Book Translation: The National Religion of the Eastern Tartars, Manchus and Mongols














        The history of religions is one of the most important objects of scientific research in our age. It is of utmost interest not only to the ethnologist and the historian, but also to the philosopher and even the theologian. It touches on the most serious of questions. It is therefore essential for one to have as complete and precise a knowledge of both ancient and modern religions as possible; in respect of this goal, the present study cannot serve to bring any certain conclusion. But this goal is not easy to reach; this is even more the case with the religions of distant peoples, not very civilized and little-known, who have not recorded the principles of their beliefs and religion in writing.

The difficulty is amplified by the fact that it does not suffice to take exact account of their present state; it is also absolutely necessary for one to follow their doctrines and practices across the ages, in order to properly understand the facts and reach a precise idea of their original state and the changes, alterations and mixtures that have taken place over the centuries. Because of this, one is exposed to truly regrettable contempts and erroneous judgments.

What we are saying here in general is true above all of the Tartar, Mongol and Chinese religions. One who is even a little involved in these matters will know well enough what dissents reign, not only among hagiographic popularizers, but also among specialists, concerning the beliefs of these eastern peoples. We will speak of the Mongols from this point of view further on[1]. It will suffice for the moment to note what the sinologists themselves make of the ancient Chinese; some see them as an atheist people, others ascribe to them a materialist religion, and others yet discern among them a pure and exalted monotheism.

The majority of these divergences and errors arise from their reliance on the narrations of travelers, sometimes even simple tourists. These travelers, ill-prepared for their task, and in spite of the best intentions in the world, do not always understand what they are told, or only see a small fraction of the people whose religion they describe[2], taking local superstitions and ideas for general foundations of belief, and seeking everywhere, as naturally as unconsciously, confirmation of their personal systems. The specialists themselves are not entirely exempt from these tendencies which are inherent to nature, like flesh to skin, as the Chinese say. They often have, as their only testimonies to consult, eastern historians who are strangers to the Far East and far more inclined than Europeans to envisage everything from their own particular point of view. The principal thing to do, presently, is to seek the indigenous texts relating to religious matters wherever they can be found, to study, elucidate and translate them, to put them within the reach of the world.

For the study of the religion of the Eastern Tartars, we have an array of texts that are as precious as they are rare. The first emperors of the Manchu dynasty which rules China today were men of the highest quality, from the political as well as the scientific and literary points of view. Kangxi and Qianlong[3], in particular, are names that recall kings endowed with great intelligence, exalted views, and extraordinary capabilities. Both were highly preoccupied with the future of their nation of origin and how to preserve its unique character and supremacy. They fortunately made impactful efforts to preserve its language, customs, religion and history from being forgotten and perishing. It is to this enlightened zeal that we owe, among other things, these lexicons called mirrors, that preserve for us, along with the treasure of the Manchu language, the memory of the customs and beliefs of the people who spoke it.

Yet the most precious document from the point of view that occupies us here, a document that can be called unique in its type, is the Ritual of the Manchu Religion, the Ritual of Various Sacrifices of the Manchu Nation[4], which was gathered and composed under the order of the great emperor known in Europe as Qianlong. We will see later on, in the preface of the work itself[5], the occasion and purpose of its composition, the means used by the Chinese king, and the names and qualities of its authors, as well as its value and importance. It is the authentic code of the Manchu religion from the 16th and 17th centuries.

This Ritual is not known in Europe, although it is greatly worthy of being so, for it is of such a nature as to correct false ideas and provide science with important and certain information. All that is known is what was said by Langlès in a report inserted in Tome VII of Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, under the following title: Receuil des usages (et cérémonies) établis pour les offrandes et sacrifices des Mandchous, par ordre de l’Empereur or Rituel des Mandchous. HESE-I TOKTOBUHA MANJUSA-I WECERE METERE KOOLI BITHE.

In it, Langlès gives an overview of Buddhism taken from the Ayin Akberi (established by the Emperor Akbar), then an overview of Shamanism, after which comes the text and a translation of the preface of Ritual, the headers of the chapters and some legends of figures. This is all there is, and furthermore, errors abound. Admittedly, one cannot blame the learned reporter. The Manchu language had only just been revealed to Europe and one could not have a deep knowledge of it from the outset.[6]

These circumstances led me to believe that it would be useful to give the hagiographers of Europe a complete knowledge of this precious compendium, and to attach to it all the information that can be provided on the subject by The Dictionaries of Manchu Speech, –– for thus can we call the imperial Mirrors.

