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date: 04 December 2020

The Early Chinese Endeavor to Interpret Early Chinese Religions

Abstract and Keywords

Early Chinese writers rose above particular descriptions of spirits and sacrifices to a meta-discourse about the nature of spirits and the meaning of sacrifices. That is, they themselves mused about the broader meaning of religious phenomena. They recognized diverse ideas about spirits (e.g. whether they possessed agency); they theorized on dependency relationships between spirits and humans (e.g. the nature of reciprocity); they identified secular justifications behind religious discourses (e.g. the orthopraxy of affirming community or sanctioning ethics); they justified religious pluralism (e.g. by recognizing one’s own tradition as the trunk tradition and others as merely branch traditions); and they even permitted personal religious diversity (e.g. the same person could explain away immortals in one setting and yet glorify them in another). Because they themselves theorized about the nature of religious phenomena, we should become cognizant of those theories before projecting our own understandings of religion onto their spirits and sacrifices.

Keywords: early Chinese religions, spirits, sacrifice, supernatural agency, orthopraxy, religious competition, pluralism, personal religious diversity

The historian Chu Shaosun 褚少孫 (c .104–c .30 bce) did not believe everything he read, even when it came to the five classics—the so-called “Confucian classics”—sanctioned by the court. In his opinion, the classics strained their credibility when describing the mythical origins of heroes whose lineages would eventually found the Shang (trad. 1766–1122 bce) and Zhou (trad. 1122–221 bce) dynasties, and he contended


When the Songs classic states that Xie was born from an egg and Houji from a footprint, it just wants to show how Xie and Houji possessed the heavenly mandate and a quintessential sincerity. Even ghosts and spirits can’t take shape of their own accord and must have been humans first in order to become ghosts, and if that’s the case, then how could anyone ever be born without a father? As for one statement maintaining they had fathers and another that they did not, belief propagated belief while doubt propagated doubt, so that we come to have these two statements about it.1

A century later, Wang Chong 王充 (27–c .100 ce) shared Chu Shaosun’s doubts concerning these dynastic origin stories, and he also expressed strong reservations about other myths that, for example, explained why the stars swept westward and the rivers flowed eastward. According to legend, long ago an enraged super-monster named Gonggong 共工 broke the cosmic pillar to the northwest until it was fixed by the creator goddess Nüwa 女媧, and, before dismissing this tall tale, Wang Chong described its staying power as follows:


This lore has long existed, and people believe these words to be true. Educated people may think it strange but have no means to deny it, and if they do deny it, they have no means to point out its incongruities. They also fear it might be true and so never dare to formulate correct opinions. If we discuss this story in terms of heaven’s Dao and human affairs, it is merely baseless talk.2

Chu Shaosun, Wang Chong, and others voiced a strong skepticism concerning the various mythical narrations that would explain their world, but what is most interesting here is how they characterized the propagation and entrenchment of such beliefs. They not only drew a line between what they themselves regarded as correct and what others wrongly accepted as true, but they also recognized how persisting and unmovable those alternate visions of existence could be.

Yet it would be misleading to imply that only elite skeptics drew such lines. The Xiang’er Commentary 想爾 to the Daodejing 道德經, written just before the fall of the Han Dynasty (202 bce–220 ce) and associated with the Celestial Masters religious community, is replete with statements of faith, with condemnations of sin and with anthropomorphized forces, but it in turn also pulls no punches when dismissing other belief systems. For example when it explains the Daodejing’s line on how the wheel hub’s emptiness gives the wheel its utility (because that empty space is where the axle must go), it distances itself from prior interpreters who would appropriate this passage to explain how there was a “heavenly hub” (tiangu 天轂) replicated in humans and refined through breathing techniques. “Fraudulent specialists in the world today rely upon this true text [of the Daodejing] to concoct deceptive and crafty [glosses]” (今世間僞伎因緣真文設詐巧), the Xiang’er complains. “All these perversions and frauds are of no use, and those who would use them become greatly deluded” (皆邪僞不可用,用之者大迷矣).3 Even so, the Xiang’er’s own extensive gloss on the same Daodejing line appears to be just as strained and fanciful as the commentaries it condemns.

Whereas Chu Shaosun recognized how false beliefs propagated themselves and Wang Chong acknowledged how their inertial staying power silenced even the educated, the Xiang’er identified one way such beliefs gained ground, by latching onto greater works or “true texts.” Drawing lines between personal beliefs and those of others, these three all step back to look at “the big picture” when boxing away alternative religious and mythical narrations. Yet such stepping back need not always be with dismissive intent, and other writers also shifted from discourse to meta-discourse when justifying their own beliefs. Xunzi荀子 (c .335–c .238) is a good example of a scholar who could step back from an idea system he himself respected and find its roots elsewhere, and as Robert Ford Campany contends,

In this respect, his discourse on ritual resembles that offered by other contemporary schools—Taoist, Mohist, Legalist, Mencian, Logicist, and others. Members of each of these other schools shared with Xunzi the quest to place ritual on some nonritual footing, to understand it not by reference to the world defined by its own internal logic but by reference to some other ground of knowledge or value they took as more fundamental.4

Xunzi was a ritualist, but he also stepped back to look at himself doing ritual, explaining away his own actions via natural processes, social utility, rewards/punishments, and other such discourses.5 Here the general point is that people in early China did not just “do” religion (or ritual or myth); at times they also endeavored to take a bird’s eye view that then required a degree of theorizing. Making this claim admittedly sounds awkward given the fact there was no term for “religion,” but we can safely posit that, in early China, there existed recognized religious discourses even if they do not precisely map onto modern notions of religion.

In this article I begin a discussion on what the early Chinese themselves had to say about religion and religion-like discourses, about their structure, and about their function.6 I examine five problems relevant to modern religious theory but through the texts of early Chinese writers, namely

  1. 1. Supernatural agency

  2. 2. Nonautonomous spirits

  3. 3. Orthopraxy

  4. 4. Religious competition

  5. 5. Personal religious diversity

To reiterate, this survey is not about specific spirits or practices and instead focuses on explicit abstractions about spirits and practices. This survey, as imperfect as it is, may perhaps make us more cautious when we project our own constellations of “religion”—our own conscious theories and unconscious understandings of religion—onto their stars, which are already constellated; for a survey on the problems we encounter projecting modern theory, please see its counterpart, “The Modern Endeavor to Interpret Early Chinese Religions.” Appended to this piece is a list of ten questions, drawn from both articles, that we might ask whenever we analyze an early Chinese religious phenomenon, questions that require us to expand our knowledge of the context around that phenomenon lest we accidentally impose modern assumptions about religion.

