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RELIGIONS OF ANCIENT CHINA
by HERBERT A. GILES, M.A., LL.D. (Aberd.)
Professor of Chinese at the University of Cambridge,
Author of "Historic China," "A History of Chinese
Literature," "China and the Chinese," etc., etc.
First Published 1906 by Constable and Company Ltd., London.
This book was published as part of the series Religions: Ancient
The Psychological Origin and Nature of Religion, by J. H. Leuba.
Judaism, by Israel Abraham.
Celtic Religion, by Professor E. Anwye.
Shinto: The Ancient Religion of Japan, by W. G. Aston, C.M.G.
The Religion of Ancient Rome, by Cyril Bailey, M.A.
Hinduism, by Dr. L. D. Barnett.
The Religion of Ancient Palestine, by Stanley A. Cook.
Animism, by Edward Clodd.
Scandinavian Religion, by William A. Craigie.
Early Buddhism, by Prof. T. W. Rhys Davids, LL.D.
The Religions of Ancient China, by Prof. Giles, LL.D.
Magic and Fetishism, by Dr. A. C. Haddon, F.R.S.
The Religion of Ancient Greece, by Jane Harrison.
The Religion of Ancient Egypt, by W. M. Flinders Petrie, F.R.S.
Pantheism, by James Allanson Picton.
The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, by Theophilus G. Pinches.
Early Christianity (Paul to Origen), by S. B. Slack.
The Mythologies of Ancient Mexico and Peru, by Lewis Spence, M.A.
The Mythology of Ancient Britain and Island, by Charles Squire.
Islam, by Ameer Ali, Syed, M.A., C.I.E.
Mithraism, by W. G. Pythian-Adams.
The publishers were: Constable and Company Ltd, London; Open Court
Company, Chicago. The 1918 edition was printed in Great Britain by
Butler & Tanner, Frome and London.
RELIGIONS OF ANCIENT CHINA
THE ANCIENT FAITH
Philosophical Theory of the Universe.--The problem of the universe has
never offered the slightest difficulty to Chinese philosophers. Before
the beginning of all things, there was Nothing. In the lapse of ages
Nothing coalesced into Unity, the Great Monad. After more ages, the
Great Monad separated into Duality, the Male and Female Principles in
nature; and then, by a process of biogenesis, the visible universe was
Popular Cosmogeny.--An addition, however, to this simple system had to
be made, in deference to, and on a plane with, the intelligence of the
masses. According to this, the Male and Female Principles were each
subdivided into Greater and Lesser, and then from the interaction of
these four agencies a being, named P'an Ku, came into existence. He
seems to have come into life endowed with perfect knowledge, and his
function was to set the economy of the universe in order. He is often
depicted as wielding a huge adze, and engaged in constructing the
world. With his death the details of creation began. His breath became
the wind; his voice, the thunder; his left eye, the sun; his right
eye, the moon; his blood flowed in rivers; his hair grew into trees
and plants; his flesh became the soil; his sweat descended as rain;
while the parasites which infested his body were the origin of the
Recognition and Worship of Spirits.--Early Chinese writers tell us
that Fu Hsi, B.C. 2953-2838, was the first Emperor to organize
sacrifices to, and worship of, spirits. In this he was followed by the
Yellow Emperor, B.C. 2698-2598, who built a temple for the worship of
God, in which incense was used, and first sacrificed to the Mountains
and Rivers. He is also said to have established the worship of the
sun, moon, and five planets, and to have elaborated the ceremonial of
God the Father, Earth the Mother.--The Yellow Emperor was followed by
the Emperor Shao Hao, B.C. 2598-2514, "who instituted the music of the
Great Abyss in order to bring spirits and men into harmony." Then came
the Emperor Chuan Hsu, B.C. 2514-2436, of whom it is said that he
appointed an officer "to preside over the worship of God and Earth, in
order to form a link between the spirits and man," and also "caused
music to be played for the enjoyment of God." Music, by the way, is
said to have been introduced into worship in imitation of thunder, and
was therefore supposed to be pleasing to the Almighty. After him
followed the Emperor Ti K'u, B.C. 2436-2366, who dabbled in astronomy,
and "came to a knowledge of spiritual beings, which he respectfully
worshipped." The Emperor Yao, B.C. 2357-2255, built a temple for the
worship of God, and also caused dances to be performed for the
enjoyment of God on occasions of special sacrifice and communication
with the spiritual world. After him, we reach the Emperor Shun, B.C.
2255-2205, in whose favour Yao abdicated.
Additional Deities.--Before, however, Shun ventured to mount the
throne, he consulted the stars, in order to find out if the unseen
Powers were favourable to his elevation; and on receiving a
satisfactory reply, "he proceeded to sacrifice to God, to the Six
Honoured Ones (unknown), to the Mountains and Rivers, and to Spirits
in general. . . . In the second month of the year, he made a tour of
inspection eastwards, as far as Mount T'ai (in modern Shantung), where
he presented a burnt offering to God, and sacrificed to the Mountains
God punishes the wicked and rewards the good.--The Great Yu, who
drained the empire, and came to the throne in B.C. 2205 as first
Emperor of the Hsia dynasty, followed in the lines of his pious
predecessors. But the Emperor K'ung Chia, B.C. 1879-1848, who at first
had treated the Spirits with all due reverence, fell into evil ways,
and was abandoned by God. This was the beginning of the end. In B.C.
1766 T'ang the Completer, founder of the Shang dynasty, set to work to
overthrow Chieh Kuei, the last ruler of the Hsia dynasty. He began by
sacrificing to Almighty God, and asked for a blessing on his
undertaking. And in his subsequent proclamation to the empire, he
spoke of that God as follows: "God has given to every man a
conscience; and if all men acted in accordance with its dictates, they
would not stray from the right path. . . . The way of God is to bless
the good and punish the bad. He has sent down calamities on the House
of Hsia, to make manifest its crimes."
God manifests displeasure.--In B.C. 1637 the Emperor T'ai Mou
succeeded. His reign was marked by the supernatural appearance in the
palace of two mulberry-trees, which in a single night grew to such a
size that they could hardly be spanned by two hands. The Emperor was
terrified; whereupon a Minister said, "No prodigy is a match for
virtue. Your Majesty's government is no doubt at fault, and some
reform of conduct is necessary." Accordingly, the Emperor began to act
more circumspectly; after which the mulberry-trees soon withered and
Revelation in a dream.--The Emperor Wu Ting, B.C. 1324-1264, began his
reign by not speaking for three years, leaving all State affairs to be
decided by his Prime Minister, while he himself gained experience.
Later on, the features of a sage were revealed to him in a dream; and
on waking, he caused a portrait of the apparition to be prepared and
circulated throughout the empire. The sage was found, and for a long
time aided the Emperor in the right administration of government. On
the occasion of a sacrifice, a pheasant perched upon the handle of the
great sacrificial tripod, and crowed, at which the Emperor was much
alarmed. "Be not afraid," cried a Minister; "but begin by reforming
your government. God looks down upon mortals, and in accordance with
their deserts grants them many years or few. God does not shorten
men's lives; they do that themselves. Some are wanting in virtue, and
will not acknowledge their transgressions; only when God chastens them
do they cry, What are we to do?"
Anthropomorphism and Fetishism.--One of the last Emperors of the Shang
dynasty, Wu I, who reigned B.C. 1198-1194, even went so far as "to
make an image in human form, which he called God. With this image he
used to play at dice, causing some one to throw for the image; and if
'God' lost, he would overwhelm the image with insult. He also made a
bag of leather, which he filled with blood and hung up. Then he would
shoot at it, saying that he was shooting God. By and by, when he was
out hunting, he was struck down by a violent thunderclap, and killed."
God indignant.--Finally, when the Shang dynasty sank into the lowest
depths of moral abasement, King Wu, who charged himself with its
overthrow, and who subsequently became the first sovereign of the Chou
dynasty, offered sacrifices to Almighty God, and also to Mother Earth.
"The King of Shang," he said in his address to the high officers who
collected around him, "does not reverence God above, and inflicts
calamities on the people below. Almighty God is moved with
indignation." On the day of the final battle he declared that he was
acting in the matter of punishment merely as the instrument of God;
and after his great victory and the establishment of his own line, it
was to God that he rendered thanks.
