Chinese Studies Folk Religion in Contemporary China
Fenggang Yang, Anning Hu
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0153

Introduction and General Overviews

Folk religion has always been an indispensable component in the Chinese religious landscape; however, it is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon, but rather common in all societies. Some scholars of Chinese religion have often referred to it as “popular religion.” We prefer to use “folk religion,” as it is in contrast to “world religions” or “institutionalized religions,” whereas “popular religion” in Western contexts may be in contrast to the “official religion” of certain Christian churches. A consensus definition of folk religion is almost impossible, and what has been studied as Chinese folk religion or popular religion is extremely diverse. Typical practices and beliefs of folk religion include feng shui watching, fortune telling, and ancestor worship, to name a few. In general, various beliefs, practices, and social interactions may be differentiated into three broad types of folk religion: communal, sectarian, and individual. Different types of folk religion may have different social functions and different trajectories of change in the modernization process. In the modern era, practices and beliefs pertaining to folk religion have been criticized for its antagonism with modernity. Later under Communist rule since 1949, folk religion has been suppressed as fengjian mixin (feudalist superstitions) and fandong huidaomen (reactionary sects and cults). However, along with the economic and social reforms since the late 1970s, folk religion has revived throughout China, even though the proportions of folk religious believers and practitioners remain substantially smaller than in Taiwan. The revivals of various folk religions in various parts of China have attracted attention from scholars in different disciplines and fields, including but not limited to religious studies, sociology, anthropology, political science, Asian studies, and cultural analysis. Only in recent years have there been quantitative studies of various folk religious beliefs and practices. This article assembles major studies that have a common focus on Chinese folk religion, providing readers with an overview of the current state of this field. It is not our intent to exhaustively include all studies, which, in light of the versatile practices and beliefs of Chinese folk religion, is almost impossible. Instead, we set our priority on timeliness, selecting and reviewing studies in this article that have implications for the contemporary conditions of Chinese folk religion.


In addition to monographs, empirical research on Chinese folk religion is increasingly published in academic journals. In this section, several major English and Chinese journals are introduced. Among those journals, Journal of Chinese Religions, as well as three Chinese journals (Shijie zongjiao wenhua 世界宗教文化, Shijie zongjiao yanjiu 世界宗教研究, and Zongjiaoxue yanjiu 宗教学研究), gravitates toward the discipline of religious studies, which is a contrast to the four outlets that lean more toward the social-scientific approaches on religions (Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review, Review of Religious Research, and Review of Religion and Chinese Society). In addition to these, Journal of Asian Studies publishes area-study articles, and American Ethnologist focuses on the anthropological approach, both of which welcome studies on themes related to Chinese folk religion.

  • American Ethnologist.

    This is a journal of the American Ethnological Society, the anthropological organization founded in 1842 in the United States. American Ethnologist is a quarterly journal connecting ethnographic research with theoretical insights in the contemporary world.

  • Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

    As the official journal of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion has always been the flagship journal in the field of the social-scientific study of religion, serving as the outlet for state-of-the-art empirical research on Chinese religions.

  • Journal of Asian Studies.

    On behalf of the Association for Asian Studies, the Journal of Asian Studies publishes academic papers on various topics of Asia, including but not limited to history, the arts, social transitions, and philosophy.

  • Journal of Chinese Religions.

    This is an academic outlet established by the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions (SSCR), an international scholarly society with a specific focus on the research of Chinese religion. The Journal of Chinese Religions accepts original studies on all aspects of Chinese religions in all periods.

  • Review of Religion and Chinese Society.

    This is an international peer-reviewed journal that publishes articles and book reviews in both social sciences and humanities disciplines, with a particular focus on the research on Chinese religions.

  • Review of Religious Research.

    As the official journal of the Religious Research Association, Review of Religious Research provides a forum for publication of research that concerns broad research themes, including but not limited to the variations in religious beliefs and practices, the relationship between personal spirituality and institutional religions, religion and family life, etc.

  • Shijie zongjiao wenhua 世界宗教文化.

    English title, Religious Cultures in the World. One of the leading Chinese journals that specializes in religious studies. This journal aims to be a forum for introducing religious knowledge, commenting on religious foci topics, and discussing the development of religious theories.

  • Shijie zongjiao yanjiu 世界宗教研究.

    English title, Studies of World Religions. This is a top religious studies journal in mainland China, with focuses on religious theories, Chinese Buddhism, Chinese Daoism, Chinese Christianity, Chinese Islam, Chinese folk religion, and Confucianism, to name a few.

  • Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review.

    This is the official journal of the Association for the Sociology of Religion and has a focus on empirically grounded sociological studies of religion. From this journal, readers can expect to find studies of Chinese religions that bear theoretical implications.

  • Zongjiaoxue yanjiu 宗教学研究.

    English title, Religious Studies. This is the professional journal of religious studies located in China that is sponsored by the Institute of Daoism and Religious Culture at Sichuan University. Besides Daoism, this journal publishes studies of other major Chinese religions.

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