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Chinese History - Shang Dynasty 商 (17th to 11th cent. BC)
religion

The oracle bone inscriptions (jiaguwen 甲骨文) are essential for our understanding of Shang religion. In the inscriptions we find the names of deified ancestors - former kings - that were worshipped and asked for help by the ruling kings of Yin. An integral part of the Shang religion was the ancestor worship that became later the core of Confucianism and Chinese thinking. The bronze vessels and burial offerings show how the former people have been venerated. The tombs in Anyang and other Shang period sites do not only contain the tomb owner in his richly decorated wooden coffin, but also many tomb offerings of which in most cases only pottery, jade objects and ritual bronze vessels have survived. Furthermore, the whole entourage of the king, like ministers, servants, slaves, concubines, were sacrified and buried together as human sacrifices (renxun 人殉) with their deceased lord.
The king's ancestors (zhu 祖) and the former lords were only a part of a rich world of gods and souls. The highest god was Di or Shangdi 上帝 who was especially responsible for natural powers like wind and rain. The highest deity was able to send down fortune and disaster (inundation, draught, sickness) on people below. The rulers and people of Yin also believed in other natural gods like the Earth, the Yellow River, the god of Mount Song 嵩山/Henan and the Sun. Like Shangdi controlled nature as highest deity, while the king as highest person controlled his domain. Deceased kings were deified as gods and received the title of di 帝 (like Di Xin 帝辛; di is here also acting as component of a binome). Nevertheless, Shangdi as the highest deity of nature was venerated differently from the royal ancestors that were adressed more directly for consultation. Except dynastic ancestors there were also predynastic ancestors and former lords who were treated differently from the direct ancestral line.
The spirit of the ancestors (shi 示, a graph showing the spiritual power descending from above) was inquired and venerated in an ancestor temple (zong 宗). With specially defined types of ritual bronze vessels like jue 爵, ding 鼎, and jia 斝 the souls of the ancestors were offered millet ale and foods. There were five different types of rituals for ancestor hosting: yi 翌, ji 祭, zai {(才/隹)*丸}, xie {劦/口} and yong 肜. Towards the end of the Yin period the belief in the highest deity Shangdi and the natural powers became more indifferent and was overshadowed by the growing importance of the ancestral spirits. At the same time, the king took over the position of the divining shaman himself, a task that was hitherto filled by a group or staff of specialized shamans.
Shang thinking can not be divided from divination. The use of divination by pyromancy, exposing bones or turtle plastrons to the fire and divining by the resulting cracks in the bone's surface, was not only limited to the Shang period - as often is read, but was still in use during the early Zhou Dynasty. To divine, a hole was drilled in the scapula of an ox or in the plastron (breast shield) of a turtle. Exposing the bone to fire, it obtained cracks out of which the professional diviner or the king as a divining shaman read what to do in the next future. The divination's course and the result was written down on the bones before storing and burying them in big jars.

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  © 2000 ff · Ulrich Theobald · Mail