Book Reviews

Red, Black, and Gray

Mapping Religion in China

Atlas of Religion in China: Social and Geographical Context, by Fenggang Yang; (Brill, 2018), ISBN-10: 9004358854, ISBN-13: 978-9004358850; 260 pages, hardcover. Available from the publisher and on Amazon.

Since I am a lover of maps, I was thrilled at the publication of The Atlas of Religion in China: Social and Geographical Context by Dr. Fenggang Yang. Produced by a team of researchers and students at the Center for Religion and Chinese Society, headed by Professor Yang, this atlas is a detailed examination of the religious landscape in China.

Writing in the introduction, Yang notes:

It maps the officially registered venues of five major religions—Buddhism, Christianity (Protestant and Catholic), Daoism, and Islam—at the national, provincial, and county levels, and draws the contours of Confucianism, folk religion, and the Mao cult. It describes the main organizations, beliefs and rituals of various religions, and the social and demographic characteristics of their respective believers. Putting various religions side by side in their social, political, and cultural contexts, this volume offers a comprehensive overview of religion in contemporary China. (p. 1)

Because religion can be understood in different ways, depending on one’s approach (theological, sociological), also in the introduction, Yang begins with his definition of religion that he uses in his research:

This atlas treats religion as a complex social institution comprising both beliefs and practices. Religion includes four elements: 1) a belief in the supernatural; 2) a set of beliefs regarding life and the world; 3) a set of ritual practices; and 4) a distinct social organization or moral community. (p. 1)

Yang borrows from the economic theory of supply and demand to construct a useful paradigm of what he calls “religious markets”:

Under the restrictive and repressive regulations, the religious economy does not form a single market, but splits into three parallel and intertwined markets, which I have labeled red, black, and gray markets. Red is the color of the Communist Party and thus the red market represents the religions sanctioned by the party-state and includes the five legal (officially permitted) religious organizations, believers, and religious activities. The black market, on the other hand, comprises all illegal (officially banned) religious organizations, believers, and religious activities. The gray market for religion lies somewhere in between: it comprises all religious and spiritual organizations, practitioners, and activities with ambiguous legal status. (p. 2)

I first heard Professor Yang unpack this model of the red, black, and gray markets at a conference more than ten years ago, and I have always found it to be extremely helpful. Part one of the atlas provides an overview of these three markets nationally.


In chapter one, Professor Yang describes the five legally sanctioned religions in China—Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism—and the associations that oversee them. While we often focus on the China Christian Council/Three-Self Patriotic Movement (CCC/TSPM), this atlas is a helpful reminder that the other religions operate under many of the same regulations, restrictions, and demands for political loyalty.

The first map in this chapter is a color-coded picture of the predominant religions at the county level. It is a fascinating visual representation of something quite abstract; a way to actually see the religious landscape of China. With each legal religion represented by a different color, some things are clearly noticeable. These include the dominance of Buddhism in the west, southwest, and southeast; the dominance of Islam in the far west and northwest; the dominance of Protestantism along the Yangtze River, and the pockets of Daoism and Catholicism around the country. Interestingly, there are also numerous counties where they did not have access to data.

Atlas of Religion in China, p. 13

Subsequent maps in this chapter map the number and location of the religious sites of each of the five red market religions.


Chapter two is a description of the semi-legal religions beginning with Confucianism. Other religions or religious organizations that are part of the gray market include folk religion, the Mao Cult, and the Protestant house churches and underground Catholic churches.

This section includes a map of the distribution of Confucian religious sites; however, due to the absence of reliable statistics on the number and distribution of Protestant house churches and underground Catholic churches, these are not mapped. One thing Yang notes is that, even though the Protestant house churches were originally part of the black market, the government’s relative tolerance over the past two decades places them more in this gray market.


Chapter three provides the reader with a helpful listing and description of the sixteen banned religious groups that have been designated by the Ministry of Public Security as “illegal cults” (xiejiao邪教). Of the sixteen groups included in this chapter, eleven would be considered cultic sects of Christianity. These include The Shouters, All Scope Church, Church of the Almighty God (Eastern Lightning), Cold Water Sect, Dami Evangelism Association, Disciples Sect, Established King, Lingling Sect, Lord God Sect, New Testament Church, and Three Ranks of Servants. There are no maps included in this section.

In part two of the atlas, Professor Yang takes his detailed description and analysis of the red market religions to the provincial level. For each, there is a detailed description of the topography, demography, and religious practices. These are accompanied by detailed maps and charts of religious sites down to the prefecture level. The data used in these maps is from publicly available sources. In addition to the helpful maps in this section, there are wonderful photographs depicting the religious life of China.

Unfortunately, because this is an academic publication, its price puts it out of the reach for the average reader. That said, it should be included in the library of every organization that seeks to serve the church in China.

Understanding the religious landscape of China is vital for effective service. This atlas is an essential tool for doing just that.

Our thanks to Brill for providing a copy of Atlas of Religion in China: Social and Geographical Context for this review.

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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio