7. Objectifying Divine Power: Some Chinese Modes

Laurence G. Thompson, “Objectifying Divine Power: Some Chinese Modes,” in Deity & Death, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 135–48.

Objectifying Divine Power: Some Chinese Modes

Laurence G. Thompson

The general topic of “deity and the divine” is indeed an enormous one, whose thorough exploration would ultimately involve every aspect of the phenomena of religions. If I hope to say anything meaningful about Chinese religion in this regard, it will be necessary to concentrate upon a few selected points. I shall first suggest a standpoint so that you will be able to see where I am coming from, and then I shall try to explicate three major characteristics I find in the Chinese mode of objectifying Divine Power.

A Definition of Religion

There has never been, and doubtless never will be, a general agreement as to what “religion” is; only an agreement perhaps of what our religion is. The most liberal definitions of recent decades have even eliminated the minimal requirement of the supernatural in favor of various versions of a concept of ultimacy. Personally, in the study of religions, I am quite agreeable to utilizing the broadest possible definitions as most conducive to breaking through conceptual barriers.

In this paper, I shall adopt the common view that religion can be considered under the aspect either of a universal or of many particulars. There seems to be a universally attested reality in human experience that may be called the irreducible element of religion. That reality has been carefully analyzed by many scholars and summed up in such terms as the “holy,” “other-power,” or the “sacred.” [1] Human experience of this reality has been characterized and explained in various ways: as fear, awe, a thrill, ineffable bliss; as psychologically subjective, or as empirically objective, but in any case, this seems to be the universal level of religious experience.

On the other hand, the expression of religion has taken innumerable forms and may be found prominently in societies as well as among individuals. In fact, almost every academic discipline that is concerned with man may be focused, with enlightening results, upon the problems of religion

In all this I am simply expressing, in a somewhat special way, the implications of what Van der Leeuw called “religion as essence and manifestation.” Furthermore, if the essence of religion is a universal experience, then the varying manifestations of religion may be understood as the expressions of particular cultures as well as of particular individuals. To clarify this, I am looking at religion as a universal human experience particularized in countless ways in various cultures. [2] To think of religion as some neat package of dogmas, much less as a private possession of any group, is automatically to foreclose on the possibility of understanding either the religions of others, or man as homo religiosus.

Western attempts to understand Chinese religion have all too often suffered from precisely this sort of self-defeating provincialism. Even with the best of intentions, the imposition of traditional Western theological categories, for example, has resulted in producing more puzzles than understandings. We need to accept that there are many ways of being religious, and that a phenomenological approach will be essential.

As to our specific subject, I take it that the term “the Divine” is another appellation for the universal experience we have mentioned, whereas the term “Deity” is on the level of the particular. If we are studying Chinese religion, we shall want especially to examine this level of particulars, because that is where the Chineseness of religion lies. By the title of my essay I intend to indicate that what I want to do is to elucidate (only very sketchily) a few particular ways in which the universal experience of the Holy, the other-Power, the Sacred, or the Divine come to tangible expression in the Chinese way through notions of Deity.

Three Worldviews: Chinese, Western, Indian

First I believe it is essential to clarify the fundamental worldview of the Chinese tradition. For the sake of simplicity (although not, I trust, simple-mindedness), we might contrast three cosmologies in the three major civilizations of the West, India, and China. In the West, the dominant view could be pictured as a circle representing the universe with God outside and “above.” For India, I suppose that the dominant view could be pictured as a circle representing the universe and conterminously God. For China, there would likewise be the circle representing the universe—but without God. The Western view is of a Creator and His creation, two different and distinct entities. The Indian view is of God and His creation as one and the same. The Chinese view is of a universe that functions in accordance with an invariable Way (Tao) but without a creator. [3]

In each of these cosmologies there are many implications. Most importantly, they imply relationships between man and the universe, man and Creator. The Western view not only emphasizes the separateness of man and God, but even more importantly, the special position of man in God’s creation. Not only is the world created by God especially for man’s benefit, but man himself is said to be formed “in the image of God.” He is outfitted with a soul that links him directly with his Creator, and the latter maintains a continuing concern for every human soul. In return, every soul should worship its Creator. This gives to the individual in the West significance that is reflected in all of Western history and institutions. Western man has likewise consistently acted out the role claimed for him as master of all the rest of creation. All the world is indeed a stage for his dramatic history. In Western art these suppositions are clearly shown. Man is the great subject, especially man’s special relationship to God. Nature is merely the backdrop—unless it is actually man’s enemy. Man’s worship of his Creator is somehow, because of the cosmology, perilously close to worship of himself.

