Chinese Traditions in a Christian Looking Glass
I was born in a small city called Taiyuan in the northern part of China. There, I spent my first sixteen years of life. Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, I was immersed in the culture and practice of rituals and customs stemming from Ancient Chinese civilizations. I never truly realized how many of these practices I had been accustomed to until three years ago when I came to the United States and had to be reminded from time to time over the phone of traditions that had once been second nature to me. I was worried that, without a deeper understanding of the greater meanings behind those traditions, they would become meaningless practices that I would easily forget as I gradually got more and more tuned into the American way of life.
With the fear of losing my cultural identity, I embarked on an intellectual quest to re-examine my own cultural roots. My views on the Chinese religions and customs then evolved over the next three years. The main shift originated from my change in perspective from agnostic to Christian that gradually took place after I came to the U.S. for high school. The high school I attended was a private Christian school where the students were required to take a Bible course every year. I started off not knowing anything about Christianity, and when I first learned about the sacrificial rituals in the Old Testament, I felt that they sounded eerily similar to the Chinese rituals. Thus, I had a similar, ambivalent reaction to the Christian faith as I did for the Chinese religions. I thought Christianity was the same story spoken by a different tongue: if you want this, you do as I say, and then you will have it. Religion was analogous to an exchange of conditions with a deity so that our own wishes might be fulfilled. However, through reading the Bible and praying, I saw the difference offered through Christianity, and the promise of redemption through Jesus. What God revealed to me was astounding, and what I was able to see through Christianity was life-changing. I encountered Christ, and in January of 2015, I converted to Christianity.
Yet I still had questions. One that particularly persisted was why the ancient Chinese and the Hebrews in the Old Testament seemed to take many similar approaches with regards to communication with the divine. Was there something the ancient Chinese civilizations understood about communicating with God? Had I written them off too quickly? These questions led me to investigate the relationship between prayer and sacrifice in both the Ancient Chinese and Biblical traditions. I found that they shared a common understanding that a sacrifice was needed in order to communicate with the divine and they both often utilized intermediaries to facilitate the communication between the divine and the rest of the people. Yet despite these similarities, the gospels provide a crucial difference in the way that Christians can approach prayer that helped affirm my faith in Christ.
Since the Shang Dynasty (c. 1765-c. 1122 B.C.), historical evidence has shown that the Chinese people had started to communicate with the divine by means of offering and sacrifice. The most official and solemn sacrifice was the Border Sacrifice, the annual national sacrifice ceremony to Shang Di, the Lord on High, at the time of the winter solstice. It had been one of the most important rituals throughout ancient Chinese history until the end of the last dynasty in 1911. In this ceremony alone, I discovered several ways in which the Chinese and the Hebrew traditions are similar, two of which are particularly notable.
The first parallel between the ancient Chinese and Hebrew traditions of communicating with the divine is the necessity of offering a sacrifice first. During the Border Sacrifice ceremony, the Chinese emperors would offer sacrifices, including food and treasures of the highest quality. Some examples are unblemished animals, fine jade objects, silk fabrics, and blood. The strictness of the offerings and sacrifice is very similar to what God asked from the Hebrews in Exodus:
Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.
Both the Hebrews and the ancient Chinese knew the importance of preparing the sacrifice just right so that their God would be appeased and they would be able to pray to Him.
The second similarity is that both the Chinese and Hebrew traditions utilize intermediary parties to facilitate communication with the divine. For the Israelites, the priests were the mediators between God and man. They were called the “ministers of the LORD” in the book of Joel. For the ancient Chinese people, the emperors were considered the most sacred individuals, responsible for offering the sacrifices and praying. They called themselves ‘Tianzi,’ which means the son heaven or the most supreme. Similar to the Hebrew priests who were required to be purified in order to perform their duties in the tabernacles, the Chinese emperors would start fasting three days before the ceremony so that they could be pure and acceptable physically and spiritually in front of Shang Di. The emperors, though the most powerful and highest in status, had to lower themselves in the presence of Shang Di so that they could address the nation’s desires and needs, such as good harvest and favorable weather.
