20080219-excor2_2 bucklin.jpg
Exorcism in China in the 1920s
Spiritual beliefs, folk religions and superstitions still abound in China even though they are frowned upon and in some cases suppressed by the authorities. Ancient rites and customs thrive in almost every village, town and city across China, There are literally millions of ancestral shrines and temples honoring local heroes, important ancestors, and local deities, as well as important figures in Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

Folk religions can vary a great deal from region to region and even individual to individual. Arguably they are strongest in rural areas, especially places left out of the economic boom, where people need something to help them deal with the frustrations of the modern world and fill the emptiness left behind by Communism's ideological demise.

While Confucianism and Taoism have traditionally been popular with the Chinese upper classes, folk religion has traditionally been popular with the Chinese masses. Over the years, Chinese folk religion has absorbed and assimilated elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism and they in turn have absorbed and assimilated elements of Chinese folk religion. Each often relies on practitioners of the others to perform its rituals and organize events.

Folk religion and Taoism are intimately tied together. Taoism grew out of folk religion and incorporates shamanism, animism and many folk deities and traditions ( See Taoism). Confucianism also incorporates some folk beliefs such as ancestor worship. Buddhism has been influenced by local religion too. In some cases local Chinese gods have been transplanted on Buddhist ones.

World religions (percentage of practioners in the world) : 1) Christianity (33 percent); 2) Islam (20 percent); 3) Non-religion and atheism (15.4 percent); 4) Hinduism (13 percent); 5) Chinese folk religions (6 percent); 6) Buddhism (6 percent); and 7) Other (7 percent).

Scientists and scholars have devoted a lot of time to the study of Taoism and Confucianism, but Chinese folk religion, superstition and everyday spiritual life remain little studied.

Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts; Deities Worshipped by Farmers China Vista ; Mazu China Vista ; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Crazy ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources ; Qi Gong Institute ; Qi Gong association of America / ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong

Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions ; Old Book on Superstitions or Old Book PDF ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Vista ; Robert Eno, Indiana University;

Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death ; Death and Burials in China ; Grief in China Culture ; Chinese Funeral Customs China Vista; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article ; China View article ; News in Science ; Symbols Chinese Symbols. Com ; Chinatown Connection ; What’s Your Sign

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

Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979), pp. 296-312; 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961), pp. 40-43, 52-53; 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4, pp. 417 ff.]; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link:

Traditional Religious Beliefs and Practices in China

Burning joss sticks

Traditional religious beliefs and practices that remained strong though Qing dynasty China (1644-1911) include and still exist toda: 1) popular religion and beliefs concerning the souls of the ancestors, the afterlife, and the pantheon of gods inhabiting the three domains of the Chinese cosmos -- Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld; and 2) the long-established institutional religions often collectively referred to as the sanjiao (literally “three teachings”) — Daoism (Taoism), Buddhism, and Confucianism. In Dynastic China, which ended in 1911, the imperial government’s involvement with religious belief and practice (often described as the “State Cult”) expressed in the civil service examination system that disseminated the Confucian worldview throughout society, the government-mandated temples for Confucius and the city gods, and the imperial ritual apparatus that required the reigning emperor to act out his role as the “Son of Heaven” (Tianzi) in annual rituals and sacrifices. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “It is important to remember that “the cosmos” as such was not an explicit much less coherent topic of discussion in traditional China; and it is impossible to define one authentic and unproblematic “traditional Chinese worldview.” Still, there were some basic principles concerning human existence and the functioning of the universe that at least informed or were in conversation with the varieties of religious practice in traditional China. These concepts included qi, the basic “stuff” of the universe; shen, expressing distinct fields of meaning surrounding the concept of “spirit”; and yinyang, the dichotomy symbolizing the at times conflictual and at times harmonious but always fluctuating forces that animate all cosmic phenomena. <|>

“During the late-imperial period, Chinese identity -- that is, the idea of being “Chinese” -- was inextricably linked to the notion of living in this cosmos, which encompassed the world of the living (society and the state) and the world of the dead (the heavens and the underworld). The cosmos also defined the world within which the three teachings -- Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism -- operated, though throughout their long histories the teachings also defined and redefined in turn how the “cosmos” itself was conceived. This “cosmic framework” increasingly came under attack toward the end of the imperial period and eventually collapsed altogether in the era of the Communists, but it is interesting to consider its significance today in light of what some have called the “reemergence” of traditional religious practices in contemporary China.” <|>