This brings us exactly to the Indian view. Inasmuch as Creator and creation are one and the same, there can be no separation in fact of man from God, or of man from nature. The world may be a stage, but on it is performed a play of illusions in which God simply enjoys himself. Man’s religious task, the only task that can be taken seriously in this cosmology, is to arrive at the realization that he and God are one. The universe is the ocean and individual men are the drops of spray that are tossed up for an instant and then fall back to be reabsorbed in the sea. In such a view there is no room for an exaggerated individualism. Indian religion advises one to “be still, and know you are God.”

In the Chinese view, man and nature are parts of a great gestalt. There being no Creator, man cannot be a special creation. But equally there being no God, man himself is not God. Whatever the original mythologies of creation (and in China these have been preserved only fragmentarily), the world of the ancient Chinese as far back as we know it seems to be a given, functioning spontaneously , coherently, in its own natural way. Because of his reflective capacities, man had a special part to play in this world. He could partially create and partially control, as was attested by his civilization. (This capacity was a source of pride to the Confucian mind and the opposite to the Taoists.) But in the last analysis, man’s task was to go harmoniously with the way of the universe; and even the Confucian proponents of civilization concede that this civilization conformed to nature rather than being man’s protest against, or conquest of nature. In Chinese art, as in Western, we find the worldview clearly reflected. Nature is the great subject; its Way, or Tao, is what man sought to immerse himself in.

And so the first of the three characteristics I want to ascribe to Chinese religion arises from the worldview. Whereas in India and the West Creative Power was objectified and worshiped, Chinese religion did not objectify and worship Ultimate Reality or Tao. It remained an abstract concept which evoked a religious attitude only, perhaps, in the recondite liturgy of the Taoist “mass” (chiao). [4] We may speak of Taoist mysticism as similar to mystical practice throughout the world, but the attempt “to become one with Tao” seems to be less a goal of “union with God” than a hope of attaining personal power—even immortality.

Euhemerization and Diffusion of Divine Power

But if the Ultimate Reality of the universe was not Deity, the Chinese, any more than any other people, could not rest content with philosophical abstractions. In coping with the world, man requires at least the illusion that he can summon help, and hope requires the accessibility of help. A Lao Tzu or a Chuang Tzu might meet the vicissitudes of life with perfect equanimity, like leaves drifting resistlessly on the shifting currents; but for other men, life is a never-ending struggle. Fear of defeat, of loss, of disease, of death, requires hope, which can only come from power stronger than that of mortals. In the worldview of the Chinese, there was a level of reality above the mundane where such power existed and could be tapped. It is at this level that deity becomes objectified in ways that are no different than those found in other cultures. That is to say, divine power becomes anthropomorphized.

Euhemerization has often been considered a basic characteristic of Chinese myths and concepts of gods, but I suppose it is not so much a Chinese, as a general human way of conceiving deity. When supernatural power becomes specified, it can hardly be in any other way. Even the most fantastic imaginings of science-fiction writers about beings immeasurably advanced beyond the human species in the end produce only Superman. Religious art must resort to anthropomorphic symbols (even though in rare instance such symbols may avoid direct depiction of the humanized god). The human mind surely finds the manifestations of power that emerge from the supermundane level to be homologous with the power of human wills.

The second major characteristic of Chinese religion I want to discuss is the diffusion of divine power. In understanding non-Western religions, Westerners always have difficulty coming to terms with worldviews that take deity to be multiple rather than single. The stern Old Testament injunctions against polytheism have incalculably damaged Western man’s understanding of the rest of mankind—which for the most part has taken for granted that deity was multiple. Secure in his Biblically sanctioned notion that there is only one God and that nothing is more abhorrent than the worship of many gods, Western man has taken fire and sword, as well as his scriptures, to the heathen, primarily to punish this blasphemy.

