Pre-Classical Religion

Doctrines Early Chinese religion was based upon the belief in supernatural powers who manifested themselves in animals, vegetation, and the processes of birth, ageing and death. It was believed that the spirit of the deceased could only survive as long the material body survived. Once the material body decayed the spirit would lose its distinct identity and merge into the creative source of all things. Consequently great efforts were made to preserve the corpse of the deceased. This took the form of thick wooden coffins and, in the case of important people, elaborate tombs. These tombs contained all sorts of artefacts such as utensils, sacrificial vessels and weapons.
Like the modern Chinese, the early Chinese took funeral ritual very seriously. If someone died an unnatural death, or the correct rites were not performed, the spirit of the deceased would become a ghost and disrupt the lives of the living.
During the Shang dynasty there emerged the belief that the spirits of ancestors could become divine beings who lived in the heavens. When the leading figure of a noble family died he became a divine being. Noble families of the Shang dynasty sought to trace their ancestry to the founder-spirit of the Shang dynasty, who was worshipped as an all-powerful god.
An important aspect of religious practice was divination. This was done through the use of oracle bones. Heated bronze rods would be applied to bones in order to produce cracks, which would then be interpreted by shamans or priests. It was believed that the departed ancestors and deities were sending down advice or commands on a wide variety of subjects through the oracle bones.
The Shang pantheon consisted of many different gods. These can be categorised into four types. Firstly, there were the ancestors of royalty whose actions influenced the well-being of the state. Secondly, there were more minor deities whose origin is uncertain. Thirdly, there were the forces of nature. Fourthly, there was a single spirit called Shang Ti, who represented all the force of nature or the whole pantheon of ancestors.

History Chinese tradition regards the origins of Chinese culture to lie in the final centuries of the 3rd millennium BCE with the Hsia dynasty. As of yet no archaeological evidence has been produced to confirm the existence of this dynasty. There is, however, considerable evidence for distinct forms of Neolithic culture. These societies were based in villages and survived through the domestication of animals, hunting and fishing.
History proper begins with the Shang dynasty, which, according to tradition, reigned from about 1766 to about 1122. (Contemporary scholarship dates the fall of the Shang dynasty in about 1028.) In about 1384 Yin became the capital of the Shang dynasty until its overthrow by the Chou in the 12th/11th century BCE. By the time of the Shang the Chinese had developed a calendar system which consisted of 360 day year divided into twelve months of thirty days. Musical instruments were a part of Shang culture, as were bronze works, pottery, jade carvings of human and animal forms. No literature exists from the period, although ceremonial instructions and names of clans can be found carved on bones and tortoise shells.
Accompanying this form of divination was the practice of making sacrifices to ancestors. This form of divination became increasingly frequent as the Shang dynasty developed. By the end of the Shang dynasty there were major sacrifices on every day of the year.
The establishment of the Chou dynasty saw the beginning of important new developments in Chinese religion. Shang Ti came to be regarded not simply as an ancestral spirit but as God who was concerned for the well-being of the Chinese race. This notion of a protective supreme God was used to legitimate China's rulers. In the eyes of the Chou it was because the Shang had failed to rule well that they lost the support of Shang Ti and so were destroyed by their successors. Under the Chou the ritualistic and ethical basis of Chinese religion was refined so that the people and state received the necessary blessings of the deities and ancestors. This ritual would be important in the development of Confucianism in the second half of the first millennium BCE.

Symbols Thousands of oracle bones have been unearthed which date back to the Shang dynasty. These bones contain inscriptions often addressed to royal ancestors or providing instructions for the correct performance of ritual. These oracle bones, along with bronze sacrificial vessels, were sometimes placed in the tombs of kings and noblemen. An important symbol associated with the period is the character tsu which represented the great ancestor. This has been interpreted by some Chinese scholars to have originally represented a phallus.

Adherents One cannot talk meaningfully of adherents in early Chinese religion.

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