Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XI - Religion
All through these five centuries of struggle, between the flight of the Emperor with the transfer of the metropolis in 771 B.C., and the total destruction of the feudal system by the First August Emperor of Ts’in in 221 B.C., it is of supreme interest to note that religion in our Western sense was not only non-existent throughout China, but had not yet even been conceived of as an abstract notion; apart, that is to say, from government, public law, family law, and class ritual. No word for “religion” was known to the language; the notion of Church or Temple served by a priestly caste had not entered men’s minds. Offences against “the gods” or “the spirits,” in a vague sense, were often spoken of; but, on the other hand, too much belief in their power was regarded as superstition. “Sin” was only conceivable in the sense of infraction of nature’s general laws, as symbolized and specialized by imperial commands; direct, or delegated to vassal princes; in both cases as representatives, supreme or local, of Heaven, or of the Emperor Above, whose Son the dynastic central ruler for the time being was figuratively supposed to be. No vassal prince ever presumed to style himself “Son of Heaven," though nearly all the barbarous vassals called themselves “King" (the only other title the Chou monarchs took) in their own dominions. “In the Heaven there can only be one Sun; on Earth there can only be one Emperor"; this was the maxim, and, ever since the Chou conquest in 1122 B.C., the word “King” had done duty for the more ancient “Emperor,” which, in remote times had apparently not been sharply distinguished in men’s minds from God, or the “Emperor on High.”
Prayer was common enough, as we shall frequently see, and sacrifice was universal; in fact, the blood of a victim was almost inseparable from solemn function or record of any kind. But such ideas as conscience, fear of God, mortal sin, repentance, absolution, alms-giving, self-mortification, charity, sackcloth and ashes, devout piety, praise and glorification,–in a word, what the Jews, Christians, Mussulmans, and even Buddhists have each in turn conceived to be religious duty, had no well-defined existence at all. There are some traces of local or barbarous gods in the semi-Turkish nation of Ts’in, before it was raised to the status of full feudal vassal; and also in the semi-Annamese nation of Ts’u (with its dependencies Wu and Yiieh); but the orthodox Chinese proper of those times never had any religion such as we now conceive it, whatever notions their remote ancestors may have conceived.
Notwithstanding this, the minds of the governing classes at least were powerfully restrained by family and ancestral feeling, and, if there were no temples or priests for public worship, there were invariably shrines dedicated to the ancestors, with appropriate rites duly carried out by professional clerks or reciters. Whenever a ruler of any kind undertook any important expedition or possible duty, he was careful first to consult the oracles in order to ascertain the will of Heaven, and then to report the fact to the manes of his forefathers, who were likewise notified of any great victory, political change, or piece of good fortune. There is a distinction (not easy to master) between the loss of a state and the loss of a dynasty; in the latter case the population remain comparatively unaffected, and it is only the reigning family whose sacrifices to the gods of the place and of the harvest are interrupted. Thus in 567, when one of the very small vassals (of whom the ruler of Lu was mesne lord) crushed the other, it is explained that the spirits will not spiritually eat the sacrifices (i.e. accept the worship) of one who does not belong to the same family name, and that in this case the annihilating state was only a cousin through sisters: “when the country is ’lost,’ it means that the strange surname succeeds to power; but, when a strange surname becomes spiritual heir, we say ’annihilated.’” We have seen in the ninth Chapter how the Shang dynasty lost the empire, but was sacrificially maintained in Sung. From the remotest times there seems to have been a tender unwillingness to “cut off all sacrifices” entirely, probably out of a feeling that retribution in like form might at some future date occur to the ruthless condemner of others. There is another reason, which is, nearly all ruling families hailed from the same remote semi-mythical emperors, or from their ministers, or from their wives of inferior birth. Thus, although the body of the last tyrannical monarch of the Shang dynasty just cited was pierced through and through by the triumphant Chou monarch, that monarch’s brother (acting as regent on behalf of the son and successor) conferred the principality of Sung upon the tyrant’s elder half- brother by an inferior wife, “in order that the dynastic sacrifices might not be cut off"; and to the very last the Duke of Sung was the only ruling satrap under the Chou dynasty who permanently enjoyed the full title of “duke.” His neighbour, the Marquess of Wei (imperial clan), was, it is true, made “duke” in 770 B.C. for services in connection with the Emperor’s flight; but the title seems to have been tacitly abandoned, and at durbars he is always styled “marquess.” Of the Shang tyrant himself it is recorded: “thus in 1122 B.C. he lost all in a single day, without even leaving posterity.” Of course his elder brother could not possibly be his spiritual heir. In 597 B.C., when Ts’u, in its struggle with Tsin for the possession of CHENG, got the ruling Earl of CHENG in its power, the latter referred appealingly to his imperial ancestors (the first earl, in 806, was son of the Emperor who fled from his capital north in 842), and said: “Let me continue their sacrifices.” There are, at least, a score of similar instances: the ancestral sacrifices seem to refer rather to posterity, whilst those to gods of the land and grain appear more connected with rights as feoffee.
Prayer is mentioned from the earliest times. For instance Shun, the active ploughman monarch (not hereditary) who preceded the three dynasties of Hia (2205-1767), Shang (1766-1123), and Chou (1122-249), prayed at a certain mountain in the centre of modern Hu Nan province, where his grave still is, (a fact which points to the possibility of the orthodox Chinese having worked their way northwards from the south-west). When the Chou conqueror, posthumously called the Martial King, fell ill, his brother, the Duke of Chou (later regent for the Martial King’s son), prayed to Heaven for his brother’s recovery, and offered himself as a substitute; the clerk was instructed to commit the offer to writing, and this solemn document was securely locked up. The same man, when regent, again offered himself to Heaven for his sick nephew, cutting his nails off and throwing them into the river, as a symbol of his willingness to give up his own body. The Emperor K’ang-hi of the present Manchu dynasty, perhaps in imitation of the Duke of Chou, offered himself to Heaven in place of his sick Mongol grandmother. A very curious instance of prayer occurs in connection with the succession to the Tsin throne; it will be remembered that the legitimate heir committed dutiful suicide, and two other half-brothers (and, for a few months, one of these brother’s sons) reigned before the second Protector secured his ancestral rights. The suicide’s ghost appears to his usurping brother, and says: “I have prayed to the Emperor (God), who will soon deliver over Tsin into Ts’in’s hands, so that Ts’in will perform the sacrifices due to me.” The reply to the ghost was: “But the spirits will only eat the offerings if they come from the same family stock.” The ghost said: “Very good; then I will pray again. . . . God now says my half-brother will be overthrown at the battle of Han” (the pass where the philosopher Lao-tsz is supposed to have written his book 150 years later). In 645 the ruler of Tsin was in fact captured in battle by his brother-in-law of Ts’in, who was indeed about to sacrifice to the Emperor on High as successor of Tsin; but he was dissuaded by his orthodox wife (the Tsin princess, daughter of a Ts’i princess as explained on page 51).
In 575 Tsin is recorded as “invoking the spirits and requesting a victory.” A little later one of the Tsin generals, after a defeat, issued a general order by way of concealing his weakness: to deceive the enemy he suggested that the army should amongst other things make a great show of praying for victory. There are many other similar analogous instances of undoubted prayer. Much later, in the year 210 B.C., when the King (as he had been) of Ts’in had conquered all China and given himself the name, for the first time in history, of August Emperor (the present title), he consulted his soothsayers about an unpleasant dream he had had. He was advised to pray, and to worship (or to sacrifice, for the two are practically one) with special ardour if he wished to bring things round to a favourable conclusion: and this is a monarch, too, who was steeped in Lao-tsz’s philosophy.