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Chinese Bronze script character for Tian.
Chinese name
Literal meaningheaven, nature
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetthiên
Chữ Hán
Korean name
Japanese name

Tian () 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 highest god as Shangdi or Di (, 'Lord').[1] During the following Zhou dynasty, Tian became synonymous with this figure. Before the 20th century, worship of Tian was an orthodox state religion of China.[further explanation needed]

In Taoism and Confucianism, Tian (the celestial aspect of the cosmos, often translated as "Heaven") is mentioned in relationship to its complementary aspect of (, often translated as "Earth").[2][3] They are thought to maintain the two poles of the Three Realms of reality, with the middle realm occupied by Humanity (, rén), and the lower world occupied by demons (, ) and "ghosts", the damned, (, guǐ).[4] Tian was variously thought as a "supreme power reigning over lesser gods and human beings"[5][6] that brought "order and calm...or catastrophe and punishment",[7] a deity,[8][9] destiny,[9][7] an impersonal force that controls events,[5][9] a holy world or afterlife containing other worlds or afterlives,[10][11] or one or more of these.[5]


Chinese Seal script for Tian 'heaven'
Chinese Oracle script for Tian 'heaven'

The modern Chinese character and early seal script both combine 'great; large' and '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 depict a stick figure person with arms stretched out denoting "great; large". The oracle and bronze characters for Tian emphasize the cranium of this 'great (person)', either with a square or round head, or head marked with one or two lines. Schuessler notes the bronze graphs for Tian, showing a person with a round head, resemble those for dīng "4th Celestial stem", and suggests "The anthropomorphic graph may or may not indicate that the original meaning was 'deity', rather than 'sky'."[12]

Two variant Chinese characters for are 二人 (written with èr 'two' and rén 'human') and the Daoist coinage [13] (with qīng 'blue' and 'qi', cf. 'blue sky').


Tian reconstructions in Middle Chinese (c. 6th–10th centuries CE) include t'ien,[14] t'iɛn,[15] tʰɛn > tʰian,[16] and then.[17] Reconstructions in Old Chinese (c. 6th–3rd centuries BCE) include *t'ien,[14] *t'en,[18] *hlin,[19] *thîn,[20] and *l̥ˤin.[21]

For the etymology of Tian, Schuessler links it with the Mongolian word tengri 'sky', 'heaven', 'deity' or the Tibeto-Burman words taleŋ (Adi) and tǎ-lyaŋ (Lepcha), both meaning 'sky'.[12] He also suggests a likely connection between Tian, diān 'summit, mountaintop', and diān 'summit', 'top of the head', 'forehead', which have cognates such as Zemeic Naga tiŋ 'sky'.[22] However, other reconstructions of 's OC pronunciation *qʰl'iːn [23] or *l̥ˤi[n] [24] reconstructed a voiceless lateral onset, either a cluster or a single consonant, respectively. Baxter & Sagart pointed to attested dialectal differences in Eastern Han Chinese, the use of as a phonetic component in phono-semantic compound Chinese characters, and the choice of to transcribe foreign syllables, all of which prompted them to conclude that, around 200 CE, 's onset had two pronunciations: coronal * and dorsal *x, both of which likely originated from an earlier voiceless lateral *l̥ˤ.[25] Further etymology is unknown. It is proposed that transcriptions of a Xiongnu word for "sky", haak-lin 赫連, is related.[26]


Tian is one of the components in hundreds of Chinese compounds. Some significant ones include:

Chinese interpretations[edit]

"Lord Heaven" and "Jade Emperor" were terms for a supreme deity in Confucianism and Taoism who was an anthropromorphized Tian,[27] and some conceptions of it thought of the names as synonymous.

