Chinese Studies Ancient Chinese Religion
by
Mu-chou Poo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0063

Introduction

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.

General Overviews

As a fast-growing and changing field of study due to recent archaeological discoveries, our understanding of ancient Chinese religions has come a long way since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the authors of Western works such as de Groot 1972 (originally published in 1897), Doré 1911–1938, and Granet 1975 (originally published in French in 1922) based their observations only on traditional texts and comparison with limited field studies. Now we have several useful introductory works that provide us with a fairly comprehensive picture of what the issues are and where future research possibilities lie. A useful review of the state of the field is Overmyer, et al. 1995. Lagerwey and Kalinowski 2009 is the most recent collection of essays that deal with various aspects of ancient Chinese religious beliefs, such as state cult, divination, ritual, burial practice, mantic practice, ancestor worship, shamanism, etc. These essays are supported by a copious up-to-date bibliography. Poo 1998 is a monographic account of the development of religion from the Neolithic period to the Han dynasty. The special feature of this work is its consistent attention to uncovering popular religion. Nadeau 2012, a handbook for the study of Chinese religions in general, is useful because many topics are related to the ancient periods. Shaughnessy 2007 gives a philologically oriented introduction to the religious phenomena of ancient China.

  • de Groot, Jan Jakob Maria. The Religious System of China: Its Ancient Forms, Evolution, History and Present Aspect, Manners, Customs and Social Institutions Connected Therewith. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1972.

    E-mail Citation »

    Although outdated, this work can still be useful. The author quotes copiously from the traditional Chinese texts, with translations, and compares these texts with modern (late 19th century) Chinese religious customs. The book covers subjects such as funeral customs, burial, ancestor worship, and belief in ghosts, demons, specters, magic, and exorcism. Originally published in 1897.

  • Doré, Henri. Recherches sur les superstitions en Chine. Variétés sinologiques. Shanghai: Imprimerie de la Mission Catholique, 1911–1938.

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    As the title indicates, the author did not think that Chinese religious beliefs are anything other than superstition. The work mixes early sources with later ones, pays attention to talismans and popular deities, but gives separate treatment of Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism.

  • Granet, Marcel. The Religion of the Chinese People. Translated, edited, and introduced by Maurice Freedman. Explorations in Interpretive Sociology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1975.

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    Translation of La religion des Chinois (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1922). A very influential work that employs Durkheimian social theory in interpreting ancient Chinese religious life.

  • Lagerwey, John, and Marc Kalinowski, eds. Early Chinese Religion, Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD). Handbuch der Orientalistik 4. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

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    A conference volume aimed at exploring major religious phenomena of early China, by experts in the field. Touches on almost all aspects of early Chinese religion. Copious bibliography on Chinese, Japanese, and Western works proves to be very useful.

  • Nadeau, Randall Laird, ed. The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Chinese Religions. Wiley-Blackwell Companions to Religion. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444361995E-mail Citation »

    A handbook that gives concise, topical treatment of Chinese religion, including its historical development and different religious traditions, as well as some critical terms such as sacred text, ritual, divinity, divination, gender, asceticism, etc.

  • Overmyer, Daniel L., David N. Keightley, Edward L. Shaughnessy, Constance A. Cook, and Donald Harper. “Special Section: Chinese Religions—the State of the Field, Part I: Early Religious Traditions; The Neolithic Period through the Han Dynasty (ca. 4000 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.).” Journal of Asian Studies 54.1 (1995): 124–160.

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    Written by a number of experts in the field, on the religious beliefs of early China, from an introduction by Overmyer (pp. 124–128) to papers on the “Neolithic and Shang Periods” (by Keightley, pp. 128–145) the “Western Chou Period” (by Shaughnessy, pp. 145–148), the “Spring and Autumn Period” (by Cook, pp. 148–152) and the “Warring States, Ch’in, and Han Periods” (by Harper, pp. 152–160). Includes discussions of deities, mythology, and common religion, with useful bibliographies attached to each section. Articles available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Poo, Mu-chou. In Search of Personal Welfare: A View of Ancient Chinese Religion. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

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    This work discusses the development of religion from the Neolithic period to the end of the Han dynasty. Its special emphasis is on the development of popular religion since the Spring and Autumn period, by using newly excavated texts such as the “Daybook.”

  • Shaughnessy, Edward L. “The Religion of Ancient China.” In A Handbook of Ancient Religions. Edited by John R. Hinnells, 490–536. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511488429E-mail Citation »

    A short, highly personal, but in-depth introduction to the religious phenomena of ancient China. Particular emphases are on explaining the Five Processes (Five Phases or Wuxing), correlative thought, ancestor cult, and divination by tortoise shells.

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