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Tiān (天) is one of the oldest Chinese terms for heaven and a key concept in Chinese mythology, philosophy, and religion. During the Shang dynasty (17th―11th century BCE), the Chinese referred to their supreme god as Shàngdì (上帝, "Lord on High") or Dì (帝,"Lord"). During the following Zhou dynasty, Tiān became synonymous with this figure. Before the 20th century Heaven worship was an orthodox state religion of China.
In Taoism and Confucianism, Tiān (the celestial aspect of the cosmos, often translated as "Heaven") is mentioned in relationship to its complementary aspect of Dì ( 地 , often translated as "Earth"). They are thought to maintain the two poles of the Three Realms (三界) of reality, with the middle realm occupied by Humanity (人, Rén), and the lower world occupied by demons (specifically sorcery); (魔, Mó) and "ghosts," the damned, specifically (鬼, Guǐ).
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 "The anthropomorphic graph may or may not indicate that the original meaning was 'deity', rather than 'sky'."
Two variant Chinese characters for tiān天 "heaven" are 二人 (written with 二 er "two" and 人 ren "human") and the Daoist coinage 靝 (with 青 qīng "blue" and 氣 "qì", i.e., "blue sky").
The Modern Standard Chinese pronunciation of 天 "sky, heaven; heavenly deity, god" is tiān[tʰi̯ɛn˥] in level first tone. The character is read as Cantonese tin1; Taiwanese thiN1 or thian1; Vietnamese thiên; Korean cheon or ch'ŏn (천); and Japanese ten in On'yomi (borrowed Chinese reading) and ama- (bound), ame (free), or sora in Kun'yomi (native Japanese reading).[ needs IPA ]
Tiān天 reconstructions in Middle Chinese (ca. 6th–10th centuries CE) include t'ien (Bernhard Karlgren), t'iɛn (Zhou Fagao), tʰɛn > tʰian (Edwin G. Pulleyblank), and then (William H. Baxter, Baxter & Sagart). Reconstructions in Old Chinese (ca. 6th–3rd centuries BCE) include *t'ien (Karlgren), *t'en (Zhou), *hlin (Baxter), *thîn (Schuessler), and *l̥ˤin (Baxter & Sagart).
For the etymology of tiān, Schuessler (2007:495) 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". Schuessler (2007:211) also suggests a likely connection between Chinese tiān天, diān巔 "summit, mountaintop", and diān顛 "summit, top of the head, forehead", which have cognates such as Zemeic Naga tiŋ "sky". However, other reconstructions of 天's OC pronunciation *qʰl'iːn (Zhengzhang) or *l̥ˤi[n] (Baxter-Sagart), reconstructed a voiceless lateral onset, either a cluster or a single consonant, respectively. Baxter & Sagart (2014:113-114) pointed to attested dialectal differences in Eastern Han Chinese, the use of 天 as a phonetic component in phono-semantic compound Chinese characters, and the choice of 天 to transcribe foreign syllables, all of which prompted them to conclude that, around 200 CE, 天's onset had two pronunciations: coronal * tʰ & dorsal * x , both of which likely originated from an earlier voiceless lateral *l̥ˤ.
Tiān is one of the components in hundreds of Chinese compounds. Some significant ones include:
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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 .
Confucius honored Heaven as the supreme source of goodness:
The Master said, "Great indeed was Yao as a sovereign! How majestic was he! It is only Heaven that is grand, and only Yao corresponded to it. How vast was his virtue! The people could find no name for it. How majestic was he in the works which he accomplished! How glorious in the elegant regulations which he instituted!" (VIII, xix, tr. Legge 1893:214)
Confucius felt himself personally dependent upon Heaven (VI, xxviii, tr. Legge 1893:193): "Wherein I have done improperly, may Heaven reject me! may Heaven reject me!"
