by Carole Losee © 2005-2020


by Elizabeth Seeger © 1973


Part Four


Lao-tse riding on a water buffalo.
(Collection of the National Palace Museum,
Taipei, Republic of China)

The blind musicians
In the courtyard of Chou
Have set up their pillars and crossbars
With upright plumes and hooks for the drum
    and the bells;
The small and large drums are hanging there,
The tambourines, the stone chimes, the batons
    and tiger clappers.
When all have been struck the music begins;
Then the pipes and the flutes sound shrilly.
Sweet is the music,
Sweet as the song of birds.
The ancestors listen;
They are our guests;
Forever and ever they gaze upon our victories.

        --from the Shi King, The Book of Songs


The Chinese people are different in many ways from the Indians, and their religion has a different emphasis. They are like the Indians in that they found themselves in possession of rich river valleys and a vast land into which they could spread as their population increased. As far as they know, the Chinese originated north of the Yellow River, the Hwang Ho, in the present provinces of Shensi and Shansi. Consequently they have a deep and abiding contact with and feeling for the earth they live on, a feeling which most civilized people, who have moved again and again, cannot share. The mountains and the rivers, the land and the grain, earth and heaven, were worshiped by them for thousands of years, until the beginning of the present century and perhaps now. The four seasons, the four directions, the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, were like aspects of their own being.

Their civilization is a very old one, for it goes back beyond 3,000 B.C. They are the only people in the world today whose culture has remained for so long in its own land. Their long history has often been stormy and broken by periods of devastating invasion or rebellion; twice they were conquered by their perennial enemies, the Tatars of Central Asia, but their alien rulers conformed to the Chinese culture, which was much more advanced than their own. There were no more magnificent and more Chinese emperors than those of the Manchu (a Tatar) Dynasty in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Because of its length, Chinese history is usually divided, not into centuries, but into dynasties; a dynasty is a succession of rulers all belonging to one family. The word is also used to denote the time during which those rulers were in power.) The nation survived disasters that might have destroyed weaker societies; it had long centuries of peace and production and is still powerful today.

What has caused this unique and enduring life? A Western writer, who lived many years in China and worked and studied with Chinese scholars, has said, "...these results, so long enduring and so vast, must be owing to the social and the political life of the Chinese being founded on great and eternal truths." (1) What are these truths?

Like the Indians, and all other early peoples, the Chinese, at first, felt around them powers far greater than themselves and localized them as different aspects of nature. But above all they recognized a supreme power which they sometimes called Heaven and sometimes the Supreme Lord. It was never given a form or an image, but it was believed to have a benevolent will and purpose and to care about its creation. It was what we express in the one word--God.

This was an intuitive feeling that became a belief; later, as their minds developed, they sought an explanation of the cause and creation of the universe they found themselves in. They explained it this way: there was originally a Great Unity (another word for God, or the Absolute) and from it came forth two breaths or forces whose interplay created the "ten thousand things," as they called the visible universe. These two forces are the opposite elements that make up our world, without which we could not perceive anything: bright and dark, hard and soft, active and passive, light and heavy. We could not see objects if there were not both brightness and shadow; we could not hear if there were not both sound and silence; we could not stand or move if there were not both weight and lightness. These oppositions can be multiplied indefinitely and are the warp and woof of our earthly life. The Great Unity alone has no opposite.

This seems to have been a very early idea, although it was not fully developed for many centuries. For the earliest of mythical rulers, whose name was Fu Hi, went up to the top of a mountain and sacrificed there to the Supreme Lord. It is also told of him that he saw a tortoise climbing out of a river, and on its back he made out diagrams and lines in which he read this explanation of life. In these diagrams there were two kinds of lines, broken ___  ___ and unbroken _____, which symbolized the two breaths, and in their combinations he saw the interplay that brought forth the ever-changing flow of life. It is easy to see lines and designs on the carapace of a tortoise, which ever after was considered a holy creature.

Different words have been used in speaking of the two forces. At first they were called the bright and the dark, or the firm and the yielding, but the most familiar words are the Chinese Yin and Yang, which were given to them in later times. Yin is the dark, the quiet, the unifying element, symbolized by the earth, the moon, water, and so forth. Yang is the bright, the active, the transforming power, symbolized by the sun, by fire, by the sky. Yang is male, and Yin is female. Fu Hi's unbroken line is Yang; the broken line is Yin. Later, when the Chinese became great artists, the whole cosmic idea was embodied in another symbol:

The circle represents the Great Unity, the two inner divisions of it the Yang and the Yin. Note that these are equal and in perfect harmony. Good and evil are not among the opposites; both Yang and Yin are good; evil only appears when the harmony between them is disturbed, and one dominates the other. If on earth the Yang got out of hand, there would be storms and tempests and fires; if the Yin predominated, nothing would grow, and the waters might rise in another great flood. So, in human life, man and wife must complement each other and live in harmony; although, it must be said, the Yang was always superior, as the sun is to the moon or the heavens to the earth. In each one of them there is a bit of the other.

The Chinese were much concerned with nature, partly because they were an agricultural people and therefore dependent upon sun and rain and the changes of the seasons. They were careful observers of the heavens, from very early times, and found the North Star, the zodiac, recognized five planets, and before long predicted eclipses. In the movement of these heavenly bodies and the rhythm of the seasons, in the unceasing flow of life and change, they perceived an order and harmony which was beneficial to all creatures. Since the Supreme Lord, or heaven, was in charge of all this, order and harmony must be the Way of Heaven, the will of God. This way is called the Tao (pronounced dow, rhyming with now) and is translated in so many ways that the Chinese word will be used hereafter in this book, as will the two words Yin and Yang.

Man's life was a very important part of the universe he perceived; therefore his life, too, should be orderly and harmonious; he should live, as the heavenly bodies did, according to the Tao. Men were given their nature by Heaven; therefore it was good. Five virtues were inherent in it: kindness (in its widest sense), righteousness, right behavior, wisdom, and good faith. Men were led astray by circumstances, by temptations and ignorance; but if they were taught and guided by those who understood and if they were justly governed, they would live in peace and comfort. Those who understood, whose business it was to teach and to govern, had a great responsibility. Man is the only creature who knows about the divine workings; therefore he is responsible even for nature; for if his conduct breaks the harmony of life, disasters such as flood or drought may follow. The moral code of the Chinese was based on this belief.


The moral code is very unusual in one respect. Most religions are concerned with the individual person, his relation to God, and in consequence his relations with other people. For those who care most about their faith, the first is often the most important, especially in the East. The Hindu goes into the forest to meditate and to find union with Brahman; the Buddhist goes into the monastery to attain nirvana. Both leave behind them all human relationships, save that, perhaps, of teacher to disciple.

The Chinese took the opposite way. Having decided what they believed about the universe and man, they turned almost all of their attention to human relationships and the building of a happy society. Theirs is the only religion which includes government. Its teaching was directed to two closely related things: the family and the state.

The whole duty of man was set forth in the Five Relationships: those between ruler and subject, father and son, elder brother and younger brother, husband and wife, friend and friend. If these were faithfully carried out, there would be harmony not only in human society but between man and nature and between Heaven and man, for that was the Way of Heaven.

The ruler's relation to his people was that of a father to his children. He must see to it that they had enough food and the other necessities of life; he must guide and teach them how to live in accord with the Tao, and above all he must set them an example by his own life. If this were done, the natural goodness of their nature would develop, and they would hardly know that they were being governed. The least government was the best, the highest praise that could be given to a ruler was to state that in all the land only a dozen men were in prison.

