Harmony and balance are the two most important themes in Chinese spirituality. Much Chinese philosophy depicts the world as consisting of primal, interacting opposites, often called yin and yang. Everything in the world-male and female, light and darkness, heat and cold-has a yin or yang aspect; for example, femaleness is yin, and maleness is yang. Traditional Chinese religious practices were performed to ensure that people would remain in harmony with these different aspects of nature and society.

Balance and harmony are central themes in two major-though very different-Chinese philosophies. Taoism, a spiritual practice not based on any deity, arose in 600 BC and is concerned with the mystical side of nature. Practitioners try to live in harmony with the universe by following the tao (way). The philosophy of Confucianism arose in 550 BC and was designed to bring about social harmony by establishing clearly defined roles and responsibilities for every person. The Confucian emphasis on filial piety also reinforced the older Chinese tradition of worshiping ancestors.

Traditionally, most Chinese were pragmatic in their religious practices: they were performed to bring about results. Many practised aspects of more than one religion. For centuries, Buddhism was an important religion in China, but followers were also able to follow Confucian ideals and practise Taoist rites.

Under Communism, China became officially atheist and religion was discouraged by the government. However, ethnic minorities have been allowed to practise some aspects of their faith; most of these people are Muslim, Buddhist or Christian. The Chinese government has more severely repressed Buddhism in occupied Tibet, though has somewhat softened this stance. Ancestor veneration is returning, especially in the rural areas.

  Did you know?
The Taoist principle of feng shui (wind-water) concerns the placement of buildings and objects such as doors, windows and furniture to ensure harmony with nature. Feng shui is widely practised both at home and in business.