Popular Religion in China

Hungry ghost offering table

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “To define Chinese religion primarily in terms of the three traditions (Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) is to exclude from serious consideration the ideas and practices that do not fit easily under any of the three labels. Such common rituals as offering incense to the ancestors, conducting funerals, exorcising ghosts, and consulting fortunetellers; the belief in the patterned interaction between light and dark forces or in the ruler’s influence on the natural world; the tendency to construe gods as government officials; and the preference for balancing tranquility and movement -- all belong as much to none of the three traditions as they do to one or all three. [Source: adapted from “The Spirits of Chinese Religion,” by Stephen F. Teiser; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

“Popular religion includes those aspects of religious life that are shared by most people, regardless of their affiliation or lack of affiliation with the three teachings. Such forms of popular religion as those named above (offering incense, conducting funerals, and so on) are important to address, although the category of “popular religion” entails its own set of problems. In fact, it is too broad a category to be of much help to detailed understanding -- which indeed is why many scholars in the field avoid the term, preferring to deal with more discrete and meaningful units like family religion, mortuary ritual, seasonal festivals, divination, curing, and mythology. “Popular religion” in the sense of common religion also hides potentially significant variation. In addition to being static and timeless, the category prejudices the case against seeing popular religion as a conflict-ridden attempt to impose one particular standard on contending groups. <|>

“The term “popular religion” can be used in two senses. The first refers to the forms of religion practiced by almost all Chinese people, regardless of social and economic standing, level of literacy, region, or explicit religious identification. Popular religion in this sense is the religion shared by people in general, across all social boundaries. Three examples, all of which can be dated as early as the first century CE, help us gain some understanding of what counts as popular religion in this first sense: 1) a typical Chinese funeral and memorial service, including the rites related to care of the spirit in the realm of the dead; 2) the New Year’s festival, which marks a passage not just in the life of the individual and the family, but in the yearly cycle of the cosmos; and 3) the ritual of consulting a spirit medium in the home or in a small temple to solve problems such as sickness in the family, nightmares, possession by a ghost or errant spirit, or some other misfortune. <|>

“The second sense of “popular religion” refers to the religion of the lower classes as opposed to that of the elite. The bifurcation of society into two tiers is hardly a new idea. It began with some of the earliest Chinese theorists of religion. Xunzi, for instance, discusses the emotional, social, and cosmic benefits of carrying out memorial rites. In his opinion, mortuary ritual allows people to balance sadness and longing and to express grief, and it restores the natural order to the world. Different social classes, writes Xunzi, interpret sacrifices differently: “Among gentlemen [junzi], they are taken as the way of humans; among common people [baixing], they are taken as matters involving ghosts.”(1)<|>

Kinds of Folk Religion in China

Folk religion is alive in various forms of magic and sorcery, the worship of personal household gods, personalized spirits, and ancestral ghosts, and the rituals of antler-headed shaman and local holy men. Shamanism and animism have persisted, especially in the countryside. For many Chinese, Confucianism is unsatisfying because it doesn't supply answers to the questions of the afterlife. Taoism has many elements found in Chinese folk religions.

Animist and shamanist groups and cults have had large following throughout China's history. The Quietists were famous for incorporating trance and ecstacy techniques in their religious rituals. The "Yellow Turbans" roused the peasant masses in A.D. 184 into believing that world was going to end and "blue heaven" was going to be replaced by "yellow heaven."

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Throughout Chinese history there have been heterodox traditions of popular religion that could at times come under attack from the government. Drawing on inspiration from local tradition, or from the mythologies of Buddhism, Daoism, and (in the Taiping Rebellion of the 1860s) Christianity, these religious groups sometimes broke into waves of violence and provoked government sanctions. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>]

Three Brothers during the Yellow Turban Rebellion

“Any religious movement that claimed inspiration from a source beyond the traditional Chinese cosmos or that had a social structure (monkhood, parish organization) that claimed independence from the Chinese state risked being labeled by the state as a licentious cult or a heterodoxy. Once that happened, government response and suppression occurred swiftly. The Chinese government today keeps careful watch over any organized group, religious or otherwise, not under state control. The Falun Gong movement, which began as a traditional form of mental and physical training and faith healing, was identified by the government in 1999 as an unlicensed religious group. It therefore became subject to government control and was ultimately outlawed, as were many sects in the history of Chinese popular religion.” <|>