This relationship was far more binding on the ruler than on his subjects. He stood between man and Heaven and was responsible for everything that happened in the country and for the welfare of all creatures, human and nonhuman, that inhabited it. He was known as the Son of Heaven, or the One Man, for he was unique and his position was awe-inspiring. However, if he were unworthy, neglected his duty, or oppressed his subjects, then Heaven would send down calamities. The people would soon know that he had failed them; first they would murmur and then rebel. It was their duty to do so. For the high position of the king (later of the emperor) was given to the office, not necessarily to the man. If he betrayed his trust, he lost the favor of Heaven and became the meanest of men. It was then the duty of some strong and enterprising leader to overthrow him and to start a new dynasty. This right of rebellion was written into the very scriptures of China, and it was often claimed. A wise king of one of the early dynasties said to his ministers, "Do not dare to suppress the remonstrances of the people." "Heaven loves the people," the Book of History says. "Heaven hears as the people hear; it sees as the people see." (2)

One of the duties of a ruler was to choose wise and able ministers. The scriptures of China, which correspond to the Vedas or the Bible, are known as the Five Classics, and one of these is the Book of History, which carries one back to legendary times, nearly 3000 B.C. From the very beginning it was constantly emphasized that the ruler should choose men of virtue and ability, no matter who they were; he should not have favorites or give high positions to members of his family. One of the much-revered legendary kings said to his chief councilor, "What are ministers? They are my legs and arms, my ears and eyes. I wish to help and support the people; you carry out my wishes. I wish to spread the harmony of my government to the four quarters of the earth; you are my agent. When I do wrong, it is you who must correct me." (3)

A young king, anxious to find a worthy minister, dreamed that he saw the man he needed and sent messengers out to search for him, with a picture of the man he had dreamed about. They found him, a builder, living in a wild part of the land. The king made him his chief minister and kept him at his side. "Morning and evening teach me to be virtuous," he said. "I am a weapon of steel, you are my whetstone. I am crossing a great stream; you are my boat with its oars. I am in a year of great drought; you are a copious rain. Open your mind and enrich mine. Be like medicine that must pain the patient in order to cure him. So I may tread in the steps of my great ancestor and give peace to the millions of the people." (4)

It has been said before that legends are important because they reveal the ideals and desires of a people. The legendary heroes of China are not warriors or conquerors or resplendent rulers; they are humble and wise kings who care for the welfare of their people and who listen to them.

The king's ministers might come from any place or family, rich or poor, for there was no rigid class system. Men were graded according to their occupations: scholar, farmer, artisan, and merchant, in that order. The scholar was always most honored, and the government of China became a government of scholars. There was no ruler or warrior class. There are many stories in the later histories (for the Chinese were faithful and diligent historians) of ministers who risked or suffered a very unpleasant death because they would not obey their ruler or because they told him that he was doing wrong.

There was one great tyrant who, after a long period of division and misrule, brought the whole country under his sway and unified it. This was a good thing, but he did it with great cruelty, and he would not listen to anyone. There were, of course, people who opposed him, and he heard that his own mother was conspiring with them. He sent her away from his court and killed all those, with their families, who plotted against him. Then he sat on his throne with his sword across his knees and said that anyone who disagreed with him would be killed. It is said that twenty-seven of his ministers and officials came fearlessly to him and told him that he was doing wrong, for banishing one's mother and refusing to listen to advice were two unforgivable faults in a ruler. They were all put to death.

Then an old man who had served him well came to him and stood before his throne. "Your Majesty has a violent and presumptuous character." he said, "and will not listen to the advice of virtuous men. The people will hear of this and will not respect you. I fear for your dynasty." He had no doubt that he would be promptly executed, but the tyrant realized that there was truth in these words; he brought his mother back from exile and asked the old man to be his councilor.

There are many such stories, and wise and courageous ministers have been honored as much as great emperors. This tradition lasted up to the present [Ed. previous] century when the last, dying dynasty of imperial China was in the hands of a powerful and ignorant woman, the Empress Dowager. She tried to make war on all the powers of Europe that were pressing in upon China. When she gave a stupid and disastrous order to kill all foreigners in the country, two of her ministers disobeyed and changed the order to "Protect all foreigners." They were both beheaded and died with serene courage.

In such a long history there was every kind of ruler and every kind of minister, good and bad, strong and weak, corrupt and upright. But the ideal remained, strong and steadfast, for forty or fifty centuries, and where there is an ideal, it can be appealed to, and the appeal is a powerful one.


The next relationship was equally important and was often put first; it was closely connected with government. It was the relation between parent and child, particularly between father and son. On the father's side it consisted of love and care as long as he lived; on the son's it consisted of reverence and obedience during and after his father's lifetime. This relation was, of course, extended to grandparents and great-grandparents, and, on the father's part, to his descendants. It was also extended, in lessening intensity, to all the elders of the family and to old people in general, for it was believed that old people accumulated wisdom with experience and should be honored. Old trees and rocks and mountains were honored for the same reason.

The family was the social unit, as it was in some other countries, but in China it was more carefully organized and more important than elsewhere. If a family was well-to-do, all the male members of it lived together all their lives, in a large compound; the girls, when they married, became a part of their husbands' families. The houses, mostly of one story, were built around courtyards, each married couple having its own court and rooms. There was always a garden, as large and beautiful as the family could afford, for Chinese gardens are as beautiful as any in the world, and the courtyards, too, had flowers and blossoming plants or trees. The oldest man was the head and ruler of the household; his sons and grandsons brought their brides to the house and raised their children there, unless business or government duty took them elsewhere. If it did, their wives and children usually stayed behind in the family home. There were often four or even five generations and sometimes fifty or sixty people living in the rambling compound, for servants and occasionally slaves lived there, too, and were accounted members of the household. All the property was held in common, and all family matters were decided by the council of elders, headed by the oldest one. In the villages, each farming family lived in the same way. In poorer houses, there was probably only one courtyard, and sometimes each family had only one room rather than its own apartment. All the sons worked the land together, and all earnings were held in common.

The duty of a son to his father and his mother did not end with their death. The Chinese, like the Egyptians, made much of death; the funeral and the ceremonies of mourning were as elaborate as the family could afford. It was believed that dead persons did not cease to be concerned about their families; that their spirits remained not far away and protected and blessed their descendants. In return, however, they must be honored and nourished not only with reverence and affection but with food, whose essence they breathed, as gods are supposed to do, while the grosser part was eaten later by those who offered it. In any large house there was an ancestral hall, in the place of honor, facing south, where offerings were made. There, in each season and on many other occasions, food and wine were presented, candles were lighted and incense burned, while the members of the family bowed down to the ground before their ancestors. Their spirits were represented by rectangular tablets of wood, high and narrow, on which the name of each ancestor was carved or drawn in the beautiful Chinese characters, which are written vertically, not horizontally as ours are. The tablets stood upright on a pedestal of wood and were often finely carved. It was believed that the spirits came when they were summoned to the feast and were actually present in the tablets that bore their names. In this hall every newborn son was presented to the forebears, and when any important event happened to the household, it was announced to them there.

In smaller houses a room was set aside for the ancestral tablets and similar offerings were made; in a poor house the tablets were set on a shelf in the main room. In villages sometimes the whole population had the same surname and was descended from the same ancestor. If that was so, there was a temple in which everyone assembled at certain times and made their offerings, as well as in their homes. From the emperor to the poorest peasant this custom prevailed, from the earliest times we know of until the present [Ed. previous] century.

This feeling for their forefathers had a deep and lasting effect on the behavior of all the people. A man was proud to do well in the world and to be virtuous because in doing so he honored and pleased his ancestors as well as his present family. If he did wrong, he brought disgrace upon them and lost their protection and blessing for himself and his children. He was also disapproved of by the family with whom he lived so intimately and by his neighbors and friends, so that life was a misery.

The family system has been a potent police force as well. If a man injured another, the two families settled the affair; if a man got into debt, the family paid it but saw to it that the offender repaid the common fund. The father or the eldest member had the power of life and death: if a very terrible crime was committed, the criminal could be put to death, or he could be expelled from the home, and then where was he? A man without home or parents, without son or ancestor, was lost indeed. The family both judged and protected him, and he usually chose to live in accord with it.

