Ancestor King Worship, the Indigenous Chinese Religion, from Liangzhu Culture to Shang, Zhou, and Han.


The ancestor king worship 皇祖崇拜 was the first documented religion in China from the Shang Oracle Bone script and writings on the ceremonial bronzes. The practice continued to Zhou and Han. But its history goes back to the Neolithic Liangzhu culture (3400 – 2250 BCE) where it originated. In here we will put forward a credible account of a religion so dominated the Chinese culture during the Shang and Zhou period but eventually disappeared after Han. Using literature quotes and interpretation of carvings on the nephrite jade, we will trace its original form in Liangzhu, how it migrated to Shang after the demise of the Liangzhu culture, and how it was replaced and eventually completely forgotten after the Han dynasty.

Liangzhu and the ancestor king worship

Ancestor king worship in Neolithic China

Ancestors worship is practiced throughout the world in various degree and form, from Asia, Africa, America to Europe. Particularly in China, ancestor worship in the form of the royalty linage is not only the main religion belief, but also forms the political structure of the society during the Neolithic to the Shang Dynasty (1600 -1046 BCE), way before Buddhism and Confucianism exist in China. Ancestors Worship was well established in the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. Clearly documented in the earliest Chinese writing, the Oracle Bone script, the usage of the bonzes and writing on them, the temple structure, and the town buildings formation, were all formulated to facilitate the practice of worshipping ancestors of the ruling class. In this form ancestor king worship forms the political structure of the Shang and Zhou society, and therefore not only as a religion, but also with a strong political implication. 祖先崇拜与中国早期国家 ( The origin of such political religion has been dated back to the Neolithic Longshan Culture period (3000- 1900 BCE), and some even placed it to the Yongshao Culture (5000 -3000 BCE). This assumption is based on that the Longshan and Yongshao cultures are the forerunners of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties and with this qualification, assumes the similarity of the political religion structure. Longshan culture was in the lower Yellow River Valley basin, occupying through Shandong, Henan, Shaanxi, and Shanxi provinces. Longshan greatly improved the farming and livestock raising techniques of the Yongshao culture and was noted for its black potteries.  However, both the Yongshao and Longshan cultures were without a written form of language. Also lacking were the bronze, temple and town structure of the Shang and Zhou that are essential proofs of ancestor king worship. In such absence, the assumption of ancestor king worship in the Yongshao and Longshan cultures is obviously not evidence based but only on an assumption. Yet evidence of ancestors worship in Neolithic China does exist and it is recorded on the nephrite jade of the Liangzhu Culture (3300 – 2300 BCE).  

The Liangzhu culture

The Neolithic Liangzhu culture (3300 – 2300 BCE) located in southeast China in the Yangtze River Delta was chronologically later than the Yongshao Culture (5000 – 3000 BCE) and in proximity to the Longshan Culture (3000 – 1900 BCE) both in time and in location south of the Shandong Longshan (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Neolithic cultures of China.

Liangzhu was a successful Neolithic culture producing massive amount of rice. Also was noted for its jade carving, producing China’s first silk, ivory, and lacquer wares. Especially jade, Liangzhu together with Hongshan (4700 – 2900 BCE) and Lingjiatan (3750 – 3000 BCE) formed the three notable jade cultures of Neolithic China.  Liangzhu built the largest city of the period with sophisticated town structure surrounded by clay walls.  Within the city are natural hills and manmade earth mounts structures surrounded by well managed waterways equipped with hydraulic system for flood control. Figure 2 is a model of one of the Liangzhu archeologic site, the Mojiaoshan Terrace, showing the palatial complex with buildings on an artificial mount. Notice a walkway leading to the left to a worship alters

Figure 2  Mojiaoshan palatial and alter complex model. (Picture from China Daily)

terraces artificial earth mount. Tombs are found on the alter level on the top. Within these tombs are large number of jade artifacts, an indication that these tombs belong to the ruling elites, kings of the Liangzhu culture. 90% of the Liangzhu culture jade artifacts are found in these tombs. Congs, discs, axes, tubes, and beads are the frequently seen Liangzhu jades with some in awe and D shape, and some come in three prongs. (The Dawn of the Chinese civilization: Jades of the Liangzhu Culture. The Liangzhu Culture Art Museum and the Art Museum. The Chinese University of Hong Kong. 1998.) These jades are ritual artifacts with spiritual emblems markings, images unique to the Liangzhu culture reflecting the Liangzhu religious beliefs and provides a doorway to a religion at the dawn of the Chinese culture.  The Cong and disc in particular have their origins in the Liangzhu culture and are two of the only six jade objects mentioned in the Zhou literature used to worship heaven and earth, giving evidence that the worship ceremony of Shang and Zhou has an origin in Liangzhu.

Images on the Liangzhu jades, The Holy Man 神人and the Holy Beast 神獸.

The unique images carved on the Liangzhu jade were initially labelled as the Holy Man and the Holy Beast. For lack of terminology the two terms will be used here in spite they are misnomers as neither the Holy Man a man, nor the Holy Beast a beast. The Holy Beast is an image of two eyes, often seen on the corners of a Cong (Figure 3). This image can also be found on tubes (Figure 4), beads (Figure 5), and axes (Figures 6).  When magnified (Figure 7), striated circular line markings are seen around the eyes interrupted by three groups of straight lines. Between and underneath the eyes are oval structures connected by short lines.

Figure 3.  Cong with the Holy Beast image at the corner.
Figure 4 Tube with Holy Beast image.
Figure 5 Holy Beast image on a bead.
Figure 6.  Holy Beast image on an axe.
Figure 7. Holy Beast image in magnification.

The Holy Man is an image most noted on a large Cong in the Zhejiang Province Museum. The nick named King Cong with a weight of 6.5 kilogram was excavated in the Liangzhu archeologic site in 1986. On it is an image of a man with a Holy Beast in the center as part of his body (Figure 8). This image can also be seen on a large Huang (Figure 9) and has been reproduced as an illustrated figure (Figure 10).

