He Guanghu, Renmin University, Beijing, December 2020.
Hundreds of years before the birth of Confucius, there was already a religion in China, which people only seldom mention. This religion had, strangely enough, no name. How did this religion then become a religion without a name? It does not matter, the point is that everywhere in the world, humanity developed religions, making people religious beings.
What is the difference between human beings and animals? Is it enough that humans make tools? Is it enough that humans are rational? Aristotle stated that people have politics. Is it enough that humans are animals that engage in politics? No, that is not enough. Religious scholars say that the difference between man and animal is that people have religions. Therefore, the greatest difference between man and animal is that people can worship from down on earth the highest power in heaven. A religious instinct to believe is present in human nature. Chinese are no exception.
We cannot say: ’foreigners provided the Chinese with religious beliefs, because Chinese have no religious belief’, that would be nonsense. The Chinese are not a separate kind of human beings, or kind of beast-like creatures. The Chinese are civilized people, and civilization is related to religion. Religion is at the core, the heart, the soul, and the spirit of civilization.
Is there a religion at the heart of Chinese civilization? And if yes, where do we look for evidence? Let us have a look at archaeological evidence. The history of Chinese civilization consists of twelve Dynasties: the dynasty of Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Jin, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing. There is no archaeological evidence of the Xia Dynasty to fully confirm its existence. But there is however evidence of the Shang Dynasty of which the most important evidence is the Oracle bone script: the oldest texts in Chinese, of which some words are very interesting for us. For example, there are three words in the Oracle bone script: “God, Order, Rain” (“Di Ming Yu” 帝命雨). What do these three words mean? Do they imply that the emperor orders the rain? No, 3000 years ago there were in fact no emperors in China. The first character, the word “Di “(帝), is a Chinese concept. For example: there were pharaohs in Egypt and there were kings in Mesopotamia and Babylon. The rulers of the Shang Dynasty were called Shang kings. So, what does ’Di’ mean? In this sense, ‘Di’ means God, and God orders the rain. Even if there was an emperor (帝) on the earth at that time, he would have had no way to order the rain, and the emperor could not give the rain to people. Therefore, “Di Ming Yu” (帝命雨) means: God ordered the rain.
Another example: There is also a strange expression “Bin Yu Di”(宾于帝) recorded in the Oracle bone script of the Shang Dynasty, saying: “Where did the ancestors of the king of the Shang Dynasty go after their death? Where do people go after their death?” The Oracle bone script answered: They became “the guests of God”. “Bin” means guests, important guests, “Yu” means the birth of the year (is this correct?), “Di” means God, therefore, “Bin Yu Di”(宾于帝) means the ancestors went to visit God after their death. This shows that there was a concept of God in Chinese, “Di” (帝) points to God.
There is evidence that the ancient Chinese people believed in God and believed in Him as the creator of heaven and earth. Later man attributed other functions to God: not only the creator of heaven and earth, but God also rewarded good and punished evil. Believing in God is therefore not a reverence for foreign beliefs, not a betrayal of the ancestors, not a sign of not being a good Chinese, and not a dismissal of Chinese culture. Religion does not mean taking something imported and put in in the heads of Chinese people, no! Believing in God is the oldest belief in China, it is the most native belief in China, a most idiomatic Chinese belief.
The name of the oldest book in China is like the basic meaning of the word Bible: “Book” (书). Later, because of its lofty status, it became ’The Book of History’. In the sayings of Confucius six Classic books are mentioned: “Poetry”, “Rites”, “Music”, “Changes”, “Spring and Autumn Annals” and “Book”. ’Book’ is also known as the “Shang Book”, it is the oldest book in China. This book speaks of God, and a long passage in this book proves that the Chinese believed in God.
Another book which everyone may be more familiar with, is the “Classic of Poetry”. There were very few books at that time, so these writings were given an elevated status and were worshipped by many, including Confucius. It is the oldest poetry collection, hence the name “Poetry”. In this book the Chinese belief in God is expressed and the name of God is often used in the three parts out of which the book consists: Ode, Hymn and Eulogy. The Eulogies are the sacrificial ceremonial hymns used when the emperors worshipped the God of heaven. The “Divine Music Administration” located in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing especially played music for the emperors to worship the God of heaven. This is a heritage of the tradition of Eulogies which sing God’s praise in the Book of Poetry.
The oldest Chinese writings and books all prove that the Chinese believed in God, and that God is neither a ’foreign noun’, nor an imported word. God is the God of the entire universe. How could He belong to a country? This statement in itself is strange and makes no sense. What country is God from? Which Western one? Eastern one? Southern one? Northern one? God manages everything, otherwise, he would not be called God.
Later in Chinese history, it seems as if God is not heard of. Only little evidence of Chinese belief in God is provided, although the ancient books seem to say less and less about God but are not without some references to God. In the late Qing Dynasty, during the reign of Guangxu, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing was struck by lightning and burnt down. Queen Cixi, who governed the Qing Dynasty at that time, ordered the temple to be rebuilt, and hung a sign inside the ’Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest’, the most beautiful and important building in Beijing, saying: “Highest Deity the Heavenly God ” (皇天上帝). The character for the word ’God’ is very visible on the sign. Queen Cixi and all the ministers around her knew that in ancient Chinese books they could find this reference! How could the Chinese hang a foreign name at the most important, solemn, highest place, right in the center?
The meaning of the character that was used to represent ’God’ slowly evolved. In the early years of the Zhou Dynasty the character got the meaning “The heavenly God” (天帝). “God is above in the heaven”. To represent God, one referred to “Heaven” and used the word “Tian”. Could this be a parallel with the Israelites, who, despite their deep belief, did not use God’s name? There is no such evidence.
“Lao Tian” doesn’t refer to the “blue sky”. When a person does evil things, people will say “Tian Da Lei Pi” (天打雷劈) meaning God will punish the evildoer by striking with lightning and split him in two! How could “Lao tian’, a blue sky, know who was bad or good? Will Lao Tian know who did bad things? How could “Lao Tian’ eliminate him? So, in the four words ” Tian Da Lei Pi” “Tian” one refers to God, because only He can distinguish what are the good and bad things in the world.
Chinese also say, “Tian Sheng Wo Cai”, meaning: “I am born with great talent”. Confucius said, “Tian Sheng Wo De”, meaning “I am born with virtue”, God (Tian) bestowed upon him virtue and talent. We cannot say that the air gave him virtue and talent. So, when they speak about “Tian” in this sense, they refer to God in ancient China. China has always had such a religion and worships an object which has never changed. The object is called “God”, but slowly became “the Heavenly God” (Tian Di 天帝) and so on. The name has changed a bit, but the meaning has not changed. There is a religion in China, but it was not invented by Confucius. Confucius’ students, post-Confucian generations, believed in this religion. They did not create this religion, they just believed in it.
Confucians believed in “God” (Tian). If a person did not believe in God, this person would be Wu Fa Wu Tian (无法无天), and Sang Jin Tian Liang (丧尽天良): lawless, godless, and utterly devoid of conscience. These sentences contain the word “Tian” (God), so Confucian scholars possibly believed in “Tian” in ancient times, and therefore in religion. They did not invent religion, they just created a doctrine called “Confucianism” for the function of teaching, but they did not create religion. Therefore, Confucianism is another name of Confucian philosophy, it is talking about its social function (indoctrination rather than religion): it is not religion, but philosophy, a set of philosophical principles about life, about society.