Chinese Religions, History of Science and Religion in China

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Chinese Religions, History of Science and Religion in China

The terms religion and science, which were introduced to China in the seventeenth century by Jesuit missionaries, are controversial in a Chinese context. Religion in Chinese is jiao (systems of teachings and beliefs); in this sense, Chinese religions include Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and the religions of antiquity. Whether Confucianism has a religious dimension is debatable, but Daoism certainly qualifies as a religion. Since Buddhism came from India, its religious character is quite different from those of Confucianism and Daoism. As for the term science, the very notion of a "Chinese science" is problematic. The modern concept of science cannot be used to measure ancient Chinese ideas, theories, studies, or inventions because doing so would misrepresent the merits of traditional science in Chinese culture. It cannot be denied that there were great inventions in ancient Chinese history, including gunpowder, the compass, paper making, and the art of printing. However, these inventions did not lead to modern scientific discoveries, and thus there is a gap between traditional Chinese science and modern Chinese science. In fact, modern Chinese science has been a recent development in response to the Western world.

Religion and science in ancient China

During the Shang dynasty (17661122 b.c.e.), ancient Chinese people believed that their ancestors, upon death, would continue to exist in heaven, the home of the divine ruler or lord on high (Shang-ti ), and from heaven they could influence human affairs. According to oracle bones that were discovered at the end of the nineteenth century in Anyang in northern China, Shang-ti watches over human society and regulates the workings of the universe. In view of the close relationship between religious worship and family clans, it is possible that Shangti was the chief god of the ruling family clan. Thus, the ascendancy of Shang-ti in religion closely parallels the political ascendancy of the family clan that practiced the cult of Shang-ti. Beneath him are a number of lesser deities of the sun, moon, stars, wind, rain, and particular mountains and rivers.

The oracle bones, which were made from tortoise shells or the shoulder blades of oxen, bore inscriptions written by the Yin or Shang people for purposes of divination. Yin people believed that dead animals had the power to contact divine figures, including the ancestors of humans, in the spiritual world. Divination rituals were performed by three groups of functionaries: persons who posed the questions; persons in charge of the ritual itself, which included cracking the oracle bones with heated bronze rods or thorns; and persons who interpreted the resulting patterns of the cracks. In the case of royal divination, official recorders or archivists also took part. After the fall of the Shang dynasty, people who lived during the early years of the Chou dynasty (11221249 b.c.e.) continued to practice divination using shells and bones, then the practice died out.

Divination presupposes a belief in spirits and their power to protect the living. Ancient Chinese people believed that the cosmos consists of three levels: heaven above, the dwelling place of the dead below, and the Earth in between them. When people die, the "upper soul" (the psyche) rises up to heaven while the "lower soul" (the physical body and emotions) descends to the underworld. Ancestors of the royal family were considered to be the most powerful among the dead on account of their special relationship with the gods. It was believed that they dwell in high heaven in the company of the gods, where they continue to have power over the living, either to protect and bless them or to punish and curse them.

From the inscriptions on oracle bones, scholars know not only the divination activities but also the scientific activities of Yin people. Oracle bones record eclipses and novae, as well as names of stars and constellations. They show that Yin people used a lunar calendar with twelve yues (moons or lunar months) in one lunar year. Each lunar month consisted of twenty-nine or thirty days, and every two or three years one extra month, known as the intercalary month, was added to keep the lunar year in step with the corresponding solar year. Numerals found on oracle bones also indicate that Yin people used a decimal system.

In the Warring States period (480381 b.c.e.), the disciples of Mo Zi (479381 b.c.e.) made great contributions to natural science, especially in the areas of statics, hydrostatics, dynamics, and optics. Mohist physicists understood that light travels in straight lines. By using fixed light sources, screens with pinhole apertures, and possibly the camera obscura, they were able to study the formation of inverted images and the idea of the focal point.


Confucianism is the English word for Ru-jia (School of Scholars), which was founded by the philosopher and teacher Confucius (551479 b.c.e.). The name Confucius is the Latinized form of Kong Fu-tzu, a respectful way of addressing the master. Kong was his family name. Confucius lived in a time when the empire was fragmenting into numerous feudal states. It was a time of change, disorder, and degeneration of the traditional moral and political order. Confucius can truly be said to have molded Chinese civilization to a great extent. The central concept of his teaching is jen, a word that literally means the relationship of two persons, and Confucius's teachings focus on human interpersonal relationships. It is a humanistic approach to philosophical thinking. Jen is associated with loyalty (zhong ), that is, loyalty to one's own heart and conscience. Jen is also related to reciprocity (shu ), that is, respect of and consideration for others. Confucius did not care to talk about spiritual beings or even about life after death. Instead, he believed that human beings "can make the Way (Dao) great," and not that "the Way can make man great" (Analects 15:28). Although his teachings concentrate on human beings, Confucius's primary concern is good society based on good government and harmonious human relations. To this end he advocated a good government ruled by virtue and moral example rather than by punishment or force. His criterion for goodness is righteousness as opposed to profit. It is the ideal of a sage or a superior person to apply this inner morality to the outside world. Such an approach is called neisheng wai-huang, or sagacity within and kingliness without. The opposite of a sage is an inferior man.

The Confucian sage does not withdraw from the business of the world. In his inner sagacity, he accomplishes spiritual cultivation; in his outward kingliness, he functions in society. It is not necessary for the sage to be the actual head of the government in his society. From the standpoint of practical politics, a Confucian sage usually had little chance of becoming the head of the state in Chinese history before the twentieth century. The saying "sagacity within and kingliness without" means only that he who has the noblest spirit should, theoretically, be king. A student of Confucius once asked him: "If a ruler extensively confers benefit on the people and can bring salvation to all, what do you think of him? Would you call him a man of humanity?" Confucius replied: "Why only a man of humanity? He is without doubt a sage. Even Yao and Shun [legendary emperors before the Shang dynasty] fall short of it. A man of humanity, wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others, and wishing to be prominent himself, also helps others to be prominent. To be able to judge others by what is near to ourselves may be called the method realizing humanity" (Analects 6:28).

Confucianism emphasizes not just social behavior. It confers definite importance on rituals, including religious rituals, and has even been called a "ritual religion" (li-jiao ). The Chinese word for ritual is related to the word worship or sacrificial vessel with definite religious overtones. The Confucian emphasis on political responsibility explains why during much of Chinese history Confucianism served the function of a civil religion. From the Han dynasty (206 b.c.e.220 c.e.) on, an elaborate state cult was developed. It has been, rightly or wrong, attributed to Confucian teachings, which include expressions of very ancient beliefs in a supreme deity.


Daoism as religion can be traced back to ancient China, especially to Lao-tzu (c. 604490 b.c.e.) and Chuang-tzu (c. 369286 b.c.e.). However, the Daoists reinterpreted the teachings of their religion radically in later centuries. In the third century c.e., the first legendary emperor of ancient China, Huang-di (the Yellow Emperor), was worshiped together with Lao-tzu as Huang-Lao in a cult that involved pursuing immortality and changing base metals into gold. From that time on, the Daoist religion identified with the quest for immortality, including physical immortality, through the search for elixirs in alchemy and through yogalike exercises. Elixirs frequently contained toxic compounds derived from mercury, lead, sulfur, arsenic, and so on, certain to cause poisoning. If metallic poisoning might bring death, there was also the hope that such death was temporary, as a necessary phase in the quest for eternal life. Although mercuric and lead compounds can be fatal when swallowed, they are also known to have preservative powers. It may be that Daoists believed the power of faith would protect their physical bodies from corruption, so that their souls would remain with their bodies and eventually attain immortality together.

The strong idea of elixir alchemy for eternal life contributed to traditional Chinese medicine, while yogalike exercises contributed to health care. Yoga techniques are based on the theory of interaction between body and spirit and the possibility of controlling one's mental state by manipulating one's body.

Daoism, according to some scholars, is the folk religion of Chinese people. Unlike Confucianism, Daoism seeks to guide its believers beyond this transitory life to a happy eternity. Daoists believe in an original state of bliss, which is followed by the present human condition, the fallen state. Daoists also rely on supernatural powers for help and protection.

Daoists believe in a supreme emperor deity called Yu-huang-da-di, who governs over a heavenly universe of deities and immortals, many of them famous historical figures. The Daoist religion offers its doctrines of the cosmos and the cosmic process and harmony, tracing all back to the great ultimate (tai chi ) and to the interactions of the two great modes of yin and yang. Yin, the great feminine mode, denotes all figures, things, and processes of negativity, passivity, staticity, and concealment. Yang, the great masculine mode, denotes all figures, things, and processes of positivity, activity, dynamism, and manifestation. Yin and yang are the basic principles for classification and explanation in traditional Chinese daily life, science and technology, medicine, and philosophy. With such unique categories, a truly traditional "Chinese science" is very different in character from a Westernized scientific enterprise in modern China.

