Introduce to Chinese religion


please read the book chapter 5 which I attached below and answer the question.—At what time did Buddhism assume the status of the main religious tradition in China and what were the key factors that contributed to its rise to preeminence? Why is this information important?

Please only read textbook chapter 5, and write an expository essay. And cite information from the book and lecture PPT . The following pages are the main pages from the textbook that you want to read, and please read and cite from them. You have to cite at least two evidences from the book, and one evidence from the PPT. Please use the following citation-(Zu WK10 Class 1), (Poceski 130)like this.

Poceski pg 130-132 (Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty)
Poceski pg 123 (Xuangzng helped translate)
Poceski pg 121-122 (Kumarajiva)
Poceski pg 117, 119 (collapse of Han order)Midterm review

Fluid Identity in “All the Flavors”
In the novel All the Flavors by Ken Liu, the ambiguity of whether Lao Guan is Guan Yu or not is perplexing for the young
American girl (and for the modern Western reader). Lao Guan tells Guan Yu’s stories as though they were his own and shares
similar traits with the deity. However, this “porous boundary” between Lao Guan and Guan Yu reflects the Confucian sense of
self. In her PowerPoint “Why the Confucians Had No Concept of Race,” Professor Shuchen Xiang points out that in
Confucianism, one’s identity was not fixed but characterized as a fluid process of transformation, shaped by environment and
defined by behaviors. Xiang extends this idea to argue (as the title suggests) that the Confucians had no concept of fixed,
divisive race that exists in the West today. However, this idea of non-fixed identity can also be applied to Lao Guan.
… Because Lao Guan evokes Guan Yu, he serves as another layer of ambiguity in distinguishing the mortal and the divine. Once
again, we see through Lao Guan that the self is fluid and characterized by context. By viewing the world more broadly through
this lens of fluidity, more opportunities open for both individuals and society. Professor Xiang pointed out, the West may be able
to overcome its rigid divisions and patterns of discrimination if it were to define people by culture instead of race. By casting off
fixed identities, individuals can realize and achieve their potential for growth.
–Grace Boyd

–Jojo Ibalio

In short, although readers may think All the Flavors as another story of
marginalized groups fighting for rights and justice, it rather brings light
to what it means to become Americans for the Chinese immigrants
who can only work as miners in a foreign land. It is never just a label
to define Chinese—the oral traditions shared through stories and
practical transitions such as acupuncture altogether build a rich culture
that can develop and adapt to the new environment. People should
embrace the controversial perspectives of being Americans and
Chinese, and thus represent the process philosophy to blur the
boundaries between two ways of living.
Hank Yang
By drawing the contrast between the Chinese laborers’ usual understanding of the
traditional concepts embedded in the Chinese religions and the vastly different yet
reasonable re-interpretation of many religious concepts, Ken Liu demonstrates the process
of these Chinese laborer appropriating conventional concepts in American society at the
time. These appropriations allow them to form a new Trans-Pacific identity that is unique to
the Chinese Communities in America and serve to help them to achieve the ultimate sense of
filial piety. H.G. Wells once said, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable
imperative.” This applied perfectly to the Chinese laborers in Ken’s writing. Instead of
becoming cynical or responding the reality with violence, they undergo a unique kind of
“syncretism” which requires them to add the American flavor to the conventional five flavors
to form a new flavor. Through the process of forming this new flavor, the Chinese laborers
create a system of understandings the traditional Chinese religious concepts mediated using
American social reality – just like how playing Go is compared to circling territory in Kansas.
Perhaps it is only through this way can they step onto a better way of realizing filial piety.
–Jeff Liu
The use of Stories as Religion and Ritual
Ken Liu’s All the Flavors demonstrates how stories are a method of cultivation and ritual in the same
sense as more directly religious actions. The main character at the focus of the excerpt is Lao Guan, a
Chinese man who has moved overseas to Idaho and is trying to make enough money to live and survive.
The two other major characters in this reading are also listeners of the stories told by Lao Guan.
These characters are Lily, an American girl who is interested in the Chinese people in her country, and
Ah Yan, another Chinese worker.

Still, their presence in this story and the history told about them has allowed them to live on in a sense,
and modern residents of Idaho’s mining towns , “ Still celebrate Chinese New Year in memory of the
presence of the Chinese among them” (p. 1). Thus, just as stories served as a way for the Chinese
immigrants to make it through difficult times, the stories we tell give them a sense of immortality, long
after their passing.
–Joseph Hermenegildo
How did Buddhism become Chinese?
How and when did Buddhism become Chinese?
A brief history
Barriers—filial piety, language, human-centeredness vs transcendental quests
Ways to overcome barriers or Sinification strategies
Textual-scriptural modality: translation, classification, creating indigenous sūtras
(typically sponsored by the rich & powerful)
Ritual & Cultivational & Practical modalities I: Indigenizing deities
Ritual & Practical modalities II: state sponsorship & ancestor worship (more in class 2)
Main Barriers
Poceski pp. 116–119; Chp5 Q1
Monasticism (celibacy)—not filial, unproductive, monastic
independence vs. state control
Foreign—imported by immigrants (barbarians) vs. Chinese
Linguistic—Indic language (highly inflected); Chinese (non-inflected)
Worldviews—transcendental (soteriological; how to exit) vs. humancenteredness (how to build a better, longer, more meaningful life)
Ways to overcome barriers: Textual-scriptural
modality (Poceski, pp.121–131; Ch5 Q2)
Translation (Indic->Chinese; oral->written)
Commentary (exegesis, explanations, wordplays)
Cataloging & Anthologizing & Standardizing (p.129&130 inserts)
making the Buddhist Canon—an open canon
doctrinal classification—hierarchical inclusion
Creating Indigenous sūtras
Posing as translation (most of the cases)
Claiming as made-in-China: The Platform Sūtra (Chan-school)
Story-telling: oral & written—performative, karmic stories (similar to Jataka, the stories
of the Buddha’s past lives), precious scrolls, theatres, miracle tales
Ch5 Q3 when Buddhism became a
major rel. trad.? key factors to
Buddhism’s rise to prominence
—Poceski pp. 130–132 (state
sponsorship) & this lecture
Story-telling #1
Chan: Manufacturing a transmission lineage
modeled after family lineage
Teacher-disciple modeled after father-son
Chinese: Shifu 師⽗—lit: teacher-father; Fazi 法⼦—dharma son
Unbroken transmission from the Buddha—>Mahakassyapa—>…
BodhiDharma (a mythical figure—the first Chan Patriarch in China)
—>慧可 (Huike; the second Patriarch of Chan in China) … ! 慧能
(Huineng; the sixth)
Story-telling #2
Miaoshan, Guanyin, & Precious Scrolls
The Precious Scroll of Fragrant
Mountain (1773)
Poceski Ch 6, Question 1
Avalokiteśvara in
Avalokiteśvara in
China & Korea &
Ways to overcome barriers: Ritual &
Cultivational &Practical Modalities
avataraṇa : (nt.) descending; entering; plunging into.
And “Ava” is the prefix of avatarana (quanhua, incarnation, and response), ava- means “descent” in Sanskrit,
Tarati is the root of “transformation”. In Indian mythology, it means that Vishnu and Durga manifest in
different incarnations for saving the world.
Give Indian Deities a Chinese
Avalokiteśvara and Mt. Putuo
Poceski p. 147 (Ch. 6)
Bodhisattva Puxian
(Jp: Fugen) & Mt.
Mañjuśrī (Ch:
Wenshu) & Mt.
Art & Architecture
Late-imperial Chinese Buddhism in decline (Poceski
p. 134-5)? Not really. decentralized, integrated
thoroughly into local societies & daily life
Sinification strategies:
practical & self-cultivational
modalities—Special things
done to Guanyin by Buddhist
women since the late-imperial
Women are religious
Embroidering Guanyin with Hair
How about the non-elites?
Miaoshan, Guanyin, & Folk Songs
*Seven-fold Guanyin Sutra (Qipin Guanyin jing) Sung by a forty-five-year-old “living bodhisattva,>
from Tongxiang, Jiangsu Province
Bodhisattva Guanyin has entered my body.
On the nineteenth day of the second month, Mother gave birth to me.
On the nineteenth day of the sixth month I went up to heaven.
Miaoshan, Guanyin, & Folk Songs
*Guanyin Sutra (Guanyin jing) Sung by a 59-year-old woman pilgrim from Jiangyin, Jiangsu
Wearing a crown of pearls and striking
A hand-held wooden fish, I go everywhere to proselytize.
I ask buddhas of the ten directions:
Which road leads to spiritual cultivation?
Over and over again, I chant the Guanyin Sutra
On the first and fifteenth, I receive the offering of incense.
Adoration to the Buddha, Amitabha.
Guanyin & the Warrior Goddess Mother Chen,
the fourteenth
Only in Fujian (Wenzhou area) & also in Fujian diaspora
Mother Chen was born because her mother ate a drop of blood
from Guanyin. She was the fourteenth child.