Confucius believed that Heaven cannot be deceived:
The Master being very ill, Zi Lu wished the disciples to act as ministers to him. During a remission of his illness, he said, "Long has the conduct of You been deceitful! By pretending to have ministers when I have them not, whom should I impose upon? Should I impose upon Heaven? Moreover, than that I should die in the hands of ministers, is it not better that I should die in the hands of you, my disciples? And though I may not get a great burial, shall I die upon the road?" (IX, xi, tr. Legge 1893:220-221)
Confucius believed that Heaven gives people tasks to perform to teach them of virtues and morality:
The Master said, "At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right." (II, iv, tr. Legge 1893:146)
He believed that Heaven knew what he was doing and approved of him, even though none of the rulers on earth might want him as a guide:
The Master said, "Alas! there is no one that knows me." Zi Gong said, "What do you mean by thus saying - that no one knows you?" The Master replied, "I do not murmur against Heaven. I do not grumble against men. My studies lie low, and my penetration rises high. But there is Heaven - that knows me!" (XIV, xxxv, tr. Legge 1893:288-9)
Perhaps the most remarkable saying, recorded twice, is one in which Confucius expresses complete trust in the overruling providence of Heaven:
The Master was put in fear in Kuang. He said, "After the death of King Wen, was not the cause of truth lodged here in me? If Heaven had wished to let this cause of truth perish, then I, a future mortal, should not have got such a relation to that cause. While Heaven does not let the cause of truth perish, what can the people of Kuang do to me?" (IX, v and VII, xxii, tr. Legge 1893:217-8)
For Mozi, Heaven is the divine ruler, just as the Son of Heaven is the earthly ruler. Mozi believed that spirits and minor demons 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). Mozi criticized the Confucians of his own time for not following the teachings of Confucius. In Mozi's Will of Heaven (天志), he writes:
Moreover, I know Heaven loves men dearly not without reason. Heaven ordered the sun, the moon, and the stars to enlighten and guide them. Heaven ordained the four seasons, Spring, Autumn, Winter, and Summer, to regulate them. Heaven sent down snow, frost, rain, and dew to grow the five grains and flax and silk that so the people could use and enjoy them. Heaven established the hills and rivers, ravines and valleys, and arranged many things to minister to man's good or bring him evil. He appointed the dukes and lords to reward the virtuous and punish the wicked, and to gather metal and wood, birds and beasts, and to engage in cultivating the five grains and flax and silk to provide for the people's food and clothing. This has been so from antiquity to the present." (tr. Mei 1929:145)
There are three major schools on cosmology. Most other hypothesis were developed from them.
Sometimes the sky is divided into Jiutian (九天) "the nine sky divisions", the middle sky and the eight directions.
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 (度人經).
In I-Kuan Tao, Tian is divided into three vertical worlds. Li Tian (理天) "heaven of truth", Qi Tian (氣天) "heaven of spirit" and Xiang Tian (象天) "heaven of matter".
The semantics of tian developed diachronically. The Hanyu dazidian , an historical dictionary of Chinese characters, lists 17 meanings of tian 天, translated below.
The Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan differentiates five different meanings of tian in early Chinese writings:
(1) A material or physical T'ien or sky, that is, the T'ien often spoken of in apposition to earth, as in the common phrase which refers to the physical universe as 'Heaven and Earth' (T'ien Ti天地).
(2) A ruling or presiding T'ien, that is, one such as is meant in the phrase, 'Imperial Heaven Supreme Emperor' (Huang T'ien Shang Ti), in which anthropomorphic T'ien and Ti are signified.
(3) A fatalistic T'ien, equivalent to the concept of Fate (ming命), a term applied to all those events in human life over which man himself has no control. This is the T'ien Mencius refers to when he says: "As to the accomplishment of a great deed, that is with T'ien" ([ Mencius ], Ib, 14).
(4) A naturalistic T'ien, that is, one equivalent to the English word Nature. This is the sort of T'ien described in the 'Discussion on T'ien' in the [ Hsün Tzǔ ] (ch. 17).
