An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zhou Period Religion

Sep 25, 2018 © Ulrich Theobald

Western Zhou religion

The Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) inherited several aspects of Shang religion, namely the belief in a High God (Shangdi 上帝) which continued into the middle Western Zhou (Kern 2009: 149), the veneration of ancestors, and the use of divination to fathom the will of spirits and deities. Certainly there was cultural exchange from the Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) to the Zhou, regarding their history of alliances and probably intermarriage (King Wen's 周文王 consort might have been a Shang princess). Yet there were also some changes.

The Zhou did not establish the long line of ancestors ("Former Lords", xianwang 先王) as the Shang which were regularly worshipped and inquired in daily life. Natural deities played only a minor role in Zhou religion, and the spirits of rivers or mountains were not believed to influence political matters or the fate of the dynasty - even if special offerings were delivered to them (Eno 2009: 99).

The High God of the Shang was furthermore gradually replaced by Heaven (tian 天), a kind of super-ruler who had an eye on the way of rule and rewarded the Zhou rulers for "morality" (de 德), i. e. benevolent government, and warned them not do neglect this way of rule. The reward was the Mandate of Heaven (tianming 天命) given to the Zhou. Heaven was an ethical guardian rewarding and punishing rulers according to the quality of their stewardship of the state. The king as "Heaven's chosen one" bore the title of "Son of Heaven" (tianzi 天子). The terms tianzi and tianming were used very sparingly in early Western Zhou sources (Kern 2009: 148). The earlierst reference to the "mandate of Heaven" appears on the inscription of the tripod Da Yu ding 大盂鼎, dated c. 998 BCE.

Quotation 1. The Mandate of Heaven
王若曰:「盂!丕顯文王受天有大令,在武王嗣文乍邦,闢氒慝,匍有亖方,畯正氒民。」 The King [...] spoke: "Yu, the Greatly Manifest King Wen received Heaven's Aid and the Great Mandate. When King Wu succeeded King Wen and created the state, he cleared the land of those noxious presences and spread [the mandate] throughout the four regions, correcting their peoples. [...]"
Translation: Cook, Goldin 2016: 32-33.

In general, the mode of presenting sacrifices to the various spirits and deities became more systematic, and the Zhou court appointed clerical officials entrusted with defined sacrifices. The Zhou discerned between five types of rites and ceremonies (wuli 五禮) carried out during particular social or political occasions. The ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮 (part Chunguan 春官, ch. Dazongbo 大宗伯) describes the sacrifices and rites supervised by the Ministry of Spring (or of Rites).

Quotation 2. The state sacrifices of the Western Zhou, as described in the Zhouli
大宗伯之職,掌建邦之天神、人鬼、地示之禮,以佐王建保邦國。 Overseer of Ritual Affairs (or Minister of Rites) is entrusted with the institution within the empire of rites attributed to the spirits of Heaven, humans, and the Earth, in order to support the king to establish and consolidate the empire and the regional states.
以吉禮事邦國之鬼神示。 By the auspicious or festivity rites, [the king] serves the spirits of the empire and the regional states.
以禋祀祀昊天上帝。 By the sacrifice offered with wholeheartedness, [the king] worships Grand Heaven, the Supreme God.
以實柴祀日、月、星、辰。 With piled-up faggots, [the king] worships the sun, the moon, the stars, and the zodiacal signs.
以槱燎祀司中、司命、飌師、雨師。 By burning wooden stacks, [the king] worships the [asterism] master of the Centre, the master of [supreme] decretes, the commander of the winds, and the commander of rain.
以血祭祭社稷、五祀、五嶽。 With the blood sacrifice, [the king] worships the spirits of the soil and the grains, the spirits of the five sacrifices, and the Five Sacred Mountains.
以貍沈祭山、林、川、澤。 By buring sacrifices in the soil, [the king] worhships the [spirits of the] mountains, forests, rivers, and lakes.
以𠠦辜祭四方百物。 By opening and beheading the sacrificial victims, [the king] worships the four regions and the hundred objects.
以肆獻祼享先王。 Tributes are paid to the former kings by a libation made at the moment when the sacrifical animals are brought in.
以饋食享先王。 Tributes are paid to the former kings by offering them grains.
以祠春享先王,以禴夏享先王,以嘗秋享先王,以烝冬享先王。 Tributes are paid to the former kings in Spring by the ci 祠 sacrifice, in Summer by the yue 禴 sacrifice, in Autumn by the chang 嘗 sacrifice, and in Winter by the zheng 烝 sacrifice.
以凶禮哀邦國之憂。 The inauspicious rites serve to express mourning about the sorrows of the empire and the regional states.
以喪禮哀死亡。 The funeral rites serve to express mourning about the deceased and the vanished ones.
以荒禮哀凶札。 The calamity rites serve to express mourning about bad harvests and epidemics.
以弔禮哀禍災。 The consolation rites serve to express mourning about calamities and disasters.
以禬禮哀圍敗。 The societal rites serve to mourn about sieges and defeat.
以恤禮哀寇亂。 The rites of pity serve to express mourning about robbery and disorder.
以賓禮親邦國。 The hospitality rites serve for friendly approaches between the empire and the regional states.
Translation according to Biot, Vol. 1: 423-424. Note that Biot's translation takes into account Zheng Xuan's 鄭玄 (127-200) commentary.

This seemingly perfect description of early Zhou rites and ceremonies cannot be taken at face value, as most of the Classics were compiled many centuries after the respective period. Such details can be interpreted as normative and as the imagination of the religio-political structure of an ideal golden age (Kern 2009: 157).

The Zhou also made custom of human sacrifice (renji 人祭) and had humans or animals accompany their master into the netherworld (renxun 人殉), yet both types of ritual killing was carried out to a much smaller degree as under the Shang (Guo 1982). Dogs and horses were often used as companions for deceased lords, and occasionally one or two humans.

Sheep, cattle and pigs continued to be slaughtered for sacrifices, both in large groups (dalao 大牢) and smaller sets (xiaolao 小牢).

Even if Heaven was a deity of its own, ancestors were occasionally identified with Heaven and received according sacrifices (Wang 1994: 176).

The Zhou dynasty is usually credited with the invention of divination (shi 筮) by counting out milfoil stalks (shi 蓍) to establish one of 64 hexagrams (gua 卦) indicating the general outline of the present situation. The framwork of divination was laid down in the Classic Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes" (see also philosophy of the Changes). Yet Western Zhou sites included some remains of inscribed oracle bones (jiagu 甲骨). They show that the Zhou used various types of divination parallel. At the same time, the inscriptions of Zhou oracle bones show that the Zhou used to inquire Shang ancestors which means that they were, before the conquest of the Shang, definitely a state accepting the suzerainty of the Shang (Eno 2009: 97).

Figure 1. Oracle bone of the early Western Zhou
Oracle bone of the early Western Zhou period, unearthed in a pit close to a building in Fengchu, district of Qishan, Shaanxi (written in columns from left! to right). The text to the right presents a transcription into modern script, and gives some explanations to the text. The divination was an inquiry to the Shang ancestor Di Yi 帝乙, the second-last king of the Shang. For his expected answer, Di Yi was offered a sheep and a pig, both in healthy condition. Shaanxi Zhouyuan Kaogudui (1979): 39, Plate IV/1.

The site of Fengchu 鳳雛 in the district of Qishan 岐山, Shaanxi, brought to light more than 17,000 pieces or oracle bones made of bones and tortoise shells - nearly 300 of them were inscribed. A smaller number was discovered in Zhangjiapo 張家坡 in the Feng-Hao 豐鎬 region close to today's Xi'an 西安, the residences of the Western Zhou period (Wang 1994: 182; Wu 1994: 173).

The "Book of Zhou" (Zhoushu 周書), which is part of the Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents", mentions processes of divination before the Zhou began a larger enterprise. The chapter Luogao 洛誥, for instance, reports the Duke of Zhou's 周公旦 divination about the erection of a secondary residence in the East.

Quotation 3. The Duke of Zhou's divination for the secondary capital
我卜河朔黎水。我乃卜澗水東、瀍水西,惟洛食。我又卜瀍水東,亦惟洛食。伻來以圖、及獻卜。 I [first] divined by the shell concerning [the ground about] the Li Water 黎 on the north of the Yellow River. I then divined concerning the east of the Jian Water 澗, and the west of the Chan 瀍, when the [ground near the] Luo 洛 was indicated. Again I divined concerning the east of the Chan Water when the [ground near the] Luo was also indicated. I [now] send a messenger with a map, and to present the [result of the] divinations.

