China's Semi-Divine Civilization: (Part 1) The Tradition of Venerating Heaven and Worshipping Ancestors

Hu Zhang

PureInsight | May 12, 2003

The Home of Gods, the Divine Land of China

[] Located in the mystical Far East, China was the legendary home of gods, and thus carried the title "Divine Land." As descendants of gods, the Chinese people have, since ancient times, believed that they inhabited a land that was in the center of the world. Therefore, they called China the Middle Kingdom (or Zhong Guo in Chinese). Over its long history, China has nurtured a civilization that continues to flourish in glory and wisdom.

The Chinese people are set apart from those of other nations and backgrounds with regards to their tradition of venerating heaven and worshiping ancestors. They even worship their forbearers as they do divinities. Such common Chinese proverbs, such as "May heaven bless and protect me" and "May my ancestors bless and protect me" have become ingrained into their daily rituals. Then, we wonder as to how do Chinese people define "heaven"? Why do they believe that their ancestors are as omnipotent as divinities and can grant blessings and protection to them? What is the exact meaning of the so-called "Chinese semi-divine culture"? We will, in a number of articles, expound on the unique Chinese tradition of venerating heaven and worshiping ancestors.

Why the Chinese Venerate Heaven in a Culture Led by Gods

A detailed study of Chinese history reveals that in the most ancient Chinese legends, Pangu, who created heaven and earth, was followed by the appearances of three divine emperors, Nu Wa, Fu Xi, and Shen Nong. Modern historians have considered that period of Chinese history to be mythology because all the important historical Chinese beings of that time were described as being omnipotent, like gods.

Of these three legendary divine monarchs, we will first talk about Empress Nu Wa. She was the first female god in Chinese history. Nu Wa was the mother of the Chinese people. She used yellow earth to create the Chinese in the image of gods. Nu Wa also created all other creatures in China to provide resources for the Chinese people. Because the Chinese people have the image of gods, they must not behave like other creatures. Therefore, Nu Wa instituted the tradition of marriage so that man will not mate casually like animals. Hence, Nu Wa was also known as the "matchmaker goddess," who established a proper way of procreation of man on earth.

The second divine monarch was Fu Xi, who was also omnipotent. He set up a governing system and employed people to govern. He taught the Chinese how to fish, and raise livestock. The most important knowledge Fu Xi left to those of Chinese descent was the Eight Diagrams. According to legend, Fu Xi created the "Eight Diagrams" after a "Dragon Diagram" was revealed to him. The Dragon Diagram refers to the famous River Diagram, [which are mystical signs and markings.] The River Diagram is also known as Fu Xi's Eight Diagrams, or Congenital Eight Diagrams, which is the most primitive version of the Eight Diagrams. Through the River Diagram, the Chinese people were able to identify and follow heavenly decrees. The Chinese often say that changes in astronomical phenomena and the orders of heaven are not to be violated. Those of Chinese decent have enormous respect for heaven. In Chinese, Tao refers to the laws of the changes of heaven and earth. Later, Emperor Wen of the Zhou Dynasty wrote the Book of Changes based on The River Diagram. The Book of Changes progressed from the original signs and markings to groups of three lines. This accounts for the origin of The Book of Changes, or the Eight Later Diagrams. During Confucius' time, the Chinese people strayed from the Tao and interpretations of the Book of Changes were circulated, which became the Dictionary of the Book of Changes. Apparently, as the language evolved, the Chinese found it more difficult to understand the Tao that told of changes in the universe. Conversely, during all Chinese dynasties, Chinese emperors followed the observed astronomical phenomena, or the orders of heaven to govern their subjects and country. Even modern scientists are amazed by the power in these simple lines and the ability to foretell the future through them. Indeed, the Eight Diagrams are a communication tool between heaven and the Chinese people. Its invention is clearly beyond man's wisdom. It also appears to be a reminder to mankind of its insignificance.

