Sample History Essays on Religion in China Pre 1500 AD

China, being one of the oldest civilizations in the world, has a long history of religious practices and beliefs that can be traced back to the epoch preceding 1500 AD. Religion in ancient China developed from simple animistic, shamanic, and totemic religious practices into complex religio-philosophical institutions, such as Confucianism and Taoism, well before 1500 AD. Several Chinese religio-philosophical institutions, such as the Mandate of Heaven, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, developed during the divergent dynasties and kingdoms that ruled mainland China before 1500 AD. Though based on different philosophical teachings and religious beliefs, the religio-philosophical institutions established in ancient China before 1500 AD are still integral components of contemporary Chinese religion. The Mandate of Heaven, Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are the major religio-philosophical institutions and beliefs that developed in mainland China before 1500 AD and are still relevant to modern-day Chinese culture.

The Mandate of Heaven

The Mandate of Heaven is an ancient Chinese religious and political teaching used to justify the legitimacy of kings and rulers in mainland China. Tianming, also known as the Mandate of Heaven, was first introduced in mainland China as a justification of the Zhou conquest of the Shang Dynasty (Cartwright). Dan, the Duke of Zhou, coined the term the Mandate of Heaven was coined in 1046 BCE chiefly to consolidate the kingdom established by his elder brother King Wu (Nuyen 114). Both a political and religious concept, the Mandate of Heaven, enabled the Zhou Dynasty to exist in power over mainland China for more than eight hundred years and is currently considered an integral part of Chinese folk religion.  The Mandate of Heaven espoused that the high god, Heaven, wills divine order and peace for the human society (Nuyen 114). The divine order in human society was to be administered by virtuous kings and rulers who did not only care for their subjects but ruled wisely and benevolently on Heaven’s behalf. The idea that Kings and leaders are chosen by Heaven, the high god, and have divine authority to rule and, therefore, had legitimate power over their subjects as long as they ruled well was central to the concept of the Mandate of Heaven.

The religious belief of the Mandate of Heaven was buttressed by several divine rules which bound not only kings but also their subjects. The kings and rulers entrusted to lead the people had a moral obligation under the Mandate of Heaven to prudently use their power for the good of their subjects. If leaders entrusted with leadership responsibilities abused their privileges, then they would fall out of favor with Heaven, their states would suffer terrible disasters, such as rebellions, and they would ultimately lose the right to govern (Nuyen 115). In practice, the concept of the Mandate of Heaven enabled successful revolutionaries or rebels to overthrow reigning kings and their governments without having to convince the masses of their legitimacy. For example, the Mandate of Heaven enabled the founding Zhou kings to defenestrate the last Shang ruler on grounds of indolence and impiety (Lagerwey and Kalinowski 78). The Mandate of Heaven forbids rulers to drink excessively or engage in wanton debauchery as they were considered to be the human manifestation of Heaven’s divinity (Nuyen 115).  For example, excessive drinking by a king was a ground for dismissal from office under the guise of losing the mandate of heaven and, thus, legitimacy. The Mandate of Heaven also inculcated in ancient Chinese the moral right of rebellion and criticism of autocracy as they could rebel against leaders who abused their privileges.

The religious belief of the Mandate of Heaven declined in popularity with the decline and ultimate collapse of the Zhou Dynasty. For more than eight hundred years, the Mandate of Heaven was a widely accepted religious and political belief that enabled the Zhou Dynasty to rule mainland China (McLean). The Zhou Dynasty, which is divided into two epochs: Western Zhou (1046-771 BCE) and Eastern Zhou (771-226 BCE), collapsed during the later period due to internal and external pressures (Lagerwey and Kalinowski 83). One of the main reasons for the collapse of the Zhou Dynasty was the perennial poor leadership exhibited by the kings and rulers of mainland China during the Eastern Zhou that weakened the ancient Chinese belief in the Mandate of Heaven (Nuyen 115). The collapse of the Zhou Dynasty was followed by internecine political violence in mainland China that ended with the unification of all the Warring States under Qin Shi Huang, King of Qin, and the first emperor of a unified China. Qin Shi Huang, also known as Emperor Shi Huangdi, was a staunch believer in legalism and, therefore, a harsh critic of religion (Lagerwey and Kalinowski 85). He ordered for the banning and burning of numerous religious writings and books and called for the execution of religious scholars. Emperor Shi Huangdi’s oppressive and anti-religious regime led to the rapid decline of the religious belief of the Mandate of Heaven in ancient mainland China.