Traditional Concept of Religion in China

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In discussing Chinese religion during late-imperial times we should begin with a fundamental understanding: that “religion” as it is commonly defined today in modern, secularized societies — as a domain of thinking and practice concerned only with the “sacred” or the “supernatural” — is incompatible with the way religious thought and practice were construed in traditional China, much less anywhere else in the world until recent times. There was no such thing in traditional China as “religion” in this modern sense, which is largely a product of European “Enlightenment” thinking of the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, the Chinese term for “religion” — zongjiao — is an invention coined in the late 19th century by a Japanese philosopher and later adopted by Chinese intellectuals. The need for the word zongjiao arose because scholars translating Western texts into Japanese and Chinese frequently encountered the word “religion,” a term for which they had no equivalent. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia <|>]

“Quite apart from relegating “religious thinking” to a specialized domain, the dominant strands of thought in late-imperial China conceived of an integrated cosmos in which heaven and earth, gods and humans, the living and the dead were all interconnected. In this conception there was no clear separation or even distinction between sacred and profane, divine and ordinary, natural and supernatural; rather, all things were understood in the context of their proper place in this integrated cosmos. (This interconnection can be elaborated even further with the term shen, the various meanings of which illustrate the concept that all things in the cosmos — gods and humans, good spirits and demons — are composed of the same “stuff,” qi.) <|>

Tablet of Confucius

“This concept of an integrated cosmos was central to religious thinking in late-imperial China; so much so that the cosmos was understood to contain or subsume all things and all traditions, including Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. This is quite different from the way many adherents of monotheistic traditions (such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) in the modern world conceive of religious identity, wherein each belief system is understood to negate, supersede, or exist in contradiction to all others. In contrast, adherence to a particular religious tradition in late-imperial China did not involve a total or unitary commitment. <|>

“For example, a “Confucian” in late-imperial China — someone well-versed in the Confucian texts and deeply committed to the teachings and principles expounded therein — would not have found it problematic to also participate in ritual activities that were Daoist or Buddhist or otherwise linked to popular local practices. In fact, to not do so would have been contradictory, because that would have been akin to removing oneself from full participation in the cosmos, where Confucianism was just one tradition among many. Because all traditions fit into the larger cosmic totality, there was no sense of a person being required to choose any one tradition over another. <|>

As the sociologist C. K. Yang has noted: “In popular religious life it was the moral and magical functions of the cults, and not the delineation of the boundary of religious faiths, that dominated people’s consciousness. Even priests in some country temples were unable to reveal the identity of the religion to which they belonged. Centuries of mixing gods from different faiths into a common pantheon had produced a functionally oriented religious view that relegated the question of religious identity to a secondary place.” [Source: “Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors” by C. K. Yang, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961), as quoted in Richard J. Smith, China’s Cultural Heritage: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912, 2nd ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1994), p. 174] <|>

Chinese Concept of the Cosmos

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “To understand Chinese theology (literally “discourse about gods”), we need to explore theories about human existence, and before that we need to review some of the basic concepts of Chinese cosmology.What is the Chinese conception of the cosmos? Any simple answer to that question, of course, merely confirms the biases assumed but not articulated by the question -- that there is only one such authentically Chinese view, and that the cosmos as such, present unproblematically to all people, was a coherent topic of discussion in traditional China. Nevertheless, the answer to that question offered by one scholar of China, Joseph Needham, provides a helpful starting point for the analysis. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/<|>]

“In Needham’s opinion, the dominant strand of ancient Chinese thought is remarkable for the way it contrasts with European ideas. While the latter approach the world religiously as created by a transcendent deity or as a battleground between spirit and matter, or scientifically as a mechanism consisting of objects and their attributes, ancient Chinese thinkers viewed the world as a complete and complex “organism.”<|>

“Things behaved in particular ways,” writes Needham, “not necessarily because of prior actions or impulsions of other things, but because their position in the ever-moving cyclical universe was such that they were endowed with intrinsic natures which made that behaviour inevitable for them.” [Source: “Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2: History of Scientific Thought “ by Joseph Needham, with the research assistance of Wang Ling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), p. 281.)

