Religions (May 2021)

Writings, Emotions, and Oblations: The Religious-Ritual Origin of the Classical Confucian Conception of Cheng (Sincerity)

  • Jinhua Jia

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 12, no. 6
p. 382


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Cheng 誠 (sincerity) is one of the primary concepts in the Confucian tradition as well as Chinese intellectual history. Its rich implications involve dimensions of religion, ritual, folk belief, ethics, psychology, cosmology, metaphysics, aesthetics, and literature. In the Confucian classics, cheng is described as the “Dao of heaven”; humans through cultivation can reach the mysterious state of “the utmost sincerity functioning as spirits” and thus can “assist the transforming and generating power of heaven and earth.” Because of cheng’s rich, sacred, and mysterious implications, it has been regarded as the most difficult and perplexing of Chinese concepts. Scholars have long studied cheng mainly from the perspective of philosophy to analyze its ideological conceptions in the Confucian classics, resulting in fruitful and inspiring interpretations. However, because they have not traced the origin of cheng to its rich religious, ritual, and literary sources, their interpretations have been unable to answer the question: why is cheng covered with such a mysterious veil? In recent decades, some scholars have started exploring cheng’s relationship with ancient religious beliefs and rituals, but so far a comprehensive examination of the religious-ritual origin of this significant concept remains lacking. To discover cheng’s mysterious origins, we must apply a synthetic approach of etymological, religious, philosophical, and literary studies. Drawing upon both transmitted and excavated texts, this essay first analyzes the graphic-phonetic structure and semantic implications of the character cheng 成 (completion), which was the character cheng’s 誠 early form. It then examines the rich meanings implied in both characters related to sacrificial-divinatory rituals, including invoking the spirits with sincere writings, emotions, and oblations, in order to seduce them to descend and enjoy the offerings, as well as perfectively completing the human-spirit communication. Finally, the essay discusses how those religious beliefs and ritual ceremonies evolved into Confucian ethical values and aesthetic concepts, thus lifting the mysterious veil from cheng.