I carry wood! I draw water!
- Anonymous Dao poet
Of all the world's ancient civilizations, China's is the youngest. This is somehow surprising to westerners who tend to think that China's ancient kings reigned contemporaneously with tyrannosaurus rex. But bones, pottery and other artifacts incontrovertibly countermand the dictates of sentimental supposition.
Such archeological evidence as there is in China reveals that prior to 25,000 years ago its sparse populations were proto-caucasian, the blue-eyed Ainu of northern Japan being thought to be a remnant of these early inhabitants. Then, for reasons unknown, these ice-aged occupants disappeared from Chinese soil; and there is no record of anybody at all being there until mongolian people from Siberian regions - with their narrow, snow-glare adapted eyes - began to descend into China about 10,000 years ago.
The immigrants were very tough people. They had been bred for survival, having become an identifiable race of men when, in times ancient to themselves, they had been geographically isolated by ice. Culturally they had also been snow-bound, for they found in the conditions of their isolation few occasions for refinement. Hardship, by way of temperatures that plunged annually to -70 degrees Fahrenheit, had syphoned off the froth. The stock that remained was strong and indelicate.
It can be no surprise, then, that their gods were not the effete divinities of tropical surplus - those bored and precious deities who languish, grape in hand, among the nymphs and fauns of sylvan settings. These hardy people dwelled far north of Eden's luscious vales; and perdition in such places does not come by way of talkative and wily serpents. The gods of arctic regions are gods of weather and seldom do they rest.
Perdition came in disorienting blizzards, in floor ice that prematurely thawed, in smothering snow drifts, in sleet that drenched a furskin garment and guaranteed frostbite or death.
Unexpected changes in the weather were people's sorest tests and trials; and if they were improperly prepared for alteration or severity, they would fail, simply and finally. The unforgiving climate had no appellate process.
And since their lives depended on it, they studied the testimony of wind and cloud, raindrop and snowflake, looking always to the four cardinal directions from where the evidence came. These were the gods to whom they prayed; and they understood perfectly that they would be saved or damned according to the quarternary will.
In dreams and reveries, or in times of extreme distress and grievous need, or even in moments of great peace, sitting by their fires at night, they could see the gods of the four horizons appear as mysteriously as the aurora borealis and ride their splendid horses across the frozen stars.
And also, during the long nights of their nomadic sojourns, they reverenced the north god's emissary, Polaris, and the Great Dipper that rotated around it nightly to mark the hour even as it rotated around itself annually to mark the twelve months of the solar year. They watched its nightly wheeling in the clear skys of clement weather and saw in its entrancing spins the ribs of a great protective umbrella. It was their compass, clock, calendar and benediction.
The only being they recognized as supreme was the sky itself that spanned the four horizons and embraced their anxious world. And so the immigrants descended into China in nomadic waves, following their herds and culturally traveling very light. Not much about them was commendable until, around 2,200 B.C. their society suddenly burst with art and artifact of a quality worthy to be called Chinese.
Mesopotamia was a well-traveled adult of 2,000-plus when China was born.
The locale of this cultural efflorescence was a northern plain through which the Yellow River flowed. There, in a landscape colored by ocher dust carried down from Mongolia in wind and water, the settlers found the paradise necessary to begin a civilization.
The river was the umbilical cord that provided their embryo community with all the nourishment it needed: fish, waterfowl, clay, transportation and, in that arid region, water itself. Surrounding fields of wild grasses provided fodder for their animals and cereal grains for themselves, while nearby forests yielded game, fur bearing animals, nuts, lumber and firewood. They settled in and called themselves the Hua (prosperous) people. Before long they were domesticating cattle, pigs, sheep, dogs, goats and chickens and were employing the potter's wheel to fashion their crockery.
Perhaps the millennia spent upon bleak tundra recesses or in dark, dense pine woods predisposed them to regard with special reverence the gold and verdant plains and to see as religious mysteries the gorgeous changings of deciduous trees and perennial plants. The idea of cyclic return entered their consciousness, never to depart. Whatever waxed, would wane. Whatever flowed, would ebb. Whatever bloomed would wither. And they intuited accurately that the phase of decline or demise was integral to the process since it engendered, in its concealed vitality, a new moon, a new tide, or a new blossom to replace the one that was passing away. The Hua people felt with awe the seasonal throbbings and touched with wonder the pulses that were surely divine. Gods and the occasions for worship were everywhere.
There were gods in trees and gods in stones. Mountains were gods as were the creeks that rippled down them. There were gods in glades and gods in seeds and there were even gods in the amazing objects that craftsmen made with their own hands.
At first, people regarded all things merely as repositories of benignant or malignant energy. One pot might contain great quantities of good energy while another pot - quite similar in appearance - might be virtually impotent, or worse, might be loaded with an evil force. (Four thousand years removed from these people, we can feel a secret sympathy. We, too, know which persons, places or things jinx us and which always seem to make Fortune smile in our direction. We all have our sacred charms and lucky sweaters.)