Tian was viewed as "the dwelling place of gods and other superhuman beings".[28][9] It was also viewed as "the guardian of both the moral laws of mankind and the physical laws of nature...and is synonymous with the divine will."[9]

In Chinese culture, heaven tends to be "synonymous with order", "containing the blueprints for creation", "the mandate by which earthly rulers govern, and the standards by which to measure beauty, goodness, and truth."[28]

Zhou dynasty nobles made the worship of heaven a major part of their political philosophy and viewed it as "many gods" who embodied order and kingship, as well as the mandate of heaven.[29]


"Confucianism has a religious side with a deep reverence for Heaven and Earth (Di), whose powers regulate the flow of nature and influence human events."[3] Yin and yang are also thought to be integral to this relationship and permeate both, as well as humans and man-made constructs.[3] This "cosmos" and its "principles" is something that "[t]he ways of man should conform to, or else" frustration will result.[3][excessive quote]

Many Confucianists, both historically and in current times, use the I Ching to divine events through the changes of Tian and other natural forces.[3] Historical and current Confucianists were/are often environmentalists[30] out of their respect for Heaven and the other aspects of nature and the principle that comes from their unity and, more generally, harmony as a whole, which is "the basis for a sincere mind."[3] The Emperor of China as Tianzi was formerly vital to Confucianism.[7]

Mount Tai is seen as a sacred place in Confucianism and was traditionally the most revered place where Chinese emperors offered sacrifices to Heaven and Earth.[31]


The concept of Tian 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 dead until his work was done and complete.[32] 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!"[33]

Confucius felt himself personally dependent upon Heaven: "Wherein I have done improperly, may Heaven reject me! may Heaven reject me!"[34]

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?"[35]

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."[36]

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!" [37]

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?" [38]


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.[39] 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."[40]

Schools of cosmology[edit]

There are three major schools on the structure of Tian.[further explanation needed] Most other hypothesis were developed from them.

  • Gaitian shuo (蓋天說) "Canopy-Heavens hypothesis" originated from the text Zhoubi Suanjing. The earth is covered by a material Tian.
  • Huntian shuo (渾天說) "Egg-like hypothesis". The earth surrounded by a Tian sphere rotating over it. The celestial bodies are attached to the Tian sphere. (See Zhang Heng § Astronomy and mathematics, Chinese creation myth.)
  • Xuanye shuo (宣夜說) "Firmament hypothesis". The Tian is an infinite space. The celestial bodies were light matters floating on it moved by Qi. A summary by Ji Meng (郗萌) is in the astronomical chapters of the Book of Jin.

Tian schools influenced popular conception of the universe and earth until the 17th century, when they were replaced by cosmological concepts imported from Europe.[41]

Sometimes the sky is divided into Jiutian (九天) '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. A common belief in Taoism is that there were 36 Tian "arranged on six levels" that have "different deities".[7] The highest heaven is the "Great Web" which was sometimes said to be where Yuanshi Tianzun lived.[7]

After death, some Taoists were thought to explore "heavenly realms" and/or become Taoist immortals.[10][42] These immortals could be good or evil,[43] and there were sometimes rivalries between them.

Some heavens in Taoism were thought to be evil, as in Shangqing Daoism,[44] although Tian was mostly thought of as a force for good.[45]

Heaven is sometimes seen as synonymous with the Dao or a natural energy that can be accessed by living in accordance with the Dao.[28]

A Tao realm inconceivable and incomprehensible by normal humans and even Confucius and Confucianists[46] was sometimes called "the Heavens".[47] Higher, spiritual versions of Daoists such as Laozi were thought to exist in there when they were alive and absorb "the purest Yin and Yang",[47] as well as xian who were reborn into it after their human selves' spirits were sent there. These spiritual versions were thought to be abstract beings that can manifest in that world as mythical beings such as dragons who eat yin and yang energy and ride clouds and their qi.[47]

Chinese folk religion[edit]

Some Tian in Chinese folk religion were thought to be many different or a hierarchy of multiple, sphere-like[41] realms that contained morally ambiguous creatures and spirits such as fox spirits[11] and fire-breathing dragons.[48]

The Tao realm was thought to exist by many ancient folk religion practitioners.[47]

Ahom religion[edit]

Ahom religion ethnically originated from Dai people of Yunnan in Southwest China has a concept of Mong Phi (Heavenly Kingdom) which is often identified as Tian.[49]


In Yiguandao, 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'.

