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Chinese theology, which comes in different interpretations according to the canonical 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.
[In contrast to the God of Western and Buddhist religions who is outside known space and time] the God of Fuxi, Xuanyuan and Wang Yangming is in our space and time. [...] To Chinese thought, ancestor is creator.
The universal principle that gives origin to the world is conceived as transcendent and immanent to his creation, at the same time. The Chinese idea of the universal God is expressed in different ways; there are many names of God from the different sources of Chinese tradition.
Chinese scholars emphasise that the Chinese tradition contains two facets of the idea of God: one is the personified God of popular devotion, and the other one is the impersonal God of philosophical inquiry. They express an "integrated definition of the monistic world".
Names of God
The radical Chinese terms for the universal God are Tiān 天 and Shàngdì 上帝 (the "Highest Deity") or simply Dì 帝 ("Deity"). There is also the concept of Tàidì 太帝 (the "Great Deity"). These names are articulated and combined in different ways in Chinese theological literature. One of the combinations is the name of God used at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, which is the 皇天上帝 Huángtiān Shàngdì—"Highest Deity the Heavenly King".
Dì is literally a title expressing dominance over the all-under-Heaven, that is all created things. It is etymologically and figuratively analogous to the concept of di as the base of a fruit, which falls and produces other fruits. This analogy is attested in the Shuowen jiezi explaining "deity" as "what faces the base of a melon fruit". Tiān is usually translated as "Heaven", but by graphical etymology it means "Great One" and a number of scholars relate it to the same Dì through phonetic etymology and trace their common root, through their archaic forms respectively *Teeŋ and *Tees, to the symbols of the squared celestial pole (dīng 口). Zhou (2005) furtherly connects Dì, through Old Chinese *Tees, to the Indo-European Deus. Medhurst (1847) also shows affinities in the usage of "deity", Chinese di, Greek theos and Latin deus, for incarnate powers resembling the supreme God.
The following list arranges the names of God in order of historical attestation and importance rather than in alphabetical order.
Tian is both transcendent and immanent, manifesting in the three forms of dominance, destiny and nature. There are many cases of the name Tian, and many of these clearly distinguish a "Heaven of dominance", a "Heaven of destiny" and a "Heaven of nature" as attributes of the supreme cosmic God.
- Huáng Tiān 皇天 —"Yellow Heaven" or "Shining Heaven", when it is venerated as the lord of creation;
- Hào Tiān 昊天—"Vast Heaven", with regard to the vastness of its vital breath (qi);
- Mín Tiān 旻天—"Compassionate Heaven" for it hears and corresponds with justice to the all-under-heaven;
- Shàng Tiān 上天—"Highest Heaven" or "First Heaven", for it is the primordial being supervising all-under-heaven;
- Cāng Tiān 苍天—"Deep-Green Heaven", for it being unfathomably deep.
Tianzhu (Lord of Heaven) is used in "The Document of Offering Sacrifices to Heaven and Earth on the Mountain Tai" (Fengshan shu) of the Records of the Grand Historian as the title of the first God from whom all the others derive.
Other compositions with the Tian concept include:
- Tiāndì 天帝—the "Deity of Heaven" or "Emperor of Heaven": "On Rectification" (Zheng lun) of the Xunzi makes a distinction between the concept of Tian as the quiet God before creation, and Tiandi as his active form setting in motion creation;
- Tiānhuáng 天皇—the "King of Heaven": In the "Poem of Fathoming Profundity" (Si'xuan fu), transcribed in "The History of the Later Han Dynasty" (Hou Han shu), Zhang Heng ornately writes: «I ask the superintendent of the Heavenly Gate to open the door and let me visit the King of Heaven at the Jade Palace»;
- Tiāngōng 天公—the "Duke of Heaven" or "General of Heaven";
- Tiānjūn 天君—the "Prince of Heaven" or "Lord of Heaven";
- Tiānzūn 天尊—the "Heavenly Venerable", also a title for high gods in Taoist theologies;
- Lǎotiānyé (老天爷)—the "Old Heavenly Father".