The death of Emperor Shi Huangdi and the subsequent ascension into power by the Han Dynasty enabled the development and spread of Confucianism throughout ancient mainland China. Emperor Shi Huangdi died on 10th September 210 BC, of a suspected mercury poisoning resulting in mainland China plunging into a bloody civil war (Leafe). The civil war resulted in the ascension of the Han Dynasty into power who unlike, their predecessor Emperor Shi Huangdi was receptive to religion. With the intent of reunifying China, which was reeling from the aftermaths of a bloody civil war, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty adopted Confucianism as the official Chinese religio-philosophical belief system (Lopez and Reynolds.). Confucianism is a philosophy developed in the 6th century BCE by ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius and later fine-tuned by Confucian scholar Mencius (Lopez and Reynolds.). The religio-philosophical belief of Confucianism resonated with a large portion of ancient Chinese as it is multifaceted in nature covering religious, secular, and humanist teachings. Confucianism spread widely throughout mainland China due to its multifaceted nature and the fact that it was made the official Chinese belief system by Emperor Wu. The religio-philosophical belief system of Confucianism is still widely relevant in modern Chinese socio-economic and political thinking.

Confucianism amalgamates ancient Chinese religious identity, moral understanding, and humanist principles espoused during the Zhou Dynasty. Confucius did not intend to create a new Chinese religion but rather wanted to revive the ancient animistic and shamanic religious beliefs practiced during the Zhou Dynasty (Lagerwey and Kalinowski 112). Confucius’s intention to revive the ancient religious practices of the Zhou Dynasty is attested to by Confucianism’s emphasis on the centrality of norms and values of behavior in primary social institutions and human relationships. The primary philosophy of Confucianism is based on the understanding that human beings are inherently good and engage in immoral behavior only due to a lack of a strong moral standard (Lagerwey and Kalinowski 112). Therefore, human behavior can be regulated through ethical codes and social mores to create a productive and tranquil life that would, in turn, translate to an ethical and prosperous state. The humanness espoused by Confucianism, particularly its emphasis on love and kindness were also integral elements of the animistic religious practices during the Zhou Dynasty. Though Confucius underpinned his philosophical thoughts and works on the ancient religious practices of the Zhou Dynasty, he inculcated among the ancient Chinese the need for collective religious and moral piety backed by humanity for the good of the state.

Confucianism introduced in China an unprecedented belief system centered not on any supernatural deity or god but rather on the individual. Before Confucius and his staunch follower, Mencius developed the religio-philosophical belief system of Confucianism the ancient Chinese religions centered on supernatural spirits and gods. For example, the Mandate of Heaven was centered on the high god, Heaven. The focus of Confucianism is however on the individual, his behavior, ethics, values, and relations with others within societal institutions. Moreover, Confucianism did away with the traditional perception of a heavenly realm or oracle from which divinity and piety could be disseminated to human beings by gods. Rather Confucianism taught about the idea of human transcendence and ideal perfection. According to the philosophical teachings of Confucian, spiritual fulfillment lies not in the strange and extraterrestrial but in mundane human activities and relationships such as friendship and parenthood (Lagerwey and Kalinowski 115). Confucianism’s teachings of personal transcendence, moral and spiritual fulfillment marked a huge shift from the animistic Chinese religious beliefs of the past.


The religio-philosophical belief system of Taoism is an integral element of the ancient Chinese religious practices that developed before 1500 AD. Taoism, also known as Daoism, developed almost at the same time as Confucianism (500 BCE) and is attributed to Chinese philosophers, Lao Tzu, and Zhuang Zhou (Robinet 24). The religio-philosophical belief system of Taoism was decreed an official religion of mainland China by Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) (Robinet 24).  Taoism is a result of deep observance of the natural world as it is based on the philosophical concept of Tao or Dao. The Tao or Dao is defined as a cosmic force that flows through all things, binding and releasing them in its wake and it signifies the fundamental nature of the world (Robinet 31). Therefore, Taoism teaches the importance of doing what is natural and going with the flow of the Tao. Taoism in its emphasis on the Tao teaches the importance of living a life of spontaneity, simplicity, and selflessness. All the teachings of Taoism are encoded in the Tao-Te-Ching (The Book of the Way) which is not a scripture per se but rather a book of poetry presenting simple steps of mastering the Tao (Robinet 31).  Similar to Confucianism, Taoism is still an integral element of contemporary Chinese folk religion.