But gradually, the luck or energy contained in a tree or mountain was personified. People began to believe that the mountain was inhabited by a kind of genie, a creature that was not simply empowered to help or hinder them in fulfilling their desires but that sometimes had desires of its own.
One god who definitely had desires of his own was the river; and this god, by any measurement of godhood, was a very great god, indeed. But unlike the gods of the four directions who usually provided alert devotees with signals of their intentions, the god of the river was singularly uncommunicative; for though the people scanned the waters for a sign, they could find none that heralded his plans.
The Yellow River rose in the mountains of Tibet and, falling from those heights through narrow gorges, became a monstrous gouge that dug up tons of the mongolian loess deposits that gave it its name. Once burdened with this yellow silt, the river meandered languorously from one flat horizon to the other... for most of the year. But each summer, sooner or later, when distant Himalayan snows began to melt, the river, its tributaries engorged, would become violently aroused and without mercy would innundate the land. People's lives and livestock, homes and granaries would be swept away in angry torrents.
And whenever such disaster was impending, the Hua men, infected with the Orient's peculiarly virulent machismo, would decide that the river god was becoming testy because of an obvious lack of good sex. The cure for this ailment being found (where else?) in the sweet flesh of a timid girl, they quickly selected a pretty virgin, decked her in fetching clothes and launched her upon a raft into the roiling waters. Then they waited for the river god to consume her in lascivious gulps and prayed that when his passion was spent he would withdraw to his bed and let them withdraw to theirs.
Through the ages, year after year, the Hua were obliged to place the burden of their civilization's survival upon the frail shoulders of a trembling girl. Nobody could think of a better way to cope with a randy river.
(Nobody, not even down to modern times, has found a better way. Due mainly to centuries of foolhardy engineering projects which attempted to contain the water by building up the banks but succeeded only in containing the silt and building up the bed - at some points it is 70 feet above the plain - in l93l, from July to November, the river flooded 40,000 square miles. A million people drowned or died from disease and famine. Eighty million were left homeless.)
(The river's prurient ways have, incidentally, inscribed themselves upon the Chinese idiom. Where westerners use the color red - scarlet particularly - to indicate passion and rampant lust, the Chinese use yellow to the same effect.)
With no godless technology available to protect them, the Hua became understandably obsessed with winning friends and influencing spirits. The affections of gods were clearly not to be trifled with. People had to find out where they ranked in the divine popularity polls.
Hindsight was as infallible a judge to them as it is to us. A man whose flocks multiplied upon a certain mountain believed himself to be favored by that mountain's god just as a man who happened to break his leg while walking over the same terrain knew to a certainty that his relations with the mountain could use some improvement.
Was there a way of determining in advance, i.e., before a journey was started or before a flock was moved, how the proprietory spirits would respond to the intrusion? You bet. A medicine man or shaman could tell, for a nominal fee, of course.
Shamans had the power to enter a trance and then, in that condition, to dispatch their spirits to a targeted deity. At this point, shamans divide into two classes; one, loquacious professionals (known to us today as mediums or spirit channels) who generally target deities according to the specifications of a particular client or to the demands of an assembled group; and two, retiring amateurs (known to us as mystics, contemplatives, or ascetics) who seek their gods for profoundly personal motives which have noth- ing to do with coin, fame, or power.
The professional shaman would contact the specified deity who, if kindly disposed towards his visitor, would enter the shaman's body and use his or her vocal chords to communicate with his human interlocutors.
Not everybody could become entranced. Shamans were very special people who had to be handled with considerable care and respect since the gods were so prejudiced in their favor. (Unhappily, as we shall see, it was a prejudice that would often, in CIA parlance, terminate extremely.)
The population of spirits was soon greater, by many orders of magnitude, than the population of mortals. They were everywhere. And just when the Hua thought they could not squeeze another spirit into their land, air, and water, an army of ancestral spirits began to invade their domiciles.
For if a stone could house a spirit, was it not reasonable to suppose that a house could house a spirit?
In the Hua's ancient ordering of survival, family bonds were very tight. Huddled against arctic blasts they had come to appreciate each other's closeness and warmth not as figures of speech but as palpable necessities.
For so long as a man was a nomad, his spirit could not become intimately associated with a particular place. When he died, his remains could be anyplace at all. But when a man became a settler, he could likely be born, live, and die in the same cozy little building. His family could look at his bench and almost see him working there or look at his bed and almost hear him snoring. He would be buried nearby. So thoroughly could he become identified with his surroundings that it seemed inconceivable that his spirit, too, should not inhabit his home and that he could have just as many personal preferences as a mountain god. Maybe more.
Unfortunately, ancestral spririts were not necessarily nice to those who shared their addresses.
To be sure, a girl would fondly remember and pray to her dead mother whose gentle spirit would always be there to guide and protect her. But when, as a bride, this girl moved into her husband's home, she was alone and defenseless against any resident spirits who were inclined to be jealous and unfriendly. First, she likely would find an ogre inhabiting her mother-in-law's living body - a discovery she would share with the rest of the world's brides. But the Hua bride, unlike most others, could not find relief upon the death of her tormentor. The old lady's tenacious spirit would hang on demanding postmortem obedience and obeisance. And without proper propitiations and constant accedence to her will she would become a spiteful poltergeist, causing food to be burned, utensils to be lost, knives to be broken, or more daughters than sons to be born. Lord! Best to keep the old witch happy.