Figure 8. Holy Man image on the Liangzhu King Cong
Figure 9. Holy Man image on a Huang.
Figure10. Illustrated Holy Man image.

Markings on the Holy Beasts and the Holy Man

The image of the Holy Beast is labelled a beast because of the unusual concentric markings around the eyes and the ovoid and short straight lines on the nose and lip making it unfamiliar to the viewer. Given that the ovoid and straight lines markings are also on the body of the Holy Man, these markings have to be a structure found throughout the human body. If the eyes and nose are looked at as the face, there is only one body structure that carries such marking on both the face and the body, and that is the skeletal

Figure 11. Facial muscle.

muscle structure. The human face has no subcutaneous tissue and when the skin is removed, the facial muscles will be exposed (Figure 11). Around the eyes are the muscles Orbicularis Oculi (Figure 12). The function of this muscle is to close the upper and lower eye lids and the muscle is in concentric lines. To

Figure 12. Orbicularis Oculi muscle around the eye.

understand the marking on the Holy Man, one has to look at the skeletal muscle structure of a human body. Skeletal muscles are made up of bundles in sheath giving an appearance of straight lines when

Figure 13. Front view of the muscular structure.
Figure 14A. Cross section of a muscle bundle.
Figure 14B. Cross section of the lower leg.

looked at from the front (Figure 13). When the muscles are cut into cross sections, the muscle bundles appear in ovoid shapes (Figure 14A and B). The muscle structure comparison becomes more obvious when comparing the markings on the Holy Man plaque (Figure 15. Zhejiang Province Museum) to the human muscle markings. The Neolithic Liangzhu people put their artistic interpretation of the muscle structure on the Holy Man and the Holy Beast images. The question now is why, and what does muscle represent to the Liangzhu?  To answer that, one has first to understand the Chinese written characters.

Figure 15. Holy Man plaque in the Zhejiang Province Museum.

Muscle and ancestor connection from the Oracle Bone and the Bronze scripts.

Chinese written characters are often made up with sub scripts categorizing words into groups. The word water comes from the Oracle Bone script. Eventually it evolves into a subscript with three dots on the left to signify words related to water, like the word river 河, swim 泳, sea 海, and flow 流. The subscript can be on top like in the word grass 草, flower 花, and lily 蓮, with the grass and flower subscript on top grouping words related to vegetable plants. The subscript can also be on the right or below. The word 示 by itself means to show or to reveal. When used as a subscript on the left categorizes a group of words with a meaning of ceremonial worship and faith, like in the word god 神, temple 祠, worship 祀, bless and protect 祐, and ancestor 祖. When written on the left it can be slightly modified with the dot into a slash. 示 can also be used as a subscript on the bottom like in the word 崇 meaning worship and respect. 示 in the Oracle Bone script (Figure 16 A and B【每日一字】示:人之好我,示我周行-中央纪委网站 ( ) was at one time interpreted as a male genital with the two dots as the testicles and also a reference to the word ancestor 祖. For the sake of modesty and the official morality concern the male genital can no longer be mentioned. Now the official interpretation of the word 示 in the Oracle Bone script has changed into an ancestor name plate for worship. Words on Oracle Bone script can have more than one version and are pictorial representations of an idea or object. In this case one can easily see the resemblance of the word 示 to the male genital. Both interpretations of 示 in the Oracle Bone script, be it the male genital or an ancestor name plate for worship, are in the noun form. 示 in today’s meaning to show or to reveal is a verb.  Nouns and verbs in the Chinese language, unlike in the Western language, is

Figure 16A. Oracle bone script 示
Figure 16B.  Oracle Bone script 示

only in the meaning without a specific form change. But what to show or reveal on the Oracle Bone script, be it the male genital or the name plate for the ancestor for worship, has to be in reference to the ancestor 祖. In the verb form 示 means reveling the oracle, namely fortune or misfortune, from the ancestor. It also can mean the action of showing the ancestor himself.  Figure 17A is the word ancestor 祖 in the Oracle Bone script and figure 17B is the word in Bronze script. 祖 – 字源查询 – 汉字源流 – 查字网 (  One should notice the similarity between the word to show 示, and the word ancestor 祖. According to the scholar Guo Moruo (郭沫若), the word ancestor 祖 in the Oracle Bone script and the Bronze script, is a pictorial representation of a male genital, likely a phallus symbol representing the

Figure 17A. Oracle Bone script ancestor 祖
Figure 17B.  Bronze script ancestor 祖
Figure 18. The development of the word ancestor 祖

ancestor in the sense of fertility and manhood. The development and evolution of the word ancestor 祖 is shown in figure 18.祖(汉字)_百度百科 ( In figure 18, number 1 is the word ancestor 祖 in Shang (1600 – 1046 BCE) period Oracle Bone script. Number 2 is in Western Zhou (1046 – 771 BCE) period Bronze script. In the Spring and Autumn period (771 – 476 BCE) the word 示, to show was added to the left side as a subscript that has remained till today, grouping the word ancestor 祖 into the group of words of worship and faith. There are two other forms of variation of the word ancestor 祖 during the Warring States period (475 -221 BCE). Number 4 shows the word ancestor 祖 with the subscript 示 at the bottom and the phallic symbol of the earlier period word ancestor 祖 on top. Number 6 is also in the Warring States period. The subscript 示 to show is on the left hand side. On the right, on top is the phallic symbol of the Shang Oracle Bone script word ancestor 祖. Underneath the word ancestor 祖 is the Oracle Bone script word hand 手. The presence of the word hand inside the word ancestor 祖 indicates that the hand is required to show or reveal the ancestor during the ancestor worship cermony祭. The ceremony is to reveal 示 as on the left and holding the ancestor 祖above with a hand on the right. So, what is being held up as the ancestor? Before we go into that, there is one point to understand, and that is 示groups all words in ancestor worship.