Like Princess Miaoshan, Mother Chan resisted arranged
marriage, run away, went into a Mountain to learn from Daoist
masters—fighting skills & exorcism & magical techniques
Chinese Religions
the eBook
Mario Poceski
Chinese Religions—the eBook
by Mario Poceski
Copyright © 2009 by Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Published by
Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
c/o Charles Prebish
1030 Grandview Drive
Providence, Utah 84332
ISBN: 0-9801633-3-1
To my wife Hiroko Poceski
and my students
List of Illustrations
Chinese Dynastic History
Preface and Acknowledgements
Study of Chinese Religion
Main Religious Traditions
Organization of the Book
Chapter 1: Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
Historical Frameworks
Oracle Bones and Divination
Worship of Gods and Ancestors under the Shang
Changing Attitudes towards Divinity during the Zhou Era
Cultural Heroes and Sage-kings
Chinese Mythology
Mandate of Heaven
Chapter 2: The Classical Confucian Tradition
Various Faces of Confucianism
The Five “Confucian” Classics
Confucius and his Times
Teachings of Confucius
Government Service, Cultural Virtuosity, and Pursuit of Sagehood
Alternative Ways of Thought
Mengzi’s and Xunzi’s Contrasting Views of Human Nature
Emergence of Confucianism as Official Ideology
Chapter 3: Early Texts and the Emergence of Religious Daoism
The Dao
Shifting Boundaries and Permeable Identities
Zhuangzi’s Imaginative Vistas and Carefree Wanderings
The Huang-Lao Movement and other Han-era Transitions
The Celestial Masters and the Advent of Daoism as an Organized Religion
External Alchemy and the Quest for Immortality
Laozi’s Transfigurations
Chapter 4: Daoist Traditions and Practices
The Shangqing Revelations
The Lingbao Scriptures
Codification of Daoist Ritual
Canon Formation and Functions of Texts
Daoism as Official Religion
Interreligious Debates
Monastic Orders and Institutions
Female Role Models and Adepts
Internal Alchemy and Meditation
Chapter 5: Spread and Flourishing of Buddhism in China
Buddhism as Pan-Asian Religion
Initial Entry of Buddhism into China
Incisive Critiques and Cultural Barriers
Enthusiastic Reponses and Broad Acceptance
Translation of Scriptures and Canon Formation
Popular Scriptures and other Texts
Philosophical Systems and Doctrinal Taxonomies
Emergence of Buddhism as a Major Religious Tradition
Golden Age under the Tang Dynasty
Relationship with the State
Buddhism in Late Imperial China
Chapter 6: Schools and Practices of Chinese Buddhism
Monastic and Lay Paradigms
Universal Compassion and Merit Making
Popular Beliefs and Cultic Practices
Schools and Traditions of Chinese Buddhism
The Tiantai School
The Huayan School
The Chan School
The Pure Land Tradition
Chapter 7: Popular Religion
Contours and Character of Popular Religion
Unity of the Three Teachings
Ancestors and Ghosts
Worship of Local Gods
Celestial Bureaucracy
Two Popular Deities: Guandi and Mazu
Ritual Sacrifice, Divination, and other Utilitarian Practices
Millenarian Movements, Heterodox Sects, and Secret Societies
Chapter 8: Later Transformations of Confucianism
Confucianism during the Medieval Period
Neo- Confucian Revival of the Song Era
Zhu Xi’s Grand Synthesis
Constructing Genealogy of the Way
Revising the Canon
Path to Sagehood
Civil Service Examinations
Dissenting Voices and Alternative Perspectives
Status of Women in Confucian Society
Chapter 9: Christianity, Islam, and other “Western” Religions
Entry of “Western” Religions into Tang China
Early Christian Missionaries
Jesuit Missions of the Late Ming Era
Catholic Debates over Acculturation
Protestant Missionaries in the Ninetieth Century
Chinese Son of God
Early Transmission of Islam
Adaptation and Growth of Islam
Acculturation and Conflict in Chinese Islam
Islam as Diverse Minority Religion
Chapter 10: Religion in Modern China
Historical Contexts
Facing the Challenges of Modernity
Revitalization of Confucianism in Republican China
Buddhist Revival of the Republican Era
Religious Repression under Early Communist Rule
The Cult of Mao
Contemporary Religious Revivals
Intersections of Religion and Politics
Growth of Christianity
Buddhist Resurgence
Appendix: Chinese Festivals and Anniversary Celebrations
Major Chinese Festivals
Important Birthdays and Commemorative Celebrations
Chinese Glossary
List of Illustrations
Figure 1.1. Shrine dedicated to Shennong, Baoan Temple, Taipei
Figure 1.2. Nuwa with a serpent body (source: Myths and Legends of China, by Edward
Theodore Chalmers Werner [1922; republished by Dover Publications]; courtesy of Wikimedia
Figure 2.1. Stele that contains the text of the Classic of Filial Piety, Forest of Stelae Museum,
Figure 2.2. Painting of Confucius, Confucian Temple, Tainan, Taiwan
Figure 2.3. Calligraphy featuring the Chinese character for filial piety, Confucian Temple,
Tainan, Taiwan
Figure 2.4. Children perform a play about young Mengzi’s formative education, Zhongtaishan,
Figure 2.5. Main shrine hall, Confucian Temple, Taipei, Taiwan
Figure 3.1. The Chinese character for Dao; calligraphy by Ruth Sheng
Figure 3.2. Entrance of Baoan Temple, Taipei
Figure 3.3. The opening four lines of Laozi
Figure 3.4. The Taiji diagram (or yin-yang symbol)
Figure 3.5. Shrine dedicated to Lü Dongbin, Sanyuan gong, Guangzhou
Figure 3.6. Shrine dedicated to Taishang Laojun, Sanyuan gong, Guangzhou
Figure 4.1. Meditating adept visualizes the arrival of celestial deities; source: Tianguan
Figure 4.2. Daoist priests perform ritual bows, Hong Kong
Figure 4.3. Daoist priests participate in the Grand Ceremony of Luotian, Hong Kong
Figure 4.4. Daoist monks and laypeople in front of a shrine room, Baxian (Eight Immortals)
Abbey, Xi’an
Figure 4.5. Female devotees reading scriptures, Xingtian Temple, Taipei
Figure 4.6. The embryo of immortality leaves the body of a Daoist practitioner
Figure 5.1. Entrance of Famen monastery, Shaanxi
Figure 5.2. Main entry gate of White Horse Monastery, Luoyang
Figure 5.3. Statue of Xuanzang in front of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi’an
Figure 5.4. Giant statue of Vairocana, Longmen, Henan
Figure 5.5. Forest of pagodas, Songshan, Henan
Figure 6.1. The laity attending a festival at Linggu Monastery, Nanjing
Figure 6.2. Pool for the release of creatures, Xingshan monastery, Xi’an
Figure 6.3. Statue of Dizang Bodhisattva, Xingshan monastery, Xi’an
Figure 6.4. The main hall of Tōdaiji in Nara, Japan, which houses a giant statue of
Figure 6.5. The main Buddha hall of Guangxiao monastery, Guangzhou
Figure 7.1. Entrance to the ancestral temple of the Chen family, Guangzhou
Figure 7.2. Image of a door god, ancestral temple of the Chen family, Guangzhou
Figure 7.3. Local shrine dedicated to the earth god, Singapore
Figure 7.4. Temple of the city god of Taipei
Figure 7.5. Large statue of Guandi, Guanlin Temple, Henan
Figure 7.6. Entrance to Guanlin Temple, dedicated to Guandi, in the vicinity of Luoyang,
Figure 7.7. Temple of Mazu, Tainan, Taiwan
Figure 8.1. Statue of Confucius, Confucian Temple, Nanjing
Figure 8.2. Shrine dedicated to Confucius, Confucian Temple, Gaoxiong, Taiwan
Figure 8.3. Entrance to the Confucian Temple, Tainan, Taiwan
Figure 9.1. Protestant church in Guangzhou.
Figure 9.2. The minaret of the Grand Mosque in Xi’an
Figure 9.3. The main prayer hall of the Grand Mosque in Xi’an
Figure 9.4. The Grand Mosque of Guangzhou
Figure 10.1. Pilgrims and tourists at Shaolin Monastery, Songshan, Henan
Figure 10.2. Entrance of a Chinese temple in Malacca, Malaysia
Figure 10.3. Falun gong followers protesting in front of the Chinese consulate in San
Figure 10.4. Sermon at a Protestant church in Shanghai
Figure 10.5. Vesak celebration at Kong Meng San, Phor Kark See Monastery, Singapore
Figure 10.6. The main hall of Xilai monastery, Hacienda Heights, California
Chinese Dynastic History
Xia 夏
2205–1766? (or c. 2100–1600?)
Shang (Yin) 商
1766–1122? (or c. 1600–1046?)
Zhou 周
1122–256 (or 1045/1027–256)
Western Zhou 西周
1122–771 (or 1045/1027–771)
Eastern Zhou 東周
Spring and Autumn 春秋 era
Warring States 戰國 period
453–221 (or 403–221)
Qin 秦
Han 漢
206 BCE–220 CE
Western Han 西漢
206 BC–8 CE
Xin 新
Eastern Han 東漢
Three Kingdoms 三國
220–265 (or 220–280)
Wei 魏
Shu 蜀
Wu 吳
Western Jin 西晉
Eastern Jin 東晉
Northern and Southern Dynasties 南北朝
Liu Song 劉宋
Qi 齊
Liang 梁
| Chinese Dynastic History
Chen 陳
Northern Wei 北魏
Eastern Wei 東魏
Western Wei 西魏
Northern Qi 北齊
Northern Zhou 北周
Sui 隋
Tang 唐
Zhou 周
Five Dynasties 五代
Latter Liang 後梁
Latter Tang 後唐
Latter Jin 後晉
Latter Han 後漢
Latter Zhou 後周
Ten Kingdoms 十國
Wu 吳
Former Shu 前蜀
Wuyue 吳越
Chu 楚
Min 閩
Southern Han 南漢
Jingnan 荆南
Latter Shu 後蜀
Southern Tang 南唐
Northern Han 北漢
Song 宋
Northern Song 北宋
Liao 遼 (Khitan)
Jin 金 (Jürchen)
| Chinese Dynastic History
Xixia 西夏 (Tangut)
Southern Song 南宋
Yuan 元 (Mongol)
Ming 明
Qing 清 (Manchu)
Republic of China 中華民國
People’s Republic of China 中華人民共和國
Preface and Acknowledgements
While there are many specialized studies on various aspects of Chinese religious history,
literature, doctrine, and practice, there is a scarcity of books that offer broad treatment of
Chinese religions and deal with the big picture. This volume is intended to address a conspicuous need for general surveys or textbooks that cover the whole field of Chinese religions. The
book aims at comprehensive and balanced coverage of the main religious traditions that over
the centuries developed and flourished in China, presented in a manner that is scholarly exact
and reliable, yet also readable and readily comprehensible. Only few books with compatible
coverage have been published in English over the last few decades. Although commendable
for their authors’ pioneering efforts, most of the earlier volume are somewhat dated, adopt
debatable approaches, or are limited in their coverage (see Yang 1961, Thompson 1995/1969,
Jochim 1985, Overmyer 1998/1986, Ching 1993, and Adler 2002). There are also a couple of
collections of translations from primary sources that supplement this volume (Sommer 1995
provides a more balanced coverage; Lopez 1996 contains some excellent materials, although
it is somewhat confused in its overall design); the reader might want to consult these in order to gain additional exposure to some of the relevant classical texts discussed in the book’s
The origins of this book can indirectly be linked with my teachings of an undergraduate course
on Chinese religions, which I first offered in 2001 at the University of Iowa, and have ever
since taught at the University of Florida. Accordingly, I would like to start the acknowledgements by thanking all my students for their keenness and hard work. Special thanks go to my
graduate students who read parts of the early manuscript and offered helpful feedback: Sarah
Spaid, Kendall Marchman, and Phillip Green. I am also grateful to Ruth Sheng for the Chinese
calligraphy that appears in chapter 3, and for proofreading the Chinese text in the glossary.