Japanese interpretations[edit]

In some cases, the heavens in Shinto were thought to be a hierarchy of multiple, sphere-like realms that contained kami such as fox spirits.[11]

Myths about the kami were told "of their doings on Earth and in heaven."[50] Heaven was thought to be a clean and orderly place for nature gods in Shinto.[50]

Interpretation by Western sinologists[edit]

The sinologist Herrlee Creel, who wrote a comprehensive study called "The Origin of the Deity T'ien", gives this overview.

For three thousand years it has been believed that from time immemorial all Chinese revered T'ien , "Heaven," as the highest deity, and that this same deity was also known as Shangdi, Ti , 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.[51]

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 Shangdi. The chapter "Tang Shi" (湯誓 'Tang's speech') illustrates how early Zhou texts used Tian in contexts with Shangdi. 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 [...] 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."[52]

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 as 'a large or great man'. The Zhou subsequently added a head on him to denote tian meaning 'king, kings' (cf. wang 'king', 'ruler', which had oracle graphs picturing a line under a 'great person' and bronze graphs that added the top line). From 'king', 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'.[53]

Another possibility is that Tian may be related to Tengri, hinting at an ultimate origin as a loan word from a prehistoric Central Asian language that contributed to the creation of the word.[54]

Kelly James Clark argued that Confucius himself saw Tian as an anthropomorphic god that Clark hypothetically refers to as 'Heavenly Supreme Emperor', although most other scholars on Confucianism disagree with this view.[55]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Stefon, Matt (2010-02-03). "Shangdi". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2023-05-01.
  2. ^ Woodhead, Linda; Partridge, Christopher; Kawanami, Hiroko (2016). Religions in the Modern World (Third ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 147–148. ISBN 978-0-415-85881-6.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Wilson, Andrew, ed. (1995). World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts (1st paperback ed.). St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House Publishers. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-55778-723-1.
  4. ^ Woolf, Greg (2007). Ancient civilizations: the illustrated guide to belief, mythology, and art. Barnes & Noble. p. 212. ISBN 978-1-4351-0121-0.
  5. ^ a b c "tian". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2023-04-28.
  6. ^ Harari, Yuval Noah (2015). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Translated by Harari, Yuval Noah; Purcell, John; Watzman, Haim. London: Penguin Random House UK. p. 219. ISBN 978-0-09-959008-8. OCLC 910498369.
  7. ^ a b c d e Storm, Rachel (2011). Sudell, Helen (ed.). Myths & Legends of India, Egypt, China & Japan (2nd ed.). Wigston, Leicestershire: Lorenz Books. p. 233.
  8. ^ Willard Gurdon Oxtoby, ed. (2002). World Religions: Eastern Traditions (2nd ed.). Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press. p. 424. ISBN 0-19-541521-3. OCLC 46661540.
  9. ^ a b c d e Carrasco et al. 1999, p. 1096.
  10. ^ a b "xian". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2023-04-29.
  11. ^ a b c Carlson, Kathie; Flanagin, Michael N.; Martin, Kathleen; Martin, Mary E.; Mendelsohn, John; Rodgers, Priscilla Young; Ronnberg, Ami; Salman, Sherry; Wesley, Deborah A. (2010). Arm, Karen; Ueda, Kako; Thulin, Anne; Langerak, Allison; Kiley, Timothy Gus; Wolff, Mary (eds.). The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. Köln: Taschen. p. 280. ISBN 978-3-8365-1448-4.
