, Wade-Giles Shang Ti
) is the Supreme God
in the original religious system of the Han Chinese
people (see traditional Chinese religion
), a term used from the second millennium BC to the present day, as pronounced according the modern Mandarin dialect. Literally the term means "Above Emperor" or "Above Sovereign", which is taken to mean "Lord On High", "Highest Lord", "the God above", "the Supreme God", "Above ", or "Celestial Lord". Its meaning is similar to the term "dyeus
" used by Indo-European peoples
. Another title of Shangdi is simply Di (帝). Shangdi is chiefly associated with Heaven. From the earliest times of Chinese history, and especially from the Zhou Dynasty
(周朝, 1122 BC to 256 BC) onwards, another name, Tian
(天), is also used to refer to the Supreme God of the Chinese people (see Heaven worship
). Tian is a word with multiple meanings in the ancient Chinese language; it can either mean the physical sky or the presiding God of Heaven. When Tian is used in the latter sense, it has the same meaning as Shangdi. By the time of the Han dynasty
, the influential Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan declared that "Shangdi is another name for Tian". Shangdi is also the name given for God in the Standard Mandarin Union Version of the Bible. Shen
神 (lit. spirit, or deity) was also adopted by Protestant missionaries in China to refer to the Christian God. Shangdi is never represented with images or idols in Chinese tradition.
The earliest references to Shangdi are found in Oracle Bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty
(ca. 1600 BC – ca. 1046 BC). Shangdi is first mentioned in Chinese Literature in the Five Classics
, (五經, pinyin: Wujing) allegedly compiled by Confucius
in the 6th century BC. The Wujing
was a collection of five books that represented the pinnacle of Chinese culture at that time. The oldest parts of the Wujing were first written around 1000 BC, apparently relying on older texts. All of the five classics include references to Shangdi:
This is just a sampling alternate translations and compilations will yield slightly different numbers. The total for the Wujing collection alone totals over 85 references.
Other classics mention Shangdi as well (a formalized analysis showing the development of the term over time would be useful). Another "Classic" collection, the Four Books (四書, pinyin: SiShu), mentions Shangdi also, but it is a later compilation and the references are much more sparse and abstract. The highest amount of occurrences appear to be in the earliest references; and this may reflect the cultural development (or rejection) towards ShangDi as a whole over time.
One of the five books in the Wujing is the Classic of History, (書經, pinyin: Shujing), aka Book of History, aka Esteemed Book (尚書, pinyin Shangshu). The Shujing is possibly the earliest narrative of China, and may predate the European historian Herodotus (about 440 BC) as a history by many centuries. This implies that Shangdi is the oldest deity directly referenced in China by any Chinese narrative literature. The Shujing itself is also divided into 5 parts, and those parts were actually considered books as well. However, the number of books or "documents" is a division that varies largely on the version or compilation; thus quoted references may not match unless you use the same compilation.
The 2nd of the 5 "books" inside the Shujing is called the "Book of Yu" (虞書, pinyin: Yushu). Yu, in this title, is a location, not the popular hero 禹 Yu. This "book" has 4 "chapters"; and the 1st "chapter" is called the "Canon of Shun" (舜典, pinyin: ShunDian). Emperor Shun was the predecessor to the heroic Da Yu (大禹), or Great Yu, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty. About the third sentence is the first mention of ShangDi. And, as it was mentioned in the previous section how yearly sacrifices to ShangDi were made by Emperor Shun, it appears that, according to Confucius, the Chinese belief in ShangDi predates the Xia Dynasty.
Meaning & Use of Name
Shangdi (上帝) is the Supreme God in the original religious system of the Han Chinese people, a term used from the second millennium BC to the present day, as pronounced according the modern Mandarin
dialect. Literally, the term means "Above Emperor", which is taken to mean "Lord On High", "Highest Lord", or "Celestial Lord". Its meaning is similar to the term dyeus
used by Indo-European peoples, but apparently without the linguistic connection. Another title of Shangdi is simply Di
Shangdi is chiefly associated with Heaven. From the earliest times of Chinese history, and especially from the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) onwards, another name, Tian (天), is also used to refer to the Supreme God of the Chinese people. Tian is a word with multiple meanings in the ancient Chinese language, it could either mean the physical sky or the presiding God of Heaven. When Tian is used in the latter sense, it has the same meaning as Shangdi. By the time of the Han dynasty, the influential Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan declared that "Shangdi is another name for Tian".