However, to those who do not come from this tradition of a single jealous God, the diffusion of divine power is logical and obvious. The manifestations of power are infinite and various; nothing would seem more natural than to attribute their causes to many diversified deities. In this world, which is necessarily the model for the supramundane dimension, one approaches different persons for different sorts of results. According to such a view, the power that causes the river to flow is a different power than the one that governs disease, just as the function of the farmer differs from that of the metalsmith.

This being so, we can comprehend why deity in China is anthropomorphized and why it is multiple. We can go beyond the sort of superficial depiction of “idolatry” that assumes not only gross ignorance, but a sort of baseness of character in Chinese worship. Objectification of divine power in statues of mud or bronze or wood representing many differently named deities is not a naive belief in the divinity of inanimate objects, but a visual representation of the accessibility of superhuman aid—the aid requested being within the province of power of a particular deity. [5]

The most intriguing question here is: what is the origin of these many and varied deities? We may be excused from attempting to supply an answer, as this subject constitutes one of the major branches of the discipline of history of religions. [6] We feel justified in limiting this discussion to a few salient points that bear upon this topic.

There is first the fact that no one pantheon existed for the whole range of Chinese religion. Here, a Western-style “systematic theology” would compile several lists, such as deities in the State cult, deities of Chinese Buddhism, Taoist deities, and deities belonging to the folk cults. Such a classificatory approach has, in fact, often been used in studying Chinese religion, and of course there is no reason to deny its validity. It will not in itself, however, take us very far along the road to a real understanding of the subject.

More interesting is the fact that the power of the deities varies greatly, is for the most part not too potent, and is only slightly removed from that of man himself. In the State cult, the variances of power were clearly set forth by a ranking system that governed the sacrifices. In fact, the ruler of men was likewise the ruler of gods. He acknowledged only the ultimate Power of Heaven and Earth—and his ancestors—as higher than his own. All other numina, like his mortal subjects, owed their ranks and titles to the emperor’s decree and were promoted or demoted like his human officials. [7] This indicates that for the most part, the concept of “deity” is closely related to, if not in fact a form of, the concept of human spirits or ghosts.

Such an interpretation is supported by the findings of a number of anthropologists who have recently been at work on “gods, ghosts, and ancestors” in the current folk religion in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Their most general conclusion would seem to be that, in essence, these are but variations of the same theme, namely, that supernatural power is exercised by deceased human beings. That ghosts and ancestors are deceased humans is obvious by definition; but that folk gods are likewise originally human is a striking demonstration of the ancient theory of Euhemerus. The most challenging version of these findings is the hypothesis of Philip Baity, which surmises that the community gods were originally ghosts, propitiated by the community out of fear, and eventually becoming objects of hope rather than fear. [8] The folk religion, in any case, thus takes divine power as quite akin to, and only slightly more potent than, that of the mortal powers of this world.

Thus we see that the gods are familiar beings, existent in the invisible dimension, but not of some unthinkably different character than men. They are not so high and mighty as to be unapproachable by ordinary mortals, and they are accessible through sacrifice and prayer by the common folk. Perhaps this is why so much of the folk religion operates without the services of an ordained priesthood.

This relative intimacy and near-equality of gods and men was brought about, or at least maintained, by the age-old assumption that spiritual beings need the support of mortals and vice versa. Not only do spirits need the nourishment of sacrifices, but they depend for their very existence upon the continuing faith of men. In fact, they would have had no existence at all but for this faith, and the Chinese are tough-minded enough to believe that unless a deity responds positively to prayer, he is either powerless or should be left to pass unremembered into oblivion. Divine power must manifest itself, or for all practical purposes it does not exist.

The Nature of Evil

The two major characteristics of Chinese religion discussed thus far seem fairly unambiguous to me, but there is a third characteristic that may be more problematical. That is the nature of evil.

Many religions have, of course, emphasized the duality of divine power and have even personified the struggle between good and evil as the ultimate dynamic of the world. The transcendental struggle then becomes objectified in the world of men, who must make a religious choice between God and the devil.

