Chinese salvationist religions or Chinese folk religious sects are a Chinese religious tradition characterised by a concern for salvation (moral fulfillment) of the person and the society.[1] They are distinguished by egalitarianism, a founding charismatic person often informed by a divine revelation, a specific theology written in holy texts, a millenarian eschatology and a voluntary path of salvation, an embodied experience of the numinous through healing and self-cultivation, and an expansive orientation through evangelism and philanthropy.[2]

Some scholars consider these religions a single phenomenon, and others consider them the fourth great Chinese religious category alongside the well-established Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.[3] Generally these religions focus on the worship of the universal God (Shangdi), represented as either male, female, or genderless, and regard their holy patriarchs as embodiments of God.

Terminology and definition

① A church of Yiguandao in Batam, Indonesia.
② The Luanist Rebirth Church (重生堂 Chóngshēngtáng) in Taichung, Taiwan.
Two influential and competing folk sectarian currents: ① Yiguandao focusing on personal salvation through inner work, considers itself the most valid "Way of Heaven" (天道 Tiāndào) and its own a "Way of Former Heaven" (先天道 Xiāntiāndào), that is a cosmological definition of the state of things prior to creation, in unity with God; it regards ② Luanism, a cluster of churches which focus on social morality through refined ( ) Confucian ritual to worship the gods, as the "Way of Later Heaven" (后天道 Hòutiāndào), that is the cosmological state of created things.[4]

"Chinese salvationist religions" (救度宗教 jiùdù zōngjiào) is a contemporary neologism coined as a sociological category[5] and gives prominence to folk religious sects' central pursuit that is the salvation of the individual and the society, in other words the moral fulfillment of individuals in reconstructed communities of sense.[1] Chinese scholars traditionally describe them as "folk religious sects" (民间宗教 mínjiān zōngjiào, 民间教门 mínjiān jiàomén or 民间教派 mínjiān jiàopài) or "folk beliefs" (民间信仰 mínjiān xìnyǎng).[6][7]

They are distinct from the Chinese folk religion consisting in the worship of gods and ancestors,[8] although in English language there is a terminological confusion between the two. The 20th-century expression for these salvationist religious movements has been "redemptive societies" (救世团体 jiùshì tuántǐ), coined by scholar Prasenjit Duara.[9]

A collective name that has been in use possibly since the latter part of the Qing dynasty is huìdàomén (会道门 "churches, ways and gates"), as their names interchangeably use the terms huì ( "church, society, association, congregation"; when referring to their corporate form), dào ( "way") or mén ( "gate[way], door").

Their congregations and points of worship are usually called táng ( "church, hall") or tán ( "altar"). Western scholars often mistakenly identify them as "Protestant" churches.[10]

The Vietnamese religions of Minh Đạo and Caodaism emerged from the same tradition of Chinese folk religious movements.[11]

Secret religions

A category overlapping with that of the salvationist movements is that of the "secret societies" (秘密社会 mìmì shèhuì, or 秘密结社 mìmì jiéshè),[12] religious communities of initiatory and secretive character, including rural militias and fraternal organisations which became very popular in the early republican period, and often labeled as "heretical doctrines" (宗教异端 zōngjiào yìduān).[13]

Recent scholarship has begun to use the label "secret sects" (秘密教门 mìmì jiàomén) to distinguish the peasant "secret societies" with a positive dimension of the Yuan, Ming and Qing periods, from the negatively viewed "secret societies" of the early republic that became instruments of anti-revolutionary forces (the Guomindang or Japan).[13]

Origin and history

Temple of the Founding Father (师祖殿 Shīzǔdiàn) of the principal holy see (圣地 shèngdì) of the Plum Flower sect, related to Baguadao, in Xingtai, Hebei.

Many of these religions are traced to the White Lotus tradition[14] ("Chinese Maternism", as mentioned by Philip Clart[15]) that was already active in the Song dynasty;[16] others claim a Taoist legacy and are based on the recovery of ancient scriptures attributed to important immortals such as Lü Dongbin and Zhang Sanfeng, and have contributed to the popularisation of neidan;[17] other ones are distinctively Confucian and advocate the realisation of a "great commonwealth" (datong 大同) on a world scale, as dreamt of in the Book of Rites.[18] Some scholars even find influences from Manichaeism, Mohism and shamanic traditions.[19][20]

In the Ming and Qing dynasties many folk religious movements were outlawed by the imperial authorities as "evil religions" (邪教 xiéjiào).[21] With the collapse of the Qing state in 1911 the sects enjoyed an unprecedented period of freedom and thrived, and many of them were officially recognised as religious groups by the early republican government.[22]

The founding of the People's Republic in 1949 saw them suppressed once again,[23] although since the 1990s and 2000s the climate was relaxed and some of them have received some form of official recognition.[24] In Taiwan all the still existing restrictions were rescinded in the 1980s.

Folk religious movements began to rapidly revive in mainland China in the 1980s, and now if conceptualised as a single group they are said to have the same number of followers of the five state-sanctioned religions of China taken together.[25] Scholars and government officials have been discussing to systematise and unify this large base of religious organisations; in 2004 the State Administration of Religious Affairs created a department for the management of folk religions.[25] In the late 2015 a step was made at least for those of them with a Confucian identity, with the foundation of the Holy Confucian Church of China which aims to unite in a single body all Confucian religious groups.

Many of the movements of salvation of the 20th and 21st century aspire to become the repository of the entirety of the Chinese tradition in the face of Western modernism and materialism,[26] advocating an "Eastern solution to the problems of the modern world",[27] or even interacting with the modern discourse of an Asian-centered universal civilisation.[27]

Geography and diffusion

Geographic distribution of influence of China's popular religious sects.

