In the vast expanse of Southeast Asia, the Chinese culture was the earliest to develop civilisation and has a long tradition of original thinking, which has had a profound influence upon the shape of culture in many of its neighbours during their early histories, and the development of its unique philosophical ideas continue to influence thinking all over the globe today. Indeed many of the individual cultures of the region are known to have had their distant origins in ancient China.

In the most ancient of times, in a period where archaeology predates historical record, the principles of Animism prevailed across the entire world, and were largely set around the goals of tribal and family life, long before the notion of universal religions arrived and, for this reason, varied widely from community to community. 

An uncountable number of strains of Chinese folk mythologies and their related practices still survive today, including Moism as well as Tibetan and Mongolian Shamanic traditions, in the breathtaking weave of subcultures which comprise Chinese society. 

Notably, in Shang Dynasty China (1500 – 1050 BC), reverence of the ancestors and a host of ritualistic and shamanistic formulas for appeasing the powerful forces of nature, upon which daily life was so dependent, was at the root of the evolution of Chinese thinking.  

The cycles of the seasons and their complex range of forces, agriculture, fertility, birth and death all required sacrifices to ensure the prosperous continuance of the people, and a significant component of these rituals was the reading of oracles to ascertain the best times for agricultural actions, or embarking on other tribal affairs. 

The practice of augury was initially conducted through the application of fire to tortoise shells, producing a web of cracking, which was held to reflect the motional tendencies of nature within the time of inquiry, which the shaman would then read and interpret, imbuing meaning to the patternation, which could then provide the tribe with a basis for action or inaction. 

From this humble origin, a system of cosmology, based upon the principles of interaction between the primary forces in life, represented as Yang (light, hardness, masculine) and Yin (Dark, softness, feminine) was developed. 

All phenomena originating from the formless Tian (heaven) was conceived as being governed by these fundamental interrelated principles, waxing and waning with the natural flow of time, and was ever more elaborately embellished with numerology, astrology and philosophical interpretation into a work which we know today as the Yi Jing (I Ching, or book of changes), known to have reached its current form and been in wide use during the Zhou Dynasty of 1050-256 BC. 

The intrinsic precept of this text provides a pattern portraying the entire cycle of life, with the blending interaction of yang and yin further represented in eight combined elements, Heaven, Earth, Water, Fire, Thunder, Wind, Mountain, and Lake. These elements have a host of additional subsidiary meanings and attributes based upon the nature of these forces and are also extended and given applied meanings within the structure of political and social life and relationships within the family. 

These eight elements, represented as trigrams composed of three lines, being the various possible combinations of Yang, illustrated as an unbroken line ( _______ ) and Yin, visually defined by a broken line ( ___ ___ ), are yet further combined to form a hexagram (six lines), the permutations of which total sixty-four, representing the interplay of these forces in nature, each of which is accorded highly complex philosophical timbres of meaning.

By this time the traditional tortoise shells had been replaced by the use of yarrow stalks which, by means of a ritual counting system, produced a hexagram for interpretation.

The underlying principle is that the ritual practice of producing an oracle during which, through meditation the given question being pursued by the enquirer is therby mystically infused into the process, the result reflects the real time motion of these natural forces unfolding during its preparation, and the reading produced is born of its place in the cosmic pattern and evolving emerging tendencies, allowing the diviner to predict outcomes or omens relating to the matter at hand.

When Confucius arrived on the scene, he had great reverence for the Yi Jing, and spent much of his life deep in its study and a highly articulate supporting commentary ascribed to him completes the finalised the form of the book which it is widely reproduced today, and translated texts in all the international languages are used all over the world. 

Indeed, through his profound study of the Yi Jing, Confucius (551 – 479 BC) developed his enormously influential theory of the perfect society, in which every person found fulfilment according to his place in the natural order. 

Since ancient times, rulers have been accorded the ‘Mandate of Heaven’, but in China, this was not regarded as an unalienable right of Emperors, who had an implicit duty to reside in virtue, and natural disasters which adversely affected the people were interpreted as a loss of this mandate, whereupon the ruler, judged to have lost the will and support of Heaven, could be replaced with another in his stead. 