  12. ^ a b Schuessler (2007), p. 495
  13. ^ Carrasco et al. 1999, p. 1068.
  14. ^ a b Karlgren (1922)[pages needed]
  15. ^ Zhou (1972)[pages needed]
  16. ^ Pulleyblank (1991)[pages needed]
  17. ^ Baxter (1992)[pages needed], Baxter & Sagart (2014)[pages needed]
  18. ^ Zhou (1972)[pages needed]
  19. ^ Baxter (1992)[pages needed]
  20. ^ Schuessler (2007)[pages needed]
  21. ^ Baxter & Sagart (2014)[pages needed]
  22. ^ Schuessler (2007), p. 211; #6312 NEIA *t(s)iŋ celestial / sky / weath (provisional) at Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus
  23. ^ Zhengzhang (2003)
  24. ^ Baxter & Sagart (2011), p. 110
  25. ^ Baxter & Sagart (2014), pp. 113–114
  26. ^ Chen, Sanping (1998). "Sino-Tokharico-Altaica — Two Linguistic Notes". Central Asiatic Journal. 42 (1): 24–43. ISSN 0008-9192.
  27. ^ Willard Gurdon Oxtoby, ed. (2002). World Religions: Eastern Traditions (2nd ed.). Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press. pp. 326, 393, 401. ISBN 0-19-541521-3. OCLC 46661540.
  28. ^ a b c Zaleski, Carol (2023-05-12). "Heaven". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2023-05-15.
  29. ^ Pearson, Patricia O'Connell; Holdren, John (May 2021). World History: Our Human Story. Versailles, Kentucky: Sheridan Kentucky. p. 98. ISBN 978-1-60153-123-0.
  30. ^ Tucker, Mary Evelyn (1998). "Confucianism and Ecology: Potential and Limits". The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. Yale University. Retrieved 2023-04-29.
  31. ^ Guangwei, He; Hualing, Tong; Wenzhen, Yang; Zhenguo, Chang; Zeru, Li; Ruicheng, Dong; Weijan, Gong, eds. (1999). Spectacular China. Translated by Wusun, Lin; Zhongping, Wu. Cologne: Könemann. p. 42. ISBN 978-3-8290-1077-1.
  32. ^ Analects 7.23
  33. ^ Confucius & Legge (1893), p.214, VIII, xix
  34. ^ Confucius & Legge (1893), p.193, VI, xxviii
  35. ^ Confucius & Legge (1893), pp. 220-221, IX, xi
  36. ^ Confucius & Legge (1893), p.146, book II, chapter iv
  37. ^ Confucius & Legge (1893), 288-9, XIV, xxxv
  38. ^ Confucius & Legge (1893), 217-8, 9.5 and 7.12
  39. ^ Dubs (1960), pp. 163–172
  40. ^ Mozi & Mei (1929), p. 145
  41. ^ a b Liu, Shu-Chiu (2006-12-11). "Three early Chinese models". Asia-Pacific Forum on Science, Learning, and Teaching. Historical models and science instruction: A cross-cultural analysis based on students' views. Education University of Hong Kong.
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  45. ^ Dell, Christopher (2012). Mythology: The Complete Guide to our Imagined Worlds. New York: Thames & Hudson. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-500-51615-7.
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  47. ^ a b c d Minford, John (2018). Tao Te Ching: The Essential Translation of the Ancient Chinese Book of the Tao. New York: Viking Press. pp. ix–x. ISBN 978-0-670-02498-8.
  48. ^ Hua, Sara Lynn (2016-06-28). "Difference Between A Chinese Dragon and A Western Dragon". TutorABC Chinese China Expats & Culture Blog. Retrieved 2023-05-18.
  49. ^ "Heaven is here Tien a part Yunnan In Southwest China." Gogoi, Padmeshwar (1976). Tai Ahom Religion and Customs. Publication Board, Gauhati, Assam. p. 14.
  50. ^ a b Stevenson, Jay (2000). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Eastern Philosophy. Indianapolis: Alpha Books. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-02-863820-1.
  51. ^ Creel (1970), p. 493
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  54. ^ Müller (1870)[pages needed]
  55. ^ Jonathan Fuqua; Robert C. Koons, eds. (2023-02-10). "Searching for the Ineffable: Classical Theism and Eastern Thought about God". Classical Theism: New Essays on the Metaphysics of God. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-000-83688-2. OCLC 1353836889.


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