority groups (for example, Tuvins and Dolans in Xinjiang and Kammu and Cukong in Yunnan) that are included in the official categories or counted as “indeterminate people”. Some of them are even officially counted as male people, that is, the majority population.

At the 1964 census, no less than 183 ethnic groups were registered, which shows that there is a great diversity in the official categories. Some groups (such as Manchu and Hui) differ very little in lifestyle and culture from the majority population, while others express a wide variety of languages and ways of life that still characterize many of China’s border provinces. Xinjiang and Yunnan in particular are characterized by a great cultural diversity.

In the past, minorities sometimes formed their own kingdoms, which undermined parts of the Middle Kingdom. So did Mongols, Manchus and Tibetans. Emperors of different dynasties depended on the people at the borders. Sometimes they controlled them by military force, sometimes by bestowing on one of the emperor’s princesses as a reminder to the foreign ruler.

The founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 created the autonomous territories of the minorities. Autonomy includes rules for business, economics and cultural affairs and the right to send representatives to the National Congress. With the help of anthropologists, a number of minorities were also officially recognized as the nationalities of the country and with fixed designations used as ethnic categories in the census. At present, they are 56 including him, but several groups have applied for recognition on various occasions.

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According to the laws and regulations of 1982, national minorities enjoy certain privileges. Their language is recognized and used in some cases in school. Sometimes there are also local-language newspapers. The large minorities, such as Mongols, Tibetans and Uyghurs, have an extensive culture, history and tradition of their own. For the history of several minority minorities, but also for support for their own character, there are minority institutes in many places. The regime has also supported the local languages ​​and educates cadres of teachers and administrative officials among the minority people.

People in China

Although the ethnic minorities make up only 9 percent of the entire population of China, they traditionally live in rural areas that represent just over 64 percent of the country’s territory, ie. in almost all border areas. The male population is the majority in all provinces except in the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. The rule on child restraint is applied less strictly for minority people than for the Chinese; From 1978 to 2000, the minority population increased from 5.8 to 8.4 percent. The increase in the number of minority peoples, however, is not necessarily related only to natural population growth, but also, as in the case of manchu, with an increasing number of different reasons registering as belonging to a national minority.

A growing problem is the rapid migration of male Chinese into the minority regions, for example to Tibet and Xinjiang (38 percent Chinese at the 2000 census, compared with 6 percent in 1953), while unemployment is high among the domestic minorities. A large part of the minorities also live in deep poverty despite extensive economic growth in the country.

There are five autonomous regions with provincial status: Inner Mongolia for the Mongols, Guangxi for zhuang, Xinjiang for the Turkish-speaking Uighurs, Ningxia for hui and Tibet for the Tibetans. In theory, the autonomous regions are governed independently, but in practice politics is strictly centrally directed, especially in conflict areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang. Conflicts in these areas continued during the 1990s and 2000s.


According to thesciencetutor, China had close to 600 million residents, high birth and death rates, and thus a moderate population growth rate. The average life expectancy should have been about 35 years. During the 1950s, mortality dropped rapidly, while the birth rate increased slightly. As the times improved, the birth rate rose to higher levels than ever.

In the early 1970s, birth control was introduced. This reduced the rate of population growth dramatically: from 2.6 percent in 1966-72 to 1.6 percent in 1972-80. Around 1980, the annual population increase was 1.2 percent. The reliability of the numbers can be questioned, but the decline was unprecedented in the world. However, demographic studies in China around 1980 showed that growth would increase significantly in the following years, when the large numbers of children from the mid-1960s would rise to a family-forming age.

In the early 1980s, the so-called responsibility system was implemented. With regard to family planning, this meant that one child per family was set as the norm. By means of financial penalties, among other things, the norm would be implemented. With this stricter population policy, the population would stabilize around 1,200 million at the beginning of the 21st century. The one-child policy was largely enforced in larger cities, but had less impact in rural areas. The 1980s were a time of reform and liberalization, and gradually the regime lost control of childbirth in the country. A new population forecast in 1987 predicted a larger increase in the population in the 2000s, and in 1989-90 the population policy was applied more strictly again, in line with the state taking a stronger grip on the country’s leadership.

Since then, the rules have been relaxed again, partly as a result of new long-term forecasts, and partly as a reflection of the degree of success with the policy pursued and thus as a consequence of the actual behavior of the population. In 2015, the state announced that it should depart from the one-child rule and allow Chinese couples to have two children. However, the exact form of the population policy is determined at the provincial level, and it therefore differs somewhat between different parts of the country. The one-child rule was stricter in the cities, while two children were accepted earlier in the countryside. In minority areas, families have always been larger, and thus the minority’s share of the total population has increased in recent years. The latest long-term forecast indicates that the population will reach its maximum just before 2050, and then slowly decline.

