Religious practice in ancient China dates back over 7,000 years ago. Long before the Confucius, Lao Zi and the Buddha got accepted and developed philosophical and spiritual teachings, the people believed, developed and worshipped personifications of nature and concepts like "wealth" or "fortune" which eventually developed into a religion. Such thoughts and beliefs still influence religious practices today.
Evidence suggests Chinese mythological symbolism from the 12th century BC carved in the Oracle bone scripts. Legend of creation were passing down for over a thousand years before was written in books such as Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海經 (4 BC - 2 BC).
The first writer to record the myth of Pangu was Xu Zheng 徐整 during the Three Kingdoms period (220 – 280 AD). Pangu 盘古 was the first God – Creator, equivalent to concept of God found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Pangu is creator and founder of the Heavens and the Earth. Creation story goes as follow: In the beginning of time, there was nothing in the universe except a formless chaos. This chaos coalesced into a black cosmic egg for about 18,000 years. Within it, Pangu was born inside of this egg, and the perfectly opposed principles of Yin and Yang became balanced. Having been realized he was trapped within it, Pangu woke up from the egg.
What is outstanding about story of Pangu is first appearance of consciences and existence of thoughts. Pangu is usually presented as a tinny, primitive, hairy giant who has horns on his head and wears fur. Story continues as Pangu cracked the egg and began to push it apart, essentially splitting the Yin and Yang in order to produce new creations. The upper half of the shell became the sky above him, and the lower half became the earth. To keep them disconnected, Pangu stood between them and pushed up the Sky. With each day, the sky grew 3 meters higher, the Earth 3 meters thicker, and Pangu 3 meters taller. This process took him 18,000 years to finish it. At the same time, Pangu grew to an incredible size. During this period, the heaven continued ascending and expanding while the earth was sinking and thickening until the distance between them was as far as 90,000 kilometers. That was the condition of the universe in our eyes at present.
Interestingly enough, at the present time, the Earth circumference size is about 40,041 km. When we estimate circumference size of the Earth this legend provide us with, we can get following results: as mention earlier on daily basis Earth was growing 3 meters. When we multiply 3 meters daily growth of the Earth within one year, cumulatively is 1,95 km yearly. Finally, when we multiplied 1.95 km within time zone of 18000 years, it gives the Earth final circumference size of 35.100 km. It is amazing to reach such numbers, and practically such circumference size is equivalent to circumference size of the present time Earth. If we exclude for time being factors such as, comets and meteors impact, which definitely contributed to the present Earth mass, it is hard to believe that legend is created by primitive people without knowing mathematics, astronomy, etc.
However, lets continue story of Pangu. Pangu gradually weakened after he separated the heaven and the earth. After the 18,000 years had elapsed, Pangu died. After he died, his body turned into all the things in the universe. His left eye became the sun and his right eye, the moon. The protruded parts in his body turn out to be high mountains and his blood became rivers. His muscles became the soil field, and his hair and beard became the stars on the sky and grasses on the ground. His teeth and bones turned out to be iron and huge stones, while the essence in his body became pearls and precious jade. His breath became the wind and cloud, his shout became the thunderbolt, and the sweat turned out to be the rain.
Religious beliefs were found in the Yellow River Valley, which prospered between 5000-3000 BC. In Banpo Village situated in Shaanxi Province (between c. 4500-3750 BC) 250 tombs were found containing grave goods, which point to a belief in life after death. It was a matrilineal culture, meaning women were dominant, so this religious figure would have been a woman based on the grave goods.
Lajia Village from the Qinhai province historically is often described to as the "Chinese Pompeii", because it was destroyed by an earthquake. Archeologists on the spot found evidence that the people worshipped a supreme god who was king of many other lesser deities as early as c. 2200 BCE.
By the time of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE) religious beliefs recognized existence a definite "king of the gods" named Shangdi - 上帝, and many lesser gods. Shangdi ruled over everything related to the state. Shangdi was the god of law, order, justice, and life. Shangdi organized how the universe would run and the lives of all the people were under his constant watch. Social hierarchy and ruling dynasties were decided entirely by Shangdi.
Archeological evidence of lesser gods such as Nuwa 女媧 mother goddess of humankind, was found as the early Shang Dynasty. In several books (from 475 BC – 147 AD) Nuwa was described as goddess, part woman and part dragon who molded human beings from the yellow mud of the Yellow River and blew her breath into them to bring them to life. She lived with her brother and husband Fuxi 伏羲. She continued making people and bringing them to life but grew tired of it finally. She invented marriage so people could reproduce without her. Having realized that people were without skills, she asked Fuxi to help. Fuxi taught people hunting, fishing and cooking as well as the Cangjie system of writing Chinese characters at least as 2,000 BC.
After physical need of people were satisfied, he gave them the gifts of music, writing, and divination. Nuwa and Fuxi were considered the mother and father of human beings and always were called on for protection. Belief in ghosts, goes back to creation of mankind by goddess Nuwa. Ghosts were the spirits of deceased persons who had not been buried correctly with due honors, or were still attached to the earth for other reasons. Ghosts played a very important role in Chinese religion and culture and still do. The ritual still practiced in China today known as Tomb Sweeping Day (qing ming jie 清明节) is observed to honor the dead and make sure they are happy in the afterlife. If they are not, they are thought to return to haunt the living. The Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors on Tomb Sweeping Day, even if they never do at any other time of the year, to tend the graves and pay their respects.
When someone died naturally or was buried with the proper honors, there was no fear of them returning as a ghost. The Chinese believed that, if the person had lived a good life, they went to live with the gods after death. These spirits of one's ancestors were prayed to so they could approach Shangdi with the problems and praise of those on earth.
Divination became a significant part of Chinese religious beliefs and was performed by people with mystical powers (psychic or prophets) using oracle bones to tell one's future. These ancestors were in touch with eternal spirits, the gods, who controlled and maintained the universe.
The Zhou dynasty (c. 1046-226 BCE) opposed the ancestor-gods of the Shang dynasty, and gods of nature became dominant. The Zhou dynasty was also the beginning of China’s Iron Age. The Zhou Dynasty ruled with a Confucian Social Hierarchy. Confucianism came to popularity during the Zhou Dynasty and the kings expected their citizens to follow the rules and values of Confucianism.
Buddhism arrived in China via trade through the Silk Road by priests from India. The Han emperor Ming汉明帝 (28-75 CE) sent emissaries to bring Buddhist teachings to China. Buddhism quickly combined with the earlier folk religion and incorporated ancestor worship and veneration of Buddha as a god. Buddhism was welcomed in China and took its place alongside Confucianism, Taoism, and the blended folk religion as a major influence on the spiritual lives of the people.
An important aspect of Chinese religion, is known as "hygiene schools" instructed people on how to take care of themselves to live longer lives or even achieve immortality. Those schools were part of the temple or monastery.
Nowadays we can describe Chinese beliefs as a blend of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and folk traditions. These four beliefs forms religious structure of Chinese culture. During last several hundred years Christianity and Islam were introduced in China. Religious beliefs have always been very important to the Chinese people even though the People's Republic of China originally outlawed religion 1949. Nowadays, the People's Republic allows practicing religion and even encourage organized religion in order to stabilize negative influence in the lives of its citizens.