15 Ancient Chinese Religious Culture

Ancestral Religion and the Mandate of Heaven

An idealised portrait of King Wen of Zhou (11th century BCE), the first Chinese ruler to claim the Mandate of Heaven. Ming Period illustration.

King Wen of Zhou (11th century BCE)
World History Encyclopedia | Public Domain

Prior to the Shang, the people worshipped many gods with one supreme god, Shangti, as head of the pantheon (the same pattern found in other cultures). Shangti was considered ‘the great ancestor’ who presided over victory in war, agriculture, the weather, and good government. Because he was so remote and so busy, however, the people seem to have required more immediate intercessors for their needs and so the practice of ancestor worship began.

When someone died, it was thought, they attained divine powers and could be called upon for assistance in times of need (similar to the Roman belief in the parentes). This practice led to highly sophisticated rituals dedicated to appeasing the spirits of the ancestors which eventually included ornate burials in grand tombs filled with all one would need to enjoy a comfortable afterlife.

The king, in addition to his secular duties, served as chief officiate and mediator between the living and the dead and his rule was considered ordained by divine law.(15) The Mandate of Heaven (Tianming), also known as Heaven’s Mandate, was the divine source of authority and the right to rule of China’s early kings and emperors. The ancient god or divine force known as Heaven or Sky had selected this particular individual to rule on its behalf on earth. An important element of the mandate was that although the ruler had been given great power he also had a moral obligation to use it for the good of his people, if he did not then his state would suffer terrible disasters and he would lose the right to govern.(22)

Oracle Bones

The desire to know the future has been a constant in human history and the people of China during the Shang Dynasty were no different along these lines than people today. Fortune-telling during the Shang Dynasty was considered an important resource in making decisions, and these ‘psychics’ were consulted by everyone from the farmer to the king. These fortune-tellers were thought to be in touch with the spirit world of the ancestors who lived with the gods and knew the future. These spirits would communicate with the psychics through the oracle bones. Each fortune-teller had his or her area of expertise (love, money, work, etc) but could answer questions on any topic.(18)

Review a graphic, Shang Dynasty Oracle Bone, by The Trustees of the British Museum.

The king eventually became the ‘head diviner’ who interpreted the message of the spirits through the cracks in the bones. The oracle bones contain information on the reigns of the later kings of the Shang Dynasty, the questions they asked, the answers they received, and even how the event turned out. If a king wanted to know if he should raise taxes, the oracle bone records that question, what the answer was, whether the king listened to the advice, and what the results were. The oracle bones are primary sources for the history of the Shang Dynasty because of how carefully the diviners recorded everything having to do with the person’s concern. (18)

This practice led to the development of writing as people had more complex questions for the oracle bones than whether to attend a wedding. By c. 1250 BCE writing had developed in recognizable form. As Wintle (2005, as cited in Mark, 2016) puts it, “the first unambiguous appearance of a Chinese script in the form of inscribed oracle bones” comes from the city of Anyang at this time.(16) The script found on these bones is archaic but is definitely Chinese script and able to be read.

The invention of writing aided in the discipline of science as observations could be recorded more accurately. The Oracle Scripts are accounts of eclipses and other celestial events written by astronomers of the time. Their works also show advances in mathematics during the same period and the development of odd and even numbers and principles of accounting. The I-Ching (also known as The Book of Changes) was either written or compiled at this same time (c. 1250-1150 BCE). The I-Ching is a book of divination with roots going back to the fortune tellers of the rural areas and their oracle bones.(16)


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