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The Religious System of China. Volume IV

Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du texte de l'ouvrage de Johann Jacob Maria de Groot, The Religious System of China. its ancient forms, evolution, history and present aspect. Manners, customs and social institutions connected therewith. Volume IV : The Soul and Ancestral Worship : The Soul in Philosophy and Folk-Conception. Édition originale, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 464 pages + illustrations. Réimpression : Literature House, Ltd, Taipei, Taiwan, 1964. Une édition réalisée par Pierre Palpant, bénévole, Paris.


LEIDEN, August 1901.

As we set forth in the General Preface to this work, the Second Book will be devoted to the Soul, that is to say, to the ideas of the nature and characteristics of souls, the ways in which they are thought to manifest themselves or their influence, and to work on human life and society, as also to the main part of the practices and usages born from the belief in their existence and power. It will, in other words, he a Book on Animism, comprising Spirit-lore and Demonology, Exorcism and Divination, treating also of Spiritism and Fetichism, as they manifest themselves by the worship of deceased parents and ancestors in the family-circle, on their graves, and in temples. It will at the same time become an introduction to the principles and chief features of Taoism, this system having evolved in the main from the general ideas concerning souls.

Pursuing the method adopted in our First Book, we shall build up our Second as much as possible from Chinese texts, thus letting, so to say, the Chinese themselves compose it. This method is, we think, in general the best for ethnographical research among any nation that possesses a literature, as it may ensure the highest attainable degree of correctness in tracing its ideas and the motives of its doings, it being in his writings that man expresses spontaneously his thoughts and beliefs. Besides, the writings of a people are the only authentic sources from which its culture may be studied through its historical phases, and thus pages may be collected for the general history of the civilisation of mankind. which to write is, we dare say, the highest aim and object of scientific Ethnography. Ethnography is hardly anything if not historical.

Since the publication of our First Book some scholars have openly scorned our historical method. They have declared that it embroils the different phases through which East-Asian culture has moved in the course of time, giving the medley as an image of the actual state of things. To these objections we must respond that we cannot see how there can possibly be any question of an embroilment of times and phases where, as in our work, at every quotation the source drawn from is honestly mentioned, and the time when this source was written rendered traceable through an appended list of the works quoted. But still, those censurers fail to see that our Chinese material showing the prevalence of the present ideas and customs in earlier times, and often also their origin, teaches us at every moment that in China’s civilization there cannot even be much question of phases, the manners and customs, religious and social institutions of the past being there, so far as may be ascertained by means of books, so much like those of more modern times and the present day, as to almost enforce the conclusion that they have hardly ever undergone any change at all. Things may have developed in China, but nothing there has changed ; this fact the present Book will make true again by a great number of instances.

Indeed, more perfectly than anywhere else in this world, are Religion, Superstition and Custom in China pictures of the past. Her literature may be regarded as the chief creator of this phenomenon. Inseparably combined, as everywhere in the heathen parts of the world they are, Religion, Superstition and Custom have, in truth, been delivered in China from age to age by tradition ; but this tradition was always guided by books in which it was written down, and the oldest of which were always the most esteemed. It was the books that, merely describing them, in fact petrified them, keeping them also remarkably free from novelty, which, in Chinese civilized opinion, always is corruption. Hence it is that, in describing China’s Religion, Superstition and Custom in their history and present aspect, those same books are necessarily to be our guides ; hence also they are to lead us in reviewing the ideas relating to souls, spirits and devils, which form the dominant element in the wide field of Animism. Autopsy and hearsay here become matters of secondary importance.

Studying Animism, and in particular the ideas and conceptions it includes, naturally comes in the main to a study of myth and fable about spirits and the spirit-world. While working in China, we collected a great number of ghost-tales from the lips of the people ; but finding them afterwards by little and little in print, in versions certainly more reliable and enabling us somewhat to make out in how far they existed in past times, we have had to consign most of that hearsay evidence to the paper-basket. From such written myth and marvel the reader will find this Book for the greater part composed ; but that material is no myth and marvel in Chinese eyes. Not being advanced enough in science and culture to distinguish between the possible and the impossible, almost everything which the books have to tell, the Chinese take for truth and true event, as reliable as any. This fact renders their books of the highest value for us as sources of knowledge of ideas and thoughts, even apart from the consideration that they are always reflections of prevailing opinion and of the train of thought of the time in which they were written, even though, occasionally, their authors may have drawn wittingly and knowingly from their imagination. And it is those opinions, that train of thought, which we want in the first place to know.

Thus our treatises in the field of Animism will acquaint the reader with a broad class of literary products, called, since the Han dynasty, siao shwoh or ‘minor informations’ — communications, according to the Chinese, of a lower order, comprising also novels and fictitious tales, in a great number of which interesting ethnographical and historical material lies hidden. The epoch of the T‘ang Dynasty seems to have been particularly prolific in writings of this class ; but we have also some of earlier date, and a great number of the Sung time, besides many written under the Ming dynasty and the now reigning House. Though produced in ages so wide apart, the whole class shows a striking uniformity of character. Not the slightest change or progress in the animistic notions have we been able to trace in it, which corroborates our statement that China on the whole has always been as she was. Owing, no doubt, to the prevailing decadence of literary study and culture, we have not succeeded in finding complete copies of more than a few works in this class. Large collections of siao shwoh, printed in uniform type and size, are, in fact, sold collectively, and are probably much read. But as a rule they give us the works only in a fragmentary state, their contents not coming up by far to what, according to the bibliographies and catalogues, they ought to contain. Happily, China’s world-famed Ku kin t‘u shu tsih ch‘ing makes up this deficiency to a good extent. Hundreds of tales, not found in the books in which they are stated to belong, are distributed in this giant thesaurus over its several sections, with careful mention of the sources from which they were drawn. So we shall very often have to quote from it, and then mark our extracts by the characters T S, the abbreviated word T‘u shu.

In no smaller measure are we indebted for material to another collection almost unknown, and well-nigh entirely neglected by sinologists, viz. the T‘ai-p‘ing kwang ki or ‘Ample Writings of the T‘ai-p‘ing period’, containing five hundred chapters of siao shwoh and miscellaneous notes, extracted from some three hundred works and arranged systematically under various titles. The T‘ai-p‘ing period, extending from A. D. 976 to 983, was a part of the reign of T‘ai Tsung of the Sung dynasty, who had the work compiled by a committee of thirteen learned grandees under presidency of the statesman Li Fang. It is the richest mine extant for knowledge of Chinese myth and legend, and but for it, many, if not most of the works from which it was built up, would have been entirely lost ; now a great number, in the fragmentary state in which we have them, are expressly stated to be reconstructions from quotations preserved in the Kwang ki. This work seems to have had no wide circulation until about 1566, when it was re-published by the care of the Censor T‘an Khai. It is asserted to be a portion of a much larger manuscript produced by the Imperial committee, and to consist merely of such parts of it as were ejected by T‘ai Tsung, who reviewed the whole manuscript in person ; and what the emperor reserved for direct publication became the voluminous cyclopaedia known as T‘ai-p‘ing yü lan, ‘the Work of Imperial Autopsy of the T‘ai-p‘ing period’, likewise preserved to this day. In quoting from the Kwang ki, we shall denote this by the initials K. K. 


LEIDEN, August 1901.

Retour au texte de l'auteur: Jean-Marc Fontan, sociologue, UQAM Dernière mise à jour de cette page le samedi 17 novembre 2007 7:06
Par Jean-Marie Tremblay, sociologue
professeur de sociologie au Cégep de Chicoutimi.

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