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Early Chinese Religious Beliefs

The earliest period of Chinese culture that we know is traced back to the Shang Dynasty, which took place around 2000 BC. At that time, the people of China worshipped an assortment of gods that included weather gods and gods of the sky. There was also a higher power responsible for ruling over all the other gods. Shang-Ti , a deity known as the Supreme Being, whose name literally translates into “Lord Above”, “Sovereign Above”, or “Lord On High.”

During the Shang Dynasty, people believed that their ancestors earned a god-like status when they died and felt that their parents and grandparents deserved to be worshipped as well. This is why families worshipped their own ancestors. When 1500 BC emerged, written oracle bones played an important role in religion, as people were interested in learning what would happen in the future. Oracle bones displayed early writing on the bones of animals, much similar to the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians.

Around 1100 BC, the Chou Dynasty took over and the Chinese embraced the worship of a natural force referred to as ‘t’ien’ , meaning Heaven. Similar to the role of Shang-Ti, Heaveen ruled over all of the other gods. It was a belief that Heaven also had a hand in choosing the individual that would become the Emperor or Empress of China. Heaven also decided upon the time of their rule, as the Emperor or Empress required the Mandate of Heaven. The people viewed overthrown rulers as having lost the Mandate of Heaven.

Under the Eastern Chou Dynasty, which started around 600 BC, lasted for about 200 years. Chinese religion started to take different turns, as more ideas started to emerge. In the beginning, the philosophy/religion of Taoism was created by a Chinese philosopher by the name of Lao Tzu. This belief system really caught on, as it taught people to allow natural forces and compromises to deliver the things they wished to obtain in life, instead of resort to using force to get their way.

Then, the teachings of a Chinese scholar named Confucius started to influence the people, as he spread the word of a different system of philosophy that would later become known as Confucianism. It was the complete opposite of Taosim, but nonetheless, became quite popular. Confucius taught that people should complete their allotted tasks in life, follow the way of their leaders, and listen to the gods. He believed that in order to accomplish peace, order was needed.

Another philosophical school found during this time period included Legalism, a branch of Confucianism that all people were bad and required strict laws and cruel punishments in order to stay in line with peace and order. Even though new philosophies continued to arise in the Chinese culture of the past, old religious practices were still alive and well. Everyone still worshipped their ancestors and paid homage to traditional Chinese gods. Others also believed in the Mandate of Heaven.