Among my colleagues at the University of Florida, I am indebted to Richard Wang for providing me with useful comments on chapters 3, 4, and 7, to Lai Guolong for doing the same for
chapter 1, and to Roman Loimeier for giving me feedback on the section about Islam that appears in chapter 9. Keith Knapp read chapters 2 and 8, and offered a number of valuable suggestions that I incorporated into the final manuscript.
The photographs used as illustrations throughout the book are mine, unless noted otherwise.
Richard Wang kindly provided me with two of the photos that appear in chapter 4 (figures 4.2
and 4.3). I also wish to thank Livia Kohn for supplying me with the two drawings that appear
in chapter 4 (figures 4.1 and 4.6).
| Preface and Acknowledgements
I greatly appreciate the interest and support I received from Charles Prebish and Damien
Keown, who first came up with the idea of doing this book. I extend special thanks to Lesley
Riddle of Routledge, who from the beginning expressed strong enthusiasm for the book and
urged me to undertake the writing of it. Finally, as always I wish to express gratitude to my
wife, Hiroko Poceski, for her patience, love, and support.
Throughout the book all transliterations from the Chinese language follow the Pinyin system,
which is official in China and is used widely all over the world, although older works and even
some recent publications still use the dated Wade-Giles system. The only rare exceptions to
that usage are names that are widely known in alternative spellings, such as Taipei (instead of
Taibei). In the Chinese glossary that appears at the end, however, in light of the book’s historical orientation I use the traditional forms of Chinese characters. When referring to the geographical locations of various monasteries, temples, mountains, and other historical sites, I use
present-day provincial boundaries.
China has an exceedingly long, captivating, and multifaceted history. Over a staggering array
of dynastic epochs, the earliest of which take us back in time for well over three millennia, religion has always been an important presence in Chinese life and a major force in the shaping
of Chinese history. Rich and constantly evolving tapestries of religious beliefs and practices
have over the millennia remained integral parts of the social fabrics and cultural landscapes of
the various Chinese states and empires. Many of those religious elements have also been exported to other countries that historically belonged to China’s political and cultural spheres of
influence, most notably Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Consequently, the story told in this book,
while centered on religion in China, is also relevant to the past and present cultural experiences of people living in other lands. That also includes America and the rest of the Western
world, where Chinese temples, concepts, or religious artifacts are becoming increasingly common features of everyday life and popular culture.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, as it gradually moves in the direction of reassuming its central role onto the world stage—that it has previously occupied for large stretches of
recorded history—China seems destined to exert an increasing influence not only on the lives
of its citizens but also on the rest of the world. Knowledge and appreciation of China’s multifarious religious history should be central part of any serious effort at sophisticated understanding of both China’s past and its present. Traditionally elements of that religious history
have been among the key building blocks of one of the world’s most important and enduring
civilizations. The intricate and enthralling story of the various religious traditions that developed and flourished in China, the subject of this book, is worthy of study and reflection for
its own intrinsic value and interest. The story of Chinese religion is also important for what it
tells us about the basic character of a range of cultural forms that developed in a key part of
the world, which remain significant elements of an enduring heritage and continue to shape
the present. Given the increasingly global nature of our world and the important roles religion
plays in it, it is incumbent on us to become better informed about the religious landscape of
this immensely large, varied, and important country, which in turn facilitates more nuanced
understanding of Chinese civilization, in all of its richness and complexity.
This book is intended to serve as a comprehensive yet accessible historical survey of Chinese
religions. It covers the whole spectrum of Chinese religious history—from the Shang dynasty
(c. 1600–1046 BCE) to the present—providing a systematic and balanced coverage of major
developments, texts, traditions, beliefs, institutions, and practices. The book adopts a combination of diachronic and thematic approaches, starting with an exploration of the earliest forms
of religious beliefs and practices in ancient China, and ending with a discussion of present-day
| Introduction
trends and predicaments. Much of the book is dedicated to the remarkable and multifaceted religious heritage of pre-modern or traditional China. However, there is also ample coverage of
the religious terrain of modern China, which is currently undergoing some new developments
and notable transitions, even as it remains deeply rooted in the past.
Study of Chinese Religion
The two main terms featured in the book’s title—China (Chinese) and religion(s)—are not
without ambiguities, and each of them can be problematized to some degree. The notion of
China as a unitary nation-state, as presently understood, is of a fairly recent origin, even if it
is possible to trace some of its origins or precursors in the ancient past. Over the centuries, the
land we know as China has experienced numerous changes in terms of its geographical and
political boundaries. These changes reflect constantly evolving patterns of political allegiance,
imperial aspiration, and ethnic loyalty. For substantial part of its history China was not united
as a single state, and for extended periods parts or the whole of China were ruled by alien dynasties. Some might even argue that the present-day geographical boundaries of China, fixed
as they might appear on modern maps, remain contested or uncertain in some areas. Prime
example of that is the indefinite status of Taiwan, although there are also the well-publicized
arguments for (and against) Tibetan and Uyghur independence. We also need to be aware that
there is a multiplicity of historical narratives about China’s past—often configured or presented in relation to its present—which reflect a range of political agendas and ideological
Narrowly focusing on China in terms of a particular physical place or geographical area—
which in many instances comes across as a perfectly sensible approach—can be problematic
because, among other things, it leaves out the religious beliefs and observances of the Chinese
diasporas. On the other hand, placing a discussion of the predominant patterns of religious
life in contemporary Singapore, for instance, within the broad category of Chinese religion(s)
is not without its own problems. One way of partially getting around these concerns is to
primarily think of China or Chineseness in cultural terms, namely in terms of constellations
of beliefs, customs, social behaviors, and practices that are part of a larger civilizational
pattern. When considered that way, it is possible to isolate remarkable cultural continuities
throughout the course of Chinese history—alongside numerous changes and variations—that
are observable in the persistence of certain cultural orientations and values, for instance the
worship of ancestors and the exaltation of the virtue of filial piety. Nonetheless, we still have
to contend with evolving cultural configurations and shifting identities, as well as deal with the
occasionally messy and contestable issue of delineating cultural boundaries, which involves
defining the parameters of what constitutes (or does not) “Chinese culture.” While these kinds
of considerations are not of central concern in a general survey volume such as this one, where
| Introduction
the main focus is on major developments and mainstream traditions, they should be kept in
mind whenever we are dealing with broad characterizations of Chinese beliefs, values, and the
Similarly, within the academic discipline of religious studies the defining of “religion” is often
deemed to be fraught with difficulties. The various attempts to delineate the contours and define the basic character of religion are complicated by the fact that particular definitions are developed from within specific academic disciplines (sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc.),
or in light of particular theories about religion (phenomenological, functionalist, structuralist,
etc.). There is also the problem of continued prevalence of Western models, primarily based
on Christian ideas and archetypes, in the academic study of religion. Within academic circles
we have largely moved beyond patently biased and delimiting definitions of religion along the
lines of “religion is belief in God,” even if such attitudes remain predominant in many quarters, including the public square and the media. Nonetheless, more inclusive definitions of religion, for instance as “a system of beliefs and practices related to supernatural beings” or some
variation on a similar theme, are not without their problems, as we will note in the discussion
of Confucianism, whose status as a religion has been the subject of occasional disagreements
(see chapter 2; the teachings of some varieties of Buddhism are also relevant in this context).
In light of latent Eurocentric (or Christian-centric) preconceptions and persistent parochial
attitudes, which in many quarters still shape the study and discussion of religion, thoughtful
examination of Chinese religions assumes special importance. Knowledge of the multilayered and many-sided patterns of China’s religious past helps us to reconsider the dominant
theoretical paradigms, as well as expand and enrich our understanding of the basic character
and varied manifestations of religion. It also prompts us to rethink the whole range of roles
religion plays as an important component of the human experience, past and present. For
instance, the study of Chinese religions brings us in contact with a prevalent tendency to
construct a range of open-ended or hybrid religious identities, which stand in contrast to the
common Western and Islamic patterns of constricted or singular religious identities and affiliations, which are primarily defined by allegiance to a church, a revealed dogma, or a sacred
scripture. Exploration of China’s religious past also familiarizes us with intriguing models of
religious pluralism, in which a variety of religions share common social and cultural spaces.
Prime example of that is the Tang era (618–907), when an astounding variety of religious
traditions—including Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism,
and Manichaeism—peacefully coexisted in China and engaged in complex patterns of interreligious interaction. Once again, this presents a sharp contrast with the situation that during
the same period (and over the subsequent centuries) prevailed in Europe and elsewhere, where
there was little tolerance of deviation or dissent from the teachings of the official church.
| Introduction
Main Religious Traditions
The study of Chinese religion is often approached in terms of the so-called “three teachings,”
namely the dominant religious traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. Each of
these traditions has a long and distinguished history in China; an important part of that history is the interaction with the other two traditions. Confucianism and Daoism both originated
in China. Consequently, they are usually depicted as embodying ideas, values, and orientations that are at the core of Chinese social and cultural constructions of reality. In contrast,
Buddhism is a pan-Asian religion that originated in India, although in the course of its long
history in China—which spans almost two millennia—it was radically transformed and domesticated. The Chinese adaptation and acculturation of Buddhism was complex and thorough; consequently, in its fully Sinicized form Buddhism also came to represents a religion
that is quintessentially Chinese.
