In China, gods, spirits and ancestors thrive, but leave human affairs to humans


The concept of an all-powerful god plays no role in the Chinese system. What exists is an all-powerful emperor, on his dragon throne, in the Forbidden City

China today seems mysterious with its own version of communism, capitalism and democracy. But the mystery disappears when we see it through a mythical lens and realize that China works as it always has, the magnificence behind an expressionless face – the wall.

Chinese culture does not claim universality. It centers on China, isolated from the world by natural and man-made barriers. The first are the snow-capped mountains of the south which surround the west and turn into the cold deserts of the north, which then lead to the seas of the east.

The man-made barriers are the Great Wall of China built to keep northern nomads out, now transformed into the Great Firewall of China that keeps the world out. As if that weren’t enough, China was once full of walled cities that flourished along the Yellow (Huang He) and Yangtze river basins in the heart of China. Bordered by cold grasslands to the north and warm tropical forests to the south, this region had 4,000 walled cities 500 years ago. This, for the Middle Kingdom, was all things under heaven. Everything else was peripheral.

Dynasties and Kings

China’s history has always been presented as a well-recorded and elegant sequence of dynasties of more than 500 kings, from the mythical past to the current republic, a record kept by the court. The script was sacred in China more than 3,000 years ago. Thanks to her, the emperor and the shamans could communicate with the gods. Each royal dynasty sought to respect the “mandate of heaven” and reproduce paradise on earth, by organizing an orderly society in harmony with nature. Otherwise, they risked the displeasure of heaven, the revolution of the people, and replacement by more worthy rulers.

Many Chinese people believe that their superior cultural ways have inspired their neighbors to emulate them and even to voluntarily pay homage to the Chinese emperor. Of course, the neighbors themselves, whether Japanese, Koreans, Tibetans or Vietnamese, do not agree with this Chinese worldview. That being said, neighboring cultures share many characteristics of Chinese culture such as top-down control, cultural interiority bordering on xenophobia, and a high value placed on nature, filial piety, and “saving face”. “. But, despite its walls, we must never forget that China gave the world rice, silk, tea, paper, printing and gunpowder.

Foreign influence

And despite the wall, China has succumbed to foreign influence. The horse appeared in China around the same time as in ancient Egypt and India, 3,500 years ago in the Shang era. Buddhism entered China 2,000 years ago during the Han period. These two elements have become such an integral part of Chinese culture that no one in China regards the horse or Buddhism as foreign.

Yet, at one time, Buddhism encountered fierce resistance in the royal courts, as it threatened ancient customs. Eventually it integrated into the Chinese system, its benevolent side aligning with Confucian thought, and its occult and mystical side aligning with Taoist rituals. Today, communist China feels threatened by the influence of Islam in the west and Christianity in the east, and maintains a firm grip on religious ideas.

China also had foreign leaders. The Yuan dynasty that ruled China in the 13th century was made up of northern Mongols, while the Qing, who ruled China from the 17th century until the rise of the Chinese Republic in the 20th century, were northern Manchurians. is. Even though these foreigners adopted the trappings of Chinese culture and insisted that they had a mandate from heaven to declare themselves emperor, their presence was tolerated with great resentment.

For many in China, only the Han are legitimate rulers. The Han dominated China from the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE, roughly when the Roman Empire controlled the Mediterranean regions, and the Indo-Greeks, Kushans, and Satavahanas controlled South Asia . Even today, Han culture is synonymous with what represents classical Chinese.

History of resistance

Chinese history is a history of resisting fragmentation. Periods without central control have been described by Chinese historians as dark and chaotic periods of fighting warlords. But it is also the time of the emergence of great literature, including that which will later be grouped into Confucian and Taoist.

After centuries of instability and warfare, China was brutally united by Emperor Qin around 2,300 years ago. Qin burned all the books, as he saw ideas as a threat to unification, a belief that still prevails today.

Soon after, China experienced the Han period, when centralization and standardization became the dominant theme of governance. Confucianism became the favored state religion, although the peasants preferred to continue with the Taoist faith.

This early China did not include the Uyghur and Tibetan regions to the east, which did not become “integral” to China until the Mongol era 700 years ago.

Filled with stories

China is full of temples dedicated to gods, heroes, and ancestors, but the major literature of the Chinese people are semi-historical novels that deal with the strategy and tactics of legendary kings and courtiers.

Gods, spirits, and ancestors thrive on folktales and divinations, but generally leave human affairs to humans. The concept of a single all-powerful god, located outside of nature, plays no role in the Chinese system. What exists is an all-powerful Emperor, on his Dragon Throne, in the Forbidden City. In this secure “square” space, he replicates the rituals and bureaucracy established by the Jade Emperor in the “circular” Heaven. Perfection here is copied, not invented. In China, copying is not considered stealing as it is in the West. He is considered the admiration of the best.

What distinguishes China from the West is the centrality of nature, hence the idea of ​​the interdependence of all things. Individuals exist in a system, so there cannot be Western-style individualism that is considered isolationist.

In Confucian fashion, everyone is responsible to someone else: subjects to the ruler, children to parents, women to men, juniors to seniors, students to teachers, the living to the dead. These are again organized hierarchically, like a cascade of authority, with the Emperor at the top. Obedience, ritually reinforced, ensures order. Breaking the system brings shame to the family and is frowned upon by venerable ancestors, whose shrine is found in most traditional homes.

The Taoist Way

China is a dominant civilizational force because the Confucian way has an equally powerful counterweight, the Tao way, which is more individualistic, rural, inward and mystical. In Taoist fashion, disharmony between yin and yang creates disease and despair. It is therefore better to avoid extremes.

Individualism is expressed differently in China. In the West, individualism compels the state to allow individual rights. In China, it means being invisible to the state: not being predator of the prey or prey of the predator; like a ninja warrior who goes with the flow and thus remains invisible. And that is how most Chinese survive in a regime that demands complete submission to the hierarchy in exchange for order. For nothing matters more in the Chinese order of things than cultural order and natural harmony, perhaps not even the truth.

The writer is the author of 50 books on mythology, art and culture.


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