In the 1st and 2nd millennia B.C.E., hierarchical political organizations were mirrored by divine hierarchies of clan ancestors who were believed to be able to predict and control events on earth. Natural forces such as the sun, moon, earth, rivers, and mountains were also worshipped.
Although there has been recent research concerning possible influences from central Asia, most evidence indicates that Chinese religion began and evolved internally, with no outside influences prior to the introduction of Buddhism early in the 1st millennium C.E.
Founders in early Chinese religion were not those who established religious organizations, but cultural heroes who were credited with the invention of essential human forms such as writing, fire, and agriculture.
The earliest form of sacred text in China was the oracle bones. Questions addressed to the divine ancestors or to natural forces were inscribed on bones or shells. These were then heated, and the resulting cracks interpreted as responses. All early texts—narrative histories, poetry, and records of ritual and significant events—were also revered, as writing itself was believed to be imbued with sacred power.
Western scholarship on Chinese religions began with Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century, who found the Confucian beliefs of court officials compatible in many ways with their own. Both were disdainful of Chinese popular religions, deemed superstitious and degenerate. Since the mid-20th century this attitude has shifted, and objective scholarship on Taoism and folk religion has increased.