China has many different types of people who follow different types of religions and philosophies. The Chinese population is approximately 92 percent ethnic Han Chinese. The 8 percent minority population is settled over nearly 60 percent of China’s area. This gives the non-Han peoples of China a significance that looms larger than their percentage of the population might suggest.

China has a long and rich cultural tradition in which education has played a major role. Throughout the imperial period (221 BC- AD 1912), only the educated held positions of social and political leadership. In 124 BC the first university was established for training prospective bureaucrats in Confucian learning and the Chinese classics. Historically, however, few Chinese have been able to take the time to learn the complex language and its associated literature. It is estimated that as late as 1949 only 20 percent of China’s population was literate. To the Chinese Communists, this illiteracy was a stumbling block for the promotion of their political programs. Therefore, the Communists combined political propaganda with educational development. The 1990 census showed the literacy rate has climbed to 78 percent.

The Chinese have had a written language for more than 3000 years. Although the Chinese language comprises more than a dozen major spoken dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible, all writing is done with the same script, or characters. This literary unity has been significant to the historical unity of the Chinese people since the Shang dynasty (1766?-1027? BC).

One of the most ambitious efforts of the Chinese Communist government since 1949 has been the modification of the Chinese language. The official spoken language of the Chinese is Putonghua. It is sometimes known to Westerners as Mandarin and is the dialect of North China. This dialect was declared the common language at the National Conference on Reform of the Chinese Written Language in 1955. Major efforts have also been directed toward modifying the written language. The use of simplified characters—traditional characters written with fewer strokes or in a type of shorthand—has steadily increased. This has been done to facilitate the government’s goal of broader literacy.

One of the early acts of the Chinese Communist Party after it gained control in 1949 was to officially eliminate organized religion. Previously the dominant religions in China had been Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Because of the nature of Confucianism, and because most Chinese were affected by all three major faiths and thus lacked strong allegiance to a single religion, the population offered little resistance to the party’s move.

Chief among the more formal religions of China, in addition to Buddhism and Taoism, were Christianity and Islam. Most temples and schools of these four religions were converted to secular purposes. Only with the constitution of 1978 was official support again given for the promulgation of formal religion in China. The constitution also stated, however, that the Chinese population had the right to hold no religious beliefs and “to propagate atheism.” The constitution of 1982 allows residents freedom of religious belief, and protects legitimate religious activities. Since then many temples, churches, and mosques have reopened.

Since religious rights were guaranteed, Christian groups in the cities and Buddhist sects in both the cities and countryside have been extremely active. The ethnic Chinese Muslims, or Hui, as well as the Muslim minority peoples such as the Uygur, Kazak, and Kirgiz, have held their faith in Islam continually but now practice their religion more openly.