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joss sticks
Ancient Chinese agrarian religion revolved around the worship of natural forces and spirits who controlled the elements and presided over rivers, fields and mountains. Shaman known as wu acted as intermediaries between the human and spiritual worlds and performed rites to insure good weather and harvests and keep evil spirits at bay.

Even though China is regarded officially as an atheist state today, it has had an officially recognized religion since 2356 B.C., when science, religion, mythology and government were all linked together. Taoism and Confucianism began to take shape around the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. but evolved from religions that had been around in China for at least a thousand years before that.

The four centuries after the Han dynasty (3rd to 7th centuries A.D.) were characterized by disunity and chaos, which in turn lead to a receptivity to new religious ideas. This was the beginning of the Age of Faith, when Taoism flourished, Confucianism became a philosophy of the wealthy, and Buddhism took root. In the Age of Faith, Taoists and Buddhists fought over souls for salvation. Many Buddhist converts were formerly Taoists.

Carrie Gracie of the BBC News wrote: “For the most part, China's emperors had not bothered much with religions. Buddhism had become very popular at a time of upheaval in the 6th Century, but it appealed mostly to people at the bottom of society. Christianity was one of the novelties which had come in with the colonial powers. They used gunboats to open China to trade, and shattered the image of order and invincibility cultivated by the Qing emperors. Vernacular translations of the Bible helped loosen the grip of the Confucian elites. [Source: Carrie Gracie, BBC News, September 17, 2012]

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) e-book ; Links in this Website: Main China Page (Click History);

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Articles on Religion in China ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations ; Brooklyn College ; Religion Facts; Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Academic Info ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies Christianity in China Christianity in China Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; History of Christianity in China Ricci Roundtable

Taoist Rebellions

left Taoism has been associated with a number of rebellions. Some of these were linked to political insurrections such as the Yellow Turban Rebellion of the A.D. 2nd century and Taping Rebellion of the 19th century. The fall of the first Sung dynasty was precipitated by a rebellion of Taoists responding to a crackdown on some of their esoteric rituals.

The Yellow Turban Rebellion occurred at a time when there was a great deal of discontent and economic hardship. The movement was led by one Chang Chio, who encouraged his followers to wear yellow robes and yellow turbans and told them if the current government was overthrown the present “Blue Heaven” period would be replaced by a “Yellow Heaven” period beginning in A.D. 184.

Yellow Turban followers were given a kind of baptism in which they confessed their sins and consumed a drink of water blessed with ashes from a charm, after which they were told they were protected from any kind of harm. Provided with information from a traitor, the movement was brutally put down by the government in A.D. 183, Chang Chio died before 184 but the rebellion carried on for another 20 years.

Religion in Traditional China

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Exorcism in the 1920s
Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The religious system of ancestor worship was central to Chinese society. It served to articulate the lineage relationships through which flowed all wealth and power. Ancestor worship was based on the religious belief in the existence of spirits (a very corporal form of existence) and of the continued efficacy of ancestral spirits to bring good fortune to their living descendants. The ceremonies of the ancestor cult had a powerful effect on the social psychology of the participants, yet this form of religion was very different from what we often mean by religion in the West. There does not seem to have been much in the way of individual or personalized prayer: one spoke to the ancestors through the thick context of a ritual script, calling attention to the bounty of the offerings, perhaps flattering the spirits with a spoken or written list of their exaggerated accomplishments and virtues, and asking for a standard list of blessings, most important the gift of many sons, so that one could oneself look forward to being flattered and fed long after death. The entire system was more ceremonial than spiritual. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“But Chinese religion existed on a number of other levels. A state cult, revolving around the king or emperor and the supreme deity Tian (whose title we shall generally render as “Heaven”) provided powerful political legitimacy for the rulers of China, and was articulated through a series of local rituals that brought ordinary people into contact with the state religion. 7 At the other end of the spectrum, a vivid and wildly unsystematic population of ghosts, demons, local deities, animal spirits, and shamanic mediums staffed a rich kingdom of superstitious religion, the rites for which were practiced at small local shrines throughout the land. This seems to be where the ancient Chinese people displayed their greatest “spirituality,” and it appears to have been a very charged form indeed. /+/

