CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Religion and Spirituality Among Chinese Immigrants in Turin, Italy

by PierLuigi Zoccatelli
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

1. The Research

In the two-year period 2007-2008, CESNUR and the Department of Social Sciences of the University of Turin carried out a research project regarding the Chinese community of Turin. Five researchers participated in this project. All deserve mention for their important contributions: Luigi Berzano, Carlo Genova, Massimo Introvigne, Roberta Ricucci and PierLuigi Zoccatelli.

The aim of this research was to create a “photograph” (syncronic) and a “film” (historical) of the Chinese immigrant community in Turin. At the beginning of this project, the immigrants totaled 4,081 (Rava 2007, 79). Institutionalized presences were studied through a series of qualitative interviews; quantitative data were studied in historical sequence; opinions were studied through a survey conducted on a sampling of 281 Chinese, carried out by mother tongue interviewers. The conflicting situations which emerged were studied in specific contexts.

With reference to a concept elaborated by the French anthropologist and sociologist, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), we may define the object of this research as a true “total fact.” According to Mauss’ model, four basic dimensions of analysis were used to identify the main features of this population: demographic profile, daily life and culture, economics and work, religion and spirituality.

In this paper, I focus on a few findings which emerged during our research specifically regarding the sphere of religion and spirituality in the Chinese community of Turin.

2. Methodological Overview

Are the Chinese immigrants living in Turin “religious?” Do they believe in “God”? It is not easy to answer these two questions through quantitative investigations even in China, a problem well known to sociologists of Chinese religion (Yang 2004; Yao 2007), for two main reasons. The first is that surveys regarding religion carried out in China up until the 1990s were considered, to quote Chinese sociologist Kangsheng Dai, “an important means for atheist education to the masses of people” (cit. in Yang 2004, 103).

There is however a second reason, which has nothing to do with the political regime, making quantitative research difficult. It regards the ancient and complex question of “Chinese religion,” an interweaving of hard-to-define beliefs and practices. “Chinese religion” is a scholarly construction. Practitioners of “Chinese religion” do not consider themselves as “belonging” to a “religion,” or as being “religious.” When interviewed for a survey, they will frankly and unashamedly say that they are not religious. Indeed, they are genuinely surprised when outside observers conclude from their answers that they may be classified as “religious.” Actually, for most Chinese, a person may be considered religious if he/she belongs to an institutionalized form of religion, particularly Christianity. Being affiliated with a Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian temple is not always considered to be the equivalent of “having a religion.” Moreover, these affiliations may coexist and are not mutually exclusive.

In China, people claiming to be “religious” generally are strongly and exclusively affiliated with certain well-organized forms of Buddhism, or they are Muslims or Christians (MacInnis 1994). Even the idea of “God,” a word hard to translate into Chinese, signifies for most people the God of Christians and Muslims, where these religious minorities exist, and does not refer to the ultimate, impersonal principle of Taoism, Buddhism, or “Chinese religion.” Thus individuals who in other contexts would surely be counted among “believers,” can easily affirm that they do not believe in God. Even when this question is asked with reference to an ultimate principle or a supreme entity, it is uncertain whether or not this concept is germane to the interviewee’s particular beliefs.

In an important study of “religious belief and practice” in Chinese metropolitan areas between 1995-2005, Yao found that in a survey conducted in 2005 in a few Chinese metropolitan areas (Yao 2007, 170) only 5.3% claimed to be religious, while 51.8% claimed to be “non-religious” (and 32.9% “militant atheist”, which is the “politically correct” answer for members of the Communist Party). However, for example, 23.1% stated that they regularly “prayed to” or “worshipped” the Buddha. This number is four times higher than those who claimed to be “religious.”

As we can see, most Buddhists, when asked about their religion, classify themselves as “non religious”. In Yao’s survey, the question concerning belief in “God” also proved inconclusive. In 2005, 5.8% of Chinese claimed that they believed in God. This number had almost tripled from the 2.2% of 1995, and the number increased sharply when the interviewees were asked if they believed in “a higher power” or a “heavenly power” (26.7%, compared to the 3.8% of 1995).

Things became more complex when dealing specifically with “Chinese religion.” 23.8% claimed that they regularly offered sacrifices to their ancestors; 27.1% reported that they believed in feng shui, the art of arranging objects in space according to astrological and divinatory rules, and 38.5% used techniques of divination to identify auspicious days. Here too, most of these people stated that they were not religious and that they did not believe in “God” (ibid., 178).

Yao concluded, going beyond the data he presents, that in 2005 “the majority of urban Chinese were mindful of religious powers” (ibid., 180) and in any case “more religious than they admitted to be” (ibid., 177). The problem remains: what do we mean exactly by “religious beliefs”? We must go beyond the distinction first made by western Orientalists, and then by the Chinese communist regime, between “true” religious beliefs, and “superstitions,” dismissed as pseudo-religious. Yao took English sociologist, Grace Davie’s, model of “believing without belonging” (Davie 1994) as his starting point. Davie’s model defines the three dimensions of religious experience as believing, belonging and behaving. Yao pointed out that in Cina we find both “believing without belonging” and “behaving without believing” (Yao 2007, 178).

