Myths and Legends of China

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This likeness explains also why the hierarchy of beings in the Otherworld concerns itself not only with the affairs of the Otherworld, but with those of this world as well. So faithful is the likeness that we find the gods (the term is used in this chapter to include goddesses, who are, however, relatively few) subjected to many of the rules and conditions existing on this earth. Not only do they, as already shown, differ in rank, but they hold levées and audiences and may be promoted for distinguished services, just as the Chinese officials are. They “may rise from an humble position to one near the Pearly Emperor, who gives them the reward of merit for ruling well the affairs of men. The correlative deities of the mandarins are only of equal rank, yet the fact that they have been apotheosized makes them their superiors and fit objects of worship. Chinese mandarins rotate in office, generally every three years, and then there is a corresponding change in Hades. The image in the temple remains the same, but the spirit which dwells in the clay tabernacle changes, so the idol has a different name, birthday, and tenant. The priests are informed by the Great Wizard of the Dragon Tiger Mountain, but how can the people know gods which are not the same to-day as yesterday?” (Pp. 360–361.)

The gods also indulge in amusements, marry, sin, are punished, die, are resurrected, or die and are transformed, or die finally.2

The Three Religions

We have in China the universal worship of ancestors, which constitutes (or did until A.D. 1912) the State Page 100religion, usually known as Confucianism, and in addition we have the gods of the specific religions (which also originally took their rise in ancestor-worship), namely, Buddhism and Taoism. (Other religions, though tolerated, are not recognized as Chinese religions.) It is with a brief account of this great hierarchy and its mythology that we will now concern ourselves.

Besides the ordinary ancestor-worship (as distinct from the State worship) the people took to Buddhism and Taoism, which became the popular religions, and the literati also honoured the gods of these two sects. Buddhist deities gradually became installed in Taoist temples, and the Taoist immortals were given seats beside the Buddhas in their sanctuaries. Every one patronized the god who seemed to him the most popular and the most lucrative. There even came to be united in the same temple and worshipped at the same altar the three religious founders or figure-heads, Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzŭ. The three religions were even regarded as forming one whole, or at least, though different, as having one and the same object: san êrh i yeh, or han san wei i, “the three are one,” or “the three unite to form one” (a quotation from the phrase T’ai chi han san wei i of Fang Yü-lu: “When they reach the extreme the three are seen to be one”). In the popular pictorial representations of the pantheon this impartiality is clearly shown.

The Super-triad

The toleration, fraternity, or co-mixture of the three religions—ancestor-worship or Confucianism, Chinese Buddhism, and Taoism—explains the compound nature of the triune head of the Chinese pantheon. The Page 101numerous deities of Buddhism and Taoism culminate each in a triad of gods (the Three Precious Ones and the Three Pure Ones respectively), but the three religions jointly have also a triad compounded of one representative member of each. This general or super-triad is, of course, composed of Confucius, Lao Tzŭ, and Buddha. This is the officially decreed order, though it is varied occasionally by Buddha being placed in the centre (the place of honour) as an act of ceremonial deference shown to a ‘stranger’ or ‘guest’ from another country.

Worship of the Living

Before proceeding to consider the gods of China in detail, it is necessary to note that ancestor-worship, which, as before stated, is worship of the ghosts of deceased persons, who are usually but not invariably relatives of the worshipper, has at times a sort of preliminary stage in this world consisting of the worship of living beings. Emperors, viceroys, popular officials, or people beloved for their good deeds have had altars, temples, and images erected to them, where they are worshipped in the same way as those who have already “shuffled off this mortal coil.” The most usual cases are perhaps those of the worship of living emperors and those in which some high official who has gained the gratitude of the people is transferred to another post. The explanation is simple. The second self which exists after death is identical with the second self inhabiting the body during life. Therefore it may be propitiated or gratified by sacrifices of food, drink, etc., or theatricals performed in its honour, and continue its protection and good offices even though now far away. Page 102