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Yunnan Religions

Characteristics of the religions in Yunnan

The religions in Yunnan are different from those of the inlandprovince in the following three aspects.


Firstly, Yunnan ranks first in China in terms of religious beliefs. Yunnan has all the five influential religions with many branch sects, namely, Han, Southern and Tibetan Classical Buddhism; the Qadim (the Old Sect), the Jahariyah Sect (the New Sect), and the Ikhwan Sect (the Newest Sect) of Islam; Catholicism and Protestantism of Christianity; the True Unity Sect and the Complete Unity Sect of Daoism. In China Southern Buddhism exists only in Yunnan. Primitive religions in Yunnan have involved most of the content and forms of their kinds.


Secondly, the religions are well combined with the ethnic cultures. Because Yunnan is a province with the largest number of nationalities, the development of religions here has been greatly influenced by the ethnic cultures. For instance, when Mahayana Buddhism was brought to Yunnan, it incorporated itself with the local culture and brought about an obvious phenomenon of Avalokitesvara (Goddess of Mercy) worship in the Erhai Lake area. The legends of “Avalokitesvara fighting against man—eating demons” , " Avalokitesvara carrying a big stone to obstruct the enemy”, the origin of the Avalokitesvara festival and a large number of Avalokitesvara figures in Shizhong Shan Grottos in Jianchuan are some of the evidence to support this phenomenon. The statues in Shizhong Shan Grotto reflecting the three kings (Xinuluo, Geluofeng, and Yimuxun) of the Nanzhao Kingdom also indicate the combination of Buddhism with the local ethnic cultures. More examples show the combinations of Daoism with the local cultures. The fusion of Daosim with witchcraft of the Yi people has resulted in community patron god worship. Xinuluo, the king of the Nanzhao Kingdom is not only considered as the Mountain Deity but also as the reverend god of Daosim in Yunnan. Daoism, when combined with the ancestor worship and hero worship of the Bai people, produced the unique patron god (the god protecting a village or a place, it could be a national hero, an animal or a plant) worship.


Thirdly, all these religions permeate and influence one another. Evidences to this feature are found in many places in Yunnan. The temples and grottoes from the Sanqing Pavilion to the Dragon Gate at the Western Hill, and the Golden Temple Scenic Spot in Kunming all reflect the phenomenon of the unity of the three religions, Daosim, Buddhism and Confucianism. The Weibaoshan Mountain in Weishan County is a Daoist shrine but has many Buddhism temples as well. The Lijiang Frescos integrate Mahayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism with Daosim. In the Shizhong Shan Grotto in Jianchuan County, there are statues of Mahayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and even Pertians.


The geographical location of Yunnan is a decisive factor for the shaping of the above mentioned features. Closely connected with the inland of China with the Qinghai—Tibet Plateau at its back and facing South and Southeast Asia, Yuunan sits at the joining point of Zhongyuan Culture (the Central Plains), Southeastern Asia Culture and Tibetan Culture. All this helps to shape the three main religious features in Yunnan.

Primitive religion

Primitive religion emerged at a certain stage of primitive society. It is the earliest form of religion reflecting the contradiction between human beings and Nature and characterized by multi—god worship and witch craft dominance. The primitive religion of the ethnic groups in Yunnan is rich in its content and varied in its forms, gathering together almost all the content and forms of primitive religion. It embodies nature worship, animal and plant worship, totem worship, ghost and spirit worship, ancestor worship, and sexuality worship. Many mysterious rituals are still observed to this day. The unbalanced social, political, economical, and cultural development in Yunnan is the foundation for the primitive religion to survive. It has far—reaching influences over the minority areas in Yunnan. The primitive religion exists even among the nationalities with Buddhist, Islamic and Christian beliefs.

The worship of nature is the fundamental form of primitive worship. The Lahu, Jingpo, Lisu, Nu and Dulong ethnic groups worship the heaven, the earth, the sun, the moon, thunder, lightening, fire, mountain, water, gigantic stones and big trees.


