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Traditional Chinese Religion - Beliefs

From the beginning of Chinese history, the old religion had been combined with politics, and the sage rulers had been the heads of both government and church. China's religion was polytheism, and had no special name. Confucius made no change in the religious observances of his country, and never imagined himself to be a reformer in that respect. The religion of China was in the main the same at the dawn of the 20th Century as it was before Confucius appeared. That the worship of Confucius himself was added to it did not involve any change of its structure.

It was already well developed, and, what is very peculiar, it had already parted with all savage and irrational elements. There was no mythology; the universal legend of the marriage of heaven and earth is dimly recognisable, but there is no set of primitive stories about the gods. Of human sacrifice there is only one ancient instance; there are no rites with anything savage or cruel about them. Everything is proper, dignified, and well arranged. The deities are beings worthy to be worshipped, and they exact no meaningless services. There is nothing in any part of the religion to disturb the propriety of the worshipper or to suggest any doubts to his mind. In no other religion of the world is everything in such excellent order.

On the other hand it was not a highly-developed religion. Its beliefs are those of extremely early times, and represent a stage of thought at which no other national religion stood still. The organisation common to developed systems is entirely wanting; there is no idol, no priestly class, no Bible, no theology; the most important doctrines are left so vague and undetermined that scholars interpret them in opposite ways. It was a religion in which, just as in the primitive stage, outward acts are everything, the doctrine nothing, and which is not regulated by an organised code but by custom and precedent. All these marks point to a powerful cause, which, when the religion had developed its main features, was able to suppress older beliefs and practices, and lead the nation to devote itself altogether to the newer faith.

The objects of worship in the Chinese religion arrange themselves in three classes. The Chinese worshipped:

  1. Heaven (Tien)
  2. Spirits of various kinds, other than human
  3. The spirits of dead ancestors
The form of religion revealed in the earliest monuments is chiefly animistic. Spirits, identified with or dwelling in natural phenomena such as mountains, rivers, and clouds are worshipped; but ghost-worship, in the restricted application to ancestral ghosts, is more universal and, with one exception, seems to be more antique. These ghosts appear to control the spirits of natural phenomena, and are the main spiritual powers to which appeal is made. But supreme over all powers, even the ancestor-ghost of the emperor, is the sky-power, sometimes conceived as natural phenomenon, sometimes as a spirit in phenomenon; in whose person as Supreme Power animism and naturism unite.

China itself, the Middle Kingdom, was not without its inherited savagery marked by the regular mutilation of prisoners of war as well as the usual mutilations practised on prisoners for crime. From a religious point of view it is interesting to see that the custom of burying the dead with the living was not uncommon. At a later date human sacrifices are not unknown, one even of a royal heir of a conquered province. In 621 BC, three brothers of Duke Mu and others of his family and retainers to the number of one hundred and seventy-seven were buried with him. This custom of immolating human beings to accompany the dead into the next world can be traced back but little earlier than this. It arose with the growing belief in the more human attributes of the dead, their needs and desires hereafter as projected from earthly conditions, and, since earlier ideas on this subject were very vague, it may be questioned whether this particular barbarity was not introduced from the outside world.

Apart from ethical and political questions, the purely religious aspect of China did not change much from the early period till the advent of Buddhism, and even after this time it has remained substantially the same till the present day, except that certain Buddhistic spirits have been widely adopted. The chief deities worshipped in this Chinese system are:

  1. Heaven and all its parts, Sun, Moon, Stars, the five planets, especially the twenty-eight signs of the lunar zodiac and certain constellations, such as the Great Bear.
  2. the Earth and all its parts, mountains, rivers, soil, grain, earthquakes, drought, as spirits of good or ill.
  3. Wind, Rain, Heat, Cold, Thunder, Lightning, that is, all meteorological phenomena.
  4. the deified Seasons and Quarters, four each.
  5. The Five Parts of the House, Gate, Door, Wall, Hearth, and Court.

