Organized religions, with their power to mobilize large numbers of people for potentially rebellious activities, have long been suspect to the Chinese state. Thus, the first ruler of the Ming dynasty, Emperor Taizu (r. 1368–1399), himself catapulted into power by a religious rebellion, decreed a number of administrative measures of control. Most of these remained in place until the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 and serve as ancestors of religious control today.
For example, he made all religious affairs subject to approval and control by the Ministry of Rites. Within this institution, all affairs were supervised by the Bureau of Daoist / Buddhist Registration, which had branch offices in each province, each prefecture, and each district. In this way, even the most remote religious activity occurring in the empire could be monitored and controlled by an arm of the central government.
Among other things, these offices were responsible for issuing and monitoring ordination certificate, official passports for monks and nuns. Also, only specially designated monasteries were allowed to hold ordinations, ceremonies were limited to once in three, five, or even ten years, and the number of monks and nuns was restricted to serve the government’s needs.
Ordained monks or nuns not only had to carry their certificate at all times but were also subject to the so-called All-Knowing Register, an official list that contained the names of all practitioners who had ever spent any time in a monastery. Private temples, owned and sponsored by local aristocrats, were severely curtailed and had to have an official stamp of approval from the government. The overall effect of these measures was twofold: it reduced enthusiasm for the religious path among the population, and it effected a high level of standardization among institutions and practitioners.
The modern equivalent of the Ministry of Rites is the Bureau of Religious Affairs. It acknowledges five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism—defining religion along Western models rather than indigenous qualities and strictly limiting approved forms. For example, it does not accept the leadership position of the Pope, so that the official Chinese Catholic Church is separate from Rome. Only groups and organizations properly accredited can run places of worship and make use of their land, goods, and income. Whether a Buddhist monastery, Daoist temple, Muslim mosque, or Christian church, all are subject to state regulations—which they have to post in their reception area—and their inhabitants are state employees who receive a monthly stipend from the government.
This limitation has resulted in the flourishing of large numbers of so-called underground churches or temples—of all denominations—which are monitored by the Ministry of State Security, aka the secret police, and for the most part left alone, with periodic bouts of harassment.
The heir of the Bureau of Registration, moreover, is the Religious Association, a kind of counseling committee made up of religious representatives, prominent lay followers, scholars, and local officials that serves as the administrative link between the Bureau of Religious Affairs and the people on the ground. Just like in the Ming dynasty established in a hierarchical pattern that reaches throughout the entire country, these Associations intensify the interference of the government in religious matters. Thus, for example, all Buddhist temples are controlled by the Chinese Buddhist Association with headquarters in the Guangjisi 广济寺 (Temple of the Wide Salvation) in Beijing. All advanced practitioners are subject to its guidance as they train at the Buddhist Academy, housed at the Fayuansi 法源寺 (Source of Dharma Temple) of the Chan school and the Yonghegong 雍和宫 (Palace of Peace and Harmony, i.e., Lama Temple), of the Tantric school.