Taoism leverages the unadulterated nature of the world and the universe to create a religious identity that advocates for individual and societal harmony. The religio-philosophical belief system of Taoism holds that there are no bad people in the world only those who behave badly (Robinet 27).  According to Taoism, everyone can be a good person only if taught to understand and align their actions with the universe and therefore relate in harmony not only with the earth but also with others in a social setting (Lagerwey and Kalinowski 134). Taoism diverges from Confucianism by its lack of emphasis on good and bad and advocacy for societal mores and ethical codes for regulating human behavior. Rather than emphasizing the regulation of human conduct, Taoism calls for the adoption of the way of Tao. The way of the Tao requires an individual to submit to nature and be flexible to its will. According to Zhuang Zhou, living in accordance with the Tao makes individuals happy, content, and fulfilled, thus, they live harmoniously in society (Lagerwey and Kalinowski 134). Taoism focuses on genuineness, longevity, health, immortality, vitality, and spontaneity, factors that ensure long-term societal harmony which is beneficial to the state.


Buddhism is the oldest foreign Chinese religious belief system having been introduced into China from India. The religious belief of Buddhism was introduced in China by Indian missionaries during the latter part of the Han Dynasty at around 150 BCE (Foy). Buddhism is a religio-philosophical belief system founded by Gautama Buddha in the 6th century BCE in modern-day Nepal (Lagerwey and Kalinowski 178). The principles of compassion, non-attachment, and enlightenment are central to the teachings of Buddhism and are described in detail in the Tripitaka, Buddhism’s sacred text. Though introduced in ancient China during the Han Dynasty, Buddhism took over a century to be fully assimilated into the Chinese culture (Foy). In the process of its assimilation into the Chinese culture, the original Buddhism teachings as decreed by Buddha were amalgamated with the local religio-philosophical belief system of Taoism. Therefore, Buddhism practiced both in ancient and contemporary China is slightly different from the orthodox Buddha teachings followed in other nations, such as Japan, India, and Korea.

Chinese Buddhism focuses on non-attachment and humanist principles, such as compassion, and differs from orthodox Buddhism with its emphasis that enlightenment can be achieved in a single lifetime. Due to its amalgamation of orthodox Buddha teachings and Taoism, Chinese Buddhism focuses particularly on non-attachment to worldly things and mastery of the way of the Tao. Non-attachment enables individuals to live satisfied and fulfilled lives, therefore, promoting societal happiness and harmony. Chinese Buddhism focuses on evoking humanist principles, such as compassion and kindness, from individuals in order to foster mutual societal interactions. Though both Chinese and orthodox Buddhism advocate for human enlightenment, Chinese Buddhism espouses that enlightenment can be achieved in a single lifetime. The notion that enlightenment can be achieved within a lifetime is aimed to inspire individuals to lead a holy life fully dedicated to mastery of the Tao.


China, due to its long history of civilization, has some of the oldest religious practices in the world. Religion in china gradually developed from small shamanic and animistic religious practices into well-organized and pervasive religio-philosophical belief systems. Before 1500 AD China had already four well-developed religious belief systems namely; the Mandate of Heaven, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The different religious practices developed during different dynasties in China, for example, the Mandate of Heaven developed during the Zhou Dynasty while Chinese Buddhism developed during the Han dynasty. Though the Chinese religious practices that developed before 1500 AD were based on different philosophies, they are still relevant and largely practiced in contemporary China.



Works Cited

Cartwright, Mark. “Mandate of Heaven” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 25 Jul 2017. 20 Sep 2020.

Foy, Geoff. “Buddhism in China.” Asia Society,

Lagerwey, John, and Marc Kalinowski, eds. Early Chinese Religion, Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC-220 AD) (2 vols). Brill, 2008.

Leafe, David. “Emperor of Blood; He Built the Great Wall and Created the World’s Greatest Empire. But China’s First Ruler was also a Pathological Murderer Who had 3,000 Followers Buried Alive in His Tomb – So HE could Live for Ever. Now, Archaeologists may have Discovered His Final, Stupendous Secret.” Daily Mail, Feb 11, 2006, p. 58. ProQuest. Web. 20 Sep 2020.

Lopez, Donald S., and Frank E. Reynolds. “Central Asia and China.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 3 Apr. 2020,   

McLean, John. “World Civilization.” The Mandate of Heaven | World Civilization, 2020,

Nuyen, A. T. “The ‘Mandate of Heaven’: Mencius and the Divine Command Theory of Political Legitimacy.” Philosophy East and West, vol. 63, no. 2, 2013, pp. 113–126. JSTOR,  Accessed 21 Sept. 2020.

Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a religion. Stanford Univ. Press, 1997.