Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Ancient Chinese Spirituality

Early Chinese script on a Shang oracle bone

On Tuesday the 14th of March Jennifer Raper led discussion on ancient Chinese spirituality as part of this year’s Carmelite Library Spiritual Reading Group program. Here is an edited version of her words at that session.

I thought I would anchor this talk around three 'posts'

1.      How much do we know about the “ancient” Chinese people?  “China” is a fairly new name for the empire – the Romans and the Greeks knew it as 'Seres” (land of silk), Marco Polo refers to the empire as “Cathay” and in 1516 CE in Barbarosa's travel account he calls it 'China' – which comes from a Sanskrit word 'Chin'.

2.      From the artefacts, divination relics and prototype writing we know quite a lot about the spiritual beliefs and rituals as early as around  3000 BCE years

3.      Lao-Tze (d. 531 BCE) who emerged as a spiritual teacher of “The Way” and perhaps the earliest writer of the I-Ching and other classics.

As you can hear, I have not included Confucius.  His teachings, profound and influential though they were, were less about personal spirituality and more about personal behaviour, responsibility and loyalties.

No matter how we see ourselves as 'modern people' it is difficult to take ourselves back to very ancient human life and make a connection!  We know that physically they were much like us and became more like us as the centuries passed and peoples moved around the continents, breeding with those human types they came to live with.  What we do not know is exactly how like us they were in intellect, imagination, creativity or emotions.

Modern archaeology has given us artefacts, 'human remains', burial rites and artistic creations to look upon and ponder.  Did they think like us?  Did they act like us?  Did they know anything of what we know?  Did they have spiritual beliefs and practices which we could follow and understand?

William James, a nineteenth century American physician, philosopher and one of the first modern psychologists, argued that religion was about religious experience,  he believed that our spiritual self was the real self at its core. He was interested in mysticism and his conclusion was that only the mystic could know their own experience.

Karen Armstrong, who calls herself a Historian of Religions, argues in her book “The Case for God” (2009) that humans, as far back as can be traced, have developed beliefs and rites to appease the 'gods', ensure the food supply the continuation of their food supplies in this world and the next and the survival of the next generation. 

Modern neuroscientist, Rene J. Muller, in Psychiatric Times, 2012, argues that a belief in God is actually in our genes and '….that thinking about God changes the way the brain works'.  However, in the same journal David L Smith, Catholic psychologist, points that if this is so, then agnostics have a defective gene and it is absent in atheists.

So, to ancient China – did they believe in a God or Gods and did they develop religious rites to underpin these beliefs?  We can only search the relics and attempt to stay with their history and beliefs without an overlay of modern sensibilities!  These relics are about the rulers and the ruling classes – the warriors and scholars, not about the ordinary mass of the people. 


The 'people' lived in small villages around the periphery of the 'city', much like the medieval castles and villages in Europe.  Their job was to grow food and make clothing and so their lives were linked to the seasons and to ensuring the next generation.  Their lives were 'nasty, short and brutish' (John Locke) and their spiritual lives centred on ensuring good harvests by worshipping and calling on the gods of the seasons, the sun, the rain, the winds, metal, wood and water, etc and appeasing the gods to keep away plagues, floods, droughts, earthquakes, etc.  Almost certainly, they resorted to human sacrifices in their attempts to keep balance in their lives. I cannot imagine the daily and seasonal grind for the peoples, I can only acknowledge the truth of the record!  For instance, some believe the idea of the Yin and Yang came from the yearly cycle of heat and cold.  In the heat (light) harvests were planted and harvested and in the dark (cold) they stayed indoors and made fabrics and clothing. It is fascinating to ponder on how much of the religious beliefs and rituals came through the lived experience of the people in the villages and how much through the political implications of the spiritual beliefs and rites of the governing classes in the 'city'.

We do know now that humanoids lived in the Yellow River basin millions of years ago. The Human Origins Program of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, seeking evidence of pre-humans and humans across the continents cites the findings of tools in the fossil beds or  Nihewan Basin (west of Beijing) – the recovery of tools starting from 1,66 to 1,32 million years old.

These tools have survived the aeons because they are chipped from stone.   Until very recently it was thought nothing of such early significance in Asia existed  until the discovery of a 4,000 year old fortress in 1976 in Shananzi Province.  In 2010 further archaeological work discovered that it was actually built around 4,300 BCE and was a large city – which was abandoned around 4,000 BCE, during the Xia Dynasty – the first Chinese dynasty to be chronicled.