- Tiāndào 天道—"Way of Heaven"; it is the God's will of power, which decides the development of things: The Book of Historical Documents says that «the Way of Heaven is to bless the good, and make the bad miserable». It is also the name of some religious traditions;
- Tiānmén 天门—"Gate of Heaven", is the Big Dipper of the circumpolar stars (the seven stars, in Han dynasty depictions, represent messengers of God or the chariot of God);
- Tiānmìng 天命—"Mandate of Heaven", defining the destiny of things;
- Tiānyì 天意—"Decree of Heaven", the same concept of destiny but implying an active decision from God;
- Tiānxià 天下—"Under Heaven"; means creation, that has been generated by the primordial God and is therefore below or after him.
Shangdi means "Highest Deity" or "Primordial Deity". The Classic of Poetry recites «How vast is the Highest Deity, the ruler of men below!». Another composite concept with the "Deity" term is Dìjūn 帝君 ("Ruling Deity", Latin: Dominus Deus), also used as a title for deities who come directly below the highest one in some Taoist pantheons.
玉帝 Yùdì — Jade Deity or Jade Emperor, or 玉皇 Yùhuáng — Jade King, is a representation of the Heaven and the Highest Deity in the common religion, although it originated in Taoist theology as the Jade Purity (玉清 Yùqīng) or "Heavenly Honourable of the First Beginning" (元始天尊 Yuánshǐ Tiānzūn), or even one of the Four Sovereigns (third level deities), specifically the "Most Honourable Great Deity the Jade King in the Golden Tower of the Clear Heaven" (Hàotiān Jīnquē Zhìzūn Yùhuáng Dàdì 昊天金阙至尊玉皇大帝).
The conflation was decided by imperial decree in the Song dynasty, when under the influence of the Taoist religion the emperors determined that the Jade King was the same supreme God as Tian and Shangdi. From that moment, the Jade Deity rose to prominence in Taoist and folk religious temples as the equivalent of the God to whom the emperors had the privilege to worship at the Temple of Heaven.
There are a great number of temples in China dedicated to the Jade Deity (玉皇庙 yùhuángmiào or 玉皇阁 yùhuánggé, et al.), and his birthday on the 9th day of the first month of the Chinese calendar is one of the biggest festivals. He is also celebrated on the 25th day of the 12th month, when he is believed to turn to the human world to inspect all goods and evils to determine awards or punishments. In everyday language the Jade Deity is also called the Old Heavenly Father (Lǎotiānyé 老天爷) and simply Heaven.
Tàiyī 太一 ("Great Oneness" or "Supreme Unity"), or extendedly the Heavenly Venerable Supreme Unity (太一天尊 Tàiyī Tiānzūn), is a concept of God as identified as the ladle of the Tiānmén 天门 ("Gate of Heaven", the Big Dipper), The Tàiyī Shēngshuǐ (太一生水 "The Great One Gave Birth to Water") is a mystical writing from about 300 BC during the Warring States period, which explains the concept of Taiyi. Its worship continues to the present day.
Taiyi was worshipped by the social elites in the Warring States, and is also the first god described in Nine Songs, shamanic hymns collected in the Chuci ("Songs of Chu").
During the Han dynasty Taiyi was adopted into the imperial cult, and at the same time absorbed to some degree into Taoism and identifies as the Dào 道. The "Inscription for Laozi" (Laozi ming), a Han stela, describes the Taiyi as the source of inspiration and immortality for Laozi. In the Han apocryphal texts weishu the Big Dipper is described as the instrument of Taiyi, the ladle through which he pours out the primordial breath (yuanqi) and as his heavenly chariot.
The Dipper is the Thearch's carriage. It revolves around the central point and majestically regulates the four realms. The distribution of yin and yang, the fixing of the four seasons, the coordination of the five phases, the progression of rotational measurements, and the determining of all celestial markers—all of these are linked to the Dipper.