Supernatural Agency

A. C. Graham contends that the Chinese language itself, particularly its absence of the copula “to be,” resists the Western-style notion of having a creator over and above creation. “The verb ‘to be’ allows us to conceive immaterial ‘entities’ detached from the material, for example God before the Creation,” Graham contends. “But if the immaterial is a Nothing which complements Something, it cannot be isolated; the immanence of the Tao in the universe is not an accident of Chinese thought, it is inherent in the functions of the words yu [有, ‘something’] and wu [無, ‘nothing’].”7 Or, as Roger T. Ames explains,

The essentializing copula verb (“is” from L. esse) establishes the static agent, separating and superordinating one’s unitary self from one’s actions, one’s attributes, and one’s modalities. The copula verb “copulates”—it joins what is originally two, into one. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, God is the primary causal agent—perfect and unchanging—existing independent of his actions…. The classical Chinese language, operating without the copula verb, then, leaves the whole process intact without assuming an abstracted agent.8

While language may have indeed prejudiced early Chinese discourses against having a god or gods transcendent to the material realm, there is also evidence, such as in the Chu silk manuscript from the Warring States period (481–221 bce) or frequent depictions of the cosmic builders Fuxi 伕羲 and Nüwa—with compass and carpenter’s square in hand—from the Eastern Han (25–220 bce), that this conception was not entirely impossible. As will be seen, creators above creation became an express point of contention.

Regardless, the main focus of modern scholarship on the nature of early Chinese supernatural agencies—ancestral spirits, nature spirits, euhemerized heroes from history, a personified heaven—seems to be how they gave way to the growing organic or mechanistic view of correlative cosmology based on resonance and qi 氣. Modern scholarship often describes ancestral spirits in particular as generally losing all their agency over the course of the Warring States period because they devolved into manifestations of qi. The cosmos is seen as becoming a balanced, comprehensive system premised on reciprocity. Yet it would be wrong for us to generalize the disappearance of willful supernatural agencies altogether in the subsequent Early Imperial period that begins around 221 bce, and there is much evidence that spiritual beings persisted both as active agencies as well as deconstructed forces (or a combination thereof).9 Received texts are of course already biased toward the lettered classes, but some depict the gods, ghosts, and spirits as representations of pervasive natural forces while others describe them as individuated, willful beings. Furthermore, in certain fields such as medicine, the two coexisted as both “systemic” and “ontic” causes for disease.10 Li Jianmin for example notes that, in the Warring States period, “a new development occurred, namely the synthesis of the discourse on demonic haunting with the newly arisen theory of qi” whereas later pharmacopeia texts in the Eastern Han both drew on a qi-oriented cosmology but also devised cures that fended off ghostly attacks.11 In Han art, supernatural agencies never disappeared and even resurged in the Eastern Han, or, as Michèle Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens observes, “Later, during the 2nd century, although the evocation of stellar phenomena was not abandoned, it was preferred to represent the celestial world, as much in the tombs as in the citing [祠堂, ‘sacrificial halls’], by the heavenly divinities and signs of good omen, with the former, most often in human form, occupying an increasingly important place to the detriment of the latter.”12 In general, supernatural agencies do not disappear from the Han landscape.

Perhaps most striking is the fact that the early Chinese writers themselves were fully cognizant of this tension between natural forces and supernatural agencies and what this tension meant for “religion.” For example, the “Jiyi” 祭義 or “Meaning of Sacrifices” essay in the Liji 禮記 or Ritual Records depicts Confucius as explaining how the sages understood the nature and cycles of qi and how they related to the end of life. He then demarcates two separate, coexisting genres of discourse, namely an elite understanding based on the yinyang cycles of qi and a popular understanding based on supernatural agencies:


By adhering to the quintessence of things and fixing a standard for them, [the sages] clearly identified “ghosts” and “spirits.” When this was made a model for the common people, then the multitudes were awed and the masses became subservient because of it. The sages still regarded this as insufficient, and so they built halls and established ancestral shrines, distinguishing between family near and far, between those distantly and closely related. This instructed the people to retreat to their beginnings, to return to the origin, and never forget their progenitor. The obedience of the masses came from this, and so they listened and submitted.13

In this remarkable statement that consciously identifies an origin to early Chinese religion, the sages first observed those natural cycles and forces and then invented ghosts, spirits, and the ancestral cult for the rest of us.

Nor is this limited to Confucian conjecture. The Daoist classic known as the Zhuangzi includes an anecdote about Duke Huan seeing a ghost that no one else notices. He duly fell ill but was advised that his illness was not because of ghosts but because his internal qi had become disordered. (That is, his disease was not “ontic” but “systemic” in origin.) He then queried whether ghosts were real and learned that they indeed were and was even given a list of them. One ghost in particular caught his attention, and he then asked his adviser for a further description. As it turns out, that particular ghost was the one he claimed to have seen. With his ghost duly identified, his mood greatly improved, and his disease disappeared before the day was done.14 Here Duke Huan appears to have remained within the genre of discourse that recognized ghostly agents, even though his adviser is like the Ritual Records’ sage who understood qi and yinyang cycles.

When it comes to the ultimate agent—a creator over and above creation—the Zhuangzi elsewhere alludes to the possible but unprovable existence of someone in charge of our circumstances, but “if there is someone genuinely in control, we just can’t find any sign of it” (若有真宰,而特不得其眹).15 Furthermore, because many early texts repeatedly argue against the certitude of there being omnipotent gods, some people apparently were indeed recognizing a creator over and above creation or an ultimate agency shaping our existence. Wang Chong explicitly dismissed a common cosmogonic analogy that likened the arising of existence to a smith smelting metals and forging pots because the smith intended to make his pots whereas our cosmogony was in fact a spontaneous act. For him there was no room for a willful god external to reality, but he clearly seems to be formulating an argument against an existing opinion.16 For others, there was also little room for lower gods within that cosmos, and just after the Han, the poet Chenggong Sui 成公綏 (231–273 ce) in his distinction between natural cycles and supernatural agencies expressly dismissed the latter. As if echoing Wang Chong two centuries earlier, Chenggong Sui condemns the Gonggong legend in particular, finding such recourse to supernatural agencies preposterous:


As for when Gonggong was fearfully angry,


One of heaven’s pillars was broken off.


So the southeast sloped when the pillar toppled;


The northwest gaped open, and a rent formed in the middle.


The feet of the turtle were cut off to rejoin the gap;


Stone and jade were smelted to repair the breach.


But surely there is no proof of this Gonggong affair?


It’s just the baseless claim of yarn-spinners.


Such are the difficulties of fathoming the yin and yang,


But great is the vastness of the dualistic principles!17

Hence the agency debate was actually a part of the early Chinese discourse itself, and even if there was no clearly defined Western-style “religion” constellation in early China, it is clear that a kind of meta-narrative arose to address the nature of supernatural beings and transcendence. When we today interpret a Warring States and early Han shift from spiritual agencies to natural forces, it is thus both problematic to interpret this transition as one fully replacing the other and necessary to contextualize such changes against their own understanding of the difference.

