20. Ritualization of the Shang culture

China Page

According to Chinese legend, a major impetus for centralization in China was the control of the Yellow River through cooperative effort. It probably took a strong leader to coordinate the work. He may have been granted the divine status of kingship who because of his ‘superhuman’ efforts. The king then passed his divine blood on to his heirs, in dynastic fashion. Whether this was the Xia dynasty or early Shang is secondary to the discussion. The main point is that the initial inspired leadership was inevitably followed by those who took advantage of their situation, as is common with all hereditary rulers.

Elaborate rituals to maintain cultural stability

A few different ideas must be kept in mind to understand the development of elaborate rituals for the purpose of maintaining cultural stability.

Social Chaos brings mass starvation

First the growing population needed agriculture to survive. Second the agriculture of the Yellow Valley was dependent upon centralized flood control, which included canals and river barriers. The centralization of power was also necessary to keep trade routes open. Throw into this a variety of cultures with different customs. Whenever the central government lost power in historical times, much of the population starved to death because the canals and flood control were not maintained, Further, trade routes were closed or inhibited due to increased lawlessness from lack of social order. We can imagine a similar situation in Shang times. It is probable that a strong central government would emerge to establish the social order necessary to maintain the canals and trade routes essential for an agricultural economy.

A Chinese phenomenon of the 20th century

We see this phenomenon clearly in the first half of the 20th century. China fragmented into smaller states. Each state had its own warlord, who fought for supremacy over the others. China has seen this scenario sporadically throughout their history, as we shall see. Perhaps due to the need to control the erratic nature of the Yellow River combined with the militarism of northern Eurasia, it seems that a central authority was needed for social order even in prehistoric times.

Initial collective pride

It seems that the demands of a growing agricultural population could have spawned the rigid Shang military aristocracy, just as it did the modern Chinese government. When the floodwaters were first contained, we can imagine a collective effort, which brought a great feeling of unity and even national or at least cultural pride.

Shang threatened internally and externally

This collective glow probably dimmed in the following centuries. With the success of human adaptation to the environment came increasing populations, which competed against each other militarily for dwindling resources. The Shang borders were probably attacked from the north, south, east and west by different groups experiencing population pressures and attracted by the growing wealth. Internally after the initial pride of success, there must have been cultural dissatisfaction and possibly even revolt against the increasingly rigid stratification of society. Further there were probably threats to the Imperial structure from the loose confederation of states of which the Shang was the center. Indeed one of these perimeter states, the Chou, eventually overthrew the Shang.

Narrowing range of acceptable behavior

When a culture is under attack or threatened, the range of acceptable behavior shrinks. When survival is threatened, or danger is perceived, the adrenal response is evoked, putting the culture or individual into automatic response. Let it be noted that a culture can also go through a collective adrenal response based upon the collective perception of danger. Sometimes the automatic response that is evoked is genetic in origination. The mother might find that she has unusual strength when protecting her child. Sometimes the automatic response is the one that has been practiced the most. Thus athletes and soldiers will train intensively in order to develop the correct automatic response to dangerous situations.

Automatic adrenal response leads to ritualization of behavior

Within this training comes the ritualization of behavior. As humans, we are constantly hypothesizing causality. My wife ate pea soup and then got sick. She never eats pea soup anymore. The pea soup probably did not make her sick, but our human tendency to connect consecutive events in a cause-effect relationship has overridden her reason. This is a common occurrence. Probably the danger of eating poisonous food is so extreme that the arbitrary causality that our taste mechanism proscribes to it, overrides our other faculties. Perhaps those humans whose reason overrode their sense of taste died a victim of their desires.

“Those berries sure look good. I remember that last time I got sick when I ate them. But they sure look good. They are probably not the same berries. They do look a little different you know. Similar, but different. Yes, distinctly different. I’m going to eat them. Aurgh!”

Our human desires are so powerful that we need a strong aversion response in order to deflect the wiles of our minds.

