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joss sticks

Stevan Harrell wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Han religion is conveniently, though oversimplistically, divided into three elite, literate traditions—State Religion, Daoism, and Buddhism; a series of folk beliefs and practices that varies widely in regional detail but contains a common substratum; and the beliefs and practices of various syncretic sects. None of these religious traditions is completely independent of any of the others, and with the exception of the sects, adherents of one tradition rarely reject or oppose the others. “State Religion was the ritual basis of the imperial regime, the site of the emperor's and the officials' cosmic ordering functions. In postimperial times, it has largely been supplanted by the secular rituals of the Republican and Communist regimes, though adulation and worship of Mao Zedong, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, amounted to a sort of deification. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia - Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

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. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/ ]

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.

“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. /+/

Good Websites and Sources: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Articles on Religion in China ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts; ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Academic Info ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies; Chinatxt Ancient Chinese History and Religion chinatxt

Mixture of Religions in China

Eleanor Stanford wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are not mutually exclusive, and many people practice elements of all three in addition to worshiping various gods and goddesses, each of which is responsible for a different profession or other aspect of life. Luck is of supreme importance in popular belief, and there are many ways of bringing good fortune and avoiding badluck. A type of geomancy called fengshui involves manipulating one's surroundings in a propitious way. These techniques are used to determine everything from the placement of furniture in a room to the construction of skyscrapers. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, Countries and Their Cultures, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Many of the minority groups have their own religions. Some, such as the Dais in Yunnan and the Zhuangs in the southwest, practice animism. The Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Huis are Muslim. Tibetans follow their own unique form of Buddhism, called Tantric or Lamaistic Buddhism, which incorporates many traditions of the indigenous religion called bon, including prayer flags and prayer wheels and a mystical element.

Many Chinese pragmatically switch among Taoist, Buddhist, folk and other beliefs and practices, depending on the situation. On the ebb and flow and merging of religion in China, Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in Time: “Visions of imperial China as hermetically sealed off from the world are a myth. Foreign belief systems often made their way in and, once reaching Chinese soil, merged with some form of Confucianism (there have been many versions of that creed) or Taoism (ditto) to create hybrid schools of thought. Long before Deng Xiaoping's Marxist-inflected reboot of Lee KuanYew's Singaporean capitalist-meets-Confucian soft authoritarianism, there were equally complex homegrown fusion creations. A famous one was Chan Buddhism (known in Japanese as Zen), a mash-up of native Taoist and imported Indian elements. [Source: Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Time, January 1 2011]

Fuzziness and Ambiguity of Chinese Religion

Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics”: Taoism and Buddhism have each histories of their own, and these histories are no doubt known to a select few within the inner circles of their priesthood. But generally speaking even the priests neither know" nor care anything whatever as to the antecedents of the sect to which they are attached merely as parasites. To inquire of a Taoist priest the meaning of an obscure passage in the Tao Teh Ching is a work of supererogation, when we know beforehand that the priest cannot read a character of any kind. What does the average Buddhist priest care whether Buddha lived six hundred years before the time of Christ as some maintain, or only two hundred years, or indeed whether he' ever lived at all ? To the followers of these priests, the questions of origin, of historical development, of relative importance and precedence of their respective doctrines are not only, non-existent, but when such questions are raised, they cannot be so stated as to be made to appear important, and, can with difficulty be so stated as to be intelligible." Chinese peasants "do not know whether they have three souls, as is currently supposed, or one, or none, and so long as the matter has no relation to the price of grain, they do not see that it is of any consequence whatever. They believe in a future life, in which the bad will be turned into dogs and insects, and they also believe in annihilation pure and simple, in which the body becomes dirt, and the soul — if there be one — fades into the air. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]

“The same is true in regard to the antecedents of the countless secret sects with which the Empire is honeycombed. The adherents of these societies have no idea when they were begun, nor by whom, nor for what purpose, neither do they concern themselves in the least about any of these points. The standard of the “practice of virtue" being what it is, any kind of organization which offers a method of practising virtue will be patronised by those who happen to be disposed to lay up a little merit, and to whom, this avenue appears as good as any other. Any kind of a divinity which seems adapted to exert a favorable influence in any given direction will be patronized, just as a man who happens to need a new umbrella, goes to some shop where they keep such goods for sale. To enquire into the antecedents of the divinity who is thus worshipped, no more occurs to a Chinese than it would occur to an Englishman who wanted the umbrella, to satisfy himself as to the origin of umbrellas, and when they first came into general use.

