Traditionally, the three strands in Chinese religion and philosophy are Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. An eclectic approach to religion allows the three to coexist, often within a single temple. Confucianism, the first to gain real influence, can be seen as a manifestation of the public, socially responsible self. Daoism represents a personal and wilder side; its emphasis on the relativity of things contrasts with Confucian concern for approved roles. Buddhism, a foreign import, is spiritual and otherworldly, offering an alternative to Chinese pragmatism.
Originated by Confucius (551–479 BC) and developed by later thinkers, Confucianism advocates a structured society in which people are bound to each other by the moral ties of the five familial relationships: parent child, ruler-subject, brother-brother, husband-wife, and friend-friend. In Imperial China, Confucianism was the philosophy of the elite scholar gentleman class.
Strongly linked with early folk beliefs, Daoism incorporates the traditional concepts of an ordered universe, yin and yang, and directed energy, qi. Over time, Daoism developed into a complex religion with an extensive pantheon. Daoist philosophy encourages following one’s intuition and following the grain of the universe by living in accordance with the Dao.
In China the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which promises salvation to anyone who seeks it, is followed. Enlightened ones, bodhisattvas, remain in this world to help enlighten others. Through deeds and devotion believers gain merit and maintain their connections with the bodhisattvas, bringing them closer to nirvana.