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Early Religion In China


Daoist And Buddhist Carvings Dazu China


  • Little is known about religion in China until the life of Confucius in the 6th century BCE. While there were certainly religious antecedents that influenced his life and philosophy, much of which we might call Daoism, the truth is that Confucius relays all of the early religious information to us through his dismissal and additions of and to those ancient doctrines. Therefore it is easiest to describe early Chinese religion as it relates directly to Confucius himself.
  • Confucius was born in 551 BCE at a time when the world seemed to be changing at a quite rapid pace all over the world. Some scholars have traditionally called this age the so-called Axial Age, where great philosophers and mystics roamed the earth and ended up changing it forever. Along with Confucius, who might be the earliest of this group of influential men, are the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), who founded Buddhism in the 5th century BCE, Mahavira, who founded Jainism, also in the 5th century BCE, Zoroaster who founded Zoroastrianism, which still does exist to this day in select parts of the world, Lao Tzu, Homer, Socrates, Archimedes, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiuh, and eventually, Jesus in the 1st century CE.
  • The Axial Age around the world coincides with a time between major empires and when great men were able to posit great things about the natural world and about human consciousness. Although it is controversial as to whether or not this may have been an actual Age in world history or if it is just a coincidence that correlates rather well with the beginning of writing and coinage throughout the world, the Axial Age does typify these great men quite well. Regardless of how one describes all of these thinkers, mystics, and charismatic leaders, their influence on the world is undisputed. Therefore, it is acceptable to describe Confucius as one of the great personalities who have influenced the world during a pivotal time for humanity.
  • At the time of his birth in 551 BCE, China was a well established civilization, stretching back perhaps 2,000 or more years with a solidified political and societal infrastructure. Confucius, along with his contemporaries, of which there were many that we know about, were greatly influenced by the forefathers who are known as sage-kings. Attributed to these individuals are basically every facet of Chinese civilization from farming to argumentation.
  • Two of the great Chinese dynasties that put China "on the map" historically were the Xia (c. 2000- 1500 BCE) and the Shang (c. 1500-1100 BCE) dynasties. These political units centered themselves around the Yellow River basin. The Shang were defeated by the Zhou in 1027 BCE and united western and central Chinese territories for perhaps the first time. A feudal state, the Zhou centralized all authority with the king. The Zhou, in order to govern properly their vast territories, established a very formal governmental structure with offices and ministers, who were often born into these positions based on their family history and lineages. The Zhou distributed the tasks of governing their lands fairly evenly amongst the complex ministerial system. A director oversaw construction projects, like building bridges, canals for irrigation, reservoirs, repair dilapidated structures, build fortifications, perform sacrificial offerings, bring entertainment to guests and other ministers, and inform the king about laws and taxes. In a sense, the Zhou created the most complex governmental system of the time and kept excellent records about it. Confucius was born into this world. A sophisticated culture was one fruit of such organization and gave rise to the writing of texts, recording of history, composition of poetry, music, and phenomenal producers of metallurgy and crafts.
  • Warfare often dictated the actions of the aristocracy and ruling class. Their preoccupations with warfare earned them prestige and power, especially with regard to the peasantry which experienced good living conditions but relatively low social mobility. The aristocrat and commoner were alike in that kinship was extremely important. Kin in good positions either within the central ministry or within the local temple culture could often elevate an entire family for generations to come. However, key positions in the ministry were difficult to come by and rarer yet were positions that were not inherited. The Zhou gave rise to Chinese feudalism. Vassals could rule their own territories as long as the status of the realm was not in jeopardy and peace undisturbed. These vassals in turn paid the king tribute and fought for him when needed. Although much later textual sources discussing the biography of Confucius state that he grew up in a calm, peaceful China, archaeological evidence shows that this was likely not the case. The Zhou did bring with them unprecedented centralization and unity amongst the regions which could be interpreted as a type of stability.



Daoist Temple Nanxun China