Chinese Belief Systems

exhibit case showing artifacts and photos


China's history includes a wide variety of belief systems that flowed from one into another -- apparent contradictions were simply accepted. Yet, religions that required a belief in a personal creator (such as Christianity or Islam) were harder for the Chinese to embrace than one of an unbroken line of family relationships stretching back to the past.

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wooden plaque
Confucius was a scholar (551-479 BC) who searched for the fundamental principles of social order and harmony. He wandered from court to court attempting to convince rulers of the right way to govern, as well as employing scholars to study the classics. After his lifetime, Confucius became revered as a divine being. Followers of Confucianism studied The Six Arts, and valued tradition, ritual, parental devotion, and respect for wisdom, virtue, culture, and ancestry.
The Six Arts - Carved wooden plaque depicts the Six Arts taught by Confucius: ceremony, music, archery, horsemanship, calligraphy, and divination.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York



buddha statue
The historical Buddha lived in India about the same time as Confucius (551-479 BC). Chinese Buddhists do not regard him as the "one god," but rather the primary spiritual leader among many other divine Buddhas. Other leaders included bodhisattvas, who were compassionate "potential Buddhas" who postponed their own salvation so they could help living man find the true path.
Buddhists believe that through proper living and "karma" (the sum of past lives or reincarnation), the soul can be released from suffering. Once freed from material things, man can achieve the state of "nirvana" which abandons the final illusion that an individual is a true entity.

Buddha Statue - sculpted in bronze. Buddha is seated with crossed legs, a cape over his shoulder and wears an elaborate headdress. A small cup is in his left hand; his right hand is raised in the "teaching" position. This Buddha has characteristic Hebrew features, and depicts one of the lost tribes of Israel who wandered into China and adopted local religion and culture.
-- Artifact on loan courtesy of the Putnam Museum of History and Science, Davenport, Iowa



Taoism (or Daoism) proclaims the virtue of individuality but not the hierarchy of man, accepting humans to be merely one part of nature. The tao (way or path) is a philosophy and way of life more than a religion. Taoists can reach eternal life through the study and understanding of nature's secret processes. Taoist symbols, such as the fan, are attributes of the Eight Immortals who, as a group, represent Taoism, transmutation and happiness. 

The Eight Immortals - glazed porcelain figurines who represent Taoism.
Artifacts on loan courtesy of the Putnam Museum of History and Science, Davenport IA



Ancestor Worship
The Chinese believed in a great unbroken stream of life, and that ancestral spirits held mysterious powers that could greatly influence the welfare of the living. One reason that male children were very important to the Chinese people is their belief that only people with sons could become gods after death.
carved jade figure
white porcelain statue

Female figure - carved of nephrite (type of jade), Qing Dynasty 1644-1911. Gift of Owen and Leone Elliot.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City, Iowa

"Kuan Yin" - porcelain statue of oriental female, possibly a goddess, in a standing position. White glaze with
beads on shoulders and a narrow scrolling stole.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Brunnier Gallery, Iowa State University-University Museums, Ames, Iowa



Household Gods
kitchen gods poster
Each Chinese household hosted numerous gods, such as the stove god, the door gods, the property god, the well god, etc. On New Year's Festival, the god of the household stove - who had spied on family members all year - rose up to heaven to report his observations.

Poster - Chinese kitchen gods
Artifact on loan, courtesy of the Yale Divinity School Library, New Haven, Connecticut



vies of pagoda roof through moon gate
Nearly everything on the Chinese earth, in the sky, and under the water represented something else, whether that would be an idea, an emotion, or a human trait. Man-made objects were also symbolic. The upturned roof was believed to prevent evil spirits from landing on the building, while ceramic figures perched on the building's peak watched for enemies. The moongate framed the ideal Chinese garden that represented the yin-yang balance of nature.


fu dogs
New Year's Dragonhead Mask - lacquered and gilt wood with a hinged jaw. Also the symbol of emperors, dragons symbolized life-giving rain, wisdom, and divine power.
--Artifact on loan, courtesy of the Octagon Center for the Arts, Ames, Iowa
Fu Dogs - carved marble Chinese lions unearthed from an ancient tomb, approximately 2,000 years old and possibly from the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Chinese Fu dogs were mythical beasts resembling lions that would protect humans from harm. Often a pair of Fu dogs were placed at temple gates and entrances to tombs. This pair was a gift to President Truman who used them as bookends. The Chinese lion is also sacred to Buddhism.
--Artifact on loan, courtesy of the Harry Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri



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