Last Updated 24 Mar 2020

Religion in Ancient China

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The earliest information found about religion in ancient China is during the Shang Dynasty and so religion in the Xia dynasty remains unknown. Religious beliefs and rituals were prominent during the Shang Dynasty. The most significant deity was Shang Ti, Ti meaning ‘Deity Above’ or the ‘Lord on High’. He ruled as a supreme god over all the other gods and spirits. The gods and spirits were believed to symbolize objects found in nature; the sun, the moon, the wind, the rain, everything from mountains and rivers to the stars in the night sky.

Ti is believed to have punished those who disobeyed or offended him and rewarded those who pleased him. It is said that Ti formed a noble court in heaven consisting of all deceased worthy ancestors. The Chinese’s belief in family harmony was associated to belief in the afterlife. The ancestors who were considered commendable served Ti, helping him govern the world. Ancestors were also worshipped and were said to act a mediators between the gods and humankind. It was thought that if ancestors were appropriately honoured, respected, and provided for, they would promote the family's prosperity.

A favour or grievance to a member of the family was considered a favour or grievance to the ancestors; consequently, people were reluctant to offense or harm descendants of a powerful family. It was believed that in the afterlife they would live in a celestial court in many ways similar to their earthly courts. Each Chinese family was expected to have an ancestral shrine in the centre of their home to honour and venerate their ancestors. Sacrifice to the gods and the ancestors were also a major part of the Shang religion.

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When a ruler died, slaves and officials were sacrificed with them in order to guarantee that their afterlife would be the same or similar as their life on earth. People were also sacrificed in smaller numbers when significant events, such as the founding of a palace or temple, took place. Along with their deceased ancestors, the Chinese had people on earth who acted as mediators between the celestials and the human race. Priests were among these intermediates and were responsible for a number of tasks including reading prayers and overseeing sacrifices and funerals.

An augur is another type of mediator, responsible for asking gods questions on behalf of humans using various practices of foretelling to unearth the answers. The use of oracle bones was the most notable form of divination. The augur would ask the question, punching holes into the bone, usually the shoulder-bone from an ox, and in some cases the shell of a tortoise. The bone would then be held over a fire, until cracks appeared. These cracks would be made more evident by rubbing ink over the bone.

The augur could now read the cracks and determine the answer of the god. Records of the questions and answers of readings were engraved on the bone. Questions on these oracle bones included issues of weather, warfare, agriculture, hunting, childbirth, and sacrifice. In reflection with their agricultural nature, the ancient Chinese use to honour the local deities of soil in order to increase the fertility of earth and to promote the growth of crops. Over time, this practice of earth worship began to dwindle and the veneration of Heaven increased.

Divination was considered the only way to determine the requests and future actions of the ruler of Heaven who was also seen as a kind of ancestral figure. The Chinese were animistic and so believed that nature had many spirits. Good spirits, referred to as shen, and bad spirits, referred to as gui, were both thought to dwell in Heaven and Earth. The sun and the rooster were believed to have authority over the gui. This concept of shen and gui later influenced the formation of the yin and yang concept.

The people of ancient China believed that there were two contrasting forces abiding in everything in nature; that is yin and yang. This concept was thought to be formed with the influence of the shen and gui concept from earlier ancient China. Yin is characterized as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, or tranquil; and is associated with water, earth, the moon, femininity and nighttime. Yang, on the other hand, is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, or aggressive; and is associated with fire, sky, the sun, masculinity and daytime. During the time of the Eastern Zhou, religion in China underwent an evolution.

The early gods were forgotten and replaced with ideologies that worked as both philosophies and religions. A phenomenon called the ‘Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought’ took place in ancient China. Schools and philosophers flourished around this time and it was dubbed an era of great cultural and intellectual expansion in China. The four most prominent schools of thought that evolved during this epoch were Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism, and Legalism. Confucius was born 551 BC and grew up to become one of the most influential philosophers in Chinese history.

Confucianism is a composite philosophy of moral, social, political, philosophical, and quasi-religious thought. He built his philosophy around five virtues: compassion, morality, decorum, wisdom and honesty. Compassion was considered the cornerstone, symbolizing loyalty, filial piety, patience and benevolence. He also believed that everyone should be in harmony with one another and establish a society ruled by standard etiquette and conduct. A legendary philosopher by the name of Laozi is believed to have established the religious philosophy of Taoism.

The ‘forces of nature’ is the central belief behind the concept of Tao, which is literally translated as "the path" or "the way. " Taoism is in many ways the contrary of Confucianism, focusing on the individual within the natural realm rather than the individual within society. It also focuses on the affiliation between humanity and the cosmos, vigour and long life, and wu wei, that is action through inaction, which is said to create harmony with the Universe. Mo Di or Mozi was another Chinese philosopher form the Eastern Zhou period.

He was strongly opposed to the teachings of Confucianism and Taoism. Mohism was based on the idea of universal love, ‘everyone is equal before heaven’. Mozi believed that everyone should practice communal love in order to create a heaven on earth. He also believed that an individual’s perception should be the basis of human cognition and not imagination or logic. Mozi advocated abstinence, and therefore opposed music, regarding it as excessive and a waste of resources which could instead be used to help those in need of basic necessities such as food, water and shelter.

He even opposed elaborate funerals also regarding it as a waste of money which could be used in more useful matters. He also advocated pacifism thus disapproving of offensive war, only accepting aggressive action to defend the weak. Legalism, while the term itself was invented in the Han dynasty, was one of the major doctrines followed during the Contention of a Hundred Schools of Thought. It was established by Han Feizi and Li Si and theorizes that the human race is evil and in order to prevent this evil causing chaos, laws need to be put in place.

Legalism wasn’t concerned with the nature or purpose of life, not even the welfare of the public; rather it sought the states prosperity and military aptitude. Out of these four philosophies, only Confucianism and Taoism are considered religions by scholars, as only they contain spiritual elements. Confucianism and Taoism both became part of what is now known as The Three Doctrine. Buddhism is the third doctrine however it was imported from India and flourished during Imperial China.

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