No Devil, No Hell.--In this primitive monotheism, of which only
scanty, but no doubt genuine, records remain, no place was found for
any being such as the Buddhist Mara or the Devil of the Old and New
Testaments. God inflicted His own punishments by visiting calamities
on mankind, just as He bestowed His own rewards by sending bounteous
harvests in due season. Evil spirits were a later invention, and their
operations were even then confined chiefly to tearing people's hearts
out, and so forth, for their own particular pleasure; we certainly
meet no cases of evil spirits wishing to undermine man's allegiance to
God, or desiring to make people wicked in order to secure their
everlasting punishment. The vision of Purgatory, with all its horrid
tortures, was introduced into China by Buddhism, and was subsequently
annexed by the Taoists, some time between the third and sixth
Chinese Terms for God.--Before passing to the firmer ground,
historically speaking, of the Chou dynasty, it may be as well to state
here that there are two terms in ancient Chinese literature which seem
to be used indiscriminately for God. One is /T'ien/, which has come to
include the material heavens, the sky; and the other is /Shang Ti/,
which has come to include the spirits of deceased Emperors. These two
terms appear simultaneously, so to speak, in the earliest documents
which have come down to us, dating back to something like the
twentieth century before Christ. Priority, however, belongs beyond all
doubt to /T'ien/, which it would have been more natural to find
meaning, first the visible heavens, and secondly the Deity, whose
existence beyond the sky would be inferred from such phenomena as
lightning, thunder, wind, and rain. But the process appears to have
been the other way, so far at any rate as the written language is
concerned. The Chinese script, when it first came into existence, was
purely pictorial, and confined to visible objects which were
comparatively easy to depict. There does not seem to have been any
attempt to draw a picture of the sky. On the other hand, the character
/T'ien/ was just such a representation of a human being as would be
expected from the hand of a prehistoric artist; and under this
unmistakable shape the character appears on bells and tripods, as seen
in collections of inscriptions, so late as the sixth and seventh
centuries B.C., after which the head is flattered to a line, and the
arms are raised until they form another line parallel to that of the
Distinction between T'ien and Shang Ti.--The term /Shang Ti/ means
literally Supreme Ruler. It is not quite so vague as /T'ien/, which
seems to be more of an abstraction, while /Shang Ti/ is a genuinely
personal God. Reference to /T'ien/ is usually associated with fate or
destiny, calamities, blessings, prayers for help, etc. The
commandments of /T'ien/ are hard to obey; He is compassionate, to be
feared, unjust, and cruel. /Shang Ti/ lives in heaven, walks, leaves
tracks on the ground, enjoys the sweet savour of sacrifice, approves
or disapproves of conduct, deals with rewards and punishments in a
more particular way, and comes more actually into touch with the human
Thus /Shang Ti/ would be the God who walked in the garden in the cool
of the day, the God who smelled the sweet savour of Noah's sacrifice,
and the God who allowed Moses to see His back. /T'ien/ would be the
God of Gods of the Psalms, whose mercy endureth for ever; the
everlasting God of Isaiah, who fainteth not, neither is weary.
Roman Catholic Dissensions.--These two, in fact, were the very terms
favoured by the early Jesuit missionaries to China, though not with
the limitations above suggested, as fit the proper renderings for God;
and of the two terms the great Manchu Emperor K'ang Hsi chose /T'ien/.
It has been thought that the conversion of China to Christianity under
the guiding influence of the Jesuits would soon have become an
accomplished fact, but for the ignorant opposition to the use of these
terms by the Franciscans and Dominicans, who referred this question,
among others, to the Pope. In 1704 Clement XI published a bull
declaring that the Chinese equivalent for God was /T'ien Chu/=Lord of
Heaven; and such it has continued to be ever since, so far as the
Roman Catholic church is concerned, in spite of the fact that /T'ien
Chu/ was a name given at the close of the third century B.C. to one of
the Eight Spirits.
The two Terms are One.--That the two terms refer in Chinese thought to
one and the same Being, though possibly with differing attributes,
even down to modern times, may be seen from the account of a dream by
the Emperor Yung Lo, A.D. 1403-1425, in which His Majesty relates that
an angel appeared to him, with a message from /Shang Ti/; upon which
the Emperor remarked, "Is not this a command from /T'ien/?" A
comparison might perhaps be instituted with the use of "God" and
"Jehovah" in the Bible. At the same time it must be noted that this
view was not suggested by the Emperor K'ang Hsi, who fixed upon
/T'ien/ as the appropriate term. It is probable that, vigorous
Confucianist as he was, he was anxious to appear on the side rather of
an abstract than of a personal Deity, and that he was repelled by the
overwrought anthropomorphism of the Christian God. His conversion was
said to have been very near at times; we read, however, that, when
hard pressed by the missionaries to accept baptism, "he always excused
himself by saying that he worshipped the same God as the Christians."
God in the "Odes."--The Chou dynasty lasted from B.C. 1122 to B.C.
255. It was China's feudal age, when the empire, then included between
latitude 34-40 and longitude 109-118, was split up into a number of
vassal States, which owned allegiance to a suzerain State. And it is
to the earlier centuries of the Chou dynasty that must be attributed
the composition of a large number of ballads of various kinds,
ultimately collected and edited by Confucius, and now known as the
/Odes/. From these /Odes/ it is abundantly clear that the Chinese
people continued to hold, more clearly and more firmly than ever, a
deep-seated belief in the existence of an anthropomorphic and personal
God, whose one care was the welfare of the human race:--
There is Almighty God;
Does He hate any one?
He reigns in glory.--The soul of King Wen, father of the King Wu
below, and posthumously raised by his son to royal rank, is
represented as enjoying happiness in a state beyond the grave:--
King Wen is on high,
In glory in heaven.
His comings and his goings
Are to and from the presence of God.
He is a Spirit.--Sometimes in the /Odes/ there is a hint that God, in
spite of His anthropomorphic semblance, is a spirit:--
The doings of God
Have neither sound nor smell.
Spiritual Beings.--Spirits were certainly supposed to move freely
Do not say, This place is not public;
No one can see me here.
The approaches of spiritual Beings
Cannot be calculated beforehand;
But on no account should they be ignored.
The God of Battle.--In the hour of battle the God of ancient China was
as much a participator in the fight as the God of Israel in the Old
God is on your side!
was the cry which stimulated King Wu to break down the opposing ranks
of Shang. To King Wu's father, and others, direct communications had
previously been made from heaven, with a view to the regeneration of
The dynasties of Hsia and Shang
Had not satisfied God with their government;
So throughout the various States
He sought and considered
For a State on which He might confer the rule.
God said to King Wen,
I am pleased with your conspicuous virtue,
Without noise and without display,
Without heat and without change,
Without consciousness of effort,
Following the pattern of God.
God said to King Wen,
Take measures against hostile States,
Along with your brethren,
Get ready your grappling-irons,
And your engines of assault,
To attack the walls of Ts'ung.
God sends Famine.--The /Ode/ from which the following extract is taken
carries us back to the ninth century B.C., at the time of a prolonged
and disastrous drought:--
Glorious was the Milky Way,
Revolving brightly in the sky,
When the king said, Alas!
What crime have my people committed now,
That God sends down death and disorder,
And famine comes upon us again?
There is no spirit to whom I have not sacrificed;
There is no victim that I have grudged;
Our sacrificial symbols are all used up;--
How is it that I am not heard?
The Confucian Criterion.--The keystone of the Confucian philosophy,
that man is born good, will be found in the following lines:--
How mighty is God!
How clothed in majesty is God,
And how unsearchable are His judgments!
God gives birth to the people,
But their natures are not constant;
All have the same beginning,
But few have the same end.
God, however, is not held responsible for the sufferings of mankind.
King Wen, in an address to the last tyrant of the House of Shang, says
It is not God who has caused this evil time,
But it is you who have strayed from the old paths.
The Associate of God.--Worshipped on certain occasions as the
Associate of God, and often summoned to aid in hours of distress or
danger, was a personage known as Hou Chi, said to have been the
original ancestor of the House of Chou. His story, sufficiently told
in the /Odes/, is curious for several reasons, and especially for an
instance in Chinese literature, which, in the absence of any known
husband, comes near suggesting the much-vexed question of
She who first gave birth to our people
Was the lady Chiang Yuan.
How did she give birth to them?
She offered up a sacrifice
That she might not be childless;
Then she trod in a footprint of God's, and conceived,
The great and blessed one,
Pregnant with a new birth to be,
And brought forth and nourished
Him who was Hou Chi.