Totem worship is the worship of a certain animal, plant or non—living objects that are considered as the ancestors and kinship of the native people. The most popular totem worship by the Yunnan minority ethnic groups is the tiger. The vestiges of tiger worship are found among the Yi, Dai, Pumi, Hani, and the Lahu nationalities. The Bulang people take the bamboo rat as their totem. Some ethnic people have more than one totem. The Kemu people in Xishuangbanna have 25 totems. The totem for the Yi people in Funing County is bamboo and that for the Nus in Fugong County is the Tulang tree.


The essence of ancestor worship in Yunnan is the belief that the soul of people never dies; the soul of the dead ancestors lives in another world and keeps in touch with their families and protects their family members secretly. Ancestor worship is fully displayed at each stage of the funerals and relevant ceremonies in family worshiping and sacrificial ceremonies as well.


The feature of sextuality worship is the worship of a round and smooth stone, or a wooden club in the shape of the male genital organ, and caves, or stone fissures in the shape of the female genital organ. Generally speaking, the female sextuality worship takes a dominant position while the male sextuality worship also remains.


As a matter of fact, the primitive religions in Yunnan are complicated. Some of them are the incorporations and variations of several primitive beliefs. For example, The Native God Worship of the Bais is a result of combining the ancestor worship with nature worship and other concepts and beliefs. The formation of the Dongba religion of the Naxi ethnic group is also an outcome of integrating the Bon (Tibetan primitive religion) with the local primitive religion.

There are various priests sorcerers for various primitive religions. They take different responsibilities and have different names, such as, Bimo (chief wizard) and Suye of the Yi, Wu, Nanmusa of the Dulong, Zhuima of the Hani, Dongba of the Naxi, Loumiaweng and Namangong of the Yiao, and Niba and Biba of the Lisu minority groups.


Many festivals of Yunnan ethnic groups have a close relationship with primitive religions. Some of them have development from sacrificial activities for production while others started from ancestor worship. Influential festivals with primitive religious features are the Torch Festival, the Munao Zongge Festival (Song and Dance Festival) and the Caihuashan Festival (Flower Festival).


Primitive religion is a general phenomenon among minority nationalities. It can be attributed to people’s dependence on nature and their powerlessness towards nature. With the liberation of the prouctive force, the development in science and technology and the progress in culture and education , the ideological understanding and civilization standard of the minority people are improving. The scope of primitive religion is either shrinking or being substituted by other religions.

Christianity is a general term for a religion worshiping Jesus as the supreme God. It comprises three principal divisions; Catholism, the Orthodox Eastern Church and Protestantism besides some minor sects. In China, the term Christianity is used in its narrow sense to refer to Protestantism. To make it clear, this book uses the term Protestantism instead of Christianity in its narrow sense. Christmas and Easter Day are the principal holidays for Christians. The former commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ on the 25th of December while the latter celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from late March to late April.


There are two division of Christianity in Yunnan: Protestantism and Catholicism.

(1) Protestantism

Protestantism and Catholicism hold almost the same basic beliefs. They differ basically on a few issues. The Protestants don’t accept Mary as the Mother of Jesus Christ, don’t believe on purgatory and don’t accept the final authority of the Apostolic Church.


Protestantism was first introduced to Yunnan in the 3rd year of the Guangxu Period of the Qing Dynasty (1877) by the British missionary John M’Carthy from Shanghai. Missionaries from Canada and Australia followed later and preached their religions in the minority regions. Before the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Protestantism was only popular among some ethnic groups. After the founding of the new China, the patriotic protestants in Yunnan carried out Three—Self  (The self—government, self—support, and self—propagation) Movement. In July 1963, The Yunnan Branch of the Three—Self Patriotic Movement Committee of Protestant Churches of China was inaugurated. The Christian Association of Yunnan was founded in September 1981 and its office is in the Sanyi (Trinity) Church in Wucheng Road in Kunming.


Now, Protestantism is quite popular in 16 prefectures and township in Yunnan with more than 300,000 believers from the Han, Miao, Lisu, Jingpo, Yi, Wa, Nu, Dulong, Lahu and the Dai nationalities. By May 1986, 1,488 churches were in service and there were 427 places for activities and 1,001 Protestant staff members. Principle churches of Protestantism in Yunnan include: the Sanyi (the Trinity) Church, St.John’s Church, the Church of the Gospel, the Holy Chuch of Xi’an, in Kunming, the Salaowu Church in Luquan County, the Gospel Church in Dali Township, the Nuofu Church in Lancang County in Zhaotong County, and the new Church in Baoshan Town in Luxi Township.