The religion of the Zhou people was quite different from that of the Shang. While the Shang kings saw the universe filled with real ghosts and spirits of good and evil, the Zhou religion was much more abstract and transcendental. Heavenly spirits (tianshen 天神), terrestrial forces (dizhi 地祇) and human ancestors (rengui 人鬼, zuxian 祖先, zongzu 宗祖) were the three realms of deities. The highest celestial deities were Heaven (Haotian Shangdi 昊天上帝, Shangtian 上天), sun, moon and the stars and planets and different anthropomoph forces reigning the universe and celestial phenomena like wind and rain. The highest terrestrial deities were the spirits of soil and grain (sheji 社稷), the recipients of the Five Sacrifices (Wusi 五祀), the Five Sacred Mountains (wuyue 五嶽) and geographical markers like hills, riverines and swamps.

Furthermore, human sacrifice disappeared. The vanishing of the belief in ghosts can also be observed in the patterns of the ritual bronze vessels where dragons and taotie 饕餮 monsters - very common during the Shang period - were gradually replaced by abstract decorations. This might signify a departure from earlier "shamanistic" practices which made use of symbols of magical mask on ritual objects (Kern 2009: 190).

While the lineage system (zongfa 宗法) of the Shang was arranged according to the system of the Ten Celestial Stems (shi tiangan 十天干), the Zhou organized their lineage according to the binary zhao-mu 昭穆 system. This system arranged the position of soul tablets in the ancestral altar (or perhaps that of individual shrines in a shrine complex) into a left and right wing. While the tablet of King Ji 王季, the dynastic ancestor, was placed on the central rear altar, his son, King Wen, was placed to the right in the front of the so-called zhao 昭 "illustrious" wing, and his grandson, King Wu, to the left in the front of the so-called mu 穆 "majestic" wing. The latter's son again had a position to the right, and the next generations were placed crosswise to the particular wings.

The few large buildings excavated so far (see architecture) do not allow reconstruction of ancestral rites or the inner arrangement of temples.

Figure . The zhao-mu 昭穆 system in the ancestral shrine of the Zhou
Wang Ji 王季
primary ancestor
King Wu 周武王
second generation
King Wen 周文王
first generation
King Kang 周康王
fourth generation
King Cheng 周成王
third generation
King Mu 周穆王
sixth generation
King Zhao 周昭王
fifth generation
mu 穆 wing
zhao 昭 wing

This order was first realized in the temple of King Kang as part of the ritual reforms of that period. The generation after King Mu would take out King Wen and migrate all tablets one position higher (Kern 2009: 161-162).

The ritual reforms of the late Western Zhou period were perhaps an attempt to gain greater political control by imposing strict rules in the realm of ceremonies and religion (Kern 2009: 190). The most visible feature of this reform is the regularization of sets of bronze vessels. While in earlier ages, the number and shape of vessels was rather random and following a tomb owner's taste, the ritual revolution imposed uniformity in number, types, and decorations of bronze vessels. The rank of a lord was expressed by a fix number of bronze vessel of a certain type with identical decoration and inscription. Such a set of identical vessels was called lieding 列鼎. By this rule, the royal court controlled the ancestral rites of the nobility, and therefore also the ritual and political behaviour of the living. In this way, ancestor veneration was not a private matter, but one of society at large and of political loyalty.

According to the ritual Classic Yili 儀禮 (ch. Pinli 聘禮), during royal sacrifices each of the tripods was filled with a different type of meat: beef (the largest victim of the tailao 太牢 offering), lamb, pork (chu 豖), dried (?) fish, dried meat (la 臘), tripe, skin, fresh fish (xianyu 鮮魚), and fresh drymeat (xianla 鮮臘). The last two were not allowed for use by regional rulers. Grand masters (dafu 大夫) were not allowed beef, and their largest tripod contained lamb (the largest animal of the xiaolao 小牢 set). Servicemen (shi 士) were allowed pork, fish, and drymeat or lamb, and the lowest servicemen just pork. If the ritual reforms of the Western Zhou did really encompass such rules, is unknown - and many archaeological finds prove that deviations were widespread.

Figure . Number of ritual vessels allowed by the ritual reform
rank ding gui
king 9 8
regional ruler 7 6
minister or grand master 5 4
high serviceman 3 2
low serviceman 1 -

A control of the use of objects of religious rituals was possible because the Zhou court had the prerogative or "monopoly" to cast bronze vessels, and the ritual vessels used by the regional courts were produced in the political centre (Kern 2009: 147; Rawson xxx).