The religious beliefs and practices of these ancient Chinese people are shrouded in the past.  Evidence does exist that they practiced divination – heating the shoulder bone of an ox or a turtle shell and interpreting the sounds and shapes of the cracks which appeared. Gradually, these cracks were inscribed on tablets in marks to mimic the cracks, eventually these marks evolved into characters.

They believed in the afterlife of the soul and buried their dead with some ceremony, placing jars of food, jewellery and other useful objects for the soul's journey.  Some scholars believe, even at this early stage of development, they worshipped their ancestors.  In the ruins of cities that arose around 6,000 years ago, thousands of divination “oracle” bones give evidence of a civilization.  However, the traditional record of the Xia Dynasty (c 2700-1600BCE) is the earliest dynasty of which written evidence has been found. The Xia kings possessed great power, both temporal and religious.  

According to the legends one King, (the dates shift about!) the great Yellow Emperor had fixed the courses of the sun, moon and stars, maintained the natural order by travelling around his territories following the sun.  Another King, Shen Song had invented agriculture and two wise Kings, Yao and Shun had established a golden age of peace an prosperity.  Shun had also subdued the terrible floods by arranging the building of canals, taming of the marshes and led the rivers to the sea in an orderly fashion.

The Sh'ang royal family knew these stories and developed the notion of the ancestral cult to ensure prosperity.  The King alone could perform the rites to the royal family's ancestors and the seasonal rites to ensure good harvests and keep natural disasters at by. They organised their society with strict hierarchy – a tradition which flowed down the ages in China. However, the ancestral worship ceremonies became increasingly lavish, especially those around funerals of the Kings – the Sons of Heaven.  They came to worship one supreme god – Shangdi – who presided over human affairs 


from a remote heaven. They developed the belief that after death a person lived on in another form in another place, but they could be 'called upon' to assist.  From this came the system of complex rituals to appease the spirits of the 'ancestors' – leading to highly ritualized burials with rich burials goods being laid in the tomb for the afterlife.  The Shang King's main duty was to carry out these rituals for his ancestors based on a complex series of occasions to ensure the dynasty's, and thus the whole of society's, survival.
Read K Armstrong p. 33

These Sh'ang Kings seem to have become more and more harsh in their treatment of the people and cruelty and violence became commonplace and it seemed to people that the god Di – the father of the King, had run out of patience with the Sh'ang. 

The weakening of the Sh'ang dynasty allowed the the rulers of the Wei – Keng Wen, to invade the capital when the Sh'ang king was absent. This dynasty, called Zhou, and was actually a vassal state of the Sh'ang empire.  Eventually the Zhou, feeling strongly that the Sh'ang were no longer fit to rule overpowered the Sh'ang rulers and became the new rulers of a vast number of vassal states. They justified their takeover by calling on an idea that the King/Emperor needed the “Mandate of Heaven” in order to rule.  That is he only ruled as long as he conducted himself ritually correctly and in the proper care of the realm. His rule could be overthrown when 'Heaven' withdrew its support of the King – he lost the 'Mandate' to rule.

“In many ways the Zhou stepped into the shoes of the Sh'ang. Their interests were much the same and they worshipped the same god Di, whom they called Tian – Heaven. Thus the Zhou dynasty were able to justify their takeover of the Sh'ang empire and worship the Sh'ang ancestors, claiming that the Sh'ang had lost the mandate of Heaven to rule and Heaven had chosen the Zhou to rule the empire.  The Zhou then became the sons of Tian Shang Di.

From this point on the Zhou introduced an ethical component to the rule of a King.   quote.  Heaven would not support a rule that was cruel and oppressive – sacrifices alone would not placate Heaven and the dynasty would fall.  Two of the Dukes disagreed on this point, one arguing that the King alone could approach Heaven directly and the other arguing that the mandate was given to all the people and so the King should always seek advice from his ministers.

Within one hundred years the Zhou dynasty started to decline at the centre and the various families ruling their own demesnes within the empire wanted power over their own feudal lands.  Karen Armstrong describes it thus: 
The Chinese would never forget the the early years of the Zhou dynasty; their Axial Age would be inspired by the search for a just ruler, who would be worthy of Heaven's mandate”

The 'cult' and the rituals were the core of the Zhou rulers' power and really held the empire states together. The King alone, as the Son of Heaven, was allowed to sacrifice to the High God and his capital, Zhouzhuang, was the religious centre of the empire.  No other city could hold the rites in honour of the ancestral kings of China except the Zhou King.

This power of the King was like a 'magical power' (K.A.) and he was able to distribute this to his vassal state.  Like most other religions, the King was thought as the holder of divine power, to be able to control the forces of nature  and ensure that the seasons followed each other.  There was really no separation between Heaven and Earth – they were complementary and equal partners.


