In the West, we think of someone as either a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim; it is not possible for someone to be both a Christian and a Muslim. However, this was not the case in China. It was not only possible but common for someone to turn to Confucianism for family and ethical concerns, to Daoism (sometimes spelled Taoism, but Daoism is preferred today) for physical and psychological health concerns, to Buddhism for funeral procedures, and to the local gods and spirits unconnected with these three traditions, to deal with more mundane concerns. Moreover, the native Chinese traditions of Confucianism and Daoism share many of the same basic ideas about how the world functions, the role of mankind in the world, the functions of gods and spirits, the ethical ideas that shaped China, etc. When Buddhism arrived in China from India, and became popular in the 2nd century A.D., it too began to absorb these Chinese ideas and to change in a number of ways.
Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism are all mature religions; Confucianism is characterized by its stress on world harmony and interpersonal harmony as well as its stress on self-cultivation. Daoism is characterized by its valuation of life and its pursuit of peace, harmony and tranquility. Buddhism is characterized by its organic combination of the religious elements of love, hope, belief, saving, redeeming and solicitude for the ultimacy.
Confucius (romanized from Chinese Kongzi 孔子 "Master Kong") ,born in 551 BC as the scion of an impoverished noble family in the state of Lu during the Spring and Autumn period, set up Confucianism through traveling to different states and dissemination his teachings to his disciples. Confucianism furnished the theoretical basis for the patriarchal religion that combined religion and politics.
Confucius was the earliest Chinese scholar who noted the similarities of the human nature. This theory of similarities is the basis of the ontology of humanism. Matched with the “analogies and similarities” methodology, this theory was the basic orientation of Confucianism on humanity. Mencius complemented this theory by asserting the existence of differences between sages and ordinary people. The Confucian theory, on human nature presupposes the identity of humans. This supposition leads to harmony and unity of the people, serving a political purpose. But this theory must also include the assertion of the differences between the emperor and the people and between the sages and the ordinary people. These differences are compatible with the inherent demands of harmony this is the logic of all religious theories. Confucianism has become a religion without the title of religion, which is unique in the world.
Like Confucianism, Daoism is a native Chinese tradition that is both a philosophy and a religion. The highest deity of Daoism is, of course, the "Old Master" Laozi, who is called in temples "Old Lord" Lao Jun, or "Holy Lord" Shengjun. He and the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), who made order in the world and who was the first to create the traditional way of Chinese ruler ship, are the main persons of the Taoist religion that developed during the late Warring States period on and was called Huang-Lao thought.
Daoism aims at immortality, and believes that by practicing Daoism
the human can be carefree and live forever. An eternal life combined with “Dao” (way) forms the goal of Daoism. It stresses that “Keep one living on is the way to immortality “and that “My life depends on myself, not on the nature”. The key to practicing Daoism lies in cultivating both one’s nature and one’s life. Cultivating one’ nature is to cultivate one’s morality. Cultivating one’s life is to keep living on.
Daoism reveres the Yellow Emperor (Huang-di). It inherits the tradition of the Chinese nation of worshipping gods and ancestors. The gods worshipped in Daoism include the heavenly deities, the deities of mountain and rivers, the early ancestors, the sages, the men of virtue, and the persons who attained immortality.
Women play an important role in Daoism: as teachers who influenced its development, as practitioners in its rituals, and as goddesses, the embodiment of feminine (Yin ) energy. The most famous of these immortal goddesses is the Queen mother of the West, who inhabits a mountain in the Kunlun range and teaches the arts of immortality. One of the oldest goddesses in China, she pre-dates Daoism, which
adopted her, and she guards the garden containing the peaches of immortality; these peaches mature every 3000 years; to find the garden and eat these peaches guarantees immortality. She was the head of a large pantheon of goddesses. Mortal women were ordained as Daoist priests and there are a number of records of Imperial princesses performing this function; they became religious instructors and scholars, founders of sects of Daoism and they could serve as nuns. Women had a vital influence on the growth of religious Daoism.
Buddhism is the only foreign religion that has been widely accepted in China，which is the third of the mix of great religions that shaped Chinese life and culture. Buddhism was not a native tradition but originated in India and was brought to China over a number of centuries by traders, missionaries, and travelers. While it entered China during the Eastern Han dynasty (1st and 2nd centuries A.D.) it didn't become popular until the period of division in China (3-6th centuries).
The basic ideas of Buddhism are expressed in the formula of the Four Noble Truths, and the eight-fold Path. The four Truths are: suffering exists as an inescapable part of life; suffering has a cause, that cause is desire for things to be different than they are, and this suffering can be eliminated with the elimination of desire. Desire can be eliminated by following the eightfold path: practicing Ethical Conduct (right speech,
livelihood, and actions), Wisdom (right views and intentions) and Mental Development (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration). In its original formulation, practicing these 8 virtues, could result in one having the same awakening to the true facts of life as the Buddha had, and would result in one escaping the cycle of rebirth by eliminating that which caused one to be reborn, one's Karma.
Buddhist temples became centerpieces of worship and study; they also became key to funerals and soon took over the function of burial and remembrance. To have Buddhist monks at the funeral became an assurance of a good rebirth; to have one's spirit plaque in the temple, meant that one benefited form daily prayers. Buddhists undertook public work projects including bridge and road building, running hostels for travelers, orphanages and old age homes, etc.