Over their lengthy history, each of the three teachings developed sophisticated systems of
doctrine, canons of sacred writings, moral injunctions about everyday conduct, distinct institutions, and a range of ritual practices and observances. In the cases of Buddhism and Daoism
we also find well developed monastic orders, open to both males and females. Throughout
much of Chinese history the three teachings were perceived as being complementary rather
than antithetical to each other. That led to the notion of the unity of the three teachings, although ecumenical sentiments were not universally shared. Consequently, Chinese religious
history also provides us with notable examples of religious intolerance and fanaticism, albeit
not on the same scale and with the same propensity towards violence as we find in many other
parts of the world.
While the beliefs, doctrines, and practices of the three teachings cover substantial part of the
Chinese religious landscape, focusing only on them is unduly restrictive, as it leaves out other
important traditions that have greatly influenced China’s religious past and still continue to
exert considerable impact on the lives of many Chinese. Among them especially important is
popular religion, which in many instances represents the most common mode of worship or
predominant expression of religious life, especially at the level of local communities. Popular
religion is not an organized form of religion along the lines of Daoism or Buddhism, as its
lacks a coherent canon and a system of doctrine, as well organized clergy and ecclesiastical
institutions. Rather it is a general category, a provisional designation of sorts, which is used
by scholars as a way of arranging a broad range of prevalent and widely diffused beliefs and
practices that are not officially part of any of the mainstream religious traditions. To these
four main traditions we can also add the two monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam,
which initially entered China during the Tang dynasty; presently both religions (or all three
religions, if we follow the official division of Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism)
have substantial presence in China, with the followers of each of them numbering into tens of
| Introduction
Beside the aforementioned taxonomy of the three teachings (or four, or even six teachings if
we add popular religion, Christianity, and Islam), scholars have put forward alternative conceptual schemes for organizing the religious terrain of traditional and modern China. One such
alternative is the binary division of Chinese religion into two structurally distinct parts: institutional religion (primarily represented by the three teachings) and diffused religion (represented
by popular religion). That is similar to the well-known conceptual division between the great
and the little tradition, which highlights differences between the distinct patterns of religious
participation observable among the social elites and the commoners, as well as between the often divergent concerns of the clergy and the laity. While some scholars have stressed the contrasts and differences between these two broad categories, others have emphasized their interrelatedness and have subsumed them all within a single overarching cultural system. Another
possibility is to move away from discussing Chinese religious life in terms of distinct traditions; instead, we can examine general categories that cover a broad range of religious themes
and experiences, such as rituals, cosmologies, communities, ethical norms, and the like. While
this approach readily lends itself to the utilization of theoretical models and technical vocabulary that is in vogue in Western academic circles, it also poses the danger of leading into vague
generalizations that have little to do with the concrete realities of lived religion(s), as experienced by actual individuals and communities, past and present.
The danger of reifying the three/four teachings is real, as it is patently wrong to look at them
as closed systems that are hermetically sealed from the other. In reality, throughout Chinese
history all the main religious traditions interacted and influenced each other. Moreover, the
lines of demarcation around and between distinct religious traditions, especially at the margins, were not always rigidly fixed and they were easily crossed. On the other hand, doing
away with distinct traditions such as Daoism and Confucianism is not historically warranted,
as each of the main institutional religions had its own readily recognizable and more of less
coherent systems of doctrines, texts, rituals, and institutions. Accordingly, in this volume I
map the spiritual terrain and approach the study of Chinese religion(s) in terms of the traditional distinctions between discrete traditions. Nevertheless, I also highlight the multifarious
patterns of interreligious interaction, point to the copious instances of mutual borrowing or influence, and problematize the drawing of exceedingly rigid sectarian boundaries. For instance,
in the chapters on Daoism there are also a number of references to Buddhism, Confucianism,
and popular religion, and the same applies to the rest of the book.
Organization of the Book
The main body of the book consists of ten chapters of approximately equal length, with the
exception of chapter 10, which is about a third longer. At the end of each chapter there is a
bibliography of relevant books written in English. Each chapter also includes additional peda-
| Introduction
gogical tools that are meant to enhance the book’s usefulness to general readers, students, and
teachers. First, there are brief excerpts from pertinent primary sources, such as Mengzi or the
recorded sayings of Chan teachers. Second, there are tables or listings that contain key concepts, names, or taxonomies, such as the three parts of the Daoist canon or the five Confucian
classics. Third, there are summaries of the main points or issues explored in each chapter,
along with sample discussion questions. I have also included numerous illustrations and photographs, most of them taken during my travels to various religious sites in China and elsewhere. There is also a chronology of Chinese dynastic history at the beginning of the book,
and an additional bibliography and Chinese glossary at the end.
Substantial part of the book focuses on the three main religious traditions—Buddhism,
Confucianism, and Daoism—each of which is allocated two chapters. The chapters on Daoism
and Buddhism are placed consequently (chapters 3 through 6), while the second chapter on
late Confucianism (chapter 8) is placed towards the end of the book, apart from the chapter on
early Confucianism (chapter 2) that appears in the early part of the book. Such arrangement
reflects the fact that the Confucian revival of the Song era and its subsequent elaborations must
be considered in relation to the spectacular growth of Buddhism and Daoism that occurred
during the medieval period, and the great influence these two religions exerted on the Chinese
literati. Other relevant traditions also receive adequate coverage. Popular religion is allocated
a separate chapter, while the growths of Christianity and Islam are placed together in a single
chapter. In light of prevalent (American) academic conventions, I have not included substantive coverage of Tibetan Buddhism, which is usually treated under the separate (and somewhat
nebulous) category of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.
While separate chapters are dedicated to the main religious traditions, as noted above, throughout the book I also point out the mutual influences and intersections among the different religions. In addition, in the various chapters I relate the interactions of various religions with
other social forces and cultural phenomena, such as political authority, literary production, artistic representation, and attitudes towards gender. I also highlight the key models of religious
pluralism that evolved in the course of Chinese history, and the ways in which the Chinese
constructed their religious identities. As was already noted and we will later see in more detail,
often those identities were multifaceted or assumed hybrid forms, in contrast to the familiar
paradigms that are prevalent in the Western and Islamic worlds.
I have tied to make the book’s organizational structure and its overall presentation suitable for
a general audience interested in a readable but academically rigorous introduction to Chinese
religions. The book is written in such a way as to make it suitable for use as a primary textbook for semester-long courses on Chinese religions at the college level. Each chapter should
cover about a week of instruction. Taken together, the various chapters are meant to introduce
students and general readers to the richness and diversity of Chinese religious life, with the intent of stimulating interest and appreciation of the main themes and traditions, within a larger
context of humanistic knowledge about religion and spirituality.
| Introduction
As it is primarily directed towards a general audience, and given the parameters set by the
book series in which it is included, the book is not annotated (with the exception of occasional
inline citations, which are sneaked into some of the chapters). Readers interested in learning
more about specific topics or religions are encouraged to consult the secondary sources included in the pertinent reading lists and the bibliography. Throughout the book I have tried to
write in a clear and relatively jargon-free manner, avoiding unnecessary inclusion of numerous
names, superfluous historical information, and the like; I have also aimed at staying away from
dwelling on scholarly minutia. At the same time, I have endeavored to put emphasis on scholarly accuracy, which includes implementation of prevalent academic standards in what are admittedly a number of distinct and still growing fields of scholarly research.
Early Patterns of Chinese
Religious Life
In this chapter
The first chapter surveys the principal religious beliefs and practices
that emerged during the formative stages of Chinese civilization. It primarily covers the period from the establishment of the Shang dynasty (c.
1550–1045) until the time of Confucius (551–479 BCE?), although some of
it is also applicable to later periods, up to the early part of the Han dynasty
(206 BCE–220 CE). During the early formative period of dynastic history it
is already possible to discern fundamental religiously inflected cultural orientations, institutional paradigms, configurations of belief, and patterns of thinking
that continued to shape the essential character and ongoing development of
Chinese civilization. The chapter looks at the earliest sources of information,
such as oracle bones and bronze inscriptions, which provide important clues
about key features of ancient religious life. That includes ancestor veneration
and belief in a supernatural realm populated by various gods and spirits, which is
closely correlated with the human world. Several of the religious themes and concepts featured here will reappear in later chapters. Such recurrences amplify some of
the remarkable patterns of continuity that underscore the central historical trajectories
of Chinese civilization, even if, as we will see throughout the book, such enduring elements invariably went together with momentous changes and notable paradigm shifts.
Main topics
• Brief overview of ancient Chinese history.
• Use of oracle bones and practice of divination under the Shang dynasty.
• Worship of gods, spirits, and ancestors.
• Changing perceptions of divinity and sacrifice during the Zhou era.
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
• Veneration of the cultural heroes and sagely kings of remote antiquity.
• Basic character and scope of Chinese mythology.
• Political and religious underpinnings of the notion of “mandate of Heaven.”