While the first two relationships were the most important, the others were also binding. The eldest brother had an almost paternal attitude to the younger ones, especially if the parents were dead. He felt responsible for them, and they, in turn, deferred and were loyal to him. Husband and wife must live in harmony together, as should the Yang and the Yin. Between friends there should be trust and faithfulness.

This close kinship and the subservience of younger to older may seem confining and intolerable to Western minds, and indeed, it became so to many young Chinese after encountering Western ideas. But it must be remembered that the relationship worked both ways. It was not mere obedience on the part of the younger members of the family, nor was the child the only obedient one. He saw his parents pay the same reverence to their parents that was required of him. His father obeyed the family elder, and that made it quite natural for him, in turn to obey his father. And he obeyed only insofar as his elders were in the right, for truth and the Way of Heaven came first.

One of the disciples of the great teacher, Confucius, asked him once, "Is it filial for a son to obey every command of his father, whether right or wrong?" "What are you saying!" exclaimed the Master. "When the command is wrong, a son should resist his father and a minister should resist his king. If a father has a son who resists his wrong commands, he will be saved from serious faults. How can he be called filial who obeys when his father tells him to do wrong?" It is said, too, that once, when Confucius was Minister of Crime, a young man was brought before him. He sentenced the young man to prison for the wrongs he had committed, but he put the father in prison, too, for not having taught his son properly.

The children did not have freedom, but they had security, unless there were external misfortunes. In the village, the land belonged as much to each growing son as to anyone else, and the home was also his. A suitable wife was found for him and husbands for the daughters. In richer households it was the same: if there was a family business, the son had a place in it; if there was not enough room for him, other work was found by the family elders. And if any boy, a peasant or a rich man's son, had a good mind, everything was done to give him a good education and to make a scholar of him, for then he might hold a government position, and nothing reflected more honor on a family or on a village than to have one of its members enter government service. There was no barrier of class or wealth; and, since one of the chief duties of those in authority was to watch for able men, he might be employed anywhere from a small official post in his county or province up to the emperor's court, according to his ability.

In addition to these relationships, courtesy and good manners between all people were considered important to the harmony of society. Quarreling and brawling were looked down upon and probably occurred more rarely in China than elsewhere.


The Five Relationships were to the Chinese religion what the Eightfold Path was to Buddhism or the Ten Commandments to the Jews. They bound the people together and were the foundation of the long and continuous life of their nation and their culture. This was the human side of their faith. There was another equally important one: the relation of man to heaven and to earth, to the seasons, to the sun, moon, and stars, to hills and rivers, and to innumerable spirits.

This relation was expressed through ceremony. There were many ceremonies, starting with simple ones observed by the farmers and workmen who worshipped the gods of the household; they became more elaborate as a man's responsibilities increased, until the life of the king and even that of his officials throughout the country was one great round of ritual. The ceremonies embodied the reverence, the dependence, and the gratitude that were felt toward all the powers of nature and toward Heaven. This last relation was the most important, and the most impressive rite was the one that celebrated it. Only the ruler, the Son of Heaven, could perform it. No temple was raised, and no image was made; the burnt offering of a young bull without blemish and of one color was presented on a raised, open altar just before the dawn of the winter solstice. At that time the light and warmth of the sun are returning to the earth and the Yang, which symbolizes the visible heaven and the sun, is coming into power again, after the Yin of winter and of darkness. It was a ceremony of gratitude to Heaven for the benefits of the past year and of prayer for the year to come. The altar was raised outside the city wall, to the south, and was always round, as Heaven was believed to be. On the north of the city there was a square altar to the Earth, and there at the summer solstice the king worshiped the kindly Earth, on which all life depends.

The seasons were also important, for the first things created by the interplay of Yang and Yin were the five elements--water, fire, earth, metal, and wood--and the four seasons. In the spring the king, followed by all his ministers and courtiers, went out of the eastern gate to welcome the season. Three months later he went to the southern gate to greet the summer; then the autumn at the western gate and the winter at the northern were received as honored presences. As towns and cities grew up, the magistrates in charge of them performed the same ceremonies.

All these rites were observed in elaborate and minute detail, with all the artistry of an intensely artistic people. At the winter solstice the king and his ministers wore dark blue robes, for that was the color of Heaven; blue lanterns lighted the altar, and offerings of blue silk and jade were also burned, so that their essence would rise to Heaven. The Earth's color was yellow, and the offerings were buried, not burned, at the ceremony of the summer solstice. Yellow robes and ornaments were worn, and the king was drawn by yellow horses with black tails. To greet the spring the king wore green robes and green jade ornaments; his chariot bore a green flag. The summer's color was red, the autumn white, and the winter's black. Every vase and bowl used in the sacrifices, the colors and embroideries of every piece of clothing, the color and harness of the horses and the decorations of the chariots, were in accord with the purpose of the ceremony. The unique beauty of Chinese artistry--the silk, the jade carvings, the porcelain, the innumerable lovely objects that grace our museums--is due to its having meaning and purpose. At the great ceremonies there were also music and stately dancing.

In addition to these seasonal rites, the mountains and the rivers of the realm--indeed, all of the sources of that precious element, water--must be worshiped and the royal forefathers were honored in the king's ancestral temple. Every month offerings were made to them; every season a great sacrifice was performed; and every three or five years there was a still more elaborate one. There were also occasional ceremonies: in case of misfortune, such as drought, flood or pestilence, war, the death of a king or a parent, the ancestors and the powers of nature must be informed and their blessing invoked. The king was the high priest of the nation, the mediator between man and Heaven; the oldest male parent was the priest in every household. There were masters of ceremony who conducted the elaborate rites, but there was no professional priesthood.

This rhythmic and ordered way of life was conceived in very early days. The country was small; its ruler was a king, not yet an emperor. He parceled out the ever-increasing territory among trustworthy men, for he could not reach it all himself. This kind of government is known as the feudal system and has been followed in many countries in their early days. The Chinese feudal lords were rulers in their own domains and must observe all the ceremonies except the offering to Heaven. The book that describes and regulates these matters is called the Li Ki, The Book of Rites, and is one of the most important of the Five Classics. It was formulated and much of it was written down during the Chou Dynasty (1122-221 B.C. and pronounced jo)

This book says: "The rules of ceremony can be traced to their origin in the Great Unity. While they originated in Heaven, their movement reaches to Earth and their practice to all the business of life. They serve to nourish the nature of man; they are the embodiment of what is right; they supply the channels through which we can understand the Way of Heaven. They form the bond that holds the multitude together. Therefore the wise kings of old knew that the rules of ceremony could not be dispensed with, while the ruin of states, the destruction of families and the punishing of individuals are always preceded by the abandonment of these rules." (5)

It must not be thought, however, that life was either solemn or rigid. The Chinese have a great sense of humor and are masters of the arts of pleasure, from their architecture, painting, sculpture, drama, to the no less important arts of costume and cookery. For was it not written in the Book of Rites, "The nature of man cannot be without pleasure"? It could be better enjoyed when life was ordered and each person knew his place.

The religion which has been so briefly sketched here contains those "great and eternal truths" on which the society and culture were founded and which remained with surprisingly little change for such a long time. Both Chinese and Western scholars are apt to say that the Chinese had no religion; that they had only a moral philosophy or an ethical code. This seems a strange statement to make about a people who believed in a supreme power which was benevolent and all-powerful, whose will for man was goodness and harmony; a people who built a high moral code upon this belief and followed it with unusual faithfulness, and whose year was a cycle of worship.