Another aspect of combining the religious with the polital sphere are the inscriptions in bronze vessels. They served as "propagandistic" instrument (Kern 2009: 152) to express ideas of rulership by stressing the importance of "rule of virtue" as carried out by the king and by the regional rulers, and to underline the contract between the king and the regional rulers. Bronze inscriptions are not simple documents laying down how the king appointed a regional ruler or functionary and presented him with precious goods. The descriptions of such ceremonies include oaths of allegations by which the appointed one is remembered of his duty towards the earlier kings of the Zhou. The Mandate of Heaven which the king received is extended towards to the functionaries of the Zhou empire (Kern 2009: 163-164).

The revival of ties of loyalty between the king and the regional rulers was also expressed in a kind of archaism in the decoration of vessels, in which simple ancient patterns were revived and replaced the "eccentric and flamboyant" (Kern 2009: 191) decorations of the early Western Zhou. The Zhou kings of the reform age desired to go back to the sincere times of the kings Wen and Wu, when religion played a more direct role for the legitimation of rule.

The four highest priests of the Western Zhou period were prayers (zhu 祝), sacrifiers (zong 宗), diviners (bu 卜) and astrologers (shi 史). The astrologers also recorded natural phenomena and later historical events, one of the two scribes is said to have recorded royal activities, the other royal decretes.

The Zhou rulers created an expansive, unified state far exceeding any prior polity in China, characterized by lengthy eras of military stability. The innovation chiefly responsible for this success was probably the development of the fengjian 封建 system (often called "feudal system", see zhuhou 諸侯), in which the king delegated power and responsibilities to a network of dispersed hereditary lords. These regional rulers took over the political, cultural and religious customs of the Zhou.

The continuity of funeral rites from the Shang to the Zhou can only proved incompletely because up to date no tomb of a Zhou king has been discovered. Research must thus rely on the grounds of the tombs of the regional rulers and of those of dignitiaries buried close to the Zhou capitals Zongzhou 宗周 (near Xi'an) and Chengzhou 成周 (Luoyang).

All tombs seem to follow close models with one or two ramps leading down to the tomb chamber and a correlation (yet an imperfect one) between the status of the tomb owner and the number of grave goods. The shape and contents of groups of graves show that there were detailed sumptuary regulations for burials, according to which the status of the tomb owner was made clear. The cross shape of the royal Shang tombs was not taken over by the Zhou dynasty (barring a few exceptions, as in some tombs of Zhougongmiao 周公廟 near Qishan, Shaanxi). The number of humans accompanying their lord was drastically reduced to a few consorts, concubines, servants, musicians or charioteers.

Figure . Burial objects of the Western Zhou period
The left of these double-pits with a dimension of about 5×6m includes broken parts of a chariot. This was a widespread burial custom, so archaeologists speak of broken-chariot burial (zheche zang 折車葬). The pit to the right includes horses buried alive (huoma zang 活馬葬) - no less than 96 heads were found. Source: Fu 2011: 351. Destroyed weapons were also common in Western-Zhou tombs, see Jing 2006.

The two ramps of the larger tombs were asymmetric. The longer ramp perhaps served to bring down the coffin and grave goods, while a shorter ramp in the north, forming a series of stairs, might have served the audience of the funeral (Thote 2009: 118). In most cases, the head of the buried persons is found in the north. This corresponds to a statement in the ritual Classic Liji 禮記 (xxx wo?), where this orientation is explained as a method to allow the spirit (or soul) of the deceased to go directly to the (northern) dwelling of the death.

Western Zhou burial practices changed in more ways. While grave goods increased in number, the body of the death was treated with greater care: Faces of the death were covered with cloth and decorated with semiprecious stones, forming a kind of mask. Jades became more important as direct protective elements places close to the body. A new type of bronze vessel containing grains became more important, the gui 簋, while the number of vessels used for alcohol decreased.

The decorations of vessels also changed and became more repetitive and uniform, leaving no space for zoomorph creatures other than the dragon. Moreover, the Zhou introduced the use of sets of identical vessels, which could so more easily reflect the status and wealth of the tomb owner. Inscriptions followed standard patterns, appealing to the descendants to "forever preserve and use" (zizi sunsun wan nian yong bao yong萬年永寶用) the vessels for worship.

The grave goods also included musical instruments like bells and musical stones, objects whose number can also express status. After the downfall of the Western Zhou dynasty, regional rulers systematically exceeded the sumptuary rules of status. While the use of bronze vessels was thus more confined to the expression of political status that of personal wealth found new forms, namely adornment.