Daoists do not conceive of eternal life in terms of spiritual immortality alone. They anticipate the survival of the whole person, including the body. The means by which Daoism pursues immortality, which should enable immortality to be realized in this life on Earth, are empirical and congenial to the geographical environment, to health care, and to elixir alchemy. Thus, the influence of Daoism on the development of traditional "Chinese science" is substantial.


In Chinese, a follower of Confucianism is called a ru. The ru and the hsieh (knights errant) originated as specialists attached to the houses of the aristocrats and were themselves members of the upper classes. In later times the ru continued to come mainly from the upper or middle classes, but the hsieh were more frequently recruited from the lower classes. In ancient times, such social amenities as rituals and music were exclusively for aristocrats; for the common person, therefore, rituals and music were luxuries that had no practical utility. It was from this vantage point that Mo Zi and the Mohists, who came from the hsieh class, criticized the traditional institutions, including Confucius and Confucianism.

Unlike Confucius, Mo Zi believed in a personal God and the existence of spirits, and he submitted himself to the will of God. He saw his mission as rescuing the people from suffering, and he proclaims the all-embracing love. He and his followers explored science and technology so they would have the skills they needed to put their ideas into practice.

The school of Mohism introduced epistemology, as well as formal, abstract, and geometrical notions such as a dimensionless geometrical point in space and time. According to Mohist epistemology, the knowing faculty must be confronted with an object of knowledge. The human mind interprets the impressions of external objects, which are brought to it by the senses. The Mo Jing (Book of Mohism) provides various logical classifications of knowledge. For example, names are classified into three kinds: general, classifying, and private. The knowledge of correspondence is that which knows which name corresponds to which actuality. Such knowledge is required for the statement of a proposition like "This is a table." When one has this kind of knowledge, one knows that "names and actualities pair with each other" (Mo Jing, Ch. 42).

Mohists also touch on atomic theory in their discussion of the strengths of materials, but they never articulate it clearly or develop its consequences. The Mo Jing also contains some remarkable statements about the study of motion. Though ancient Chinese scientists accomplished little in theoretical dynamics, they did consider forces in some detail, and they appear to have come remarkably close to the principle of inertia as stated by Isaac Newton (16421727). Mohists also investigated the relativity of motion, motion along inclined planes or slopes, and particular problems of moving spheres. Unfortunately, Mohism disappeared during the first century b.c.e., and its important scientific findings were only rediscovered in the twentieth century.


During the first century b.c.e., an impressive cosmology arose in China. "Before heaven and earth had taken form all was vague and amorphous. Therefore it was called the Great Beginning. The Great Beginning produced emptiness, and emptiness produced the universe. The universe produced material-force, which had limits. That which was clear and light drifted up to become heaven, while that which was heavy and turbid solidified to become earth" (Huai-nan Tzu 3:1a). This cosmology is different from that of Buddhism, for Buddhists maintain that the origin of the universe comes from the blind consciousness that is no reality. Daoism, however, maintains that the origin of the universe lies with the great ultimate (tai chi), which is also called wu (literally, nothingness or nonbeing). The tai chi emblem, which consists of a circle with an s-shaped curve dividing it into two complementing black and white regions, represents respectively the yin and yang as two great modal forces of the cosmos in mutual interpenetration. Each region being punctured in the middle by a dot of the opposite region, further underscoring this dialectical interpenetration. It is meant to be an empirical sign of the origin of the universe.

The cosmology of Confucianism is explained by the Tai-chi-t'u-shuo (An explanation of the diagram of the Great Ultimate) by Chou Tun-i, a scholar who lived during the Sung (Song) dynasty (9601297 c.e.) and a pioneer of neo-Confucianism. Although Chou Tun-i may have obtained his diagram from a Daoist priest, it is unlike any diagram of the Daoists. For Chou Tun-i, the great ultimate is an abstract principle that is the ultimate metaphysical reality. In his explanation, the myriad things are created through the evolutionary process of creation from the great ultimate through the dialectical interaction of the passive cosmic force, yin, and the active cosmic force, yang. Chou Tun-i faithfully followed the Book of Changes or I-ching rather than Daoism. He assimilated the Daoist concept of nonbeing with Confucian thought, but in so doing he discarded the fantasy and mysticism of Daoism. This diagram of Chou Tun-i has been described as a cosmology of creation without a creator.

