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The Spirits

The worship "of the spirits" is a primary religious duty for the Chinese. The spirits, however, are an ill-defined set of beings; they are generally spoken of in the plural number, and sacrifice was offered to them as a body, no particular spirits being named. The spirits are connected with natural objects, every part of nature has its spirit. The sun, the moon, the five planets, clouds, rain, wind, the five great mountains, but also every smaller mountain, the rivers, each district, and a thousand other things, all have their spirits.1 The spirits are not flitting about capriciously, but have been collected together and organised in a hierarchy, and this has loosened their connection with natural objects. They are spoken of as a set of beings who may be addressed as a body.

A prince alone may sacrifice to the spirit of the earth, and to those of the mountains and rivers of his territory. But to the spirits in general all may and should pray; they assist those who pay them reverence and sacrifice to them. It will be seen that the worship of heaven and that of the spirits are kept separate. The former is the imperial worship; the emperor alone is competent to attend to it. The latter is the official worship of minor states. Nor are the two sets of deities wrought into a homogeneous system; we hear that the spirits, while subordinate to Shang-ti, are not his messengers. The surmise is not to be avoided that these two worships came originally from different circles of ideas, and have not been perfectly blended. The worship of heaven belongs to the higher nature-worship, that of the spirits to the lower; the latter is animistic, it is a worship of detached spirits, while the former is a worship of the natural object itself. The spirits are all good; there are scarcely any bad spirits in Chinese belief.

For the communication between the spirits and men, rose the priesthood, which was a body of scholars. They divided their profession into six departments: (1) astrology, (2) the almanac, (3) the five elements (water, fire, wood, metal and earth), (4) milfoil and tortoise, (5) miscellaneous foretelling (dream-interpreting, devil-driving, prayer, etc.), (6) physical laws (the features of geography, of cities, of building, of human beings, of animals, of things, etc.). The History of Han puts these six professions into the class of "magic", but they were really a mixture of magic and science.

China bowed to every sort of spirit, nor are all easy to divine. Animals represent souls in many cases, as when pigs and rats are possessed of girls' souls. But there are also natural spirit-animals, serpents, which are not necessarily (though they may be) "possessed "; cocks, as holy birds which chase demons; the tortoise, the image of which on a grave gives a man's descendants long life; foxes, which take human shape. An ordinary animal, however, is not worshipped for itself but for possessing a soul of a man; some by eating a man's body eat his soul, etc. There is no end to the metamorphoses conceived as possible. Men become rocks; poles have spirits; metals become animate; men become water-spirits and cause disease, etc. One-legged hill-spirits are not spirits of the hill but malformed spirits living in it . Against all evil spirits drums and flags will avail; exorcism also, with precedent fasting; or the blood of a dog or cock; or clubs, knives, red (fire-cracker) flame or colour; even twigs or a mirror. Dog, cock, and monkey (as scapegoat) carry off disease-demons; amulets avert them. For good luck are efficacious coffin-nails, the svastika, coins, horseshoes, the peach-tree and its wood, apparently not as spirits. Each of the five elements, metal, wood, water, fire, and earth, has its indwelling spirit or demon. Many of these, like the svastika, may be of Buddhistic origin.

The ordinary worship, addressed rather to spirits of the ancestors and spirits of the earth than to Shang Ti (Supreme Ruler, as God) or to Heaven, is reflected in the earliest religious songs. Out of thousands of religious songs current in his day Confucius made a compilation of some three hundred, composed in rhymed strophes, the Shi-King. In how far these songs or odes as they stand today are really the songs of the times to which they are ascribed, we cannot say. But, from the nature of the case, songs are less apt to be tampered with than philosophy or history. Certain Shang songs of the second dynasty (1766-1122 BC), only five in all, seem really to belong to the twelfth century and they are regarded by Sinologues as the oldest in the collection. Most of the others we must be content to refer to a period indefinitely older than the time of Confucius, perhaps dating from the eighth century onward.

Nobles might not sacrifice to Heaven but must sacrifice to Earth and to their own district spirits, using rams and boars for this purpose. Lesser officials used lesser animals, and common people made offerings of their ordinary food, such as rice, eggs, geese, or pigs. There is no "unclean" animal. At a sacrifice, the emperor eats beef or dog's meat with equal complacency. The object of sacrifice is clearly stated to be the pleasuring of spirits with music, food, or incense, in order to their appearance at the sacrificer's altar and the "adjustment of their relations" with man.

All approved offerings and sacrifices were to beneficent beings. There was no official cult of evil spirits. Yet they were recognized by ceremonies, such as the noisy demonstration to drive away demons of pestilence. This ceremony impressed Confucius, apparently as a sort of recognition of their power, which he emphasized by respectful behaviour toward them. Drought, too, is an evil demon. In short, as elsewhere, most natural ills are demons or brought in by demons. These may act as servants of spirits for chastisement, so that even the common man must be religiously observant of all rites permitted by his circumstances, although it is said that the complex ceremonies of social and religious life are not for common people, only for the higher classes.




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