Tiān – the oldest Chinese terms for heaven
Posted by Fredsvenn on June 1, 2015
Tinia (also Tin, Tinh, Tins or Tina), the god of the sky and the highest god in Etruscan mythology, equivalent to the Roman Jupiter and the Greek Zeus, is usually regarded as his Etruscan counterpart.
The Etruscans believed in Nine Great Gods, who had the power of hurling thunderbolts; they were called Novensiles by the Romans. Of thunderbolts there were eleven sorts, of which Tinia, as the supreme thunder-god, wielded three.
Tinia was also part of the powerful “trinity” that included Menrva and Uni and had temples in every city of Etruria. Tinia was sometimes represented as seated and with a beard or sometimes standing and beardless. Some of Tinia’s defining epithets are detailed on the Piacenza Liver, a bronze model of a liver used for haruspicy. Some of his epithets inscribed there include Tin Cilens, Tin Θuf and Tinś Θne.
In terms of symbolism, Tinia has the thunderbolt and the rod of power, and is generally accompanied by the eagle and sometimes has a wreath of ivy round his head, in addition to the other insignia of Jove. He was the husband of Thalna or Uni and the father of Hercle.
Dingir is a cuneiform sign, most commonly the determinative for “deity” although it has related meanings as well. As a determinative, it is not pronounced, and is conventionally transliterated as a superscript “D” as in e.g. DInanna. Generically, dingir can be translated as “god” or “goddess”.
The sign in Sumerian cuneiform (DIĜIR) by itself represents the Sumerian word an (“sky” or “heaven”), the ideogram for An or the word diĝir (“god”), the supreme deity of the Sumerian pantheon. In Assyrian cuneiform, it (AN, DIĜIR) could be either an ideogram for “deity” (ilum) or a syllabogram for an, or ìl-. In Hittite orthography, the syllabic value of the sign was again an.
Tengri, is one of the names for the primary chief deity since the early Turkic (Xiongnu, Hunnic, Bulgar) and Mongolic (Xianbei) peoples. Worship of Tengri is Tengrism. The core beings in Tengrism are Sky-Father (Tengri/Tenger Etseg) and Earth Mother (Eje/Gazar Eej). It involves shamanism, animism, totemism and ancestor worship.
The Chinese word for “sky” (Mandarin: tiān, Classical Chinese: thīn and Japanese Han Dynasty loanword ten) may also be related, possibly a loan from a prehistoric Central Asian language. The oldest form of the name is recorded in Chinese annals from the 4th century BC, describing the beliefs of the Xiongnu. It takes the form Cheng-li, which is hypothesized to be a Chinese transcription of Tängri.
The Proto-Turkic form of the word has been reconstructed as *Teŋri or *Taŋrɨ. Alternatively, a reconstructed Altaic etymology from *T`aŋgiri (“oath” or “god”) would emphasize the god’s divinity rather than his domain over the sky. The Turkic form, Tengri, is attested in the 11th century by Mahmud al-Kashgari. In modern Turkish, the derived word “Tanrı” is used as the generic word for “god”, or for the Abrahamic God, and is used today by Turkish people to refer to God. The supreme deity of the traditional religion of the Chuvash is Tură.
Tengri was the main god of the Turkic pantheon, controlling the celestial sphere. Tengri is considered to be strikingly similar to the Indo-European sky god, *Dyeus, and the structure of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European religion is closer to that of the early Turks than to the religion of any people of Near Eastern or Mediterranean antiquity.
In China, in Daoist belief, tian, meaning sky, is associated with light, the positive, male, etc., whereas di, meaning earth or land, is associated with dark, the negative, female, etc. Shangdi (literally “King Above”) was a supreme God worshipped in ancient China. It is also used to refer to the Christian God in the Standard Chinese Union Version of the Bible.
Zhu, Tian Zhu (lit. “Lord” or “Lord in Heaven”) is translated from the English word, “Lord”, which is a formal title of the Christian God in Mainland China’s Christian churches. Tian (lit. “sky” or “heaven”) is used to refer to the sky as well as a personification of it. Whether it possesses sentience in the embodiment of an omnipotent, omniscient being is a difficult question for linguists and philosophers.
The oldest records of the term Westerners translate as “God”, “Most High God”, “Greatest Lord” appear to exist in the earliest documents of Chinese literature as Shàngdì (Shàng + dì, literally “Above Emperor”). This representation may be as old as 2000 BCE.
However, as Chinese religion changed to incorporate later interpretations of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, the term seems to have merged, in the views of some philosophers, with an impersonal Tiān, or Heaven, to produce the omnipotent omnipresent identity of Huáng Tiān Shàngdì = Huáng “Emperor” + Tiān + Shàngdì or Xuán Tiān Shàngdì = Xuán “Deep” + Tiān + Shàngdì.
The compounds Shàngtiān = Shàng + Tiān and Tiāntáng = Tiān + Táng “hall” have also been used for Heaven. The compounds tiānshén=tiān+shén “god” and tiānxiān=tiān+xiān “immortal” have been used for a deity, in a polytheistic sense. The word Dì by itself has likewise been used for God.
In addition to a reuse of some of the traditional titles, transliterations and new constructions became used by the Chinese for “God” in the Abrahamic meaning, rather than for the supreme being of traditional Chinese religion and mythology.
Tiān is one of the oldest Chinese terms for heaven and a key concept in Chinese mythology, philosophy, and religion. During the Shang Dynasty (17–11th centuries BCE), the Chinese referred to their supreme god as Shàngdì (“Lord on High”) or Dì (“Lord”). During the following Zhou Dynasty, Tiān became synonymous with this figure. Heaven worship was, before the 20th century, an orthodox state religion of China.
Di or Ti (“earth”) is one of the oldest Chinese terms for the earth and a key concept or figure in Chinese mythology and religion. In Taoism and Confucianism, Di is often translated as “Earth” and is mentioned in relationship to its complementary aspect of Tian, most often translated as “Heaven”.
The dualism of Heaven and Earth are important to Taoist cosmology. They are thought to maintain the two poles of the Three Realms of reality, with the middle realm occupied by Humanity.
In Taoism and Confucianism, Tiān is often translated as “Heaven” and is mentioned in relationship to its complementary aspect of Dì, which is most often translated as “Earth”. These two aspects of Daoist cosmology are representative of the dualistic nature of Taoism. They are thought to maintain the two poles of the Three Realms of reality, with the middle realm occupied by Humanity (Rén).
The modern Chinese character 天 and early seal script both combine dà 大 “great; large” and yī 一 “one”, but some of the original characters in Shāng oracle bone script and Zhōu bronzeware script anthropomorphically portray a large head on a great person.
The ancient oracle and bronze ideograms for dà 大 depict a stick figure person with arms stretched out denoting “great; large”. The oracle and bronze characters for tiān 天 emphasize the cranium of this “great (person)”, either with a square or round head, or head marked with one or two lines.
Schuessler (2007:495) notes the bronze graphs for tiān, showing a person with a round head, resemble those for dīng 丁 “4th Celestial stem”, and suggests that the anthropomorphic graph may or may not indicate that the original meaning was ‘deity’, rather than ‘sky’.
The ten Celestial or Heavenly Stems (tiāngān) are a Chinese system of ordinals that first appear during the Shang dynasty, ca. 1250 BC, as the names of the ten days of the week.
Two variant Chinese characters for tiān 天 “heaven” are written with wáng “king” and bā “8” and the Daoist coinage with qīng “blue” and “qì”, i.e., “blue sky”. The sinologist Herrlee Creel, who wrote a comprehensive study on “The Origin of the Deity T’ien” (1970:493–506), gives this overview.
For three thousand years it has been believed that from time immemorial all Chinese revered T’ien 天, “Heaven,” as the highest deity, and that this same deity was also known as Ti or Shang Ti. But the new materials that have become available in the present century, and especially the Shang inscriptions, make it evident that this was not the case.
It appears rather that T’ien is not named at all in the Shang inscriptions, which instead refer with great frequency to Ti or Shang Ti. T’ien appears only with the Chou, and was apparently a Chou deity. After the conquest the Chou considered T’ien to be identical with the Shang deity Ti (or Shang Ti), much as the Romans identified the Greek Zeus with their Jupiter.
Having established that Tian was not a deity of the Shang people, Creel proposes a hypothesis for how it originated. Both the Shang and Zhou peoples pictographically represented da 大 as “a large or great man”. The Zhou subsequently added a head on him to denote tian 天 meaning “king, kings” (cf. wang 王 “king; ruler”, which had oracle graphs picturing a line under a “great person” and bronze graphs that added the top line).
From “kings”, tian was semantically extended to mean “dead kings; ancestral kings”, who controlled “fate; providence”, and ultimately a single omnipotent deity Tian “Heaven”. In addition, tian named both “the heavens” (where ancestral kings and gods supposedly lived) and the visible “sky”.
Another possibility is that Tian may be related to Tengri and possibly was a loan word from a prehistoric Central Asian language, or even with the Sumerian term Dingir. For the etymology of tiān, Schuessler links it with the Mongolian word tengri “sky, heaven, heavenly deity” or the Tibeto-Burman words taleŋ (Adi) and tǎ-lyaŋ (Lepcha), both meaning “sky”. He also suggests a likely connection between Chinese tiān 天, diān “summit, mountaintop”, and diān “summit, top of the head, forehead”, which have cognates such as Naga tiŋ “sky”.
The concept of Heaven (Tian, 天) is pervasive in Confucianism. Confucius had a deep trust in Heaven and believed that Heaven overruled human efforts. He also believed that he was carrying out the will of Heaven, and that Heaven would not allow its servant, Confucius, to be killed until his work was done. Many attributes of Heaven were delineated in his Analects.
For Mozi, Heaven is the divine ruler, just as the Son of Heaven is the earthly ruler. Mozi believed that spirits and minor demons and spirits exist or at least rituals should be performed as if they did for social reasons, but their function is to carry out the will of Heaven, watching for evil-doers and punishing them. Mozi taught that Heaven loves all people equally and that each person should similarly love all human beings without distinguishing between his own relatives and those of others (Dubs, 1959-1960:163-172).