Historical Frameworks
hina has one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Early predecessors of the
modern humans, known as Homo erectus, lived in China over 500,000 years
ago, perhaps even as early as a million years ago. They are represented by the
so-called “Peking man,” sculls and bones of whom were discovered in the vicinity of present-day Beijing during the 1920s. As its name indicates, this early
relation to our species, the Homo sapiens, was able to stand erect, and he was sophisticated
enough to be able to use fire and make a variety of stone tools. Modern humans settled in the
area of present-day China at the onset of the Paleolithic (Old Stone) period, some 100,000
years ago, possibly even before that. The earliest societies were those of hunters and gatherers, who gradually developed more evolved language abilities. By approximately 10,000 BCE
there was a gradual development of agriculture, a point at which we can perhaps begin to
speak of the beginning of a proto-Chinese history, although the determination of a particular
starting point for “Chinese” history is largely an arbitrary and inherently contestable academic
By 5,000 BCE a variety of localized and heterogeneous Neolithic (New Stone Age) cultures
emerged in some of the river valleys in both the northern and southern parts of China. During
this period, further developments in agriculture led to the formation of more permanent settlements, which fostered the evolution of more complex forms of social organization. In the north
the main grain was millet, while in the warmer and wetter southern regions the main focus of
agricultural production was the cultivation of rice. This basic farming pattern remained stable
over the subsequent centuries. Advances in agricultural expertise and productivity were accompanied with increased sophistication in the production of pottery, textiles, weaponry, and a
variety of tools such as spades and hoes. During this period we also encounter the domestication of animals, including dogs, cattle, and pigs.
A well-known example of Neolithic civilization is the Yangshao culture, which flourished
approximately during the 5,000–3,000 BCE period in the area of North China (primarily corresponding to what are the present-day provinces of Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Gansu). Its
people subsisted primarily by means of farming, and they also engaged in hunting and kept
certain domestic animals. Archeologists have discovered a large number of artifacts associated with the Yangshao culture—which they divide in a number of distinctive and overlapping
phases—including nicely decorated pottery of various shapes and sizes, with many examples
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
of delicately painted animal motifs and geometrical patterns. Other notable artifact from the
same chronological period—uncovered by archeologists at various burial sites associated with
other cultures, primarily located in the eastern part of China—are various jade objects, many
of them nicely carved with intricate shapes and designs, which were presumably used in religious ceremonies. Some of the other prominent Neolithic cultures are those of Hongshan,
Liangzhu, and Longshan.
Traditional historiography traces the beginning of Chinese dynastic history to the legendary
Xia dynasty, whose traditional chronology is usually given as 2,207–1,766 BCE. That is the
first of the “three dynasties” of ancient China (the other two being the Shang and the Zhou).
We do not have any hard archeological evidence about this dynasty and historians are uncertain if it really existed. Nonetheless, we can trace the onset of the Bronze Age to this important
transitional period, during which we can ascertain the evolution of more complex civilizational patterns. Important advances included the development of writing system, political and
religious institutions, and metallurgical technology. We are on a more stable historical ground
with the next Chinese dynasty, the Shang, for which we have ample archeological and textual
evidence. The domain of the Shang was in north China, the area known as the Northern China
Plain, which is sometimes referred to as the cradle of Chinese civilization. The Shang thus
covered only a part of what later came to be known as China proper.
During the Shang period we witness the formation of multifaceted urban centers, more involved stratification and organization of society, and use of horse-drawn chariots. There was
also the growth of occupational specializations, which included the emergence of certain kinds
of ritual specialists and diviners. Another notable occurrence was the further development and
increased use of writing that took a distinctive logographic form, which was a direct precursor
to the standard Chinese script that is still used today. Important artifacts that bear testimony to
the relative sophistication of Shang culture are the numerous vessels and other objects made
out of bronze, many of them beautifully decorated with animal drawings or abstract motifs,
thousands of which survive to this day. Most of the bronzes were used in ritual contexts, which
points to the great importance attached to religion in Shang society. Notable part of Shang religion were ritual sacrifices, which besides the offering of slaughtered animals (such as oxen)
also often included human sacrifices, as evidenced at various burial sites that date back to that
The Shang kings ruled over their subjects from a series of capitals that incorporated complexes
of palaces and temples—exemplified by the important site at Anyang (Henan), where we have
the ruins of Yin, the last capital of the Shang—by combining both political and religious authority. Anyang is the site of major archeological discoveries, including the sizeable tombs of
eleven Shang kings that ruled during the late part of the dynasty. The Shang kings were able to
mobilize their subject into large public projects, such as the construction of military fortifications or elaborate tombs. They were also able to assemble sizable armies and project military
power beyond their domain. In the eleventh century BCE they were eventually replaced by the
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
first Zhou king, who defeated the Shang army and went on to establish his own long-lasting
dynasty (traditional chronology: 1122–256 BCE). That was a momentous event in the history
of ancient China that brought about significant political and religious changes, although there
was also much continuity between the Shang and the Zhou.
Chinese history depicts the early Zhou kings as paradigmatic rules who established a stable
and strong state, with a flourishing culture that over the centuries was celebrated as a glorious
model to be followed by later generations of Chinese rulers and officials. As we will see in the
next chapter, Confucius and his disciples construed this period as a golden age of Chinese civilization. Accordingly, they actively promoted the idea that the early Zhou reign should serve
as a blueprint for the institution of just governance and the creation of harmonious society.
The historical memories of the early Zhou era were also put into writing, as the Zhou elites
further developed the earlier Shang script and placed greater emphasis on literary culture.
Accordingly, this is the first period in Chinese history for which we have important textual
sources, written from the perspective of the Zhou state and its ruling elites, some of which
were subsequently incorporated into the Confucian canon (see chapter 2).
The Zhou rulers set up hierarchical social structure and decentralized system of governance,
a central feature of which was the enfeoffment of their key supporters and relatives. The sociopolitical order instituted by the Zhou dynasty centered on the relationship between the lord
and his vassals, which is why it is often referred to as a feudal system (notwithstanding the
notable divergences from the European model of feudalism, which serves as the main point of
comparison). The period of Zhou hegemony lasted until 771 BCE, when the royal capital was
sacked by rebellious armies with the help of non-Chinese tribes. Even well before that, there
was a protracted period of Zhou decline during which the dynasty lost much of its authority.
That was accompanied with a shift in political power towards the rulers of the various vassal
states that were incorporated into the Zhou dominion.
The fall of the Zhou capital in 771 was followed by the establishment of a new capital further
east, in the vicinity of Luoyang. This move was a turning point in Zhou history, which is thereby divided into two distinctive periods: Western Zhou and Eastern Zhou. The Eastern Zhou era
is further subdivided into two epochs: the Spring and Autumn era (722–481) and the Warring
States period (403–221). The Spring and Autumn era was a time of political strife and realignment, as well as accelerated social change. During this protracted period of fragmentation
there was little in terms of strong central authority, as the Zhou kings were relegated to being mere figureheads, with traditional ritual authority but no real power to control the various
rulers who effectively acted as heads of independent states. Consequently, the various states
jockeyed for power and status, amidst constantly shifting political alliances. Gradually the
larger and more powerful states annexed the smaller ones, thus greatly decreasing the number
of independent states.
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
The interstate competition turned increasingly violent during the Warring States period, as is
suggested by its name. By this time the large states had evolved bureaucratic structures and
were able to field huge armies; some of the large battles involved hundreds of thousands of
soldiers. Ironically, the prevalent climate of strife and competition led to significant economic
and technological advances, including increase in trade, growth in monetary usage, and development of iron technology. These advances went together with significant developments in the
social and intellectual arenas, some of which will be noted in the next two chapters. Eventually
one of the big states, the militaristic and authoritarian Qin, emerged victorious and in 221 BCE
was able to unite China under single imperial rule. That was a turning point in world history
that ushered China into the imperial age, which lasted until the early twentieth century. While
the Qin regime lasted for only fifteen years, it paved the way for the stable imperial rule and
cultural glories of the Han era, which lasted over four centuries. One of the keys to Qin’s success in uniting all of China was its creation of a strong and centralized government, with wellorganized bureaucratic structures that proved very effective in the mass mobilization of material and human resources.
Oracle Bones and Divination
Among the most important archeological discoveries related to the Shang dynasty are the numerous oracle bone inscriptions, which constitute the earliest written records about Chinese
religious beliefs and practices. The oracle bones were first discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. According to some estimates, to date over 200,000 pieces have been excavated—many of them extant only as fragments—mostly at the old Shang capital and religious
center located in the vicinity of Anyang. Significant discoveries of inscribed oracle bones continue to be made by Chinese archaeologists, including the major unearthing in 2008 of numerous oracle bones at the temple of the Duke of Zhou (Shaanxi), which contain well over thousand inscribed characters. The oracle bones were originally used primarily within the context
of divinatory rituals performed by or on behalf of the Shang kings, although there are also
examples of oracle bones that are not related to the royal house. The contents of the inscription
provide us with important data about the activities and concerns of the Shang rulers and the
court elites. They are less relevant to our understanding of the daily lives, existential concerns,
and religious practices of the common people, which for the most part remain unknown due to
the lack of pertinent archeological and textual sources.
The divinatory rituals undertaken by the Shang kings were largely concerned with making
sense of the world in which they lived and obtaining knowledge about the future unfolding
of events. To that end, the rituals functioned as means for establishing channels of communication with the unseen forces that governed the world and influenced human destiny. That
included the supreme god of the Shang people, who in a number of inscriptions is mentioned
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
by the name Di, as well as the royal ancestors and a variety of other spirits (see next section).
The inscriptions were essentially brief records of communications or interactions between the
humans, principally represented by the royal personage, and the various gods and spirits that
populated the supernatural realm. The divinatory rituals also served as occasions to express the
desires, hopes, and intentions of the Shang kings. In some cases the inscriptions are phrased in
terms of the king’s search of approval or validation from a divine power for a particular course
of action, rather than as a question about the unknown or an inquiry into future happening.
For the purpose of divination the Shang people used the bones of large animals, especially
the shoulder blades (scapulas) of oxen that have been killed as sacrificial offerings. Often for
the same purpose they also used turtle shells, especially the plastron (the under portion of the
shell). Once the shells were carefully prepared, they were heated by the application of hot rods
into holes on the bone or shell that had been drilled in advance at specific locations, thereby
controlling the positioning of the cracks. The ritualistic application of fire was presumably accompanied with incantations that contained the questions or communications directed towards
specific spirits or divinities. It is possible that the ritual also included preparatory stage during
which the diviner(s) invoked the spirits and elicited their presence. The application of heat
caused the bones or shells to crack, and then specially trained diviners interpreted the cracks as
deities’ responses to the original questions or topics.