Nonautonomous Spirits

During the Eastern Han, a certain Grand Administrator Shi Qi 史祈 doubted the powers of Liu Gen 劉根, a Daoist recluse and teacher living in his region. Because he believed that Liu Gen had been deluding the commoners too long, he threatened to kill the Daoist unless the latter could demonstrate his abilities by making spirits appear. Liu Gen turned his head to the left and whistled, and a moment later dozens of Shi Qi’s own ancestors appeared with their hands tied behind their backs, kowtowing to Liu Gen and profusely apologizing for their descendant’s behavior. They then turned on Shi Qi and harshly chastised him with the following complaint:


As a descendant, you’ve brought no benefit to your ancestors but instead pile disgrace on us and deplete our numinous power! You will plead and apologize for us by kowtowing.

Terrified, Shi Qi apologetically kowtowed to Liu Gen until the blood flowed from his forehead.18

This conversion experience is more than simply a humorous anecdote about diverse, coexisting religious opinions; it also evinces spiritual dependence, of ancestors not enjoying an autonomous, static existence like angels off in a heaven but instead tied to the living in ongoing exchange relationships. Liu Gen had not invested in his ancestors, and hence his ancestors experienced a loss of numinous power and found themselves literally restrained.

Early Chinese supernatural agencies generally differ from their Western counterparts in that the later are conceived as being separate, static, and unaffected by anything that we, the living, might do. Such a separation was not always absolute, the most famous exceptions to this generalization being the recitation of funeral masses in the medieval ages and later the selling of indulgences by the church. When for example Martin Luther in 1517 famously denounced the latter, he wrote, “The dying are freed by death from all penalties; they are already dead to canonical rules, and have a right to be released from them.” That is, the dead had moved beyond the influence of our living realm. “It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but the result of the intercession of the Church is in the power of God alone.” The dead were entirely in the jurisdiction of a creator who existed separately from his creation.

In early China, it was argued that the dead were not static and autonomous but dynamic and dependent. By “it was argued,” I again mean that the nature of the dead was the subject of a detailed meta-discourse. Uncertainty about the dead—an uncertainty that was voiced in ancestral hymns, imperial edicts, and court debates—led to theorizing and problematizing their existence, their “sentience” (zhi 知), and their “numinous power” (ling 靈). It led to court debates, recorded theories, and prescriptive canons beyond the prayers and tributes to the particular dead. Evident throughout the received and excavated literature, spirits were by nature nonautonomous.

For example, within the ancestral cult the dead relied on the living’s food sacrifices and/or focused remembrances, depending on whether they were conceived as agencies in their own right or as mental projections of the living. In its official guise, the ancestral cult was a form of structured amnesia as the vanishing dead experienced a digitized reduction in their rituals and sacrifices. They faded as the living forgot, and sacrifices temporarily fended off complete oblivion. Or as one Eastern Han stele succinctly expresses this dependence:


Because her soul is alone, isolated and suffering,


We spread out the spring offering to bring her back to the living.


Even though we can’t see her in the darkness, we preserve her form.19

Thus the postmortem state was tied to the activities of their living descendants and rememberers.20

The grand historian Sima Qian司馬遷 (c .145–c .86 bce) depicts a similar interdependence within imperial religious activities. Heaven was said to “recompense” (bao 報) the emperor for proper conduct such as carrying out the fengshan 封禪 sacrifice, whereas the emperor in turn “recompensed” the gods for good harvests such as by increasing sacrifices to the Five Lords.21 That two-way compensatory exchange curiously extended below the emperor, and Sima Qian further details the generous rewards given to the magicians and spiritualists who came to his court. However, when their “techniques increasingly waned so that the spirits would not come” (fang yishuai, shen buzhi方益衰,神不至) or their “techniques became exhausted and mostly unverifiable” (fang jin, duo buchou 方盡,多不讎), he then had them executed.22 Like the spirits they purportedly commanded, the magicians and spiritualists met their own end when their powers were gone.

The most common term for a spirit’s store of energy is ling 靈 or “numinous power,” and as the Heshang gong 河上公 commentary to the Daodejing succinctly describes its impermanence, “Spirits… cannot merely desire numinous power forever because it might happen that their numinous power will dissipate and they will no longer be spirits” (神… 不可但欲靈無已時,將恐靈歇不為神也).23 Grave stelae and received literature alike provide many examples of the conditional phrase “while the soul possesses its numinous power” (hun er youling 魂而有靈) as in “While his soul possesses its numinous power, may he consider this kind honor as excellent!” (魂而有靈,嘉其寵榮) or “While his soul possesses its numinous power, may he enjoy the offering (魂而有靈,儻其歆享).24 As a recently excavated Eastern Han stele dedicated to a minor official named Jing Yun 景雲 (d .103 ce) describes the mourning experienced in this particular locality near modern Chongqing:


While his soul’s numinous power remained among them, the farmers were anxious and knotted up, the travelers brushed away their tears, the weaving women sobbed in silence, and the officials longingly brooded. When the households presented their offerings and sacrifices, the sacrificers could see each other’s smoke and fire in the distance. Sacrifices were presented every season without exception, even deep into the wilds far and wide. Because the sounds of mourning were distressingly pressing, they thus sang about his remnant wind, a sighing that would last for a hundred thousand generations.25

The numinous power of Jing Yun’s spirit persisted in tandem with his being remembered via sacrifice and with his “remnant wind” still touching the living within that territory.

In summary, we must be wary of accidentally importing Abrahamic notions of “spirits” into our understanding of supernatural agencies in early China because the latter were not static, autonomous, or eternal. Hence they were not “transcendent” in an absolute sense because they remained dependent on exchange relations with the living.


The Ritual Records is by no means alone in relegating ghost-fearing beliefs to the commoners, and Xunzi contends that “in the presence of gentlemen, we refer to human ideals, but in the presence of commoners, we refer to ghostly affairs” (其在君子,以爲人道也;其在百姓,以爲鬼事也).26 Yet neither the Ritual Records nor Xunzi condemn the masses. From the perspective of orthopraxy, the masses were doing the right thing even if for the wrong reason. In the case of the Ritual Records, the sages created ghosts and spirits to foster obedience and delineate lineage in-groups, and this affirmation of hierarchical communities is further borne out in religion’s components such as mourning rites. Xunzi explicitly argued that it is in our inborn nature to form societies, and mourning unites the people while defining their hierarchies.