The Tian are the heaven worlds and pure lands in Buddhist cosmology. Some devas are also called Tian. The number of vertical heaven layers in Taoism is different, the most common saying is the 36 Tian developed from Durenjing. In I-Kuan Tao Tian are divided into 3 vertical worlds: Li Tian, “heaven of truth”, Qi Tian, “heaven of spirit”, and Xiang Tian, “heaven of matter”.
Tiān is one of the components in hundreds of Chinese compounds. Some significant ones include tiānmìng “Mandate of Heaven”, “divine mandate, God’s will; fate, destiny; one’s lifespan”, Tiānwèn, the Heavenly Questions section of the Chǔ Cí, tiānzĭ “Son of Heaven”, an honorific designation for the “Emperor; Chinese sovereign”, tiānxià (lit. “all under heaven”) “the world, earth; China”, tiāndì (lit “heaven and earth”) “the world; the universe.” (These Hànzì are pronounced Ten’chi in Japanese), Xíngtiān, an early mythological hero who fought against Heaven, despite being decapitated, and Tiānfáng, the Chinese name for Mecca, the Islamic holy city (Tiān is used as translation of Allah).
Shen is a key word in Chinese philosophy, religion, and traditional medicine. Shen’s polysemous meanings developed diachronically over three millennia. The Hanyu dazidian, an authoritative historical dictionary, distinguishes one meaning for shēn as the name of a deity and eleven separate meanings for shén.
This dictionary entry for shen lists early usage examples, and many of these 11 meanings were well attested prior to the Han Dynasty. Chinese classic texts use shen in meanings 1 “spirit; god”, 2 “spirit, mind; attention”, 3 “expression; state of mind”, 5 “supernatural”, and meaning 6 “esteem”. The earliest examples of meaning 4 “portrait” are in Song Dynasty texts.
Shén is the Modern Standard Chinese pronunciation of “spirit; god, deity; spiritual, supernatural; awareness, consciousness etc”. Reconstructions of shén in Middle Chinese (ca. 6th-10th centuries CE) include dź’jěn (Bernhard Karlgren, substituting j for his “yod medial”), źiɪn (Zhou Fagao), ʑin (Edwin G. Pulleyblank, “Late Middle”), and zyin (William H. Baxter). Reconstructions of shén in Old Chinese (ca. 6th-3rd centuries BCE) include *djěn (Karlgren), *zdjien (Zhou), *djin (Li Fanggui), *Ljin (Baxter), and *m-lin (Axel Schuessler).
Although the etymological origin of shen is uncertain, Schuessler (2007:458) notes a possible Sino-Tibetan etymology; compare Chepang gliŋh “spirit of humans”.
Chinese shen “spirit; etc.” is a loanword in East Asian languages. The Japanese Kanji is pronounced shin or jin in On’yomi (Chinese reading), and kami, kō, or tamashii in Kun’yomi (Japanese reading). The Korean Hanja is pronounced sin. In the Vietnamese language, it is referred to as thần.
Meanings 7-9 first occur in early Chinese dictionaries; the Erya defines shen in meanings 7 “govern” and 8 “cautious” (and 6, which is attested elsewhere), and the Guangya defines meaning 9 “display”. Meaning 10 gives three usages in Chinese dialects (technically “topolects”). Meaning 11 “a surname” is exemplified in Shennong (“Divine Farmer”), the culture hero and inventor of agriculture in Chinese mythology.
The Chinese language has many compounds of shen. For instance, it is compounded with tian “sky; heaven; nature; god” in tianshen “celestial spirits; heavenly gods; deities; (Buddhism) deva”, with shan “mountain” in shanshen “mountain spirit”, and hua “speech; talk; saying; story” in shenhua “mythology; myth; fairy tale”.
Several shen “spirit; god” compounds use names for other supernatural beings, for example, ling “spirit; soul” in shenling “gods; spirits, various deities”, qi “earth spirit” in shenqi “celestial and terrestrial spirits”, xian “Xian (Taoism), transcendent” in shenxian “spirits and immortals; divine immortal”, guai “spirit; devil; monster” in shenguai “spirits and demons; gods and spirits”, and gui “ghost, goblin; demon, devil” in guishen “ghosts and spirits; supernatural beings”.
Wing-Tsit Chan distinguishes four philosophical meanings of this guishen: “spiritual beings”, “ancestors”, “gods and demons”, and “positive and negative spiritual forces”.
In ancient times shen usually refers to heavenly beings while kuei refers to spirits of deceased human beings. In later-day sacrifices, kuei-shen together refers to ancestors. In popular religions shen means gods (who are good) and demons (who are not always good).
In Neo-Confucianism kuai-shen may refer to all these three categories but more often than not the term refers to the activity of the material force (ch’i). Chang Tsai’s dictum, “The negative spirit (kuei) and positive spirit (shen) are the spontaneous activity of the two material forces (yin and yang),” has become the generally accepted definition.
The primary meaning of shen is translatable as English “spirit, spirits, Spirit, spiritual beings; celestial spirits; ancestral spirits” or “god, gods, God; deity, deities, supernatural beings”, etc. Shen is sometimes loosely translated as “soul”, but Chinese hun and po distinguishes hun “spiritual soul” and po “physical soul”.
