Confucius[This is taken from Herbert A. Giles’ The Religions of Ancient China, first published in 1920.]


Under the influence of Confucius, B.C. 551-479, the old order of things began to undergo a change. The Sage’s attitude of mind towards religion was one of a benevolent agnosticism, as summed up in his famous utterance, “Respect the spirits, but keep them at a distance.” That he fully recognized the existence of a spirit world, though admitting that he knew nothing about it, is manifest from the following remarks of his:—

“How abundantly do spiritual beings display the powers that belong to them! We look for, but do not see them; we listen for, but do not hear them; yet they enter into all things, and there is nothing without them. They cause all the people in the empire to fast and purify themselves, and array themselves in their richest dresses, in order to attend at their sacrifices. Then, like overflowing water, they seem to be over the heads, and on the right and left, of their worshippers.”

He believed that he himself was, at any rate to some extent, a prophet of God, as witness his remarks when in danger from the people of K’uang:—

“After the death of King Wen, was not wisdom lodged in me? If God were to destroy this wisdom, future generations could not possess it. So long as God does not destroy this wisdom, what can the people of K’uang do to me?”

Again, when Confucius cried, “Alas! there is no one that knows me,” and a disciple asked what was meant, he replied, “I do not murmur against God. I do not mumble against man. My studies lie low, and my penetration lies high. But there is God; He knows me.”

We know that Confucius fasted, and we know that “he sacrificed to the spirits as though the spirits were present;” it is even stated that “when a friend sent him a present, though it might be a carriage and horses, unless it were flesh which had been used in sacrifice, he did not bow.” He declared that for a person in mourning food and music were without flavor and charm; and whenever he saw anyone approaching who was in mourning dress, even though younger than himself, he would immediately rise from his seat. He believed in destiny; he was superstitious, changing color at a squall or at a clap of thunder; and he even countenanced the ceremonies performed by villagers when driving out evil spirits from their dwellings. He protested against any attempt to impose on God. He said that “he who offends against God has none to whom he can pray;” and when in an hour of sickness a disciple asked to be allowed to pray for him, he replied, “My praying has been for a long time.” Yet he declined to speak to his disciples of God, of spiritual beings or even of death and a hereafter, holding that life and its problems were alone sufficient to tax the energies of the human race. While not altogether ignoring man’s duty towards God, he subordinated it in every way to man’s duty towards his neighbor. He also did much towards weakening the personality of God, for whom he invariably used T’ien, never Shang Ti, regarding Him evidently more as an abstraction than as a living sentient Being, with the physical attributes of man. Confucianism is therefore entirely a system of morality, and not a religion.

It is also a curious fact that throughout the Spring and Autumn, or Annals of the State of Lu, which extend from B.C. 722 to B.C. 484, there is no allusion of any kind to the interposition of God in human affairs, although a variety of natural phenomena are recorded, such as have always been regarded by primitive peoples as the direct acts of an angered or benevolent Deity. Lu was the State in which Confucius was born, and its annals were compiled by the Sage himself; and throughout these Annals the term God is never used except in connection with the word “King,” where it always has the sense of “by the grace of God,” and once where the suzerain is spoken of as “the Son of God,” or, as we usually phrase it, “the Son of Heaven.”

How to bring rain.—In the famous Commentary by Tso-ch’iu Ming on the Spring and Autumn, which imparts a human interest to the bald entries set against each year of these annals, there are several allusions to the Supreme Being. For instance, at a time of great drought the Duke of Lu wished, in accordance with custom, to burn a witch and a person in the last stage of consumption; the latter being sometimes exposed in the sun so as to excite the compassion of God, who would then cause rain to fall. A Minister vigorously protested against this superstition, pointing out that the proper way to meet a drought would be to reduce the quantity of food consumed, and to practice rigid economy in all things. “What have these creatures to do with the matter?” he asked. “If God had wished to put them to death, He had better not have given them life. If they can really produce drought, to burn them will only increase the calamity.” The Duke accordingly desisted; and although there was a famine, it is said to have been less severe than usual.