The words in the Book of Rites about the abandonment of the ceremonies were proved true after the Chou Dynasty had ruled for several centuries. It had been founded by noble men of high vision, but after many generations the descendants of these men enjoyed the power and pleasures of the throne rather than its duties. The very growth and prosperity of the country made their rule more difficult. The feudal lords increased their domains toward the south and the west; the lords of the larger states became far more powerful than the king and spent their time fighting with one another and conquering their smaller neighbors. The Five Relationships and the rules of ceremony were forgotten: brother killed brother; ministers betrayed their masters; and some of the princes sacrificed to Heaven as if they were kings. The last four centuries of the Chou Dynasty, from the seventh to the third centuries B.C., were known as the Time of the Warring States.

It was during this turbulent and unhappy time that the great teacher Confucius was born in the state of Lu, in what is now Shantung, an eastern province of China. He was born in 551 B.C. of an honorable family of the name of Kung. His Chinese title is Kung-fu-tze, or Master Kung, but the Latinized name, Confucius, given him by the first European missionaries, is almost always used outside of China.

He was a serious and studious boy and at fifteen, so he tells us, devoted himself to learning, especially the classic books of History, Poetry, Rites, Music, and the Book of Changes. He loved music; he played the lute and sang. Like all scholars, he wanted to serve in the government of his state, and in his youth he held two positions: one as keeper of provisions, the other as overseer of the pastures. It is said that he attained higher positions, finally being made Minister of Crime (or Justice), and that the ruler of a neighboring state became alarmed for fear that Lu, having such a wise councilor, might become too powerful. Therefore he sent beautiful dancers and horses as a gift to the prince of Lu, who forgot his duties and gave himself to pleasure. Confucius did what a true minister should do: when his master ceased to attend to his duties, he resigned his office. He then became what he was most fitted to be--a great teacher.

He saw with sorrow the war and discord all about him, the neglect of duty and of the rites that had held the country together. He knew that if the ideals and standards of the holy books were put into practice, as the wise founders of the dynasty had done, all would be well again. So he taught the Five Classics, which he knew so well, and added his own wisdom. He gathered these books together, compiled, and edited them. In his time writing was incised on strips of bamboo, bound together with thongs of leather into clumsy but precious books.

Students gathered about him and became his disciples, honoring him as a sage and revering him as a father. He accepted whoever came to him. "I have never refused to teach anyone," he said, "even if he had only a bundle of dried meat as a fee." But he wanted only those who wished and were able to learn. "I do not display the truth to one who is not eager to know it. When I have presented one corner of a subject to anyone and he cannot make out for himself the other three, I do not repeat the lesson." (6) When he found a student asleep during the daytime, he said, "Rotten wood cannot be carved; one cannot build a wall with dung. Why should I even reprove him" (7) He appreciated and loved his earnest disciples, and the relation between them was a close one.

Although he was never given the opportunity to do all that he wanted to do in government, several of his disciples were given important posts, some in Lu, some in neighboring states, where they distinguished themselves. One of them heard that people were saying that he was greater than Confucius. "Let me compare our stature to a wall around a house," he said. "My wall reaches to a man's shoulders; anyone may look over it and see whatever is within. My master's wall is fathoms high; if one cannot find a door and enter it, he cannot know the beauties that lie within; and few find the door." He also heard that the courtier was speaking evil of his master. "It is of no use to do that," he said. "My master cannot be reviled. The talents and virtues of other men are like mounds and hillocks; he is like the sun or the moon, which cannot be stepped over. What harm can anyone do to him?" (8)

Confucius had no new doctrine to preach. "I am a transmitter and not a maker," he said. "I love and believe in the ancient sages." (9) These were the legendary kings and the founders of the Chou Dynasty; it was the wisdom of the Five Classics that he wished to transmit. He was honored in his own state, and his fame spread abroad, but he was never given a position in which he could influence or transform the government as he longed to do. He left Lu, therefore, when he was in his fifties and visited other states, traveling in his carriage and accompanied by some of his followers. He was received hospitably everywhere he went, and his counsel was sought by rulers and statesmen, but nowhere was he asked to take over their government. The feudal princes preferred to go on doing just as they pleased. Disappointed and feeling himself a failure, he returned at last to Lu and died quietly there when he was seventy-two years old. His tomb stands in his native town, close by the splendid temple that was built in his honor and which is guarded by his descendants of the eightieth generation.

He once gave a very brief account of his life: "At fifteen I set my heart on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no doubts; at fifty I understood the Way of Heaven; at sixty I obeyed it; at seventy I could follow my own desires and do no wrong." (10) This was the mark of the sage: that he so completely gave himself to the Tao that it worked through him and everything he did was right with no effort or decision of his own. It would have warmed his heart to know that after his death he was considered the equal of the great men whom he admired so much and that he was ranked as the last of the great sages.

Although he wrote nothing but a brief chronicle of his state, Lu, the sayings and teachings of Confucius were cherished by his disciples and written down by them after he died. They exist in a book called the Analects (or Conversations) and in two short treatises called "The Doctrine of the Mean" and "The Great Learning," which were, in later centuries, added to the Five Classics and equally honored. They are called the Four Books, for another was added, written by Mencius, the greatest follower of Confucius. He says in the first treatise:

"Integrity is the Way of heaven. He who possesses it does what is right without effort and understands without thinking; he naturally and easily embodies the Way. He who chooses what is good and holds fast to it, attains integrity. In order to do this, he must study intensively what is good, inquire about it, think carefully about it, and earnestly practice it.

"Only the man who has complete integrity can fully develop his own nature. If he can develop it fully he can develop that of other men and that of animals and all living things. Therefore he can take part in the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth and is one with them." (11)

Integrity means wholeness, whole-heartedness, completeness. The man of integrity depends on nothing outside himself; people and circumstances cannot harm or disturb his inner security. "The wise man has no doubts; the virtuous man has no anxiety; the brave man has no fear...The wise man is content and composed; the foolish man is full of troubles."

"Is there one rule which a man could live by for his whole life?" asked a student of the Master.

"What you do not want done to yourself do not do to others," answered Confucius. "The good man who wishes to provide for himself will provide for others; if he wishes to better himself, he will better others. This is the underlying principle of my teaching." (12)

These wise words were for the individual. The next consideration, of course, was good government, which the Chinese have always known to be necessary for human happiness and welfare. Confucius held to the old principle: that the example of the ruler was the most important element in government. "The Great Learning" consists of a few succinct paragraphs that contain this teaching.

He says, in effect, that the wise men of old who wished to rule the whole country virtuously first put their own states in order. To do this, they first regulated their own families. In order to do this, they first cultivated their characters. In order to do this, they first set their hearts right. To set their hearts right, they first made their thoughts sincere. To make their thoughts sincere, they first increased their knowledge to the utmost. To increase their knowledge, they investigated the true nature of all things.

When their knowledge was complete, their thoughts were sincere. When their thoughts were sincere, their hearts were set right. When their hearts were set right, they could cultivate their characters. When they had cultivated their characters, they could regulate their families. When their families were regulated, their states were in good order. When their states were in good order, the whole country was made peaceful and happy.

Confucius taught that the character of the individual is the root of all his actions. When the root is cared for, all that springs from it will be good. He did not live to see his great success and the proof of his teaching, but the future glory of his country was founded on the principles that he so urgently taught.


At this same time there lived a man, somewhat older than Confucius, who pointed out the opposite aspect of religion from that which Confucius emphasized. They both believed in the Tao, the Way of Heaven, and that men must live in accord with it; but Lao-tse [pronounced low (as in now)-dze] made the relation with the Tao all-important and said that if men held fast to that and were true to it, all else would follow, and peace and harmony would reign. He scorned learning, rules, and organizations, on which the wise men hitherto had concentrated, and believed in returning to a primitive but spiritual simplicity.

Very little is known about his life. He is supposed to have been born about 600 B.C. and to have served at the royal court as secretary and keeper of the archives. We are not even sure of his name, for the title he is known by means simply "the Old Master." The story goes that in his old age he mounted an ox and rode off into the west and that, when he reached the boundary, the warden begged him to write a book before he disappeared. He did this and left behind him a book of about five thousand characters, much of it in rhymed verses. Then he rode off toward the sunset. Whether this is true or not, it is too good a story to disregard; there are paintings and carvings, in jade and other stones, figures cast in bronze and brass, that show him sitting sideways or astride on his ox, with a scroll in his hand, and it is well to recognize him when one sees him.