These similarities helped me see a demonstration of what is stated in Paul’s addresses to the Areopagus people in Acts:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth . . . gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us . . . 
As the ancient Chinese explored the existence of deities, they showed a strong desire and a desperate need for a being higher than themselves. The fact that they attempted communication with the divine in a similar manner as the Hebrews shows their hope to “feel their way” toward God. While I had previously viewed them as superficial rites or means of feudal control, I can now see the greater meaning behind my Chinese traditions as an attempt to seek God. The ancient Chinese not only had the common understanding that there were prerequisites and rituals that needed to be followed to ensure their prayers were heard by a more supreme being, but also they recognized the validity of a mediator who had to be pure in both the body and the soul.
However, despite the values I recognized in the ancient Chinese practices, the distinctions between the two belief systems are clear. A very important distinction is the way they discerned the will of the divine. While the ancient Chinese interpreted divine will based on general revelation—what they were able to see with their eyes— the Hebrews in the Old Testament often heard directly from God Himself. Throughout the Old Testament, God gave out instructions to the Hebrews in different ways. Not only did He reveal Himself through nature, but also He gave instruction to Joseph in his dreams and talked to Moses through a burning bush. He made the covenant with Abraham and He gave them the Ten Commandments clearly outlining the rules. The Hebrews were able to know God through a much more direct way—Special Revelation. They heard the unmistakable voice of God, while the ancient Chinese often struggled to interpret ambiguous signs from nature. A common way for the ancient Chinese people to know Shang Di’s will was through observing and responding to natural events. Most of the time in the Shang Dynasty, the emperors and priests would consult oracle bones for divination, asking for instruction about the future based on physical patterns observed on the bones. Thus, to the ancient Chinese, praying to the divine was never like building an interactive relationship. Though the ancient Chinese followed a way of communicating with their gods, there was no guaranteed way of knowing what they were saying back. As a result, the god or the various gods they worshipped turned out to be just idols they created. The ancient Chinese were mistaken in their conception of who God is.
The most important difference between these two religions and Christianity is the promise offered through Jesus Christ in the New Testament. It is the promise that gives all humanity, regardless of cultural differences, the hope to build a personal relationship with God through prayer. In 1 Timothy, Paul writes, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” Though the ancient Chinese had a desire for a higher being and prayed consistently for thousands of years in a respectful and solemn way, without belief in the one true God—who became the ultimate sacrifice that bridged the gap between us—there was no way for them to hear back.
Through tracing back to the origins and purposes of prayers and sacrifices, I better understood the meaning and reasoning behind Chinese traditions, but found a gap in the communication between the people and God that could only be overcome through Christ. Now with a Christian perspective, I am able not only to appreciate my cultural roots more, but also, more importantly, to enjoy the meaningful relationship with God enabled by personal prayers.
1 Thong, Chan Kei., and Charlene Fu. Faith of Our Fathers: Discovering God in Ancient China, Xian Xian Zhi Xin. Singapore: Imprint Edition, 2007, 116.
2 Exodus 12:5–6 ESV.
3 Joel 1:9; 2:17. 4 Leviticus 16:1–5.
5 Thong, Chan Kei., and Charlene Fu. Faith of Our Fathers: Discovering God in Ancient China, Xian Xian Zhi Xin. Singapore: IMprint Edition, 2007, 121.
6 Ibid., 116.
7 Acts 17:24–27.
8 Exodus 3.
9 Genesis 17; Exodus 20:1–17.
10 Herbert Plutschow, “Archaic Chinese Sacrificial Practices in the Light of Generative Anthropology,” UCLA, Accessed 26 Mar 2016. 11 1 Timothy 2:5–6.
Lina Tian (SEAS ’19) was born and raised in Taiyuan, northern China. After immigrating to the U.S. in November of 2012, she became a Christian at 3:48 pm on January 16th, 2015. She loves China a little more than she loves America, and she spends most of her free time pondering the meaning of life.Tags: agnostic, Chinese, culture, ethnicity, history, Judaism, prayer, race