In B.C. 523 there was a comet. A Minister said, “This broom-star sweeps away the old, and brings in the new. The doings of God are constantly attended by such appearances.”

Under B.C. 532 we have the record of a stone speaking. The Marquis of Lu enquired of his chief musician if this was a fact, and received the following answer: “Stones cannot speak. Perhaps this one was possessed by a spirit. If not, the people must have heard wrong. And yet it is said that when things are done out of season, and discontents and complaints are stirring among the people, then speechless things do speak.”

Human Sacrifices.—Human sacrifices appear to have been not altogether unknown. The Commentary tells us that in B.C. 637, in consequence of a failure to appear and enter into a covenant, the Viscount of Tseng was immolated by the people of the Chu State, to appease the wild tribes of the east. The Minister of War protested: “In ancient times the six domestic animals were not offered promiscuously in sacrifice; and for small matters, the regular sacrificial animals were not used. How then should we dare to offer up a man? Sacrifices are performed for the benefit of men, who thus as it were entertain the spirits. But if men sacrifice men, who will enjoy the offering?”

Again, in B.C. 529, the ruler of the Ch’u State destroyed the Ts’ai State, and offered up the heir apparent as a victim. An officer said, “This is inauspicious. If the five sacrificial animals may not be used promiscuously, how much less can a feudal prince be offered up?”

The custom of burying live persons with the dead was first practiced in China in B.C. 580. It is said to have been suggested by an earlier and more harmless custom of placing straw and wooden effigies in the mausoleums of the great. When the “First Emperor” died in B.C. 210, all those among his wives who had borne no children were buried alive with him.

Praying for Rain.—From another Commentary on the Spring and Autumn, by Ku-liang Shu, fourth century B.C., we have the following note on Prayers for Rain, which are still offered up on occasions of drought, but now generally through the medium of Taoist and Buddhist priests:—

“Prayers for rain should be offered up in spring and summer only; not in autumn and winter. Why not in autumn and winter? Perhaps the moisture of growing things is not then exhausted; neither has man reached the limit of his skill. Why in spring and summer? Because time is pressing and man’s skill is of no further avail. How so? Because without rain just then nothing could be made to grow; the crops would fail, and famine ensue. But why wait until time is pressing, and man’s skill of no further avail? Because to pray for rain is the same thing as asking a favor, and the ancients did not lightly ask favors. Why so? Because they held it more blessed to give than to receive; and as the latter excludes the former, the main object of man’s life is taken away. How is praying for rain asking a favor? It is a request that God will do something for us. The divine men of old who had any request to make to God were careful to prefer it in due season. At the head of all his high officers of State, the prince would proceed in person to offer up his prayer. He could not ask any one else to go as his proxy.”

Posthumous Honors for Confucius.—Before leaving Confucius, it is necessary to add that now for many centuries he has been the central figure and object of a cult as sincere as ever offered by man to any being, human or divine. The ruler of Confucius’ native State of Lu was profoundly distressed by the Sage’s death, and is said to have built a shrine to commemorate his great worth, at which sacrifices were offered at the four seasons. By the time however that the Chou dynasty was drawing to its close (third century B.C.), it would be safe to say that, owing to civil war and the great political upheaval generally, the worship of Confucius was altogether discontinued. It certainly did not flourish under the “First Emperor” (see post), and was only revived in B.C. 195 by the first Emperor of the Han dynasty, who visited the grave of Confucius in Shantung and sacrificed to his spirit a pig, a sheep, and an ox. Fifty years later a temple was built to Confucius at his native place; and in A.D. 72 his seventy-two disciples were admitted to share in the worship, music being shortly afterwards added to the ceremonial. Gradually, the people came to look upon Confucius as a god, and women used to pray to him for children, until the practice was stopped by Edict in A.D. 472. In 505, which some consider to be the date of the first genuine Confucian Temple, wooden images of the Sage were introduced; in 1530 these were abolished, and inscribed tablets of wood, in use at the present day, were substituted. In 555 temples were placed in all prefectural cities; and later on, in all the important cities and towns of the empire. In the second and eighth months of each year, before dawn, sacrifices to Confucius are still celebrated with considerable solemnity and pomp, including music and dances by bands of either thirty-six or sixty-four performers.

