Belief in Spirits

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Belief in spirits was a component of the primitive religious consciousness of ancient China. Having appeared since the earliest stages of primitive society, it had, by the Yin and Shang dynasties, evolved into belief in God and the Mandate of Heaven, with a pantheon of heavenly spirits with God as the supreme divinity. In times of difficulty, shamans and priests would seek answers from God through divinatory practises. Ancient people, ignorant of the physiology of life and death and of dreams, believed in the existence of a soul independent of the human body, which would become a spirit after death. This led to the worship of spirits, which became combined with the worship of ancestors. By the Zhou dynasty, the worship of spirits and ancestors was integrated with the practise of sacrificing to Heaven, which became called Worship of Heaven and Ancestors'.


The spirits worshipped in the Zhou dynasty were classified into the Heavenly Spirits, Human Spirits and Earth Spirits, which became the source of later Daoist polytheism. In particular, the talismanic and incantatory rites of the Talismans and Registers sects bear a relation to the ancient sacrifices to spirits. During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770-221 BC), in spite of the prevalent rationalism, some thinkers attempted to prove the existence of spirits and of heavenly will. This can be seen in Mozi's works The Will of Heaven and Understanding Spirits. Mozi's ideology of Honouring Heaven and Understanding Spirits was absorbed into Daoism, which integrated it with the practises of Immortalism and Magic Arts.


The scholar Zhang Taiyan has pointed out the reliance of Daoism on Mohism, and that Mohism is one of the ideological sources of Daoism. The Mohist ideology of spirits was fully integrated into Daoism. In addition, the integration of belief in spirits with the Five Agents theory led to the conception of the Spirits of the Five Directions and of the Five Colours. This became another source of the Daoist pantheon of spirits.


During the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC - AD 220) sacrificial offerings to spirits and to the Lord of Heaven became more widespread. In the early Han, the emperor Liu Bang increased the worship of the Five Emperors. Upon ascending to the throne, the Han emperor Wudi became a strong promoter of spirit worship: he held rituals on Mt. Tai to show respect to the heavenly spirits, honoured the Five Sacred Mountains and Four Holy Rivers, and built several new shrines. His highest object of worship was the Spirit of Supreme Oneness; in times of illness or war, he always prayed to Him.


The strong belief in and worship of spirits during the Qin and Han dynasties created a fertile religious environment for the birth and growth of Daoism, and was further transmitted and developed by Daoism.