The birth and death rates in 2019 were 11 and 7 per thousand respectively, and the annual natural population increase was thus 0.4 percent. The one-child policy in combination with fetal diagnosis/abortion and the reluctance to report newborn girls has meant that there are greater differences between the number of boys and girls born in China than in other countries. Infant mortality in 2019 was estimated at 10 per 1,000 live births. The average life expectancy was then 75 years for men and 79 years for women.


According to Countryaah data, China’s population is very unevenly distributed. About 15 percent of the country’s surface is 90 percent of the population, and it is highly concentrated in the eastern part of the country. Today’s population distribution reflects the traditional settlement with its dependence on flat land and access to water for rice cultivation in southern and central China. The highest population density, more than 2,000 residents per km2, is found in Chang Jiang’s lower valley. Parts of Sichuan and Guangdong as well as southern North China Plain are also high density.

In 2008, China had about 175 cities with more than one million residents, most of them on or near the east coast. The demarcation of a city is administrative, and a million town encompasses both the city itself and the nearest densely populated area. Eighteen cities had more than three million residents, and about 60 percent of the population lived in cities. The proportion of urban residents is increasing every year.

Until the latter part of the 1980s, the state had a very strict control over the movements, and the growth of cities was therefore not as fast as in other populous states in the third world. But already, the settlement pattern began to change on a local scale as tens of thousands of service and industrial species grew in the countryside. The liberalization of China’s economy has since brought very large flows of migrants, especially to the economically expansive coastal cities of the east and south-east. It is mainly young people who for a number of years take low-wage jobs in the export industry. As a guest worker, they usually have tough working conditions. They send the income to children, parents and relatives in the poor hometowns. In 2009, these guest workers (migrant workers) are expected to be at least 125 million, but since they are not usually registered as new urban residents, the population data is uncertain. (See alsoSocial conditions.) They only have a temporary residence permit, and it is renewed only for those who have permanent work and permanent housing. When times get worse, it is only those who become unemployed. Officially, they have been designated as “floating population”.

Cities with more than 2 million residents 2010

Residents 2010
Shanghai 20.3
Beijing 16.4
Guangzhou * 10.6
Shenzhen * 10.4
Tianjin 9.3
Wuhan * 7.5
Dongguan 7.3
Foshan * 6.8
Chengdu * 6.3
Chongqing * 6.3
Nanjing * 5.8
Shenyang 5.7
Xian * 5.2
Hangzhou * 5.2
Harbin * 4.6
Suzhou * 4.1
Qingdao * 4.0
Dalian 3.9
Zhengzhou 3.7
Shantou * 3.6
Jinan 3.5
Changchun 3.4
Kunming * 3.2
Changsha * 3.4
Taiyuan 3.2
Xiamen 3.1
Hefei 3.1
Ür邦mqi * 2.8
Fuzhou 2.8
Shijiazhuang 2.8
Wuxi 2.8
Zhongshan 2.7
Wenzhou 2.7
Nanning * 2.7
Ningbo * 2.6
Guiyang 2.5
Lanzhou 2.4
Zibo 2.3
Changzhou * 2.3
Nanchang 2.2
Xuzhou * 2.2
Tangshan * 2.1

* Urban agglomerations.

Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China.


The Chinese language is strongly dominant and is spoken by about 95% of the population. In addition, there are approximately 60 million speakers of over 250 minority languages belonging to eight different language families. These speakers are largely bilingual, and many of them use Chinese as a written language.

Altaic languages are spoken by about 14 million in northern China; the most important are Mongolian (about 3 million) in Inner Mongolia and Uighur (about 8 million) in Xinjiang. Korean, considered by many scholars in the Altaic languages, is spoken by 2 million in Jilin at the border with Korea. In Pamir in western China, two languages from the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family are spoken by 30,000 people. Sinotibetan languages, closely related to Chinese, are spoken by about 15 million. These include Tibetan (4 million) in Tibet and Qinghai and a large number of languages in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, including different ice languages (about 6 million).

The largest group of minority languages in China are the Kadais languages ​​(related to the main language Thai in Thailand), spoken by 22 million, mainly in Guangxi, Guizhou and Yunnan. Kadais languages include the related zhuang (15 million) and bouyei (2.6 million) and comb (1.5 million). A smaller family of languages is the hmong-community language with 7 million speakers spread across mainly Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan and Guangxi. The Austro-Asian language family is represented by a dozen languages in Yunnan with 500,000 speakers.


