What was the religion of ancient China?

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A clay model of people sacrificing animals

Ancient China religion: Han dynasty animal sacrifice (ca. 200 BC-200 AD)

China’s ancestor worship

In the Shang Dynasty (about 2000 BC), the earliest period we know much about, people in China worshipped a lot of different gods – weather gods and sky gods, and also a higher god who ruled over the other gods, called Shang-Ti. People who lived during the Shang Dynasty also believed that their ancestors – their parents and grandparents – became like gods when they died. They believed that their ancestors wanted to be worshipped too, like gods. Each family worshipped their own ancestors. To get the gods on their side, they sacrificed animals to them.

Oracle bone with Chinese characters written on it: ancient China religion

Early Chinese writing: an oracle bone with Chinese characters written on it

Oracle bones and religion in ancient China

Around 1500 BC, people began to use written oracle bones to try to find out what was going to happen in the future. By the time of the Zhou Dynasty (about 1100 BC), the Chinese were also worshipping a natural force called t’ien, which we usually translate as Heaven. Like Shang-Ti, Heaven ruled over all the other gods. Heaven also decided who would be the Emperor or Empress of China. The emperor or empress could only rule as long as he or she had the Mandate of Heaven (as long as Heaven wanted him or her to rule). You knew when the emperor or empress had lost the Mandate of Heaven because somebody else would overthrow them and become the new emperor or empress.

Around 600 BC, under the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, and for the next two hundred years, there were a lot of new ideas in Chinese religion. The first big empires were forming. Philosophers responded to the idea of bigger nations with bigger religious ideas.

Lao Tzu

Later portrait of Lao Tzu

Taoism and Chinese religion

First, a Chinese philosopher named Lao Tzu (who may be mythical) created the philosophy of Taoism. Taoism became very popular. Taoism holds that people should not try to get their way by force. Instead, they should use compromise and natural forces to find their way. Taoism is partly a philosophy, and partly a religious faith. Taoists believe that there is a universal force flowing through all living things. Respecting that force is essential to a happy life. Taoists also didn’t think sacrificing animals to the gods was a good idea. So sacrifice gradually went out of fashion in China (as well in most of the rest of Asia, Africa, and Europe)

Confucianism in ancient China

Not long after Lao Tzu, another Chinese scholar called Confucius created a different philosophical system we call Confucianism. Confucianism disagreed with Taoism but also became very popular. Confucianism holds that people should do their duty. They should follow their leaders and the gods faithfully. Order is the way to peace. If everyone just does what they are told, and what they are supposed to do, there won’t be any fighting and nobody will be upset. Naturally Confucius supported traditional animal sacrifice, but people gradually stopped doing it anyway.

Mo Tzu and Legalism

There were two other important philosophical schools of this period. One was started by Mo Tzu, which suggested that the way to happiness was for everyone to treat all other people as well as they treated their own families. The other was Legalism (a kind of Confucianism), which believed that people were all basically bad, and needed to be kept in line by strict laws and harsh punishments in order to create order and peace. Legalism was very important in the way the Qin Dynasty worked (about 220 BC).

The Qingming Festival

As the Silk Road spread new religious ideas, people in Han Dynasty China started to celebrate the spring Qingming festival. Many parts of the Qingming Festival, like dyeing eggs, came from West Asian festivals. But these new philosophies and festivals did not end the old religious practices. Everybody kept on worshipping their ancestors and the traditional Chinese gods, and they kept on believing in the Mandate of Heaven.

Medieval Chinese religion – Buddhism comes to China
Learn by doing: Chinese Garden Project

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese religion:

One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship, by Mary Pope Osborne (1996). .

The Gods and Goddesses of Ancient China, by Leonard Everett Fisher (2003). . One page for each god, with lots of pictures and some historical context.

Five Heavenly Emperors: Chinese Myths of Creation, by Song Nan Zhang (1994). Stories .

Chinese Mythology A to Z, by Jeremy Roberts (2004).

Dragons and Demons : Myths of China, by Stewart Ross (1998). A few Chinese stories, retold .

Dragons, Gods and Spirits from Chinese Mythology, by Tao Sanders (1983). More of a child’s encyclopedia.

Medieval Chinese religion
Ancient China
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By |2018-04-18T09:53:42+00:00June 7th, 2017|China, Religion|10 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What was the religion of ancient China?. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 7, 2017. Web. September 18, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

10 Comments

  1. Pizza June 24, 2018 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    Oh thanks!!

  2. marcus June 10, 2018 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    I am doing a project on ancient china and this information helped me a lot thank you so much Karen.

    • Karen Carr June 10, 2018 at 11:28 pm

      I’m glad we could help, Marcus!

  3. selah May 1, 2018 at 5:11 pm - Reply

    this site helped a lot! Thx!!

  4. Manoj painuly February 2, 2018 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    Please write a sequence note on religious tradition if ancient chaina.

    • Karen Carr February 3, 2018 at 5:16 pm

      Sorry, I’m not understanding what you are asking for?

  5. Matt January 16, 2018 at 9:42 am - Reply

    did not help at all

    • Karen Carr January 16, 2018 at 10:38 am

      That’s too bad! What did you want to know? I’d be happy to answer your question.

  6. Yelena December 10, 2017 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    this site … kinda helped!

    • Karen Carr December 11, 2017 at 12:23 am

      Happy to hear it! Please feel free to ask if you have more questions.

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