Instead of struggling to translate shen, it can be transliterated as a loanword. The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) defines shen, “In Chinese philosophy: a god, person of supernatural power, or the spirit of a dead person.”
In acupuncture, shen is a pure spiritual energy devoid of memory and personality traits, whereas hun is the spiritual energy associated with the personality and po the energy tied to the sustenance of the physical body. In this system, shen resides in the heart and departs first at death, hun resides in the liver and departs second, and po resides in the lungs and departs last.
Shen plays a central role in Christian translational disputes over Chinese terms for God. Among the early Chinese “god; God” names, shangdi or di was the Shang term, tian was the Zhou term, and shen was a later usage. Modern terms for “God” include shangdi, zhu, tianzhu (esp. Catholics), and shen (esp. Protestants).
The earliest written forms of shen “spirit; god” occur in Zhou Dynasty Bronzeware script and Qin Dynasty Seal script characters (compare the variants shown on the Chinese Etymology link below). Although has not been identified in Shang Dynasty Oracle bone script records, the phonetic shen has.
Paleographers interpret the Oracle script of as a pictograph of a “lightning bolt”. This was graphically differentiated between dian “lightening; electricity” with the “cloud radical” and shen with the “worship radical”, semantically suggesting both “lightning” and “spirits” coming down from the heavens.
Tao or Dao is a Chinese concept signifying ‘way’, ‘path’, ‘route’, or sometimes more loosely, ‘doctrine’ or ‘principle’. Within the context of traditional Chinese philosophy and religion the Tao is the intuitive knowing of “life” that of which cannot be grasped full heartedly as just a concept but known nonetheless as the present living experience of one’s everyday being.
The teachings began from Laozi that gave rise to a religion (Wade–Giles, Tao Chiao; Pinyin, Daojiao) and philosophy (Wade–Giles, Tao chia; Pinyin, Daojia) referred to in English with the single term Taoism.
The Tao was shared with Confucianism, Chán and Zen Buddhism and more broadly throughout East Asian philosophy and religion in general. It signifies the primordial essence or fundamental nature of the universe.
In the foundational text of Taoism the Tao Te Ching, Laozi explains that Tao is not a ‘name’ for a ‘thing’ but the underlying natural order of the universe whose ultimate essence is difficult to circumscribe due to it being non conceptual yet evident in ones being of aliveness.
The Tao is “eternally nameless” and to be distinguished from the countless ‘named’ things which are considered to be its manifestations, the reality of life before its descriptions of it.
In Taoism, Chinese Buddhism and Confucianism, the object of spiritual practice is to ‘become one with the tao’ (Tao Te Ching) or to harmonise one’s will with Nature (cf. Stoicism) in order to achieve ‘effortless action’ (Wu wei). This involves meditative and moral practices. Important in this respect is the Taoist concept of De (virtue).
The concept of Tao differs from conventional (western) ontology: it is an active and holistic conception of Nature, rather than a static, atomistic one. It is worth comparing to the original Logos of Heraclitus, c. 500 BC.
The etymological linguistic origins of dao “way; path” depend upon its Old Chinese pronunciation, which scholars have tentatively reconstructed as *d’ôg, *dəgwx, *dəw, *luʔ, and *lûʔ.
Boodberg noted that the shou “head” phonetic in the dao character was not merely phonetic but “etymonic”, analogous with English to head meaning “to lead” and “to tend in a certain direction,” “ahead,” “headway”. Victor H. Mair proposes a Proto-Indo-European etymology for dao supported by numerous cognates in Indo-European languages, and semantically similar Arabic and Hebrew words.
The archaic pronunciation of dao sounded approximately like drog or dorg. This links it to the Proto-Indo-European root drogh (to run along) and Indo-European dhorg (way, movement). Related words in a few modern Indo-European languages are Russian doroga (way, road), Polish droga (way, road), Czech dráha (way, track), Serbo-Croatian draga (path through a valley), and Norwegian dialect drog (trail of animals; valley). ….
The nearest Sanskrit (Old Indian) cognates to Dao (drog) are dhrajas (course, motion) and dhraj (course). The most closely related English words are “track” and “trek”, while “trail” and “tract” are derived from other cognate Indo-European roots. Following the Way, then, is like going on a cosmic trek.
Even more unexpected than the panoply of Indo-European cognates for Dao (drog) is the Hebrew root d-r-g for the same word and Arabic t-r-q, which yields words meaning “track, path, way, way of doing things” and is important in Islamic philosophical discourse.
Axel Schuessler’s etymological dictionary presents two possibilities for the tonal morphology of dào “road; way; method” < Middle Chinese dâu < Old Chinese *lûʔ and dào or “to go along; bring along; conduct; explain; talk about” < Middle dâu < Old *lûh.
Either dào “the thing which is doing the conducting” is a Tone B (shangsheng “rising tone”) “endoactive noun” derivation from dào “conduct”, or dào is a Later Old Chinese (Warring States period) “general tone C” (qusheng “departing tone”) derivation from dào “way”.
For a possible etymological connection, Schuessler notes the ancient Fangyan dictionary defines yu < *lokh and lu < *lu as Eastern Qi State dialectal words meaning dào < *lûʔ “road”. De (“power; virtue; integrity”) is the term generally used to refer to proper adherence to Dao; De is the active living or cultivation of the way. Particular things (things with names) that manifest from Dao have their own inner nature that they follow, in accordance with the Dao, and the following of this inner nature is De.