'Heaven, the High God had humanlike characteristics but no personality or gender.  He did not thunder commands from mountaintops, but ruled through his divine sons, each in their own domain.'

'….every city had two Earth altars; one South of the Palace near the ancestral temples, the other in the southern suburbs beside the harvest altar.  Location being everything in Chinese religion.  This second Earth altar and the harvest altar put the people directly in touch with the ancestors, who had tilled the earth before them, and thus created the Way of Heaven.  Their religious practices – singing hymns around the Earth altar allowed the Way of Heaven a link between past and present in sacred continuity.' (K.A.)  The people working the land united them to the ancestors, the archetypal human being and with the Way of Heaven– as it ought to be.  Without human beings, Heaven could not act.  'Therefore ordinary earthly activities were sacramental, sacred activities, enabling the people to share in the divine process.'

In the clearing of forests, he building of roads and canals the Zhou kings were completing the work of Heaven begun in the Creation.  Read poems p 71 (K.A.)  instead of seeing a gulf between Heaven and Earth the Chinese saw a continuum.  The most powerful ancestors now with Tian Shang Di were once of earth.  Heaven communicated with the activities of the Earth through oracles an human beings and the inhabitants of Earth could share a meal with the ancestors and gods in ritual.

'When the Chinese spoke of the Earth, the cosmos or even the Chinese empire, these mundane categories included the sacred.  Rather than seek 'out there' to find something 'holy' the Chinese chose to make this Earth divine by ensuring everything conformed to Heaven's prototype.  The contract with Heaven was more important than a deity on high; they experienced the sacred in the daily, practical effort.  Heaven was more sublime, but Earth was central in daily life.  All the great assemblies were held at the Earth altar.

Wars were commenced at the Earth altar; they saw this a way to bring back the Divine order and when soldiers returned from battle they took their prisoners for sacrifice there.  A vassal Lord being installed a one of the sons of Heaven, was given in the ritual a sod of earth taken from the Earth altar.  At an eclipse of the sun, the King and his vassals gathered, in their strict order around the Earth altar to restore cosmic order.  Heaven needed Earth to ensure the stability of the cosmos.

When the King became the Son of Heaven and received his Mandate, this opened the Way from
Heaven on Earth.  He received a magic gift, called the daode “the Potency of the Way” enabling to subdue his enemies, attract loyalty and impose his authority.  If he did not use this power correctly it became malign.  The King's mere presence was so strong, if exerted correctly, compelled men and nature to behave correctly.  Read the poem p 72 (K.A)  When the King's power was strong all prospered, but if it was decline people and animals sickened and died, the harvests failed and the wells dried up.  The Way of Heaven and Earth were linked inextricably.

The Shang King had to travel around his territory following the path of the sun.  However, the Zhou kings were so powerful they had specially built halls and could ritualize this by standing in each of the four corners – north, south, east and west.  As the seasons changed so did the the clothes, accessories and diet of King change to reflect the natural order.  In winter he wore black clothes, rode a black horse, travelled in a black carriage bearing a black standard.  To commence this season, he would stand in the northwest corner of the hall and eat millet and pork, the food of winter.  As spring approached, he dressed in green, carried a green standard, ate sour food and stood in the northeast corner of the hall.  In autumn he word white and stood in the west corner, in summer he wore red and stood in the southern corner.

Although the King had supreme power, every moment of his life had to conform to the celestial model – his personal likes and dislikes were no importance. He simply had to follow The Way of Heaven.  This brought divine peace – if he did not behave correctly there was chaos.  If there was a crack in the divine order, such as a drought, he would strike a great drum, call out the military, summon the princes, who all stood in their proper places in the square and the King would publicly declare his faults and offer a sacrifice to the Earth altar in the southern suburbs.  All those present had to dress in the colours that corresponded to the compass point of their territory.  This huge ceremony would bring order back to the human world and re-establish the Way of Heaven.

In early times, these rituals would be attended by only by the aristocrats, but in later times all the people could turn out to watch the King and the court inaugurate the seasons.  He was a living archetype of Heaven and could bring all the people into harmony with The Way.  Likewise the King would plough the first furrow after winter so the peasants could then start their work. In Spring the Kings wives ceremonially presented themselves to start the season of marriage.  At the end of Autumn the King would ride in ceremony to the northern suburbs to greet winter and bring back the cold.  He would announce the season of rest and order the peasants back to their villages and he would then return to his palace and seal his gates.  Always these ceremonies entailed the offering of sacrifices usually animal, millet, rice and wine.  We have some of these ancient ceremonial vessels used in the rites available today for our viewing.