Holding up the blood dripping flesh

The word 祭 (worship ceremony) in the Shang Oracle Bone script is a hand on the right holding a piece of meat or flesh dripping with blood on the left. (Figure 19). 祭(汉语汉字)_百度百科 (

Figure 19. Oracle Bone script worship ceremony 祭

 In the first Chinese dictionary 說文解字 written during 100 -121 AD, the description of the word 祭 is that a word subscript with 示 and holding a piece of flesh with a hand (從示, 以手持肉). The word therefore means that showing a blood dripping piece of flesh with a hand is the ancestor worship ceremony.  The often interpretation is that the flesh is an offering to the ancestor. Such explanation has a fault as one of the important ritual bronzes used in the worship ceremony is the Ting 鼎 and Ting is the ritual bronze to cook meat with or used to contain cooked meat for the offering. Therefore, meat used as an offering to the ancestor should be cooked, and not blood dripping raw meat. Furthermore, eating raw meat and drinking blood is a behavior considered barbaric and animal like that has never been a Chinese tradition. Using blood dripping meat as an offering to the ancestor is disrespectful, unconceivable, and simply cannot be the case. Unlike the later version of the word, the Oracle Bone script version 祭 does not have the subscript 示, a word that means to reveal or to show the ancestor king. 示 was added to in the Bronze script version (Figure 20:  2 and 3). Without 示 in the word 祭 implies that the meaning of 示is already within the context of a hand holding a piece of blood dripping flesh. Since 示 means revealing or showing

Figure 20.  Development of the word worship ceremony 祭

the ancestor and what the hand holds to show is the piece of blood dripping flesh, in this sense the piece of blood dripping flesh is the ancestor. Something should already be understood without the subscript 示. Showing a blood dripping flesh with a hand is showing the ancestor in the ancestor worship ceremony 祭. Of some note is the similarity of the word flesh or meat 肉 during the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States period (Figure 21: – 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8), highly resemble the word ancestor 祖 (Figure 17B, Figure 18: – 1 and 2, and within the words in 4, 5, 6). It is very likely that the word meat comes from the word ancestor, or vice versa. With the knowledge that the flesh is the ancestor we can now look at the meaning of the Liangzhu Holy Man.

Figure 21. The development of the word meat 肉

The Liangzhu Holy Man 神人

The Holy Man is not as often seen as the Holy beasts but is the most significant figure carved on the Liangzhu jades (Figure 22). It is on some disc, short Congs, half discs in D shape and Hung, all objects for worship. On the head of the Holy Man is a bird shaped, beak pointing up ward feather crown. Underneath the crown is an upside-down trapezoid shape face and a body decorated with skeletal muscle marking, and a Holy Beast emblem in front of him as part of his body. To answer who is the Holy Man one has first

Figure 22. Liangzhu Holy Man 神人.

to look at the proto writing carved on clay wares, ivory, and bone objects in the Neolithic time. (中國上古文明考論. A Study of Early Chinese Civilization. 江林昌著. 上海教育出版社. 2005.)  The proto writing of the word “king “from the Neolithic culture Dawenkou (4100 – 2600 BCE) adjacent and north of Liangzhu (Figure 1), is a picture of a feather crown on top of an upside-down trapezoid (Figure 23). The head of the Holy Man wearing a feather crown with an upside-down trapezoid face thus denotes him the king. As we have seen muscle means ancestor and the muscle marking declares that the Holy Man is the ancestor. With his head defining him the king in proto writing, therefore the Holy Man is the ancestor king. On the face of the Holy Man is a pair of eyes with no eyelids, an open nostril with no nose, and a mouth showing

Figure23. Dawenkou protowriting word “king”.

 teeth with no lips.  Of note the face is the only part of the Holy Man with no muscle marking, depicting a face with no facial skin and muscle, the skull and face of a dead man. On the feet of the Holy Man are bird claws, three on each foot, echoing the bird shape feather crown on his head. Interpreting these we can say that the king at his death becomes the ancestor king. His spirit in his muscle transforms into a bird and into the image of the Holy Man. The Holy Beast in front of him has its significance as we shall later see. We shall also later see that the bird carries the spirit of the ancestor king and flies to the sun. The transformation of the king’s spirit into a bird makes the bird the representative of the ancestor king and an important emblem in the Liangzhu culture. This subsequently carries into the Shang and Zhou ancestor king worship culture, the reason why the bird is a frequent figure on the Shang And Zhou ceremonial bronze. On this Liangzhu jade disc are three birds as they were in the sun (Figure 24). Three is the number associates with royalty in Liangzhu; on the Holy Beast are three sets of straight lines around the eyes, three terraces on the earth pile worshipping alter, three claws on each of the Holy Man’s foot, and three birds on the disc. Three birds on the disc indicates that the birds are the ones carrying the spirit of the ancestor kings.  The association with the bird strongly speaks for the common root of the Liangzhu, Shang and Zhou ancestor king worship religion. More evidence to support this will be provided as we proceed.  

Figure 24. Liangzhu bird jade disc.

The Liangzhu Holy Beasts 神獸

The name Holy Beast is a misnomer as the prominent marking around the eyes are the Orbicular Oculi muscles found on the face of a person making the Holy Beast a man and not a beast. The mistake is made due to the failure to recognize the facial muscular structure and the unfamiliar pattern on the face leading to the erroneous beast label. There are two Holy Beast images as seen on this Liangzhu butterfly plaque (Figure 25), distinguishable by the upper one with no nose and the lower one with one.  Carved on the

Figure 25. Liangzhu butterfly plaque with both Holy Beast images.