Primordial Chaos by the Yuan Dynasty paiter Zhu Derun

Rather than being created out of nothing, the world evolved into its current condition of complexity out of a prior state of simplicity and undifferentiation. The cosmos continues to change, but there is a consistent pattern to that change discernible to human beings. Observation of the seasons and celestial realms, and methods like plastromancy and scapulimancy (divination using tortoise shells and shoulder blades), dream divination, and manipulating the hexagrams of the Classic of Changes allow people to understand the pattern of the universe as a whole by focusing on the changes taking place in one of its meaningful parts. <|>

Chinese Creation Story

According to the most accepted version of the Chinese Creation story, before heaven and earth were created everything was vague and amorphous. The Great Beginning produced emptiness and from this emptiness the universe was created. Everything that was clear and light rose to form heaven and everything that was heavy and turbid became the earth. [Source: Huai-nan Tzu, reprinted in the People's Almanac]

The combined essences of heaven and earth became the yin and yang, the concentrated essences of the yin and yang became the four seasons, and the scattered essences of the four seasons became the creatures of the world. The hot force of accumulated yang produced fire and the essence of the fire force became the sun; the cold force of the accumulated yin became the water and the moon. What was left over from the excess force of the sun and the moon became the stars and planets. Heaven received the sun while the earth received the water and soil.

"When heaven and earth were joined in emptiness and all was in simplicity, then without having been created, things came into being. This was the Great Oneness. All things issued from this oneness but all became different, being divided into various species of plants, animals, birds, fish and beasts. When something moves it is called living, and when it dies it is said to become exhausted."

See Taoist Creation Theory, Taoism


leftAccording to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The basic stuff out of which all things are made is called qi. Everything that ever existed, at all times, is made of qi, including inanimate matter, humans and animals, the sky, ideas and emotions, demons and ghosts, the undifferentiated state of wholeness, and the world when it is teeming with different beings. As an axiomatic concept with a wide range of meaning, the word qi has over the years been translated in numerous ways. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>]

“Different translators render it into English in three different ways: 1) “psychophysical stuff,” because it involves phenomena one would consider both psychological -- connected to human thoughts and feelings -- and physical; 2) “pneuma,” drawing on one early etymology of the word as vapor, steam, or breath; and 3) “vital energy,” accentuating the potential for life inherent to the more ethereal forms of qi. <|>

Dr. Eno wrote: In ancient China, “qi was pictured as a type of vaporous substance that penetrated the cosmos – it made the stars shine and water flow, and in people, it was a powerful force (the original graph seems to suggest steam). If properly harnessed, qi could help people achieve great things in the world and could also nourish the body and keep it healthy. If dissipated through careless living or unfocused activity, it could sabotage the ability to follow through in action and undermine physical health. qi cultivation was a basic aspect of the training of many schools, including Confucianism and Daoism. There were also schools whose Daos consisted of nothing other than qi cultivation. (An important product of such schools was martial arts training, both in the Classical period and later. Many contemporary East Asian martial arts still place qi at the center of their training.) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“These meanings of qi hold for most schools of thought in early Chinese religion; it is only with the renaissance of Confucian traditions undertaken by Zhu Xi (1130-1200; Song dynasty scholar) and others that qi is interpreted not as a single thing, part-matter and part-energy, pervading everything, but as one of two basic metaphysical building blocks. According to Zhu Xi, all things partake of both qi and li (homophonous to but different from the li meaning “ritual” or “propriety”), the latter understood as the reason a thing is what it is and its underlying “principle” or “reason.”“<|>

Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Anne Walthall, and James B. Palais offer the following formulation of the relationship between qi and li: “The neo-Confucian explanation of the workings of principle (li) and vital energy (qi) can be seen as a response to the sophisticated metaphysics of Buddhism. The principle for something could be moral or physical; for example, the principle for wives is essentially moral in nature, that for trees, physical. For either to exist, however, there must also be the energy and substance that constitute things. The theory of principle and vital energy allowed Song thinkers to validate Mencius’s claim of the goodness of human nature and still explain human wrongdoing: principle underlying human beings is good, but their endowment of vital energy is more or less impure, giving rise to selfish impulses.” [Source: “East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History” by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Anne Walthall, and James B. Palais (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 168]

Yin and Yang

The concept of yin and yang, which literally means "dark side" and "sunny side," is sometimes attributed to the forth century B.C. Taoist philosopher Tsou Yen, but it seems likely that the idea had been around for at least two thousand years before that. Yin and yang are thought of as two opposing forces---male and female, positive and negative, strong and weak, and light and dark---that are also attracted one another, with yang being male, strong and light and yin being female, weak, and dark. Each force needs the other to define itself and the interaction of yin and yang is believed to influence destinies and things. [Source: World Religions, edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

The classic Chinese scholar Liu Zi explained yin and yang this way: "When the yang has reached its highest point, the yin begins to rise, and when the yin has reached its greatest altitude, it begins to decline. And when the moon has waxed to its full it begins to wane. This is the changeless Rao of Heaven. After the year's fullness follows decay, and the keener joy is followed by sadness. This is the changeless condition of man."