Schuyler Cammann, citing the "Records of the Historian and the History of the Former Han Dynasty" (Qian Hanshu) writes that it was Emperor Wu of Han who in 124 BC was persuaded to adopt the cult of Taiyi as the official imperial worship, displacing the cult of the Heaven and the Earth and of the Five Deities (with Huangdi, the Yellow Deity, at the centre of the cosmos). Later in the centuries, Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (ruling from 712 to 756) fully incorporated sacrifices to Taiyi into state Taoism and it was sometimes conflated with the god Zhenwu.
太帝 Tàidì — Utmost Deity or Great Deity, is another name that has been used to describe the universal God in some contexts. It appears in the mysical narratives of the Huainanzi where God is associated to the Mount Kunlun, the axis mundi.
神 Shén is a general concept meaning "being that gives birth", and usually defines the plurality of gods in the world, however in certain contexts it has been used as singular denoting the universal God, the "being that gives birth to all things".
- Tiānshén 天神, the "God of Heaven", interpreted in the Shuowen jiezi (說文解字) as "the being that gives birth to all things";
- Shénhuáng 神皇, "God the King", attested in Taihong ("The Origin of Vital Breath").
神道 Shéndào ("Way of the God[s]"), in the Yijing, is the path or way of manifestation of God and the gods. «It is too delicate to be grasped. It cannot be perceived through reason. It cannot be seen through the eyes. It does without knowing how it can do. This is what we call the Way of the God[s]». Since the Qin and Han dynasty "Shendao" became a name defining Chinese religion as the shèjiào 社教, "social religion" of the nation.
Theology of incarnation—Huangdi
According to classical theology the supreme God manifests as the Wufang Shangdi (五方上帝 "Five Forms of the Highest Deity"), the axis one being Huangdi (黄帝), the "Yellow Emperor" or "Yellow Deity". He is also called Huangshen 黄神 ("Yellow God"), Xuanyuan (轩辕), which was said to have been his personal name, or Xuanyuan Huangdi. In Chinese religion he is the deity who informs the material world (地 Dì), creator of the Huaxia civilization, of marriage and morality, language and lineage, and ancestor of all Chinese.
Huangdi is sometimes portrayed as the historical incarnation of the "Yellow God of the Northern Dipper" (黄神北斗 Huángshén Běidǒu), another name of the universal God, Shangdi or Tian-(di). The character 黄 huáng, for "yellow", also means, by homophony and shared etymology with 皇 huáng, "august", "creator" and "radiant", other attributes of the supreme God.
According to some versions of his myth, Xuanyuan was the fruit of virginal birth, as his mother Fubao conceived him as she was aroused, while walking in the country, by a lightning from the Big Dipper. She delivered her son on the mount of Shou (Longevity) or Mount Xuanyuan, after which he was named.
Among the cosmological Three Patrons and Five Deities he is the Zhongyuedadi (中岳大帝 "Great Deity of the Central Peak") and he represents the essence of earth and the Yellow Dragon. He is the hub of creation, the axis mundi (Kunlun) that is the manifestation of the divine order in physical reality, that opens to immortality. As the deity of the centre, intersecting the Three Patrons and the Five Deities, in the Shizi he is described as "Yellow Emperor with Four Faces" (黄帝四面 Huángdì Sìmiàn). Analogical in name is the "Four-Faced God" or "Ubiquitous God" (四面神 Sìmiànshén), a modern Chinese interpretation of the Hindu god Brahma.
Huangdi is the god of nobility, the patron of Taoism and medicine. In the Shiji, as well as in the Taoist book Zhuangzi, he is also described as the perfect king. There are records of dialogues in which Huangdi took the advice of wise counselors, in the Huangdi neijing (Inner Scripture of the Yellow Emperor as well as in the Shiwen ("Ten Questions"). In the Huang-Lao tradition he is the model of a king turned immortal, and is associated with the transmission of various mantic and medical techniques. Besides the Inner Scripture of the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi is also associated to other bodies of knowledge including the Huangdi sijing (Four Scriptures of the Yellow Emperor) and the Huangdi zhaijing ("Scripture of the Dwellings of the Yellow Emperor").