A variety of forms of religion have existed in China through the ages, in part indigenous religions such as Chinese people’s religion, Confucianism and Daoism, and Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Buddhism reached China in the first century AD In the 600s, Christianity and Islam (and also Manichaism and Judaism) came. See also Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Daoism.

The ancient Chinese religion, as we know it through texts from the 1100-500 BC, contained ancestral cult, belief in gods and nature spirits, and reliance on oracles and shamanistic rites. During the Shang dynasty, shamanism was the main form of religion, and the shamans, dominated by women (shamans, Chinese wu), had the most important task of provoking rain, which was done through ecstatic dancing and persistent drumming. The nature spirits were subordinate to Shangdi (‘the Supreme Ruler’). Sacrifices to them took place outdoors, while the sacrifices of the ancestral spirits were performed in special temples. A dominant notion was that the universe was dominated by two great forces, yin and yang, and that man had two souls, an animal life force soul, po, and an intellect soul, female. Po was usually thought to arise at conception, she at birth. At death, po stayed in the body but thinned away as the body weathered. She, on the other hand, was liberated and thought to become a gui (‘soul’), who descended to the Yellow Sources, a kind of Hades in the underground. The old religion with its ancestral faith is still alive in the folk religion.

Confucianism manifests itself primarily through the worship of Confucius and through li (‘the orderly principle’), ie. the normal norm, rites and ceremonies. In the fully developed cult, the rites play a crucial role. According to Confucius, they only make sense when they are performed with devotion and the right mind.

Daoism is primarily based on revelations and messianism. One of the goals of the Daoists is to achieve immortality or at least a long life by various means. Politically, Daoism has been of great importance. Daoist – often secret – sects have participated in many uprisings throughout China’s history. The red eyebrows overthrew Wang Mang 23 AD, the yellow turbans were conquering all of China in 184 AD, and the Boxer rebellion was also led by Daoists.

Buddhism in its Mahayana form was the first non-Chinese religion to make a lasting impression on the Chinese people and its culture. It adapted to Chinese conditions and filled – initially with the help of Daoist terminology – a void in Chinese religion, especially in relation to life after death. During the Tang Dynasty, many Buddhist schools developed; best known in the west is chan. There were about 100 million Buddhists in China (1993).

Chinese folk religion is a syncretism of ancestral cult, Daoism and Buddhism. This also includes shamanism. The main task of modern shamans is to cure diseases, which is done through the expulsion of evil spirits. The power of the spirits, especially those of the nature spirits (such as the mountains and rivers), plays an important role even in the form of divination art called geomanti (of Greek ge, -, form of composition of ‘earth’, and manteiʹa ‘divination’; Chinese feng shui really ‘wind and water’). Geomantine is used especially in the choice of burial ground and in house construction. The worship of the Bodhisattva Guanyin in her capacity as a “child giver” is the most popular cult. Towards the end of the 1990s, the movement hadFalun Gong great success. It was banned by the Chinese government in the summer of 1999.

Islam came to China, partly by sea to Guangzhou (Canton) and partly by land (via the Silk Road) to the autonomous area of Xinjiang (Sinkiang). Characteristic of Islam until about 1300 was that it existed in isolated villages with a mosque as its center. A new wave of Islam brought Sufism to northwestern China in the late 17th century. Then an effective network was built between Muslim villages throughout China. Another wave came in the 20th century, when China opened up to the west. Officially, there are ten ethnic minority groups who profess Islam; hui is the largest with about 9 million (1993). Constant conflicts between Muslim minorities and the Han Chinese have caused bloody riots until today, mainly in the autonomous area of ​​Xinjiang. The number of Muslims is about 20 million (1993).

Christianity reached China 635 in its East Syrian form, Nestorianism. The preserved stone from Xi’an, which describes the earliest history of Christianity in China, was erected in 781. Christianity flourished until 845, when the church in China was almost completely wiped out. In the 13th century, Franciscans came, in the beginning of the 16th century, Jesuits. Protestant mission came in the 19th century. The Taiping movement was a political-religious movement inspired by Christianity.

During the communist regime, a break with the Vatican took place in the 1950s, and a “patriotic” Catholic church was formed with no connection to Rome.

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During the Cultural Revolution, which sought to crush all organized religious practices, the anti-religious stance sharpened sharply, and the temples, mosques and churches of the various religions were closed. Since 1982 religious freedom has existed – at least formally, but the religious communities must be free from “foreign domination”. The Protestant communities have joined forces in the Christian Council of China. The churches grew strongly in the 1980s. There are officially about 13 million Protestants and 4 million Catholics (1999), but the total number of Christians is unknown.

China Religion