LAO-TZU (died 531 BCE)– thought to be either a real person/writer of the Tao-te-ching or the collector of ancient writing that became known as the Tao-te-ching.  Long after his life, the text was venerated as “an inspirational text, to be memorized and recited each day.  He became venerated as a sage – gradually he became 'associated with the power of the Tao (The Way) and later conceived as being Godlike.' 

The Tao or The Way taught that the entire universe and everything in it flows from a mysterious, unknown force called The Tao. However, Lao-Tzu reminded believers that is is difficult to grasp - “the Tao that be spoken of is not the true Tao.”

Taoism is  
4.      Is the ultimate reality
5.      Explains the powers that the universe and the wonder of human nature
6.      Believes everything is one – despite appearances
7.      Opinions of Good and Evil only occur when people forget they are one in the Tao

Karen Armstrong describes Taoism as
“...it comprised the whole of reality, the Dao had no qualities, no form; it could be experienced but never seen; it was not a god; it pre-dated Heaven and Earth, and was beyond divinity.  You could not say anything about the Dao, because it transcended ordinary categories: it was more ancient than antiquity and yet it was not old; because it went far beyond any form of 'existence' known to humans, it was neither being nor non-being.  It contained all the myriad patterns, forms and potential that made the world the way is was and guided the endless flux of change and becoming that we see all around us.  It existed at a point where all the distinctions that characterise our normal modes of thought became irrelevant. )The Case for God, p 22)

Of the three great teachings in China, Taoism is the one that offers methods of spiritual-physical healing; ways to connect to the spirit world and a way to secure blessings and protection.  It is closely connected with traditional folk beliefs of divination and shamanic practices such as commanding spirits, taking ecstatic journeys and deep meditation that induces mysticism.


The early masters of Taoism – Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu were renowned for their rejection of society and worldly ambition and myths developed of Immortals who have transcended human and divine existence.  As priestly caste emerged who were trained to summon up spirits, conduct exorcisms, etc.  They did this through the use of symbols, such as water and fire, dancing.  Some of them became monastics living in sacred places, particularly mountaintops.  Some married and served the community.  One of their main roles was to conduct burial and ancestor rites.

Scholars of Taoism believe the teachings which are contained in The Classic of the Way and its Power were likely to be a collection of existing spiritual writings which included divination – as preserved in the I-Ching or Classic of Changes.  Other influences were the shamanic practices such as commanding spirits, ecstatic journeys and deep contemplation. There are great powerful myths of Immortals who do not experience heat or cold, who can pass through fire without burning, through water without getting wet, who have feathers and can fly and some can change from age to youth.  These Immortals, who inhabit the entire cosmos occasionally visit the Earth to grant immortality to deserving mortals.  How does one become such an immortal?

Some of the methods taught and practiced in ancient times and some in the present are:
1.      submission to The Way, follow the patterns of nature.
2.      Non-submission to the destructive and perverting rules of civilization
3.      Return to the primeval state of boundless potential and perfection
4.      Practice yielding and subtlety, humility, contentment and non-desire
5.      Stay sinless and therefore, healthy
6.      Practice good works and confession and forgiveness of sins

Another important spiritual aspect of Taoism is the Oneness of the cosmos. All things from spirits to rocks are made of the same material -, ch'i.  This chi flows through channels and grids in the earth and gives life and energy to all creatures.  Mountains are special places where a meeting between the human and the divine occurs.  They are also places where special herbs and minerals for elixirs and medicines are found and are reputed homes of Immortals.  Sacred places were identified, fitting in with their cosmic view and temples were built on these sites. Five is a sacred number and there are important groups of five – elements (fire, water, wind, metal, earth) and five sacred mountains.  These ancient beliefs are still held in traditional Chinese medicine and feng shui.

The ancient religious beliefs and practices I have introduced are deeply entrenched in Chinese culture and together with Confucian and Buddhist ethics and practices have created a distinct
Chinese spiritual life. Other religions, such as Hinduism, Islam and Christianity have not made a great impact on their culture, and even the 'great experiment' of the 1949 Communist Revolution when all religious practices were banned, did not succeed in taking away beliefs.  Practice was pushed underground and simply found its way into the light after the extreme banns were lifted.  Here in Australia, where Chinese were part of our early settlements, we are now faced with a growing Chinese migration and it seems really practical to understand more about their religious foundation so that we all might live together in sympathy and harmony – which is the ideal of the ancient religions of China.

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