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  • Print publication year: 2007
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10 - The religion of ancient China



Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when China was still ruled by the last of its dynastic houses, scholars intimately familiar with China's traditional culture would have been able to write the history of ancient Chinese religion perfectly and with great assurance. Now, at the start of a new millennium, the task is considerably more difficult, and one that a modern scholar – and especially a western scholar – approaches with much less confidence. This is not at all because we know less now about either ancient China or religion than did scholars a century ago. Indeed, with respect to ancient China (by which for the purposes of this chapter I will mean the roughly thousand years from the appearance of the first historical records about 1200 BCE until the establishment of a unified Chinese empire about 200 BCE), the last hundred years have been a time of unprecedented discovery of new sources. Some of these new sources give first-hand evidence of cultural practices that were still alive or at least well known to traditional scholars. Others, however, would have dumbfounded those scholars, as they do us today. They show us a culture more colourful, more discordant, more pungent than we could have ever imagined. To try not just to describe, but also to make some sort of coherent sense, of these new sights, sounds and smells would require, ideally, the curiosity of an archaeologist, the precision of an engineer and the inspiration of an artist.

Bilsky, Lester 1975. The state religion of ancient China. 2 vols., Taipei: The Chinese Association for Folklore. One of the few attempts to describe systematically the religion of ancient China, this book is nevertheless limited by its traditional approach.
Chang, Kwang-chih 1976. Early Chinese civilization: anthropological perspectives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. A collection of essays by the leading western interpreter of Chinese archaeology, this introduces his provocative views on the social organization of the Shang dynasty, and on shamanism, among other topics related to the religion of ancient China.
Eno, Robert 1990. The Confucian creation of Heaven. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. A provocative interpretation of Confucius and his followers, portraying them in a distinctly religious context.
Falkenhausen, Lothar 1993. Suspended music: chime-bells in the culture of Bronze Age China. Berkeley: University of California Press. Although only tangentially related to the study of religion (music played an important role in the performance of Chinese ritual), this is an excellent survey of archaeological evidence dating from the tenth through the fifth centuries BCE.
Fingarette, Herbert 1972. Confucius: the secular as sacred. New York: Harper and Row. A path-breaking religious interpretation of Confucius that has stirred discussion for a generation now.
Fong, Wen (ed.) 1980. The great Bronze Age of China: an exhibition from the People's Republic of China. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is still the most convenient and authoritative introduction to Chinese archaeology, particularly for the dramatic discoveries of the 1970s.
Graham, A. C. 1989. Disputers of the Tao: philosophical argument in ancient China. La Salle, IL: Open Court Press. A fine survey of the intellectual history of ancient China by the acknowledged master of the field.
Granet, Marcel 1968. La pensée chinoise [1934]; rpt. Paris: Albin Michel. Granet's masterpiece: even well over seventy years after its publication this work is still fresh. What is more, unlike most books in the field, its view of ancient China seems to find corroboration with each new archaeological discovery. Those who cannot read French but wish to gain some idea as to Granet's approach will find useful his The religion of the Chinese people, trans. Maurice Freedman (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975).
Harper, Donald 1998. Early Chinese medical literature: the Mawangdui medical manuscripts. London: Kegan Paul. Not at all limited to medicine; the introduction to this book provides a magisterial survey of archaeological discoveries from the fourth to second centuries BCE by the leading scholar in the field.
Keightley, David N. 1978. Sources of Shang history: the oracle-bone inscriptions of Bronze Age China. Berkeley: University of California Press. This remains, more than twenty years after its writing, the best introduction to Shang dynasty divination with oracle bones. Those wishing to read Keightley's conclusions regarding religion without reading through all of the technical discussion of this book will find interesting his ‘The religious commitment: Shang theology and the genesis of Chinese political culture’, History of Religions 17 (1978): 211–24, and ‘Shang divination and metaphysics’, Philosophy East & West 38 (1988): 367–97.
Loewe, Michael 1994. Divination, mythology and monarchy in Han China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A collection of essays, many of them touching on points related to religion, by the west's leading authority on the Han dynasty.
Loewe, Michael (ed.) 1993. Early Chinese texts: a bibliographical guide. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California. An indispensable handbook to sixty-four books dating to China's ancient period, it provides descriptions of contents, discussions of authenticity, and also lists of translations into western languages.
Loewe, Michael and Edward, L. Shaughnessy (eds.) 1999. The Cambridge history of ancient China: from the beginnings of civilization to 221 B.C.. New York: Cambridge University Press. This is the best overview of the history of ancient China; it includes essays by most of the leading scholars in the field and incorporates all of the recent archaeological discoveries.
Lopez, Donald S. Jr. (ed.) 1996. Religions of China in practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. A general sourcebook for the religions of China, with sections on oracle-bone inscriptions, inner cultivation traditions, spirit flights, exorcisms and state sacrifices in ancient China.
Overmyer, Daniel (ed.) 1995. Chinese religion: the state of the field. Journal of Asian Studies 54. 1: 124–8. This bibliographic survey includes essays on the Neolithic and Shang periods (by David Keightley), the Western Zhou (by Edward Shaughnessy), the Springs and Autumns (by Constance Cook) and the Warring States and Han (by Donald Harper).
Poo, Mu-chou 1998. In search of personal welfare: a view of ancient Chinese religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. The most recent systematic survey of ancient Chinese religion, it is particularly good on mantic practices of the Warring States period, including especially the Rishu or Daybooks.
Shaughnessy, Edward L. 1997a. Before Confucius: studies in the creation of the Chinese classics. Albany, NY: SUNY Press. A collection of essays discussing how the earliest of the Chinese classics, the Changes, Documents and Poetry, may have come to be written.
Shaughnessy, Edward L. (ed.) 1997b. New sources of early Chinese history: an introduction to the reading of inscriptions and manuscripts. Berkeley: The Society for the Study of Early China and the Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California. Does for archaeologically discovered texts what Early Chinese texts: a bibliographical guide does for traditional texts, providing concise introductions to the various genres of materials.