Yin is generally perceived as a negative force while yang is seen as a positive force Some gods are shown carrying a demon trap, which is used to catch the five noxious creatures of yin forces: centipedes, spiders, snakes, geckos and toads. Tigers are seen as powerful yang animals and they can be used to dispel negative yin forces. The heavenly dragon represents the power of heaven and is regarded as the yang force in its highest form.

Some Asians have used the concept of ying and yang to justify a hierarchal order of the human world and argue that social classes are the basic order of society and not subject to change.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “While traditional cosmology remained monistic, in the sense that qi as the most basic constituent of the universe was a single thing rather than a duality or plurality of things, still qi was thought to move or to operate according to a pattern that did conform to two basic modes. The Chinese words for those two modalities are yin and yang. [Source: “China’s Cultural Heritage: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912,” 2nd ed. By Richard J. Smith, (Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1994), p. 4 and p. 177. Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>]

Sometimes described as “complementary bipolarity,” yin and yang can be defined as 1) cosmic forces that produce and animate all natural phenomena; 2) terms used to identify recurrent cyclical patterns of rise and decline, waxing and waning; and 3) comparative categories, describing dualistic relationships that were inherently unequal but almost invariably complementary. Virtually any aspect of Chinese experience could be explained in terms of these paired concepts, ranging from such mundane sensory perceptions as dark and light, wet and dry, to abstractions such as real and unreal, being and nonbeing. Yinyang relationships involved the notion of mutual dependence and harmony based on hierarchical difference. Yin qualities were generally considered inferior to yang qualities, but unity of opposites was always the cultural ideal. The accommodating and essentially naturalistic outlook expressed in this notion of yinyang complementarity contrasts sharply with the familiar religious dualisms of good and evil, God and the Devil, which are so prominent in the ancient Near Eastern and Western cultural traditions. <|>

Yin Yang Symbol and Symbolism

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Yin and yang are best understood in terms of symbolism. When the sun shines on a mountain at some time other than midday, the mountain has one shady side and one sunny side. Yin is the emblem for the shady side and its characteristics; yang is the emblem for the sunny side and its qualities. Since the sun has not yet warmed the yin side, it is dark, cool, and moist; plants are contracted and dormant; and water in the form of dew moves downward. The yang side of the mountain is the opposite of the yin side. It is bright, warm, and dry; plants open up and extend their stalks to catch the sun; and water in the form of fog moves upward as it evaporates. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>]

“This basic symbolism was extended to include a host of other oppositions. Yin is female, yang is male. Yin occupies the lower position, yang the higher. Any situation in the human or natural world can be analyzed within this framework; yin and yang can be used to understand the modulations of qi on a mountainside as well as the relationships within the family. The social hierarchies of gender and age, for instance -- the duty of the wife to honor her husband, and of younger generations to obey older ones -- were interpreted as the natural subordination of yin to yang. The same reasoning can be applied to any two members of a pair. Yin-yang symbolism simultaneously places them on an equal footing and ranks them hierarchically. On the one hand, all processes are marked by change, making it inevitable that yin and yang alternate and imperative that humans seek a harmonious balance between the two. On the other hand, the system as a whole attaches greater value to the ascendant member of the pair, the yang. Such are the philosophical possibilities of the conceptual scheme. Some interpreters of yin and yang choose to emphasize the nondualistic, harmonious nature of the relationship, while others emphasize the imbalance, hierarchy, and conflict built into the idea. <|>

