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Religions and Social Customs


Religious Belief

China is a country with great diversity of religions, with over 100 million followers of the various faiths. The main religions are Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, China’s indigenous Taoism, along with Shamanism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Naxi people’s Dongba religion. The Hui, Uygur, Kazak, Kirgiz, Tatar, Ozbek, Tajik, Dongxiang, Salar and Bonan peoples adhere to Islam; the Tibetan, Mongolian, Lhoba, Moinba, Tu and Yugur, to Tibetan Buddhism, and the Dai, Blang and Deang to Theravada Buddhism. Quite a few Miao, Yao and Yi are Christians. Religious Han Chinese tend to practice Buddhism, Christianity or Taoism.

Buddhism was introduced to China from India approximately in the first century A.D., becoming increasingly popular after the fourth century. Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism as it is sometimes called, is found primarily in Tibet and Inner Mongolia. Now China has more than 13,000 Buddhist temples, with about 200,000 monks and nuns.

Islam probably first reached China in the mid-seventh century. During the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, Arab and Persian merchants of the Islamic faith came overland through Central Asia to northwest China and by sea to the coastal cities in southeastern China, bringing with them the Islamic faith. The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) witnessed the zenith of prosperity of Islam. Now China has more than 30,000 mosques and more than 40,000 imams and ahungs.

Christianity reached China several times after the seventh century, and was introduced to the country on a large scale after the Opium War of 1840. Now there are about four million Catholic believers, 4,000 clergy and more than 4,600 churches and meeting places in China.

Protestantism was introduced to China in the early 19th century, and spread widely after the Opium War. Now China has about 10 million Protestant believers, 18,000 clergy, and more than 12,000 churches and 25,000 other centers of worship.

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Social Customs

During the long course of historical development, China’s different peoples have developed individual customs regarding food, clothing and housing, in response to their own particular environments, social conditions and level of economic development. Generally, the Han people take rice and noodles as their staple diet (people in the south prefer rice while those in the north prefer noodles), love to eat vegetables, beans, meat, fish and eggs, and pay particular attention to cooking techniques. Mongolians often eat beef and mutton, and drink tea with milk. Tibetans take tsampa (roasted highland barley flour) as their staple food, and drink buttered tea, and highland barley wine, but Tibetan herdsmen mainly eat beef and mutton. The Uygurs, Kazaks, and Ozbeks enjoy roast mutton kebabs, unleavened bread and rice. Koreans like sticky rice cakes, cold noodles and kimchi (hot pickled vegetables). The Li, Jing, Dai, Blang and Hani all chew betel nuts.

The typical costume of Manchu women used to be the qipao (a close-fitting dress with high neck and slit skirt). Mongolians wear their traditional robes and riding boots. Tibetans love to wear Tibetan robes, waistbands and boots. Koreans are known for their boat-shaped shoes. Uygurs wear diamond-shaped embroidered skullcaps. Yi, Miao and Yao women wear pleated skirts, and are often bedecked with gold or silver ornaments.

Courtyard-type dwellings were traditionally the rule in Han areas. Most minority herdsmen living in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Qinghai and Gansu live in yurts. The Dais, Zhuangs and Bouyeis in southern China often live in ganlan (multiple-storied houses raised on stilts).

In China, birthdays are not commonly celebrated, although city dwellers do so more frequently than their country cousins, and children and old people more than young and middle-aged people. No special ceremony is occasioned by a birthday. Many people like to eat “longevity noodles,” symbols of long life inspired by the noodle’s shape. Nowadays, many city dwellers choose to eat Western-style birthday cakes instead of noodles. According to the Marriage Law, a man may legally marry at age 22 and a woman at 20, by acquiring a marriage license issued by a marriage registration office. Thus, a wedding ceremony is not a necessary legal procedure for marriage registration, but only a way for relatives and friends to congratulate the bride and groom. The newlyweds will offer “wedding candies” to their colleagues and friends. In return, their colleagues and friends will present the newlyweds with gifts.

Funeral ceremonies in China are very simple. Usually, a memorial meeting is held to pay last respects to the deceased and allow the living to express their grief. Cremation is the rule in cities, and interment in rural areas. White is the traditional color of mourning, but city people nowadays usually wear black gauze armbands to show their bereavement.