In his diagram he said that the ultimate of nonbeing is also the great ultimate (tai chi). The great ultimate generates yang through movement. When its activity reaches its limit, movement turns into tranquility. The great ultimate generates yin through tranquility. When tranquility reaches its limit, activity begins again. So movement and tranquility alternate and become the cause of each other, giving rise to the distinction of yin and yang, and the two modes are thus established. By the transformation of yang and its union with yin, the five agents, elements, or phases of metal, wood, water, fire, and Earth arise. When the material forces of these five agents are distributed in harmonious order, the four seasons run their course. The creating order is called Dao (the Way), which governs not only the Earth but also human life and society. Following the Dao should be the purpose of all one's activities, including governmental, societal, familial, and personal ones. Thus, Dao as the most fundamental principle or cosmological law is objective and natural.

Other sciences in Chinese history

Astronomy. There was no distinction between astronomy and astrology in traditional China. The oracle bone inscriptions include records of eclipses, novae, and names of stars and some constellations, and star catalogs were produced during the Warring States period. The earliest extant Chinese documents on astronomy are two silk scrolls discovered in 1973 in the Mawangdui tombs in Changsha in the Hunan province. One of them, the Wuxingzhan (Astrology of the five planets), which was written between 246 and 177 B.C.E, contains records of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus, the accuracy of which suggests the use of an armillary sphere for measurement. An important role of Chinese astronomy was calendar calculation. Every emperor regarded calendar making as one of his duties associated with the mandate that he received from heaven. The calendar, issued in the emperor's name, became part of the ritual paraphernalia that demonstrated his dynastic right to rule. Astrological observations could easily be manipulated and thus could be dangerous in the hands of someone trying to undermine the current dynasty. It was therefore a principle of state policy that the proper place to conduct astronomical studies was the imperial court. During certain periods it was illegal to do it elsewhere. Thus, an ancient scientific pursuit such as astronomy was deeply embedded in the social matrix of ancient China, although Chinese astronomy could not be pursued as an independent activity like its modern western counterpart.

Medicine. Classical Chinese medicine has often been represented as an empirical science that is based on the clinically sound use of effective natural drugs and other remedies. Scientific theories served primarily as mnemonic devices or as mystification to confuse the untrained. Some scholars portray classical Chinese medicine as a corpus of theory-based adaptations of the yin-yang and five-agents concepts. As such, the body was understood as a multilevel interconnected system, and illnesses were treated holistically. The most famous medical texts were compiled before the Qin period (before 211 b.c.e.) and completed during the Han dynasty. Among extant texts, the most important are Huangdi Neijing (Yellow Emperor's inner canon) and Shennong Bencao Jing (Divine husbandry's classic of herbology), which laid the foundation for clinical science with definite treatment and diagnostic principles. Chinese pharmacology also reveals outstanding achievements during this period. Shennong's Classic of Herbology presents many effective remedies. It also provides the theoretical basis of drug use, as well as the collection, preservation, and mixing of herbs, and their methods of administration.

From the second century c.e. onward, medical disciplines were professionalized. Clinical medicine developed greatly from the third to the tenth centuries. The Zouhou Beiji Fang (Handbook of prescription for emergency) in the fourth century includes information on smallpox and a treatment for hydrophobia that used the brain tissue of a mad dog. The academic standard of Chinese medicine was further upgraded during the Ming and Qing dynasties (13681911 c.e.). A new medical school was established to study acute infections, and researchers there successfully tackled many infectious diseases, including B-encephalitis, acute viral hepatitis, and other viral diseases.

Chinese medicine never produced a detailed and accurate picture of anatomy and physiology. The philosophical concept of yin-yang was the basic theory for interpreting complex relationships between the upper and lower emotions, the inner basis and the outer manifestations of the body's activities and functions. Moreover, classical Chinese medicine was not concerned with microorganisms or details of the body's organs and tissues. The strength of classical Chinese medical discourse lies rather in its sophisticated analysis of how bodily functions are related on many levels, from the vital processes of the body to the emotions, to the natural and social environment of the patient. In this sense, traditional Chinese medicine stresses a holistic view of health rather than analytical research on the physical body.

See also Chinese Religions and Science; Chinese Religions, Confucianism and Science in China; Chinese Religions, Daoism and Science in China


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hing kau yeung

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