Ghosts and Spirits in Traditional China

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Luo Ping ghost painting
Dr. Eno wrote: “It may seem odd that the ancient Chinese were concerned about ghosts starving. Early Chinese notions of the spirit world were very different from those evolving in Europe; they were also unsystematic. In the Classical era of the late Zhou, the spirits of the dead were conceived as inhabiting a variety of spaces. They could be pictured in heaven, which was up, or in the region of the Yellow Springs, which was down, or as occupying the same space as humans, which was scary. Sometimes, these spatial ideas were related to a notion that humans possessed two types of death-surviving entities: one rose upon death and tended to be thought of as a benign spirit, and one descended into the earth as a spirit which could possess frightening tendencies, but was not necessarily threatening. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Spirits of the dead were very different from the living, but were not a-physical and did require sustenance. This sustenance was the responsibility of their descendants, and was maintained through regular sacrifices of food and drink. Spirits “descended” at the time of such offerings and partook of the food, although their particular physical needs were tenuous enough that no apparent change in the offerings would appear, and apart from certain unpalatable ritual items, the “leftovers” were consumed by the thrifty clan members, an act which was itself viewed as pious. Ancestral spirits took a great interest in the affairs of their descendants, and their influence varied according to their lifetime temperaments, any crotchets which they may have picked up through the unpleasant experience of death, their judgments of the conduct of the descendants, and the quality of the sacrificial menu. As ancestors grew more remote, their impact grew more tenuous, and if they continued to exist, their existence was such that they no longer required further human attention – only recent ancestors showed up at dinnertime. The relatively tame ancestral spirits shared an influence on the course of human events with a host of much more interesting animal demons, nature gods, city gods, anonymous revenants, and unidentified spooky things, all of which made the nighttime good to sleep through and Chinese religious beliefs colorfully incoherent. /+/

“Kings were different. For the Zhou, if they died peacefully they went up to heaven where they were seated to the left and right of the “Lord on High,” an anthropomorphic high deity roughly equivalent to Tian, the term we translate as Heaven. The former kings of the Zhou ruling house remained important to the political health of the realm, but spiritually unproblematic. The Shang view of former rulers was more complex, but we will encounter those only later in the course, as the writers of Classical China were no longer aware of them.”/+/

Family, Ghosts and Religion in Traditional China

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Luo Ping ghost painting
Dr. Eno wrote: “Early China’s family-centered orientation was expressed in religious practice. Although ancient Chinese society included a wide variety of religious cults and practices, the most basic of all religious activities was the family cult known as ancestor worship. People in ancient China believed in a type of life after death. In their view, certain components of the person — including aspects of consciousness, physical needs, and worldly powers — did not cease to exist with death, but persisted for generations in a semi-physical state. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Ghosts of the dead continued to inhabit the local space of their former homes, continued to need physical sustenance in the form of food and drink, and possessed the ability to influence events in the world. It was the duty of the lineal descendants of these ghosts — their sons and grandsons — to provide regular nourishment in the form of sacrificial foods and drink, and to behave in ways that accorded with the good examples set by former generations. If lazy children allowed dead ancestors to go hungry or brought disgrace to their names, ancestors had the power to wreak vengeance. On the other hand, dutiful fulfillment of ritual sacrifices, respectful salutations of the dead, and upright social behavior by descendants would attract the blessings of ancestors, who had the power to provide protection and bestow rewards. /+/

“The most regular form of religious activity for every person in ancient China was the offering of scheduled sacrifices to one’s ancestors. These rituals occurred in homes at every level of society. Among the privileged classes, elaborate ancestral halls served as religious centers for extensive clans. The most aristocratic of clans were entitled to construct large walled temple complexes devoted exclusively to the ancestors of their clan.” /+/