Schools of theology
- (i) Theology of Heaven as discussed in the Confucian canonical texts, the Classic of History, the Classic of Poetry and the Analects of Confucius, as a transcendent God similar to the God of the Hellenistic-Christian traditions;
- (ii) Theology of Heaven in contemporary New Confucianism, represented especially by Xiong Shili, Mou Zongsan, and Tu Weiming, as an "immanently transcendent" God, the ultimate reality immanent in the world in order to transcend the world;
- (iii) Theology of Heaven in Neo-Confucianism, particularly the Cheng brothers in the Song dynasty, as the wonderful life-giving activity transcending the world within the world.
Philosopher Promise Hsu, in the article The Civil Theology of Confucius' "Tian" Symbol (2014) discusses Tian as the foundation of a civil theology for China from the perpective of Eric Voegelin.
The absolute in Confucianism is Tian, Shangdi or Di in the early or classical Confucian tradition, later discussed as 天理 Tiānlǐ, the "Order of Heaven" or "Principle of Heaven" by Neo-Confucians. A number of scholars, Chinese and Western, support the theistic reading of early Confucian texts. In the Analects Heaven is treated as a conscious and providential being concerned not only with the human order in general, but even with Confucius' own mission in particular. Confucius claimed to be a transmitter of an ancient knowledge rather than a renovator.
In Confucianism, God has not created man in order to neglect him, but is always with man, and sustains the order of nature and human society, by teaching rulers how to be good to secure the peace of countries. The theistic idea of early Confucianism gave later way to a depersonalisation of Heaven, identifying him as the pattern discernible in the unfolding of nature and his will (Tianming) as peoples' consensus, culminating in the Mencius and the Xunzi.
Contemporary New Confucian theologians have resolved the ancient dispute between the theistic and nontheistic, immanent and transcendent interpretations of Tian by the concept of "immanent transcendence" (内在超越 nèizài chāoyuè), contrasting it with the "external transcendence" (外在超越 wàizài chāoyuè) of the God of Christianity. While the God of Christians is outside the world that he creates, the God of Confucians is immanent in the world to call for the transcendence from what is actual.
The first theologian to discuss immanent transcendence was Xiong Shili. According to him, noumenon (体 tǐ) and phenomenon (用 yòng) are not separate, but noumenon is right within phenomenon. At the same time, noumenon is also transcendent, not in the sense that it can have independent existence in separation from "ten thousand things", but in the sense that it is the substance of all things. As the substance, it is transcendent because it is not transformed by the ten thousand things but is their master: it "transcends the surface of things". Transcending the surface one realises the self-nature (自性神 zì xìng shén) of himself and of all things; to the extent that a thing has not fully realized its own self-nature, God is altìso that upon which any particular thing or human being depends (依他神 yī tā shén).
According to the further explanations of Xiong's student Mou Zongsan, Heaven is not merely sky, and just like the God of the Judaic and Hellenistic-Christian tradition is not one of the beings in the world. However, unlike the God of these religions, the God of Confucianism is not outside the world either, but is within humans, which is the primary concern of Confucianism, and other beings in the world. Tian is the ontological substance of reality, is immanent in every human being as the human nature (ren), but the human being on the phenomenal level is not identical with its metaphysical essence. Mencius stated that «the one who can fully realize one's heart/mind can understand one's nature, and the one who can understand one's own nature can know Tian»; Tian is within us, but before we fulfill our heart/mind and know our nature, Heaven still appears transcendent to us. Mou cites Max Muller that «a human being itself is potentially a God, a God one presently ought to become» to reflect th idea of the relationship of God and humanity in Confucianism and other Eastern religions. What is crucial is to transcend the phenomenon to reach Tian.