The Taiji diagram (taiji tu, the classic yin-yang symbol) ) first appeared in a Taoist [Daoist] context at the beginning of the Song dynasty (960-1279).... Prior to this, yin and yang were symbolized by the tiger and the dragon, and this symbolism has continued throughout the history of later Taoism [Daoism]. The diagram symbolizes the unity of the forces of yin and yang within the [D]ao. Taiji means “supreme ultimate,” and as such the diagram symbolizes the fundamental Taoist view of the structure of reality, namely that beyond the duality of phenomenal existence, created through the interaction of yin and yang, is the unity of the Tao [Dao], which exists beyond time and space.... The Compendium of Diagrams (Tushubian) is a 127-chapter encyclopedia on cosmology, geography, and human life compiled in the early Wanli reign (1573-1620) by the scholar Zhang Huang. [Source: Stephen Little, et al. Taoism and the Arts of China. (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, in association with University of California Press, 2000), p. 131<|>]

Early Yin-Yang Correlations (c. 250 B.C.): A) Yin (Earth, Night, Autumn, Small states, Inaction, Minister, Woman, Child, Guest, Silence, Receiving) ; B) Yang (Heaven, Day, Spring, Big states, Action, Ruler, Man, Father, Host, Speech, Giving). <|>

Early Yin- Yang Correlations (c. 250 B.C.) Yin-Yang; 1) Earth-Heaven; 2) Night-Day; 3) Autumn-Spring; 4) Small states-Big states; 5) Inaction-Action; 6) Minister-Ruler; 7) Woman-Man; 8) Child-Father; 9) Guest-Host; 10) Silence-Speech; 11) Receiving-Giving. <|>

Yin Yang and Qi in Human Beings

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ How is human life analyzed in terms of the yin and yang modes of “material energy” (yet another rendering of qi)? Health for the individual consists in the harmonious balancing of yin and yang. When the two modes depart from their natural course, sickness and death result. Sleep, which is dark and therefore yin, needs to be balanced by wakefulness, which is yang. Salty tastes (yin) should be matched by bitter ones (yang); inactivity should alternate with movement; and so on. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University <|>]

Interaction between the Five Elements

“Normally the material energy that constitutes a person, though constantly shifting, is unitary enough to sustain a healthy life. When the material energy is blocked, follows improper patterns, or is invaded by pathogens, then the imbalance between yin and yang threatens to pull the person apart, the coarser forms of material energy (which are yin) remaining attached to the body or near the corpse, the more ethereal forms of material energy (which are yang) tending to float up and away. <|>

“Dream-states and minor sicknesses are simply gentler forms of the personal dissociation -- the radical conflict between yin and yang -- that comes with spirit-possession, serious illness, and death. At death the material force composing the person dissipates, and even that dissipation follows a pattern analyzable in terms of yin and yang. The yin parts of the person -- collectively called “earthly souls” (po) -- move downward, constituting the corpse, perhaps also returning as a ghost to haunt the living. Since they are more like energy than matter, the yang parts of the person -- collectively called “heavenly souls” (hun) -- float upward. They -- notice that there is more than one of each kind of “soul,” making a unique soul or even a dualism of the spirit impossible in principle -- are thought to be reborn in Heaven or as another being, to be resident in the ancestral tablets, to be associated more amorphously with the ancestors stretching back seven generations, or to be in all three places at once. <|>

Yin-Yang Five-Forces Theory During the Han Period

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “During the early Han, the conception of the universe as governed by yin and yang and the five forces became characteristic of almost every school of thought.” The ideology was a pervasive undercurrent in the Huang-Lao texts and was a great influence in the reformulation of Confucianism undertaken by Dong Zhong-shu. These theories were a part of Warring States naturalism and are often traced to the philosopher Zou Yan. However, it was during the Han that they came to have their greatest influence. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“While theories concerning yin and yang and the five forces dominated the Han view of the world, the intellectual excitement of these theories seems somewhat elusive now. There are 2 cases where Han writers attempt to fashion a grand system by showing how the two powers of yin and yang and the five forces fit together well with cosmic systems that correlate them with the ten heavenly stems, and twelve earthly branches, and the sixty-four hexagrams of the Yi jing (we also see the twelve-year cycle of Jupiter and the twenty-eight lunar-lodge constellations figure in such designs). It is hard not to hold one’s breath while reading through some of these numerical acrobatics, but there is a certain undeniable level of tedium. The impulse to control the cosmos through dense classification and mechanistic dynamics that these theories express contrasts rather unfavorably with the earlier interest in the protean concept of qi, which underlies many of these later theories, and which was absorbed into their frameworks. /+/

