What is Shenism?

The term “Shenism” broadly refers to Chinese folk religious practices, which are highly syncretic, like most folk religions, and integrate elements from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and traditional Chinese mythology. Shenism maintains ancient elements of Eastern religion, including animism (or the attribution of a soul to all living things and sometimes objects) and shamanism (which refers to the belief that shamans, beings with a connection to the otherworld, can heal the sick, communicate with spirits and deities, and escort souls to the afterlife), as well as the veneration of the Sun, the Moon, and the Heavens. Folk religion can be understood as the “basis” for the religious landscape in China and has been practiced for thousands of years, essentially since the start of the Common Era (CE). Though Shenism is primarily observed on mainland China, it also has many adherents in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Overall, Shenism has around 400 million adherents and practitioners, making it one of the major religions of the world, though it is not perceived as institutional.

In China, it is understood that there are, unofficially, three major religions, known collectively as sanjiao heyi, or the “Unity of the Three Teachings”: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. An apt metaphor, represented Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism as three pyramid-shaped peaks sharing a common base, which is Shenism, or folk religion. This metaphor indicates, on one hand, that Shenism is practiced by a wide variety of religious individuals in China, and on the other hand, that Shenism and institutional religions are not discrete but instead intersect.

Characteristics of Shenism

In addition to the main Three Teachings, Shenism is heavily related to Chinese mythology and involves the worship of shens (神, shén), which can loosely be translated to “deities,” “spirits,” or “archetypes.” These entities can be nature, patron, kinship, clan, or national deities, cultural heroes, demigods, ancestors, and progenitors. Indeed, some mythical characters from Chinese folk culture have been integrated into both Shenism and Buddhism. For example, the figure Miao Shan, a legendary Chinese princess who became the bodhisattva called Guanyin, is one of the most popular figures to which people pray in China.

Shenism has a variety of localized practices of worship, ritual, and philosophical traditions. Notable examples of ritual traditions embedded within Shenism include Wuism and Nuoism. Wuism is alternatively known simply as Chinese shamanism, and involves the belief that a shaman, or wizard (巫, “wu”) can mediate with deities, gods, and spirits. Nuoism heavily entails the practice of exorcism and has its own system of temples, orders of priests and gods, and rituals. Nuoism is recognizable by its use of wooden masks to represent the gods, and its reliance on yin and yang theory.

Places of Worship

Shenist temples can be categorized as miao (庙), or deity houses, and ci (祠), or ancestral halls. Temples in Shenism are distinct from Taoist temples and Buddhist monasteries in that they are established and administered by local managers, associations, and communities. They are typically small and colorful (in contrast to Taoist temples, which are often black and white, and Buddhist temples, which are heavily red and yellow). They are decorated with traditional figures on the roofs, like dragons and mythical deities. Rituals, sacred re-enactments, festivals, and other practices occur at these temples. One of the most prominent is the Chinese Qingming Festival, also called Tomb Sweeping Day or Pure Brightness Festival, which is very similar to Christianity’s All Souls’ Day.

Political Prejudice in Chinese Folk Religion and Culture

China is not exceptional from other nations in terms of the ways in which religious-cultural and historical influences impact racial perspectives and attitudes. Religious-cultural conceptions of race are reinforced in Shenism and other prominent Chinese religions, the major distinction being between degrees of barbarians, the “black devils,” who are savage inferiors with whom interaction is impossible, and the “white devils,” or the tame barbarians with whom interaction is possible.

At the same time, adherents of Shenism have experienced prejudice in mainland China themselves. In June of 2022, Chinese authorities destroyed some 5,911 temples of traditional folk religion in the Jiangsu province, citing their influence as that of xié jiào or “evil cults.”