RLGA01H3 Lecture Notes - East Asian Religions, Oracle Bone Script, Shang Dynasty
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Heaven (Tian) is a key concept in Chinese religions, and is the spectrum a synonym of
"Supreme Deity". Tian derives from the name of the supreme deity of the Zhou Dynasty.
After their conquest of the Shang Dynasty, the Zhou people considered Tian to be identical
with the Shang supreme deity Shangdi and the concepts fused over time. Heaven is affected
by man's doings, and having personality (Zhou people gave him anthropomorphic
attributes), is happy and angry with them. This is significant as this term is common
among most East Asian religions but is debated upon by many scholars such as Mencius or
Human have a special bond to the divine in East Asian religions (Tianren heyi [Heaven
and human are one]). This was assured by communication between the ancestral spirits and
their living descendants or through the actions of diviners or shamans. The bond between
human and the divine was experienced in trances or spirit possession. This is significant as
essentially all ritual referred symbolically or actually to a primeval union between humans
and the gods.
Earth (she) refers to an earthly deity and by extension its products, grain (ji), rivers and
mountains. This term is significant as it is part of the early Chinese thought where
governance begins with Heaven then to Human and finally to Earth.
Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings
of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. It is a complex system of moral, social, political and
philosophical thought that has had tremendous influence on the culture and history of East
Asia. The basic teachings of Confucianism stress the importance of education for moral
development of the individual so that the state can be governed by moral virtue rather than
by the use of coercive laws. This term is significant because it is one of the dominant
religions of many East Asian countries but possibly because of governmental promotion.
Confucius literally “Master Kong” was a Chinese thinker and social philosopher, whose
teachings and philosophy have deeply influenced East Asian thought and life. His teachings
may be found in the Analects of Confucius which was compiled many years after his death
(when he became influential). His philosophy emphasized personal and governmental
morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. Confucius is a significant
figure as he is the founder of the Confucianism system of philosophy.
Taoism (or Daoism) refers to a variety of related topics such as philosophical and religious
traditions and concepts that have influenced East Asia and the West. The word Tao (or Dao)
means "path" or "way". Taoist propriety and ethics emphasize the Three Jewels of the Tao:
compassion, moderation, and humility. Taoist thought generally focuses on nature, men-
cosmos correspondence, health, longevity, action through inaction, liberty, and spontaneity.
This term is significant as Daoism is an important religion in the East but cannot be
limited to doctrine; it is more of a relation between philosophy and physical aspects than a
Oracle bones are pieces of bone or turtle plastron (underside) bearing the answers to
divination chiefly during the late Shang Dynasty. They were heated and cracked (which
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were interpreted), then typically inscribed using a bronze pin in what is known as oracle
bone script (recorded important results or future events that fit with the oracle). The ritual
was supervised by the king and questions were addressed to ancestral spirits. This term is
significant as the records confirmed the existence of the Sh ng dynasty, which some
scholars, until then, had doubted ever existed.
Shaman is a person who is said to have a special ability to commune with the gods through
knowledge and mastery of a “technique of ecstasy”. Shamans of ancient China (wu) are
intermediaries in spirit cults, experts in exorcism, prophecy, rain making and the
interpretation of dreams as well as magic healers. This is significant as kings in China or
Japan even if not having direct shamanic powers (may have shamanic or divine descent)
were considered the chief shaman (in charge of other shamans) and had the authority to
call deities down at will.
Huang-di or the Yellow Emperor is a legendary Chinese sovereign and cultural hero. He
is often portrayed as the conqueror of evil forces and the bearer of civilizing benefits,
including the invention of the compass needles. His wife teaches the people to rear
silkworms and his chief minister invents writing. He is significant because he is one of the
Five Emperors (Wudi) who were part of a legendary age of gods and heroes – there still is
debate to whether they were divine or human.
Zhuanxu (grandson of Huang-di) is little known and is sometimes said to be another name
for Emperor Yao. Yao is remembered as a benevolent ruler who decides to pass the throne
on to a man who is the worthiest in the realm (Shun). He is significant because he is one of
the Five Emperors (Wudi) who were part of a legendary age of gods and heroes – there still
is debate to whether they were divine or human.
Shun is the legendary dutiful son who has a blind father and an evil stepmother. He earns
the position from Yao because he is the most worthy in the realm. He is significant because
he is one of the Five Emperors (Wudi) who were part of a legendary age of gods and heroes
– there still is debate to whether they were divine or human.
Yu is the great flood controller when the Yellow River overflows and floods large areas. He
is the model hard worker who labours for thirteen years and finally succeeds in channeling
the Yellow River into the ocean. He founded the first dynasty (Xia). Later, he is urged by a
grateful populace to depart from tradition and make his son the heir to the throne. He is
significant because he is one of the Five Emperors (Wudi) who were part of a legendary age
of gods and heroes – there still is debate to whether they were divine or human.
Analects also known as the Analects of Confucius, are considered a record of the words
and acts of the central Chinese thinker and philosopher Confucius and his disciples, as well
as the discussions they held. It was written during the Spring and Autumn period through
the Warring States period. This book is significant because of the tremendous influence it
has had over Eastern countries and is the primary source of Confucianism.
Ren is the Confucian virtue of humaneness. Ren is also translated as “goodness”,
“benevolence”, “humanity”, and “human-heartedness”. Confucius transformed ren into a
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