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Features of Early Chinese Religion

Ritual implement (cong), approx. 3300-2200 BCE

Ritual implement (cong), approx. 3300-2200 BCE. China; Jiangsu province or Zhejiang province. Nephrite. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60J603.

There are a number of clues as to why the furnishing of tombs and the proper respect for ancestors was felt to be vital in early China.

  • Persons in every station of life had a religious obligation to worship and honor ancestors, and provide a male heir to continue the family line. At the highest levels, this same belief system applied: a ruler’s worship of his ancestors was necessary to the continued existence of his state.
  • People were also obliged by their religion to provide for their parents a proper funeral―including grave goods and other ritual elements appropriate to their status in society and with as much pomp as was financially possible and permitted by the codes of the time.
  • Each person was believed to have a complex soul, with some components that stayed with the body after burial and others that traveled to paradise(s).
  • States sponsored rites honoring high divinities, such as the god of the soil and the gods of the four directions, also known as the four (or eight) winds.
  • Popular belief and rites also included deities of local mountains, rivers, old trees, and the like.
  • Religious buildings (including tombs) and the rites conducted in or about them were required to be properly oriented in relation to the four directions and to cosmic forces.

Adapted from John S. Major, “Characteristics of Late Chu Religion,” in Major and Cook, eds., Defining Chu, U. Hawaii, 1999, pp. 122–23.