corners of the Congs (Figure 3) are always the one with no nose.  The no nose one is also on beads (Figures 4 and 5), and on the axe (Figure 6). In contrast, the one on the Holy Man is always the one with a nose (Figure 22) and is also found on D-shaped ornaments, and on a column shaped bead (The Dawn of Chinese Civilization, Jades of the Liangzhu Culture, Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. 1998. Figure 42, Figure 51).  The specific placement of the two Holy Beasts on different types of jade objects speaks for the different meaning representation of the two different Holy Beasts.  The Cong represents political power and the axe military power giving the power status identity to the ruling king, and beads are personal adornment. The Holy Beast without a nose is the emblem for the ruling king and by placing it on the Cong, axe, and beads marks the ruling king’s personal belongings. The one with a nose is always in the center of the Holy Man indicating that it is the emblem representing the ancestor king, kings in the past. The Holy Beast with a nose is also carved on the D-shape ornament and the column shaped bead that are items for ancestor king worship. Both Holy Beasts represent royalties, the ruling king, or the ancestor king. Such representation of royalties is legitimized by the three groups of straight lines around the eyes of both Holy Beasts. The Liangzhu culture was a male dominant tribal kingship with religious belief worshiping ancestor kings. The ancestor king worship continues to the Shang, Zhou periods, until Han when western philosophy and religious beliefs came through the Silk Road from the west and also through the northern nomadic tribes that eventually turned China culturally into another direction, replacing the indigenous ancestor king worship with Buddhism and to a culture we know today.    

The spirit of the ancestor king, the sun, and the bird.

Liangzhu has no written language, and we can only know about the ancestor king worship through images, the Holy Man, the Holy Beasts, and the bird, carved on the Liangzhu jades. The earliest written account of ancestor king worship is on the Shang Oracle Bone Script, followed by a large number of writings in the Zhou and Han Dynasties. However, the proto writings of Dawenkou, the Neolithic culture Northeast and adjacent to Liangzhu gives us a glimpse into the Liangzhu belief. {中國上古文明考論. A Study of Early Chinese Civilization. 江林昌著. 上海教育出版社. 2005. P.295-303, P.402-405.)  On the proto writing, the word ling 靈, meaning spirit, is written as a sun on top of a crescent moon. Inside the sun are circular curly markings that we know represent the cross section of muscle (Figure 26).  As the muscle

Figure 26. Dawenkou proto writing spirit, ling靈.

markings represent the ancestor king tells us that the spirit of the ancestor king is in the radiating sun. The sun, often mentioned in early classical Chinese literature, is being worshiped. In the book ‘The Classic of Mountain and Sea,” written during the Warring Stats period (481 -221 BCE), is this legend: “Xihe, the wife of Emperor Jun, gave birth to ten suns”. (<山海經. 大荒南經>,”羲和者,帝俊之妻,生十日”). Both Xihe and Emperor Jun are legendary characters of distant royalties, and the ten suns are progenies of the emperor that should be interpreted as ten kings. The emperor is Jun 俊, and his name Jun 俊 can be written as 浚, that in the Oracle Bone and Warring States script浚is a bird (Figure 27), <簡明篆刻正字字典>何崝主編, 湖北美術出版社 2002. P.133, implying that Emperor Jun is a bird. This has significance as we have seen from the Liangzhu Holy Man, the ancestor king transforms into a bird at his death. The title of

Figure 27. Jun浚 in Warring States scrip.

of Jun is di 帝. The Chinese words huang皇and di 帝 are both translated into English as emperor. But huang 皇is more earthly, more equivalent to the word king, whereas di帝 is more equivalent to God, a king higher up as in 上帝is refer to God. However, the two words are at time interchangeable. Both words also have a meaning of brightness radiating light with an implication that kings and emperors are suns and hence huang and di are often referred to as sons of the sky 天子.  (<中國上古文明考論>, 江林昌. 上海教育出版社,2005. P.395-396). The story of Yi 羿shot down the suns is intriguing.  According to Tian Wen 天問, a Warring States long poem, all of the ten sons of Emperor Jun came out into the sky as ten suns at once giving tremendous heat and light burning the land. As a result, severe draught caused famine and people were suffering.  Emperor Yao 堯 ordered the hero Yi 羿 to shoot down the suns with his bow and arrows.  Nine birds in the suns were killed and fell to earth, leaving one sun in the sky to give light. (<楚辭. 天問>王逸注云:”堯命羿仰射十日,中其九日,日中九鳥皆死,墮其羽翼”). Once the nine birds fell, the nine suns were gone. In this legend the suns represent the kings in the sky. When the spirit of the ancestor king is in the sky, he is the sun, and when he is on earth, he is the bird. The bird is the intermediate between the suns in the sky and representing the spirit of the ancestor king on earth. Both the ruling king and the ancestor king, huang皇 and di 帝, have the meaning of light and brightness and the implication that they are the suns.

The elongated bird stand frame and the earth pile worshipping alter 堆土祭壇

On some Liangzhu jade discs, birds are carved flying individually or standing on an elongated platform. Within the platform is the bird representing the ancestor king (Figure 28).  Or in other the Dawenkou

Figure 28. Liangzhu bird on platform with a bird inside.

word ancestor king spirit of the sun and the crescent moon (Figure 29). In the proto writings of Dawenkou, a small hill or a pile soil is represented by an olive shaped frame (Figure 30). The elongated frames on figures 28 and 29 can then be interpreted as an earth mount hill within which are kings.  

Figure 29. Liangzhu bird on platform with the word spirit inside.
Figure 30.  Dawenkou proto writing earth mount hill.

Notice the three notches on the top of the elongated frame on each side representing three steps. The Liangzhu Mojigshan Palatial complex as seen on the model (Figure 2), has a pathway leading to the left to a worshiping mount constructed by piling up soil into three terraces.  Kings are buried on the mount as tombs where most jade artifacts are found. On top of the worshipping mount is an altar (Figure 31). Now we can see what the bird stand elongated platform represents is this Liangzhu earth pile worshipping mount altar where the ancestor king represented by the standing bird is worshiped. The earth pile mount

Figure 31. Liangzhu dirt pile worshipping mount.

is constructed with three terrace tiers, the number of Liangzhu royalty, also indicated by the three notches on each side of the elongated frame.  Kings are buried on the mount, shown with their emblems inside the elongated platform. On the alter being worshiped is the ancestor king in the form of a bird. The bird stand elongated platform is not only a remarkable pictorial representation of the worshipping earth mount alter, but it also embraces the whole religious belief of the Liangzhu culture.  