3. A Map of the Religious Attitudes of Chinese Residents of Turin

The use of a comparatively non-committal expression such as “religious attitude” was adopted for reasons of prudence. Since all sources state that divination is a crucial aspect of “Chinese religion,” in our questionnaire, we considered that admitting to the practice of divination indicated that the interviewee is situated within the general field of “Chinese religion,” if he/she did not openly declare an affiliation with a different religion, for example, Christianity.

Tab. 1 – Divination among Chinese in Turin.

Do you regularly use methods of divination?





Valid cases : 277.

In China, Yao also found (2007) that some people who claimed to practice traditional Chinese divination also claimed to be Christians, even though these practices are generally forbidden by Christian churches. A similar situation was found in Turin, with a rather surprising result regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses. 100% of them stated that they regularly use methods of divination  despite the fact that this religion is strongly against divination. (It must be kept in mind, however, that only a handful of people in our sample identified themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses). 40% of Catholics claim that they regularly use methods of divination, 25% of Protestants, and 77% of Buddhists. It is interesting to note that among people who do not identify themselves with any religion, 29% state that they practice divination.

The question “With what religion, if any, do you identify yourself?”, thus, is not conclusive. The overall background of the religious attitude must be investigated, especially in the case of Catholics, Protestants, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. See Table 2.

Tab. 2 – Religious identification among Chinese residents of Turin.

With what religion, if any, do you identify yourself?












Jehovah’s Witnesses


Valid cases: 275.

Here the case of Buddhism deserves a closer look. In theory, Buddhists believe in reincarnation. However, although 31.6% of the Turin sampling claimed to be Buddhist, only 22% stated that they believe in reincarnation. The diffusion of the belief in reincarnation is curious, and demonstrates, if the question was correctly understood, how “Chinese religion” is free of dogmas and how its fluidity, at least as a background, also influences people who identify themselves with an institutionalized religion. We will examine a few indications which we think are significant for the description of religious beliefs.

Tab. 3 – Beliefs among Chinese residents in Turin.




Valid Cases

Do you believe in God?




Do you believe in a superior force that guides the lives of human beings?




Do you believe in reincarnation?




Do you believe in life after death?




According to Yao’s survey (2007), nearly all Buddhists had an image of Buddha in their home. In Turin, only 12.1% of the entire sampling stated that they had one, but 14.9% of the entire sampling had an image of Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, considered female in China. Though certainly of Buddhist origin, she is venerated also by Taoists and is the focus of a form of worship typical of “Chinese religion.”

Tab. 4 – Sacred images.




Valid Cases

Are there sacred images in your home?




For those who have a sacred image at home: do you have an altar dedicated to your ancestors?




For those who have a sacred image at home: do you have a statue or picture of Guan Yin?




For those who have a sacred image at home: do you have a statue or picture of Buddha?




For those who have a sacred image at home: do you have a crucifix or image of Jesus Christ?




It is interesting to compare cases of people who stated that they identified themselves as Buddhists with those who stated that they believe in reincarnation or keep sacred images of Buddha at home. Among those who identified themselves as Buddhists, 50.6% stated that they do believe in reincarnation and 50% that they have an image of Buddha at home, but only 26.2% of the self-identified Buddhists, i.e. 13.7% of the entire sampling, answered both these questions in the affirmative.

This 26.2% has what we might call a strong Buddhist identity, in the sense that not only do they claim to be Buddhist, but they also adhere to a system of beliefs and practices which seem to be typical of Buddhists. The remaining 73.8% of self-identified “Buddhists” may be more correctly regarded as part of a “Chinese religion” “with a predominant inclination towards Buddhism”.

The religious attitude that we classify here as “Chinese religion” roughly corresponds to a quarter of the sampling.

This figure was obtained by subtracting from the total those people who responded affirmatively to the crucial question regarding the regular practice of divination, but who also claimed to be Catholic, Protestant, or Jehovah’s Witness, as well as those with a “strong Buddhist identity.” We did not find sufficient reason to identify a specifically Taoist identity. Only three people explicitly identified themselves as Taoist, and we prefer to consider Taoism as an affluent of the “Chinese religion”.

Of course, there are also many Chinese who claim to have a secular identity and are in no way “religious.” In Turin, 39.9% declare that they are not religious, do not believe in God or in a superior power, do not believe in life after death, nor do they practice divination. They may therefore be ascribed to a secular identity.