Because of the use of fire, the divinatory techniques performed at the Shang court can be classified under the category of pyromancy, the prediction of the future by means of fire or flames.
The Shang king sometimes participated in these rituals, thereby assuming a priestly role that
was an important part of the royal persona. The king’s abilities to communicate with the supernatural realm and predict the future were key aspects of his priestly charisma and an important
source of his political authority. Perhaps more than anything else, it was the royal cult that
provided the Shang people with an important sense of social cohesion and gave legitimacy to
the existing sociopolitical order. Consequently, the extant inscriptions depict the Shang king
as an infallible diviner and prognosticator, someone who is finely attuned to the supernatural
realm. There was also a cadre of diviners and ritual specialists that served as officers of the
royal court, who officiated during the proceedings and interpreted the results. Notwithstanding
the manifest religious character of Shang culture and the religious foundations of its polity, it
is also possible to discern a trend towards bureaucratic routinization and rationalization of the
state’s ritual program, especially during the later part of the dynasty.
After the completion of the divinatory ritual, a brief record of the proceedings, which typically included the communication directed towards the divinity, often accompanied with the
result of the divination, was inscribed in an archaic Chinese script on the bone or the shell. The
bone inscriptions were archived, thereby functioning as official records that served important
bureaucratic and historical functions, in addition to their religious meaning and significance.
At times the extant inscriptions also include the names of the diviners and the times when the
rituals were performed, following the ancient cyclical calendar that was used at the time.
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
Oracle bone inscriptions
Will Di order rains that will be sufficient for the harvest? Will Di not order rains that
will be sufficient for the harvest?
As for attacking the Qiong tribe, will Di provide us with support?
Shall we pray for harvest to Yue peak with a roasted offering of three sheep and
three pigs, and the decapitation of three oxen?
Is it (ancestral) Father Yi who is hurting the king’s tooth?
The king made cracks (on the oracle bone) and divined: We shall hunt at Ji; coming
and going there shall be no disaster. The king prognosticated, saying, “It is extremely auspicious.” Acting on this, we captured forty-one foxes and eight hornless deer.
Excerpts adapted from Robert Eno’s translation, in Lopez 1996: 46–51.
The contents of the oracle bone inscriptions are usually terse and cryptic, at least to us, although it is safe to assume that they were perfectly understandable to the Shang elites. They
provide valuable information about the structure of the Shang pantheon, the activities and prerogatives of the kings, and the general character of courtly life. We can also uncover inklings
about an array of concerns that were central to the Shang people, such as agricultural production, meteorological events, celestial phenomena, sicknesses, childbearing, propitious or unpropitious times for specific activities, military operations, royal hunts and excursions, building of settlements and edifices, and performance of sacrifices and other forms of worship. For
instance, the topics of divination might be concerned with the success of forthcoming harvest
or the outcome of military campaign contemplated by the king and his advisors (exemplified
by the first two entries in box quote). Among the notable features of most of the inscriptions
is their prosaic character and utilitarian orientation. There is also a pervasive sense of connectedness between the human and divine realms, which was at the core of Shang approaches
to religiosity. For better or worse, human life and destiny were perceived as being inextricably
linked with the supernatural world; furthermore, the relationship between the two was not always harmonious, as there were ample occasions for tension, antagonism, or adversity.
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
Worship of Gods and Ancestors under the
The Shang pantheon had a hierarchical structure. At its apex was the aforementioned supreme
deity, referred to as Di or Shangdi (sometimes translated as the Lord on High; also possible
to render as Supreme Lord or High God). Shangdi was believed to have authority and control over both the sociopolitical and natural realms. The origins of this deity are uncertain.
According to some scholars, originally Shangdi was perhaps an archaic high ancestor of the
Shang ruling house. However, there is little evidence to prove that hypothesis, especially given
that in key ritual contexts Shangdi was treated quite differently from the royal ancestors, as he
was not integrated into the official sacrificial pantheon.
Shangdi’s power was deemed superior to that of all other preternatural beings, although the
range of his powers and the areas of his jurisdiction seem to have been somewhat vaguely defined, as they overlapped with those of other deities and the royal ancestors. From what we can
tell, Shangdi was often regarded as being aloof and inaccessible, highly potent yet removed
from people’s everyday lives and concerns. Consequently, usually no routine sacrificial offerings were made directly to him. Humans had limited ritual means at their disposal—or perhaps
even no means at all—by which they could control his behavior, although they tried to approach and mollify him, often with the help of the ancestors.
There was an aura of mystery surrounding Shangdi, who apparently was conceived in fairly
abstract terms, with loosely defined qualities and functions. He reigned over all other spirits
and divinities, as a king would rule over his royal court. Divine authority was thus conceived
in ways that were analogous to the configuration of its early counterpart, and the same applied
to the distribution and circulation of power within the two realms, divine and human. Shangdi
could be helpful to the Shang people, for instance by providing timely rain and creating favorable climatic conditions, which were essential for agricultural production. When displeased,
however, he could also cause lots of trouble, for instance by manipulating the natural world
and causing floods or draughts, by sending hail or thunder, or perhaps by causing disastrous
epidemics. It was also believed that he could also bring about misfortune by withholding divine assistance during military campaigns, or even by bringing about attacks by outside forces.
The same propensity to dispense both fortune and misfortune was also ascribed to the other
spirits or deities, whose relationship with the humans was not always harmonious and could
easily take an antagonistic turn. An element of caprice or whim could be discerned in the manner Shangdi and other divinities manifested their power and exerted influence over the human
realm. Given such uncertainties, the primary goal of Shang rituals, especially of divinations
and sacrifices, was to ascertain, appease, and influence the otherworldly powers, so that they
can perchance be persuaded to offer their assistance, or at least to abstain from causing trouble
to the king and his subjects.
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
Shangdi was said to preside over an array of nature deities or spirits, who were responsive
to his commands. That included various deities associated with natural phenomena, such as
the sun, the rain, and the wind. Prayers and sacrifices were regularly made to these divinities,
whose appeasement and help were deemed essential, given the agricultural foundations of
Shang society. Similarly, there were deities connected with important features of the natural
environment or the local landscape, such as particular mountains and rivers. Within the immediate topography of the Shang dominion, especially important were the deities linked with the
Yellow river and Mt. Song, the central sacred mountain, located in the vicinity of Luoyang and
Zhengzhou (in present-day Henan province), which centuries later became closely linked with
Buddhism and Daoism.
Another important group of divinities within the Shang pantheon were the spirits of the royal
ancestors. The belief in their existence was premised on the notion that there is life after death,
albeit of a somewhat different kind. The ancestors were common objects of worship and propitiation, and the making of regular sacrificial offerings to them at the ancestral temple was
an important aspect of official Shang religion. The items offered to the ancestors during ritual
sacrifices included alcoholic drinks, grains, or slaughtered animals (such as cattle and sheep);
at certain occasions there were also human sacrifices. Human sacrifices were also part of
Shang burial customs. They frequently involved family members and other dependants, who
were buried together with their departed lord. The tombs also contained a number of funerary
objects, especially various treasures the deceased was supposed to be able to use in the afterlife, such as bronzes, jades, weapons, and ceramics.
Typically the scale of the burial site and the number and refinement of the funerary objects reflected the status and wealth of the deceased, with the largest tombs being those of the Shang
kings. The point of death involved important transformation, as the spirits of the deceased
turned into ancestors, who were then integrated into a ritual scheme devised and perpetuated
by the living descendents. Accordingly, much attention was given to proper burial sites and
mortuary practices, which were highly ritualized. The burials of high-ranking women followed
a similar pattern to those of their male counterparts, usually reproduced on a smaller scale.
The Shang people believed that the otherworld and this world were coextensive. Not being
radically disjointed, the two worlds intimately implicated each other. Consequently, the departed royal ancestors had influence on what was happening among the living. Moreover, as their
primary living descendants, the Shang kings had access to them and were able to tap into their
knowledge and power. Death essentially marked a change in existential status that to some
extent redefined the relationship between members of the same family lineage, namely the lineage of the royal house. Or to put it differently, while death did not alter the fundamental nature of kinship relationships—a person remained the son of his deceased father, for instance—
it brought about significant changes in the channels of communication that linked the two
parties, as the living had to resort to rituals means such as sacrifice in order to commune with
their departed relations. For those reasons, it was important to establish proper links and chan-
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
nels of communication with the royal ancestors, primarily via the performance of divination
rituals and sacrificial offerings. By such means the Shang kings were able to secure the aid and
blessings of their ancestors—who were also capable of interceding on the kings’ behalf with
the various preternatural powers, including Shangdi—or at least to appease the ancestors and
avoid their censure or wrath.
The relationship between the departed ancestors and the living descendants was conceived in
reciprocal terms. Both groups needed each other. The living provided the dead with sumptuous
tombs and funeral offerings; they also performed regular sacrifices on behalf of the departed
ancestors and paid homage to them. On the other hand, the dead extended their blessings and
protection on the living. It is also important to note that the king had a virtual monopoly on
the prerogative to commune and interact with the royal ancestors, whose exalted existence
and otherworldly power sanctified his rule. The king effectively occupied a special position in
the central kinship community of the royal house, which crossed the conventional lines of demarcation that separated the dead from the living. That granted him a unique relationship with
a key source of superhuman power, mainly expressed in terms of kinship ties, which in turn
bestowed on his reign an aura of socioreligious legitimacy. We can postulate that the ancestral
cult was also adopted by the other aristocratic elites in Shang society, who worshiped their ancestors in a similar manner.