The demise of Liangzhu culture and the migration of ancestor king worship into Shang

The Liangzhu culture disappeared from the Yangtze Delta after 2250 BCE leaving the area barren with no inhabitants for 350 years. With no choice after the Yangtze Delta and the Lake Tai Basin became uninhabitable, people took their technologies, and migrated up north to the Yellow River where Chinese civilization began. In its time Liangzhu was the most advance Neolithic culture in China cultivating massive amount of rice as evidence by their storage. It has sophisticated stone tool for tilting, technology for well construction and produced the first silk and lacquer wares in the world.  All of these end up north forming the base for the Chinese civilization development. Liangzhu jade Congs are also found north along the Yellow River. Speculation is that the Congs were sold commercially by the Liangzhu people. Yet from the Liangzhu archeologic site, these Congs were owned only by the chiefs and kings and not the common people. Each king has one Cong placed by their chest in their grave to signify their nobility and power. If these Congs were sold it could only be from the kings, and it is highly unlikely for the kings to sell what represents their power and status. These jade Congs were brought by the kings as they migrated north and buried with them when they died as they were in their homeland. Why did the Liangzhu people massively migrated out of their homeland where they successfully thrived both culturally and economically for 1200 years is a puzzle. One popular theory is that global warming lead to sea rise and flooding of the whole Liangzhu area resulted in their demise. But such flooding will cover a large area and would also put the whole China coast including Japan, Korea, even part of India, and Egypt under water. There is no such evidence.  Another theory is local flooding was what caused the evacuation of the Liangzhu people. But evidence shows that the Liangzhu people were capable in managing floods by utilizing canals to divert water and had sophisticated hydraulic pump to manage flooding for 1,200 years. Setbacks of local flooding which Liangzhu must have managed frequently cannot be the reason to remove the whole population and rendered the land uninhabitable for 350 years. What happened has to be a large scale catastrophic natural disaster. To answer that we need to look at one disease that plagued all humanity since the dawn of civilization, malaria.

For certain malaria, a disease that plagued all Neolithic cultures was rampant in the Liangzhu society. During the Neolithic period farming and husbandry began. Human cleared trees to open up land for farming and with water irrigation created an ideal environment for mosquitos, the vector for the malaria parasite to thrive. Animal domestication also began during the Neolithic time, and these animals lived close to human served as the secondary host for the parasite. All these factors contributed to the flourishing of malaria during the Neolithic time. The Fever. How Malaria has ruled humankind for 5000,000 years, Sonia Shah. Sarah Crichton Books 2010 There are six types of plasmodium parasites that cause human malaria. Three of the most common ones in Asia are P. malariae, P. vivax and P. falciparum. All three are from interspecies crossing infection from apes’ parasites in Africa. Out of Africa: origins and evolution of the human malaria parasites Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax. Int J Parasitol. 2017 Feb; 47(2-3): 87–97. Out of Africa: origins and evolution of the human malaria parasites Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax ( The species crossing event of P. malariae and P. vivax occurred more than 100,000 years ago. Modern Homo sapiens came out of Africa about 80,000 years ago and would have the disease when they were in Africa and also would have developed antibodies against the disease. As they migrated out of Africa, they carried these parasites as well as the antibodies with them. P. malariae and P. vivax arrived in Asia with the human migration and eventually P. vivax became the Asian predominant type. Both P. malariae and P. vivax were with the Liangzhu community for 1200 years.  P. malariae is the most benign form giving a tolerable insidious disease. P. vivax is more deadly. People infected can died from splenomegaly and organ failure and though it can relapse several times a year, it can also remain dormant for years. Liangzhu people with antibodies against the parasites and though both P. malariae and P. vivax were hinderances for the Liangzhu society could have coexist with the disease.  What brought in the Liangzhu demise is the third type P. Falciparum when it arrived in the Liangzhu community.

P. Falciparum is the most malignant and deadly of all malaria parasites. Of the 240 million malaria cases in the world in 2020 as reported by the World Health Organization, half of it were caused by P. falciparum, and was also the cause of nearly all of the 627, 000 death. The mostly affected are children under five. Other than severe anemia the parasite infected blood cells sequestered in organs blood vessels is the cause for organs failure. Involvement of the brain leads to cerebral malaria resulted in cerebral edema, severe headache coma and death. People recovered end up with neurologic deficit. Other problems can be abnormal bleeding, jaundice and unable to breath. P. falciparum also originated from a great ape parasite in Africa. Of all the malaria parasites the species crossing of P. Falciparum was the most recent, about 10, 000 years ago and therefore was after modern human have started migrating out of Africa. It came out of Africa following the later migration, transmitting from community to community. By the time it came to Liangzhu the global temperature was rising, and Liangzhu was a highly successful Neolithic community, progressively cultivating rice by clearing trees and developing canals for irrigation, surrounding the village community with water for defense, and extensively digging wells, creating an ideal environment for the flourishing of mosquitos. The successful cultivation of rice also resulted in population increase into densely populated villages. The Liangzhu community was the most ideal place for the rampant flourishing of the newly arrived P. falciparum. People with no antibodies in their bodies for the new parasite species ensured a pandemic not any different from the Black Death in the Fourteenth century Europe. The rapidly spreading malaria resulted in massive death in the population. In the Liangzhu archeologic site five to six people are found buried in one grave, and many are children. Massive death was not the only horrid. People who had cerebral malaria developed seizures and neurologic impairment. Children with cerebral edema had severe headache causing them screaming and crying only ended up in seizures, coma, and death. If they survived, they developed motor and speech impairment, abnormal movements like spastic quadriplegia, and self-destructive aggressive behaviors. Cerebral Malaria: Mechanisms of Brain Injury and Strategies for Improved Neurocognitive Outcome:  Richard Idro, Kevin MarshChandy C Johnhn & Charles R J Newton. Pediatric Research October 2010.  Cerebral Malaria: Mechanisms of Brain Injury and Strategies for Improved Neurocognitive Outcome | Pediatric Research (   Jaundice, abnormal bleeding, and difficulty in breathing added to frightening sights that lead to belief of demons and evil spirits plaguing the community and likely gives rise to the Taotai legend, an evil beast with an insatiable devouring appetite. The blame of the apocalypse went to the ancestor king spirit from not giving the people protection to that their ancestor kings turned evil against them. Massive migration took place taking their technologies and not their ancestor kings up north where the temperature was cooler less suitable for the P. falciparum parasite. It is interesting to note only the Cong with the Holy Beast representing the ruling kings were found along the Yangtze River and not jades with the Holy Man image or the Holy Beast with the nose that represents the ancestor king were found outside of Liangzhu, reflecting their abandonment. With the Liangzhu people gone there was no more water management and without farming the subsequent 350 years the area became a swamp leaving behind signs and misleading clues that the area was flooded. Scant groups of people left behind regressed back to a hunting and gathering culture. Regression of cultural activity is why the subsequent culture Maqiao (1900 -1200 BCE) is a more primitive one.