Wuwei or ‘naturalness’ are contingent on understanding and conforming to this inner nature, which is interpreted variously from a personal, individual nature to a more generalized notion of human nature within the greater universe. Historically, the concept of De differed significantly between Daoists and Confucianists.
Confucianism was largely a moral system emphasizing the values of humaneness, righteousness, and filial duty, and so conceived De in terms of obedience to rigorously defined and codified social rules. Daoists took a broader, more naturalistic/metaphysical view on the relationship between humankind and the universe, and considered social rules to be at best a derivative reflection of the natural and spontaneous interactions between people, and at worst calcified structure that inhibited naturalness and created conflict. This led to some philosophical and political conflicts between Daoists and Confucianists; Several sections of the works attributed to Chuang Tzu are dedicated to critiques of the failures of Confucianism.
Shangdi or Shang-ti, also written simply as Di or Ti (“Emperor”), is a supreme god and sky deity in China’s traditional religions. At a point he was identified as Tian, “Heaven”, the “Universe”, the “Great All”. The name is the pinyin romanization of two Chinese characters. The first, Shàng – means “high”, “highest”, “first”, “primordial”; the second, Dì – is the same character used in the name of Huangdi – the Yellow Emperor, originator of the Chinese civilisation – and the title huangdi, emperor of China, and is usually translated as “emperor”.
The Yellow Emperor or Huangdi, formerly romanized as Huang-ti and Hwang-ti, is one of the legendary Chinese sovereigns and culture heroes included among the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors. Tradition holds that Huangdi reigned from 2697 to 2597 or 2698 to 2598 BC. His cult was particularly prominent in the late Warring States and early Han period, when he was portrayed as the originator of the centralized state, a cosmic ruler, and a patron of esoteric arts. Traditionally credited with numerous inventions and innovations, the Yellow Emperor is now regarded as the initiator of Chinese civilization, and said to be the ancestor of all Huaxia Chinese.
The origin of Huangdi’s legend is unclear, but historians have formulated several hypotheses about it. Yang Kuan, a member of the Doubting Antiquity School (1920s–40s), argued that the Yellow Emperor was derived from Shangdi, the highest god of the Shang dynasty. Yang’s view is based on the series Shangdi => Huang Shangdi => Huangdi => Huangdi, in which he claims that huang (“yellow”) either was a graphic variant of huang (“august”) or was used as a taboo character for the latter. Yang’s view has been criticized by Mitarai Masaru and by Michael Puett.
Historian Mark Edward Lewis agrees that huang and huang were often interchangeable, but, disagreeing with Yang, he claims that huang meaning “yellow” appeared first. Based on what he admits is a “novel etymology” likening huang to the phonetically close wang (the “burned shaman” in Shang rainmaking rituals), Lewis suggests that “Huang” in the Yellow Emperor’s title might originally have meant “rainmaking shaman” or “rainmaking ritual.” Citing late Warring States and early Han versions of Huangdi’s myth, he further argues that the figure of the Yellow Emperor originated in ancient rain-making rituals in which the Yellow Emperor represented the power of rain and clouds, whereas his mythical rival Chi You (or Yandi) stood for fire and drought.
Also disagreeing with Yang Kuan’s hypothesis, Sarah Allan finds it unlikely that such a popular myth as the Yellow Emperor’s could have come from a taboo character. She argues instead that pre-Shang “‘history’,” including the story of the Yellow Emperor, “can all be understood as a later transformation and systematization of Shang myth.” In her view, Huangdi was originally an unnamed “lord of the underworld” (or the “Yellow Springs”), the mythological counterpart of the Shang sky deity Shangdi.
At the time, Shang rulers claimed that their mythical ancestors, identified with “the [ten] suns, birds, east, life, [and] the Lord on High” (i.e., Shangdi), had defeated an earlier people associated with “the underworld, dragons, west.”
After the Zhou overthrew the Shang in the eleventh century BC, Zhou leaders reinterpreted Shang myths as meaning that the Shang had vanquished a real political dynasty, which was eventually named the Xia dynasty.
By Han times – as seen in Sima Qian’s account in the Shiji – the Yellow Emperor, who as lord of the underworld had been symbolically linked to the Xia, had become a historical ruler whose descendants were thought to have founded the Xia.
Accounts of the Yellow Emperor started to appear in Chinese texts in the Warring States period. “The most ancient extant reference” to Huangdi is an inscription on a bronze vessel made in the first half of the fourth century BC by the royal family of the state of Qi. As Michael Puett points out, this was one of several references to the Yellow Emperor in the fourth and third centuries BC within accounts of the creation of the state.
The name Shangdi is thus generally translated as “Highest Emperor”, but also “Primordial Emperor”, “Ancestral God”, “First God”. The deity preceded the title and the emperors of China were named after him in their role as Tianzi, the sons of Heaven.
The earliest references to Shangdi are found in oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty in the 2nd millennium BC, although the later work Classic of History claims yearly sacrifices were made to him by Emperor Shun, even before the Xia Dynasty.
