The TT Tsui collection of Chinese ceramics
Spiritual Beliefs in Ancient China
Song Dynasty Head of the Buddha 906–1100 limestone Gift to the National Collection of Asian Art from Dr TT Tsui LLD JP, of the Tsui Art Foundation, HK, through the National Gallery of Australia Foundation 1995 more detail
Buddhist philosophy centres around cycles of rebirth. Buddhists aim to earn merit in their current life with the ultimate aim of attaining Enlightenment – freedom from human suffering and desires. Buddhism was introduced to China around the 1st century BC. In order to make the teachings understandable to the predominantly Daoist Chinese, Buddhist monks used Daoist terms to describe Buddhists concepts. Buddhist saints or arhats became Immortals, while achieving Enlightenment was the equivalent of attaining the 'Dao' or the Way.
The Buddhist idea of a single soul which was continually reborn until Buddhahood was attained was unacceptable to the Chinese who believed in the eternal life of individual souls. To overcome this major philosophical difference, the Buddhist monks taught that Enlightenment could be attained in one lifetime. Therefore, when souls were judged by the Daoist god who resided in the sacred eastern mountain of Taishan, the gathering place for all dead souls, the spirit was either condemned to the hells of the underworld or rewarded by being reborn as a lotus in the Western Paradise, the domain of Amitabha Buddha. Such compromises allowed Buddhism to become integrated into the existing belief systems.
Confucius's (c.551–479 BC) teachings were a philosophy for life rather than a religious movement. He taught that man is inherently good and the way to achieve a harmonious society was through respect and obedience. If rulers were moral, upright citizens, the rest of the populace would follow this example.
This basic precept developed into a codified system of social order. On a broad scale upper classes were to be obeyed by those below and each stratum of society had obligations to fulfil.
This enabled the Chinese court and administration to gain central control over all of China. On an individual level, the philosophy meant respect of the younger for the elder and the elder for the ancestors. Confucianism had a marked impact on burial practice. In a philosophy where honour and respect for humanity is central, human sacrifice was not acceptable.
The formal teachings of Daoism are based on the philosophies of Laozu, an historical figure believed to have lived in the 6th century BC. The Dao or the Way, is the central concept and refers to the passage from the mortal state, where we are limited by the natural world, to the afterlife, a realm of Immortal beings and limitless possibilities. In practice, Daoism embraces nature and its mysteries.
Alchemy and shamanism, the power of talismans and superstitious ritual all have a place in Daoist practice, often with the goal of achieving immortality. Many ancient folk rituals and beliefs came to be incorporated into Daoism, perhaps one of the most significant being the belief in the need to keep the body whole after death. This enabled the spirit to move between Heaven and the earthly world. The tomb was then treated as a 'home' for the spirit and a place where the living could communicate with the dead.