Background Notes: Early Chinese Beliefs
Early Chinese beliefs centered around the earth, nature, localized spirits,
and ancestors. Reflecting their honored the local gods of the soil
agricultural to increase
character, the ground fertility
ancient Chinese and promote crop
growth. Every village built a mound of earth, represented the territory of feudal lords, and symbolized the soil-spirit of the entire realm.)
called the "she." (Later mounds a mound at the imperial capital
With the passage of time, Earth-worship decreased, and worship of Heaven increased. The ruler of Heaven was a kind of ancestral figure whose desires and future actions could be determined only through divination. Because both Heaven and Earth were thought to be inhabited by spirits, the Chinese believed that nature had many spirits, both good (shen) and bad (gui).
The bad spirits could be kind if respected rooster (through announcing sunrise) had shen were later associated with yin, and the
and venerated. power over the gui with yang.
sun and the
Belief in family solidarity was related to belief in survival after death. The extended family continued to interact, even if some members were dead. If properly honored, respected, and provided for, ancestors promoted the family's prosperity. A favor or injury to a member of the family was considered a favor or injury to the ancestors; consequently, people were reluctant to insult or harm descendants of a powerful family. An ancestral shrine was an important center of every home.
Oracle bones, unearthed by archaeologists, reveal that Shang kings and
their subjects performed various divination appears to have been
types of divinations.
form of tortoise
shells or pieces over a flame. (somewhat like
of bone. Parts of the shell or bone were scraped thin and held
The resulting cracks were
by diviners answers of
were engraved on the bone. topics of weather, warfare,
sacrifice. Inscriptions also spirits, particularly those of
communicate respect rivers and mountains.
on these oracle bones hunting, childbirth, and ancestors and for various
According to legend, inscriptions found on the shell of a magic tortoise revealed the eight trigrams which became the basis of the I Ching. The tortoise crawled out of the Yellow River onto the bank where Fu Hsi, a sage/folk hero, sat in 3322 B.C.E. (Some legends refer to Fu Hsi as Emperor and others to the animal coming out of the river as a dragon.) Fu Hsi assigned the present names and imagery to these eight trigrams. A second sage, called King Wen b y s o m e s o u r c e s , c o m b i n e d e a c h o f t h e e i g h t t r i g r a m s w i t h e a c h o f t h e o t h e r eight trigrams, resulting in sixty-four hexagrams. King Wen also added
interpretations to the hexagrams. Later Confucius and/or his followers wrote additional commentaries on each hexagram.
The I Ching is considered by a few scholars to be a series of oracles which tell of the "epic struggle and uprising of the Chou," leading to the overthrow of the Shang dynasty sometime between 1122 and 1027 B.C.E.