Confucius further elaborated these notions in dialogue with his understanding of the Yi Jing, developing his embryonic template for the conduct of humanity, from the lofty heights of the Emperor to the lowliest stonecutter, in accordance with the great harmony (Tian), with an emphasis on each member of society aiming to perfect himself. 

Often misunderstood as a 'religion' and indeed nowadays widely both recognised and practiced as such, Confucianism still to this day holds considerable sway in the China of today.

At around this time in the early centuries BC, and possibly contemporaneous with Confucius, the mystic school of Taoism also emerged into historical consciousness and made its presence felt in Chinese society. 

Based likewise on the principles of natural harmony, the thoughts of the Taoists likewise likewise guided by the notions contained within the Yi Jing, but wholly rejected the sociological order embodied by Confucianism, preferring seclusion, naturalism and a return to simplicity as the means of penetrating the mystery of the life force.

The practice of Taoism is rooted in the quest for liberation from the physical, and exploration of the inner ecstatic experiences derived from alchemical magic practices.  

The first known surviving text of Taoism is the Tao Te Ching, a remarkable minimalist poetic treatise that sets forth its ideas, with a certain degree of delightfully humorous irony, a feature which emerges in an even more pronounced style in subsequent works such as Chiang Tzu and the aphorisms of its offspring, Zen Buddhism, which arose from a later fusion with Buddhist philosophical thinking. 

The inner exploration of Taoist practitioners, using delicate breath control, meditation, and a dynamic form of exercise using the principles of yang and yin in infinitely subtle balanced motion by means of which the Qi (Chi) or life-energy could be mastered, ultimately also gave rise to the remarkable forms of Kung Fu.

The focus of these practices are aimed at transcendent absorption within the formless source of life, from which the swirling thoughts and forms of all matter arise, swimming into the plane of existence and returning back to formlessness, in rhythm with the breath, enabling the adept to pass beyond the material illusion, or Maya, as Buddhists similarly describe it.

To the Taoist mind, the concept of creation is therefore not something that occurred at the beginning of time, as with Christianity for example, but rather is a living, continually renewing reality arising from moment to moment.

The gentlest forms underlying this mastery of natural motion and inner harmony are called Tai Chi, which are still today widely practiced by many people in China and elsewhere at the break of day, by people who would not describe themselves as Taoists.

The wealth of Chinese mystical thought and the arts emanating from it are hugely significant for those that truly ‘get it' and have had, and continue to have, a profound influence around the world. 

Perhaps because of the depth of inner knowledge represented by the works of some Chinese thinkers, which is immediately clear to initiates as an authentic understanding of the inner source of nature, China has never created what we might describe as a religion, despite the numerous hybrid fusions with folk traditions that are misinterpreted, even in China, as such. 


It is therefore significant that of all the foreign imports of spiritual ideas which have entered Chinese society, that Buddhism, again not essentially a religion, but a practical philosophy and practice with notional similarities to Taoism was, far and away, the most successful in China, arriving during the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD). 

With its emphasis on personal development and inner enlightenment, and the similarity of understanding at its core, Buddhism immediately produced a sympathetic resonance with Taoism and readily adapted itself to its new found home, giving rise to a number of hybrid schools throughout China. 

The remarkable impact of early Buddhism can be found in the Mogao Caves, Longmen Grottoes, Dazu Caves, Yungang Grottoes, which together feature a staggering collection of Buddhist art, sculpture and textual work, and latterly in the Leshan Buddha. 

By the Tang dynasty, successive variants of Buddhism had arrived in China and, in 845 AD, these formalised ritual interpretations of Buddhism came under attack, being dismissed as a dangerous foreign usurper, with its practitioners undergoing persecution. The situation was reversed by the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), which would see Chan Buddhism become the dominant force in China, even becoming the state ‘religion’ during the subsequent Yuan Dynasty. 

From this time, until the Cultural Revolution, Buddhism would remain widely practiced in China, mostly in the form of Chinese Chan Buddhism, but also through a significant following of Tibetan Buddhism. Elements derived from Hinduism, incorporated into Buddhism at its founding in India, have also travelled with it, and Hinduism also influenced southern China through the early Funan Kingdom, though to a much lesser extent than so clearly evident in Cambodia and Indonesia

Islam, carried by Arab traders plying the Silk Road, first arrived in China in 651 AD, a mere eighteen years following the death of Muhammad, and established the Huaisheng Mosque in Guangzhou, one of the world’s earliest examples. Another early mosque, the Great Mosque of Xi'An, was founded in 742 AD, and exhibits a profound fusion of Arabic and Chinese architectural interplay.

