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Religion Library: Taoism


Written by: Julia Hardy

Many elements of Shang dynasty religion found their way into Taoism.  Shang dynasty religion was based on the worship of a heavenly bureaucracy of ancestors, headed by Shangdi, the heavenly counterpart of the earthly emperor.  Sacrifices were made regularly to these ancestors, who were believed to be able to influence events on earth.  Occasionally humans were sacrificed, typically prisoners of war, but most often it was animals that were ritually killed.  Ritual meals were served that amounted to banquets on behalf of the ancestors.  A young boy, usually the grandson of the highest ranking deceased family member, would occupy the seat reserved for that individual and was believed to be a channel for his spirit.

Divination rituals were also regularly practiced as a means of communicating with the ancestors.  Their advice would be sought on matters of political marriages, war, and the interpretation of signs and portents by means of questions recorded on animal bones or tortoise shells to which extreme heat would be applied.  The resulting cracks were "read" and interpreted by court officials who, like shamans, were able to communicate with the spirit world.

After death, an individual sought to advance to the divine bureaucracy.  Documents addressed to the heavenly bureaucrats would be buried with the deceased, outlining their achievements and abilities, sometimes even taking the form of a letter of recommendation for a particular position.  The degree of influence that an ancestor might have in the afterlife, and thus on the lives of his descendants, was determined by amount of de, or charismatic power, that he had accumulated during his life.  One's de could be also enhanced after death through rituals conducted by his descendants.

The ancient Chinese nobility did not develop elaborate ideas about the afterlife, perhaps because the focus remained on the world of the living, despite the fact that it was believed to be controlled in many ways by the dead.  Some texts mention the "Yellow Springs," an underground realm where deceased persons could be found.  That the afterlife was conceived of in terms of life on earth is suggested by the contents of tombs built for the rulers and important members of the nobility.  These included everything they might need in the afterlife, including clothing, household objects, chariots and horses, entertainers, personal attendants, and more.  As time passed, people of lower status also adopted this practice.  Those who could not afford real objects were buried with pottery replicas of houses, livestock, and the like.

Some scholars argue that later Taoist rituals of death are based on these rites, replacing a poorly defined and this-worldly view of the afterlife with an opportunity for salvation and transportation to heavenly realms after death.  Others argue that the Taoist rituals are simply an adaptation of these earlier death rituals, but made available to all rather than only to the nobility.  It is certain, regardless, that opposition to the practice of bloody sacrifice was a fundamental tenet of Taoist religion.  Instead of animals, the Taoists sacrificed words.  Passages of scripture, prescriptions, or talismanic writings were burned to transmit requests to heavenly officials. 


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