The funeral of the son of heaven moves everyone within the four seas and brings together his lords of the states. The funeral of a state’s lord moves everyone within the adjacent kingdoms and brings together his grandees. The funeral of a grandee moves everyone within a single kingdom and brings together his high officials. The funeral of a high official moves everyone within a single community and brings together his friends. The funeral of a commoner unites his kin and neighbors, moving everyone within the district and hamlet.27

Another religious component that affirmed hierarchical communities was music. The Lü shi chunqiu 呂氏春秋 or Spring and Autumn Annals of Mr. Lü explains that great music unites ruler and subject, father and son, old and young,28 and copying a statement found in both the Xunzi and the Ritual Records, Sima Qian’s Shiji 史記 or Historical Records in turn details this music-induced unity in almost Durkheimian terms:


Therefore, when ruler and subject, superior and subordinate join together to hear music performed within the ancestral shrine, they will all be united in their reverence. When old and young join together to hear music performed in the lineage centers and villages, they will all be united in their obedience. When father and son, elder and younger brother join together to hear music performed within the confines of the household, they will all be united in their feelings of kinship.29

All these sources expressly abstract an alternate, higher purpose to what these people were doing when ostensibly worshipping the dead, mourning, or listening to music. Orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy.

Yet early religious theory espousing orthopraxy did not limit religion’s function to the affirmation of hierarchical communities; it also recognized religion’s surveillance aspect, as spirits and ghosts could monitor people and control behavior even when they were alone. While the state governed the subject in public, religion continued to govern him or her within the privacy of the household, an argument also put forward by 5th-century Greeks such as Critias (460–403 bce):

Then when the laws prevented [men] from committing open deeds of violence, but they continued to do them in secret, it seems to me that a man of clever and cunning wit first invented for men fear of the gods, so that there might be something to frighten the wicked, even if they do or say or think something in secret. Hence he introduced the divine, saying that there is a deity [daimon] who enjoys immortal life, hearing and seeing with his mind, thinking of everything and caring about these things, and possessing a divine nature, who will hear everything said among mortals and be able to see everything that is done.30

Critias’s surveillance argument persists today in various forms of modern theory, but in terms of early China, his speculation closely resembles the Zhuangzi: “People will catch and punish anyone doing wrong out in the open, whereas ghosts will catch and punish anyone doing wrong in secret” (為不善乎顯明之中者,人得而誅之;為不善乎幽閒之中者,鬼得而誅之).31 Yet this surveillance theory is best developed in a famous essay on ghosts by Mozi 墨子 (late 4th century bce) when explaining the source of the world’s violence and wickedness:


Why is such the case? It’s because everyone has doubts about whether ghosts and spirits exist and doesn’t understand how ghosts and spirits are able to reward the worthy and punish the wicked. If you could make the people of the world believe in the ability of ghosts and spirits to reward the worthy and punish the wicked, then how could the world be in chaos?32

Mozi expands on this theory at great length, and the surveillance function is often repeated in later texts such as medical treatises and classical commentaries.33 The Xiang’er commentary even contends that punishments via ghosts potentially eclipse punishments via the law:


If [the people] understand that the spirits can’t be duped, they won’t live in fear of the law. [This is because] when they duly fear the heavenly spirits, they won’t dare do any wrong or commit any evil. Subordinates will be loyal and sons will be filial of their own accord and with extreme mindfulness.34

It goes on to say the court’s laws and punishments will simply become redundant in light of supernatural surveillance, making the self-regulating people easy to govern and the ruler happy. This recognition of supernatural retribution trumping human retribution is not entirely new, and the much earlier Guanzi even recommended taxing sacrifices to the ghosts and spirits because, unlike building taxes, head taxes, and livestock taxes, the people would never dare skimp on sacrificial expenditures.35

Beyond affirming hierarchical communities and creating a constant surveillance mechanism, religious discourses were argued to superimpose an outside sanctioning authority onto matters that might otherwise be considered simple common sense or reasonable propriety. For a Western Han example, the Huainanzi 淮南子 contends


Folklore includes the following sayings: “When feasting the highest [ancestors], pork is the best sacrifice.” “When burying the dead, don’t inter them with fur.” “When playing around with each other using swords, the grand ancestor will push against your arms.” “When you sleep using the door threshold as a pillow, the ghosts and spirits will tread upon your head.” None of these is recorded in the rules and regulations, and the sages never passed them down by word of mouth.36

Absent in the prescriptive regulations, these popular traditions would seem to be without foundation, but the Huainanzi continues by noting how common sense informs each saying. Pork was common and so it naturally became a staple in ancestral sacrifices, whereas furs were rare and never to be wasted by burying them in the ground. Playing with swords or sleeping with one’s head on a door threshold was obviously dangerous, and so folklore drew upon the authority of spiritual agencies to curb such practices. These behaviors were correct in themselves, but religion added external authority to justify them. For an Eastern Han example, Wang Chong highlights several popular practices that were regarded as either auspicious or inauspicious but in fact “instructed people to emphasize caution and urged people to do good” (教人重慎,勉人爲善). For example, it may be deemed “inauspicious” to allow mutilated descendants to sacrifice to their ancestors, but in fact mutilation as a criminal punishment was also a matter of shame, and forbidding a criminal to sacrifice was an extension of that shame. Or it may be deemed “inauspicious” to meet a woman who has just given birth, but in fact this avoidance simply evolved from an instinctual aversion to blood and bodily fluids.37 When custom forbade an action, it was at its core “a restriction in terms of ritual and propriety and not necessarily a matter of auspiciousness and inauspiciousness” (禮義之禁,未必吉凶之言也).38

In summary, early texts regularly stepped outside the bounds of specific religions to theorize about religious behavior in a way that justified ends over means; religious discourses generated and affirmed social norms to validate hierarchical communities, good conduct in public and private, and commonsense behavior. Orthopraxy was what mattered and orthodoxy less so, and “what is done” was more important than “what is believed.” Hence when modern scholarship analyzes these early traditions, it must be cognizant of the fact that “belief,” which is commonly focal in post-Reformation Protestant understandings of religion, is not necessarily the most significant defining parameter in early Chinese religious practice.