Shangdi was regarded as the ultimate spiritual power by the ruling elite of the Huaxia during the Shang dynasty: he was believed to control victory in battle, success or failure of harvests, weather conditions such as the floods of the Yellow River, and the fate of the kingdom. Shangdi seems to have ruled a hierarchy of other gods controlling nature, as well as the spirits of the deceased. These ideas were later mirrored or carried on by the Taoist Jade Emperor and his celestial bureaucracy.
Shangdi was probably more transcendental than immanent, only working through lesser gods. Shangdi was considered too distant to be worshiped directly by ordinary mortals. Instead, the Shang kings proclaimed that Shangdi had made himself accessible through the souls of their royal ancestors, both in the legendary past and in recent generations as the departed Shang kings joined him in the afterlife. The emperors could thus successfully entreat Shangdi directly. Many of the oracle bone inscriptions record these petitions, usually praying for rain but also seeking approval from Shangdi for state action.
In the later Shang and Zhou dynasties, Shangdi was gradually replaced by or conflated with Heaven (Tiān). The Duke of Zhou justified his clan’s usurpation through the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which proposed that the protection of Shangdi was not connected to their clan membership but by their just governance. Shangdi was no longer tribal but instead an unambiguously good moral force, exercising its power according to exacting standards. It could thus be lost and even “inherited” by a new dynasty, provided they upheld the proper rituals.
Nonetheless, the connection of many rituals with the Shang clan meant that Shang nobles continued to rule several locations (despite their rebellions) and to serve as court advisors and priests. The Duke of Zhou even created an entire ceremonial city along strict cosmological principals to house the Shang aristocracy and the nine tripods representing Huaxia sovereignty; the Shang was then charged with maintaining the Rites of Zhou. Likewise, the Shang’s lesser houses, the shi knightly class, developed directly into the learned Confucian gentry and scholars who advised the Zhou rulers on courtly etiquette and ceremony. The Confucian classics carried on and ordered the earlier traditions, including the worship of Shangdi.
The Four Books mention Shangdi as well but, as it is a later compilation, the references are much more sparse and abstract. Shangdi appears most commonly in earlier works: this pattern may reflect increasing rationalization of Shangdi over time, the shift from a known and arbitrary tribal god to a more abstract and philosophical concept, or his conflation and absorption by other deities.
By the time of the Han dynasty, the influential Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan glossed: “Shangdi is another name for Heaven”. Dong Zhongshu said: “Heaven is the ultimate authority, the king of gods who should be admired by the king”. In later eras, he was more commonly referred to as the August Highest Emperor of Heaven (Huángtiān Shàngdì) and, in this usage, he is especially conflated with the Taoist Jade Emperor.
As mentioned above, sacrifices offered to Shangdi by the king are claimed by traditional Chinese histories to predate the Xia dynasty. The surviving archaeological record shows that by the Shang, the shoulder blades of sacrificed oxen were used to send questions or communication through fire and smoke to the divine realm, a practice known as scapulimancy.
The heat would cause the bones to crack and royal diviners would interpret the marks as Shangdi’s response to the king. Inscriptions used for divination were buried into special orderly pits, while those that were for practice or records were buried in common middens after use.
Under Shangdi or his later names, the deity received sacrifices from the ruler of China in every Chinese dynasty annually at a great Temple of Heaven in the imperial capital. Following the principles of Chinese geomancy, this would always be located in the southern quarter of the city. During the ritual, a completely healthy bull would be slaughtered and presented as an animal sacrifice to Shangdi.
The Book of Rites states the sacrifice should occur on the “longest day” on a round-mound altar. The altar would have three tiers: the highest for Shangdi and the Son of Heaven; the second-highest for the sun and moon; and the lowest for the natural gods such as the stars, clouds, rain, wind, and thunder.
It is important to note that Shangdi is never represented with either images or idols. Instead, in the center building of the Temple of Heaven, in a structure called the “Imperial Vault of Heaven”, a “spirit tablet” (or shénwèi) inscribed with the name of Shangdi is stored on the throne, Huangtian Shangdi. During an annual sacrifice, the emperor would carry these tablets to the north part of the Temple of Heaven, a place called the “Prayer Hall For Good Harvests”, and place them on that throne.
“Shangdi” has also been used to translate the word God (Elohim in Hebrew, Theos in Greek) into Chinese by some Christian missionaries. The point has been contentious, with some preferring “Shangdi” and others “Shen” (lit. “[a] god”).
British missionaries and some Catholics preferred Shangdi as a connection with a presumed ancient and primitive native monotheism, while American missionaries and other Catholics preferred to avoid it as such a specific term may associate the Christian God with actual Chinese polytheism.
The Shang dynasty (Shāng cháo) or Yin dynasty (Yīn dài), according to traditional historiography, ruled in the Yellow River valley in the second millennium BC, succeeding the Xia dynasty and followed by the Zhou dynasty. The classic account of the Shang comes from texts such as the Book of Documents, Bamboo Annals and Records of the Grand Historian.
According to the traditional chronology based upon calculations made approximately 2,000 years ago by Liu Xin, the Shang ruled from 1766 to 1122 BC, but according to the chronology based upon the “current text” of Bamboo Annals, they ruled from 1556 to 1046 BC. The Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project dated them from c. 1600 to 1046 BC.