But this would not suffice: it was necessary to go beyond the 16th century and penetrate as far as possible into previous ages to dig out all the memories that the national annalists were able to preserve in writing. This we managed to achieve, if not completely, at least sufficiently to produce quite important results, by exhausting the content of the History of the Jin Empire or the Niutchis[7], which I translated last year.[8] The histories of China have also given us some information, admittedly less important and less certain, but not at all detestable.

The Russian nun, P. Hyacinthe Bitchurinskyi, is also occupied with the Manchu religion in her book titled Kitai, ego jhiteli nravie, obytchayi prosvechtchenie (China, Its Territory, Its Manners and Customs, Its Civilization), Saint Petersburg, 1840. But what it says, besides being very brief, is not exempt from rather grave errors[9] and gives a completely false idea of the Manchu rites.

The modest work that I present here to the literate public will not be useless, I think; it will at least provide certain facts concerning a religion which has been much spoken of without being able to to rely on the clear testimony of its adherents; it will let them know the adherents’ personal thoughts and their manner of conceiving religious matters.

It seemed necessary to us to supplement these notions by comparing the religion of Eastern Tartary with that of its close neighbors, who also came from Tartary to occupy the region of great rivers and populate or subjugate the Land of Flowers.[10] To establish these relationships, the means and the materials abound. We have consulted, besides the Shu-king, the Zhao-li  (Rites of the Kingdom of Zhao)[11] and the Li-ki (Memorial of Rites), the former representing around the 10th century B.C., and the latter representing the age close to the Christian era; then we have the Siao Hio (with the commentary of Cheng Hsiun), the Kia-li (or Domestic Rites) of Chu-hsi, and the Chu-hsi-tsieh-yao-chuen, which, although written in the 13th century A.D., or taken from the writings of this century, reflects no less the customs of much earlier. The Li-ki­ is the most important of them all because it includes all the rites, or rules of conduct, the civil and domestic as well as the religious and political, and because it has remained the regulator of all the conduct of the Chinese.

Lastly, it appears to us that a quick glance at the properly Mongol religion, not that which has been transformed by Buddhism, but as it appears to us with its original elements and prior to the doctrine of Shakyamuni, could also be of some interest and use. We have therefore drawn some features from here and there, be it from original works such as the history of the Mongols of Sanang-Sechen and the Tai-Yuen-i-suduri Bithe, or from narrations contemporary with the formation of the Mongol Empire, or from the first travelers who roamed the Tartar lands.

I must say in conclusion some words on the Manchu book of which I am providing the first translation ever made. The text is taken from CC. 922 of the Paris Library and 423 of the St. Petersburg Library. It forms six deptelins or books, the sixth of which is full of boards. It is a well-cared-for imperial edition with few or no faults. Its composition and divisions will be made known in the translation that is to follow. The whole book contains around four hundred pages, sixty-six of which are boards. It is of interest because it is a monument of the Manchu language, rather than a translation from Chinese as other Manchu books too often are. It presents no other special features that are worth mentioning.

With the hope that this small work can be of some use, we present it to men of study as a source of information and a milestone in the research that must be done to establish a particular part of the history of religions on solid and durable ground. May it fulfill its purpose!


[1] See the 3rd part.

[2] Only last year a sinologist of renown, having only just arrived in China, wrote to the Revue Internationale, following a conversation with a lettered Chinese, that the idea of divinity was absent from the ancient books of China.

[3] These are the crown names under which the emperors who reigned from 1662 to 1725 and from 1736 to 1796 are known in Europe. The Chinese call them by their posthumous names, Sheng-tzou and Kao-tzong.

[4] Manjusa-i- wecere metere kooli bilhe.

[5] See the 2nd part.

[6] He translates, for example, Wang kongsa (the princes and dukes), as ‘the great decorated ones of Kong’; Kun-ning-kong is for him the temple of the Buddha, although it is consecrated principally to the spirits, and the Buddha only has a chapel there. Langlès takes the samans for Buddhist priests, and he thinks the Buddha to be more ancient than Brahma, etc.

[7] The people who inhabited the middle of Manchuria and founded the Jin empire in the 12th century.

[8] Histoire de l’empire de Kin. Paris, 1886.

[9] It is thus that it has all the ceremonial rites being performed by priestesses; it counts thirteen genies or fetishes, among whom it includes Kuan-ti and Buddha, etc. See further on.

[10] A name that the Chinese give their country.

[11] A principality whose leader Wu-Wang became emperor in 1122 B.C., after having defeated the tyrant Zhou [Ed.: also known as Shang], and whose dynasty ruled until 255 B.C., reduced in the end to the state of the first Capetian kings.


(Original work is public domain; Translation is Copyright ©2017 ZEBULON GOERTZEL, Feel Free To Use For Any Educational Purposes)


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