Religious Competition

Like any idea system, a religious system becomes definable only in plurality, just as a “self” can only be recognized in the presence of an “other.” Yet how the boundaries are drawn between two or more systems can be culture-specific. In tandem with the Greco-Roman adversarial tradition in scholarship, Western religions in general and Abrahamic traditions in particular tend to assume “religious exclusivism,” namely that one’s own belief is true and others (including nonbelief) are false. Hence the boundaries between them are distinct and emphasize separation. In terms of early Chinese scholarship and religions, their writers did not outright dismiss one another but recognized other traditions as having partial glimpses of the ultimate truth. It was not “I’m right; you’re wrong”; it was “I see the big picture; you see a corner.” In other words, Western traditions assume absolute authority whereas early Chinese traditions assume relative authority. To visualize with a metaphor often employed in the latter, one’s own idea system or religion was the trunk tradition that led directly down to the root—often identified as the Dao—whereas other traditions were later offshoots and even offshoots of offshoots, varying in their degrees of deviation. Hence when defining or defending one’s own idea system or religion, connection to (and not separation from) the others was assumed.39

For an extended example of this different kind of religious competition, let us turn to the case of early Daoism, although “Daoism” cannot be said to begin as Dao-ism because it does not begin with clear self–other boundaries. In 2003, Mark Csikszentmihalyi and Michael Nylan contended that “A majority [of historians]… continue to treat the terms ‘Ru’ and ‘Dao’ as direct and unproblematic references to two scholastic ‘isms,’ Confucianism and Daoism, and to ignore discrepancies among the rhetorical constructions in early sources.”40 That is, we are quick to label early thinkers as either Mohist, Daoist, sophist, or something-ist even though, according to Nathan Sivin, “Such isms do more to invite confusion than to shed light.”41 Or, as Kidder Smith summarized, “The Warring States, of course, knew no Daoists or Legalists,” and when it came to the concept of Daoism in particular, only “by the end of the Western Han, we can properly call [it] an ‘-ism.’”42 Our overusage of the word “Daoism” remains a problem in modern scholarship.

One way Daoism can be said to have eventually become Dao-ism is through historicizing its purported founder Laozi, and already here there is evidence of jockeying for the trunk position among other traditions. Graham contends that Daoists selected an existing story from the 4th century bce of Confucius being taught the rites by a certain Lao Dan 老聃, appropriating that historical personage as their tradition’s founder and thereby claiming generational seniority over Confucianism. That is, Confucianism was not wrong relative to Daoism, but it was indeed subordinate to it.43 This one-upmanship later became more explicit in the famous enumeration of the six intellectual traditions by Sima Qian’s father, Sima Tan 司馬談 (d .c .110 bce), namely the idea systems of Daoism, Confucianism, Legalism, Mohism, the yinyang experts, and the names-and-systems experts. Sima Tan privileged Daoism by highlighting particular good qualities in which the other five specialized and then claiming that Daoism owned all those qualities within itself: “As for their methods, the Daoists heed the great harmonies of yinyang, select the best from Classicism and Mohism, and extract the essentials from [the tradition on] names and systems” (其為術也,因陰陽之大順,采儒墨之善,撮名法之要).44 Sima Qian himself continues to trumpet Daoism in his Historical Records, particularly in his closing appraisal to a collection of related biographies of famous thinkers that begins with Laozi:


The grand historian says: “The Dao honored by Laozi is an empty absence, and it accordingly resonates with transformation in terms of not acting upon other things. Thus his writings and talks are subtle and mysterious, and they are hard to record. Zhuangzi broke apart the Dao and De, and he freely analyzed them. Yet his essentials likewise return to spontaneity. Shenzi exerted himself and extolled the Dao and De in terms of name and reality. Han Fei drew out the marking line and ink, sliced between affairs and emotions, and made clear the relationship between right and wrong. At his extreme, he made his divisions cruel, and he belittled kindness. All of these men originate in the meaning of the Dao and De, but Laozi has become distant and remote.45

Laozi here maintains his trunk position whereas the other three branch off from him by degrees because of their increased verbiage and line drawing. Yet even Laozi could fall victim to his own trap. The Daodejing commentator Wang Bi 王弼 (226–249 ce) later praised Confucius for “embodying nothingness” (tiwu 體無) rather than talking about it. Actually talking about nothingness would have made nothing into a something, and so “Laozi and Zhuangzi didn’t escape from the realm of somethingness because their constant instruction [about nothingness] was their shortcoming” (老莊未免於有,恆訓其所不足).46 Relative to Sima Qian’s appraisal, Confucius now gets positioned prior to Laozi precisely because he did not discuss the ineffable Dao at all.

While this example of constantly jockeying for the trunk position need not be interpreted as “religious” per se—although as seen in this article’s companion piece, some modern scholars regard Daoism and Confucianism in general to be religions—this type of thinking also characterizes competition among traditions that are more easily dubbed religious. Let us consider one more example of such competition, this one beyond the isms of the well-established textual traditions and instead concerning a Han imperial case of worship and sacrifice. Reflecting the developing correlative cosmology, the Wudi 五帝 or Five Lords came to represent the seasons, directions, and colors of five-phase thinking. (Represented by wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, the five phases were a comprehensive sorting pattern within which everything—from musical notes and bodily organs to planets and dynasties—cycled through a five-part sequence of birth, growth, maturation, death, and dormancy.) Sima Qian traces formal worship of the Five Lords to the Han founder, and he provides detail on their increased worship under subsequent emperors such as Emperor Wen (r .179–156 bce), including a description of their worship site constructed about 165 bce.47 However in Emperor Wu’s reign (140–86 bce), worship of Taiyi 太一 (the “Great one” or “Great unity”) soon trumped that of the Five Lords, which is a significant event in Chinese religious history. As Marianne Bujard explains

The cult dedicated to the Great One and its progressive transformation into a cult addressed to Heaven was without doubt a first attempt to place in the imperial pantheon a supreme divinity dominating all others, a kind of alter ego of the emperor in the divine world. In the words of Marcel Gauchet, “the dispersion of the gods ran counter to political unity,” and the literati, by raising Heaven to the rank of cosmological principle and moral model for the sovereign, tried to establish a perfect correlation between pantheon and state.48

Sima Qian’s description of the new worship site built about 113 bce demonstrates how the new object of reverence did not simply replace the Five Lords but instead claimed the trunk position or, more literally in this case, the elevated middle position. The Five Lords now had their own altars lower than and circling that of the Great One, and, in particular, their Yellow Lord of the center—“center” being the fifth direction—was relegated to the southwest corner to make room for the new supreme divinity who had usurped his spot.49 In the sacrifice itself, the Five Lords also received a downgraded offering relative to that of the Great One. Hence the earlier cosmic deconstruction was not simply dismissed as a defunct rival but instead subordinated to the new focus of imperial worship.