Changing Attitudes towards Divinity during
the Zhou Era
The cult of ancestors, also dubbed as “ancestor worship,” continued during the Zhou dynasty,
as an integral part of official rituals and a key aspect of prevalent religious worldview. During
this period there was an expansion of the parameters of the ancestral cult, which came to involve the ancestors of the common people as well. The worship of ancestors was also infused
with ethical dimensions and given a distinctive moral cast. The ethical underpinnings of ancestral worship primarily centered on the moral concerns of the extended family. Within such
framework, the relationship among individual members and the overall structure of authority
within the extended family were largely expressed in religious terms. The relationship with
the ancestors thus became an extension of the parent-child relationship, which was primarily conceived in patrilineal terms, although female ancestors were also accorded respect and
veneration. As a result, the notion of filial piety assumed a central position. The ancestral cult
and the virtue of filial piety remained important religious ideals and fundamental cultural values throughout the subsequent history of Chinese civilization, and they still remain important
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
Another important development during the Shang-Zhou transition was the gradual replacement of Shangdi with Tian (lit. “Heaven,” also meaning “sky”) as the supreme deity of the
Chinese pantheon. While there were analogies and similarities between these two conceptions
of supreme divinity, a major new element introduced during the Zhou period was the representation of Heaven as a moral force that was unambiguously good. Although Heaven supposedly had control over human life and destiny, within the Zhou scheme it exercised its power
according to exacting moral standards, in contrast to the capricious or whimsical behavior that
was earlier ascribed to Shangdi. The concept of Heaven carried certain anthropomorphic connotations, especially early on, but it is misleading to equate it with Western conceptions of an
omnipotent God who functions as creator of the world, along the strands of belief that developed within the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity.
As a supreme deity or power, Heaven’s dominion and authority extended to both the natural
and human worlds, which were not perceived as being drastically disjoined. Heaven’s functions included those of a creative force that is the origin of the myriad things and beings, an
omnipotent ruler of all of creation, and an impartial judge who evaluates and responds to human behavior. Within the Zhou context, especially important was the role of Heaven as the
foundation and custodian of the prevalent sociopolitical order. Zhou texts also depict Heaven
as being concerned about people’s wellbeing and moral character, which led to the setting up
of ethical standards that foster virtuous behavior and social harmony.
The significant ethical turn that occurred during the Zhou period was characterized by newly
formulated humanistic values and moral concerns. That changed the foundations of the human relationship with the supernatural realm and redefined the basic attitudes towards divine
authority. From a Zhou perspective, Heaven was not simply content with receiving people’s
offerings and veneration, but was primarily concerned with their moral character, at the individual and the communal levels. Following the will or design of Heaven brought positive
rewards, while transgressing against it resulted in misfortune and punishment. For instance,
if displeased Heaven could affect natural disasters or different kinds of scourge. These kinds
of ideas were subsequently expressed in classical texts that became especially influential after
they were appropriated by the Confucian tradition, which made them a centerpiece of its canon
(see chapter 2).
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
The role of virtue in the human interactions with the spirits, according to the Zuo zhuan (Zuo’s Tradition)
It is not simply that ghosts and spirits are attracted to human beings: it is virtue that
attracts them. Hence the “Book of Zhou” in the Book of Documents says, “August
Heaven has no partial affections; it supports only the virtuous.”… So unless one is
virtuous, the people will not be in harmony and the spirits will not partake of one’s
offerings. What the spirits are attracted to is one’s virtue.
Translation adapted from Sommer 1995: 25.
These kinds of moralistic concerns and attitudes were also applied to the basic patterns of human interactions with the various spirits and deities, which increasingly became expressed in
moral terms (see quote box). That transformed the old way of looking at ritual sacrifices as a
system of quid pro quo exchanges, primarily driven by pragmatic concerns, in which the mere
performance of rituals was deemed to be sufficient means for the procurement of good fortune
and mundane benefits. Instead, there was a shift in emphasis on personal morality, although
that does not necessarily imply that utilitarian considerations became less of a concern for the
Zhou people. While much of the old ritual façade remained, there was an important reassessment and reconceptualization of the human relationship with the supernatural order. Within the
new paradigm, the deities became responsive to the proper moral conduct of those who supplicated or worshiped them, rather than to the offerings that were presented to them. The deities
rewarded the virtuous and bestowed good fortune on those who were benevolent, while bringing misfortune to those who behaved in immoral ways.
Such outlook brought about notable changes in the principles of ritual sacrifice. Sacrificial
rituals were supposed to be performed with a proper frame of mind, becoming occasions for
manifesting the inner virtue of the persons making the sacrifice. That was part of a far-reaching humanistic turn, a this-worldly reorientation with important religious, political, and ethical
implications, which blossomed during the Warring States period. A central feature of these developments—at least in certain intellectual milieus, which included the Confucians and other
groups discussed in the next chapter—was an overarching concern with social structures and
human affairs. Increasingly the central issues related to human existence were discussed in humanistic terms, without undue reference to otherworldly powers and divine authority. That influenced the prevalent conceptions of Heaven, which over time came to be perceived in more
abstract terms, as an impersonal principle or a natural law of sorts. A closely related aspect of
this general shift in thinking was a tendency to locate divinity within the individual. Human
beings came to be perceived as having the spiritual potential to radically transform themselves
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
and assume divine or transcendental qualities: to become sages, immortals, or gods (and eventually also bodhisattvas and Buddhas, once Buddhism entered China).
Cultural Heroes and Sage-kings
In addition to the three main categories of divinities surveyed above—the supreme deity
(Shangdi or Tian), nature spirits, and ancestors—another important group of extraordinary beings venerated by the ancient Chinese were the various cultural heroes and sage-kings. These
were mythical figures, believed to have played key cultural roles in remote antiquity, during a
primeval age that coincided with the dawn of Chinese civilization. Their remarkable exploits
and extraordinary deeds were recounted in a series of myths, which extolled their seminal contributions to the development of culture and highlighted the important benefits they brought
to humanity. These myths purport to convey important information about the origins of key
aspects of human life and culture, including writing, medicine, agriculture, animal husbandry,
sericulture, music, cooking, metallurgy, and forming of sociopolitical institutions. Their main
heroes, who are often depicted as multifaceted or multifunctional, were supposedly the first
ones to teach humanity some of the key techniques and cultural skills that provided the foundations for the development of enduring civilization.
Among the best-known and most revered of the archaic cultural heroes and sage-kings is the
Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), who occupies a lofty position in the divine pantheon, even though
his myth is relatively late, probably originating during the Eastern Zhou period. Although early
on the Yellow Emperor was not a major figure, gradually his persona and the symbolic imagery associated with him underwent far-reaching transformation, until eventually he assumed
the status of foremost cultural hero. In the process, a copious amount of mythic lore grew
around him. Initially the Yellow Emperor was depicted as a warrior figure, albeit with pacifist
inclinations, that battled and defeated various evil forces. Later he came to be portrayed as the
progenitor of Chinese civilization.
Some myths attribute to the Yellow Emperor the discovery of making fire and the invention of
cooking. Others credit him with the domestication of animals and a host of other inventions:
the cart, coinage, compass, houses, clothes, devices for measuring weight and time, burial customs, astronomy, medicine; he is even credited with creating a football game. Moreover, the
Yellow Emperor is often portrayed as the putative ancestor of the Chinese people—an identity
that is still evoked by present-day Chinese, who regard themselves as his descendants—and he
is also an important figure in the Daoist pantheon. To this day, myths centered on the Yellow
Emperor are transmitted and retold in China. There are also occasional performances of sacrificial rituals dedicated to him, some of them attended by prominent officials of the Communist
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
Besides the Yellow Emperor, other important mythical heroes are the three sagely kings of
antiquity: Yao, Shun, and Yu. Throughout the history of imperial China their successive reigns
were commonly invoked and venerated as a utopian golden age, when social harmony prevailed and there was flawless governance. Yao is usually depicted as an enlightened ruler, renowned for his benevolence and concern about the people’s welfare. Confucian texts and other
writings often evoke him as a paradigmatic example of perfect ruler, a sagely model to be followed by later generations of emperors. He is especially praised for his decision to abdicate
the throne and pass the reigns of power to his most worthy and capable subject, Shun, who at
the time was a simple farmer.
According to traditional accounts, Shun married Yao’s two daughters, who were very virtuous
and wise, and who helped him in the management of his domain. Shun is celebrated as a paragon of virtue, particularly renowned for his exemplary filial piety. There are many stories that
recount his filial behavior, even though his parents were wicked people who, together with his
evil stepbrother, mistreated him badly. Shun followed the precedent set by Yao and bequeathed
the throne to the person of greatest virtue and accomplishments among his subjects: the brave,
dedicated, and hardworking Yu.
Yu, often called Yu the Great, is best known for his memorable feat of controlling the great
floods that allegedly engulfed the ancient world. The central myth that recounts these events
and Yu’s participation in them is very ancient, as can be seen from an inscription on a bronze
vessel from the eight century BCE. The Chinese tradition celebrated Yu’s accomplishment
as a prime example of selfless devotion to public service. His noble dedication and strenuous
work at battling the devastating floods eventually paid off. Yu was able to restore order into
the world and rescue the people, which earned him a special place in the Chinese pantheon of
great heroes and worthies.
Various stories recount how Yu ardently continued the strenuous work on controlling the great
floods, a colossal project that was started by his father. He allegedly spent thirteen years battling the floods; he was so single-minded in his dedication to the crucial task at hand, the ancient stories tell us, that during the whole period he did not stop even once to visit his home.
Eventually he succeeded in his monumental undertaking, primarily by establishing a system
of dykes and channels that led the water to drain into the sea. Beside his ingenious use of engineering skill and know-how, in the course of his epic battle with the floods Yu is said to have
performed numerous miracles and to have defeated various monsters and other uncanny creatures. Yu is also credited with the establishment of the first Chinese dynasty, the mythical Xia
dynasty. According to tradition, he left the dynastic throne to his son, which became a model
that was followed by subsequent royal houses.