(5) An ethical T'ien, that is, one having a moral principle and which is the highest primordial principle of the universe. This is the sort of T'ien which the [ Chung Yung ] (Doctrine of the Mean) refers to in its opening sentence when it says: "What T'ien confers (on man) is called his nature." (1952:31)
The Oxford English Dictionary enters the English loanword t'ien (also tayn, tyen, tien, and tiān) "Chinese thought: Heaven; the Deity." The earliest recorded usages for these spelling variants are: 1613 Tayn, 1710 Tien, 1747 Tyen, and 1878 T'ien.
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 Shangdi, Ti 帝, or Shang Ti 上帝. 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. (1970:493)
Creel refers to the historical shift in ancient Chinese names for "god"; from Shang oracles that frequently used di and shangdi and rarely used tian to Zhou bronzes and texts that used tian more frequently than its synonym shangdi.
First, Creel analyzes all the tian and di occurrences meaning "god; gods" in Western Zhou era Chinese classic texts and bronze inscriptions. The Yi Jing "Classic of Changes" has 2 tian and 1 di; the Shi Jing "Classic of Poetry" has 140 tian and 43 di or shangdi; and the authentic portions of the Shu Jing "Classic of Documents" have 116 tian and 25 di or shangdi. His corpus of authenticated Western Zhou bronzes (1970:464–75) mention tian 91 times and di or shangdi only 4 times. Second, Creel contrasts the disparity between 175 occurrences of di or shangdi on Shang era oracle inscriptions with "at least" 26 occurrences of tian. Upon examining these 26 oracle scripts that scholars (like Guo Moruo) have identified as tian天 "heaven; god" (1970:494–5), he rules out 8 cases in fragments where the contextual meaning is unclear. Of the remaining 18, Creel interprets 11 cases as graphic variants for da "great; large; big" (e.g., tian i shang天邑商 for da i shang大邑商 "great settlement Shang"), 3 as a place name, and 4 cases of oracles recording sacrifices yu tian于天 "to/at Tian" (which could mean "to Heaven/God" or "at a place called Tian".)
The Shu Jing chapter "Tang Shi" (湯誓 "Tang's Speech") illustrates how early Zhou texts used tian "heaven; god" in contexts with shangdi "god". According to tradition, Tang of Shang assembled his subjects to overthrow King Jie of Xia, the infamous last ruler of the Xia Dynasty, but they were reluctant to attack.
The king said, "Come, ye multitudes of the people, listen all to my words. It is not I, the little child [a humble name used by kings], who dare to undertake what may seem to be a rebellious enterprise; but for the many crimes of the sovereign of Hsiâ [Xia] Heaven has given the charge [tianming, see Compounds below] to destroy him. Now, ye multitudes, you are saying, 'Our prince does not compassionate us, but (is calling us) away from our husbandry to attack and punish the ruler of Hsiâ.' I have indeed heard these words of you all; but the sovereign of Hsiâ is an offender, and, as I fear God [shangdi], I dare not but punish him. Now you are saying, 'What are the crimes of Hsiâ to us?' The king of Hsiâ does nothing but exhaust the strength of his people, and exercise oppression in the cities of Hsiâ. His people have all become idle in his service, and will not assist him. They are saying, 'When will this sun expire? We will all perish with thee.' Such is the course of the sovereign of Hsiâ, and now I must go and punish him. Assist, I pray you, me, the one man, to carry out the punishment appointed by Heaven [tian]. I will greatly reward you. On no account disbelieve me; — I will not eat my words. If you do not obey the words which I have spoken to you, I will put your children with you to death; — you shall find no forgiveness." (tr. James Legge 1865:173–5)
Having established that Tian was not a deity of the Shang people, Creel (1970:501–6) 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 (Müller 1870).
Confucianism, also known as Ruism, is a system of thought and behavior originating in ancient China. Variously described as tradition, a philosophy, a religion, a humanistic or rationalistic religion, a way of governing, or simply a way of life, Confucianism developed from what was later called the Hundred Schools of Thought from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius.
