An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zhou Period Society, Customs, Religion

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 Five Sacrifices (Wusi 五祀), the Five Sacred Mountains (wuyue 五嶽/岳) and geographical phenomena like hills, riverines and swamps.

Furthermore, human sacrifices (renxun 人殉) during the burials of high nobles or the kings seemed to have disappeared. The vanishing of the belief in ghosts can also be observed in the patterns of the ritual bronze vessels where dragons and monsters - very common during the Shang period - were gradually replaced by abstract decorations.

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. Oracles taken with oxen scapulae or tortoise plastrons (jiagu 甲骨; bufa 卜法 oracles) were inherited from the Shang Dynasty, but the divination by counting out milfoil stalks (shicao 蓍草) soon became the prevalent divination method (shifa 筮法 oracles).

While the ancestral ritus became more and more a matter of a bureaucratic state, poetry and writing became more individual and allowed to express own opinions about the ruling social stratum. The view of the writing people changed from the religion centered inscriptions to a nature and human centered world vision. It was not any more the ancestors and Great Heaven that determined the life of people, but mankind itself.