“It is not uncommon to meet with learned disquisitions upon the question as to the number of Buddhists and Taoists in China. In our view this question is exactly paralleled by an enquiry into the number of persons in the United Kingdom who use ten-penny nails as compared with the number of those who eat string-beans. Any one who wants to use a ten-penny nail will do so, if he can obtain it, and those who like string-beans and can afford to buy them, will presumptively consume them. The case is not different in China as regards the two most prominent “doctrines." Any Chinese who wants the services of a Buddhist priest, and who can afford to pay for them, will hire the priest, and thus be “a Buddhist." If he wants a Taoist priest, he will in like manner call him, and this makes him “a Taoist." It is of no consequence to the Chinese which of the two he employs, and he will not improbably call them both at once, and thus be at once “a Buddhist" and “a Taoist." It has been well said that there is one thing which is worse than pure atheism, and that is entire indifference as to whether atheism is true. In China polytheism and atheism are but opposite facets of the same die, and are more or less consciously held for true by; i multitudes of educated Chinese, and with no sense of contradiction. Its absolute indifference to the profoundest spiritual truths in the nature of man, is the most melancholy characteristic of the Chinese mind, its ready acceptance of a body without a soul, of a soul without a spirit, of a spirit without a life, of a Cosmos without a cause, a Universe without a God.

Buddhism, Taosim and Confucianism

The Buddha, Lao-tzu and Confucius

Buddhism developed in China through its interaction with other Chinese religions, particularly Taoism. Within Buddhism there was a great deal of flexibility in what was required of followers and it was not necessary for followers to dispense with their beliefs in other religions. Many Chinese followed Buddhism and Taoism at the same time. Even so Buddhism and Taoism were rivals. The Six Dynasties Period overlapped with the Age of Faith (A.D. 3rd to 7th centuries A.D.), a period when Taoists and Buddhists fought for dominance in China.

In some ways Taoism and Buddhism were similar. They both promised followers salvation, stressed detachment and incorporated many superstitions. But in other ways they were very different. Taoism, for example, aspired to make a person physically immortal in their own bodies while Buddhism regarded the human body as a temporary vessel that would ultimately be discarded. Buddhism was able to win many coverts from Taoism by placing a strong emphasis on moral conduct and analytical thinking criticizing the foggy cosmology and superstitious and ritualistic nature of Taoism.

Confucianism, China's oldest and most influential system of thought, is named after its founder, Confucius (Kong Qiu, 551-479 B.C.). Although sometimes characterized as a religion Confucianism is more of a social and political philosophy than a religion. Some have called it code of conduct for gentlemen and way of life that has had a strong influence on Chinese thought, relationships and family rituals. Confucianism stresses harmony of relationships that are hierarchical yet provide benefits to both superior and inferior, a thought deemed useful and advantageous to Chinese authoritarian rulers of all times for its careful preservation of the class system.

Taoism is some ways developed as a response to Confucianism. These two schools of thought are central to Chinese culture and history. The focus of Taoism is the individual in nature rather than the individual in society. It holds that the goal of life for each individual is to find one's own personal adjustment to the rhythm of the natural (and supernatural) world, to follow the Way (dao) of the universe. In many ways the opposite of rigid Confucian moralism, Taoism served many of its adherents as a complement to their ordered daily lives. A scholar on duty as an official would usually follow Confucian teachings but at leisure or in retirement might seek harmony with nature as a Taoist recluse. [Source: The Library of Congress; [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

With competition from Taoism and Buddhism — beliefs that promised some kind of life after death — Confucianism became more like a religion under the Neo-Confucian leader Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi, A.D. 1130-1200). In an effort to win converts from Taoism and Buddhism, Zhu developed a more mystical form of Confucianism in which followers were encouraged to seek “all things under heaven beginning with known principals “and strive “to reach the uppermost." He told his followers, “After sufficient labor...the day will come when all things suddenly become clear and intelligible." Important concepts in Neo-Confucian thought were the idea of “breath “(the material from which all things condensed and dissolved) and yin and yang.

Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in Time, “A century ago, a broad spectrum of Chinese intellectuals criticized Confucianism for holding China back, and as recently as the 1970s, communist leaders were denouncing Confucius. China, moreover, has never been an exclusively Confucian nation. There have always been other indigenous, competing creeds. Taoism, for example, has provided an antiauthoritarian counterpoint to hierarchical models of politics for millennia. [Source: Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Time, January 1 2011]

Saniiao (the Three Teachings): Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism

Confucius, Lao-tzu and Buddhist arhat

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Most anthologies of Chinese religion are organized by the logic of the sanjiao (literally “three teachings”) of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Historical precedent and popular parlance attest to the importance of this threefold division for understanding Chinese culture. One of the earliest references to the trinitarian idea is attributed to Li Shiqian, a prominent scholar of the sixth century, who wrote that “Buddhism is the sun, Daoism the moon, and Confucianism the five planets.” [Li’s formulation is quoted in Beishi, Li Yanshou (seventh century), Bona ed. (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), p. 1234. Translation from Chinese by Stephen F. Teiser, Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbiaedu/]

“Li likens the three traditions to significant heavenly bodies, suggesting that although they remain separate, they also coexist as equally indispensable phenomena of the natural world. Other opinions stress the essential unity of the three religious systems. One popular proverb opens by listing the symbols that distinguish the religions from each other, but closes with the assertion that they are fundamentally the same: “The three teachings — the gold and cinnabar of Daoism, the relics of Buddhist figures, as well as the Confucian virtues of humanity and righteousness — are basically one tradition.” [The proverb, originally appearing in the sixteenth-century novel Investiture of the Gods (Fengshen yanyi), is quoted in Clifford H. Plopper, Chinese Religion Seen through the Proverb (Shanghai: The China Press, 1926), p. 16.]

“The three teachings are a powerful and inescapable part of Chinese religion. Whether they are eventually accepted, rejected, or reformulated, the terms of the past can only be understood by examining how they came to assume their current status. And because Chinese religion has for so long been dominated by the idea of the three teachings, it is essential to understand where those traditions come from, who constructed them and how, as well as what forms of religious life (such as those that fall under the category of “popular religion”) are omitted or denied by constructing such a picture in the first place.

“It must also be noted that the focus on the three teachings privileges the varieties of Chinese religious life that have been maintained largely through the support of literate and often powerful representatives, and the debate over the unity of the three teachings, even when it is resolved in favor of toleration or harmony — a move toward the one rather than the three — drowns out voices that talk about Chinese religion as neither one nor three. Another problem with the model of the three teachings is that it equalizes what are in fact three radically incommensurable things. Confucianism often functioned as a political ideology and a system of values; Daoism has been compared, inconsistently, to both an outlook on life and a system of gods and magic; and Buddhism offered, according to some analysts, a proper soteriology, an array of techniques and deities enabling one to achieve salvation in the other world. Calling all three traditions by the same unproblematic term, “teaching,” perpetuates confusion about how the realms of life that we tend to take for granted (like politics, ethics, ritual, religion) were in fact configured differently in traditional China.”

Religious Practices and Beliefs in China

Religious beliefs tend to be viewed as personal matters that each individual works out on their own. While Taoism and Buddhism are the traditional belief systems in China, many Chinese adopt them as a matter of birthright, rather than choosing to follow them as spiritual life codes. There are few religion leaders and few organized times of worship other than festivals, thus leaving individuals to worship when and how they like, picking and choosing from Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist traditions and ways of thinking. Few people label themselves as exclusively Buddhist, Confucian or Taoist. But even though it could argued that the Chinese are not very religious, religion and religious culture have had a profound effect shaping the Chinese psyche.