Shangdi, also written simply, "Emperor", is the Chinese term for "Supreme Deity" or "Highest Deity" in the theology of the classical texts, especially deriving from Shang theology and finding an equivalent in the later Tian of Zhou theology.
Chinese mythology is mythology that has been passed down in oral form or recorded in literature in the geographic area now known as Greater China. Chinese mythology includes many varied myths from regional and cultural traditions. Much of the mythology involves exciting stories full of fantastic people and beings, the use of magical powers, often taking place in an exotic mythological place or time. Like many mythologies, Chinese mythology has in the past been believed to be, at least in part, a factual recording of history. Along with Chinese folklore, Chinese mythology forms an important part of Chinese folk religion. Many stories regarding characters and events of the distant past have a double tradition: ones which present a more historicized or euhemerized version and ones which presents a more mythological version.
Tianlong is a flying dragon in Chinese mythology, a star in Chinese astrology, and a proper name.
In comparative mythology, sky father is a term for a recurring concept in polytheistic religions of a sky god who is addressed as a "father", often the father of a pantheon and is often either a reigning or former King of the Gods. The concept of "sky father" may also be taken to include Sun gods with similar characteristics, such as Ra. The concept is complementary to an "earth mother".
Tengri is one of the names for the primary chief deity of the early Turkic and Mongolic peoples.
The Book of Documents or Classic of History, also known as the Shangshu, is one of the Five Classics of ancient Chinese literature. It is a collection of rhetorical prose attributed to figures of ancient China, and served as the foundation of Chinese political philosophy for over 2,000 years.
Chinese folk religion, also known as Chinese popular religion, is a general term covering a range of traditional religious practices of Han Chinese, including the Chinese diaspora. Vivienne Wee described it as "an empty bowl, which can variously be filled with the contents of institutionalized religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, the Chinese syncretic religions". This includes the veneration of shen (spirits) and ancestors, exorcism of demonic forces, and a belief in the rational order of nature, balance in the universe and reality that can be influenced by human beings and their rulers, as well as spirits and gods. Worship is devoted to gods and immortals, who can be deities of places or natural phenomena, of human behaviour, or founders of family lineages. Stories of these gods are collected into the body of Chinese mythology. By the Song dynasty (960-1279), these practices had been blended with Buddhist doctrines and Taoist teachings to form the popular religious system which has lasted in many ways until the present day. The present day government of mainland China, like the imperial dynasties, tolerates popular religious organizations if they bolster social stability but suppresses or persecutes those that they fear would undermine it.
Son of Heaven, or Tianzi, was the sacred monarchical title of the Chinese sovereign. It originated with the ancient Zhou dynasty and was founded on the political and spiritual doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. Since the Qin dynasty, the secular imperial title of the Son of Heaven was "Huangdi".
In the Chinese common religion and philosophical schools the idea of the universal God has been expressed in a variety of names and representations, most notably as 天 Tiān ("Heaven") and 上帝 Shàngdì.
Yuanshi Tianzun, the Celestial Venerable of the Primordial Beginning or the Primeval Lord of Heaven, is one of the highest deities of Taoism. He is one of the Three Pure Ones and is also known as the Jade Pure One. He resides in the Heaven of Jade Purity. It is believed that he came into being at the beginning of the universe as a result of the merging of pure breaths. He then created Heaven and Earth.
Shen (神) is the Chinese word for "deity", "spirit", heart, inclusive and community mind, or future mind. The Japanese equivalent is shin. This single Chinese term expresses a range of similar, yet differing, meanings. The first meaning may refer to spirits or gods that are intimately involved in the affairs of the world. Spirits generate entities like rivers, mountains, thunder and stars. A second meaning of shen refers to the human spirit or psyche; it is the basic power or agency within humans that accounts for life, and in order to further life to its fullest potential the spirit is transformed to actualise potential. A third understanding of shen describes an entity as spiritual in the sense of inspiring awe or wonder because it combines categories usually kept separate, or it cannot be comprehended through normal concepts. In traditional Chinese medicine the physician will describe this as the shimmer or gloss that is seen above the surface of a object. If it has a glow, vitality and luster it has good Shen.
