The 1983 article “Chinese Religion in Malaysia: A General View” by Chee-Beng Tan is one of the better overviews of the complexities of Chinese religion that I’ve read.
Tan argues for the term “Chinese Religion” to encompass the prevalent mixing of local gods, Daoism and Buddhism:
Chinese Malaysians refer to their religion in their own languages and dialects as the equivalent of the Mandarin Chinese bai shen 拜神 or bai fo 拜佛.
The former means “worshiping deities” and is more general, referring to the worship of any kind of deity within the Chinese religious system, including those of Buddhist origin.
The latter literally means “worshiping Buddhas or Bodhisattvas,” but in practice, when Chinese Malaysians say this, they may be including the worship of all deities, be they of Buddhist or Taoist origins.
Shen is the general term for any deity, including the Islamic and Christian “God.” Since there is no specific name for their “popular” religion, Chinese Malaysians and Singaporeans describe it by referring to their religious behavior of “bai shen,” which has prompted Elliott (1955:29) to suggest the term “shenism.”
This however, is not the way the Chinese refer to their religion, and it seems more logical to me to simply call it “Chinese Religion.” (219).
While regional practices will always differ, Tan points out that many of the general trends he describes in his paper have already been identified in scholarly works about mainland China:
My attempt here is to explain the need to view Chinese Religion in Malaysia as a whole system and to put to rest once and for all misleading classifications of Chinese worshipers as Buddhists, Taoists or Confucianists.
While various prominent scholars have already pointed out the fallacy of such an approach in writing about Chinese religion in pre-communist modern China, it is still unfortunately very prevalent in studies of Southeast Asia. (217)
Tan discusses the complications that arise with censuses and academic researchers trying to sort Chinese religions into distinct categories:
A serious error in classifying Chinese worshipers is to expect them to conform to the stereotype of the three religions that supposedly make up their culture. An investigator who begins by asking “What is your religion?” may be frustrated when an informant answers “don’t know,” or describes Chinese Religion in too much detail.
The investigator may end up asking, “So what is your religion? Buddhism, Taoism, or Confucianism?” at which point the informant usually chooses one.
Those who erroneously think that Confucius and his followers introduced ancestor worship and funeral rites may choose the category “Confucianism,” but the majority will choose either “Taoism” or “Buddhism,” since most Chinese deities and cults today are derived from these two religious traditions, which were originally independent systems of religion in China.
Those who want to portray the image of “not superstitious” may prefer the category “Buddhism,” for most shamanistic cults in Chinese Religion are of Taoist or other indigenous Chinese origins. Others will simply choose any category merely for the sake of answering.
[…] It may be due to a recognition of this problem that the 1947 census of Malay lists “Chinese national religion” as a choice rather than Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism (Del Tufo 1949:124). On the other hand, if we do not list Buddhism, there is no way to obtain information on those Buddhists of the Theravada tradition. (20)
Tan addresses the reasons behind the common tendency to call the philosophy of Confucianism a “religion.” The first reason has to do with improper translation of the word jiao 教:
The treating of Confucianism as a religion is partly due to a wrong perception of the Chinese word jiao 教. The Chinese do describe their religion as having the components of Ru 儒, Dao 道 and Shi 释, which are usually translated into English as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism respectively and are collectively known as the “san jiao” 三教, or “three teachings.” […]
The term san jiao should not, however, be translated “three religions,” for in Chinese the word jiao means “teaching,” whether religious or not. […]
Furthermore, Dao, or Taoism, includes both Taoist philosophy and Taoist religion in the context of san jiao. (221)
Another reason that Confucianism is often called a religion has to do with misconceptions about Confucius and his philosophy:
Those who read the basic Confucian texts known collectively as Si Shu 四书 (The Four Books) will know that Confucius and his disciples did not create a system of religion, and that Confucianism is rather a system of ethics and philosophy. The references to Heaven and ancestor worship in the texts are merely reflections of the classical religion which Confucius accepted. […]
Confucius did not challenge the existing religious ideas and practices and in fact endorsed some of them. This is understandable since his philosophy is founded on the idea of unity and harmony of families. Ancestor worship and the observation of funeral rites certainly serve to promote and perpetuate his idea of filial piety and other aspects of social relation.
Furthermore, Confucius was a man very much concerned with the prescribed and proper rules of behavior. […] He was more concerned with the proper exhibition of attitudes and performance of rites than with the reality of deities and spirits. Hence, he said, “sacrifice to the dead, as if they were present,” and “sacrifice to the spirits, as if the spirits were present” (Confucian Analects, chapter three; Legge 1960s:159). (Tan 222)
In other words, Confucius advocated orthopraxy, while remaining “rather agnostic” himself (Tan 223). Tan quotes the Analects on Confucius’s views of spirits: “To give one’s self earnestly to the duties due to men, and, while respecting spiritual beings, to keep aloof from them, may be called wisdom (Confucian Analects, chapter six; Legge 1960a:161)” (223).
Another source of confusion about Confucianism (the philosophy) is that Confucius is indeed worshiped as a deity:
In Malaysia, he is worshiped as a minor deity in a number of temples. Confucius as a deity is associated with education. […] Before children attend school for the first time, some parents bring them to the temple to worship these deities [Confucius and Wen Chang], hoping that they will do well in their studies (Cheng 1982:88).
However, it would be false for one to argue that there is a religion called Confucianism simply because Confucius is worshiped, for this ignores the fact that Chinese Religion is polytheistic. Chinese Malaysians worship many deities, such as Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy), Guandi Ye, Debogong and so on. It is ridiculous to classify Chinese worshipers according to the name of these individual deities and call them Guanyinist, Debogongist or Confucianist. (Tan 223-4)
Finally, there were actually several attempts to turn the worship of Confucius into a national Chinese religion, which Tan provides a brief overview of. These attempts were largely unsuccessful in mainland China, though they did take an interesting form in Indonesia:
From the very beginning, the leaders of the Confucian movement in Indonesia tried to create a religion comparable to Islam and Christianity. There were Chinese in Indonesia who opposed treating Confucianism as a religion. Nevertheless, from the description of Coppel (1979), there is no doubt that a religion which centers on the worship of Confucius has been created.
This religion or religious sect (if it can be viewed as a unit within the larger Chinese religious system in Indonesia) should be distinguished from Confucianism the system of philosophy. It may be called Confucian religion. This “new” religion is in fact a reorganization and modification of the ancient Chinese religious system.
Confucius is seen as a prophet (nabi) and Tian or Heaven is the supreme Ruler, now regarded as the Almighty God comparable to that in Christianity and Islam. The Four Books are accepted as the “holy Books,” and Confucian ethics have conveniently become the ethical teaching of the religion, the words of the Divine. Services are held every Sunday in halls of worship called litang.(225-6)
Tan notes that this is a phenomenon “unique to Indonesia” (226), but does later returns to the topic of the role of Confucian ethics:
We should note, however, that there is a relationship between Confucianism and Chinese Religion. The striking feature of Chinese Religion is its relative lack of a coherent system of ethics as found in the more “organized” religions like Christianity and Islam. The source of Chinese ethical values is mainly derived from Confucianism, not religion.
This is because in traditional Chinese society, religion and ethics “belong to two separate aspects of the institutional structure of traditional Chinese society” (Yang 1961:291). Nevertheless, Chinese religion is an important institution which sanctions the ethical system. (228)