Before the 20th century, the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC) was the earliest Chinese dynasty that could be verified from its own records. However during the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD), antiquarians collected bronze ritual vessels attributed to the Shang era, some of which bore inscriptions. These types of early inscriptions were later traced to the Yinxu site in the Yellow River valley.
Archaeological work at the Ruins of Yin (near modern-day Anyang), which has been identified as the last Shang capital, uncovered eleven major Yin royal tombs and the foundations of palaces and ritual sites, containing weapons of war and remains from both animal and human sacrifices. Tens of thousands of bronze, jade, stone, bone, and ceramic artifacts have been obtained.
The Anyang site has yielded the earliest known body of Chinese writing, mostly divinations inscribed on oracle bones – turtle shells, ox scapulae, or other bones. More than 20,000 were discovered in the initial scientific excavations during the 1920s and 1930s, and over four times as many have been found since. The inscriptions provide critical insight into many topics from the politics, economy, and religious practices to the art and medicine of this early stage of Chinese civilization.
Chinese historians living in later periods were accustomed to the notion of one dynasty succeeding another, and readily identified the Erligang and Erlitou sites with the early Shang and Xia dynasty of traditional histories.
The actual political situation in early China may have been more complicated, with the Xia and Shang being political entities that existed concurrently, just as the early Zhou, who established the successor state of the Shang, are known to have existed at the same time as the Shang.
Chinese bronze casting and pottery advanced during the Shang dynasty, with bronze typically being used for ritually significant, rather than primarily utilitarian, items. As far back as c. 1500 BC, the early Shang dynasty engaged in large-scale production of bronze-ware vessels and weapons.
This production required a large labor force that could handle the mining, refining, and transportation of the necessary copper, tin, and lead ores. This in turn created a need for official managers that could oversee both hard-laborers and skilled artisans and craftsmen.
The Shang royal court and aristocrats required a vast amount of different bronze vessels for various ceremonial purposes and events of religious divination. Ceremonial rules even decreed how many bronze containers of each type a nobleman or noblewoman of a certain rank could own. With the increased amount of bronze available, the army could also better equip itself with an assortment of bronze weaponry. Bronze was also used for the fittings of spoke-wheeled chariots, which appeared in China around 1200 BC.
Bronze weapons were an integral part of Shang society. Shang infantry were armed with a variety of stone and bronze weaponry, including máo spears, yuè pole-axes, gē pole-based dagger-axes, composite bows, and bronze or leather helmets.
The chariot first appeared in China during the reign of Wu Ding. Oracle bone inscriptions suggest that the western enemies of the Shang used limited numbers of chariots in battle, but the Shang themselves used them only as mobile command vehicles and in royal hunts.
It is little doubt that the chariot entered China through the Central Asia and the Northern Steppe, possibly indicating some form of contact with the Indo-Europeans. Recent archaeological finds have shown that the late Shang used horses, chariots, bows and practiced horse burials that are similar to the steppe peoples to the west.
Other possible cultural influences resulting from Indo-European contact may include fighting styles, head-and-hoof rituals, art motifs and myths. These influences have led one scholar, Christopher I. Beckwith, to speculate that Indo-Europeans “may even have been responsible for the foundation of the Shang Dynasty,” though he admits there is no direct evidence. A crucial factor in the Zhou conquest of the Shang may have been their more effective use of chariots.
Although the Shang depended upon the military skills of their nobility, Shang rulers could mobilize the masses of town-dwelling and rural commoners as conscript laborers and soldiers for both campaigns of defense and conquest. Aristocrats and other state rulers were obligated to furnish their local garrisons with all necessary equipment, armor, and armaments. The Shang king maintained a force of about a thousand troops at his capital and would personally lead this force into battle.
A rudimentary military bureaucracy was also needed in order to muster forces ranging from three to five thousand troops for border campaigns to thirteen thousand troops for suppressing rebellions against Shang dynasty.
The Emperor of China (Huángdì) was the title of any sovereign of Imperial China reigning between the founding of the Qin Dynasty that unified China in 221 BC, until the abdication of Puyi in 1912 following the Xinhai Revolution. The emperor was also referred to as the “Son of Heaven” ( tiānzǐ), a title that predates the Qin unification, and recognized as the ruler of “all under heaven” (i.e., the whole world). In practice not every Emperor held supreme power in China, although this was usually the case.
Emperors from the same family are classified in historical periods known as dynasties. Most of China’s imperial rulers have commonly been considered members of the Han ethnicity, although recent scholarship tends to be wary of applying present day ethnic categories to historical situations.
During the Yuan and Qing dynasties China was ruled by ethnic Mongols and Manchus respectively. The orthodox historical view sees these as non-native dynasties that became sinicized, though some recent scholars (such as those of the New Qing History school) argue that the interaction between politics and ethnicity was far more complex. Nevertheless, in both cases these rulers claimed the Mandate of Heaven to assume the role of traditional Confucian emperors in order to rule over China proper.
During the Zhou dynasty, Chinese feudal rulers with power over their particular fiefdoms were called gong but, as the power of the Shang and Zhou kings waned, the dukes began to usurp that title for themselves.