The third divine monarch was Shen Nong (Holy Farmer in Chinese.) Shen Nong taught people to make farming tools, explore wastelands for agriculture, and grow crops. Shen Nong was given his name "Holy Farmer" because of his superb agricultural knowledge and skills. According to The Historical Records, "Shen Nong tasted hundreds of herbs and taught people herbal knowledge." Legends tell that Shen Nong descended to the human world to establish a foundation of medical knowledge for the Chinese people. A landmark in Chinese history, Shen Nong's Compendium of Materia Medica is a pharmaceutical work that lists all animals, vegetables and other natural products believed to hold medicinal properties. This book has become synonymous with Chinese traditional medicine. All subsequent medical developments in traditional Chinese medicine were based on Shen Nong's Compendium of Materia Medica. In fact, the Compendium of Materia Medica remains the most important and authoritative medical bible in China. It is not difficult to deduce from the impact Shen Nong made on future traditional medicine that gods were indeed integrated into Chinese civilization. If the Compendium of Materia Medica were no more than a collection of medical experiences of ancient Chinese people, the herbal medicine in China would most likely have been on the level of the American Indians' herbal medicine. If the Compendium of Materia Medica were no more than a collection of medical experiences of ancient Chinese people, Shen Nong would not have been able to develop such complete medical theories and analyses more than 3,000 years ago. Besides, the theory of Chinese herbal medicine is deeply rooted in the Tao. It also encompasses the theory of the Five Elements and the laws of interaction between heaven, earth and man. The ingenious medical accomplishment in China will remain an enigma for atheists.

The part of Chinese history of the three divine monarchs implies that during a special period of time Gods lived among ordinary Chinese people and they directly taught the Chinese people civility. The God-led Chinese civilization was tempered and became strong with time. This is the reason why the Chinese have tremendous respect for heaven. The commonly shared concept of "respecting heaven" not only proves that the respect for God is the foundation of the Chinese civilization, but also manifests itself as the core of a culture that was led by Gods.

Worshipping Ancestors vs. the Origin of Chinese Semi-Divine Culture

It wasn't until about five thousand years ago when the most important event in human history took place in China: the advent of the Age of the Yellow Emperor. The Yellow Emperor created a prosperous and brilliant Chinese culture and has been given unparalleled respect throughout Chinese history. Actually, in the Chinese tradition of "respecting heaven and following the ancestor," Chinese ancestors were regarded as deities and sacrifices were offered to them. This tradition is directly related to the fact that the Yellow Emperor was believed to be the ancestor of all Chinese people. In addition, this tradition is also related to the early Chinese history when Gods lived among the Chinese and nurtured the Chinese civilization. According to legend, after the time of the Yellow Emperor, "heaven blocked itself off from earth." Translated from the classical Chinese, it means people were separated from Gods, or Gods no longer lived among the Chinese people. Gods founded the Chinese civilization, but man governed and was responsible for the Chinese culture since the time of the Yellow Emperor.

After the crucial battle with the tyrant Chi You at Zhuo Lu, the dukes revered the Yellow Emperor as the Son of Heaven, indicating that they believed that the treasured Son of Heaven was on a providential mission to rule the human world. Therefore the Yellow Emperor became the first emperor in Chinese history who conquered China with military force, won the loyalty of the dukes and united the Chinese people. Next, the wise Yellow Emperor established law and order, established hundreds of official government positions, recruited virtuous and wise people, worshiped heaven and earth on the top and at the base of high mountains and thus governed China. He also ordered his subjects to build houses, plant crops, make clothes and built boats and carriages. A number of inventions, such as symbols, medicines, lunar calendars, mathematics, musical instruments, pottery and the silkworm mulberry were developed. The foundation of Chinese civilization was built during the age of the Yellow Emperor. According to historical records, during the one hundred years when the Yellow Emperor reigned, there were no thefts or street fights. People were polite, forbearing and very considerate of one another. People in China lived in harmony. The weather was favorable to the crops, and people had good harvests every year. Even tigers and leopards wouldn't hurt people. Birds, beasts, bugs and even moths were all influenced by his moral values. It was the epitome of a prosperous era when "the Tao governed China and people lived in a heavenly human world." This is the reason why the subsequent generations revered the Yellow Emperor as the ancestor of humanity.

Regarding this first Son of Heaven, the famous historian Sima Qian described the Yellow Emperor in The Historical Records: "The Yellow Emperor received a treasure vessel and a divine book." He "followed the dictates of heaven and earth, the predictions of the world of the living and the dead, theory of life and death and the difficulties of surviving or perishing" to govern China. The quoted passage from The Historical Records, written in very complicated Classical Chinese, means that the Yellow Emperor knew how to govern the world according to the laws of heaven because he had understood the principle of Yin and Yang and life and death. He also followed the Tao to govern China. He was a cultivator who had obtained the Tao. According to many ancient historical records, the Yellow Emperor often sought the Tao and inquired about the Tao. After obtaining the Fa and becoming enlightened in the Tao, he began to develop the elixir of immortality and cultivated quietly while minding national affairs. In 2,598 B.C., the Yellow Emperor constructed a great vessel at the foot of Mount Qiao. The moment the vessel was completed, a crack appeared in the sky and a golden dragon came down to fetch him. The Yellow Emperor and more than seventy royal court officials, climbed on the golden dragon, soared to heaven in the bright daylight, and reached consummation. Less blessed royal court officials came late but managed to grab onto the dragon's beard. However, the dragon's beard fell off, and they fell to the ground. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people saw this sacred and magnificent scene with their own eyes. With great awe and yearning, the remaining officials and people buried the clothes the Yellow Emperor left behind at the Mount Qiao, which is today the Yellow Emperor monument in the Huang Ling district, Shanxi province.