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
The Five Emperors (wudi)
• The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi)
• Zhuanxu
• Yao
• Shun
• Yu the Great
The three sagely kings of antiquity, together with the Yellow Emperor and his somewhat obscure grandson Zhuanxu, are often grouped together and identified as the Five Emperors (see
box). There are also variant versions of this grouping of archaic sage-kings, however, and it
seems that the myth of Yu is earlier than the myth of the Yellow Emperor. Another prominent
set of divine kings, which according to popular mythical lore ruled during the prehistoric period, are the so-called Three Sovereigns (see box), although this classification is fairly late,
probably from the late Warring States era. Frequently their identities are constructed in terms
of the classical tripartite division of the world—heaven, earth, and humanity—but there are
variations on this list as well (see next section).
The Three Sovereigns (sanhuang)
• Heavenly Sovereign (Tianhuang)
• Earthly Sovereign (Dihuang)
• Humanly Sovereign (Renhuang)
Traditionally, Chinese historical works—such as Sima Qian’s (c. 145–86 BCE) immensely
influential Historical Records (Shiji)—presented these figures as historical personages, especially as sagely kings who ruled during an archaic period and established the foundations of
Chinese civilization. Such historicized representations reflect a common tendency to fuse the
mythical period and the historical age, as well as to blur the lines of demarcation that separate
the mythical and historical modes of narration. Some scholars have suggested that the five
emperors and other similar heroic figures originally were archaic gods, who during the Zhou
period were subjected to demythologizing and rationalizing processes, as a result of which
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
they were transformed into cultural heroes and bestowed with distinctive human qualities. In
scholarly literature this process in sometimes referred to as “reverse euhemerisation.”
The notion of euhemerisation was originally applied in reference to a process of deification
that is said to have unfolded within the context of ancient Greek mythology. It was initially
proposed by the ancient Greek writer and mythographer Euhemerus (fl. late 4th cent. BCE).
Euhemerus reinterpreted Greek religion by proposing a new theory about the origin of the
gods that constituted the Greek pantheon and the myths that were told about them. According
to him, the gods were deified human beings. For instance, Zeus was originally a revered king,
who became an object of worship after his death. Similarly, popular mythical accounts that
feature various gods are reflections of historical events that unfolded in the distant past, which
were subsequently reframed and retold in a distinct, religiously-inflected mode of narration.
Accordingly, while in the Greek case we have an argument about human beings being deified
and turned into gods, in China we seem to be facing a reverse process of archaic gods becoming humanized and historicized, thereby being transformed into primeval sage-kings.
Chinese Mythology
The stories and related imagery about the archaic heroes and sagely kings described in the
previous section are part of a larger body of mythical narratives, primarily preserved in ancient
texts, some of which are still transmitted and retold in modern China. Generally speaking,
there is a lack of scholarly consensus on how to define the category of myth. In part that is due
the fact that various scholars approach the study of mythology through the interpretive lenses
of diverse academic disciplines, such as anthropology, psychology, literary studies, or history
of religions. At the most basic level, myths are ancient stories or archaic narratives, commonly
featuring supernatural beings or primordial heroes. Usually they are told in prose, but they can
also assume verse form.
Myths often explain in symbolic terms the origins of the world and natural phenomena, shed
light on key features of human behavior, epitomize peculiar facets of culture, or convey information about significant features of social life. Myths are sometimes characterized as “sacred
narratives,” but a number of myths—in China and elsewhere—are not directly concerned with
divine beings or other aspects of the sacred realm (and, at any rate, the notion of “sacred” itself
is vague and open to diverse interpretations). Some definitions of myth can be somewhat restrictive, while others are broad in scope. Here I am siding with the second view, namely I am
employing the category of myth in a fairly expansive sense.
Unlike the people of ancient Greece and Rome, or even ancient Japan, the Chinese did not create an integrated system of myths or a canon of mythological writings; or at least we do not
have any evidence of such systematization, in large part because early on the myths were prob-
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
ably transmitted orally. In ancient China myths were constantly-changing narratives, subject
to ongoing processes of revision and modification. While the origins of many of the Chinese
myths are very ancient, as a rule they are preserved in relatively late texts, in particular from
the later part of the Zhou era and the Han dynasty. Moreover, although there is a wide array of
Chinese myths, they usually survive in a truncated or fragmentary form. To further complicate
things, many myths appear in several different versions, and normally they are incorporated
into a variety of larger works, whose authors’ for the most part were primarily concerned with
other topics and issues.
When looking at the history of early mythical narratives, we can discern ongoing processes of
transformation and marginalization, influenced to a large degree by rationalizing tendencies,
which were especially brought to the fore with the gradual institution of Confucian hegemony.
As part of their ongoing transformation, many myths were historicized and rationalized—or to
put it differently, they were essentially demythologized— as we saw in the above discussion
about the ancient sage-kings. As they were integrated into larger works, ancient mythological accounts were modified and made to accord with the styles and intents of their host texts.
Often that meant that they were refashioned and presented as integral parts of larger historical,
philosophical, or literary narratives.
There are very few early works that provide substantial amount of materials for the study
of ancient myths. Notable examples of such texts are the Classic of Mountains and Seas
(Shanghai jing), a treasure-trove of mythical lore that was probably composed around the third
century BCE, and Huainanzi (lit. “the masters of Huainan”), compiled around 139 BCE by
the prince of Huainan and his scholarly associates, which unlike most other sources contains
complete versions of some early myths. On the basis of these texts and other sources, scholars
have been able to study prevalent mythical motifs and characters, and analyze a large assortment of myths composed in ancient China.
Chinese myths feature numerous gods, divine heroes, and other mythical figures, including
strange birds and animals. They also cover a broad array of themes and ideas. Prominent examples of mythical themes include the creation of the world and the origins of humanity, the
births and acts of the gods, the achievements and tribulations of the semi-divine heroes of
antiquity, the unusual character and topography of mythical lands, and the founding of local
ethnic groups or dynasties. While for reasons of space we cannot go over the whole range
of mythical themes and protagonists, we can illustrate some of the basic features of Chinese
myths by having a closer look at three important mythical characters: Shennong, Fuxi, and
Nuwa. Sometimes these three are identified as the aforementioned Three Sovereigns, and they
are all worshiped to this day.
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
Figure 1.1. Shrine dedicated to Shennong, Baoan Temple, Taipei
Shennong (Divine Farmer) is among the most important cultural heroes of China’s distant
past. He is especially associated with the invention of agriculture. In some stories he is attributed with a miraculous birth and unique physique; one version of his myth represents him
as having the head of a dragon, which was purportedly due to the fact that his mother copulated with a divine dragon. As indicated by his name, Shennong is primarily identified as the
inventor of farming; he is the best-know among the several gods of agriculture. He is also
said to have introduced important farming tools, such as the hoe, the axe, and the plow. Other
important discoveries linked with him are the rudiments of irrigation, the first calendar, various cooking implements, and the drinking of tea. He is even said to have devised some of the
ancient musical instruments. Furthermore, in ancient China he was credited with the invention
of medicine and the use of plants for healing. In that role he was identified as the “author” of
an ancient book on medicine and pharmacopoeia, which was among the earliest medical books
composed in China. To this day Shennong is worshiped all over China, and there are numerous
temples, shrines, and festival dedicated to him (see figure 1.1).
Fuxi is another prominent mythical figure and key fixture in the ancient pantheon. Archaic
myths portray him as many-sided god and seminal cultural hero. He is principally depicted
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
as a prodigious inventor who benefited early humanity by teaching it a number of important
technical skills and cultural practices. For instance, he is linked with the invention of writing,
music, and cooking, along with the domestication of animals and the use of nets for fishing
and hunting. He is also credited with the invention of divination, in the forms of the “eight trigrams” (bagua) that are featured in the Classic of Change (Yijing, discussed in the next chapter). Some myths describe Fuxi’s birth in supernatural terms, while others depict him as possessing extra-human attributes; for instance, his lower body is depicted as assuming the shape
of a snake.
Nuwa makes human beings out of yellow earth
People say that when initially heaven and earth opened and unfolded, human beings did not yet exist. Nuwa kneaded yellow earth and fashioned human beings out
of it. Though she worked feverishly, she did not have enough strength to finish her
task, so she drew her cord in a furrow through the mud and lifted it to make human
beings. That is why rich aristocrats are the human beings she made from the yellow
earth, while ordinary poor people are the human beings she made from the cord’s
Translation adapted from Birrell 1993: 35
Nuwa is among the best-known and most significant female figures in Chinese mythology.
Some cosmogonic myths depict Nuwa as a powerful creator deity. She is said to have fashioned the first human beings, molding them with her own hands out of yellow earth and mud
(see quote box). The early figures were done carefully and they became the aristocracy, according to a popular version of the story; in contrast, the later figures were done in haste by the
exhausted goddess, and they turned into the common people. Another popular group of myths
depicts Nuwa as savioriess of the world. Once upon a time, there was a disorder of cosmic
proportions caused by a breakage of the sky. That happened when (according to one version of
the story), in the aftermath of a ferocious fight with another god, a powerful god knocked and
damaged one of the four large pillars that holds the sky. Nuwa was able to repair the pillar and
mend the broken sky, thereby restoring order into the world.
The prominent status of Nuwa points to the importance assigned to the feminine principle in
ancient Chinese mythology. Another example of important female divinity is Queen Mother of
the West (Xiwangmu), a supreme goddess that purportedly presided over a western paradise.
She was later incorporated into the Daoist pantheon, and we will return to her again when we
discuss the place of women in religious Daoism (see chapter 4).
1 | Early Patterns of Chinese Religious Life
Figure 1.2. Nuwa with a serpent
body (source: Myths and Legends
of China, by Edward Theodore
Chalmers Werner [1922; republished by Dover Publications];
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Fuxi and Nuwa are often portrayed together as a pair. In that case, they are known as the
progenitors or ancestors of humanity. Their relationship is somewhat ambiguous, as Nuwa is
described as both the sister and the consort of Fuxi. According to this myth, the origins of humanity can be traced back to their incestuous relationship: a marriage between a bother and a
sister that occurred at the or…
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