The Chinese folk religious movements of salvation are mostly concentrated in northern and northeastern China, although with a significant influence reaching the Yangtze River Delta since the 16th century.[28] The northern provinces have been a fertile ground for the movements of salvation for a number of reasons: firstly, popular religious movements were active in the region already in the Han dynasty, and they deeply penetrated local society; secondly, northern provinces are characterised by social mobility around the capital and weak traditional social structure, thus folk religious movements of salvation fulfill the demand of individual searching for new forms of community and social network.[28]

According to the Chinese General Social Survey of 2012, approximately 2.2% of the population of China, which is around 30 million people, claim to be members of folk religious sects.[29] The actual number of followers may be higher, about the same as the number of members of the five state-sanctioned religions of China if counted together.[25] In Taiwan, recognised folk religious movements of salvation gather approximately 10% of the population as of the mid-2000s.

Chronological record of major sects

Earliest influences (Yuan, 1277–1377)

Ming (1367–1644) and Qing (1644–1911)


Mainland Republican Era (1912–49)

Late 20th century

21st century

The City of the Eight Symbols in Qi, Hebi, is the headquarters of the Weixinist Church in Henan.

Other sects

See also

In Vietnam
In Indonesia
In Philippines



  1. ^ a b Palmer 2011, p. 19; passim
  2. ^ Palmer 2011, p. 19
  3. ^ Broy (2015), p. 146.
  4. ^ Clart (1997), pp. 12-13 & passim.
  5. ^ Palmer 2011, pp. 17–18
  6. ^ Palmer 2011, p. 12: "Chinese sectarianism, millennialism and heterodoxy, called "popular religious sects" (minjian zongjiao 民間宗教, minjian jiaomen 民間教門, minjian jiaopai 民間教派) in the Chinese scholarship, often inextricable from debates on the exact nature of the so-called "White Lotus" tradition."; p. 14: "The local and anthropological focus of these studies, and their undermining of rigid distinctions between "sectarian" groups and other forms of local religiosity, tends to draw them into the category of "popular religion" 民間信仰."
  7. ^ Clart 2014, p. 393. Quote: "[...] The problem started when the Taiwanese translator of my paper chose to render "popular religion" literally as minjian zongjiao 民間宗教. The immediate association this term caused in the minds of many Taiwanese and practically all mainland Chinese participants in the conference was of popular sects (minjian jiaopai 民間教派), rather than the local and communal religious life that was the main focus of my paper."
  8. ^ Palmer 2011, pp. 19–20
  9. ^ Palmer 2011, p. 17
  10. ^ Ownby (2008). § 2: "Western scholars cast Chinese sects in the role of Protestant dissenters and celebrate (or occasionally condemn) their willingness to challenge the status quo."
  11. ^ a b Palmer 2011, p. 6
  12. ^ Palmer 2011, pp. 12–13
  13. ^ a b Palmer 2011, p. 13
  14. ^ a b c d Palmer 2011, p. 12
  15. ^ Clart 1997, passim.
  16. ^ Broy (2015), p. 158.
  17. ^ a b Palmer 2011, p. 27
  18. ^ Palmer 2011, p. 28
  19. ^ Ma & Meng 2011
  20. ^ Lu, Yunfeng. The Influence of Mo-school on Chinese Popular Sects. Studies in World Religions (Shijie Zongjiao Yanjiu), 27 (2): 123-127.
  21. ^ Palmer 2011, p. 23
  22. ^ Palmer 2011, p. 3
  23. ^ Palmer 2011, pp. 13, 23
  24. ^ "Religions & Christianity in Today's China" (PDF). Religion & Christianity in Today's China. IV (1). China Zentrum. 2014. ISSN 2192-9289. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 April 2017. pp. 22–23.
  25. ^ a b c 大陆民间宗教管理变局 [Mainland folk religion management change]. Phoenix Weekly (500). Pu Shi Institute for Social Science. July 2014. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016.
  26. ^ a b c Palmer 2011, p. 29
  27. ^ a b Palmer 2011, p. 10
  28. ^ a b Seiwert 2003, p. 318
  29. ^ China Family Panel Studies 2012. Reported and compared with Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011 in Lu 卢, Yunfeng 云峰 (2014). 卢云峰:当代中国宗教状况报告——基于CFPS(2012)调查数据 [Report on Religions in Contemporary China – Based on CFPS (2012) Survey Data] (PDF). World Religious Cultures (1). Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 August 2014. p. 13.
  30. ^ a b c d e f g h Palmer 2011, p. 22
  31. ^ Seiwert 2003, p. 20
  32. ^ a b Seiwert 2003, p. 270
  33. ^ Seiwert 2003, p. 217
  34. ^ Ma & Meng 2011, pp. 173–175
  35. ^ a b c d Palmer (2011), p. 4.
  36. ^ Ownby (1995).
  37. ^ Seiwert 2003, p. 343
  38. ^ a b c d e Palmer 2011, p. 4
  39. ^ Palmer 2011, pp. 4–5
  40. ^ a b c d e Palmer 2011, p. 5
  41. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Munro & Spiegel (1994), p. 270.
  42. ^ Smith (2015), p. 358.
  43. ^ Palmer 2011, p. 7
  44. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m I (1995), p. 32.
  45. ^ a b Munro & Spiegel (1994), p. 269.
  46. ^ a b c d e f g h i Munro & Spiegel (1994), p. 271.