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A Closer Look at the China Religion Survey

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In July, People’s University released the results of a multi-year survey of the religious environment in China. Many news outlets, both inside China and outside, covered the story, choosing to emphasize the growing popularity of religion among young people in China as well as the growth of Islam. But the survey was much broader and revealed other interesting data points about religion in China. The mainland site Christian Times took a close look at the survey and highlighted some of the other findings that did not get much play, particularly in the western press.

China Releases Survey of Religion

Summary: 2015 Report on Religion in China: Among traditional religions Buddhism is the most influential; Christianity has shown the greatest ability to adapt to the contemporary social environment.

‪On July 7, People’s University released this year’s China Religion Report, the first nationwide religious activities statistical survey.

‪This survey was a joint effort of the People’s University’s School of Philosophy and the university’s National Survey Research Center. Together the departments designed, organized, and implemented this ongoing, comprehensive survey on religion in Chinese society. 

This is the first social survey China has done using methods that strictly comply with international standards and probability sampling principles. The nationwide samples represent individuals, organizations, and regions.  The work reflects multiple sampling levels of continuity and growing trends found in academic social research projects.

‪Wei Dedong, a professor and scholar on religion at People’s University Department of Philosophy announced the primary content of the report on his blog today. The China Religion Survey began in 2012, focusing first on places of worship.

From the second half of 2013 to the first half of 2015 (a time frame of two years), the survey was conducted among 4,383 places of worship within the country’s 31 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions, spanning 243 counties, cities and districts. Those surveyed included local religious affairs departments as well as heads of individual places of worship.

‪In the introduction to the project Professor Wei commented: “The survey reveals that, after 30 years of effort, China has realized a basic level of the adaptation of religion to socialist society . . . Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Christianity, as well as other faiths, have become a positive force for the modernization of China.”

‪The survey also pointed out that a key issue for the future is the place of religion in serving society in the areas of public morality and ethics as well as psychological and humanistic education in order to make a unique contribution to China’s continued modernization.

‪At the same time, the report found that among the five major religions Buddhism is still the most influential and contributed the most to charity. Philanthropic support amounted to 41,000 yuan per temple, far more than the average religious site offering of 18,000 yuan.

The findings showed that Buddhism also shows the highest percentage of internet missionary work (14%). Taoism is the most indigenous religion in China and also has a strong international presence, with 11% of Taoist temples involved in some form of international exchange. This is considerably more than the other major religions in this sort of interaction.

‪The survey also examined the rapid growth of Christianity following the Reform and Opening Policy.  The conclusion was that “of the five major religions, Christianity seems best suited to adapt to the contemporary Chinese social environment, which may be the fundamental reason for its considerable development over the past thirty years.”

‪Further investigation reveals that religious institutions in China are willing to accept guidance from the state and maintain harmonious relations with the government and society. Regarding the traditional principle of secularism, members of the clergy across religions maintained a prudent attitude.

We see that the conventional notion of religions being populated by the elderly is no longer a reality. In fact, more than half of religious believers are under 60 years of age. Present day religious leaders prove to be hard workers, with an income far below the average level of their local populations. The average monthly salary is just 506 yuan per worker.

‪The survey also indicated that the top wish of religious groups is to increase the number of places of worship and of clergy in order to meet the growing demand of followers.

Regarding the desire for modifications to religious policies, the top three issues are: the approval to build new places of worship (50%), the registration of religious venues (32%), and approval of clergy (23%).

‪Following are some specific details of the published survey:

  1. ‪Simply from examining the growth in places of worship we can see that the development of religion in modern China is not a natural continuation of history; rather it can be said that it is a reconstruction. Of todays’ religious venues, 90% were approved after 1982.
    Looking at various social elements, after the Cultural Revolution we see that political, economic, cultural, and other areas of construction were built on the basis of the old order, bringing new structures out of chaos. However when looking at religion it can be said that the nation started from a clean slate. We must take this into consideration, regardless of whether we praise the rapid rise of religion in China or focus on the shortcomings.
  2. Regarding the relationship between the state and religion, the most important proposition for modern China is to actively guide religions to adapt to socialist society. The survey revealed that after thirty years of effort, China has basically achieved this.  
    In terms of the direction from the state, all levels of religious offices, the United Front Department, and other government offices, have taken the initiative to visit religious venues and promote the constitutional rights of citizens to implement the freedom of religious belief. They have also worked to help these venues solve practical problems.
    The survey showed that the frequency of Religious Affairs visits to religious venues was 3.8 times per year, and that the United Front visits averaged 1.8 times per year. In response, the religious organized return visits at a rate of 3.5 times per year to the Religious Affairs Bureau and 1.3 times to the United Front.
    In terms of the adaptation of religion, 90% of religious venues have established a democratic management committee as their core system of administration. More than 30% of the clergy take part in the NPC (National People’s Congress), the CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference), the China Youth Federation, and other state institutions to discuss political issues and provide a voice for religious people in the working out of political rights and affairs.
    Of religious leaders surveyed, 60% believe that the nation’s religious policies have an appropriate degree of control and freedom. More than 40% of religious venues are actively involved in social charities.
    The five major religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Christianity, as well as other faiths, have become a positive force for the realization of China’s modernization.
  3. ‪On the relationship between the state and religion, China has developed its own unique characteristics.
    The survey found that China’s religious groups are willing to accept the guidance of the state, and maintain harmonious relations with the government and society. Regarding the traditional principle of secularism, members of the clergy maintained a cautious yet prudent attitude. More than half of the respondents objected to this principle.
    Regarding the use of legal channels to manage religious institutions, the respondents were generally favorable to the following: monies paid by the state for the construction of religious venues, living allowances paid by the state, state money given for religious charities, the bringing of religion into national education, the increase in proportion of religious figures in the CPPCC, as well as other issues.
    For the most part the state and religious groups have maintained a stable relationship through the ups and downs of national life.
  4. The composition of Chinese religious believers is undergoing profound changes.
    The conventional notion that most religious believers are elderly is no longer a reality. In fact, more than half of religious believers are under 60 years of age.
    However, lower levels of education continue to be a predominant feature among religious believers, with 43% of believers having only a grade school education or lower, and fewer than 5% having a university education or above.
    ‪Overall, there has been a new emergence in age and education levels among clergy.
    Most clergy are between 30 and 60 years old, with 11% educated at a university degree or higher. The survey found that among the 4,382 leaders of religious institutions the average age was 55 years old, with 21% being female and 15% having a college degree or above.
    It can be said that since 1980 the problem of lack in sufficient clergy has already seen fundamental changes; China’s religious personnel are now multigenerational, laying a solid foundation for the healthy development of religions in China.
  5. ‪The popular notion of “rich monks” has been shown to be untrue in contemporary China, where these struggling workers have an income far below the average level of the local people.
    The average income of clergy within the five major religions is 506 yuan per month. The public impression of a very wealthy monk is out of touch with the reality of a 397 yuan per month income, which can only provide for the life of an ascetic.
    In addition, 41% of religious institutions do not provide any type of retirement insurance for their clergy, and 26% of places of worship did not purchase health insurance for clergy.
    ‪Regarding the issue of tickets for entry (to temples and other religious sites) there seems to be a significant gap between reality and the criticisms made by the media and public, as only 2.5% of the religious sites surveyed require tickets for entry.
    Although Buddhist sites tend to receive the most criticism, only 6% actually require tickets, which is slightly lower than seen for Taoist sites, 7% of which require tickets. Generally speaking, other religious sites don't require an entrance fee.
    ‪The nature of religious sites and institutions in China reflects a definite level of modernity. Of the sites surveyed, 56% have their organization code certificate, and 47% have their own bank accounts. In addition, 10% of religious sites use the internet for missionary work and 10% also use multimedia projection during their activities.
  6. ‪A number of indicators suggest that of the five major religions, Christianity has best adapted to the contemporary Chinese social environment. This may explain the substantial growth Christianity has seen over the past 30 years.
    Simply by examining the construction of new places of worship, we see that more than half of the Christian churches were built after 1977. Among the top five religions this phenomenon is only seen in Christianity and is the single greatest indicator of the rapid growth of the religion.
    Regarding architectural style, 82% of Protestant churches are characteristically Chinese, which is considerably more than the 51% of Catholic churches and the 40% of Islamic mosques.
    Regarding construction of new religious venues during the past five years, Christian churches account for the largest percentage (12%). Furthermore, Christianity offers the largest number of small groups for believers (52%) and makes the most use of media projectors (40%).
    These numbers are all the more surprising considering that after 1977, 8% of churches had been closed down, a number much greater than the 3.8% seen for the other major religions.
    These facts seem to confirm the sociology of religion principle: moderate amounts of external pressure play a positive role in the growth of religion.
    ‪Of the traditional Chinese religions, Buddhism remains the most influential.
    Of the five major religions, Buddhism gives the most support to charity with the average temple donating 41,000 yuan to charities each year; this is much higher than the average offering of 18,000 yuan.
    Buddhism also shows the highest percentage of internet missions (14%).
    Economic issues like that of temple entry tickets are often hot topics when discussing Buddhism; however there is a significant gap between reality and the criticisms made. Overall, today’s Buddhist nuns and monks continue to follow Qingxiu (Pure Cultivation) traditions.
    ‪Daoism is not only China’s most truly indigenous religion, but it is also has a strong presence in the international world. It stands out above the other major religions in international exchange, with 11% of Daoists actively involved in such interchange.
    This seems to indicate that today’s Daoism is less valued within national borders but has spread far and is well received in many parts of the world. With modern and global development, more and more people throughout the world appreciate the value of Daoism, and many are willing to travel to China to learn more about this religion.
    In addition, 9% of Daoists register social service agencies with the Ministry of Civil affairs, which puts them above the other major religions in this area.
    ‪The Catholic Church shows the highest level of education among all the major religions. This is due to the lasting influence of Jesuit missionaries, who were also highly skilled in science and technology.  
    Of those in charge of education and teaching within the Catholic Church, 43% are university educated or higher. This is more than the national religious average of 18%.
    ‪Finally, we see that Islam stands out for its institutional construction, with 95% of mosques establishing varied rules and regulations.
  7. ‪So, looking from the standpoint of the development of religion in China, the five major religions have largely achieved the goal of adapting to a socialist society, becoming positive forces in the modernization of China.
    A priority for the future of religion in China is that of serving society in addressing public morality and ethics as well as psychological and humanistic education in order to make a unique contribution to China’s continued modernization.
  8. ‪Regarding the current situation of religion in China, the greatest wish among religious communities is to see an increase in the number of places of worship and clergy in order to meet the growing demand of followers.
    Regarding adjustments to religious policies, the top three issues are: the approval to build new places of worship (50%), the registration of religious venues (32%), and approval of clergy (23%).

Original article: 中国宗教调查报告(2015)》发布:传统宗教中佛教最具影响力 基督教与当代社会环境适应得最好 (Christian Times)

Image credit: Fire, by timqiujano, via Flickr.

ChinaSource Team

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