Malaria is now under control in China with only occasional local occurrence.  But in ancient time, as in Rome and Greece, malaria was often described as evil wind or spirit. The P. falciparum scenario is the only one that can explain all the occurrence that leaded to the Liangzhu migration north. The descendants of Liangzhu became the Shang bird people and turned the Yellow River into the cradle of Chinese civilization instead of the Yangtze.  

Ancestor King Worship in Shang.            

From Liangzhu to Shang

The origin of the Shang people is a mystery with no one knows where they came from and speculation that they were nomadic people. Shang themselves claimed they were descendants of birds and on this Shang nephrite jade seal Shang laid such claim. “天命玄鳥,降而生商” 《詩經·商頌·玄鳥》. Apart from this seal there are only three seals known from the Shang Dynasty. In 1940 three bronze seals from the Yin Ruin, a Shang archeology site, were reported found by an antique dealer. These three seals, now in the Taipei Palace Museum, are in square shape, flat, with a ring like knob.  The seal presented here is made of nephrite jade (Figure 32). It is in square shape, measured 11 cm X 11 cm with a height 4.7cm, and a ring like knob.  In spite of extensive chemical weathering effect, four different shape beasts can be

Figure 32. Shang nephrite seal top with four beasts.

detected carved on the top on four sides. Under the microscope the ferruginous crust (Figure 33 blue arrows) and clusters of silvery metallic granules (Figure 34 blue circles) from chemical weathering can be

Figure 33. Shang seal ferruginous crust from chemical weathering
Figure 34. Shang seal silvery metallic granules from chemical weathering.

easily seen. On the four corners of the seal surface are four small rectangles with marking inside. In the middle is the word Shang 商 in the form of a bird (Figure 35). With the seal made of the best mutton nephrite, there is no doubt that this is the Shang royal seal. Putting the word Shang in the form of a bird on the royal seal is a self-recognition of Shang calling themselves the bird people. The word Shang 商 may just mean bird in the Shang script. The only culture that revered bird before Shang is the Liangzhu culture. The fact that Liangzhu Congs and Liangzhu technologies in farming, constructing wells, production of silk and lacquer wares were in Central China along the Yellow River, are strong evidence that Liangzhu after they evacuated their homeland, took their technologies, and migrated north to the Yellow River Central China. By saying that they were the bird people Shang was telling us that they were descendants of Liangzhu.

Figure 35. Shang seal surface with the word Shang商 in the form of a bird.

Liangzhu beliefs in the Shang Dynasty

The earliest written account on ancestor king worship comes from the Shang Oracle Bone script. During the Shang Dynasty ancestor king worship was a royal preoccupation dominated by ceremonies, preying, asking for blessing and revealing fortune or misfortune from the oracle with elaborate bonze artifacts for their extensive ceremonies. Shang worships Huang 皇, Di 帝, and gods of nature.” 商代主要有上帝,天地間自然神祗和祖先神三大信仰系統.”(宋鎮豪: <夏商社會生活史>,第459頁). Huangs are the ancestor kings, deities that also extend to their royal relatives. Di is the highest of all deities, a position from the promotion of the Huangs. With all deities come from the ancestor kings royal families the Shang religion in reality is a worship of the ancestor kings hierarchy.  All are in the sense of gods, to be preyed to and asked for blessings and protection. ” 商代宗教信仰的最大特點就是對上帝的崇拜,對祖先的崇拜和祭祀.”(史仲文,胡曉林:中國古代歷史文化的品性與特色.<中國全史>)但上帝其實也是皇祖,先王死後升天而成帝,”人王死後也可以稱帝.從武乙到帝乙,殷王對於死了的生父都以帝稱.”(胡厚宣:殷墟卜辭中的上帝和王帝,<歷史研究>1959年,第10期).  Shang also worships the gods of nature, a belief that goes back to the Neolithic time. In the Dawenkou proto writing, the word spirit (ling 靈) can be written as the sun and the moon on top of a hill (Figure 36). The sun and the moon signify the sky and the hill the earth, a combination representing

Figure 36. The Dawenkou word spirit (ling靈)

nature where dwells the spirit. The word spirit can also be represented by the sun with the muscle marking representing the spirit of the ancestor king (Figure 26). The deity in nature in effect is an extension of the ancestor king spirit. It makes the whole Shang religion a worship of ancestor royalties with a focus on the ancestor kings. There is Evidence that ancestor king worship in the Xia (2700 – 1600 BCE), Shang (!600 – 1046 BCE) and Zhou (1046 – 256 BCE) Dynasties has an origin in the Liangzhu culture. In the Xia, Shang. and Zhou, the worshipping platform and alter of these periods are soil piled mounts similar to that in Liangzhu. These mounts are formed by piling different color soil into a square platform, in an open area without cover, and surrounded by trees. 江林昌先生引述了陳剩勇先生在(中國第一王朝的崛起)所提出的六點,封土為社,社壇成方形,社壇用多種顏色泥土堆築,社壇為露天,社壇築在高地,社周圍有大樹等.結論是” 中原夏商周社壇正是淵源于良渚文化祭壇.” (中國上古文明考論 321-322頁). Using the same worshipping platform and altar implies that the worshipping ceremony of these periods are similar to that of the Liangzhu. In the Liangzhu belief, the Holy Man as carved on the jade is the ancestor king transformed at the king’s death when his spirit in his muscle becomes a bird carrying him to the sun. With the ancestor king’s spirit inside, the bird represents the ancestor king on earth and as a result an important emblem in the ancestor king worship ceremony. The bird is found on many Shang ceremonial bronzes. On this Shang jade vase (Figure 37) birds are carved prominently on the neck and the upper part