While the context of this last example plainly differs from the Daoist text-oriented case previously given, the structure of religious competition remains the same. That structure would continue in later religious traditions, including, for example, (a) younger Daoist churches worshipping gods who outranked (but did not replace) the older Daoist gods; (b) Buddhist upaya or “expedient means” in which later sutras gave fuller visions of reality than their predecessors because the latter had been necessary for earlier, more ignorant times; and (c) even today’s Falun Gong, which explicitly positions itself above Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist traditions and claims to be the first fully realized combination of their separate teachings.50

Yet by way of a caveat, this form of religious competition is a tendency and not an absolute because there are exceptions of exclusivity, particularly when religions become more institutionalized. The Xiang’er commentary of the Celestial Masters, for example, gestures toward exclusivism:


Strive toward and place your faith in the Dao’s genuineness, but cast aside heterodox understandings while embracing basic simplicity. Have no other thoughts or reflections. The broad expanse of your mind should place its faith in the Dao alone.51

Not common in surviving religious discourses prior to the 2nd century ce, the “faith” or “trust” (xin 信) phenomenon is a kind of directed fiduciary relationship, and significantly that faith in the Dao is listed in tandem with an explicit rejection of deviant idea systems here and elsewhere in the commentary. When sanctioned faith is directed at an object, it is also being directed away from other objects.52 Yet even the institutional Daoism of the Celestial Masters is by no means absolutely exclusivist, and their other surviving scriptures reveal the same style of jockeying for the trunk position (relative to, e.g., Buddhism) described here.53

This trunk-versus-branch thinking also ripples into the other meta-narratives already described, such as orthopraxy. In the Ritual Records, the sages did not damn the benighted commoners for their false belief in ghostly agencies even though such beliefs were inferior to understanding yinyang cycles and qi. The commoners’ perspective remained viable and connected to the sagely perspective because they were still doing the right things even if for the wrong reasons.

Personal Religious Diversity

This explicit trunk-versus-branch thinking is indigenous to the early Chinese religious traditions themselves, and so we must be wary about projecting our modern understandings of religion that may have arisen out of exclusivism, an exclusivism that starkly demarcates religions or clearly divides the sacred from the profane. This lack of exclusivity can even extend to the religious adherents themselves, meaning that a person could identify with more than one belief system more easily than can participants within exclusivist faiths. That is, if in early China all traditions ultimately returned to the same root—the same Dao—then it is more reasonable to acknowledge some degree of veracity within other traditions, just as Sima Tan did when weighing the six types of intellectual expertise. Furthermore, if orthopraxy trumped orthodoxy, one’s choice of trunk tradition can be dynamic rather than static, dependent on a person’s practical circumstances at any given time. This phenomenon of personal religious diversity persists up to the present, and the most famous scholar to observe it was Max Weber a century ago in his Sociology of Religion:

There is an almost ineradicable vulgar error that the majority or even all of the Chinese are to be regarded as Buddhists in religion. The source of this misconception is the fact that many Chinese have been brought up in the Confucian ethic (which alone enjoys official approbation) yet still consult Taoist divining priests before building a house, and that Chinese will mourn deceased relatives according to the Confucian rule while also arranging for Buddhist masses to be performed in their memory.54

Whereas Abrahamic cultures regularly divvy up religions via people—Christians, Jews, Muslims, and so forth—traditional China regularly divvied up religious discourses via practical circumstance. To put it another way, one adopts the idea system most relevant to the genre of discourse at hand, even if the discourses are to some degree inconsistent with one another.55

Early Chinese examples of individuals embracing different religious perspectives in different circumstances are rare simply because there survive few sources adequately long enough to detail both an individual’s diverse circumstances, as well as their related religious expressions. Yet several cases suggest themselves. Sima Qian’s account of the Qin’s First Emperor (r .221–209 bce) intersperses the ruler’s conservative, Confucian-style mountain inscriptions that vaunt dynastic longevity with colorful, almost bizarre tales of his questing after immortals and after his own personal transcendence. Later, the court scholar Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (c .179–c .104 bce) on one hand explained omens as a correlative cosmology in which things of the same category mechanically resonated with one another, but on the other hand, he explicated them as concerned warnings from a benevolent, anthropomorphized heaven that cared for rulers and desired to end their chaos.56 Still later, Cao Zhi 曹植 (192–232 ce) wrote essays logically dismissing the existence of immortals but also composed poetry glorifying them. When confronting such apparent contradictions, modern scholarship has endeavored to construct explanations for each, and in the first case it has been suggested that Sima Qian intentionally juxtaposed the First Emperor’s Confucian-style inscriptions with the wild stories about immortals in order to criticize the ruler’s fickleness and ambition. As for the last case, it has been speculated at length that the immortal-glorifying poetry must have come at the end of Cao Zhi’s life after a near incarceration and an intense despair at not achieving the merit valued by Confucians. Yet tree-versus-branch thinking that leads to personal religious diversity permits one to operate in multiple genres of discourse, meaning such creative interpretations, while possibly valid, may not be necessary. That is, we may be seeing contradictions where they saw none.

Conclusion: Shifting Rightness

In the same chapter of the Zhuangzi that warns us about ghosts watching and punishing us when we do wrong, this text famously describes the phenomenon of “shifting rightness” (yishi 移是). That is, we would “control others by using the self as our standard” (shiren yiwei jijie 使人以爲己節), by taking our understanding of current, lived circumstances as the model of all existence. In this ongoing theme throughout the corpus, the Zhuangzi denies a universal measure of reality that we can extrapolate from our own situatedness, or, more accurately, there may be a universal rightness—there may even be a god out there pulling the strings—but we simply have no means of accessing it or even proving it. When encountering other circumstances, we must instead learn to shift to the rightness of those circumstances.

The Zhuangzi’s philosophical lesson applies to whenever we endeavor to interpret early Chinese religions. We tend to see religions a certain way—gods separate from creation, souls separate from bodies, the dead separate from the living, religions separate from one another—but that rightness shifts when we move from our situatedness to that of early China. All five of the religious phenomena cursorily outlined in this article—supernatural agency, nonautonomous spirits, orthopraxy, religious competition, and personal religious diversity—add up to be a shifted rightness. Furthermore, they are not just particularities that make early Chinese religious discourses different from modern or Abrahamic traditions; they are all problems and uncertainties that resulted in discussions and theories within early China. Without understanding how the early Chinese writers themselves understood these phenomena, modern scholarship dangerously imposes its own templates derived from Western exclusivist institutional religions that are more restrictive in drawing boxes around orthodoxy. In the end, we dare not impose our own rightness of religious theory on them because, after all, their ghosts are watching.

Appendix: Ten Questions to Ask About Early Chinese Religious Phenomena

The bibliography for both this article, “The early Chinese endeavor to interpret early Chinese religions,” and its counterpart, “The Modern Endeavor to Interpret Early Chinese Religions,” appears at the end of the latter. Here instead it may be useful to summarize these surveys with a list of questions one might fruitfully ask whenever encountering a religious phenomenon in early China—a divination bone, an ancestral vessel, a prayer or hymn, a stele inscription, a tomb text, a stone relief depicting a banquet, a silken image of a divinity, a textual description of an ancestral tablet. The sheer variety of phenomena may require a degree of shallowness in these questions, making many of them sound like common sense, but it is hoped that each can be more fully nuanced when read relative to these two articles. Limited to ten questions, this list is by no means inclusive and invites extension, and the answers to the questions may be a matter of degree rather than either/or. Furthermore, many of these questions probably cannot be answered when analyzing particular religious phenomena, but the fact that we cannot answer them may also be useful to recognize, perhaps keeping us humble in our claims. It is perfectly acceptable to leave the historical landscape riddled with question marks because it is often a truer picture of our past than the falsely complete portraits we often paint.