A short book remains to us of his sayings, which had a profound influence in China and in other parts of the world. They are very brief, hard to translate and often hard to understand, and yet their gist is clear. (13)

    The way that can be spoken is not the eternal Way;

    The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.

    Heaven and Earth came from that which cannot be named;

    That which is named brought forth the ten thousand things,

        each after its kind.

    Only he who is free from desire can perceive the Inner Essence;

    He who is bound by desire sees only the outer appearance.

    The inner and the outer come from the same source.

    This sameness is the mystery of mysteries, the doorway into

        all mystery.

This sounds more Indian than Chinese, but people are alike all over the world, and the longing for what is unchanging and eternal belongs to them all, in greater or less degree.

Lao-tse says of the Tao:

    The Tao is like an empty vessel that may be drawn from,

        without its ever needing to be refilled.

    It is the base from which Heaven and Earth sprang;

    It is there within us, all the while.

    Draw upon it as you will, it never runs dry.

    To it all things owe their existence and it rejects none;

        yet having produced them it does not take possession of them.

    They all return to it, still not knowing that it is their master.


    Thirty spokes come together to make a wheel;

        but it is the nothingness at the center

        that makes the wheel useful.

    We fashion clay into a pot;

        but it is the hollowness within the pot that makes it useful.

    We pierce the walls of a house to make doors and windows;

        their usefulness depends on the emptiness that they enclose.

    Therefore we profit not only by what is, but by what is not.


    Try to attain to absolute emptiness; hold fast to perfect stillness.
    All things come to flower and fullness and then return to the
        root from which they grew.
    To return to the root is perfect stillness.
    In attaining stillness they fulfill their destiny;
    In turning back they join the Tao.
    To know the Tao is to be enlightened.


    One whose life is based on the Tao may go anywhere

        and never fall a prey to buffalo or tiger;

        in battle he need not fear weapons.

    For the buffalo would find no place to drive in its horns;

        the tiger would find no place to thrust its claws,

        or the weapon its blade.

    And why? Because in such a man there is no place of death.

Lao-tse, too, cared about government and believed, as Confucius did, in the power of example: 

    The Tao never acts, yet through it all things are done.

    If princes and kings possessed it, the ten thousand

        creatures would at once be transformed . . . and so,

        of itself, the whole country would be at rest.

Now this belief is part of the early tradition; Confucius would have agreed heartily. But Lao-tse is very different in the method that he recommends and in the end that he desires.

    When the Tao is forgotten, we have kindness and justice.

    When knowledge and learning appear, we have hypocrisy.

    When the family no longer lives in harmony, we have filial duty and

        devoted parents; when the country is torn with strife and disorder, we

        have loyalty and allegiance . . .


    Give up your wisdom, discard knowledge, and the people will be a

        hundred times better off . . .

    If we do not prize things that are hard to get, there will be no

        more thieves. If we do not display things that arouse desire, the

        hearts of the people remain calm and undisturbed.

    Therefore the sage rules by emptying their hearts and filling their    

        stomachs; he weakens their ambitions and strengthens their

        muscles; he keeps them without knowledge and without desire.

    He governs without action and everything is well regulated.


We shall never know how this sort of government might have worked, for it was never tried. But Lao-tse's words were treasured by many people. Not everyone wanted to live the warm and secure but confined life of the family, and not everyone wanted to serve in the government. There was an adventurous and a vagabond side to the Chinese character, and there were also people who longed for the spiritual experience that can only be had through inner searching and solitary meditation. Such men were encouraged by the sayings of the Old Master and of followers of his; they went off into the beautiful mountains of China or beside rivers and lakes and lived hermit's lives, meditating on the Tao.

It is said of one of them that the prince of a powerful state learned of his wisdom and sent messengers to him, inviting him to become the state's chief minister. "Sirs," was the answer, "have you seen a sacrificial ox? It is fattened with good food and decked with embroidered trappings. But when it is led to slaughter in the temple, would it not gladly change places with any neglected calf? Go away and leave me to enjoy my life in my own way!"

This would have shocked a follower of Confucius. Although the religious beliefs of the two men stemmed from the same root and might have fulfilled each other, Lao-tse providing the spiritual aspect and Confucius the moral and social one, their methods and aims were so different that there were now two teachings instead of one, that of Confucius being always the stronger.

For Lao-tse was true to his own belief and left behind him no rules and no organization at all. "My words are very easy to understand and easy to practice," he said, "but few understand them and few practice them." And few did. But other men, far less wise and far more interested in worldly gain than he was, seized upon his words and used them in ways that he would never have sanctioned. He had said, for example, that the man whose life was based on the Tao need not fear wild animals or weapons of war. This and other statements were made to mean that such a man had supernatural powers of all sorts that enabled him to fly through the air, to heal sickness, to live forever. Magic had a powerful appeal to the Chinese, and the noble religion of Lao-tse became in time one that was mostly concerned with magic, with alchemy, with elixirs that promised immortality. It acquired gods, priests, and temples and was wrongly known as Taoism.

Buddhism, too, although its founder left it highly organized, had been changed and elaborated in ways that would have surprised him. This happens to all religions, because the high and enlightened doctrines of the first teachers must be brought down to the understanding of ordinary people. The difference between the sayings of Lao-tse and the religion that bore his name was very great indeed.


It will be well to say something here about the beliefs of the great majority of the people who were not educated--the many farmers, the skillful artisans, the small merchants, all the people who worked with their hands and provided food and goods for everyone. Both Confucius and Lao-tse, those great and wise men. believed that these people would be quite happy if their lives were secure and comfortable, if they were justly governed and interfered with as little as possible. This was a very enlightened point of view, especially in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. but it was still not enough.

Although they were an important part of the social structure and observed the Five Relationships, the people had only a small part in the national worship. Only the king could worship Heaven and Earth; only the feudal prince or the city magistrate worshiped the mountains and river, the seasons, the soil and the grain. The people made offerings only to their ancestors and to the domestic gods. There was no public worship such as there is in the West, no temples to visit, no priests or monks to teach them. Yet they felt all around them the powers of nature, as their ancestors had done, and they responded to these with sensitive imagination.

They built up a wealth of mythology, of folklore, of fairy tales and ghost stories that would fill more volumes than the Five Classics and the Four Books. To all the spirits of earth and heaven they added goblins and elves and monstrous animals. They also believed in ghosts, for since it was so important to honor and nourish the spirits of one's ancestors, what became of those spirits who had no descendants or whose families neglected or forgot them? They wandered about and worked off their resentment on anyone they could frighten. The ghosts of those who had died tragically were also dangerous: those who had drowned lured people to a watery death; those who had killed themselves tried to make others do so.

One day a man was walking along a road when he was joined by a person dressed in black, who greeted him and said, "Come with me and I will take you to the fairies." He took the man to a lake and showed him, far out on the waters, beautiful palaces and gardens where he could see dancing figures and hear faint music. "Come," said his guide, "Let's join them. Just jump into the water!" The credulous man was about to do so when he heard a voice saying, "Stop! A devil is tempting you." He turned and saw his father's spirit, but his black-gowned companion drove it away. The next thing the foolish man knew he was being pulled out of the water by a passerby and then taken home, having learned, let us hope, a salutary lesson. (14)

Certain animals were believed to have magic powers, especially the fox; he was able to live for hundreds of years and to change into human form. Sometimes he was mischievous, sometimes helpful.

A young man was in love with a girl whose family would not allow him to marry her. He was heartbroken and went away to live in another town. One day his sweetheart, with her maid, came to his door. "My family has relented," she said, "and sent me to you." He was overjoyed; they married and were very happy. Shortly afterward a friend from their old home came by; he was amazed to see the young wife. "But she is at home," he said, "still sad and pale, longing for you. I saw her a few days ago."