Figure 37. Shang jade ancestor worship vase.

of the vase body and also on the side as we later see. In spite of the shape similarity to today’s flower vase, the carving on the vase tells us that this vase has a significant religious ceremonial meaning and not function as a flower vase. A similar shape vase is seen on the head of a Hongshan bird (Figure 38) linking the Shang vase to the Hongshan period, emphasizing the significance of the bird in the religion belief in Neolithic China. 

Figure 38.  Hongshan bird with a vase on head.

On the lower part of the Shang jade vase body is a face of a beast (Figure 37), commonly referred to as the Taotie, and a frequent figure on the Shang ceremonial bonzes. Taotie is described as one of the four evil mythical beasts in the ancient text the “Classic of Mountains and seas 山海經”. There is however no evidence to show that the beast face on the ceremonial bronzes is Taotie. A Liangzhu jade butterfly plaque may provide a clue as to what the beast represents (Figure 39). On the upper section of the plaque is the face of a Liangzhu Holy Beast, and on the lower half is the face of the beast. Compare that to the Liangzhu butterfly plaque on figure 25 that has two Liangzhu Holy Beast figures, the upper half one without a nose, the emblem for the ruling king, and the lower half one with a nose, the emblem for the ancestor king. The beast face in figure 39 butterfly plaque occupies the lower half of the plaque, the position for the Holy Beast with a nose, also the emblem of the ancestor king. The two images of the beast face and the Holy Beast with a nose are interchangeable indicating that both the Holy Beast with the nose and the beast are equivalence and both are emblems for the ancestor king. It makes more sense as for the Shang religion preoccupied exclusively with ancestor king worship that an emblem of the ancestor king should be on the ceremonial bronzes. The beast face is that emblem and as such most appropriate for the ancestor king worship ceremony.  

Figure 39. Liangzhu butterfly plaque with the beast face.

Ancestor King Worship in Zhou

The bird and beast and the ancestor king spirit

A tribe of people west of Shang defeated Shang and formed the Zhou Dynasty. With the departure of the bird people, one may think ancestor king worship would pass. Yet Zhou was a continuation of the Shang Dynasty.  Bird and beast images continued on Zhou ceremonial bronzes and the ancestor king worship ceremony continued. Jade, a media that is regarded able to give protection and walls off evil, also was used to express religion belief. Figure 40 is a Zhou jade bird and figure 41 is a Zhou jade beast, both represent the ancestor king spirit indicating the religion still being practiced in Zhou.   

Figure 40.  Zhou jade bird.
Figure 41. Zhou jade beast.

Bird script and the ancestor king

A form of writing script called the bird and worm script (Figure 42, 43) with words written resembling birds and worms appeared in the Spring and Autumn period (771 – 453 BCE) during the Zhou Dynasty.

Figure 42. Bird script writing on a Zhou disc.
Figure 43. Worm script writing on a Zhou disc.

Bird and worm script appeared on weapons of kings of southern states Wu, Yue, Chu, Cai, Xu, and Song, most notably the bird script on the sword of Goujian, a Yue king, and the worm script on the spear of Fuchai, a Wu king. It was also found on jades like the ones on figures 42 and 43.  The bird and worm script were used on weapons of kings signifies the bird and worm script is reserved for royalties, and by putting it on jade means the script is related to spirits with a protective power, also the reason for putting the script on weapons. Writing the script in the form of a bird links it to the ancestor king spirit, to the deities that give the protective power. The use of bird and worm script declined after the fall of Zhou but were still in use mostly on seals for its decorative appearance. The belief in the spirit of ancestor king and the protective power it gives is lost forever.  

The Holy Beast in Zhou

Figure 44 is a jade disc with bird script writing, four words on each side of the disc surface and four words on the thick rim (figure 45). The bird script writing places the origin of the jade disc to the

Figure 44. Bird script on a thick disc.
Figure 45. Bird script on the rim of the disc.

southern states of Spring and Autumn.  Figure 46 is a disc with similar shape, size, and thickness. The similarity between Disc on figure 45 and figure 46 means they are both from the southern states of the

Figure 46.  Zhou thick disc with plain surface.

Spring and Autumn to the Warring States period. Unlike the disc on figure 45, the surfaces on disc 46 are plain with no carving. On the thick rim, instead of bird script writings, are three identical figure carvings (Figure 47). Although different from the Liangzhu Holy Beast, these three figures are still recognizable as the Liangzhu Holy Beast with a nose, the emblem for the ancestor king. Three is the number for Liangzhu royalty in the Liangzhu culture, further confirming that the three images on the rim are the Liangzhu Holy Beast with a nose, and thus gives proof that the Liangzhu ancestor king worship belief continued on to the Zhou period at least in the southern states of Wu, Yue, Chu, Cai, Xu, and Song. Some evidence shows that after the defeat by Zhou, some of the Shang people returned to their Liangzhu ancestor homeland in the south, bringing back the religion with them, and that may explain the Holy Beast figures on the disc.  