  1. 1. What is the scope of this religious phenomenon in terms of its longevity, geographic spread, and degree of representativeness among people? Within that scope, can we also determine its intensity, namely whether this phenomenon was regarded as meaningful (e.g., did it incite action or shape one’s Weltanschauung) or banal (e.g., was it merely decorative or a routinized gesture)?

  2. 2. Can we ascertain the agenda behind the religious phenomenon? That is, what does the court, family, artisan, or anyone involved in its production, placement, and preservation gain by presenting the phenomenon in this way?

  3. 3. Has the religious phenomenon already undergone its own history of change (i.e., editing, selectivity, reinterpretation, and even decay) already within the period of early China itself, before it comes to us? Was it once a “freer” phenomenon that became subject to systematizing (which implies a conscious, desired outcome), routinizing (which implies an unconscious, undesired consequence), or rhetorical expectations? Conversely, is there any evidence of its rebelling against conventions?

  4. 4. Would the early Chinese themselves perhaps recognize a different cluster of things, people, or ideas around this religious phenomenon than we might? Might it be officially sanctioned in some way? Does investment (or “faith”) in this phenomenon imply disinvestment (or a recognition of “deviance”) in something else?

  5. 5. If the phenomenon can be seen as part of a religious “narrative” in early China, do we benefit from placing it within context of early Chinese religious meta-narratives on supernatural agency, nonautonomous spirits, orthopraxy, religious competition, and personal religious diversity?

  6. 6. In terms of the sources we would use to contextualize the religious phenomenon, are our sources descriptions, prescriptions, or idealizations? And if they are idealizations, are they the idealizations of the few or the many? Is the context a court edict or practice? a canonical text broadly memorized by the lettered classes from childhood? a new argument from a single philosopher?

  7. 7. Does the religious phenomenon, particularly if it is a material object, say something about representation in early China? That is, does it index an idea (i.e., symbolically pointing somewhere else), or is it in itself the functioning embodiment of a reality? If it is a ritual, is it representing reality or in fact changing reality through its performance?

  8. 8. When interpreting a religious phenomenon, are we defaulting to their grander social and political contextualizations? Or are we able to frame it in terms of their own daily experiences and performances in a way that would have mattered to them?

  9. 9. Can religious theory, even if largely from the West, play a useful role in raising valid questions and suggesting avenues of research? That is, do theories on religion from anthropology, art, biology, economics, linguistics, psychology, sociology, and so forth offer potential insights? Or do these theories make certain assumptions (e.g., sacred versus profane, body versus soul, religion versus religion) of what is or is not to be included in the study of religion, ritual, myth, and so forth that would hinder their application? Likewise, can comparative religions play a useful role? That is, does this phenomenon’s appearance in a different cultural history as a “tension point” or “site of controversy” help us nuance this particular phenomenon?

  10. 10. Finally, as interpreter, what components of our own situatedness, habitus, or personal “rightness” need to be recognized and filtered lest we misconstrue our data?


(1) Shiji 史記(Historical Records) (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1985), 13.505–13.506. The line “must have been humans first in order to become ghosts” could alternatively be rendered “require humans in order to make them.” That is, descendants gather together in ritual settings and “make” their ancestors. There is precedence for both readings.

(2) Lunheng jiaoshi 論衡校釋 (Analytical Balance, with collated elucidations), annotated by Huang Hui 黃暉 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1995), 470 (“Tantian” 談天). For his criticisms of the Houji birth myth, see Lunheng jiaoshi, 160 (“Qiguai” 奇怪).

(3) Laozi Xiang’er zhujiaojian 老子想爾注校箋(Xiang’er version of Laozi, with commentaries and collated notes), annotated by Rao Zongyi 饒饒宗頤 (Hong Kong: Tong Nam, 1956), 15.

(4) Robert Ford Campany, “Xunzi and Durkheim as Theorists of Ritual Practice,” in Discourse and Practice, ed. Frank Reynolds and David Tracy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 213.

(5) Campany observes that, while Xunzi is explaining away ritual, he himself no doubt still participated in them, thereby complicating the common assumption that scholars who explain away ritual are usually outside the tradition (i.e., etic). I would suggest that, as is discussed in the “Personal religious Diversity” section, one can operate within multiple and even inconsistent genres of discourse, such as Cao Zhi explaining away immortals but then writing poetry to glorify them. In early China, being a ritualist and being a scholar who explains away ritual might not have seemed contradictory.

(6) In conjunction with this article, I would recommend reading the first chapter of Eric J. Sharpe’s Comparative Religion: A History (London: Duckworth, 1986), which describes early Western theorizing about religion before the modern age.

(7) A. C. Graham, Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 346. The Dao itself is immanent because it is not a superordinated principle existing over and above our reality (like a Platonic form) but is the working out of reality itself.

(8) Roger T. Ames, “Knowing in the Zhuangzi: ‘From Here, on the Bridge, Over the River Hao,” in Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi, ed. Roger T. Ames (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 226.

(9) See for example K. E. Brashier, Ancestral Memory in Early China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2011), part 3.

(10) Here see the extensive work of Paul Unschuld including his Medicine in China: A History of Ideas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

(11) Li Jianmin, “They Shall Expel Demons: Etiology, the Medical Canon and the Transformation of Medical Techniques before the Tang,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 1112, 1123.

(12) Michèle Pirazzoli-t’Serstevens, “Death and the Dead: Practices and Images in the Qin and Han,” in Early Chinese Religion—Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC–220 AD), ed. John Lagerwey and Marc Kalinowski (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 965.

(13) Liji jijie, 1220 (“Jiyi” 祭義). For similar statements, see Liji jijie, 1197 (“Jifa” 祭法) and Da Dai liji jiegu 大戴禮記解詁 (Ritual Records of Dai the Elder with explications and glosses), annotated by Wang Pinzhen 王聘珍 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1989), 210 (“Yongbing” 用兵).

(14) Zhuangzi jishi 莊子集釋(Zhuangzi with collected elucidations), annotated by Guo Qingfan 郭慶藩 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1997), 650–654 (“Dasheng” 達生).

(15) Zhuangzi jishi, 15 (“Qiwulun” 齊物論).