When the friend returned home, he told the wife's parents what he had seen, and they were so afraid that people might think that their daughter was living illegally with the young man that they decided to marry her to him at once. So they sent for him, and when he came to their house he saw, to his amazement, the girl he thought he had married. He realized that some trick had been played upon him; but he married her nonetheless. When he went to his bride's room after the ceremony, he found two identical lovely maidens smiling at him. One of them came forward and said, "I am a fox. A long time ago your grandfather was out hunting and wounded me by mistake. He took me home and cared for me until I was healed. I have long wanted to repay his kindness, and now I have done it by bringing about your marriage." With that she vanished. (15)

A young scholar was very fond of the bottle; he usually drank a few cups of wine before going to bed and kept an extra bottle beside him in case of need. One night he woke and realized that someone was in bed with him; he reached out and felt a furry body. He lit a lamp and saw a fox, dead drunk and fast asleep beside him, and the extra bottle was empty. "Aha!" he thought. "A kindred spirit!" and went back to sleep again. In the morning a charming young man stood beside the bed. "I thank you for sparing my life last night," he said. "We foxes can take a human form by an act of will, but if we get drunk we lose our will power and take our own form again." "Do not thank me," said the young man. "Come as often as you like." The fox did come often and helped the scholar in many ways. Because they live in holes, foxes are believed to know about buried treasure. He showed the young man some hidden money and gave him good advice about some shrewd business deals. The scholar became rich and honored; he married and raised a family and the fox became a household pet. (16)

The Taoist priests traded on these easy beliefs and set themselves up as magicians and wonder-workers. A farmer was selling his pears one day in the market when a ragged priest begged him for one of them. The man refused and drove the priest away; but an onlooker took pity on him and bought him a pear. The priest thanked him and ate it, carefully keeping the seeds. "Now you shall eat some of mine," he said. He planted the seeds then and there in the ground and, to the amazement of a crowd that had gathered, a pear tree grew up before their eyes and was shortly covered with fruit. The priest picked and handed round the pears, which were delicious; then he broke off a branch of the little tree and went away. The farmer who had refused him had drawn near and watched with open mouth; but when he went back to his cart, he found that all his pears had vanished and that one of the handles of his cart had been broken off. (17)

It was not only the uneducated who were deceived by these tricks; several people, even an emperor, died of drinking the elixir of immortality, mixed by the priests.


Though the great ceremonies were performed by the rulers, there were a great many holidays and festivals in the course of the year, in which everyone took part, and these were celebrated all over China until very modern times. Some of them were religious, celebrating the seasons: at the New Year a two-week festival was held, ending with the Feast of Lights, when paper lanterns of every shape, size, and color were hung in the houses and the streets; in the spring the graves of the ancestors were visited and cared for. There was a star festival in July and one for the moon in August. In June there were the Dragon Boat races, in memory of a noble minister of the Chou Dynasty who had drowned himself because his king would not listen to his advice; in autumn there was a day for kite-flying, and this was not only a child's game but often needed all of a man's strength and dexterity. On all these occasions the people showed their skills: plays were acted, music was performed; clever acrobats and jugglers did their tricks; all sorts of toys, lanterns, kites, and tempting foods were sold in the streets.

Tonight I stay at the Summit Temple.

Here I could pluck the stars with my hand;

I dare not speak aloud in the silence,

For fear of disturbing the dwellers of Heaven.

        --Li Tai Po



In 221 B.C. the feudal system destroyed itself and the Chou Dynasty came to an end. The largest of the states finally conquered all the others, including the small domain of the last kings of Chou. By putting to death all who opposed him, with their families, its ruler reigned over the whole country and called himself the First Great Emperor. He believed that his dynasty would last for a thousand years. It lasted for only fifteen, but in that short time he unified China, put an end to the feudal system, and created an empire which continued into the present century. But he did it with such cruelty and tyranny that the people rose up against him, led by the bold and enterprising headman of a village.

This man established the great Han Dynasty, which lasted from 220 B.C. to A.D. 202. The early emperors of this dynasty, with the advice of wise ministers, wanted to prevent two things from happening again: another time of civil war, like that of the Warring States, or a tyranny like that of the First Emperor. They were wise enough to return to the early tradition of government that Confucius had taught and to base their rule upon the Classics and the Four Books.

In order to do this, schools and colleges were built: a great university of six colleges in the capital city and schools in all the provinces and all the towns and districts. There had been schools before this, but everything had been disrupted and disordered during the time of the Warring States, and had to be restored. It was done with extraordinary success. Government posts were given to men who passed examinations in the Classics and who were ranked according to the extent of their knowledge and understanding . Character was equally important; a candidate was not sent up from the provinces to be examined in the capital unless he was a good son and observed the ceremonies. Men flocked to the schools, all over the country, and they were gladly employed, for they were needed.

The feudal princes had been replaced under the First Great Emperor, by governors whom he appointed and could control, and this system was followed by the Han emperors. The governors must have their cabinets, secretaries, record-keepers, treasurers, and so forth; so must the magistrates of towns and districts. In the Imperial University there were schools of law, mathematics, and calligraphy (the writing, with brush and ink, of the intricate characters). Teachers were needed, and there was work for anyone who could qualify, from the farmer's son to the emperor's son. Nothing, unfortunately, was done for women. Women' minds develop when men's do, and many a woman must have longed for wider fields than the courtyards of the home that she hardly ever left.

The examination system was elaborated and more carefully organized under the Tang Dynasty, a few centuries after the Han. No human institution always lives up to its own highest standards: there were times of laxity and times of corruption, times when learned and virtuous men had to contend with the intrigues of palace eunuchs; but by and large, the examination system gave China a succession of wise and learned ministers, governors, and lesser magistrates and officials. It gave a firm foundation and continuity to the great dynasties: the Tang, The Sung, the Yuan, the Ming, and the Ching, which was the last. Because of the stability and continuity of the government, the splendid arts and industries of the Chinese could flourish and attain a beauty unsurpassed by any other people.

And what, the reader may ask, has this to do with religion? It has everything to do with it. The first of the Five Relationships is that between ruler and subject; the chief concern of the great sages, who were so highly honored, was good government. Harmony in the state and the family was the Way of Heaven; it was man's contribution to the cosmic harmony as well as the source of his happiness. It was a high ideal and a religious one; philosophy does not command such obedience as this.

In the West it is called Confucianism, for it was Confucius who called his people back to their original beliefs and set the Classics before them as the very laws of life. It is not called by this name in China, but is known as the Scholar's Doctrine, or the Teaching of the Sages, a title that would surely have pleased the Master.


It was during the Han Dynasty, when Confucianism was established so firmly as the national religion, that Buddhism was brought to China. It is said that the Emperor Ming Ti, in the year A.D. 67, dreamed that a golden man with a light around his head appeared to him. This vision impressed him so much that he told his courtiers about it and they said that it must be the Indian god Fo-tu, as the name of Buddha was pronounced in Chinese. Buddhism had been heard of before this, but now the Emperor sent envoys into Central Asia to find out about it; it was impossible at that time to go directly into India. The envoys brought back a Buddhist monk who was followed shortly by a second, for the Buddhists were willing missionaries.

These men began the long and difficult work of translating the Indian books into Chinese. The two languages are as different as languages can be, and the work was very hard. But it was done by Indian monks and Chinese converts; more and more Buddhists came into China, mostly from the kingdoms of central Asia which had adopted the Dharma. Later, Chinese pilgrims made the long, dangerous journey into India itself, to see the holy places and to find more books.

For Buddhism took a strong hold on the Chinese. It filled an emptiness left by their own faith and by Confucius himself. Very little had been said about the condition of life after death; the great mass of the people had only their ancestors and their domestic gods to look after them. They had filled this emptiness, as you know, with a host of ghosts and goblins, with fairy tales and myths, but there was much fear in these beliefs, of homeless ghosts and evil spirits who could lure one to a dreadful death. 