When she had fulfilled her months,
Her firstborn came forth like a lamb.
There was no bursting, no rending,
No injury, no hurt,
In order to emphasise his divinity.
Did not God give her comfort?
Had He not accepted her sacrifice,
So that thus easily she brought forth her son?
He was exposed in a narrow lane,
But sheep and oxen protected and suckled him;
He was exposed in a wide forest,
But woodcutters found him;
He was exposed on cold ice,
But birds covered him with their wings.
Apotheosis of Hou Chi.--And so he grew to man's estate, and taught the
people husbandry, with a success that has never been rivalled.
Consequently, he was deified, and during several centuries of the Chou
dynasty was united in worship with God:--
O wise Hou Chi,
Fit Associate of our God,
Founder of our race,
There is none greater than thou!
Thou gavest us wheat and barley,
Which God appointed for our nourishment,
And without distinction of territory,
Didst inculcate the virtues over our vast dominions.
Other Deities.--During the long period covered by the Chou dynasty,
various other deities, of more or less importance, were called into
The patriarchal Emperor Shen Nung, B.C. 2838-2698, who had taught his
people to till the ground and eat of the fruits of their labour, was
deified as the tutelary genius of agriculture:--
That my fields are in such good condition
Is matter of joy to my husbandmen.
With lutes, and with drums beating,
We will invoke the Father of Husbandry,
And pray for sweet rain,
To increase the produce of our millet fields,
And to bless my men and their wives.
There were also sacrifices to the Father of War, whoever he may have
been; to the Spirits of Wind, Rain, and Fire; and even to a deity who
watched over the welfare of silkworms. Since those days, the number of
spiritual beings who receive worship from the Chinese, some in one
part of the empire, some in another, has increased enormously. A
single work, published in 1640, gives notices of no fewer than eight
Superstitions.--During the period under consideration, all kinds of
superstition prevailed; among others, that of referring to the
rainbow. The rainbow was believed by the vulgar to be an emanation
from an enormous oyster away in the great ocean which surrounded the
world, i.e. China. Philosophers held it to be the result of undue
proportions in the mixture of the two cosmogonical principles which
when properly blended produce the harmony of nature. By both parties
it was considered to be an inauspicious manifestation, and merely to
point at it would produce a sore on the hand.
Supernatural Manifestations.--Several events of a supernatural
character are recorded as having taken place under the Chou dynasty.
In B.C. 756, one of the feudal Dukes saw a vision of a yellow serpent
which descended from heaven and laid its head on the slope of a
mountain. The Duke spoke of this to his astrologer, who said, "It is a
manifestation of God; sacrifice to it."
In B.C. 747, another Duke found on a mountain a being in the semblance
of a stone. Sacrifices were at once offered, and the stone was
deified, and received regular worship from that time forward.
In B.C. 659, a third Duke was in a trance for five days, when he saw a
vision of God, and received from Him instructions as to matters then
pressing. For many generations afterwards the story ran that the Duke
had been up to Heaven. This became a favourite theme for romancers. It
is stated in the biography of a certain Feng Po that "one night he saw
the gate of heaven open, and beheld exceeding glory within, which
shone into his courtyard."
The following story is told by Huai-nan Tzu (d. B.C. 122):--"Once when
the Duke of Lu-yang was at war with the Han State, and sunset drew
near while a battle was still fiercely raging, the Duke held up his
spear and shook it at the sun, which forthwith went back three
Only the Emperor worships God and Earth.--From the records of this
period we can also see how jealously the worship of God and Earth was
reserved for the Emperor alone.
In B.C. 651, Duke Huan of the Ch'i State, one of the feudal nobles to
be mentioned later on, wished to signalise his accession to the post
of doyen or leader of the vassal States by offering the great
sacrifices to God and to Earth. He was, however, dissuaded from this
by a wise Minister, who pointed out that only those could perform
these ceremonies who had personally received the Imperial mandate from
This same Minister is said to be responsible for the following
"Duke Huan asked Kuan Chang, saying, To what should a prince attach
the highest importance? To God, replied the Minister; at which Duke
Huan gazed upwards to the sky. The God I mean, continued Kuan Chung,
is not the illimitable blue above. A true prince makes the people his
Sacrifices.--Much has been recorded by the Chinese on the subject of
sacrifice,--more indeed than can be easily condensed into a small
compass. First of all, there were the great sacrifices to God and to
Earth, at the winter and summer solstices respectively, which were
reserved for the Son of Heaven alone. Besides what may be called
private sacrifices, the Emperor sacrificed also to the four quarters,
and to the mountains and rivers of the empire; while the feudal nobles
sacrificed each to his own quarter, and to the mountains and rivers of
his own domain. The victim offered by the Emperor on a blazing pile of
wood was an ox of one colour, always a young animal; a feudal noble
would use any fatted ox; and a petty official a sheep or a pig. When
sacrificing to the spirits of the land and of grain, the Son of Heaven
used a bull, a ram, and a boar; the feudal nobles only a ram and a
boar; and the common people, scallions and eggs in spring, wheat and
fish in summer, millet and a sucking-pig in autumn, and unhulled rice
and a goose in winter. If there was anything infelicitous about the
victim intended for God, it was used for Hou Chi. The victim intended
for God required to be kept in a clean stall for three months; that
for Hou Chi simply required to be perfect in its parts. This was the
way in which they distinguished between heavenly and earthly spirits.
In primeval times, we are told, sacrifices consisted of meat and
drink, the latter being the "mysterious liquid," water, for which wine
was substituted later on. The ancients roasted millet and pieces of
pork; they made a hole in the ground and scooped the water from it
with their two hands, beating upon an earthen drum with a clay
drumstick. Thus they expressed their reverence for spiritual beings.
"Sacrifices," according to the /Book of Rites/ (Legge's translation),
"should not be frequently repeated. Such frequency is an indication of
importunateness; and importunateness is inconsistent with reverence.
Nor should they be at distant intervals. Such infrequency is
indicative of indifference; and indifference leads to forgetting them
altogether. Therefore the superior man, in harmony with the course of
Nature, offers the sacrifices of spring and autumn. When he treads on
the dew which has descended as hoar-frost he cannot help a feeling of
sadness, which arises in his mind, and which cannot be ascribed to the
cold. In spring, when he treads on the ground, wet with the rains and
dews that have fallen heavily, he cannot avoid being moved by a
feeling as if he were seeing his departed friends. We meet the
approach of our friends with music, and escort them away with sadness,
and hence at the sacrifice in spring we use music, but not at the
sacrifice in autumn."
"Sacrifice is not a thing coming to a man from without; it issues from
within him, and has its birth in his heart. When the heart is deeply
moved, expression is given to it by ceremonies; and hence, only men of
ability and virtue can give complete exhibition to the idea of
sacrifice." It was in this sense that Confucius warned his followers
not to sacrifice to spirits which did not belong to them, i.e. to
other than those of their own immediate ancestors. To do otherwise
would raise a suspicion of ulterior motives.
Ancestral Worship.--For the purpose of ancestral worship, which had
been practised from the earliest ages, the Emperor had seven shrines,
each with its altar representing various forefathers; and at all of
these a sacrifice was offered every month. Feudal nobles could have
only five sets of these, and the various officials three or fewer, on
a descending scale in proportion to their rank. Petty officers and the
people generally had no ancestral shrine, but worshipped the shades of
their forefathers as best they could in their houses and cottages.
For three days before sacrificing to ancestors, a strict vigil and
purification was maintained, and by the end of that time, from sheer
concentration of thought, the mourner was able to see the spirits of
the departed; and at the sacrifice next day seemed to hear their very
movements, and even the murmur of their sighs.
The object of the ceremony was to bring down the spirits from above,
together with the shades of ancestors, and thus to secure the blessing
of God; at the same time to please the souls of the departed, and to
create a link between the living and the dead.
"The object in sacrifices is not to pray; the time should not be
hastened on; a great apparatus is not required; ornamental details are
not to be approved; the victims need not be fat and large (cf. Horace,
Od. III, 23; /Immunis aram/, etc.); a profusion of the other offerings
is not to be admired." There must, however, be no parsimony. A high
official, well able to afford better things, was justly blamed for
having sacrificed to the manes of his father a sucking-pig which did
not fill the dish.