(16) Lunheng jiaoshi 論衡校釋(Analytical Balance with collated elucidations), annotated by Huang Hui 黃暉 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1995), 144–145 (“Wushi” 物勢).

(17) K. E. Brashier, “‘A Poetic Exposition on Heaven and Earth’ by Chenggong Sui (231–273),” Journal of Chinese Religions 24 (1996): 20–21.

(18) Hou Hanshu 後漢書 (Documents of the Later Han) (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1973), 82.2746. I cite this story in Brashier, Ancestral Memory in Early China, 187–188, although here I am highlighting a different aspect of it.

(19) Lishi 隸釋(Elucidations on Clerical Script), annotated by Hong Gua 洪适. In Shike shiliao xinbian 石刻史料新編 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 1982), 12.17a (“Li Yi furen bei” 李翊夫人碑).

(20) For a detailed study on the ancestral cult and this concept of structured amnesia, see Brashier, Ancestral Memory in Early China.

(21) Shiji, 28.1399, 28.1381, respectively.

(22) Shiji, 28.1388, 28.1395, respectively.

(23) Daode zhenjing 道德真經, annotated by Heshang gong 河上公 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji, 1993), 23 (“Faben” 法本 39).

(24) See Cai zhonglang ji 蔡中郎集(The Collection of Gentleman-of-the-Household Cai), in Sibu beiyao 四部備要 (Shanghai: Zhonghua, 1936), 1.19a (“Dingming” 鼎銘); Hou Hanshu, 54.1767–54.1768.

(25) Hanbei quanji 漢碑全集(Comprehensive Collection of Han Stelae), compiled by Xu Yuli 徐玉立 (Zhengzhou: Henan meishu, 2006), 5.1477 (“Quren ling Jing jun bei” 朐忍令景君碑).

(26) Xunzi jijie 荀子集解(Xunzi with collected explications), annotated by Wang Xianqian 王先謙 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1988), 376 (“Lilun” 禮論).

(27) Xunzi jijie, 360–361 (“Lilun” 禮論).

(28) Lü shi chunqiu jishi, 5.6b (“Dayue” 大樂).

(29) Shiji, 24.1220. Sima Qian is here following Xunzi jijie, 379 (“Yuelun” 樂論) and Liji jijie, 1033 (“Yueji” 樂記).

(30) Cited in G. E. R. Lloyd, Magic, Reason, and Experience: Studies in the Origins and Development of Greek Science (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1999), 15.

(31) Zhuangzi jishi, 794 (“Gengsang Chu” 庚桑楚).

(32) Mozi jiaozhu 墨子校注 (Mozi with collated commentaries), annotated by Wu Yujiang 吳毓江 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1993), 336 (“Minggui” 明鬼).

(33) See for example Li Jianmin, “They Shall Expel Demons,” 1125, 1139.

(34) Laozi Xiang’er zhujiaojian, 47. For a similar statement on heaven’s scrutiny eclipsing that of humans (thereby justifying the replacement of human law with heavenly law), see p. 25.

(35) Guanzi jiaozhu 管子校注 (Guanzi with collated commentaries), annotated by Li Xiangfeng 黎翔鳳 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 2004), 1412–1413 (“Qingzhong jia” 輕重甲).

(36) Huainan honglie jijie 淮南鴻烈集解 (Luminous Book of Huainan with collected explications), annotated by Liu Wendian 劉文典 (Taipei: Wenshizhe, 1992), 459 (“Fanlun” 氾論).

(37) In his Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001), Pascal Boyer (pp. 210–215) likewise argues that cultures regularly translate instinctual aversions to pollution, decay, and contagion into religious precepts.

(38) Lunheng jiaoshi, 980 (“Sihui” 四諱).

(39) For a fuller account of this early Chinese epistemology, see the Introduction to Brashier, Ancestral Memory in Early China. Campany (“On the very idea of religions,” 304, 308) also notes the early existence of the root-branch metaphor.

(40) Mark Csikszentmihalyi and Michael Nylan, “Constructing Lineages and Inventing Traditions Through Exemplary Figures in Early China,” T’oung pao 89 (2003): 59.

(41) Nathan Sivin, “Taoism and Science,” in Medicine, Philosophy and Religion in Ancient China, part 7 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1995), 6.

(42) Kidder Smith, “Sima Tan and the Invention of Daoism, ‘Legalism,’ et cetera,” The Journal of Asian Studies 62.1 (2003): 130.

(43) A. C. Graham, “The Origins of the Legend of Lao Tan,” in Lao-tzu and the Dao-te-ching (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 23–40.

(44) Shiji, 130.3289.

(45) Shiji, 63.2156.

(46) Shishuo xinyu jiaojian 世說新語校箋(New Account of Tales of the World with collated notes), annotated by Xu Zhene 徐震堮 (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1994), 107 (“Wenxue” 文學).

(47) Shiji, 28.1378, 28.1382.

(48) Bujard, “State and Local Cults in Han Religion,” 795–796. As Bujard and others note, the Great One did not enjoy this position very long, with this attempt to downgrade all other divinities relative to itself being too disruptive. “Key here is the influence of the cosmological conceptions of the time that were largely founded on the creative and regulatory alternation of the forces of yin and yang. The universal acceptance of this cosmology ensured a kind of ‘resistance’ to the appearance of a single sovereign god.” Her explanation resonates with A. C. Graham’s observation about the difficulties of having a single creator over and above creation given the lack of copula and the complementary pairing of you 有 and wu 無.

(49) The five seasons and their correspondent directions reflect the production cycle of the five phases in which one phase produces the next, meaning that earth, formerly occupying the center, was apparently moved between that which produced earth (summer’s fire in the south) and that which earth produced (autumn’s metal in the west).

(50) As for Falun gong, see Li Hongzhi’s Zhuan falun, which, even in the opening lines of the first lecture, explicitly states that the earlier traditions are not bad but simply not as high as what he can now offer. All nine of his lectures regularly draw upon the earlier traditions that he subordinates to his own, and while he explicitly credits earlier efforts, he claims that no one except himself is teaching the true structure of existence.

(51) Laozi Xiang’er zhujiaojian, 18.

(52) For more on faith (xin) as a component of religions in the medieval period, see Robert Ford Campany, “On the Very Idea of Religions (in the Modern West and in early Medieval China),” History of Religions 42.4 (2003): 310–311.

(53) For an excellent demonstration of this principle within the Celestial Masters, see Stephen R. Bokenkamp, Early Daoist Scriptures (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 222–223.

(54) Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956), 62.

(55) For a further discussion of this phenomenon, seeBrashier, Ancestral Memory in Early China, 40–45, 360–361.

(56) Hanshu 漢書(Historical Documents) (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1986), 56.2498.