General Essay on Chinese Religions

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Early Chinese religion belongs to the mythical and prehistoric period. Tradition speaks of the origins of Chinese culture lying in the 3rd millennium BCE with the Hsia dynasty. As of yet no historical evidence has been found for such a dynasty; all references to it are mythical. It is only with the Shang dynasty, which is traditionally dated from 1766 to 1122 BCE, that we find evidence of a developing culture and religious practices. The religion of the Shang was principally characterised by the use of oracle bones for divination and the development of the cult of ancestors. It was believed that the cracks that resulted from burning ox bones or tortoise shells represented messages sent from the gods about a variety of matters such as illness, the weather or hunting. Belief in deities and the practice of the worship of ancestors has persisted in Chinese life, and has come to form the basis of what has broadly been termed popular religion. Popular religion in fact represents a mixture of early religion and elements of the three great religions: Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. At the heart of popular religion is the worship of deities and veneration of ancestors at shrines in the home or temples. There are many deities associated with this form of religion, but the best known are Shang Ti, the supreme ruler of heaven, and Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy and protector of women and children. In the Chou dynasty a more structured form of religion developed. This is associated with the teaching of Kung-Fu Tzu (551-479 BCE), whose Latinised name is Confucius. Confucius sought to establish a socio-political ethical system, with theological beliefs concerned with human destiny and the conduct of human relationships in society, based on a belief in the goodness of human nature. He believed in a providential Heaven (T'ien) and in prayer which encouraged him in his mission. He emphasised the five relationships - namely, Father-Son; Ruler-Subject; Husband-Wife; eldest son to brothers; friend and friend - to be expressed by 'li' (correct ceremony) to bring 'he' (harmony). Such relationships were rooted in family piety which came to give a prominent place to Ancestor Worship and to respect for deified men, which came to find expression in the Sacrifices of the State religion. The Confucian canon can be divided into two parts: the Five Classics and the Four Books. The Five Classics were handed down from earlier times and emphasised by Confucius. These are the Book of Odes; the Book of History; the Book of Rites; the Book of Divination; and the Spring and Autumn Annals. The Four Books consist of The Analects (Conversations of Confucius); the Doctrine of the Mean; The Great Learning; and the Book of Mencius. Out of the teachings of Confucius emerged various schools associated with a master. Notable was the work of Meng-Tzu (c.371-c.289 BCE) and Hsun-Tzu (300-230 BCE). Meng-Tzu and Hsun-Tzu formed rival schools whose doctrinal differences were based in a fundamentally different conception of human nature. Meng-Tzu taught that people were fundamentally good and that what made them bad was their environment. Consequently, Meng-Tzu emphasised the importance of education as a means for bringing out the innate goodness of people. By way of contrast, Hsun-Tzu had a more pessimistic view of human nature. Hsun-Tzu taught that people were inherently evil, and that they could only be taught to be good through training. He also was religiously sceptical, teaching that religious ritual had no purpose except to provide moral training. It was this negative attitude towards religion that was one of the main factors behind the subsequent rejection of the teachings of Hsun-Tzu by mainstream Confucianism and the establishment of Meng-Tzu's teachings as orthodox. At the same time that Confucianism was developing, two rival schools were active in China: the Mohists and the Legalists. Mohism was founded by Mo Tzu (c.470-390 BCE). Mo Tzu advocated universal...
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