Religious Dances.--"The various dances displayed the gravity of the
performers, but did not awaken the emotion of delight. The ancestral
temple produced the impression of majesty, but did not dispose one to
rest on it. Its vessels might be employed, but could not be
conveniently used for any other purpose. The idea which leads to
intercourse with spiritual Beings is not interchangeable with that
which finds its realisation in rest and pleasure."
Priestcraft.--From the ceremonial of ancestor worship the thin end of
the wedge of priestcraft was rigorously excluded. "For the words of
prayer and blessing and those of benediction to be kept hidden away by
the officers of prayer of the ancestral temple, and by the sorcerers
and recorders, is a violation of the rules of propriety. This may be
called keeping in a state of darkness."
Confucius sums up the value of sacrifices in the following words. "By
their great sacrificial ceremonies the ancients served God; by their
ceremonies in the ancestral temple they worshipped their forefathers.
He who should understand the great sacrificial ceremonies, and the
meaning of the ceremonies in the ancestral temple, would find it as
easy to govern the empire as to look upon the palm of his hand."
Filial Piety.--Intimately connected with ancestral worship is the
practice of filial piety; it is in fact on filial piety that ancestral
worship is dependent for its existence. In early ages, sons sacrificed
to the manes of their parents and ancestors generally, in order to
afford some mysterious pleasure to the disembodied spirits. There was
then no idea of propitiation, of benefits to ensue. In later times,
the character of the sacrifice underwent a change, until a sentiment
of /do ut des/ became the real mainspring of the ceremony. Meanwhile,
Confucius had complained that the filial piety of his day only meant
the support of parents. "But," argued the Sage, "we support our dogs
and our horses; without reverence, what is there to distinguish one
from the other?" He affirmed that children who would be accounted
filial should give their parents no cause of anxiety beyond such
anxiety as might be occasioned by ill-health. Filial piety, he said
again, did not consist in relieving the parents of toil, or in setting
before them wine and food; it did consist in serving them while alive
according to the established rules, in burying them when dead
according to the established rules, and in sacrificing to them after
death, also according to the established rules. In another passage
Confucius declared that filial piety consists in carrying on the aims
of our forefathers, which really amounts to serving the dead as they
would have been served if alive.
Divination.--Divination seems to have been practised in China from the
earliest ages. The implements used were the shell of the tortoise,
spiritualised by the long life of its occupant, and the stalks of a
kind of grass, to which also spiritual powers had for some reason or
other been attributed. These were the methods, we are told, by which
the ancient Kings made their people revere spirits, obey the law, and
settle all their doubts. God gave these spiritual boons to mankind,
and the sages took advantage of them. "To explore what is complex, to
search out what is hidden, to hook up what lies deep, and to reach to
what is distant, thereby determining the issues for good or ill of all
events under the sky, and making all men full of strenuous endeavour,
there are no agencies greater than those of the stalks and the
In B.C. 2224, when the Emperor Shun wished to associate the Great Yu
with him in the government, the latter begged that recourse might be
had to divination, in order to discover the most suitable among the
Ministers for this exalted position. The Emperor refused, saying that
his choice had already been confirmed by the body of Ministers. "The
spirits too have signified their assent, the tortoise and grass having
both concurred. Divination, when fortunate, may not be repeated."
Sincerity, on which Confucius lays such especial stress, is closely
associated with success in divination. "Sincerity is of God;
cultivation of sincerity is of man. He who is naturally sincere is he
who hits his mark without effort, and without thinking apprehends. He
easily keeps to the golden mean; he is inspired. He who cultivates
sincerity is he who chooses what is good and holds fast to it.
"It is characteristic of the most entire sincerity to be able to
foreknow. When a State or a family is about to flourish, there are
sure to be happy omens; and when it is about to perish, there are sure
to be unpropitious omens. The events portended are set forth by the
divining-grass and the tortoise. When calamity or good fortune may be
about to come, the evil or the good will be foreknown by the perfectly
sincere man, who may therefore be compared with a spirit."
The tortoise and the grass have long since disappeared as instruments
of divination, which is now carried on by means of lots drawn from a
vase, with answers attached; by planchette; and by the /chiao/. The
last consists of two pieces of wood, anciently of stone, in the shape
of the two halves of a kidney bean. These are thrown into the air
before the altar in a temple,--Buddhist or Taoist, it matters nothing,
--with the following results. Two convex sides uppermost mean a
response indifferently good; two flat sides mean negative and bad; one
convex and one flat side mean that the prayer will be granted. This
form of divination, though widely practised at the present day, is by
no means of recent date. It was common in the Ch'u State, which was
destroyed B.C. 300, after four hundred and twenty years of existence.
Attitude of Confucius.--Under the influence of Confucius, B.C. 551-
479, the old order of things began to undergo a change. The Sage's
attitude of mind towards religion was one of a benevolent agnosticism,
as summed up in his famous utterance, "Respect the spirits, but keep
them at a distance." That he fully recognised the existence of a
spirit world, though admitting that he knew nothing about it, is
manifest from the following remarks of his:--
"How abundantly do spiritual beings display the powers that belong to
them! We look for, but do not see them; we listen for, but do not hear
them; yet they enter into all things, and there is nothing without
them. They cause all the people in the empire to fast and purify
themselves, and array themselves in their richest dresses, in order to
attend at their sacrifices. Then, like overflowing water, they seem to
be over the heads, and on the right and left, of their worshippers."
He believed that he himself was, at any rate to some extent, a prophet
of God, as witness his remarks when in danger from the people of
"After the death of King Wen, was not wisdom lodged in me? If God were
to destroy this wisdom, future generations could not possess it. So
long as God does not destroy this wisdom, what can the people of
K'uang do to me?"
Again, when Confucius cried, "Alas! there is no one that knows me,"
and a disciple asked what was meant, he replied, "I do not murmur
against God. I do not mumble against man. My studies lie low, and my
penetration lies high. But there is God; He knows me."
We know that Confucius fasted, and we know that "he sacrificed to the
spirits as though the spirits were present;" it is even stated that
"when a friend sent him a present, though it might be a carriage and
horses, unless it were flesh which had been used in sacrifice, he did
not bow." He declared that for a person in mourning food and music
were without flavour and charm; and whenever he saw anyone approaching
who was in mourning dress, even though younger than himself, he would
immediately rise from his seat. He believed in destiny; he was
superstitious, changing colour at a squall or at a clap of thunder;
and he even countenanced the ceremonies performed by villagers when
driving out evil spirits from their dwellings. He protested against
any attempt to impose on God. He said that "he who offends against God
has none to whom he can pray;" and when in an hour of sickness a
disciple asked to be allowed to pray for him, he replied, "My praying
has been for a long time." Yet he declined to speak to his disciples
of God, of spiritual beings or even of death and a hereafter, holding
that life and its problems were alone sufficient to tax the energies
of the human race. While not altogether ignoring man's duty towards
God, he subordinated it in every way to man's duty towards his
neighbour. He also did much towards weakening the personality of God,
for whom he invariably used /T'ien/, never /Shang Ti/, regarding Him
evidently more as an abstraction than as a living sentient Being, with
the physical attributes of man. Confucianism is therefore entirely a
system of morality, and not a religion.
It is also a curious fact that throughout the /Spring and Autumn/, or
Annals of the State of Lu, which extend from B.C. 722 to B.C. 484,
there is no allusion of any kind to the interposition of God in human
affairs, although a variety of natural phenomena are recorded, such as
have always been regarded by primitive peoples as the direct acts of
an angered or benevolent Deity. Lu was the State in which Confucius
was born, and its annals were compiled by the Sage himself; and
throughout these Annals the term God is never used except in
connection with the word "King," where it always has the sense of "by
the grace of God," and once where the suzerain is spoken of as "the
Son of God," or, as we usually phrase it, "the Son of Heaven."
How to bring rain.--In the famous Commentary by Tso-ch'iu Ming on the
/Spring and Autumn/, which imparts a human interest to the bald
entries set against each year of these annals, there are several
allusions to the Supreme Being. For instance, at a time of great
drought the Duke of Lu wished, in accordance with custom, to burn a
witch and a person in the last stage of consumption; the latter being
sometimes exposed in the sun so as to excite the compassion of God,
who would then cause rain to fall. A Minister vigorously protested
against this superstition, pointing out that the proper way to meet a
drought would be to reduce the quantity of food consumed, and to
practise rigid economy in all things. "What have these creatures to do
with the matter?" he asked. "If God had wished to put them to death,
He had better not have given them life. If they can really produce
drought, to burn them will only increase the calamity." The Duke
accordingly desisted; and although there was a famine, it is said to
have been less severe than usual.