Figure 47. Liangzhu Holy Beast on a Zhou disc

Ancestor King Worship in Han

The bird and beast in Han

The belief associates with the bird and beast lingered into the Han Dynasty. Figures 48 and 49 are the front and back of a Han jade owl and figures 50 and 51 are the front and back of a bird. Notice the different markings on the back of the owl and the bird. The beast face on the back of the figure 50 bird is the same one on the Shang and Zhou ceremonial bronzes and also on the jade vase on figure 37. It can also be traced back to the beast face in Neolithic Hongshan as an emblem representing the ancestor king. The marking of the beast face on the back of the bird on figure 50 makes it credible to say that the bird is associated with the spirit of the ancestor king and the ancestor king worship.

Figure 48. Front of an owl.
Figure49. Back of the owl.
Figure 50. Front of a jade bird.
Figure 51. Back of the jade bird.

The bird and beast provide a traceable clue for ancestor king worship religious belief in ancient China. Figure 52 is a Han disc with bird emblem markings traceable back to Shang. On the side of the figure 37 Shang jade vase are two images pf the same bird as on the Han disc (Figure 53). That the birds on the Han jade disc have an origin in Shang speaks strongly that the religion belief in Han was not much different from the ancestor king worship in Shang.

Figure 52. Han jade disc with birds.
Figure 53.  Birds on the figure 37 Shang vase.

The royal bird on a royal seal

The bird represents the power of royalty and the spirit of the ancestor king. Figure 54 is a Han jade seal with a knob of a bird uniquely only to Han. The chemical weathering effect on the seal is appropriate for Han nephrite with the ferruginous crust embedded with Hematite inclusions (Figure 55). Tool marks left on the seal are from the spinning wheel with abrasive, recognizable by the tracks left on the carved lines. On the face of the seal are six words written in the early form of the official Han script 隸書 ,“Seal of a harmonic unity under the sky” 天下合同之印 (Figure 56). The wording points out that It is a seal of a peace treaty confirming the unification of the country. The bird is the emblem of kings and emperors past and present, representing the royal power giving credibility to the unification. The spirit of the ancestor kings in the bird gives the blessing, protection, and authorization to the country formation and therefore the knob of such a seal is the bird, pointing out the importance of the bird in the royal hierarchy.  

Figure 54. Han jade seal.
Figure 55. Ferruginous crust with Hematite inclusions.
Figure 56. Six words on the face of the seal.

Ancestor king worship on a disc

Jade discs are common artifact in ancient China and Large amount were found in the Liangzhu archeologic site. No one knows what the discs represents. Some speculate that they are money, from the shape similarity to the copper coins. The most frequently quoted explanation of the disc is from a Zhou text writing, “To worship the sky with the white disc and worship the earth with the yellow Cong. “以蒼壁禮天. 以黃琮禮地.; 周礼·春官·大宗伯”. The word 蒼means lack of color, or white. Ancient China believes the sky is round and hence to worship the sky with a round disc and the earth is square and therefore to worship the earth with a square tube Cong. But there can be another explanation. Figures 57 and 58 are the two sides of a Han disc.  On side A (Figure 57) are two men with a head of a bird chasing a winged

Figure 57.  Han disc side A
Figure 58. Han beast side B.

beast (Figure 59) and a bird (Figure 60).  On side B (Figure 58) there are two bird headed men and two winged beasts, and instead of the bird, a figure with a bird head and an abstract body (Figure 61).  The disappearance of the bird raises the possibility that the bird is a therianthrope transforming into a spirit

Figure 59. Han disc winged beast.
Figure 60.  Han disc bird.
Figure 61. Figure with a bird head and an abstract body.

with an abstract body, an entity in between the bird and the man with a bird head. The abstract body is the image of a spirit, and the bird head links it to the ancestor king. The bird man, the bird and the spirit are all the ancestor king in transition transformation and all of them are on a disc. In the Zhou and Han writings the bird carries the ancestor kings’ spirits into the sun and as a result kings and emperors have a meaning of radiance. 而日中有鳥,<山海經.大荒東經>,” 湯谷上有扶木,一日方至,一日方出,皆載於鳥”.With the bird and  the ancestor king spirit on the disc may just indicate that the jade disc itself in the form of the sun,  is the sun. Going back to the saying “To worship the sky with the white disc and worship the earth with the yellow Cong “, The jade disc is used to worship the sky because it represents the sun with the spirit of the ancestor king, the prim object of the worship. The Cong represents the power of the ruling king on earth and therefore is used to worship the earth. To use the disc or the Cong to worship the sky or the earth is because what the disc and the Cong represent, and not just because of their shapes. What is carved on the disc on figures 57 and 58 is a pictorial summary of the ancestor king worship belief of ancient China.

The beginning of an end

The presence of the winged beast on the disc (Figure 59) is significant. For it signifies the beginning of the end of the ancestor king worship religion that began in the Neolith Liangzhu culture, brought north by the migrating Liangzhu, and dominated the ancestor king worship in belief and ceremonies of Shang, Zhou to Han. This beast on the disc is different from those on the Shang bronzes and jade vase (Figure 37), on the Liangzhu butterfly plaque (Figure 39), and on the back of the Han jade bird (Figure 51). The beast on the Shang bronzes (figure 37 and 51) that sometimes being referred to as the Taotie has only the face and no wings. The beast on the disc has a body, two wings, and a floating crown on its head. The winged beast is also on other Han jades (Figures 62 and 63), lacquerware, bronze mirrors, and silk design, and has an origin from Achaemenid Persia around 6th to 4th BCE.  (See the blog on this web site “The Evolution of Chinese Jade making from Neolithic to Han, the Griffin winged beast Eurasian Stepp connection, and jade of the Tang Dynasty”).  It came from the Greco-Buddhism as the griffin to Han

Figure 62. Han jade winged beast.
Figure 63. Han winged beast.

China when Greco- Buddhism was introduced from the nomadic tribes and the Bactrim and Kushan Empires.  Buddhism starts to flourish in China after Han and dominated the Chinese religious belief till today, replacing the indigenous ancestor king worship belief that was eventually abandoned and forgotten. The only shadow left is the form of ancestor worship still practice today by the common Chinese people. The winged beast on the Han disc signifies a turning point of a passing religion and the coming of Buddhism that eventually dominates the Chinese culture.

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