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

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