In B.C. 523 there was a comet. A Minister said, "This broom-star
sweeps away the old, and brings in the new. The doings of God are
constantly attended by such appearances."
Under B.C. 532 we have the record of a stone speaking. The Marquis of
Lu enquired of his chief musician if this was a fact, and received the
following answer: "Stones cannot speak. Perhaps this one was possessed
by a spirit. If not, the people must have heard wrong. And yet it is
said that when things are done out of season, and discontents and
complaints are stirring among the people, then speechless things do
Human Sacrifices.--Human sacrifices appear to have been not altogether
unknown. The /Commentary/ tells us that in B.C. 637, in consequence of
a failure to appear and enter into a covenant, the Viscount of Tseng
was immolated by the people of the Chu State, to appease the wild
tribes of the east. The Minister of War protested: "In ancient times
the six domestic animals were not offered promiscuously in sacrifice;
and for small matters, the regular sacrificial animals were not used.
How then should we dare to offer up a man? Sacrifices are performed
for the benefit of men, who thus as it were entertain the spirits. But
if men sacrifice men, who will enjoy the offering?"
Again, in B.C. 529, the ruler of the Ch'u State destroyed the Ts'ai
State, and offered up the heir apparent as a victim. An officer said,
"This is inauspicious. If the five sacrificial animals may not be used
promiscuously, how much less can a feudal prince be offered up?"
The custom of burying live persons with the dead was first practised
in China in B.C. 580. It is said to have been suggested by an earlier
and more harmless custom of placing straw and wooden effigies in the
mausolea of the great. When the "First Emperor" died in B.C. 210, all
those among his wives who had borne no children were buried alive with
Praying for Rain.--From another Commentary on the /Spring and Autumn/,
by Ku-liang Shu, fourth century B.C., we have the following note on
Prayers for Rain, which are still offered up on occasions of drought,
but now generally through the medium of Taoist and Buddhist priests:--
"Prayers for rain should be offered up in spring and summer only; not
in autumn and winter. Why not in autumn and winter? Perhaps the
moisture of growing things is not then exhausted; neither has man
reached the limit of his skill. Why in spring and summer? Because time
is pressing and man's skill is of no further avail. How so? Because
without rain just then nothing could be made to grow; the crops would
fail, and famine ensue. But why wait until time is pressing, and man's
skill of no further avail? Because to pray for rain is the same thing
as asking a favour, and the ancients did not lightly ask favours. Why
so? Because they held it more blessed to give than to receive; and as
the latter excludes the former, the main object of man's life is taken
away. How is praying for rain asking a favour? It is a request that
God will do something for us. The divine men of old who had any
request to make to God were careful to prefer it in due season. At the
head of all his high officers of State, the prince would proceed in
person to offer up his prayer. He could not ask any one else to go as
Posthumous Honours for Confucius.--Before leaving Confucius, it is
necessary to add that now for many centuries he has been the central
figure and object of a cult as sincere as ever offered by man to any
being, human or divine. The ruler of Confucius' native State of Lu was
profoundly distressed by the Sage's death, and is said to have built a
shrine to commemorate his great worth, at which sacrifices were
offered at the four seasons. By the time however that the Chou dynasty
was drawing to its close (third century B.C.), it would be safe to say
that, owing to civil war and the great political upheaval generally,
the worship of Confucius was altogether discontinued. It certainly did
not flourish under the "First Emperor" (see /post/), and was only
revived in B.C. 195 by the first Emperor of the Han dynasty, who
visited the grave of Confucius in Shantung and sacrificed to his
spirit a pig, a sheep, and an ox. Fifty years later a temple was built
to Confucius at his native place; and in A.D. 72 his seventy-two
disciples were admitted to share in the worship, music being shortly
afterwards added to the ceremonial. Gradually, the people came to look
upon Confucius as a god, and women used to pray to him for children,
until the practice was stopped by Edict in A.D. 472. In 505, which
some consider to be the date of the first genuine Confucian Temple,
wooden images of the Sage were introduced; in 1530 these were
abolished, and inscribed tablets of wood, in use at the present day,
were substituted. In 555 temples were placed in all prefectural
cities; and later on, in all the important cities and towns of the
empire. In the second and eighth months of each year, before dawn,
sacrifices to Confucius are still celebrated with considerable
solemnity and pomp, including music and dances by bands of either
thirty-six or sixty-four performers.
Mencius and Confucianism.--Mencius, who lived B.C. 372-289, and
devoted himself to the task of spreading and consolidating the
Confucian teachings, made no attempt to lead back the Chinese people
towards their early beliefs in a personal God and in a spiritual world
beyond the ken of mortals. He observes in a general way that "those
who obey God are saved, while those who rebel against Him perish," but
his reference is to this life, and not to a future one. He also says
that those whom God destines for some great part, He first chastens by
suffering and toil. But perhaps his most original contribution will be
found in the following paragraph:--
"By exerting his mental powers to the full, man comes to understand
his own nature. When he understands his own nature, he understands
In all the above instances the term used for God is /T'ien/. Only in
one single passage does Mencius use /Shang Ti/:--"Though a man be
wicked, if he duly prepares himself by fasting and abstinence and
purification by water, he may sacrifice to God."
Ch'u Yuan.--The statesman-poet Ch'u Yuan, B.C. 332-295, who drowned
himself in despair at his country's outlook, and whose body is still
searched for annually at the Dragon-Boat festival, frequently alludes
to a Supreme Being:--
Almighty God, Thou who art impartial,
And dost appoint the virtuous among men as Thy Assistants.
One of his poems is entitled "God Questions," and consists of a number
of questions on various mysteries in the universe. The meaning of the
title would be better expressed by "Questions put to God," but we are
told that such a phrase was impossible on account of the holiness of
God and the irreverence of questioning Him. One question was, "Who has
handed down to us an account of the beginning of all things, and how
do we know anything about the time when heaven and earth were without
form?" Another question was, "As Nu-ch'i had no husband, how could she
bear nine sons?" The /Commentary/ tells us that Nu-ch'i was a "divine
maiden," but nothing more seems to be known about her.
The following prose passage is taken from Ch'u Yuan's biography:--
"Man came originally from God, just as the individual comes from his
parents. When his span is at an end, he goes back to that from which
he sprang. Thus it is that in the hour of bitter trial and exhaustion,
there is no man but calls to God, just as in his hours of sickness and
sorrow every one of us will turn to his parents."
The great sacrifices to God and to Earth, as performed by the early
rulers of China, had been traditionally associated with Mount T'ai, in
the modern province of Shantung, one of China's five sacred mountains.
Accordingly, in B.C. 219, the self-styled "First Emperor," desirous of
restoring the old custom, which had already fallen into desuetude,
proceeded to the summit of Mount T'ai, where he is said to have
carried out his purpose, though what actually took place was always
kept a profound secret. The literati, however, whom the First Emperor
had persecuted by forbidding any further study of the Confucian Canon,
and burning all the copies he could lay hands on, gave out that he had
been prevented from performing the sacrifices by a violent storm of
rain, alleging as a reason that he was altogether deficient in the
virtue required for such a ceremony.
It may be added that in B.C. 110 the then reigning Emperor proceeded
to the summit of Mount T'ai, and performed the great sacrifice to God,
following this up by sacrificing to Earth on a hill at the foot of the
mountain. At the ceremony he was dressed in yellow robes, and was
accompanied by music. During the night there was light, and a white
cloud hung over the altar. The Emperor himself declared that he saw a
dazzling glory, and heard a voice speaking to him. The truthful
historian--the Herodotus of China--who has left an account of these
proceedings, accompanied the Emperor on this and other occasions; he
was also present at the sacrifices offered before the departure of the
mission, and has left it on record that he himself actually heard the
voices of spirits.