Portents and the Mandate of Heaven

Dr. Eno wrote: “In ancient China, there was a widespread interest in supernatural portents that foretold great events to come – flaming birds appearing atop walls, prophetic texts being eaten into leaves by worms, unicorns wandering into the fields, two-headed cows being born to nanny goats (not a good sign) and so forth. A late commentary work tells us that in this case, the omen was a crimson sparrow bearing in its beak a cinnabar text with a long, unusually dull, inscription. It landed at Chang’s family gate. Whenever we may be tempted to think that the Chinese imagination was dry, something like this seems to turn up. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven forms the principal rationalization of the Zhou conquest of the Shang. In brief, the affairs of China, as the center of the civilized world, were viewed as being under the loose protection of a benevolent deity, Tian “V, a title which translates well as “Heaven.” Heaven exercises its benevolent influence by bestowing a mandate to rule upon the most virtuous clan in the land. /+/

“If the moral quality of the descendants of that ruling house declines beyond a critical point, and governance ceases to benefit the people and to accord with basic norms, Heaven shifts the mandate, a change which takes the form of military conquest by the new recipient of the mandate, who would naturally receive enthusiastic support from the people. Sima Qian’s narration assumes that this doctrine predated the Zhou conquest. Zhòu, however, seems to understand the mandate as an unqualified grant of perpetual hereditary power from Heaven, precisely the opposite of the doctrine that the Zhou founders elaborated to legitimize their conquest of the Shang.” /+/

Mandate of Heaven

Early Chinese monarchs were both priests and kings. The Chinese people believed that their rulers were chosen to lead with a "mandate of heaven"---the Chinese belief that a dynasty was ordained to rule, based on its demonstrated ability to do so. It was a kind of political legitimacy based on the notion that the overthrow of ruler was justified if the ruler became wicked, lost the trust of the people or double-crossed the supreme being.

The “mandate of heaven” was first adopted during the Zhou Dynasty (1100-221 B.C.) and was described as a divine right to rule. The philosopher Mencius (372-289 B.C.) wrote about it at length and framed it in both moral and cosmic terms, stating that if a ruler was just and carried out the prescribed rituals to the ancestors then his rule and the cosmic, natural and human order would be maintained.

Later the mandate idea was incorporated into the Taoist concept that the collapse of a dynasty was preceded by "Disapprovals of heaven," natural disasters such as great earthquakes, floods or fires and these were often preceded by certain cosmic signs. According to these beliefs on September 8, 2040 five planets will gather within the space of fewer than degrees "signaling the conferral of heaven's mandate."


p> The legendary emperors did not need to govern at all because the moral certitude that emanated from them was enough to bring about peace and prosperity. One ruler is said to have done nothing but reverently face the south.

Mandate of Heaven

Basis of the Mandate of Heaven

The mandate of heaven was something earned through "virtue and moral rectitude" by a ruler that had a divine, magical and natural affect on the natural and social order. If the sacred social contract between the people and the ruler was violated, according to Sinologist Orville Schell, "the all-knowing forces of 'heaven' from which an emperor drew his 'mandate' to rule...would be withheld and his dynasty would collapse” and “the mandate then would be passed on to a new leader or dynasty.”

Unlike Japan, whose emperor came from a family that descended from gods and therefore could not lose his power to rule, China was ruled by a dynasty whose mandate to rule could be taken away if the emperor violated his special relationship with the Chinese people. European monarchs traditionally had trouble claiming any kind of divine mandate.

Behind the mandate of heaven was the belief that royal ancestors became divinities after they died. If they and heaven itself approved the current rulers their approval would make sure the world was in order; ying and yang were in balance, the seasons appeared when they were supposed to, harvests were plentiful and there were no calamitous events. If the royal ancestors and heaven didn’t approve then bad things would happen.

Chinese history has traditionally been interpreted as a cyclical, astrologically-connected growth and decay of dynasties. The fuzzy, ambiguous aspect of the mandate known as the "right of rebellion" which allowed new dynasties to rise up and replace corrupt ones, has been instrumental in maintaining China's status as a state.

Tianxia: the Mythical Confucian Golden Age a Myth?