Mencius and Confucianism.—Mencius, who lived B.C. 372-289, and devoted himself to the task of spreading and consolidating the Confucian teachings, made no attempt to lead back the Chinese people towards their early beliefs in a personal God and in a spiritual world beyond the ken of mortals. He observes in a general way that “those who obey God are saved, while those who rebel against Him perish,” but his reference is to this life, and not to a future one. He also says that those whom God destines for some great part, He first chastens by suffering and toil. But perhaps his most original contribution will be found in the following paragraph:—

“By exerting his mental powers to the full, man comes to understand his own nature. When he understands his own nature, he understands God.”

In all the above instances the term used for God is T’ien. Only in one single passage does Mencius use Shang Ti:—”Though a man be wicked, if he duly prepares himself by fasting and abstinence and purification by water, he may sacrifice to God.”

Ch’u Yuan.—The statesman-poet Ch’u Yuan, B.C. 332-295, who drowned himself in despair at his country’s outlook, and whose body is still searched for annually at the Dragon-Boat festival, frequently alludes to a Supreme Being:—

Almighty God, Thou who art impartial,
And dost appoint the virtuous among men as Thy Assistants.

One of his poems is entitled “God Questions,” and consists of a number of questions on various mysteries in the universe. The meaning of the title would be better expressed by “Questions put to God,” but we are told that such a phrase was impossible on account of the holiness of God and the irreverence of questioning Him. One question was, “Who has handed down to us an account of the beginning of all things, and how do we know anything about the time when heaven and earth were without form?” Another question was, “As Nu-ch’i had no husband, how could she bear nine sons?” The Commentary tells us that Nu-ch’i was a “divine maiden,” but nothing more seems to be known about her.

The following prose passage is taken from Ch’u Yuan’s biography:—

“Man came originally from God, just as the individual comes from his parents. When his span is at an end, he goes back to that from which he sprang. Thus it is that in the hour of bitter trial and exhaustion, there is no man but calls to God, just as in his hours of sickness and sorrow every one of us will turn to his parents.”

The great sacrifices to God and to Earth, as performed by the early rulers of China, had been traditionally associated with Mount T’ai, in the modern province of Shantung, one of China’s five sacred mountains. Accordingly, in B.C. 219, the self-styled “First Emperor,” desirous of restoring the old custom, which had already fallen into desuetude, proceeded to the summit of Mount T’ai, where he is said to have carried out his purpose, though what actually took place was always kept a profound secret. The literati, however, whom the First Emperor had persecuted by forbidding any further study of the Confucian Canon, and burning all the copies he could lay hands on, gave out that he had been prevented from performing the sacrifices by a violent storm of rain, alleging as a reason that he was altogether deficient in the virtue required for such a ceremony.

It may be added that in B.C. 110 the then reigning Emperor proceeded to the summit of Mount T’ai, and performed the great sacrifice to God, following this up by sacrificing to Earth on a hill at the foot of the mountain. At the ceremony he was dressed in yellow robes, and was accompanied by music. During the night there was light, and a white cloud hung over the altar. The Emperor himself declared that he saw a dazzling glory, and heard a voice speaking to him. The truthful historian—the Herodotus of China—who has left an account of these proceedings, accompanied the Emperor on this and other occasions; he was also present at the sacrifices offered before the departure of the mission, and has left it on record that he himself actually heard the voices of spirits.