Buddhism offered, first of all, the definite and logical doctrine of reincarnation, the certainty of survival and the assurance that a happy or a tragic future was in one's own hands; for a good life was rewarded and a bad one punished. Although the first monks who came to China may have been of the Hinayana sect, it was the Mahayana that prevailed. If reincarnation seemed wearisome, there was the Pure Land, the paradise of Amitabha, where one could be reborn if one repeated his name (In China, O-mi-to-fu) often enough, or even once at the point of death.

To the fearful it offered the kindly and gracious Bodhisattvas, whose divine lives were devoted to helping and saving all people. Their lovely images were visible and tangible, and stood before very long in the temples that were built as part of every monastery and were open to all people. The temples usually stood in quiet courtyards paved with wide stones and shaded by great trees. Inside, the light of many lamps flickered in the haze of incense and gleamed on the gilded or painted images, which stood or sat, still and serene, holding in their hands the symbols of blessing or of teaching. The monks chanted to the sound of gongs and cymbals, and the monastery bells were heard over the busy streets or the countryside. There had been no such buildings before.

The most beloved of the Bodhisattvas was Kuan-yin, who was originally an Indian god but who changed his sex in China and became the Goddess of Mercy. This change mattered very little, because in his long spiritual pilgrimage the Bodhisattva had often been born as a woman, and was now, like the angels, beyond the condition of sex. But the Chinese pictured her as a woman and made many images and paintings of her. She would save people from any danger, and women prayed to her for sons. Although prayers had always been offered at sacrifices, there had never been a being in human form to whom anyone could kneel and confide his private sorrows and pray for help.

Another much-loved Bodhisattva (shortened to Pu-sa in China) is Ti-tsang, whose name means, literally, "Earth-Treasury," because he is as firm and trustworthy as the earth and has in his heart a treasure of help and compassion. He is represented as a monk with shaven head, carrying in his right hand a staff whose end is filled with rings that tinkle as he walks, to warn any small creatures on the path to move away lest they be stepped on. In his left hand he holds a shining jewel. His chief concern is to look after people who have been sent to hell and to free them if possible. Since the Mahayana had offered a paradise, a hell, too, had to be imagined for those who had been wicked and who had not repented and called upon Amitabha. Hell was not everlasting, for everything and everyone was moving toward Buddhahood; it was more like the Western idea of purgatory, for, dreadful as the torments were, when the evil deeds had been expiated, the sufferer was reborn into the world to continue his spiritual journey.

If a man or woman, chastened by the torments he was undergoing, called upon Ti-tsang, he would come, strike open the gates of hell with his staff, flood the darkness with the light of his uplifted jewel, and lead the sinner out to a better life. He was the special protector of children who had died.

These charming figures and their stories were for those who could not understand the higher doctrines of Buddhism, just as the innumerable gods of India are for those who are not yet able to look within themselves for the true Self.


The Chinese added to the many schools of Buddhism a new school, whose name reveals its history. Dhyana is the Indian word for meditation; it was changed in China to Chan and in Japan to Zen, which is now the best-known title of this sect.

Meditation had been known in India from the earliest times, but not in China. The Taoists were the first to go off by themselves and to become hermits. There was much in the Mahayana that was like the true Taoism. Lao-tse had spoken of the Tao as emptiness: "The Tao is like an empty vessel that may be drawn from without ever needing to be refilled." This might have been said by a Mahayanist whose word for the Infinite was the Void.

Zen was a combination of Buddhism and Taoism and the common sense and humor of the Chinese. They were not so much inclined as the Indians to spend a lifetime, still less many lifetimes, in strenuous metal discipline. Zen is known as the "sudden" school. The Mahayana taught that every living creature possessed the Buddha nature. If so, why strive after it? "Look into your own heart: you are Buddha." The great truth of life must simply be realized and it can be realized at any moment, if one is able to do so. The Buddha nature is what the Hindus call the Self: it is the Spirit, that which unites all things. It is One. 

Therefore, the Zen masters taught, you must never think in relative terms, as if there were two. You cannot seek for enlightenment or long for it, for then there are two: you who seek and that which is sought; you who long and that which is longed for. Seeking enlightenment was called "riding an ox in search of an ox." Books are of no use; speech is of no use; study and knowledge merely hinder you. You must just go about your daily business, eating, working, sleeping, keeping in mind that you and everything in the universe are in truth One. Then suddenly, one day, you will realize it and your whole life will be different. You will still eat, work, and sleep, but your heart will be at peace and your life filled with joy and freedom. You will have awakened.

While books and even words were not valued in the Zen monastery, the teacher was; for realization was an intuitive act and could be transmitted to a disciple from a wise teacher, who knew just when the disciple was ready for it. Often a shock would send the student over the edge, and there are many records of the methods used by Zen teachers to bring their students to awakening.

Zennists claim that the Buddha was the first teacher of their method. One day he was sitting with his disciples at the time when he usually taught them. He had been given a flower; he held it up and said not a word. Most of the monks waited for him to speak; but one of them smiled. It was to this one that the Buddha, when he died, gave his cloak and his begging bowl, thus making him the head of the brotherhood.

The Zen teacher often wanted to shake the students out of their customary channel of thoughts. "Look at that stone," he might say. "Is it inside or outside your mind?" "What was your original face, before you were born?" A satisfactory answer must be found for these riddles, and it was not easily found. Sometimes it was the student who questioned. "How can I be free?" asked one. "Who binds you?" answered the teacher. "No one binds me." "Then why do you want to be free?" and that was enough. Sometimes when a student asked a question, the master merely shouted at him or struck him in order to give him the final shock.

Even the monks could teach one another. One Zen monk went to see another who lived in a lonely hermitage. While they were talking, a tiger growled nearby. The visitor jumped. "I see it is still with you," remarked the hermit, whose name was Fa-yung. He meant, of course, that the other still feared the animal and felt separate from it. A little later, when his host was absent, the visitor wrote the name of Buddha on the rock where Fa-yung was wont to sit. When Fa-yung came out again, he saw the holy name and hesitated to sit down upon it. "Ah!" said his guest, "I see it is still with you!" and Fa-yung was further awakened. (18)

Although Zen is called the sudden school, it must never be thought that it is a shortcut or an easy way to enlightenment. The teacher does not often administer these shocks to anyone who has not been prepared by years of discipline and meditation. This school and the more "gradual" schools of Buddhism have been compared to the climbing of a steep mountain. One way is to go back and forth on a zigzag , ever-rising path; another is to go straight up to the summit. The short, straight path is not the easier way.

The Zen school and the Pure Land school, which was so very different, became the two most popular Buddhist sects and lasted after the others had declined.

It is too clear and so it is hard to see.

A fool once searched for a fire with a lighted lantern;

Had he known what fire is,

He could have cooked his rice much sooner.

        --Zen poem

China, then, from the early centuries had three religions. Confucianism was always the most important, and Buddhism was next. Buddhism was at its height during the great Tang Dynasty; but during the Sung Dynasty (960 to 1280), which followed the Tang, there was a revival of Confucianism led by a group of scholars, the most brilliant being Chu Hsi (pronounced shee), who wrote many books about it. The traditional beliefs had been enriched both by Buddhism and the sayings of Lao-tse. Chu Hsi writes:

    The Great Unity is simply what is highest of all, beyond which nothing 

    can be. It is the most high, most spiritual, most mysterious, surpassing

    everything . . . In regard to Heaven and Earth, the Great Unity is in

    Heaven and Earth. In regard to the ten thousand things, it is in them

    too . . . It is in each individual in its entirety, undivided. It is like the

    moon, that is not divided although it is reflected in rivers and lakes and

    is everywhere visible.

