Ancient Chinese Religion

Mu-chou Poo

in Chinese Studies

ISBN: 9780199920082
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
Ancient Chinese Religion

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  • East Asian Studies
  • Asian History
  • East Asian Philosophy
  • East Asian Religions


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Religion is a form of activity and mental attitude that helps humans deal with real or imagined extrahuman forces that influence human life. In ancient China from the Neolithic to the beginning of the Han Empire, such activities and attitudes left their traces in various forms: archaeological remains, artifacts, and texts. There is, however, no single “ancient Chinese religion,” but a number of different forms of religious activities and beliefs. Prehistoric ritual altars, cult statues, and burials point to ritual activities and expressions of belief in life after death. Into the historical period, heavenly bodies, natural phenomena, mountains and rivers, and deceased ancestors all are considered as having the power to influence human life. Rituals were developed to propitiate these powers, and relationships between human beings and the powers were articulated through various texts. When states were formed, rulers and elites dominated the worship of heavenly bodies, the earth, mountains, and rivers. At the local or private level, people engaged in various activities that deal with numerous spirits and ghosts, including their ancestors. Their concerns were geared toward issues of daily life, with the objective of gaining personal or family welfare. These activities, whether divination, exorcism, offering, prayer, or witchcraft, all operate under the assumption that it was possible for humans not only to communicate but also to influence the will of those extrahuman forces, be they called gods, ghosts, or demons. It is also important to notice that one should not automatically assume that there was a correspondence between religious beliefs and morality. Ancient political thinkers indeed developed certain ideas of correlation between human behavior and divine sanction; thus, the mandate of heaven became known as a sort of divine sanction toward those rulers who acted in accordance to universal justice. This idea would become a most enduring explanation for the vicissitudes of dynastic changes. Yet, besides this political theology, there was little in the various belief systems that connected personal morality with religious activities. What mattered was how to perform correct rituals, not to nurture personal virtue. Confucianism may be singled out as representing a belief system built on moral rectitude; yet, being an elite philosophy, Confucianism could hardly represent the large and complicated social reality of the Eastern Zhou period (770–221 bc). Thus, a distinct character of ancient Chinese religions was the general lack of the idea that the divine powers or spirits were the guardians of human moral behavior.

Article.  6905 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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