Tianxia (literally: "under heaven") is a Chinese language word and an ancient Chinese cultural concept that denoted either the entire geographical world or the metaphysical realm of mortals, and later became associated with political sovereignty. In ancient China, tianxia denoted the lands, space, and area divinely appointed to the Emperor by universal and well-defined principles of order. The center of this land that was directly apportioned to the Imperial court was called Huaxia, Xia, Hua, Zhongxia, Zhonghua, or Zhongguo, among other names, forming the center of a world view that centered on the Imperial court and went concentrically outward to major and minor officials and then the common citizens, and finally ending with the fringe "barbarians". The center of this world view was not exclusionary in nature, and outer groups, such as ethnic minorities and foreign people, who accepted the mandate of the Chinese Emperor were themselves received and included into the Chinese tianxia. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Sinocentrism, Tianxia

In classical Chinese political thought, the Emperor of China, having received the Mandate of Heaven, would nominally be the ruler of the entire world. Although in practice there would be areas of the known world which were not under the control of the Emperor, in Chinese political theory the rulers of those areas derived their power from the Emperor. The larger concept of tianxia is closely associated with civilization and order in classical Chinese philosophy, and has formed the basis for the world view of the Chinese people and nations influenced by them since at least the first millennium B.C.. Tianxia has been independently applied by other countries in the East Asian cultural sphere, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. +

Tianxia is associated with a mythical golden age of Chinese virtue that Confucius summed up as: “To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue … gravity generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness and kindness.” June Teufel Dreyer wrote in YaleGlobal: “In this narrative, the benign emperor maintained a pax sinica and ruled tianxia, all under heaven. This was symbolized by the tribute system, under which rulers of lands surrounding the Celestial Kingdom visited the imperial court, performed ketou, or obseisance, and presented gifts of local produce. In return, their legitimacy as rulers was affirmed. They were presented with the dynasty’s calendar and received costly items emblematic of the superior Sinitic civilization. The result was datong, or great harmony. [Source: June Teufel Dreyer, YaleGlobal, from a longer paper to be published by The Journal of Contemporary China, October 20, 2014 */*]

“The late Harvard sinologist Yang Lien-sheng stated flatly that “the sinocentric world order was a myth backed up at different times by realities of varying degree, sometimes approaching nil.” As other Chinese scholars have pointed out, force was needed, both to keep the empire together and protect it from external enemies. In Wang Gungwu’s formulation, the reality of empire was that of a hard core ofwei, or force, surrounded by a soft pulp of de, virtue. Astute statecraft lay in finding the right balance. Although court records praise the Confucian wisdom of emperors, they in fact behaved like Legalists, who suggested that the well-ordered society depended on clear rules and punishment for violators rather than benevolence. Others have noted that the superiority of the Chinese model in preventing war is ludicrous to anyone familiar with the details of Chinese history replete with conflict.” */*

“In yet another dissonance between theory and reality, those who accepted the status of vassal to the Chinese empire did not necessarily accept the notion of their inequality and conducted negotiations much as equals. In the mid-15th century, the ruler of Ayudhya refused the Ming dynasty envoy’s demand that he ketou to show respect to the emperor. For this ruler and others, recognition served a utilitarian purpose – in this case, obtaining the dynasty’s backing to counterbalance other aspiring hegemons. Confucius’ views on subordination of women and diminution of entrepreneurs would find little resonance today. */*

“Differences in power between the Chinese ruler and the rest could even result in role reversal: In 1138, the founder of the Southern Song dynasty, accepted vassal status to the barbarian Jin dynasty.(8) In the 18th century, in response to pressure from Japan, the Ryukyus sent tribute to both the Tokugawa shogun and to Beijing.(9) Even the Koreans, the most faithful of those professing allegiance to tianxia, repeatedly balked at Ming Emperor Hongwu’s requests to send horses, apparently because they wanted to reserve their stock for use in possible conflicts with the Ming in Manchuria. During the Qing dynasty, though continuing to send tribute, Korean rulers looked down on the Qing and pointedly retained the rival Ming dynasty calendar.” */*

Image Sources: Exorcism, Bucklin archives; Luo Ping ghost painting from the Met in New York, Nelson-Atking Museum, Ressel Fok collection; joss sticks:; Mandate of Heaven: Clinic 007 Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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