Lao Tzu.--Meanwhile, other influences had been helping to divert the
attention of the Chinese people from the simple worship of God and of
the powers of nature. The philosophy associated with the name of Lao
Tzu, who lived nobody knows when,--probably about B.C. 600--which is
popularly known as Taoism, from Tao, the omnipresent, omnipotent, and
unthinkable principle on which it is based, operated with
Confucianism, though in an opposite direction, in dislimning the old
faith while putting nothing satisfactory in its place. Confucianism,
with its shadowy monotheistic background, was at any rate a practical
system for everyday use, and it may be said to contain all the great
ethical truths to be found in the teachings of Christ. Lao Tzu harped
upon a doctrine of Inaction, by virtue of which all things were to be
accomplished,--a perpetual accommodation of self to one's
surroundings, with the minimum of effort, all progress being
spontaneous and in the line of least resistance. Such a system was
naturally far better fitted for the study, where in fact it has always
remained, than for use in ordinary life.
In one of the few genuine utterances of Lao Tzu which have survived
the wreck of time, we find an allusion to a spiritual world.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to say exactly what the passage means.
According to Han Fei (died B.C. 233), who wrote several chapters to
elucidate the sayings of Lao Tzu, the following is the correct
"Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish (i.e. do not
"If the empire is governed according to Tao, evil spirits will not be
worshipped as good ones.
"If evil spirits are not worshipped as good ones, good ones will do no
injury. Neither will the Sages injure the people. Each will not injure
the other. And if neither injures the other, then there will be mutual
The latter portion is explained by another commentator as follows:--
"Spirits do not hurt the natural. If people are natural, spirits have
no means of manifesting themselves; and if spirits do not manifest
themselves, we are not conscious of their existence as such. Likewise,
if we are not conscious of the existence of spirits as such, we must
be equally unconscious of the existence of inspired teachers as such;
and to be unconscious of the existence of spirits and of inspired
teachers is the very essence of Tao."
Adumbrations of Heracleitus.--In the hands of Lao Tzu's more immediate
followers, Tao became the Absolute, the First Cause, and finally One
in whose obliterating unity all seemingly opposed conditions of time
and space were indistinguishably blended. This One, the source of
human life, was placed beyond the limits of our visible universe; and
in order for human life to return thither at death and to enjoy
immortality, it was only necessary to refine away corporeal grossness
according to the doctrines of Lao Tzu. Later on, this One came to be
regarded as a fixed point of dazzling luminosity, in remote ether,
around which circled for ever and ever, in the supremest glory of
motion, the souls of those who had successfully passed through the
ordeal of life, and who had left the slough of humanity behind them.
The final state is best described by a poet of the ninth century
Like a whirling water-wheel,
Like rolling pearls,--
Yet how are these worthy to be named?
They are but illustrations for fools.
There is the mighty axis of Earth,
The never-resting pole of Heaven;
Let us grasp their clue,
And with them be blended in One,
Beyond the bounds of thought,
Circling for ever in the great Void,
An orbit of a thousand years,--
Yes, this is the key to my theme.
Debased Taoism.--This view naturally suggested the prolongation of
earthly life by artificial means; hence the search for an elixir,
carried on through many centuries by degenerate disciples of Taoism.
But here we must pass on to consider some of the speculations on God,
life, death, and immortality, indulged in by Taoist philosophers and
others, who were not fettered, as the Confucianists were, by
traditional reticence on the subject of spirits and an unseen
Spirits must exist.--Mo Tzu, a philosopher of the fourth and fifth
centuries B.C., was arguing one day for the existence of spirits with
a disbelieving opponent. "All you have to do," he said, "is to go into
any village and make enquiries. From of old until now the people have
constantly seen and heard spiritual beings; how then can you say they
do not exist? If they had never seen nor heard them, could people say
that they existed?" "Of course," replied the disbeliever, "many people
have seen and heard spirits; but is there any instance of a properly
verified appearance?" Mo Tzu then told a long story of how King Hsuan,
B.C. 827-781, unjustly put to death a Minister, and how the latter had
said to the King, "If there is no consciousness after death, this
matter will be at an end; but if there is, then within three years you
will hear from me." Three years later, at a grand durbar, the Minister
descended from heaven on a white horse, and shot the King dead before
the eyes of all.
Traces of Mysticism.--Chuang Tzu, the famous philosopher of the third
and fourth centuries B.C., and exponent of the Tao of Lao Tzu, has the
following allusions to God, of course as seen through Taoist
"God is a principle which exists by virtue of its own intrinsicality,
and operates spontaneously without self-manifestation.
"He who knows what God is, and what Man is, has attained. Knowing what
God is, he knows that he himself proceeded therefrom. Knowing what Man
is, he rests in the knowledge of the known, waiting for the knowledge
of the unknown.
"The ultimate end is God. He is manifested in the laws of nature. He
is the hidden spring. At the beginning of all things, He was."
Taoism, however, does not seem to have succeeded altogether, any more
than Confucianism, in altogether estranging the Chinese people from
their traditions of a God, more or less personal, whose power was the
real determining factor in human events. The great general Hsiang Yu,
B.C. 233-202, said to his charioteer at the battle which proved fatal
to his fortunes, "I have fought no fewer than seventy fights, and have
gained dominion over the empire. That I am now brought to this pass is
because God has deserted me."
Yang Hsiung.--Yang Hsiung was a philosopher who flourished B.C. 53-
A.D. 18. He taught that the nature of man at birth is neither good nor
evil, but a mixture of both, and that development in either direction
depends wholly upon environment. To one who asked about God, he
replied, "What have I to do with God? Watch how without doing anything
He does all things." To another who said, "Surely it is God who
fashions and adorns all earthly forms," he replied, "Not so; if God in
an earthly sense were to fashion and adorn all things, His strength
would not be adequate to the task."
Wang Ch'ung.--Wang Ch'ung, A.D. 27-97, denies that men after death
live again as spiritual beings on earth. "Animals," he argues, "do not
become spirits after death; why should man alone undergo this change?
. . . That which informs man at birth is vitality, and at death this
vitality is extinguished. Vitality is produced by the pulsations of
the blood; when these cease, vitality is extinguished, the body
decays, and becomes dust. How can it become a spirit? . . . When a man
dies, his soul ascends to heaven, and his bones return (/kuei/) to
earth; therefore he is spoken of as a disembodied spirit (/kuei/), the
latter word really meaning that which has returned. . . . Vitality
becomes humanity, just as water becomes ice. The ice melts and is
water again; man dies and reverts to spirituality. . . . The spirits
which people see are invariably in the form of human beings, and that
very fact is enough of itself to prove that these apparitions cannot
be the souls of dead men. If a sack is filled with grain, it will
stand up, and is obviously a sack of grain; but if the sack is burst
and the grain falls out, then it collapses and disappears from view.
Now, man's soul is enfolded in his body as grain in a sack. When he
dies his body decays and his vitality is dissipated; and if when the
grain is taken away the sack loses its form, why, when the vitality is
gone, should the body obtain a new shape in which to appear again in
the world? . . . The number of persons who have died since the world
began, old, middle-aged, and young, must run into thousands of
millions, far exceeding the number of persons alive at the present
day. If every one of these has become a disembodied spirit, there must
be at least one to every yard as we walk along the road; and those who
die must now suddenly find themselves face to face with vast crowds of
spirits, filling every house and street. . . . People say that spirits
are the souls of dead men. That being the case, spirits should always
appear naked, for surely it is not contended that clothes have souls
as well as men. . . . It can further be shown not only that dead men
never become spirits, but also that they are without consciousness, by
the fact that before birth they are without consciousness. Before
birth man rests in the First Cause; when he dies he goes back to the
First Cause. The First Cause is vague and without form, and man's soul
is there in a state of unconsciousness. At death the soul reverts to
its original state: how then can it possess consciousness? . . . As a
matter of fact, the universe is full of disembodied spirits, but these
are not the souls of dead men. They are beings only of the mind,
conjured up for the most part in sickness, when the patient is
especially subject to fear. For sickness induces fear of spirits; fear
of spirits causes the mind to dwell upon them; and thus apparitions
Another writer enlarges on the view that /kuei/ "disembodied spirit"
is the same as /kuei/ "to return." "At death, man's soul returns to
heaven, his flesh to earth, his blood to water, his blood-vessels to
marshes, his voice to thunder, his motion to the wind, his sleep to
the sun and moon, his bones to trees, his muscles to hills, his teeth
to stones, his fat to dew, his hair to grass, while his breath returns
Attributes of God.--There was a certain philosopher, named Ch'in Mi
(died A.D. 226), whose services were much required by the King of Wu,
who sent an envoy to fetch him. The envoy took upon himself to
catechise the philosopher, with the following result:--
"You are engaged in study, are you not?" asked the envoy.