There is no difficulty in finding evil in the human world of the Chinese and no difficulty either in finding evil in the supramundane dimension. A high proportion of the evil that befalls men is attributable to the impingement of the latter upon the former. A prominent aspect of Chinese religion is what de Groot called “the war against spectres,” and his “demonology” is as exhaustive as one can find for any culture. [9] Among the many varieties are water-demons, ground-demons, animal-demons of numerous species, plant-demons, and spectres of mountain and forest. These spectres, commonly called kuei, are omnipresent and always dangerous, and man must continually guard against their depredations by both magical and religious techniques.

Can we find in Chinese religion a transcendental struggle between good and evil objectified in the world of man? On the one hand it seems that we can, as we consider that there are two eternally interacting forces which produce this ever-changing phenomenal world—the famous yin and yang. In the folk religion of China, yang stands for good and yin for evil. On the other hand, yin and yang are not entities or beings or deities. They are never personified in and of themselves but are concepts adduced in describing conditions and changes in the material world. One might say that yin-yang is a dialectic of power, but not of divine power.

Still, evil is characterized as yin and is objectified in the form of specific spirits in the folk religion. People are sometimes taken over by such evil spirits, which must be exorcised by specialists using yang instruments. [10] Does this mean that there is in Chinese religion the concept of a principle of evil at large in the cosmos of which malevolent spirits are agents?

So far as I can judge at present, it does not. There seems to be no theory about transcendental evil in the ancient literature, nor (although the canon has as yet remained too little studied to say for sure) does it appear to be found in the Taoist texts. As for Buddhism, although it came into China with a rich repertory of novel ideas including karmic destiny, punishments in purgatory, and various levels of existence, it seems to me not to have a principle of evil as such. The devil in Buddhism is Mara, who symbolizes the inevitability of death—and thence rebirth into suffering—for those who remain attached to the samsaric world; in other words, Mar? stands for ignorance or illusion. The Karmic cycle with death as both end and beginning is, of course, evil, but Mara’s polar opposite is not good, but unattachment or enlightenment. Mara, in other words, is no more an entity or deity than yin or yang but is a concept descriptive of the condition of man still doomed to rebirth through failure to let go of ego. It is an evil state, not an evil being. (Such is my understanding of Mara, but it is subject to correction by specialists. It may be correct as it stands at a certain level of Buddhist teaching but may not give enough consideration to the folk level.)

Then what is the source of the countless malign spirits of Chinese religion? I am inclined to think that all evil spirits are, in the last analysis, the ghosts of humans. They derive from the root of Chinese religion, which is the ancestral cult. In that cult, it is essential that the deceased be remembered by the sacrifices of their descendants. When for any reason an ancestral spirit is deprived of its due sacrifices—is what I have called a bereaved spirit—it becomes hungry and homeless and feels the anguish of abandonment. It may try to get the sacrifices to which it is entitled by plaguing its living descendants with bad luck of all kinds. It may become a public nuisance, even a menace to the community.

The strength of the belief in this danger from bereaved spirits is seen in the fact that the entire seventh month is considered a time when they must be appeased and hopefully propitiated. (They are joined, indeed, by the Buddhist ghosts of the damned who are on parole from purgatory during that month. The two species of ghosts seem to be assimilated into a general category.) The situation of the bereaved spirits is vividly expressed in the prayer offered on behalf of the emperor during official sacrifices in Ming and Ch’ing times:

These lonely souls have no one on whom to depend in death. Their yang-souls (ching-shen) have not yet dispersed [to Heaven], but remain attached to their yin-souls (yin-ling), and so they live in plants or trees, act as uncanny bogies, howl dismally beneath the stars and moon, and moan in the wind and rain. Whenever there is a religious festival among men, they think about this yang world, and the souls—lost in darkness, never to return, their bodies perished—long anxiously for sacrifices. [11]

Such bereaved spirits were malevolent for the most understandable of reasons. But they were not evil manifestations of a divine power of evil, or even originally by nature evil. They were victims of neglect, of a situation in which the proper relationship between the living and dead had been disrupted. They could be pacified and turned from devils into gods by the simple act of restoring their sustaining offerings. [12] As the classical text taught, “When a ghost [kuei] has a place to go [another word also pronounced kuei], it does not become an evil spirit.” [13]

Whether further study will prove or disprove the theory that the only source of evil spirits in Chinese religion is neglect of ancestral sacrifices, I think it safe to say that the third major characteristic in our analysis can be identified as the lack of a conflict of good and evil at the transcendental level and the consequent lack of objectification of evil at the level of deity.