Funeral customs and beliefs in the regional states of the Eastern Zhou period

Many regional states of the Zhou period had distinct cultures from that of the Zhou kings. Quite outstanding from the patterns common to the Zhou realm are the tombs from the regional states of Qin in the far west and Chu in the south. The tomb of Duke Jing of Qin, for instance, contained 166 human victims, was as deep as 24m, and included a very complex structure of the outer coffin (Thote 2009: 127). The Qin also knew the model of a catacomb-tomb in which the coffin was posed in a kind of tunnel, and the custom of burying a dog in the waist-pit. Also, the head is turned towards the west, not the north. The state of Qin, which had perhaps lesser economic ressources than the other regional states, introduced the custom of replacing precious grave furnishings with cheaper surrogate items, like lead or clay imitations of bronze vessels, wooden models of human victims or sacrificial animals, and even of constructions like granaries or chariots. The Qin thus invented the microcosm (Thote 2009: 132) of tombs in which the death were allowed similar convenience (even if on a more modest level) as the living persons, and increased the amount of symbolism in burial objects (mingqi 明器) in order to reduce the cost for burials (jie zang), an idea usually attributed to the philosopher Mozi. duke Jing: Nanzhihui 南指挥, Fengxiang翔县 county (Shaanxi), where catacomb: Xianyang咸陽 Ta’erpo塔兒坡(Shaanxi

In the regional state of Chu, which had different cultural origins than the Zhou dynasty, imitations of costly tomb offerings were sometimes much better than in Qin, but not in each case. rich cemetery on the site of Xiasi, Xichuan county, in Henan (6th century BC), that of a Chu Prime Minister surrounded by his relatives. The other cemeteries, particularly in Hubei those of 赵家湖Zhaojiahu (Dangyang 当阳county),of Yutaishan 雨台山 and Jiudian 九店 (Jiangling江陵county).

The most outstanding example of a tomb of Chu is that of Marquis Yi of Zeng 曾乙侯 found in Leigudun 擂鼓墩 in the district of Suizhou 随州, Hubei, dated c. 433 BCE. From the 8th century on, the outer coffins took extreme measures and were divided in several compartments or "rooms" imitating the structure of a palace, and so gave the deceased person the opportunity to continue the habits while living. The outer "coffin" of the tomb of the Marquis of Zeng, for instance, consisted of four rooms, one containing the "inner" coffin (along with the coffin for a dog), vessels for eating and drinking, and clothes in chests, one containing ritual vessels and musical instruments, one made to contain the coffins of thirteen females (concubines, dancers or musicians), and the fourth – a kind of armoury - containing weapons, parts of chariots. The custom of accompanying persons (renxun) continued.

This construction allowed the po 魄 soul of the deceased person to circulate through symbolic doors painted on the coffin or the boards of the enclosure, or real openings between the chambers and enjoy his afterlife. The hun 魂 soul travelled to the neitherworld. The earliest reference to the existence of two souls is found in the Classic Chunqiu-Zhuozhuan "Spring and Autumn Annals", and the belief became widespread in the 4th century BCE (Thote 2009: 136). The whole construction of the tomb of the Marquis of Zeng was tightly sealed, and the body laid down in two nested coffins. The coffins were sealed with lacquer and wrapped together to close them hermetically. These measure helped to prevent the decay of the body, and could be quite successful, as can be seen in the case of the tomb of Mawangdui from the very early Han period.

In contrast to this measure, the tomb of a noble of the regional state of Jin found at Shangma 上馬 in the district of Houma 侯馬, Shanxi, consists of an outer coffin made of loosely connected boards and logs. During the Han period, it became custom to provide permanent access to the tomb chamber (Thote 2009: 141).

Unlike the Shang and Zhou, the people of Chu did prefer elevated areas for their tombs, and not plains (Thote 2009: 137). From the 4th century on, this custom spread to the other regional states, yet in many cases, artificial tumuli were heaped up instead of selecting a natural elevation.

Ritual bronze vessels, which had played a great role in the Western Zhou period for the signification of the tomb owner's status, became less important than object for daily life, like furniture, tableware or personal effects like manicure cases or stationery. Warring States-period bronze vessels are much more sophisticated in technical and artistic means, but do not bear inscriptions (apart form bells, on which the tone is marked).

In the regional state of Chu, a new means of magic protection was invented in the shape of tomb-protecing beasts (zhenmushou 鎮墓獸). These "beasts" had often the shape of birds armoured with antlers. Some scholars believe that they did not ward off evil spirits from the tomb, but should ward off revenants trying to haunt the living (Thote 2009: 142).

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