As a consequence, men lost their reverence for the spirits, the spirits violated the rules of men, and natural calamities arose.Hence the successor of Shaohao, Quanxu, charged Chong, Governor of the South, to handle the affairs of heaven in order to determine the proper places of the spirits, and Li, Governor of Fire, to handle the affairs of the Earth in order to determine the proper places of men. Chang notes that this myth is the most significant reference to shamanism and its central role in ancient Chinese politics.
At the same time, the imperial court was able to control institutionalized Buddhism and Daoism through a policy of licensing and regulations that limited their activities in popular society.
By the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), an orthodoxy had thus been built around the imperial state, which included the lineage ideology, a state-oriented literati, and an elaborate state cult.
Thus, in addition to disguising alternative approaches to transcendent power among the populace, it provided opportunities for elites to participate in popular activities as long as they also participated at least nominally in orthodox activities such as the state cult or the lineage order.
Periodically, both the state and the elite conducted campaigns to sweep out popular religions that were not state-oriented or part of the official state-cult, such as those led by official Chen Hongmou in the eighteenth century.
Rather, the durability and capaciousness of the Chinese imperial system derived precisely from the fact that this frontier was ideologically polyvalent.
I have discussed this interface as a translucent canopy in which the forms and shapes, but not the details, of popular activities could be made out.According to one view, the history of authority in China reflects the contest between the imperial institution and Confucians to exercise interpretive control over the will of Heaven.In his studies of Ming-Qing neo-Confucianist thought, Huang Chin-shing argues that Confucians had lost out to the emperor by beginning of the Qing dynasty in the seventeenth century.Although there were several episodes of what Max Weber called Caesaro-papism in Eurasia, in the Abrahamic and Indic traditions, the realm of the transcendent was controlled by the religious clergy, whether Brahmins, priests, or the ulama.In China, however, this intermediate realm was weakened by the powerful role of the imperial state.There were several reasons for the growing power of the imperial state over the Confucians.First, as is well known, the Confucian bureaucracy ultimately served under the authority of the emperor. But while bureaucratic power might in theory have been able to displace that of the emperor—as it did in other places—the patronage mechanisms of the imperial court played a powerful role in its management.Scholars working with the Axial Age theories of religion have often expressed confusion or hesitation with regard to Chinese notions of transcendence.I argue that Chinese religions have transcendent dimensions often missed by analysts because they operate with an Abrahamic notion of radical transcendence and dualism rather than what I call “dialogical transcendence.” Transcendent authority, embodied most frequently in the ideal of Heaven (tian), in the Sinosphere was fundamentally autonomous from imperial power and has authorized religiously based rebellion for millennia.This short essay draws up the principal ideas from a chapter in my forthcoming book concerning the historical field of Chinese religions in comparative context in order to identify its distinctive problems and possible pathways.In order to distinguish religions in the Sinosphere from other state-religion relationships in the longue durée, we need to identify how the state and religions have managed the question of transcendence.