Qi was a minor feudal state in ancient China that existed from the beginning of the Shang Dynasty until the beginning of the Warring States period, c. 445 BCE.
Di is one of the oldest Chinese terms for the earth and a key concept or figure in Chinese philosophy and religion, being one of three powers which are Heaven, Earth, and Humanity, a phrase which originates from the Yijing.
Four Barbarians is the common English translation of the Chinese term sìyí 四夷 for various peoples living outside the borders of ancient China, namely, the Dōngyí東夷 "Eastern Barbarians", Nánmán南蠻 "Southern Barbarians", Xīróng西戎 "Western Barbarians", and Běidí北狄 "Northern Barbarians". Ultimately, the four barbarian groups were either partly assimilated through Sinicization and absorbed into the Chinese Civilization in the later Chinese Dynasties or emigrated away from the Chinese heartland.
Chinese folk religion plays a dynamic role in the lives of the overseas Chinese who have settled in the countries of this geographic region, particularly Burmese Chinese, Singaporean Chinese, Malaysian Chinese, Thai Chinese and Hoa. The Indonesian Chinese, by contrast, were forced to adopt en masse either Buddhism or Christianity in the 1950s and 1960s, abandoning traditional worship, due to Indonesia's religious policies which forbade Chinese traditional religion. Some Chinese Filipinos also still practice some Chinese traditional religions, besides Christianity of either Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, of which some have also varyingly syncretized traditional Chinese religious practices with. Chinese folk religion, the ethnic religion of Han Chinese, "Shenism" was especially coined referring to its Southeast Asian expression; another Southeast Asian name for the religion is the Sanskrit expression Satya Dharma.
Chinese traditional religion is polytheistic; many deities are worshipped in a pantheistic view where divinity is inherent in the world. The gods are energies or principles revealing, imitating and propagating the way of Heaven, which is the supreme godhead manifesting in the northern culmen of the starry vault of the skies and its order. Many gods are ancestors or men who became deities for their heavenly achievements; most gods are also identified with stars and constellations. Ancestors are regarded as the equivalent of Heaven within human society, and therefore as the means connecting back to Heaven, which is the "utmost ancestral father".
Chinese theology, which comes in different interpretations according to the classic texts and the common religion, and specifically Confucian, Taoist and other philosophical formulations, is fundamentally monistic, that is to say it sees the world and the gods of its phenomena as an organic whole, or cosmos, which continuously emerges from a simple principle. This is expressed by the concept that "all things have one and the same principle". This principle is commonly referred to as Tiān 天, a concept generally translated as "Heaven", referring to the northern culmen and starry vault of the skies and its natural laws which regulate earthly phenomena and generate beings as their progenitors. Ancestors are therefore regarded as the equivalent of Heaven within human society, and therefore as the means connecting back to Heaven which is the "utmost ancestral father". Chinese theology may be also called Tiānxué 天學, a term already in use in the 17th and 18th century.
[In contrast to the God of Western religions who is above the space and time] the God of Fuxi, Xuanyuan and Wang Yangming is under in our space and time. ... To Chinese thought, ancestor is creator.
The Wǔfāng Shàngdì, or simply Wǔdì or Wǔshén are, in Chinese canonical texts and common Chinese religion, the fivefold manifestation of the supreme God of Heaven. This theology harkens back at least to the Shang dynasty. Described as the "five changeable faces of Heaven", they represent Heaven's cosmic activity which shapes worlds as tán 壇, "altars", imitating its order which is visible in the starry vault, the north celestial pole and its spinning constellations. The Five Deities themselves represent these constellations. In accordance with the Three Powers they have a celestial, a terrestrial and a chthonic form. The Han Chinese identify themselves as the descendants of the Red and Yellow Deities.
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