Individuals in China often recognize a wide range of beliefs and religions — including organized religions like Buddhism and Taoism as well as folk religions and beliefs in local deities, ancestral spirits and superstitions — in hope of making all spirits, gods and supernatural forces happy and thus ensuring good fortune. The goal for an individual is often to be in harmony with the cosmic world rather than seek one true, divine path. Confucianism and Taoism do not have central religious figures. In Buddhism, there are monks who are expected devote their lives to prayer and meditation. Worship is usually not communal; the only group services are generally performed at funerals.

None of China's religious traditions are completely independent of the others and the beliefs in one tradition rarely reject or oppose the beliefs of the others. Chinese have traditionally looked to Confucianism for moral and political guidance and lived by its code; looked to Taoist gods and animist spirits for good fortune and help harmonizing with nature and the universe; and looked to Buddhism for help answering questions of the afterlife. Shaman are still sought out as healers. Fortunetellers are sought out for advice. Sometimes the fortunetellers are Buddhist monks and the shaman also run the local Taoist temple.

Religious buildings in China are traditionally built in secluded, auspicious locales on mountains or hilltops, tucked in among trees. The aesthetics of the physical setting is of paramount importance in the placement of religious buildings in China, as the physical setting contributes greatly to the overall religious experience. [Source:]

Importance of Ceremony (Li) and Cosmic Framework in Traditional Chinese Religion

J.M. Callery wrote in the 1850s: "Ceremony epitomizes the entire Chinese mind; and in my opinion, the Book of Rites is per se the most exact and complete monograph that China has been able to give of herself to other nations. Its affections, if it has any, are satisfied by ceremony; its duties are fulfilled by ceremony; its virtues and vices are referred to ceremony; the natural relations of created beings essentially link themselves in ceremonial — in a word, to that people ceremonial is man as a moral, political, and religious being, in his multiplied relations with family, society, and religion." On this Dr. S.W. Williams' commented how "meagre a rendering” "ceremony" is for the Chinese idea of li, for it includes not only the external conduct, but involves the right principles from which all true etiquette and politeness spring." [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894]

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.”

Tongi (diviner youth)

Popular Religion in China

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.

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.)

“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]

Common Features of Chinese Religions

The concept of living ancestors and honoring them is important in all Chinese religions. The Chinese have no concept of original sin or inherited original sin.

Supernatural beings are sometimes organized into hierarchies with heavenly beings like the Lord of Heaven at the top, followed by the spirits of humans beings that have transcended the human cycle of life and death, such as Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Taoist immortals. Next are the spirits of human heroes. Below them are earth spirits and gods regarded as protectors.

Different religions often times honor the same gods. Guanyin (Kuanyan), the Goddess of Mercy, for example, is found in Buddhist and Taoist temple and family altars at home. She is associated with both purity and compassion and has traditionally been sought by expectant mother for help with child birth. Often depicted with multiple heads and arms, she is closely linked with Avalokitesvara, the eleven-headed and the multi-armed Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.

Chinese temples — whether they be Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian — have a similar lay out, with features found in traditional Chinese courtyard houses and elements intended to confuse or repel evil spirits. Temples are usually surrounded by a wall and face south in accordance with feng shui principals. The gates usually contain paintings, reliefs or statues of warrior deities intended to keep evil spirits away. Through the gates is a large courtyard, which is often protected by a spirit wall, a another layer of protection intended to keep evil spirits at bay. The halls of the temple are arranged around the courtyard with the least important being near the entrance in case evil spirits do get in.

Chinese show their respect by bowing three times even for revered secular leader such as Sun Yat Sen. Offerings of food, drink and incense (joss sticks) have traditionally been made on family alters on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar month. Offerings are also made to the Lord of Heaven, select gods and spirits

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; Inside Temple, photo Micheal Turton ; joss sticks,

Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: 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 August 2021

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