November 9, 2018

Religion in China is highly diverse by region, research shows

Yan China book Fenggang Yang Download image

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — When people think about religion in China, they tend to think first about Buddhism.

“But that is not the case in many places in China, not anymore,” said Fengang Yang, author of the book “Atlas of Religion in China: Social and Geographical Contexts.”

China’s spiritual landscape has changed because of rapid economic development, urbanization and globalization, he added.

“Globalization has allowed many religions to become available that were not in the past,” said Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University. “Meanwhile, urbanization has spurred the migration of people away from their home villages. In a strange new urban setting, people often ask, ‘Who are my friends? Whom can I trust?’ When a society changes so fast, churches or temples are the places people seek friendly environments and trustworthy relationships.”

Yang’s new book, published recently by Brill Publishers, provides a bird’s-eye view of religion in China by mapping mosques, temples, churches and other spiritual venues at national, provincial and county levels, revealing how the country’s religious landscape has been shaped and fractured by its diverse geography.

“Some of my findings are not surprising to people who know about China,” he said. “For example, most of the Islamic mosques are concentrated in northwestern China, but it could be surprising to many people that you can find mosques in many areas all over China.”

Another surprising finding: Protestantism has become the predominant religion in many counties north of the Yangtze River in the eastern part of China. In some counties, Catholic churches outnumber sites of other religions.

“Since China’s economic reforms in the 1980s, there has been very rapid growth of Christianity that’s new to that part of the world, so there’s a lot of adjustment taking place,” he said. “Now you have different understandings, different rituals that create even more conversation about religious change in east Asia.”

The book is based on Yang’s theoretical framework of triple markets of religion in China: red, black and gray.

The red market is composed of the five religions – Buddhism, Catholicism, Taoism (also Daoism), Islam and Protestantism under patriotic associations – approved by the government. The black market includes banned religions operating underground, while the gray market contains legally ambiguous groups and activities.

The atlas also outlines the contours of Confucianism, folk religion and the Mao cult. Further, it describes the main organizations, beliefs and rituals of China’s main religions, as well as the social and demographic characteristics of their respective believers.

“To complement the Atlas book, we are developing the Online Spiritual Atlas of China. OSAC will allow users to view the religious landscape by province, prefecture, or county, input information of religious sites that are not already in the database, or suggest corrections of existing sites,” Yang said. “We are also developing plans to expand the mapping of religion and society beyond China.”

A book launch for the new atlas and roundtable discussion on religious mapping in China is taking place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday (Nov. 9) in Heavilon Hall, Room G17. 

Writer: Joseph Paul, 765-494-9541,  

Source: Fenggang Yang,

Purdue University, 610 Purdue Mall, West Lafayette, IN 47907, (765) 494-4600

© 2015-22 Purdue University | An equal access/equal opportunity university | Copyright Complaints | Maintained by Office of Strategic Communications

Trouble with this page? Disability-related accessibility issue? Please contact News Service at