(2) Roman Catholicism

Roman Catholicism was brought to Yunnan during the period of the late Ming and the early Qing dynasties. In the 35th year of the Kangxi Period of the Qing Dynasty (1696), Catholic parishes were set up in Yunnan and in the 23rd year of the Daoguang Period (1843), the Episcopal church was established in Yanjin County, and was moved to Kunming in 1881. in 1948, the Kunming parish was promoted as “the Yunnan General Episcopal Church Parish”. After the founding of the new China, the patriotic Catholics carried out the Three—Self Movement. Yunnan Patriotic Catholic Association and the Administrative Commission of the Yunnan Catholic Church were formed in October 1985 with their offices set in the Catholic Church in Beijing Road, Kunming. Catholicism is popular mainly in Kunming, Zhaotong, Honghe, Wenshan, Dali, Lijiang, Qujing, Diqing and Dehong prefectures and municipalities. The 30,000 believers are from the Han, Yi, Miao, Lisu, and the Jingpo nationalities. By May 1996, there were 43 service members and 36 churches open to service. The principal Catholic churches are: the Catholic Church in Beijing Road, in Kunming, the Catholic Church in Xinmin Road in Dali Township, the Catholic Church in Maohuo Street in Zhaotong County and the Cizhong Village Catholic Church in Deqing County.


Islam was introduced to Yunnan in 1253 when Kublai, the fifth emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, pacified Dali. Later, Kubai sent Sayyid All Omer Shams al—Din to Yunnan to be the Prime Minister (now called governor) to take charge of the state affairs (1274—1279). Sayyid All Omer Shans al—Din, during his reign, established 12 mosques in Kunming, two of which are the Nabcheng Mosque (Kunming South Mosque) in Zhengyi Road and the Yongning Mosque (The Mosque of Everlasting Peace) at the Dongsi Street (East Temple Street) corner.


Now, Islam has spread all over Yunnan Province, mainly in Kunming, Yuxi, Honghe, Wenshan, Dali, Baoshan, Zhaotong, Chuxiong, Simao, and Qujing prefectures and municipalities. It is believed by the Hui, some Dais, Bais, Tibetans and Zhuangs. Followers of Islam are about 500,000. by May 1996, there were 717 mosques in service, 11 qubbahs (domed buildings) and Yunnan Branch of the Islam Association of China was founded in 1984 and its office is set in the Shunchen Mosque in Kunming.


Yunnan is rich in Islamic classics. The well—known woodcut edition of Koran in Yunnan was inscribed in the 21st year of the Guanxu Period of the Qing Dynasty in the charge of Ma Lianyuan, a scripture master. In 1984, it was emended and reprinted. It has become a precious Chinese Islamic cultural relic. The other version of Koran, translated by Ma Jian, a Yunnan Islamic scholar, is very popular in China. Both versions have enjoyed a high reputation at home and abroad. In addition, the Islamic classics preserved in each mosque in Yunnan and in private collections are more than one hundred. The Hadith (Tradition), the Islamic Guidebook and Concise Four—Aspect Exposition of Islamism are among the most popular.


Historically, Yunnan Islam was divided into three sects: the Qadim (the Old Sect), the Jahariyah Sect (the New Sect), and the Ikhwan Sect (the Newest Sect). Qadim is the most popular sect and has the largest number of Islamists, accounting for 90% of the total Islam follower. It has incorporated lots of Confucius thoughts and initiated the unique mosque education characterized by the way of teaching in both Arabian and Chinese. The mosque education is a kind of religious education that is provided by schools attached to the mosques in the history of popularizing Oslam in China.

The distribution of the mosques in Yunnan is in accord with the distribution of the Hui people who scatter over widely and live together in compact communities. Most Mosques in Yunnan are in a Chinese temple style except those in an Arabic style. They are the natural combination of Islamic culture with the Han, Dai, Tibetan, and Bai architectural art.

