- In Search of Personal Welfare: A View of Ancient Chinese Religion
In Mu-chou Poo's new book, In Search of Personal Welfare: A View of Ancient Chinese Religion, the author argues that "by studying relatively 'ordinary' factors, one reaches the basic stratum of the religious mentality of everyday, private life" (p. 3). Poo describes the religious mentality of ancient China at its most fundamental level as being based on a concern for personal welfare and personal access to mantic knowledge. His book investigates broadly shared religious beliefs and practices from China's earliest period up through the Han dynasty, taking into account not just the yearly religious cycle of the common people, but also the relationship between official and local cults.
Poo begins with a discussion of archaeological evidence from the late Neolithic period and posits three levels in the development of religious expression in China. The first, appearing perhaps in the late Neolithic and certainly in Shang times, was a form of religious expression directed toward ancestors and nature deities that was divided according to the richness of ritual acts and distinctions derived from an increasingly [End Page 627] stratified society. The second level of religious expression, embraced by the ruling elite of the early Zhou and closely related to agricultural cycles, posited the idea of a moral Heaven that benefited the ruler and the entire state. The third, propounded by intellectuals of the Eastern Zhou, stressed personal piety toward a supreme being, but with little stress on material gain. Despite this threefold development, Poo points out the existence of a more fundamental religious mentality that extended from court to commoner, typified by its emphasis on gaining personal protection from evil spirits and establishing contact with benevolent spirits. Magic, mantic techniques, shamanic rites, and prayers were all utilized toward these ends. As Poo states, "The important matter was propitiation, not where or how the powers came from, or why the powers existed at all" (p. 207). Poo also argues that propitiation of extra-human powers and the use of efficacious apotropaic techniques mattered more than moral behavior, and reliance on these techniques resulted in a confidence that extra-human powers could be successfully dealt with before death. The central theme of religious beliefs in early China was therefore the search for personal welfare: to seek happiness and avoid misfortune.
Poo has used a rich array of sources—traditionally transmitted texts as well as recently excavated archaeological texts and artifacts—to examine topics such as divination, exorcism, rishu or "daybooks," immortality, apotheosis, and the netherworld. Poo makes judicious use of the highly limited sources concerning the religious practices of ordinary individuals in early China, though these sources are far more numerous than one might imagine. Given these limitations, Poo's study is highly ambitious and raises questions that must be considered if our view of early China is not to be hopelessly skewed. Poo's reconstruction of the religious practices of the common people is moreover an important contribution to the study of religion in early China in that it helps correct the tendency to represent elite Eastern Zhou culture as the pervasive culture of all periods of early China. [End Page 628]