Ritualization brings confidence

Certain behaviors that were somehow arbitrarily associated with survival tend to be repeated. These are ritual behaviors. An athlete will have a good day and then won’t change his socks until his streak has ended, even though the socks probably have nothing physically to do with his victories or defeats.

Ritual value has real effect

While the socks have nothing physically to do with his performance, they might have great psychic value. They may give him the confidence he needs to actually do better. Hence these ritualistic behaviors, while physically unrelated to the actual event, might, because of the human psyche, actually have an effect upon the outcome. This is the mentality behind good luck charms, Dumbo’s feather, and the like. The peasant Crusaders won some unexpected battles against more sophisticated armies because they had they believed to be ‘Jesus’ cross’. This talisman presumably gave them the confidence they needed to transcend military reality. Whether the Cross had real mystical powers or not, is secondary to the belief that it did. This belief inspired the peasant armies to ‘supernatural’ feats in order to win the day. This is also why a hero is so important to rally behind. The hero’s ability to come through in the clutch can inspire others to follow in the wake.

Ritual behavior gives confidence

As with individuals so with cultures. Certain ritualistic behavior associated with military or cultural victory might be repeated for generations. The original impetus for the rite or ceremony might have been arbitrary. However once the ritualistic behavior is invested with belief, it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The inspiration provided by the rite or ceremony propels the army to victory again and again.

Defeat leads to loss of confidence in rituals

Additionally when the army has been defeated after performing the proper rites and ceremonies, these rituals lose some of their luster. As the rites lose their ability to inspire, it is a downward spiral. The confidence that accompanied the rites, which enabled ‘superhuman’ feats, is deflated, making the army or culture even more vulnerable. Frequently the disintegration of a civilization or culture is accompanied by the loss of confidence in the rituals. Initially the rituals inspire the cultural transcendence. At the end, the collapsing ritual structure prevents the culture from fulfilling its potentials.

Confucian vs. Taoist attitude towards ritual

The Taoists and Confucians have different key responses to ritual.

Confucians pro-ritual

 It was evident that a culture frequently disintegrated when ritual ceremonies fall out of favor. In response, the Confucians stress the importance of maintaining these rites to maintain social cohesion. The rites have multiple functions in this context. First, they inspire confidence in the culture that instituted the rites. Second, ritual provides a type of cultural bonding or glue that holds the society together. Finally, these ceremonies establish a cultural identity.

Rituals identify us and them

As an example, celebrating Thanksgiving is a form of cultural bonding for those living in the United States. Participation in ritual identifies individuals as part of a culture.

Taoists, look for identity within rather than in ritual

In contrast, Taoists teach that one should look inward for personal identity. Rather than identify self with culture and ritual, the Taoist counsel to cultivate the internal garden. The Taoist perception is that the social context is continually changing. As such, the individual and society should also adapt to environmental circumstances. Instead of rigidly repeating time-honored rituals that have lost meaning, the Taoists would hope that the individual gives a ‘spontaneous’ creative response to challenges. Taoists advise flexibility in dealing with social change.

Confucians threatened by flexibility

The fluidity of the Taoist response is abhorrent to the Confucian. As part of the social elite, Confucians perceived change as evil. Change threatened their position in the hierarchy. Excluded from the social elite, Taoists perceived change as inevitable and possibly even beneficial.

Taoists: anti-social

The Taoist disassociation of self from social forms tends to be interpreted as anti-social by the culture, which wants all its citizens to identify with its survival. Thus Taoists tend to be social radicals and will always be. Those whose individuality is swept away in the cultural identity are most threatened by the Taoist stance as it invalidates their existence. Those who adopt the cultural identity, spend prodigious amounts of time attempting to pinpoint the identity in order to be a part of it. Those who don’t participate have no common ground to grant prestige to those who do.

Social stratification and rigidity in the Shang

Back to the Shang: As the threats to Shang Imperial structure increased, the range of acceptable behavior shrank. In time of stress, behavior becomes more ritualized in response. This rigid behavior code extended from the bottom to the top in Shang society.

