Early Chinese Civilization
The Foundations of Chinese Religion
Map of the Shang Dynasty
Taotie (monster mask used to decorate many bronze vessels)
Set of ritual bronze vessels
Worshiping Gods & Venerating 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. (ICR, 16-7)
diagram showing the relationship between human and spirit worlds
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. Death essentially marked a change in existential status that to some extent redefined the relationship between members of the same family lineage, namely the lineage of the royal house. Or to put it differently, while death did not alter the fundamental nature of kinship relationships — a person remained the son of his deceased father, for instance — it brought about significant changes in the channels of communication that linked the two parties, as the living had to resort to rituals [sic] means such as sacrifice in order to commune with their departed relations. For those reasons, it was important to establish proper links and channels of communication with the royal ancestors, primarily via the performance of divination rituals and sacrificial offerings. (ICR, 18)
Painting of a Shang dynasty tomb being filled with sacrificial offering
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 sanctified 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. We can postulate that the ancestral cult was also adopted by the other aristocratic elites in Shang society, who worshiped their ancestors in a similar manner. (ICR, 19)
Click to see video of Shang Queen Fu Hao's Tomb
Diagram showing casting of bronze vessels
Bronze Ding
Sacrificial Bronze Vessels

[I]nscriptions carved on bronze vessels document the details of the complex ritual interactions of the Shang and Chou [i.e., Zhou] periods, where the political and religious realms, as well as the realms of the living and the dead, were but different aspects of a contiguous whole bound together by reciprocal obligations. As containers for the votive offerings presented to spirits, ritual bronzes were the focal point at which all these realms met, and they thus constituted important symbols of religious and political power and status. ... Shang and Chou dynasty cultures were hierarchical societies, and political power was publicly conferred by rulers on lesser lords and ministers in rites of gift giving accompanied by sacrifices and libations to ancestral spirits, who acted as witnesses to the transaction. Material benefits bestowed on individuals by earthly rulers were converted into bronzes, which would then attract the beneficent attentions of ancestral spirits, who could in turn help ensure that earthly material benefits would continue for succeeding generations. The square beaker of Mai, for example, relates the descending order of ritual relationships between rulers and ministers and details the religious context in which transferrals of economic and political power were effected. The king, or Son of Heaven, conducted rites to his royal ancestors before conferring gifts upon the Archer Lord of Ching, who then reported his new acquisitions to his own ancestors before apportioning a measure of bronze to Scribe Mai, who has a sacrificial beaker made for the Archer Lord. The custom of reporting to the spirit world any events of great importance in the human realm continued well into late imperial times.
Hezun: Square bronze beaker from the early Zhou dynasty
Square Beaker of Mai
Early Western Chou Period

The king commanded our leader, the Archer Lord of Ching, to leave P'ei. The Archer Lord went to Ching. In the second month, the Archer Lord went to visit the court at Ancestral Chou without incident. He met with the king, who performed the wine libation and ritual sacrifice to the royal ancestors at Hao capital. On the next day, while residing at Pi-yung pool, the king boarded a boat to perform the Grand Rite. The king shot at a Great P'eng bird and caught it. The Archer Lord boarded a boat with red flags and followed. The Grand Rite was completed. On this day, the king had the Archer Lord enter the Inner Chamber. The Archer Lord was presented with a dark-colored engraved dagger-ax. When the king was residing at An, on the bank of the Pi-yung pool, on the evening of the day ssu the Archer Lord was presented with two hundred households of barefoot slaves, with chariots and horses that the king used, and with a bronze chariot piece, a cloak, an apron, and some shoes.
Inscriptions of the early Zhou "Hezun"
Upon returning to Ching, the Archer Lord presented the Son of Heaven's gifts and reported to his ancestors without incident. With respectful demeanor, I quiet the Archer Lord's spirit and display filial offerings to the Archer Lord of Ching. I, Scribe Mai, was presented with bronze from leader Archer Lord. I, Mai, in extolling the Archer Lord of Ching's merit, use it to make a treasured sacrificial beaker vessel in order to make offerings to those who give and receive at the Archer Lord's temple and in order to display the luminous mandate. This was in the year that the Son of Heaven gave gifts to Mai's leader, the Archer Lord. May his progeny have eternal life without end and use this vessel to receive virtuous power, to pacify the many associates, and to present memorial feasts to those mandated ones who flit back and forth. (Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 15)
The great age of bronze manufacture ended before the second century B.C.E., but plainer vessels of bronze were employed in sacrificial offerings in the imperial court well into the fourteenth century of the common era, when they were replaced with porcelain look-alikes. The practice of presenting offerings to ancestral spirits and other spiritual beings, however, continues to modern times. (Chinese Religion: An Anthology of Sources, 13-4)
Taotie (monster mask used to decorate many bronze vessels)
Oracle Bones
Pit filled with oracle bonesAmong 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. Oracle Bone: scapulaThat 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)
JIaguwen (oracle bone inscription)

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)

Shang King Wu Ding
Divining the Future
Reading the Past

oracle bone divinationFive 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.
image showing front and back of oracle bone
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)

From Oracle Bones ...
... to the Yijing (Book of Changes)
Divination Tools: tortoise shell, yarrow stalks, Yijing coins