Beyond the hierarchy of ancestral spirits within each home, there was, within each town, a hierarchy in the total ghost community. And a ghost gained status in this society according to the quality of the homage paid it by its descendants. If a ghost was embarrassed by its family's miserly lack of displayed affec- tion, i.e, if it was dispatched to the hereafter without the furniture and appliances needed to maintain a proper household, it 'lost face', a rebuff which made it miserable and decidedly mean. Therefore, to insure that a ghost would continue to use its influence to enhance and not worsen the lives of its kin, the living made a great show of their high regard for the dear departed. All kinds of costly items went into the hole with the loved one. Funeral expenses were a frequent cause of bankruptcy.
(In the later years of Hua prosperity, if the deceased happened to be of rich or royal stock and was used to being waited on and entertained, scores of living servants, poets, musicians and, of course, virgins and courtesans, where applicable, went into the hole, too, to keep the loved one eternally in the style to which he had become temporally accustomed.)
But filial sacrifice did not end with the funeral. It was necessary to fete the ghost upon anniversaries of the auspicious occasion of his birth. Since all of his descendants were obligatory guests, birthday parties for the dead could easily keep living families hungry and in debt.
In order to maintain good relations with the dead, it was necessary to consult them, to get their advice and learn their preferences. Ghost-talk, to the entrepreneurial shamans, became a growth industry; for a surprising number of people who had been sullen or uncommunicative in life turned out to be absolutely gregarious in death. Ancestral spirits always had a lot on their minds.
And so, in those early days of religious development, every community bristled with imps, nixies, pixies, fairies, genii, ghosts and spirits of every creed and denomination.
As each area's airways became clogged with squadrons of destructive spirits and shaman interceptors, the Sky's suzerainty became a matter of some urgency. This supreme spirit and god above gods not only contained all other spirits but could, if it so desired, direct them. And it was high time, indeed, to charge it with maintaining some kind of order.
Just as a man whose flocks multiplied upon a mountain was believed to be favored by that mountain's god, a man whose tribal leadership brought prosperity to his people was believed to be favored by the great leader, the sky god.
But then... the more such a leader and his tribesmen thought about it... the more 'favored' seemed insufficient. 'Fathered' was deemed closer to the truth.
And so the sky, the fate-decreeing god above gods, using as his medium of insemination the comestible pearl-white seeds of a wild grass - known to us as Job's tears - proceded to impregnate a human female who was and remained a virgin. Their offspring, not noticeably inconvienced by the impediment, burst into the world as a human male. So began the Xia Dynasty, (2000 - l500 B.C.) the first of China's three ancient ruling families.
The Son of Heaven was naturally more than just a head of state. He was a pontiff, a bridge between earth and sky, an arbiter of conflict between flesh and spirit, and a mediator between man and all other gods. He alone possessed the majesty to confront his father and demand, or, perhaps, respectfully request, that his peers, the lesser gods, be forced to cooperate in providing for the commonweal.
The Xia Son of Heaven and his royal heirs never succeeded in becoming more than titular sovereigns, functioning far more as shaman-priests than kings. For any tendency towards strong central government or true monarchy had been inhibited by the lay of the kingdom.
Xia communities were strung for miles along the river like beads upon a strand. They could easily be plucked, individually, by even small raiding parties. Defense against a marauder's hit-and-run tactics was, and could only be, a local matter.
And as the Hua prospered, their fierce, semi-civilized cousins - horsemen from the north and from surrounding nomadic tribes - had indeed begun to raid their farms and ranches, carrying off their women and possessions.
Tribal chieftains raised a militia and did what they could to take the battle to the enemy. But the Hua were stationary targets, while the raiders were moving targets, and this unfair advantage frustrated the chiefs and made them contentious. Therefore, as noblemen are wont to do, they raided each other in order to replace the women and property they had lost.
The Son of Heaven continued to raise his arms and beseech his father to straighten out the mess, but the sky simply did not care to get involved. By l500 B.C. it had disowned its sons completely. With only bards to tell the story, the Xia's dynastic period ended in calamity.
But the age of literacy was on its way and from out of the scribbles of legendary time, one clear line began to be drawn: the mighty Shang dynasty came forward to make its considerable mark.
This time the divine semen was carried in the egg of a wonderful songbird. A Shang lady ate the egg and gave birth to a new Son of Heaven, one who understood the value of protective shells. The Shang kings ushered in the age of bronze and gave their warriors thick hide battle dress and metal weapons, making them a vastly improved military force. They had chariots, too, that provided their archers with protected, mobile platforms.
The Shang Sons of Heaven presided over a different kind of realm. It was much larger, stretching all the way to the Yellow Sea, and far more populous. It called itself the Middle Kingdom and, modestly enough, what it considered itself central to was the rest of the universe.
The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 2: China, Page 1 of 3
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©1996 Ming Zhen Shakya (Chuan Yuan Shakya)