Mou makes an important distinction between Confucianism and Christianity: the latter does not ask one to become a Christ, because the nature of Christ is unreachable for ordinary humans, who lack divinity; by contrast, in Confucianism, sages who have realised Tian teach to others how to became sages and worthy, as Heaven is inherent in everyone. Mou defines Confucianism as a "religion of morality", a religion "of fulfillment of virtues", which meaning lies in seeking the infinite and complete in finite life.
A person is in this world and yet does not belong to this world. He regards this secular world as divine only because he realizes the divine value in thissecular world. Here the secular world in which the divinity is manifested isnot a world separate from the divinity, and the divinity manifested in thesecular is not some Ideal externally transcendent of the secular world.
According to Tu, the more man can penetrate his own inner sources, the more he can transcend himself. By the metaphorical words of Mencius (7a29) is like "digging a well to reach the source of water." It is for this emphasis on transcending the phenomena to reach the true self, which is the divine, that Tu defines Confucian religiosity as Tu defines Confucian religiosity as the "ultimate self-transformation as a communal act and as a faithful dialogical response to the transcendent" ans says that this is the Confucian prescription to develop the right nature of humanity. Tu furtherly explains the concept as a prognosis and diagnosis of humanity: "we are not what we ought to be but what we ought to be is inherent in the structure of what we are".
Heaven bids and impels humans to realise their true self. Humans have the inborn ability to respond to Heaven. One can obtain knowledge of divinity through his inner experience (tizhi) or knowledge of/as virtue, a central concept of Tu's theology that is at the same time intellectual and affectional (a question of mind and heart).
Theology of activity
Huang Yong has developed a third approach to Confucian theology interpreting the Neo-Confucianism of the brothers Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi (1033-1107). Instead of regarding the divinity of Tian as a substance, this theology discusses it as the "life-giving activity" (生 shēng) or "creativity" that is within the world in order to transcend itself.
Neo-Confucians incorporated in Confucianism the discussion about the traditional concept of 理 lǐ, variously translated as "form", "law", "reason", "pattern", "organism", and most commonly "principle", regarding it as the ultimate reality of the universe. The Chengs use li interchangeably with many other terms that have been commonly used to refer to the ultimate reality in the Confucian tradition. Cheng Hao says that it "is called change (易 yì) with respect to its reality; is called 道 dào with respect to its li; is called divinity (神 shén) with respect to its function; and is called nature (性 xìng) with respect to it as the destiny in a person". Cheng Yi also states that "with respect to li it is called heaven (天 tiān); with the respect to endowment, it is called nature, and with the respect to its being in a person, it is called heart/mind (心 xīn)".
By the words of the Chengs, Huang defines the immanent transcendence of li or dao as it is ontologically prior to things but it does not exist outside things, or outside 氣 qì, the energy-matter of which things are made. In Chengs' theology the li is not some "thing" but the "activity" of things, the life-giving activity (sheng). By an analogy, according to Xu Heng's "Explanation of Script and Elucidation of Characters" (Shuowen jiezi), li is originally a verb meaning to work on jade.
They further identify this life-giving activity as the true human nature. Sages, who have realised the true nature, are identical with li and their actions are identical to the life-giving activity of the li of Heaven.
Humanity as the incarnation of Heaven
Confucianism expounds a theology of incarnation which sees humanity, the human being itself (仁 rén), is the incarnation of the God of Heaven. This theory is not at odds with the classical non-Confucian theology which views Huangdi as the incarnation of God, as Huangdi is a representation of nobility, and the pursuit of Confucianism is to make all humans noble (jūnzǐ 君子) or sages and holy men (圣人 shèngrén).
- The dissonance between man and heaven is only provisional ... the human intellect which brings order to chaos is itself an incarnation of the powers of Heaven. Heaven's working in the non-human sphere is described in a language which can almost be described as mystical. Once the normative human culture is realized, man is aligned with the harmonies of the universe.
In the "Interactions Between Heaven and Mankind" (天人感应 Tiānrén Gǎnyìng) by Han dynasty scholar Dong Zhongshu, humanity is the incarnation of Heaven. Human physiological structure, thought, emotions and moral character are all modelled according to Heaven.