The Shang Emperor also in a royal cage

The king of the Shang also had his behavior tightly proscribed by convention. There were certain places he had to be at certain times, certain ceremonies that had to be performed by him alone, and certain ritualistic behavior that he had to maintain.1 These rituals presumably would ensure good harvest, proper rainfall, peace and prosperity for the citizenry.

Unperformed sacrifices threaten social structure

If the proper sacrifices didn’t take place, then the whole social structure was threatened. These ceremonies might not have had any practical value. However, they probably provided incredible inspirational value and also maintained social cohesion against rising chaos at any time.

Mandate of Heaven linked to popular retribution

Many times in primitive cultures if the king doesn’t provide for his populace, he is dethroned, replaced, or maybe even sacrificed. In a similar way, the Mandate of Heaven is linked to this concept of retribution.

Reciprocal arrangement based upon providing services

A cooperative arrangement is reached when two parties provide reciprocal services.2 There was also a similar reciprocal relationship between the Tribal leaders and the followers. The Tribal leaders were to provide effective leadership to the tribe in exchange for certain privileges of leadership. If the chief did not do a good job of providing for his tribe, then he was replaced.

In China: if dynasty did not perform, replaced by another dynasty

This was extended to the Age of Domination. A king who could not provide protection for his citizens had broken the contract and the citizenry had the feudal right to break their feudal obligations and find someone else to provide protection. This contractual relationship was extended to the Chinese dynastic structure on multiple levels. If the dynasty did not perform its proper functions, then it lost the Mandate of Heaven and could be replaced by another dynasty. In China, one dynasty replaced another.

Ritual and Ceremony substituted for Leadership

Confusing metaphor for reality

The idea of reciprocation on a tribal level has only to do with effective leadership. On the clan level in China, they began honoring the ancestors through ceremonies and rituals. Perhaps a great ancestor always awoke at dawn or wore certain clothes. Then in emulation the children and grandchildren would do the same, passing this tradition on from generation to generation. The techniques of leadership of the great ancestor might be forgotten all together. While the initial leadership of the great ancestor might have had nothing to do with these clan customs, they are still passed on from generation to generation.

Form of Great Man worshipped, function forgotten

Possibly Yu had been a dynamic man consolidating all the Clans around his leadership to drain the floodwaters of the Yellow River. Because of his efforts, his family was granted dynastic rule of the Middle Kingdom. Perhaps his sons and maybe even grandsons maintained his leadership style. However at some point the living family members began worshipping his image, rather than his energy.  There is a tendency of the descendants to worship the memory of the ancestor without connecting him to any personal effort. Thus the sacrifice or ritual for the ancestor becomes more important than anything that ancestor did or said.3

Success from Alignment with the Will of Heaven

Thus while a great man is successful because he aligns himself with the Will of Heaven4 , the descendants try to tap into his energy through proper ancestor ritual rather than aligning themselves with this Will of Heaven. At this point ritual techniques become more important than their relation to Heaven. On the dynastic level in China during the Shang, they took it a step further away from true fire. They took the jump. Although Yu might have aligned himself with Heaven, the sacrifices to Yu became not only more important than Yu, but became the Will of Heaven. Thus in this distortion alignment with the Will of Heaven meant performing the proper sacrifices and rituals. As long as the proper rituals were performed then Heaven was appeased. At the end of the Shang dynasty proper leadership wasn’t a factor in maintaining the dynasty. It was only rituals that mattered. Thus a personal relationship with Heaven had been ritualized into empty ceremony. It is always easier to have someone tell you what to do. Leadership was secondary to the relation with the gods and ancestors, which was maintained through ritual.

Proper rituals needed to appease ancestors or Heaven; behavior secondary

In the minds of the Shang rulers and aristocracy, they had to appease the gods and ancestors through proper ceremony and sacrifice in order to maintain the Mandate of Heaven. In the minds of the descendants of the clans, in order to gain your ancestors’ assistance in your life, you had to perform the proper ceremonies for your ancestors. Even unto modern times the Chinese perform certain ceremonies to appease their ancestors, so that they don’t interfere with their lives and instead enhance them.