The story of the Yellow Emperor explains the reason the Yellow Emperor became the ancestor of all Chinese people and why the Chinese believe that man becomes a God and returns to the heaven upon completion of his life. This is the reason why the Chinese people treat their ancestors as Gods who have returned to heaven. They believe that the spirits of their ancestors in heaven would look after them; therefore, almost every Chinese family worships their ancestors. Even every clan constructs one ancestral temple to honor their common ancestor and hold worshipping ceremonies, especially during the Chinese New Year. This concludes the explanation of the Chinese tradition of venerating heaven and worshipping ancestors.

China's Semi-Divine Culture Was Replaced by A Man-Led Culture

With the coming of the Yellow Emperor the Chinese written language was developed, and the era of a man-led culture began. The Chinese people have advanced slowly toward the present civilization, with creations and inventions that enriched man's culture. Conversely, the Chinese written language has evolved with the complexity of modern man's mind. Man's kind and pure nature began to fade. The Yellow Emperor was a heavenly monarch on earth, being responsible for the transition from a God-led culture to a man-led culture. Unlike the three divine emperors before him that visibly were Gods come to earth, the Yellow Emperor was a purely human king and a cultivator who had reached consummation. The Yellow Emperor showed the Chinese people that man could, too, return to heaven through cultivation. Since then, heaven represents the world of Gods to the Chinese people. They have also learned that gods created man, man came from heaven, and that man could eventually return to heaven. This is the true origin of an ancient Chinese concept: Man is an integral part of heaven.

The Chinese people inevitably believe that the only communication channel between man and God is through cultivation. Man is regarded the wisest and the most precious creature on earth because man possesses an inborn divine nature. It is through cultivation that this divine nature comes forth. Therefore, many cultivators in Chinese history demonstrated divine psychic powers, supernormal abilities, or a unique life philosophy, such as some legendary military strategists and Taoists that served under Sons of Heaven, Jiang Ziya, Zhuge Liang and Liu Bowen. Others included Boddhidarma, who rode on a stalk of reed across a river, Monk Jigong, who could move the timbers at Mount Emei with his supernormal ability, Zhang Sanfeng, who created Taichi and the Eight Immortals, including Lu Dongbin who eliminated the evil and subdued demons. All of these famous Chinese historical figures were cultivators. History also tells of many renowned literary figures, such as Su Shi, Wang Wei, Li Bai, Tao Yuanming, Meng Haoran and Bai Juyi, who were also cultivators. The concept of cultivation prevailed over not only philosophies, such as Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism, but also over other walks of life before the Qin Dynasty. In conclusion, the genuine connotation of a man-led culture is: Only man was created and sent to earth by gods with the mission to cultivate back to their original divine nature, also known as Buddha nature or inborn nature. Other creatures do not have such a divine calling. This is the true meaning and honor of mankind!

If it is true that the Chinese culture was led by Gods, and that the Gods created mankind to give us a chance to create and enhance a culture with our divine nature, and at the same time a chance to return to our original divine nature, the true meaning of cultivation will mean an enlightened person, a person with the knowledge of a God, a person who is enlightened in the Tao or a semi-divine person cultivating himself into the state of godhood.

Through the centuries, we reincarnated many times as people who were born with pure hearts and grew up in the human world. During many of our lives we happily pursued our dreams and experienced the bitterness of life. In our many lives we tasted joy, pain, sadness and anger. Driven by the complex feelings of love and hate, we became lost in our pursuits over trivial matters like a plant without roots.

Lingering in our visit;
Forgetting our way home.
Struggling in the human realm;
Repeating our trips to the human realm in samsara.

When a person has seen through the human realm, become conscious of the existence of his original divine nature and embarked on a journey towards his original nature, he will manifest signs of a half-God. Throughout the Chinese history, there were many cultivation stories that showed that the Chinese culture was a culture of cultivation. Gods and humans jointly created the Chinese civilization, a civilization that is dynamic, magical, mysterious, colorful, profound, deep and everlasting!

The ancient Chinese tradition, "venerating heaven and worshipping ancestors," has surprisingly many profound connotations. In this series, we will explore Chinese culture from an inspirational perspective, and hopefully we can restore a long forgotten nature of life and bring back our earliest memory.

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