Heaven and the Planets were regarded as emperors with the stars as their officials, though they were but little personified. Titles of the lower deities were indifferently Prince, Master, or god, thus, Prince of the Wind, Master of Rain, Door God, or simply the Thunderer. Gradually dead persons, as tutelary divinities, have taken the place of original spirits in the case of Soil and Grain, Kou Lung of the soil and Ch'i of the grain. Military and other heroes have thus after death been deified as God of War and as other spirits, such as the spirit of water and of epidemics.

The history of Chinese religion is not supported by "unchallengeable monuments," like those of Egypt. The most important works purport to be those collected by Confucius, the great diadochos of the sixth century BC who transmitted the literary treasures of antiquity. These were compiled by scholars whose account is a mixture of tradition and invention arranged in order to produce a desired impression. A good deal of this is religious history, which is, as has been said of Chinese history in general, "nothing more than prehistoric lore invented by generations much later than the events themselves." The Chinese scholars themselves suspected the value of their historical books. One of them said, "Better to have no historical books than to give entire credence to them."

In reality, that there is no credible history before the eighth century BC and that till the sixth century very little is to be relied upon. The first real date in Chinese history is 776 BC, which happens to coincide with that of the first Olympiad. Most of the works indubitably authentic, dating from the sixth century, were burned in a later age and what remained are books supposed to be identical with these but which suffered restoration as well as burning. They were edited by scholars who filled in lacunae and freely reconstructed the text of the classic "King" (canons), so that it is not possible to actually be certain of the antiquity of any particular passage in them, unless of course its data be supported by other evidence. But the later writers even interpret the texts in favor of their own theological views, however impossible such interpretation seems to be. It is obvious, therefore, that texts incapable of meeting their sanction may well have been suppressed altogether by the same devout editors.

The sacred books were burned by royal edict in 213 BC with the exception of the Yih-King, which, as a book of divination, was universally esteemed at that time. After the burning of Confucian books and the murder of those professing their doctrines there was a considerable interval in which such copies as survived at all moulded away, till under the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) the previous edict was repealed. Then (191 BC) the old books were restored, partly from memory and partly from such copies as had survived. The best scholars edited these; but, these Han scholars may have put their own ideas into Confucius's mouth and they may have made additions to the writings supposed to have come from his immediate disciples.

Many of the Chinese literati believe that not a perfect copy of the classical works escaped destruction, and the texts were only recovered by rewriting them from the memories of old scholars. Not only were many works entirely destroyed, but a shade of doubt thereby thrown over the accuracy of others.

What is entirely lacking in the older religion is the idea of the priest and his inevitable concomitants. Until the advent of Buddhism, the Chinese religion had neither a priesthood nor a mythology. Buddhism entered China before the Christian era, according to received tradition, though there was no active propaganda till the first century AD. For the first time in China, it offered the spectacle of monks, virtually priests, united in a body and spiritually set apart. Old China had no priest. Services were conducted by the emperor, who even slaughtered sacrificial victims with his own hand, or by the mandarins who officially represented him. It is indeed sometimes said that the emperor was "High Priest," but this is a figure of speech. To be a high priest one must have lower priests under him; but the mandarins were nobles not priests. Emperor and nobles officiated, as in their humbler worship did the ordinary householder, without mediators, even as the spirits worshipped performed no mediatorial office in respect of the Supreme Lord. And as there was no priest there was no hell and no dire fate to be dreaded hereafter.

The emperors of the Mongol dynasty all embraced Buddhism in its form called Lamaism. But whatever may have been their personal predilections, the law obliged them to conform to the rites and ceremonies prescribed in the ancient sacred books of China, in common with all magistrates and public officers. The festivals of the old religion were scrupulously observed. Every new emperor guided the plow with his own hands to raise grain for an offering to Chang-ti. At the winter solstice, the last week in December, and the summer solstice, the last week in June, all the shops were shut up, the courts were closed, and no person was permitted to begin a long journey. The religious festivals celebrated at these seasons were called festivals of gratitude to Tien. At the spring equinox they set apart a day to implore the blessing of Tien on the fruits of the earth. At the autumnal equinox they offered the first fruits of the harvest and return thanks. A simple nature-worship.




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