The firm foundation of Confucianism, restated by the Sung scholars, brought prosperity and stability to China. Dynasties rose and fell, but there were no more long intervals of disunion like those at the end of the Chou or the Han dynasties. Even when the country was conquered by the Tatars there was no break in the continuity of its culture.

It was during the reign of the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan, grandson of the terrible Jenghiz, that the Polo brothers of Venice, with young Marco, arrived after a two-year journey across Asia. They could hardly believe their eyes as they looked upon the beauty and splendor of China, which at that time far surpassed any other country in the arts of civilization. In his subsequent book, Marco also praises the traditional way of life that he witnessed:

    They bow to each other with cheerful faces and great politeness; they

    behave like gentlemen and eat very properly. They show great respect

    for their parents. You hear no feuds or noisy quarrels; in their business

    dealings they are honest and truthful and there is so much good will and

    neighborly feeling that you would think that all the people on one street

    were of the same family. They treat the foreigners who visit them with

    great cordiality, giving them every help and advice in their business.



The encounter of the Eastern nations with the West has been a profoundly disturbing and difficult experience for them and especially for China.

After the Polos returned to Venice, there was a long time when no Europeans appeared in the East. At the end of the fifteenth century the Portuguese made the desperate journey around Africa by sea, in search of trade. They went first to India, but soon discovered the wealth of China and visited its ports, followed by the Dutch and the French. The Europeans had a great advantage over other peoples; they had developed the use of firearms and could defeat anyone who did not use those deadly weapons. The trade with China was so profitable that, during the nineteenth century, more and more Westerners came, although the Chinese tried to keep them out. The foreigners made more and more demands, and when these were refused, they made war. By 1920 China was in danger of being divided among four or five Western nations.

It was not only material force that threatened the whole culture of China; it was also the ideas and accomplishments of the West that invaded and changed it. The facts of science and the power of machinery could not be denied; the ideas of democracy and of individual freedom were also new and exciting. There were men in China who eagerly accepted these new ways of living and who realized that their country must adapt itself to great changes or else be conquered. Unfortunately, an old and dying dynasty was still in power; it was headed by an ignorant and headstrong woman, the Empress Dowager, who opposed all change and was able to put to death or to banish all who favored it. 

The dynasty was overthrown in 1911 by a revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, who was so far influenced by Western ideas that he tried to set up a republic, instead of a new dynasty. This was impossible in a country that had been an empire for four or five thousand years and was already deeply upset and poor as a result of foreign wars. China was in turmoil for the next forty years.

Some of the men who were trying to save their country had gone to Europe and America and had read widely about different theories of government, including Communism. The empire had failed; the republic had failed. They believed that only Communism, with its stern discipline, its ruthless methods, its intense industrialization, and its centralized power, could cope with the desperate condition their people were in. They set themselves up against the republicans, and civil war followed. The Communists won in 1949 and have been in power ever since.

This victory brought to an end the traditional religion and culture of China. Already, before the revolution of 1911, Western ideas were undermining the family system. Young people wanted their own homes when they married; young men and women wanted to choose whom they should marry and what work they would do. The family was the very foundation of society, and when it crumbled much else fell with it. The old system of government was abandoned in 1911. These were the two strong pillars of Confucianism. Communism speeded the overthrow of the old beliefs. Communists care very much for the welfare of the people, but they believe that it can be accomplished best by scientific methods and human effort; they discourage all religious belief. They have brought unity and increased prosperity to China and have restored its pride and power. But the religion of Confucius and the culture which it created have come to an end. A century is a short time in China's history; the fraction of a century still less. No one knows what remains of their long and rich tradition in the hearts and minds of the people; no one knows what may happen in the future. 


There remains in Peking, as evidence of the former faith, one of the most beautiful places of worship in the world, the Altar of Heaven. It is a series of three concentric, circular terraces of white marble, each one surrounded with a balustrade of the same stone. It is wide open to the sky, like the first simple altar raised by the mythical emperor, Fu Hi. Each terrace has four flights of nine steps, leading from the north, south, east, and west. Each stone is laid with meaning and purpose; the topmost terrace is paved with nine circles of marble stones which form multiples of nine, the outermost circle having eighty-one stones. The altar is surrounded by a low circular wall, pierced at each of the four cardinal points by three marble gates. Beyond this is a square wall with similar gates, and the whole is embedded in a great park of fine old trees.

The Altar of Heaven, in Peking.
(Dimitri Kessel: Life Magazine © 1955 Time, Inc.)

Here, in the cold, dark hours before the dawn of the winter solstice, the reigning emperor came to make his offerings to Heaven, to his immediate ancestors, and to the powers of the visible heaven: the sun, moon, and planets, the rain and wind and clouds. There were no symbols of deity except the tall tablets inscribed with the names of each one. These were placed on the topmost terrace, and there the emperor prostrated himself, giving thanks for the blessings of the past year and praying for the coming one. If he was a worthy ruler, he interceded for all the people, taking their sins upon himself, for he was the One Man, the mediator between Heaven and man. His ministers stood, each in his place, on the lower terraces, and the scene was lighted by great lanterns of translucent horn.

Just north of the altar is a small temple where the sacred tablets and other implements of ceremony were kept. Beyond that, at the end of a wide, straight avenue, is the beautiful building usually called the Temple of Heaven, but more correctly the Temple of Prayer for the Year, where, in the spring, the emperor prayed for a fruitful and happy year. It stands upon three tiers of marble terraces and has three roofs of blue tiles that rise above the surrounding trees.

The whole compound is magnificently simple and beautiful, for it was laid out in accord with the deepest conviction and purpose of the people of China: to live, in every detail of life, in harmony with the Way of Heaven.


In the spring

The foliage of the willow tree

Sweeps down like long strands of hair.

In summer, the moon

Shines more softly in the sky.

In autumn the flowers of the cinnamon tree

Are white.

In winter, we recite poetry

Around the lamp.

I am very satisfied to be alive.

Sometimes, looking at a stone

Or listening to the wind

Contents me.


     --Chang Kyu Ling



1. Thomas Taylor Meadows. The Chinese and their Rebellions, London, Smith , Elder and company, 1856, p. 384.
2. Shu King (The Book of History), The Chinese Classics, part V, book I, section 2.
3. Ibid., part II, book IV, section 1.
4. Ibid., part IV, book VIII, section 1.
5. Li Ki (The Book of Rites,) The Chinese Classics, book VI, section 4, passim.
6. Analects of Confucius, book VII, 1.
7. Ibid, book V, 9.
8. Ibid, book XIX. 23 and 24.
9. Ibid, book VII. 1.
10. Ibid, book II, 4.
11. Doctrine of the Mean, XX, 18 ff, and XXII.
12. Analects of Confucius, book XIV, 30.
13. The quotations from the following pages are from the Tao Teh Ching (or King) by Lao-tse. Many translations have been made of this book; the writer has used several different ones. See "Books for Further Reading."
14. G. Willoughby-Meade, Chinese Ghouls and Goblins, New York, Stokes, 1926, pp. 17-18.
15. Valentine R. Burkhardt, Chinese Creeds and Customs, Hong Kong, South China Morning Post, 1956, p. 51.
16. G. Willoughby-Meade, op. cit., pp. 130-131.
17. Ibid., p. 51-52.
18. Alan Watts, The Way of Zen (Vintage Books, 1956), pp. 89-90.

The poem "The blind musicians ..." is from The Book of Songs, translated by Arthur Waley (New York: Grove Press, 1960). Li Tai Po's "Tonight I stay at the Summit Temple..." and Chang Kyu Ling's "In the Spring..." are from The Lost Flute, edited by T. Fisher (London: Unwin, 1923). The Zen poem "It is too clear and so it is hard to see..." is from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Anchor Book).


Seeger, Eastern Religions, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 103-155; Photos: Lao-tse riding on a water buffalo appears on p. 129; The Altar of Heaven, in Peking appears on p.152.