Religious Practice During the Shang and Zhou Dynasties

Introduction to Chinese Religions

Religious practices in ancient China go back over 7,000 years. Long before the philosophical and spiritual teachings of Confucius and Lao-Tzu developed or before the teachings of the Buddha came to China, the people worshipped personifications of nature and then of concepts like “wealth” or “fortune” which developed into a religion. These beliefs still influence religious practices today. For example, the Tao te Ching of Taoism maintains that there is a universal force known as the Tao which flows through all things and binds all things but makes no mention of specific gods to be worshipped; still, modern Taoists in China (and elsewhere) worship many gods at private altars and in public ceremonies which originated in the country’s ancient past. (24)

An Overview of Chinese Religious History

Chinese Prehistoric Religious Practice

In China, religious beliefs are evident in the Yangshao Culture of the Yellow River Valley, which prospered between 5000-3000 BCE. At the Neolithic site of Banpo Village in modern Shaanxi Province (dated to between c. 4500–3750 BCE) 250 tombs were found containing grave goods, which point to a belief in life after death. There is also a ritualistic pattern to how the dead were buried with tombs oriented west to east to symbolize death and rebirth. Grave goods provide evidence of specific people in the village who acted as priests and presided over some kind of divination and religious observance.

The Yangshao Culture was matrilineal, meaning women were dominant, so this religious figure would have been a woman based on the grave goods found. There is no evidence of any high-ranking males in the burials, but a significant number of females. Scholars believe that the early religious practices were also matrilineal and most likely animistic, where people worship personifications of nature, and usually feminine deities were benevolent and male deities malevolent, or at least more to be feared.

These practices continued with the Qijia Culture (c. 2200–1600 BCE) who inhabited the Upper Yellow River Valley but whose culture could have been patriarchal. Examinations of the Bronze Age site of Lajia Village in modern-day Qinghai Province (and elsewhere) have uncovered evidence of religious practices. Lajia Village is often referred to as the “Chinese Pompeii” because it was destroyed by an earthquake, which caused a flood and the resulting mudslides buried the village intact. Among the artifacts uncovered was a bowl of noodles which scientists have examined and believe to be the oldest noodles in the world and precursors to China’s staple dish “Long-Life Noodles.” Even though not all scholars or archaeologists agree on China as the creator of the noodle, the finds at Lajia support the claim of religious practices there as early as c. 2200 BCE. There is evidence that the people worshipped a supreme god who was king of many other lesser deities. (24)

Religious Practice During the Shang Dynasty

By the time of the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE) these religious beliefs had developed so that now there was a definite “k ing of the gods ” named Shangti and many lesser gods of other names. Shangti presided over all the important matters of state and was a very busy god. He was rarely sacrificed to because people were encouraged not to bother him with their problems. Ancestor worship may have begun at this time but more likely, started much earlier.

Evidence of a strong belief in ghosts , in the form of amulets and charms , goes back to at least the Shang Dynasty and ghost stories are among the earliest form of Chinese literature. Ghosts (known as guei or kuei) were the spirits of deceased persons who had not been buried correctly with due honors or were still attached to the earth for other reasons. They were called by a number of names but in one form, jiangshi (“stiff body”), they appear as zombies . Ghosts played a very important role in Chinese religion and culture and still do. The ritual still practiced in China today known as Tomb Sweeping Day (usually around 4 April) is observed to honor the dead and make sure they are happy in the afterlife. If they are not, they are thought to return to haunt the living. The Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors on Tomb Sweeping Day during the Festival of Qingming, even if they never do at any other time of the year, to tend the graves and pay their respects.