Rén, translated as "humaneness" or the essence proper of a human being, is the virtue endowed by Heaven and at the same time the means by which man can achieve oneness with Heaven or return to Heaven, or comprehend his divine nature.
Religious traditions under the label of "Taoism" have formulated a different theology from that of the common Chinese religion, nonetheless espousing a henotheistic stance which leaves open the way for the worship of the multiple gods of nature as forms or associates of the Taoist deities.
The core of Taoist theology is the concept of Dào 道, which is both the order of nature and the source of it. Differently from the God of the common religion or even Confucianism, Taoism espouses a negative theology declaring the impossibility to define the Dao. The core text of Taoism, the Daodejing, opens with the verses: «The Dao that can be said is not the eternal Dao, the name that can be said is not the eternal name».
- Sānqīng 三清 — Three Purities:
- "Jade Purity" 玉清 Yùqīng, "Heavenly Honourable of the First Beginning" 元始天尊 Yuánshǐ Tiānzūn;
- "High Purity" 上清 Shàngqīng, "Heavenly Honourable of the Numinous Treasure" 灵宝天尊 Língbǎo Tiānzūn;
- "Supreme Purity" 太清 Tàiqīng, "Heavenly Honourable of the Way and its Virtue" 道德天尊 Dàodé Tiānzūn, incarnated historically as Laozi.
- Sìyù 四御—Four Sovereigns:
- Hàotiān Jīnquē Zhìzūn Yùhuáng Dàdì 昊天金阙至尊玉皇大帝 — Most Honourable Great Deity the Jade King in the Golden Tower of the Clear Heaven
- Zhōngtiān Zǐwēi Běijí Dàdì 中天紫微北极大帝 — Great Deity of the Purple Subtlety of the North Star at the Heart of Heaven
- Gōuchén Shànggōng Tiānhuáng Dàdì 勾陈上宫天皇大帝 — Great Deity the Heavenly King in the High Palace at the Old Hook
- Chéngtiān Xiàofǎ Tǔhuáng Deqí 承天效法土皇地祇 — Land Appeasing Soil Ruler who Imitates the Law which Sustains Heaven, is goddess Houtu
- Related cultures
- 帝 Dì is sometimes translated as "thearch", from the Greek theos ("deity"), with arche ("principle", "origin"), thus meaning "divine principle", "divine origin". In sinology is has been used to designate the incarnated gods who, according to Chinese tradition, sustain the world order and originated China.
- The graphical etymology of Tian 天 as "Great One" (Dà yī 大一), and the phonetical etymology as diān 颠, were first recorded by Xu Shen. John C. Didier in In and Outside the Square (2009) for the Sino-Platonic Papers discusses different etymologies which trace the character Tian 天 to the astral square or its ellipted forms, dīng 口, representing the north celestial pole (pole star and Big Dipper revolving around it; historically a symbol of the absolute source of the universal reality in many cultures), which is the archaic (Shang) form of dīng 丁 ("square"). Gao Hongjin and other scholars trace the modern word Tian to the Shang pronunciation of 口 dīng (that is *teeŋ). This was also the origin of Shang's Dì 帝 ("Deity"), and later words meaning something "on high" or "top", including 顶 dǐng. The modern graph for Tian 天 would derive from a Zhou version of the Shang archaic form of Dì 帝 (from Shang oracle bone script → , which represents a fish entering the astral square); this Zhou version represents a being with a human-like body and a head-mind informed by the astral pole (→ ). Didier furtherly links the Chinese astral square and Tian or Di characters to other well-known symbols of God or divinity as the northern pole in key ancient cultural centres: the Harappan and Vedic-Aryan spoked wheels, crosses and hooked crosses (Chinese wàn 卍/卐), and the Mesopotamian Dingir .
- A 斗 dǒu in Chinese is an entire semantic field meaning the shape of a "dipper", as the Big Dipper (北斗 Běidǒu), or a "cup", signifying a "whirl", and also has martial connotations meaning "fight", "struggle", "battle".
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