Yin-Yang duality

“The role of yin-yang and five force theory in the life of imperial China was probably felt most intensely at the center, in the life of the emperor and his ritual attendants. This was particularly true after 135 B.C., when Dong Zhongshu’s adaptation of these theories to Confucianism became the foundation of an emperor-centered ideology. However, even before that time, a detailed manual for the administration of a state according to these concepts had been elaborated as a set of twelve dispersed chapters in the late Warring States text, The Almanac of Lord Lü. These chapters, corresponding to the months of the year, portrayed the progression of annual cycles through the five force fields and some of the host of correlated phenomena listed in the tables above.” /+/

“While the twin powers of yin and yang, taken in isolation, may have enhanced the creativity of some aspects of Chinese thinking by their broad and flexible natures, the five forces and the dense gridwork that those concepts generated seem stifling by comparison. The mechanistic nature of the five force “organic” cosmos led to the creation of a wealth of true pseudo-sciences, most of which emerged from fangshi cults. These appear to have strongly inhibited the development of true science in China (though there were surely more powerful social factors bearing on this issue). The five force models were systematic enough to support elaborate explanatory and predictive uses, and also complex and incoherent enough to provide secondary explanations and margins of error that could be used to mask the true nature of frequent failures. /+/

“The ideas of yin and yang and of the five forces exerted their greatest influence during the Han, but they persisted as key concepts in Chinese cosmology throughout the traditional period. Even today, Chinese culture continues to exhibit strong interest in these concepts, which play major roles in some forms of the martial arts, in the much used art of geomancy [feng shui], and in various types of popular religion and religious Daoism.” /+/

Five Forces and Phenomena Attached to Them

“An idea of the plastic nature of these concepts can be conveyed by illustrating how they were applied to a very broad range of phenomena. For example, the five forces were each assigned to a direction and a season (with the sixth month, midsummer, considered a separate season). This seasonal concept allowed the forces to be correlated with phases of the yin-yang cycle of polar influence as follows: 1) WOOD: East, Spring, Rising Yang; 2) FIRE: South, Summer, Greater Yang; 3) EARTH: Center, Midsummer, Balanced Yin and Yang; 4) METAL: West, Autumn, Rising Yin; 5) WATER: North, Winter, Greater Yin. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Five Elements cycle, Balance and Imbalance

With these as starting points, the system that emerged became a grand correlative scheme: WOOD was associated with: A) the number: 8; B) the color: green; C) the astral body: stars; D) the planet: Jupiter; E) the weather: wind; F) the sense organ: eye; G) the emotion: anger; H) the organ: spleen; I) the tissue: muscles; J) the taste: sour; K) the smell: goat-like; L) the animal: sheep; meters) the sage ruler: Emperor Yu; N) the tool: compass. The list could be extended indefinitely. Musical notes, constellations, government ministries, geographical regions of China, sacrifice locations – all were incorporated into this system. /+/

FIRE was associated with: A) the number: 7; B) the color: red; C) the astral body: sun; D) the planet: Mars; E) the weather: heat; F) the sense organ: tongue; G) the emotion: joy; H) the organ: lungs; I) the tissue: blood; J) the taste: sour; K) the smell: burning; L) the animal: sheep; meters) the sage ruler: King Wen; N) the tool: measures. /+/

EARTH was associated with: A) the number: 5; B) the color: yellow ; C) the astral body: earth; D) the planet: Saturn; E) the weather: thunder; F) the sense organ: mouth; G) the emotion: desire; H) the organ: heart; I) the tissue: flesh; J) the taste: sweet; K) the smell: fragrant; L) the animal: oxen; meters) the sage ruler: Yellow Emperor; N) the tool: plumb lines. /+/

METAL was associated with: A) the number: 9; B) the color: white; C) the astral body: constellations; D) the planet: Venus; E) the weather: cold; F) the sense organ: nose; G) the emotion: sorrow; H) the organ: kidney; I) the tissue: skin & hair; J) the taste: acrid; K) the smell: rank; L) the animal: dogs; meters) the sage ruler: Emperor Tang; N) the tool: T-square. /+/

WATER was associated with: A) the number: 6; B) the color: black; C) the astral body: moon; D) the planet: Mercury; E) the weather: rain; F) the sense organ: ear; G) the emotion: fear; H) the organ: liver; I) the tissue: bones; J) the taste: salty; K) the smell: rotting; L) the animal: pigs; meters) the sage ruler: First Emperor; N) the tool: balance. /+/

Image Sources: Exorcism, Bucklin archives, 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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