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Legal holidays in China are New Year (January 1st), a national one-day holiday; Spring Festival (New Year by the lunar calendar), a national three-day holiday; International Working Women’s Day (March 8th); Tree Planting Day (March 12th); International Labor Day (May 1st), a national one-day holiday; Chinese Youth Festival (May 4th); International Children’s Day (June 1st); Anniversary of the Founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (August 1st); Teacher’s Day (September 10th); and National Day (October 1st), a national two-day holiday.

China’s major traditional festivals include the Spring Festival, the Lantern Festival, Pure Brightness Day, the Dragon Boat Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Double Ninth Festival. Ethnic minorities have also retained their own traditional festivals, including the Water Sprinkling Festival of the Dai people, the Nadam Fair of the Mongolian people, the Torch Festival of the Yi people, the Danu (Never Forget the Past) Festival of the Yao people, the Third Month Fair of the Bai people, the Antiphonal Singing Day of the Zhuang people, the Tibetan New Year and Onghor (Expecting a Good Harvest) Festival of the Tibetan people, and the Jumping Flower Festival of the Miao people.

Spring Festival Each year, when winter is at its end and spring around the corner, people throughout China enthusiastically celebrate the first traditional holiday of the year, the Spring Festival. In the past, when the Chinese people used the lunar calendar, the Spring Festival was known as the “New Year.” It falls on the first day of the first lunar month, the beginning of a new year. After the Revolution of 1911, China adopted the Gregorian calendar. To distinguish the lunar New Year from the New Year by the Gregorian calendar, the lunar New Year was called the Spring Festival (which generally falls between the last 10-day period of January and mid-February). The evening before the Spring Festival, the lunar New Year’s Eve, is an important time for family reunions. The whole family gets together for a sumptuous dinner, followed by an evening of pleasant talk or games. Some families stay up all night, “seeing the year out.” The next morning, people pay New Year calls on relatives and friends, wishing each other good luck. During the Spring Festival, various traditional recreational activities are enjoyed in many parts of China, notably lion dances, dragon lantern dances, land-boat rowing and stilt-walking.

Lantern Festival The Lantern Festival falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month, the night of the first full moon after the Spring Festival. Traditionally, people eat sweet dumplings during this festival. Sweet dumplings, round balls of glutinous rice flour with sugar filling, symbolize reunion. During the festival people display multicolored lanterns on the streets and courtyards, and stroll around admiring them at night, hence the name “Lantern Festival.” Some places also hold evening parties for people to guess riddles written on lanterns.

Pure Brightness Day Pure Brightness Day falls around April 5th every year. Traditionally, this is an occasion for people to offer sacrifices to their ancestors. In recent years, many people have also been going to the tombs of the revolutionary martyrs to pay their respects. At this time of year the weather has begun to turn warm, and the earth is once again covered with green. People love to go to the outskirts of cities to walk on the grass, fly kites and appreciate the beauty of spring. That is why Pure Brightness Day is sometimes also called “Walking amid Greenery Day.”

Mid-Autumn Festival The Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which comes right in the middle of autumn, hence its name. In ancient times, people would offer elaborate cakes as sacrifices to the Moon Goddess on this day. After the ceremony, the family would enjoy sitting together to eat the pastries. The festival came to symbolize family reunion, and the custom has been passed down to today. On this mid-autumn night the full moon is especially bright. The whole family sit together eating moon cakes while admiring the moon in its perfect splendor.

The Double Ninth Festival This festival falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. According to Chinese tradition, the ninth day is an auspicious day; and the ninth day of the ninth lunar month is the most auspicious day. On this day, the Chinese people customarily ascend a hill, eat cakes, drink wine and admire chrysanthemums. Since the late 1980s, the Double Ninth Festival has become a festival for old people. Various kinds of activities to show respect and concern for the elderly are held throughout the country; old people are also invited to attend celebration meetings and watch theatrical performances.

Dragon Boat Festival It is generally believed that this festival originated to honor the memory of the patriotic poet Qu Yuan, who lived in the State of Chu during the Warring States Period. In despair at not being able to halt the decline of his country, he drowned himself in the Miluo River in modern Hunan Province on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month after the capital of Chu fell to the State of Qin in 278 B.C. Legend has it that after Qu Yuan’s death people living on the banks of the river went out in their boats to try to find the corpse. Every year thereafter, on this day people would row their boats out onto their local river, throwing sections of bamboo filled with rice into the water as an offering to him. Today, the memory of Qu Yuan lives on, zongzi (pyramid-shaped dumplings made by wrapping glutinous rice in bamboo leaves) remains the traditional food and dragon-boat races are held.

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  Information provided by China National Tourism Administration.


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