In Search of Personal Welfare

A View of Ancient Chinese Religion

By Mu-chou Poo

Subjects: Chinese Religion And Philosophy
Series: SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
Paperback : 9780791436301, 331 pages, January 1998
Hardcover : 9780791436295, 331 pages, January 1998

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents

List of Figures



1. Introduction

Toward a History of the Everyday, Personal Religion of Ancient China

Religion and Extra-human Powers: Working Definitions

The Popular-Religion Paradigm in Earlier Research and Theory

The Sources

2. Roots of a Religion of Personal Welfare


The Religion of the Shang People

The Religion of the Chou People

3. Personal Welfare in the Context of Mantic Technique



Witchcraft and Exorcism

Ghosts and Spirits

Souls, Spirits, and the Abode of the Dead


4. Newly Discovered Daybooks and Everyday Religion

The Jih-shu or Daybooks

Elements of Religion in the Classic of Mountains and Seas

Jih-shu and Shan-hai-ching: Dealing with Domestic and Foreign Environments

5. Emperors, Courtiers, and the Development of Official Cults

The Establishment of the Official Cult of the Ch'in Empire

The Establishment of the Han Official Cult

Personal Factors and Official Religion

Reassessing Han Official Religion


6. Beliefs and Practices in Everyday Life of the Han Dynasty

Religious Activities Related to the Agricultural Cycle

Religious Activities Related to the Life Cycle

Religious Activities in Everyday Life

Local Cults

Omens and Portents

7. Immortality, Soul, and the Netherworld

The Conceptions of Immortality and Soul

Further Development of the Idea of the Netherworld

Social Change, the Development of Burial Styles, and the Idea of the Netherworld

8. Popular Religiosity and Its Critics

Literacy and the Commoners

Intellectuals as Critics of Popular Religion and Local Cults

Intellectuals as Reformers of Popular Religion

Intellectuals as Participants in Popular Religion

9. Conclusion

The Nature of Extra-Human Powers

Belief in a Correlative Cosmological Order

Death and the Netherworld


Piety and Happiness





The first major reassessment of ancient Chinese religion to appear in recent years, this book presents the religious mentality of the period through personal and daily experiences.


This book is the first major reassessment of ancient Chinese religion to appear in recent years. It provides a historical investigation of broadly shared religious beliefs and goals in ancient China from the earliest period to the end of the Han Dynasty. The author makes use of recently acquired archeological data, traditional texts, and modern scholarly work from China, Japan, and the West. The overall concern of this book is to try to reach the religious mentality of the ancient Chinese in the context of personal and daily experiences. Poo deals with such problems as the definition of religion, the popular/elite controversy in methodology, and the use of "elite" documents in the study of ordinary life.

Mu-chou Poo is Research Fellow and Professor at the Institute of History and Philology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. He is the author of several works, including Wine and Wine Offering in the Religion of Ancient Egypt; Literature by the Nile: An Anthology of Ancient Egyptian Literature; and Burial Styles and Ideas of Life and Death.


"In many ways, this is a revolutionary book--in terms of its focus on the 'common' religion of everyday life and its discussion of the overlap and interaction between the 'elite' and 'common' levels of religion in early imperial China--and will be controversial in the best sense of the expression. There is nothing on ancient Chinese religion (in any language) that is quite like Poo's book. It is truly pioneering in this respect. " -- N. J. Girardot, Lehigh University

"One of the most illuminating studies on early Chinese religion I have read in a long time, it is well written, cogently argued, and based upon impeccable research. Poo has been able to make use of the great mass of new archaeological material that has been accumulating through the last two or three decades in China and Japan, and he has also mastered the best Western scholarship on Chinese religion. His grasp of both sets of materials is pertinent, accurate, and fascinating. I frankly think that anyone interested in Chinese religion would want to buy this book. I believe it will become something of a standard reference. " -- John Berthrong, author of All Under Heaven: Transforming Paradigms in Confucian-Christian Dialogue