Early Chinese Civilization
The Foundations of Chinese Religion

Among the most important archeological discoveries related to the Shang dynasty are the numerous oracle bone inscriptions, which constitute the earliest written records about Chinese religious beliefs and practices. ... The oracle bones were originally used primarily within the context of divinatory rituals performed by or on behalf of the Shang kings, although there are also examples of oracle bones that are not related to the royal house. ... The divinatory rituals undertaken by the Shang kings were largely concerned with making sense of the world in which they lived and obtaining knowledge about the future unfolding of events. To that end, the rituals functioned as means for establishing channels of communication with the unseen forces that governed the world and influenced human destiny. That included the supreme god of the Shang people, who in a number of inscriptions is mentioned by the name Di, as well as the royal ancestors and a variety of other spirits. ... For the purpose of divination the Shang people used the bones of large animals, especially the shoulder blades (scapulas) of oxen that have been killed as sacrificial offerings. Often for the same purpose they also used turtle shells, especially the plastron (the under portion of the shell). Once the shells were carefully prepared they were heated by the application of hot rods into holes on the bone or shell that had been drilled in advance at specific locations, thereby controlling the positioning of the cracks. The ritualistic application of fire was presumably accompanied with incantations that contained the questions or communications directed towards specific spirits or divinities. It is possible that the ritual also included [a] preparatory stage during which the diviner(s) invoked the spirits and elicited their presence. The application of heat caused the bones or shells to crack, and then specially trained diviners interpreted the cracks as deities’ responses to the original questions or topics. ... After the completion of the ritual, a brief record of the proceedings, which typically included the communication directed towards the divinity, often accompanied with the result of the divination, was inscribed in an archaic Chinese script on the bones or the shell. The bone inscriptions were archived, thereby functioning as official records that served important bureaucratic and historical functions, in addition to their religious meaning and significance. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 13-15]

Will Di order rains that will be sufficient for the harvest? Will Di not order rains that will be sufficient for the harvest?

As for attacking the Qiong tribe, will Di provide us with support?

Shall we pray for harvest to Yue peak with a roasted offering of three sheep and three pigs, and the decapitation of three oxen?

Is it (ancestral) Father Yi who is hurting the king’s tooth?

The king made cracks (on the oracle bone) and divined: We shall hunt at Ji; coming and going there shall be no disaster. The king prognosticated, saying “It is extremely auspicious.” Acting on this, we captured forty-one foxes and eight hornless deer.

[Introducing Chinese Religions, 16]


Divining the Future
Reading the Past

Five turtle shells lie on the rammed-earth altar. The plastrons have been polished like jade, but are scarred on their inner side with rows of oval hollows, some already blackened by fire. Into one of the unburned hollows, on the right side of the shell, the diviner Que is thrusting a brand of flaming thorn. As he does so, he cries aloud, “The sick tooth is not due to Father Jia!” Fanned by an assistant to keep the glowing tip intensely hot, the stick flames against the surface of the shell. Smoke rises. The seconds slowly pass. The stench of scorched bone mingles with the aroma of millet wine scattered in libation. And then, with a sharp, clear, puklike sound, the turtle, most silent of creatures, speaks. A bu-shaped crack has formed in the hollow where the plastron was scorched. Once again the brand is thrust, now into a matching hollow on the left side of the shell: “It is due to Father Jia!” More time passes ... another crack forms in response. Moving to the next plastron, Que repeats the charges: “It is not due to Father Jia!” Puk! “It is due to Father Jia!” He rams the brand into the hollows and cracks [of] the second turtle shell, then the third, the fourth, and the fifth.
The diviners consult. The congregation of kinsmen strains to catch their words, for the curse of a dead father may, in the king’s eyes, be the work of a living son. Que rubs wood ash from the fire into the new set of cracks and scrutinizes them once more. But the shell has given no indication. The charge must be divined again. Two more cracks are made in each of the five plastrons ... and there is again no sign.
       Another brand is plucked from the fire and the new charge cried: “The sick tooth is not due to Father Geng! ... It is due to Father Geng.” Father Geng — the king’s senior uncle. This time the indications are clear. His sons, the king’s older cousins, turn away in dismay at the diviner’s reading of the cracks. The spirit, their father, has been blamed. [Classical Chinese Literature, 13]

Worship of Gods and Ancestors
The Shang pantheon had a hierarchical structure. At its apex was the aforementioned supreme deity, referred to as Di or Shangdi (sometimes translated as the Lord on High; also possible to render as Supreme Lord or High God). Shangdi was believed to have authority and control over both the sociopolitical and natural realms. ... Shangdi’s power was deemed superior to that of all other preternatural beings, although the range of his powers and the areas of his jurisdiction seem to have been somewhat vaguely defined, as they overlapped with those of other deities and the royal ancestors. From what we can tell, Shangdi was often regarded as being aloof and inaccessible, highly potent yet removed from people’s everyday lives and concerns. Consequently, usually no routine sacrificial offerings were made directly to him. Humans had limited ritual means at their disposal — or perhaps even no means at all — by which they could control his behavior, although they tried to approach and mollify him, often with the help of the ancestors. ... Shangdi was said to preside over an array of nature deities or spirits, who were responsive to his commands. This included various deities associated with natural phenomena, such as the sun, the rain, and the wind. Prayers and sacrifices were regularly made to these divinities, whose appeasement and help were deemed essential, given the agricultural foundations of Shang society. Similarly, there were deities connected with important features of the natural environment or the local landscape, such as particular mountains and rivers. ...
Another important group of divinities within the Shang pantheon were the spirits of the royal ancestors. The belief in their existence was premised on the notion that there is life after death, albeit of a somewhat different kind. The ancestors were common objects of worship and propitiation, and the making of regular sacrificial offerings to them at the ancestral temple was an important aspect of official Shang religion. The items offered to the ancestors during ritual sacrifices included alcoholic drinks, grains, or slaughtered animals (such as cattle and sheep); at certain occasions there were also human sacrifices. Human sacrifices were also part of Shang burial customs. They frequently involved family members and other dependants, who were buried together with their departed lord. The tombs also contained a number of funerary objects, especially various treasures the deceased was supposed to be able to use in the afterlife, such as bronzes, jades, weapons, and ceramics.
The Shang people believed that the otherworld and this world were coextensive. Not being radically disjointed, the two worlds intimately implicated each other. Consequently, the departed royal ancestors had influence on what was happening among the living. Moreover, as their primary living descendants, the Shang kings had access to them and were able to tap into their knowledge and power. ... The relationship between the departed ancestors and the living descendants was conceived in reciprocal terms. Both groups needed each other. The living provided the dead with sumptuous tombs and funeral offerings; they also performed regular sacrifices on behalf of the departed ancestors and paid homage to them. On the other hand, the dead extended their blessings and protection on the living. It is also important to note that the king had a virtual monopoly on the prerogative to commune and interact with the royal ancestors, whose exalted existence and otherworldly power sanctioned his rule. The king effectively occupied a special position in the central kinship community of the royal house, which crossed the conventional lines of demarcation that separated the dead from the living. This granted him a unique relationship with a key source of superhuman power, mainly expressed in terms of kinship ties, which in turn bestowed on his reign an aura of socioreligious legitimacy. [Introducing Chinese Religions, 16-19]