Besides the well—known Nancheng Mosque, the Yongning Mosque, the Shuncheng Street Mosque in Kunming, the Shadian Mosque in Gejiu City and the Tianxin Mosque in Yanshan County are also famous. The Shadian Mosque is known as the largest mosque in the province. It can hold 4,000 people to do Salat (congregational prayer). During the later years of the Qing Dynasty and the early years of the Min Dynasty, some young Moslems from Shadian representing Chinese Moslem students went to Egypt to study in Aizihaer University in Cairo and about a hundred people went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. For this reason, Shadian earned the name of “Little Mecca in south Yunnan” at that time.

The Islamic festivals observed in China are mainly those of Mohammed’s Birthday, Lesser Bairam, and Korban Bairam.


Daoism is the religion native to China. It took shape in the later years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (2nd century). It spread to Yunnan soon after it was established but had little influence at the beginning. In the Tang Dynasty, Yunnan Daosim combined itself with the primitive religion of the Yi nationality and developed rapidly, making the Weishan Mountain in Dali its centre. For example, the Bai’s worship of their native God and Dongjinhui of the Naxi people have a close relation with Daosim. The Ming and the Qing dynasties saw the heyday of Daosim in Yunnan. He was a priest of both the Zhengyi Sect (the True Unity Sect) and the Quanzhen Sect (the Complete Unity Sect). he changed the Zhenwu monastic house into the Zhenqing Monastery and built the Longquan  Monastery (Dragon Spring Monastery) at the Black Dragon Pool in Kunming and greatly influenced the development of Daosim in Yunnan.

Daosim is Yunnan is popular mainly in Kunming, Baoshan, Lincang, Dali, Zhaotong orefectures and municipalities. Most of the 50,000 Daosim are from the Han nationality. There are 71 Daoist temples and monasteries open to the public and 190 Daoist service members in Yunnan.


Historically, Yunnan had many Daoist temples and more than 40 of them are still in good condition. Among them, the Golden Palace, the Black Dragon Pool, the Sanqing Temple in the Western Hill, the Zhenqing Monastery in Baita Road in Kunming, the Yufeng Mountain in tengchong County, the Dalong Cave in Zhaotong County, the Sanqing Temple in Lincang County are the best—known, with many Daoist temples like the Zhunti Temple, the Laojun Hall (Hall of Lao Master), the Doulao Hall (The Goddess Hall), and the Changchun Cave. The Weibaoshan Mountain in Weishan County has earned the name of “Famous Daoist Mountain in Yunnan.”


The worship ceremony of Daoism is called ceremonial prayer. It consists of sutras chanting and sacrificial ceremonies. The grandest of the ceremonial prayers is the temple fair held on 9th January in each lunar year, commemorating the birth of the Jade Emperor. The Golden Palace at that time is a magnificent sight good enough to be called the grandest gathering in central Yunnan.


The Dongjing Society is a Daoist organization which holds many activities in various places in Yunnan, including the sacrifices to the Daoist gods and the chanting of scriptures to music. Daoist music, simple and natural with a name for each song, is quite popular with the Han, the Bai, and the Naxi people.


The widely spread Buddhism in Yunnan mainly consists of there divisions. They are Hynayana Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism). Among them, Hynayana Buddhism exists only in Yunnan, China. Yunnan branch of the Buddhist Association of China was formed in July 1963. This patriotic religious organization contains all the three divisions of Buddhism in Yunnan. The site od the Yunnan Branch of Buddhist Association is in the Yuantong Temple in Kunming and the president of the association id Daoshuren, a Buddhist layman and a Dai by nationality, who concurrently holds the positions of the Vice Executive President and Secretary—general of the Buddhist Association of China.

1.1 Southern Buddhism (also called Pali Buddhism, populary known as Hynayana Buddhism or Small Vehicle)

1.2 Han Buddhism (also called Han Language Classic Buddhism or Han Region Buddhism, popularly know as Mahayana Buddhism or Big Vehicle)

1.3 Tibetan Buddhism (also called the Tibetan Classical Buddhism and popularly known as Lamaism)

A Variety of Religions
Yunnan ranks first in China in terms of religious beliefs and is worth the name of “the Kingdom of Religion”. The five main religions in Yunnan are Buddhism (including Mahayana, Hynayana and Lamaism), Daoism, Christianity, Islam and primitive religion. According to the statistic made in May 1996, except primitive religion, there are 4,789 places for religious activities, 9,481 people are involved in religious service, and about 2 million people believe in different religions.

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