In what has been presented so briefly here, we do not, of course, intend to suggest a complete theory of Chinese religion, which is a subject of vast proportions as yet only spottily investigated. But presuming that the objectification of divine power is one of the most fundamental aspects of religion, we may hope to have opened up the subject for more adequate treatment. In summary, we have suggested that three modes of objectification are especially conspicuous: first, that Ultimate Reality (that is, Tao) is not objectified; second, that divine power is exercised through many kinds of deities who are for the most part human in origin and as dependent upon man as man is upon them; third, that divine power in China knows no transcendent struggle between good and evil. None of this represents any original discovery by the author, but our purpose will be achieved if this essay stimulates further and more profound studies along these lines.


[1] See such famous works as Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy; G. van der Leeuw, Religion as Essence and Manifestation; Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: Patterns in Comparative Religion.

[2] Again, this particular sort of definition is used here because of the requirements of the topic as set and not necessarily because I think it is the most adequate.

[3] For the Chinese view, see especially Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. II (Eng.: Cambridge University, 1956), chapter 18, “Human Law and the Laws of Nature in China and the West.” See also his “Human Law and the Laws of Nature,” in the collection of his essays entitled The Grand Titration (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969).

[4] Only within the last few years have we become acquainted with this most sophisticated and profound of all rituals at the folk level. See, in English, especially the book of Michael Saso, Taoism and the Rite of Cosmic Renewal (Washington State University, 1972), chapter 4 in particular.

[5] For a particularly helpful discussion of the problem discussed in the foregoing three paragraphs, see Wax, Murray & Rosalie, “Magic and Monotheism,” in June Helm, ed., Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, Proceedings of the 1964 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, University of Washington (1964), 50–60.

[6] For a comprehensive summary and bibliography, see Charles H. Long, “Primitive Religions,” in Charles J. Adams, ed., A Reader’s Guide to the Great Religions (New York, 2nd edition 1977), 1–38.

[7] The most thorough explication of this subject is by C. K. Yang. See his book Religion in Chinese Society (University of California, 1961), chapter 8.

[8] See Baity’s book, Religion in a Chinese Town (Taipei, 1975) chapter 6. Also see his article, “The Genesis of Gods in Taiwanese Folk Religion: A Preliminary Analysis,” in Harry Partin, comp., Asian Religion-History of Religion: 1974, papers from the 1974 meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

[9] J. J. M. de Groot, The Religious System of China (Leiden, 1892–1910; reprinted in Taipei, 1964). See especially volumes 5 and 6.

[10] See Peter Goullart’s book, The Monastery of Jade Mountain (London, 1961) chapter 9; or Laurence G. Thompson, Chinese Religion: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Encino & Belmont, California, 1975), 29–32, including material extracted from Goullart’s account.

[11] Quoted in Laurence G. Thompson, “Yu Ying Kung: The Cult of Bereaved Spirits in Taiwan,” in Laurence G. Thompson, ed., Studia Asiatica (San Francisco, 1975), 271.

[12] The matter is not so straightforward as these words suggest. There is an intriguing problem currently being discussed by scholars concerning the functioning of feng-shui, or the geomantic siting of dwellings for the living and dead, that would have to be considered in a full treatment. The point is that if feng-shui operates “automatically,” then the willful or religious element in the operations of the dead upon their descendants is minimized or eliminated—which would change our conclusion accordingly. This view that feng-shui works “scientifically” rather than “religiously” is held by Maurice Freedman, Jack Potter, and other anthropologists. We refrain from citing the literature, which would take us too far afield.

[13] Tso Chuan, Duke Chao’s 7th year (B.C. 534). For the whole setting of the quotation, see James Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5:618.