In conclusion, the result of the study, as far as the religious attitude of Chinese residents in Turin is concerned, can be summed up as follows. Secular identity comprises a little less than half of the population. The rest have some sort of religious belief or practice. Roughly half of this group may be inserted in the category of “Chinese religion,” within which some reference to Buddhism is widespread. A strong Buddhist identity comprises 13.7% of the sampling, whereas 3.6% is Catholic, 3.3% Protestant, and 1.1% Jehovah’s Witness.

Lastly, we noted that neither the celebration of “religious” holidays nor the participation in “religious rituals/ceremonies pertaining to one’s religious tradition” appeared to be particularly indicative of religious identity: 0.9% claimed to observe these daily; 8.2% weekly; and 10% on a monthly basis. Also the notion of “ceremonies” (li) has a rather fluid meaning in “Chinese religion,” and distinguishing between “ritual” and “non ritual” behavior is difficult even for the specialist. The results of these interviews are given below. It must be kept in mind that the first question, and thus the question in Tab. 6 was addressed only to those who had previously stated that they identified themselves with a religious tradition. (see Tab. 2)

Tab. 5 – Chinese and Religious Practices.


Every day

Once a week

Once a month


Valid Cases

How often do you participate in rituals belonging to your religious tradition?






How often do you frequent a religious community?






Tab. 6 – Chinese and practice


Family or other Relatives

With other Chinese



With other Foreigners

With whom do you perform religious activities?





Valid cases : 36.

4. Conclusions

The findings of our study in Turin do not differ substantially from those of several authoritative studies carried out in China, despite the difficulties and debates concerning the latter. Comparing the two studies of 1995 and 2005 analyzed by Yao (2007) with our own, it must first be pointed out that the studies carried out in China regarded only areas administratively considered integral parts of major cities. Most of the Chinese immigrants living in Turin, on the other hand, come from rural areas. The questions we asked were not identical to those asked in the two Chinese surveys. However, a comparison is possible by assimilating the question regarding veneration of the image of Jesus (asked in the 2005 Chinese survey) with our question regarding keeping an image of Jesus in the home (obviously, the two questions are not identical). As for divination, the findings of the Chinese surveys offer a possibility of comparison by considering those who affirmed there to follow feng shui (38.5%) or the choice of auspicious days (45.2%).

Tab. 7 – Chinese in the large urban areas of China (Yao 2007) and Chinese in Turin.

China 1995

China 2005

Turin 2007

Believe in God




Believe in a higher power




Claim to be Buddhist




Venerate/have a picture of Buddha at home




Venerate/have a picture of Jesus at home




Practice divination


38.5 - 45.2%


The parallel should be approached with a certain caution for the reasons we have mentioned, and because in 1995 interviewees were less inclined to answer freely than in 2005. The findings regarding divination, crucial for “Chinese religion,” would appear to be similar in the urban areas of China in 2005 and in Turin in 2007, as do the findings regarding images of Jesus, whereas there were many more images of Buddha in homes in China. As far as the affirmation of religious identity (particularly Buddhist) and belief in God or a higher power are concerned, the figures are higher in Turin. But this, in our view, does not mean that Chinese in Turin are more religious than those in their homeland. Nor does it mean the contrary. The Italian environment simply induces some to conceptualize their religious attitude in a more defined way, with more frequent references to God, to a higher power, or to “Buddhism”.

As in China, also in Turin half the Chinese population has a secular and non-religious identity. In the other half of the population, which may be defined religious in a broader, non-institutional sense, “Chinese religion” dominates, including a weak Buddhist identity, and intermingles with a stronger and more conscious practice of Buddhism, which however constitutes a minority. Christians represent a qualified minority probably on the increase.

The general findings concerning Christians among the Chinese of Turin are quantitatively similar to the findings of several surveys carried out in portions of mainland China. Other data gathered by Evangelical missionary organizations give much higher percentages of Protestants in China, but the reliability of those figures is open to debate. Compared to the motherland where, among Christians, Protestants clearly represent the majority, among Chinese Christians of Turin there is a more balanced distribution of Catholics and Protestants, perhaps with a slight majority of Catholics. We also found in Turin the new presence of Jehovah’s Witnesses, although limited for the time being to a mere 1.1% of the Chinese population.


Davie, Grace. 1994. Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing Without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell.

MacInnis, Donald E. 1994. Religion in China Today. Policy and Practice. Maryknoll (New York): Orbis Books.

Rava, Antonella. 2007. Dati statistici sull’immigrazione straniera a Torino nel 2006. In Osservatorio Interistituzionale sugli stranieri in provincia di Torino. Torino: Comune di Torino, Divisione Funzioni Istituzionali, Direzione Servizi Civici, pp. 77-121.

Yang, Fenggang. 2004. “Between Secularist Ideology and Desecularizing Reality: The Birth and Growth of Religious Research in Communist China”. Sociology of Religion, 65:2 (Summer 2004): 101-119.

Yao, Xinzhong. 2007. “Religious Belief and Practice in Urban China 1995-2005”. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 22:2 (May 2007): 169-185.