In 221 BC, after the then-king of Qin completed the conquest of the various kingdoms of the Warring States period, he adopted a new title to reflect his prestige as a ruler greater than the rulers before him. He called himself Shi Huangdi, the First Emperor.
The Mandate of Heaven (tiānmìng; literally: “heaven named”) is an ancient Chinese belief and philosophical idea that tiān (heaven) granted emperors the right to rule based on their ability to govern well and fairly.
According to this belief, heaven bestows its mandate to a just ruler, the Son of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven determines whether an emperor of China is sufficiently virtuous to rule; if he does not fulfill his obligations as emperor, then he loses the Mandate and thus the right to be emperor. The Mandate of Heaven would then transfer to those who would rule best. The fact that a ruler was overthrown was taken by itself as an indication that the ruler had lost the Mandate of Heaven.
In addition, it was also common belief that natural disasters such as famine and flood were other signs of heaven’s displeasure with the current ruler, so there would often be revolts following major environmental events as citizens saw these as signs of heaven’s displeasure.
The Mandate of Heaven does not require that a legitimate ruler be of noble birth, and dynasties were often founded by people of common birth (such as the Han dynasty and Ming dynasty). The Mandate of Heaven had no time limitations, depending instead on the just and able performance of the ruler and his heirs. Throughout the history of China, times of poverty and natural disasters were often taken as signs that heaven considered the incumbent ruler unjust and thus in need of replacement.
The concept of the Mandate of Heaven was first used to support the rule of the kings of the Zhou dynasty, and their overthrow of the earlier Shang dynasty. It was used throughout the history of China to support the rule of the emperors of China, including ‘foreign’ (i.e. of non-Han ethnicity) dynasties such as the Qing dynasty.
The Mandate of Heaven was a well-accepted and popular idea among the people of China, since it argues for the removal of incompetent or despotic rulers, and provided an incentive for rulers to rule well and justly. The concept was often invoked by philosophers and scholars in ancient China as a way to curtail the abuse of power by the ruler, in a system that otherwise offered few checks to this power.
The Tiananmen, or Gate of Heavenly Peace, is a famous monument in Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China. It is widely used as a national symbol. First built during the Ming Dynasty in 1420, Tiananmen is often referred to as the front entrance to the Forbidden City.
However, the Meridian Gate is the first entrance to the Forbidden City proper, while Tiananmen was the entrance to the Imperial City, within which the Forbidden City was located. Tiananmen is located to the north of Tiananmen Square, separated from the plaza by Chang’an Avenue.
Tianxia (“under heaven”) is a Chinese language word and an ancient Chinese cultural concept that denoted either the entire geographical world or the metaphysical realm of mortals, and later became associated with political sovereignty.
In ancient China, tianxia denoted the lands, space, and area divinely appointed to the Emperor by universal and well-defined principles of order. The center of this land that was directly apportioned to the Imperial court was called Huaxia, Xia, Hua, Zhongxia, Zhonghua, or Zhongguo, among other names, forming the center of a world view that centered on the Imperial court and went concentrically outward to major and minor officials and then the common citizens, and finally ending with the fringe “barbarians”.
The center of this world view was not exclusionary in nature, and outer groups, such as ethnic minorities and foreign people, who accepted the mandate of the Chinese Emperor were themselves received and included into the Chinese tianxia.
In classical Chinese political thought, the Emperor of China (tiānzǐ; t’ien-tzu), having received the Mandate of Heaven, would nominally be the ruler of the entire world. Although in practice there would be areas of the known world which were not under the control of the Emperor, in Chinese political theory the rulers of those areas derived their power from the Emperor.
The larger concept of tianxia is closely associated with civilization and order in classical Chinese philosophy, and has formed the basis for the world view of the Chinese people and nations influenced by them since at least the first millennium BC. Tianxia has been independently applied by other countries in the East Asian cultural sphere, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Taiyi Shengshui (literally: “The Great One Gave Birth to Water”) was written about 300 BC during the Warring States period. It is a Taoist creation myth. The opening lines are: The Great One Gave Birth to Water. Water returned and assisted The Great One (“Taiyi”), in this way developing heaven [and Earth?]. Heaven and earth [repeatedly assisted each other?], in this way developing the “gods above and below”. The “gods above and below” repeatedly assisted each other, in this way developing yin and yang.
Commentators describe Taiyi as a representation of Heaven (James Legge), an impersonal “Watery Chaos” (Kong Yingda). At least one scholar (Medhurst) interprets this as the “Supreme One”, possibly Shangdi.
Tianzhu, meaning “Heavenly Master” or “Lord of Heaven,” was the Chinese word used by the Jesuit China missions to designate God. Following the Chinese rites controversy, the term Tiānzhŭ was officially adopted by the Pope in 1715, who rejected alternative terms such as Tiān (“Heaven”) and Shàngdì (“Supreme Emperor”).
Roman Catholicism in China (called Tiānzhǔ jiào, literally, “Religion of the Lord of Heaven”, after the term for God traditionally used in Chinese by Catholics) has a long and complicated history. Christianity has existed in China in various forms since at least the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century AD.