When someone died naturally or was buried with the proper honors, there was no fear of them returning as a ghost. The Chinese believed that, if the person had lived a good life, they went to live with the gods after death. These spirits of one’s ancestors were prayed to so they could approach Shangti with the problems and praise of those on earth. Tanner (2010) writes:

Ancestors were represented by a physical symbol such as a spirit tablet engraved or painted with the ancestor’s honorific name. Rituals were held to honor these ancestors, and sacrifices of millet ale, cattle, dogs, sheep, and humans were offered. The scale of the sacrifices varied, but at important rituals, hundreds of animals and/or human sacrifices would be slaughtered. Believing that the spirits of the dead continued to exist and to take an interest in the world of the living, the Shang elite buried their dead in elaborate and well-furnished tombs.

The spirits of these ancestors could help a person in life by revealing the future to them. Divination became a significant part of Chinese religious beliefs and was performed by people with mystical powers (what one would call a “psychic” in the modern day) one would pay to tell one’s future through oracle bones. It is through these oracle bones that writing developed in China. The mystic would write the question on the shoulder bone of an ox or turtle shell and apply heat until it cracked; whichever way the crack went would determine the answer. It was not the mystic or the bone that gave the answer but one’s ancestors who the mystic communed with. These ancestors were in touch with eternal spirits, the gods, who controlled and maintained the universe. (24)

Religious Practice During the Zhou Dynasty

The states during the Western Zhou period (1056-771 BCE) in China. Shows the Yellow River and Yangtze River.
Figure 4-1: States of the Western Zhou Dynasty by Philg88 is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0 .

In the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–226 BCE) the concept of the Mandate of Heaven was developed. The Mandate of Heaven was the belief that Shangti ordained a certain emperor or dynasty to rule and allowed them to rule as long as they pleased him. When the rulers were no longer taking care of the people responsibly, they were said to have lost the Mandate of Heaven and were replaced by another. Modern scholars have seen this simply as a justification for changing a regime, but the people at the time believed in the concept. The gods were thought to watch over the people and would pay special attention to the emperor. People continued a practice, which began toward the end of the Shang Dynasty, of wearing charms and amulets of their god of choice or their ancestors for protection or in the hope of blessings, and the emperor did this as well. Religious practices changed during the latter part of the Zhou Dynasty owing to its decline and eventual fall, but the practice of wearing religious jewelry continued.

The Zhou Dynasty is divided into two periods: Western Zhou (1046–771 BCE) and Eastern Zhou (771–226 BCE). Chinese culture and religious practices flourished during the Western Zhou period but began to break apart during the Eastern Zhou. Religious practices of divination, ancestor worship, and veneration for the gods continued, but during the Spring and Autumn Period (772–476 BCE) philosophical ideas began to challenge the ancient beliefs.

Confucius (c. 551–479 BCE) encouraged ancestor worship as a way of remembering and honoring one’s past but emphasized people’s individual responsibility in making choices and criticized an over-reliance on supernatural powers. Mencius (c. 372–289 BCE) developed the ideas of Confucius, and his work resulted in a more rational and restrained view of the world.

The work of Lao-Tzu (c. 500 BCE) and the development of Taoism might be seen as a reaction to Confucian principles if not for the fact that Taoism developed many centuries before the traditional date assigned to Lao-Tzu.

It is much more probable that Taoism developed from the original nature/folk religion of the people of China than that it was created by a 6th-century BCE philosopher. Therefore, it is more accurate to say that the rationalism of Confucianism probably developed as a reaction to the emotionalism and spiritualism of those earlier beliefs. (24)

Warring States Period

Religious beliefs developed further during the next period in China’s history, The Warring States Period (476–221 BCE), which was very chaotic. The seven states of China were all independent now that the Zhou had lost the Mandate of Heaven, and each one fought the others for control of the country. Confucianism was the most popular belief during this time, but there was another, which was growing stronger.

A statesman named Shang Yang (died 338 BCE) from the region of Qin developed a philosophy called Legalism , which maintained that people were only motivated by self-interest, were inherently evil, and had to be controlled by law. Shang Yang’s philosophy helped the State of Qin overpower the six other states and from that the Qin Dynasty was founded by the first emperor, Shi Huangti, in 221 BCE. (24)