China has a vast land and a large population, thus a variety of religions grew and matured in this old nation. There are now mainly five religions, including Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and other Christian religions. Confucianism, a philosophy rather than a religion, surprisingly ruled China for 2,000 years. There are still other primitive religions and beliefs followed by some ethnic groups.
Buddhism spread into China during the Han dynasty, and played an important role in Chinese history and culture.
Generally, Buddhism in China can be categorized into Han Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Southern Buddhism. Han Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism are important divisions of the religion, since they keep many important Buddhist scriptures translated from the Sanskrit editions, which are extinct in India due to demolition happened there many years ago. Namas Amitabha!
Taoism was founded in China during the Han dynasty. The Chinese philosopher, Lu Xun once said: "China roots deep in Taoism. If one wants to comprehend Chinese history and culture, one must comprehend Taoism first."
Islam arose in China's coastal cities in the Tang dynasty (618 - 907 AD) and gradually spread to many other areas. Arab traders who landed on the southern coast of China established their mosques in great maritime cities like Guangzhou and Quanzhou. Islam is also an important religion in China, since the religion of Allah converted many ethnic groups like Uygur, Hui and Kazak, etc.
Catholicism was widely embraced in China in the year 635 during the Tang dynasty (618 - 907), but the enthusiasm soon waned. A historical record of the event was made on a stone stele which is now display in Xi'an. Later in the Yuan dynasty (1271 - 1368) the religion attempted a comeback for a short period. In the tenth year of Wanli reign (1582) in the Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644), the Italian priest Matteo Ricci, was permitted to set up churches. After the opium war, catholic developed rapidly in China.
Christianity not of a Catholic or eastern church (i.e. Presbyterian, Lutheran) was introduced to China during the 1930s, when there was a large influx of missionaries.
Originally Taoism was only one school of philosophy amidst dozens. However, by 440 CE Taoism (translated into English as the path or way) had transformed into a religious belief and was adopted as the state religion during the late East Han Dynasty.
The most famous early Taoist thinkers are Laozi (titleernate spellings: Laotzu, Laotse, Lao Dan, Li Er) and Zhuang Zi (a.k.a Chuang Tzu). They were important figures in the development of philosophical Taoism and seemed to have no intention of founding a new religion.
Legend says Laotzu had such profound wisdom that even Confucius visited him. He and Zhuang Zi developed the idea of Tao, the essential life force that flows through all living beings. They believed that nature was the source for all spiritual living and that humans could only thrive if they lived in harmony with the environment.
There is little historical record remaining on the life of Laotzu. He faded into the history after he finished the famous book, Tao Te Jing (The Book of the Way of Power or Classic of the Way and Its Power). This 5,000-character manuscript later became the Taoist bible. Later, Chuang Tzu developed Taoism theory further and left another Taoist canon named with his own name - Chuang Tzu (The Book of Chuang Tzu).
In later years Taoism was overwhelmed by the emerging Buddhist faith. However, during the Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties, Taoism boomed due to the imperial support. In the middle Qing Dynasty, Taoism lost imperial support and began to wane. However, it still has many followers in the country who practice acupuncture, herbal medicine, meditation and Tai Chi.
Taoism is hard to understand, however, it tells many truths and shows wisdom.
At the center of Taoism is the concept of Tao, which is the natural order of things and cannot be explained since it exceeds senses, thoughts and imagination. It needs more meditation and contemplation and can be known only through mystical intuition.
Literally Tao means "the path" or "the way". Tao is the natural way of the universe, the driving power in nature, the order behind all life and the driving force behind all living things. It underlies everything and works beyond human logic. Taoists believe Tao is the origin of the universe and creates all living beings, thus they worship all life in the universe and everything else created by nature, thereby worship nature.
Taoism mainly preaches Wuwei (Non-action). The concept does not mean to do nothing as it literally suggests. It means to follow the natural flow of nature and let everything be what it naturally will be, not trying against it to satisfy nature. The concept was Taoist living attitude and utopian governing method (to govern lightly, with least visibility and a serving attitude, not to take actions involving the people).
Taoism also advocates Wuyu (Non-intention), which requires people not to desire too much from life. Simplicity, compassion, moderation and humility are also Taoist teachings.
Taoism also claimed people can be physically immortal. Taoists engaged in alchemy long ago to produce Elixirs of Immortality. There were two sects of alchemists. The Outer alchemists believed in herbal medicine and pharmacology. The Inner alchemists believed in alchemy inside their bodies with energy, qi and spirit. As a result, Chinese medical science and Taoism helped each other all the way.
Dialectic Taoism holds an opinion that the movement of Tao is continuous interplay between opposites. Taoists consider Yin and Yang are negative and positive principles of the universe. One cannot exist without the other, and they often represent opposites in relations to each other. Through the Taoist totem above, one can know how important they are in Taoism. Yin usually means negative, female, dark, evil and earth while Yang means positive, male, light, good and heaven. It is very similar with the Yin and Yang theory in Wushu, Chinese Herbalism, etc.