Ancestor worship provides collective energy for transformation

Of course, these rites have an important psychological function. They inspire a respect for parents and family as well as instilling family pride. This family pride and corresponding desire to please one’s ancestors might even inspire the individual to ‘superhuman’ effort, thus maintaining the self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes self-reliance might not provide enough energy to accomplish the task, while collective energy might give the extra boost that is needed to transcend one’s ‘natural’ fate.

Knowledge of ritual one of the 6 Confucian virtues

We will see in the later Chou dynasty that a group of nobles called the ju, which we translate Confucians, made a specialty of 6 things they consider important to maintaining their identity as a class. We’ve mentioned charioteering, and writing/painting as two of these talents. Knowledge of Rituals was also one of the six virtues, perhaps the most important in some ways. Maintaining these rituals became the method of avoiding social chaos and maintaining cultural identity. These Confucians became experts in the proper ritualization of culture. But we’ve seen that the ritualization of Chinese imperial culture centered on sacrifice and ceremony began during the Shang.

Worshipping external form instead of the internal essence

A common human mechanism is our tendency to worship the exterior form rather than the internal function. We tend to emulate the surface rather than the essence because that is what we see. While the surface reflects what is underneath, it is different. In Taiji we are taught to emulate the form in order to get some type of spirituality. Thus the form is only the vehicle. However, very quickly the form itself becomes worshipped at the expense of destination. Indeed to reach the destination, the individual might even have to leave his vehicle behind. While these vehicles can get one quite a distance, many times the end must be done on one’s own two feet.

Fear of social chaos

Part of the problem of the spontaneous response becomes the ambiguity of the destination. The spontaneous response could accidentally lead to social chaos, while the old ways have already worked to provide social stability. Any flirting with social chaos throws those with investment in the status quo into ritualistic behavior, which worked in the past. The behavior becomes sanctified while the ancestors become deified. The many pitfalls, inherent to thinking for oneself, are avoided with a slavish attitude towards the social form and leaders.

The Confucians might say, “It has been done for thousands of years, who am I to challenge this ancient style or do something different. They performed these rituals at the beginning of the Chou when they were strong. We are weak now and don’t perform our rituals properly, if at all, anymore. If we perform the rituals, we will become strong again.”

Tripitaka, master of form

In the Journey, Tripitaka reflects the Chinese obsession with form. He is an expert on social form and feels comfortable in any court anywhere in the world. This contrasts with his powerful disciples who don’t know or care about the social forms. Tripitaka is constantly apologizing for their manners and appearance, saying that they might not look good or behave properly, but they are still very useful.

Tripitaka constantly tricked by appearances

The downside of Tripitaka’s obsession with form is that he is constantly tricked by appearances. If it looks right then it must be good, is his mind-set. Frequently throughout the Journey monsters disguised as Buddhists, Taoists, or young girls are able to deceive him. He is continually tricked and trapped because of his obsession with appearances. Eventually he learns to trust Monkey’s discerning eye and to distrust Piggy’s slothful words when it comes to discerning truth from falsehood.

Tripitaka’s Form is not the Essence

Tripitaka constantly chants the Heart Sutra, to enable him to understand life’s illusory quality. But he never integrates the meaning, and is constantly terrified by monsters that want to eat him. Monkey frequently asks him: “If you understand the meaning of the Heart Sutra why are you afraid?” Tripitaka usually thinks that he understands the meaning but is still afraid. While Monkey teases Tripitaka with the word ‘understand’, he more accurately could have used the word ‘integrate’. “Have you integrated the Heart Sutra?” Tripitaka, while understanding the Heart Sutra intellectually, never really integrates the message into his body. This leads to one of the primary messages of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism. Unless the Adept has integrated the truth into his being, it is only empty thoughts and words without substance.