Uniquely, Chinese traditions do not appear to have a narrative for Shangdi in the earliest texts; nor are there physical representations of him. However, the many references to Shangdi do assign attributes to his character, including: maleness, emotion, compassion, intellect, judgement, mastery, and greatness. A few examples follow below; please note quoted references vary (usually by verse number) due to the variety of compilations
- The Shujing (書經), the earliest of Chinese narratives (described above), represents Shangdi as a good god who punishes evil and rewards goodness. "Shangdi is not invariant [for he judges a person according to his actions]. On the good-doer He sends down blessings, and on the evil-doer He sends down miseries.
- The Shijing (詩經), the earliest of Chinese poetries, attributes speech to him in poem 241. Other significant portrayals include poems 245, 236, 300; as well as poems 192, 224, 235, 254, 255, 258, 274, 276, & 304.
- The Wujing (五經), and the official sacrificial rituals show people praying to Shangdi (i.e. Liji (禮記) 04:1:13; aka Liji Book 4, Section 1, verse 13).
These portrayals appear to predate Daoist or Buddhist interpretations by anywhere from 500 to 2000 years.
Shangdi is considered by some to be the Creator of the universe. If this is true, he would predate the later Daoist creation myth of Pangu
around 200 AD by at least 500 years, as shown below. Note the "depersonalization" of Shangdi that appears to occur (or at least grow) after the Warring States
(戰國) period with the ascension of Daoism. Oddly, later Daoism appears to restore personality traits to Heaven around 900 AD:
- (470–390 BC) Warring States (戰國) Mohist philosopher Mozi (墨子), in the philosophical text 'Mozi', explicitly mentions Shangdi 26 times; as shown in 2:12, 4:16, 5:15, 6:25ab, 7:26ab, 27, 28ab, 8:31, 32, 9, 35ab, 36, 37, 12:47.
- The quote below shows Mozi describing a benevolent creator, but here he is translated as using the agent of "Heaven". It is possible he is referring to Shangdi in the same way Westerners use "Heaven" to indirectly refer to God.
- Note that the word "ordered" here appears to mean more than "guided".
- (079–166 AD) East Han Dynasty (東漢朝) scholar Ma Rong (馬融), in one of his works , claimed Shangdi (or more precisely 上帝太一神, pinyin: Shangdi Taiyishen) is the personification of "the Supreme Ultimate" (太一, pinyin: Tàiyī), which is the Ultimate Origin and Ground of Being for all existence. See also Taiyi Shengshui.
- (127–200 AD) East Han Dynasty (東漢朝) Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan (鄭玄), in one of his works , said: "Shangdi is the parent of all peoples" in his annotations of the Shangshu (aka Shujing), he says: "Everyone is a child of Heaven" (凡人皆天之子).
- (960–1279 AD) The Song Dynasty (宋朝) begins reintroducing personality traits to Heaven in various Daoist incarnations as the Yu Huang (玉皇, or Jade Emperor), Pure August Jade Emperor (玉皇上帝), and Yuanshi Tianzun (元始天尊).
- (1368–1644 AD) The Ming Dynasty (明朝) records in the Statutes of the Ming Dynasty regulations during this time. This includes the words spoken to Shangdi by Ming Emperor Jiajing (嘉靖) in the Temple of Heaven. The specific words are recorded in the Text of the Border Sacrifice, depicting the 1538 AD Annual Sacrifice Ritual. They describe Shangdi as a creator:
From the earliest eras of Chinese history, Shangdi was officially worshipped through sacrificial rituals. Shangdi is believed to rule over natural and ancestral spirits, who act as His ministers. Shangdi is thought to be the Supreme Guide of both the natural order and the human order. The ruler of China in every Chinese dynasty would perform annual sacrificial rituals to Shangdi at the great Temple of Heaven in the imperial capital. During the ritual a completely healthy bull would be slaughtered and presented as an animal sacrifice to Shangdi. 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" (神位, or shénwèi) inscribed with the name of God is stored on the throne. That name is "Supreme Sovereign God of Heaven" (皇天上帝, 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 is also one of the main names used by Chinese Christians for the Christian God
. It is first used in the southern China
edition of the Chinese Union Version
, a Mandarin Chinese translation of the Christian Bible. 19th century British Protestant missionaries in China, such as James Legge
, used the name Shangdi to refer to the Christian God, while American Protestant missionaries in northern China in the early 20th century preferred the alternative Shen
(神, pinyin: Shén), and another edition was printed reflecting this usage. By contrast, historically, Chinese Catholics have predominantly used the term "Tian Zhu" (天主, pinyin: tian1 zhu3; literally, "Lord of Heaven") to address God. Chinese philosophers of religion also use the name Shangdi to refer to the philosophical God. Newer versions of Chinese bibles that uses "Shen" add a space known as nuo tai
before the character ("神") to preserve formatting of the "Shangdi" editions. Some scholars like Matteo Ricci
(Jesuit) and James Legge assert that Shangdi is same as the Christian God after studying the Chinese Classics.