An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Han Period Religion

October 30, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Ancestor worship has been a central point in Chinese religion from the beginnings. The emperor had not only to worship his ancestors by costly burials (therefore all Han emperors had the appellation xiao 孝 "the Filial") but also to be reverent to natural phenomena like Heaven and Earth (Tian Di 天地), the Great Unity (Taiyi 泰一) and several deities and spirits according to the seasons (the God of Millet, Houji 后稷, or the Three Augusts and Five Emperors, San Huang Wu Di 三皇五帝). The emperor climbed Mount Tai 泰山 (Tai'an 泰安/Shandong) to present offerings to Heaven and Earth.
Esoteric and mythical rites, divination and sorcery were very widespread. There were several cases of sorcery during the reign of Emperor Wudi 漢武帝. TLV-Symbols (magic symbols with the shape of the letters T, L and V) upon round objects like mirrors should protect from danger and ascertain the rhythm of the universe with a sure position of the mirror's owner inside the world. The Daoist Huang-Lao cult 黃老 promised eternal life by certain practices like meditation or medical care. The search for medicine promising an eternal life lead to the development of alchemy. In the course of the 400 years of Han Dynasty, the belief in an afterlife paradise shifted from the Penglai Islands 蓬萊 in the Eastern Sea (Okinawa? Japan?) to the land of the Queen Mother of the West, Xi Wang Mu 西王母. Huang-Lao thought was a mixture of the thought in the regulating and healing force of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝, the ideal monarch of the past, and the philosophy of Laozi 老子 who taught that "the Way" (dao 道) is the single order of nature whose mind and intention underlie all aspects of the universe. For rulers, the ideal way is to leave it to advisors to govern and to fold his own hands, doing nothing (wuwei 無為).
During the first century AD, Buddhism followed the Inner Asian trade routes and gained a foothold in the capital Luoyang 洛陽.

Watanabe Yoshihiro (2010). "Sacrifices to Heaven in the Han and the Theory of Six Heavens", Acta Asiatica, 98: 43-75.