Taiji, obsession with form

Taiji Quan, as part of the same Chinese tradition, inherits this same obsession with form with all of its pitfalls. While the top masters know the essence behind the form, all they can show is the external movements. Some masters will emphasize essence over form, while others will let students discover essence for themselves. Some students might practice for a lifetime without reaching the essence. Some of these students might even become teachers transmitting form without essence. Master Ni is a teacher who knows and has essence but lets his students discover for themselves. The internal integration of the form is personal and can’t be forced. Thus some students might practice the form for years without much integration.

Ritual Summary

The ritualization of culture is a universal human trait for good and bad. The good is that it preserves the good of the past. The bad is that slows necessary change and transformation. The good is that it inspires confidence. The bad is that when events go wrong the demoralization can be devastating. Ritualization is a backward looking force, which is rigid and hard. But it is necessary to balance the forward movement of progress from moving too fast. The ritualization of the Shang eventually led to the Confucian specialty of ceremony, which was to play such a huge part in Chinese culture. In the Journey, Tripitaka is the symbol of the strength and weakness of this obsession with form. Taiji Quan inherits the same pitfalls of form. Some students practice Taiji Quan for years without internal integration.

Shang Summary

The Shang, the first historical dynasty of China, was a typical Bronze Age civilization, dominating the indigenous agrarian cultures with advanced military technology eventually based on bronze.

Four sources for the Shang culture

The evidence indicates that four distinct cultures exerted an influence upon the Shang. Their bronze military technology was probably a result of cultural diffusion from the nomadic cultures of Central Asia. With the military technology came the patriarchy, ritual sacrifice, and tumulus graves for their leaders. Their bronze technique was a result of cultural diffusion from the advanced cultures of Southeast Asia. From the south also came rice and the beginnings of Taoism with the dragon symbolism. The Shang also shared many similarities with the indigenous agri-cultures including ancestor worship, cracked point divination and pounded earth construction. Through ancestor worship the Shang transformed the cult of clan into the cult of state. Through their divination techniques, writing evolved. While they had many similarities with the indigenous cultures, they had some key differences that linked them with the Hunter-Gatherer cultures of Siberia. These included their obsession with animal motifs and hunting. Their artistic style seemed to be heavily influenced by the woodworking of the north.

Splits and beginnings

During the Shang some crucial splits were to occur: one between clan and state and a second between power and fertility cults. These eventually manifested as Confucianism and Taoism. An important Taoist Alchemical metaphor originated during this time based upon bronze casting. These Alchemists correlated the bronze casting process, including refinement, mixture and casting, with soul purification, integration, and actualization. The warrior training of the charioteer eventually evolved into the Chinese marital arts based upon balance, non-action in the midst of action, relaxation and guiding energy.

Confucian Talents of the aristocracy

Also during the Shang the beginnings of most of the 6 Confucian talents originated. The warrior training focused upon charioteering and archery, 2 of the six talents. The members of the ruling class were the only ones who could read and write. Hence reading and writing became necessary talents of the aristocracy. Finally the ritualization of the Shang due to internal and external threats acted as a cultural glue. The knowledge of ceremony became one of the most important of the Confucian talents. Despite their military brutality, the Shang set the stage for many later developments in Chinese civilization. With this background, we can move to the Chou dynasty.


1 We see this aspect of the Chinese Emperor even unto the 20th century. The Last Emperor of the Ching dynasty had his habitation tightly proscribed within the Forbidden City.

2 It is easy to see that simple entropy is enough to destroy any relation. However the element for the woman is her child. She is willing to provide her services independent of reciprocation because she needs the man’s help in the raising of her child. This female tendency to provide services independent of reciprocation, needs to be isolated. The ideal is to demand reciprocation where circumstances permit, for everyone’s good.

3 In the West many Christians worship the idea of Jesus while knowing virtually nothing of his life or teachings.

4 The Shang began worshipping ‘Below and Above’ as a precursor to polarities of Heaven and Earth, yin and yang. A Short History of Chinese Art, Munsterberg, p. 21


Home    China Home Page    Chapters    Sections    Previous    Next    Comments