"Any slip of a boy may be that," replied Ch'in; "why not I?"
"Has God a head?" said the envoy.
"He has," was the reply.
"Where is He?" was the next question.
"In the West. The /Odes/ say,
He gazed fondly on the West,
From which it may be inferred that his head was in the West."
"Has God got ears?"
"God sits on high," replied Ch'in, "but hears the lowly. The /Odes/
The crane cries in the marsh,
And its cry is heard by God.
If He had not ears, how could He hear it?"
"Has God feet?" asked the envoy.
"He has," replied Ch'in. "The /Odes/ say,
The steps of God are difficult;
This man does not follow them.
If He had no feet, how could He step?"
"Has God a surname?" enquired the envoy. "And if so, what is it?"
"He has a surname," said Ch'in, "and it is Liu."
"How do you know that?" rejoined the other.
"The surname of the Emperor, who is the Son of Heaven, is Liu,"
replied Ch'in; "and that is how I know it."
These answers, we are told, came as quickly as echo after sound. A
writer of the ninth century A.D., when reverence for the one God of
ancient China had been to a great extent weakened by the
multiplication of inferior deities, tells a story how this God, whose
name was Liu, had been displaced by another God whose name was Chang.
The /Hsing ying tsa lu/ has the following story. There was once a very
poor scholar, who made it his nightly practice to burn incense and
pray to God. One evening he heard a voice from above, saying, "God has
been touched by your earnestness, and has sent me to ask what you
require." "I wish," replied the scholar, "for clothes and food, coarse
if you will, sufficient for my necessities in this life, and to be
able to roam, free from care, among the mountains and streams, until I
complete my allotted span; that is all." "All!" cried the voice, amid
peals of laughter from the clouds. "Why, that is the happiness enjoyed
by the spirits in heaven; you can't have that. Ask rather for wealth
Good and Evil.--It has already been stated that the Chinese
imagination has never conceived of an Evil One, deliverance from whom
might be secured by prayer. The existence of evil in the abstract has
however received some attention.
Wei Tao Tzu asked Yu Li Tzu, saying, "Is it true that God loves good
and hates evil?"
"It is," replied Yu.
"In that case," rejoined Wei, "goodness should abound in the Empire
and evil should be scarce. Yet among birds, kites and falcons
outnumber phoenixes; among beasts, wolves are many and unicorns are
few; among growing plants, thorns are many and cereals are few; among
those who eat cooked food and stand erect, the wicked are many and the
virtuous are few; and in none of these cases can you say that the
latter are evil and the former good. Can it be possible that what man
regards as evil, God regards as good, and /vice versa/? Is it that God
is unable to determine the characteristics of each, and lets each
follow its own bent and develop good or evil accordingly? If He allows
good men to be put upon, and evil men to be a source of fear, is not
this to admit that God has His likes and dislikes? From of old until
now, times of misgovernment have always exceeded times of right
government; and when men of principle have contended with the ignoble,
the latter have usually won. Where then is God's love of good and
hatred of evil?"
Yu Li Tzu had no answer to make.
The /Tan yen tsa lu/ says, "If the people are contented and happy, God
is at peace in His mind. When God is at peace in His mind, the two
great motive Powers act in harmony."
Where is God?--The /Pi ch'ou/ says, "The empyrean above you is not
God; it is but His outward manifestation. That which remains ever
fixed in man's heart and which rules over all things without cease,
that is God. Alas, you earnestly seek God in the blue sky, while
forgetting Him altogether in your hearts. Can you expect your prayers
to be answered?"
This view--"For behold, the kingdom of God is within you," St. Luke
xvii. 21,--has been brought out by the philosopher Shao Yung, A.D.
1011-1077, in the following lines:--
The heavens are still: no sound.
Where then shall God be found? . . .
Search not in distant skies;
In man's own heart He lies.
Conflict of Faiths.--Han Wen-kung, A.D. 768-824, the eminent
philosopher, poet, and statesman, who suffered banishment for his
opposition to the Buddhist religion, complains that, "of old there was
but one faith; now there are three,"--meaning Confucianism, Buddhism,
and Taoism. He thus pictures the simplicity of China's ancient
"Their clothes were of cloth or of silk. They dwelt in palaces or in
ordinary houses. They ate grain and vegetables and fruit and fish and
flesh. Their method was easy of comprehension: their doctrines were
easily carried into practice. Hence their lives passed pleasantly
away, a source of satisfaction to themselves, a source of benefit to
mankind. At peace within their own hearts, they readily adapted
themselves to the necessities of the family and of the State. Happy in
life, they were remembered after death. Their sacrifices were grateful
to the God of Heaven, and the spirits of the departed rejoiced in the
honours of ancestral worship."
His mind seems to have been open on the subject of a future state. In
a lamentation on the death of a favourite nephew, he writes,
"If there is knowledge after death, this separation will be but for a
little while. If there is no knowledge after death, so will this
sorrow be but for a little while, and then no more sorrow for ever."
His views as to the existence of spirits on this earth are not very
"If there is whistling among the rafters, and I take a light but fail
to see anything,--is that a spirit? It is not; for spirits are
soundless. If there is something in the room, and I look for it but
cannot see it,--is that a spirit? It is not; spirits are formless. If
something brushes against me, and I grab at, but do not seize it,--is
that a spirit? It is not; for if spirits are soundless and formless,
how can they have substance?
"If then spirits have neither sound nor form nor substance, are they
consequently non-existent? Things which have form without sound exist
in nature; for instance, earth, and stones. Things which have sound
without form exist in nature; for instance, wind, and thunder. Things
which have both sound and form exist in nature; for instance, men, and
animals. And things which have neither sound nor form also exist in
nature; for instance, disembodied spirits and angels."
For his own poetical spirit, according to the funeral elegy written
some two hundred and fifty years after his death, a great honour was
Above in heaven there was no music, and God was sad,
And summoned him to his place beside the Throne.
His friend and contemporary, Liu Tsung-yuan, a poet and philosopher
like himself, was tempted into the following reflections by the
contemplation of a beautiful landscape which he discovered far from
the beaten track:--
"Now, I have always had my doubts about the existence of a God; but
this scene made me think He really must exist. At the same time,
however, I began to wonder why He did not place it in some worthy
centre of civilisation, rather than in this out-of-the-way barbarous
region, where for centuries there has been no one to enjoy its beauty.
And so, on the other hand, such waste of labour and incongruity of
position disposed me to think that there could not be a God after
Letter from God.--In A.D. 1008 there was a pretended revelation from
God in the form of a letter, recalling the letter from Christ on the
neglect of the Sabbath mentioned by Roger of Wendover and Hoveden,
contemporary chroniclers. The Emperor and his Court regarded this
communication with profound awe; but a high official of the day said,
"I have learnt (from the Confucian Discourses) that God does not even
speak; how then should He write a letter?"
Modern Materialism.--The philosopher and commentator, Chu Hsi, A.D.
1130-1200, whose interpretations of the Confucian Canon are the only
ones now officially recognised, has done more than any one since
Confucius himself to disseminate a rigid materialism among his fellow-
countrymen. The "God" of the Canon is explained away as an "Eternal
Principle;" the phenomena of the universe are attributed to Nature,
with its absurd personification so commonly met with in Western
writers; and spirits generally are associated with the perfervid
imaginations of sick persons and enthusiasts.
"Is consciousness dispersed after death, or does it still exist?" said
"It is not dispersed," replied Chu Hsi; "it is at an end. When
vitality comes to an end, consciousness comes to an end with it."
He got into more trouble over the verse quoted earlier,
King Wen is on high,
In glory in heaven.
His comings and his goings
Are to and from the presence of God.
"If it is asserted," he argued, "that King Wen was really in the
presence of God, and that there really is such a Being as God, He
certainly cannot have the form in which He is represented by the clay
or wooden images in vogue. Still, as these statements were made by the
Prophets of old, there must have been some foundation for them."
There is, however, a certain amount of inconsistency in his writings
on the supernatural, for in another passage he says,
"When God is about to send down calamities upon us, He first raises up
the hero whose genius shall finally prevail against those calamities."