Muslims would continue to influence China, largely through these extensive trading networks, with many finding employment in China, and achieved a sizeable presence during the Ming Dynasty, with Nanjing becoming a centre of Islamic Study and the religion remained a significant minority culture within China until the Maoist communist takeover.

A variant of Christianity first arrived in China in 635 AD, during the Tang Dynasty and was tolerated until the same 845 AD rebellion against foreign religions which had set back Buddhism, though elements of Nestorian Christianity survived.  A Fledgling Zoroastrianism also suffered the same fate. 

During the thirteenth century Mongol invasion and the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty, Christianity made its presence felt through the influence of Mongol converts but was later banned during the Ming Dynasty, with the changing tide of history turning yet again following the demise of the occupying Mongol regime. 

With the emergent sixteenth century ambitions of the European colonial powers, Christianity eventually found its way back to China, through successive waves of missionaries who accompanied maritime trade delegations, but the establishment of churches on Chinese soil was only able to gain traction by the incorporation of Chinese folk traditions into its services, which the Pope ultimately banned. 

A Chinese translation of the Bible arrived in Macau, with missionary Robert Morrison, in 1807, and provoked a hostile response from the Chinese, who promptly outlawed the spread of Christianity, and ordered the execution of Missionaries. 

However, the 'humiliation' of the Chinese during the First Opium War, and the subsequent treaty of Nanjing, obliged the Chinese to accept the free passage of Christianity and let loose missionary forces throughout china, in which the religion subsequently acquired a substantial minority following among some of the indigenous populations. 

From the 1920’s, an increasing nationalist movement, the precursor of the later communist uprising, began to emerge in pockets of the country, which began to target religious structures of all kinds, destroying Churches and temples alike. 

Japanese Shinto practices briefly became another introduced feature of occupied Manchuria under the Japanese occupation, establishing a number of Shinto shrines, before the demise of the Japanese Empire at the conclusion of the Second World War would see it unceremoniously evicted and its shrines demolished. 

The ascent to power of the early communists in 1949 would see an increase in action against religious establishments. Essentially an atheistic political doctrine, the aim of the communists was to entirely reshape Chinese society into embracing its social theories and propagate freedom from the ‘opiate of beliefs’, whatever their origin, and all religions were consequently targeted for suppression. 

Even the ancient ancestral halls, mirroring the most ancient beliefs of Chinese history were dismantled to aid the spread of the new doctrine. Paradoxically, Mao both accepted and promulgated his own deification and was, during his lifetime, treated as a virtual God, and still to this day has a devoted following in China. 

Like other attempts to introduce communism elsewhere, the fundamental flaw derives from the latent insincerity of those who preach it, a problem likewise native to religion. The true ambitions of communism, to create a just and equitable society, are inevitably sacrificed in the name of power, and all things become subservient to that goal, with the drug of corruption quickly taking hold, and introducing a totalitarianism at total odds with the freedom the ideology claims to represent. In the final analysis, the whole idea of communism runs counter to nature itself, as any anthropologist studying natural behaviour knows.

Indeed all pretence of Communism has been utterly abandoned in modern China, even though the party that swept to power on the aspirations of its promise still retains its iron grip on a world of high finance and burgeoning middle classes. 

In the nature of things, however, where governance is concerned, pragmatism always eventually necessitates compromise and, toward the modern era, a relaxation of the communist party’s stance on religion has provided for a measure of religious tolerance, with the state now officially recognising Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, though as is prevalent everywhere else in Chinese society, the government keeps a close watch on the activities of such groups. 

Ancestor worship and other ancient beliefs are still widely practised throughout China, though less overtly than once they were, but within these ancient traditions and the intrinsic outlook of the Chinese people, perhaps the ancient ‘Mandate of Heaven’, along with the mantra ‘if the ruler fails his people, heaven will not support him’ still applies. In Chinese thought, this remains a deeply powerful and long held notion of which the party is undoubtedly well aware.