Sometimes he seems to be addressing the educated Confucianist; at
other times, the common herd whose weaknesses have to be taken into
BUDDHISM AND OTHER RELIGIONS
So early as the third century B.C., Buddhism seems to have appeared in
China, though it was not until the latter part of the first century
A.D. that a regular propaganda was established, and not until a
century or two later still that this religion began to take a firm
hold of the Chinese people. It was bitterly opposed by the Taoists,
and only after the lapse of many centuries were the two doctrines able
to exist side by side in peace. Each religion began early to borrow
from the other. In the words of the philosopher Chu Hsi, of the
twelfth century, "Buddhism stole the best features of Taoism; Taoism
stole the worst features of Buddhism. It is as though one took a jewel
from the other, and the loser recouped the loss with a stone."
From Buddhism the Taoists borrowed their whole scheme of temples,
priests, nuns, and ritual. They drew up liturgies to resemble the
Buddhist /Sutras/, and also prayers for the dead. They adopted the
idea of a Trinity, consisting of Lao Tzu, P'an Ku, and the Ruler of
the Universe; and they further appropriated the Buddhist Purgatory
with all its frightful terrors and tortures after death.
Nowadays it takes an expert to distinguish between the temples and
priests of the two religions, and members of both hierarchies are
often simultaneously summoned by persons needing religious consolation
or ceremonial of any kind.
Doubts.--In a chapter on "Doubts," by the Taoist philosopher Mou Tzu,
"Some one said to Mou, The Buddhist doctrine teaches that when men die
they are born again. I cannot believe this.
"When a man is at the point of death, replied Mou, his family mount
upon the house-top and call to him to stay. If he is already dead, to
whom do they call?
"They call his soul, said the other.
"If the soul comes back, the man lives, answered Mou; but if it does
not, whither does it go?
"It becomes a disembodied spirit, was the reply.
"Precisely so, said Mou. The soul is imperishable; only the body
decays, just as the stalks of corn perish, while the grain continues
for ever and ever. Did not Lao Tzu say, 'The reason why I suffer so
much is because I have a body'?
"But all men die whether they have found the truth or not, urged the
questioner; what then is the difference between them?
"That, replied Mou, is like considering your reward before you have
put in right conduct for a single day. If a man has found the truth,
even though he dies, his spirit will go to heaven; if he has led an
evil life his spirit will suffer everlastingly. A fool knows when a
thing is done, but a wise man knows beforehand. To have found the
truth and not to have found it are as unlike as gold and leather; good
and evil, as black and white. How then can you ask what is the
Buddhism, which forbids the slaughter of any living creature, has
wisely abstained from denouncing the sacrifice of victims at the
Temple of Heaven and at the Confucian Temple. But backed by
Confucianism it denounces the slaughter for food of the ox which tills
the soil. Some lines of doggerel to this effect, based upon the
Buddhist doctrine of the transmigration of souls and put into the
mouth of an ox, have been rendered as follows:--
My murderers shall come to grief,
Along with all who relish beef;
When I'm a man and you're a cow,
I'll eat you as you eat me now.
Fire Worshippers.--Mazdeism, the religion of Zoroaster, based upon the
worship of fire, and in that sense not altogether unfamiliar to the
Chinese, reached China some time in the seventh century A.D. The first
temple was built at Ch'ang-an, the capital, in 621, ten years after
which came the famous missionary, Ho Lu the Magus. But the lease of
life enjoyed by this religion was of short duration.
Islamism.--Mahometans first settled in China in the year of the
Mission, A.D. 628, under Wahb-Abi-Kabcha, a maternal uncle of Mahomet,
who was sent with presents to the Emperor. The first mosque was built
at Canton, where, after several restorations, it still exists. There
is at present a very large Mahometan community in China, chiefly in
the province of Yunnan. These people carry on their worship
unmolested, on the sole condition that in each mosque there shall be
exhibited a small tablet with an inscription, the purport of which is
recognition of allegiance to the reigning Emperor.
Nestorians.--In A.D. 631 the Nestorian Church introduced Christianity
into China, under the title of "The Luminous Doctrine;" and in 636
Nestorian missionaries were allowed to settle at the capital. In 781
the famous Nestorian Tablet, with a bilingual inscription in Chinese
and Syriac, was set up at Si-ngan Fu, where it still remains, and
where it was discovered in 1625 by Father Semedo, long after
Nestorianism had altogether disappeared, leaving not a rack behind.
Manichaeans.--In A.D. 719 an ambassador from Tokharestan arrived at
the capital. He was accompanied by one Ta-mou-she, who is said to have
taught the religion of the Chaldean Mani, or Manes, who died about
A.D. 274. In 807 the Manichaean sect made formal application to be
allowed to have recognised places of meeting; shortly after which they
too disappear from history.
Judaism.--The Jews, known to the Chinese as those who "take out the
sinew," from their peculiar method of preparing meat, are said by some
to have reached China, and to have founded a colony in Honan, shortly
after the Captivity, carrying the Pentateuch with them. Three
inscriptions on stone tablets are still extant, dated 1489, 1512, and
1663, respectively. The first says the Jews came to China during the
Sung dynasty; the second, during the Han dynasty; and the third,
during the Chou dynasty. The first is probably the correct account. We
know that the Jews built a synagogue at K'ai-feng Fu in A.D. 1164,
where they were discovered by Ricci in the seventeenth century, and
where, in 1850, there were still to be found traces of the old faith,
now said to be completely effaced.
Christianity.--With the advent of the Jesuit Fathers in the sixteenth
century, and of the Protestant missionaries, Marshman and Morrison, in
1799 and 1807 respectively, we pass gradually down to the present day,
where we may well pause and look around to see what remains to the
modern Chinese of their ancient faiths. It is scarcely too much to say
that all idea of the early God of their forefathers has long since
ceased to vivify their religious instincts, though the sacrifices to
God and to Earth are still annually performed by the Emperor.
Ancestor-worship, and the cult of Confucius, are probably very much
what they were many hundreds of years ago; while Taoism, once a pure
philosophy, is now a corrupt religion. As to alien faiths, the
Buddhism of China would certainly not be recognised by the Founder of
Buddhism in India; Mahometanism is fairly flourishing; Christianity is
still bitterly opposed.
Legendary Period (Twenty-ninth Century to Tenth Century B.C.)--P'an Ku
and Creation--First Worship of Spirits--Worship of God, with incense--
Sacrifices to Mountains and Rivers--Worship of Sun, Moon, and Stars--
Institution of Ancestral Worship--God enjoys music, dancing, and burnt
offerings--God resents bad government--Revelation in a Dream--
Anthropomorphism--Fetishism--No Devil--No Hell--Terms for God--The
Character for "God" is a picture of a Man--God and Jehovah--God in the
/Odes/--Hou Chi and Parthenogenesis--Superstitions and Supernatural
Manifestations--Sacrifice--Ancestral Worship--Filial Piety.
Feudal Age (Tenth Century to Third Century B.C.)--The Influence of
Confucianism--His Agnosticism--Weakening of Supernatural Beliefs--
Consolidation of Confucianism--Human Sacrifices--Prayers for Rain--The
Philosophy of Taoism--A Rival to Confucianism--But uniting to weaken
the old Monotheistic Faith--Its Theory of Spirits--Modifications of
Taoism--The Elixir of Life--Evidences of a Spiritual World--Mysticism.
The Empire (Third Century B.C. to modern times)--Arguments against a
Spiritual World--Attributes of God--Good and Evil--Buddhism appears--
Conflict of Faiths--Struggle between Buddhism and Taoism--Taoism
borrows from Buddhism and becomes a Religion--Mazdeism appears--
Followed closely by Mahometanism, Nestorian Christianity, and
Manichaeism--Mahometanism alone survived--Jews arrived about Eleventh
Century A.D.--Chu Hsi materialised the Confucian Canon--Henceforward
Agnosticism the rule for /literati/--Buddhism and Taoism (both
debased) for the Masses--The Jesuits arrive in the Sixteenth Century--
Protestant Missionaries date from 1799.
SELECTED WORKS BEARING ON THE RELIGIONS OF CHINA
Religion in China. Joseph Edkins, D.D.
The Religions of China. James Legge, D.D.
The Dragon, Image and Demon, or the three Religions of China. Rev. H.
C. du Bose.
Les Religions de la Chine. C. de Harbez.
The Religious System of China: Its ancient forms, evolution, history,
etc. J. J. de Groot, Ph.D.
The Sacred Books of China. James Legge, D.D.
Chinese Buddhism. Joseph Edkins, D.D.
Le Shinntoisme. Michel Revon.