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Shangdi (Chinese: 上帝; pinyin: Shàngdì; Wade–Giles: Shang Ti),
also written simply, "Emperor" (Chinese: 帝; pinyin: Dì), 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 ("Heaven" or "Great Whole") of
Although in Chinese religion the usage of "Tian" to refer to the
God of the universe is predominant, "Shangdi" continues to be
used in a variety of traditions, including certain philosophical
schools, certain strains of Confucianism, some Chinese
salvationist religions (notably Yiguandao) and Chinese Protestant
Christianity. In addition, it is common to use such term among
contemporary and secular Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese societies
typically for a singular universal deity and a non-religion
translation for the
God in Christianity.
2.1 Shang dynasty
2.2 Zhou dynasty
2.3 Han dynasty
3.1 The Shang progenitor
Shangdi as the celestial pole
3.3 Contemporary Confucianism
3.4 Conflation with Concept of Singular Universal God
4 See also
Shang oracular script graphs for 帝 Dì, the supreme
God as the
"Shang Di" is the pinyin romanization of two Chinese characters. The
first – 上, Shàng – means "high", "highest", "first",
"primordial"; the second – 帝, Dì – is typically considered as a
short hand for huangdi （皇帝）in modern Chinese, the title of the
China first employed by Qin Shi Huang, and is usually
translated as "emperor". The word itself is derived from Three "Huang"
and Five "Di", including Yellow
Emperor (Huangdi 黃帝), the
mythological originator of the Chinese civilization and the ancestor
of the Chinese race. However, 帝 refers to the High
God of Shang,
thus means "deity" (manifested god), . Thus, the name Shangdi
should be translated as "Highest Deity", but also have the implied
meaning of "Primordial Deity" or "First Deity" in Classical Chinese.
The deity preceded the title and the emperors of
China were named
after him in their role as Tianzi, the sons of Heaven.
Oracle bone script, the earliest known form of Chinese.
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
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
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
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
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
In the later Shang and Zhou dynasties,
Shangdi was conflated with
Heaven (天, Tiān). The
Duke of Zhou
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 not just a
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
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
Huaxia sovereignty; the Shang were 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. All of them
Shangdi in the Five Classics
Classic of History
Classic of Poetry
Classic of Rites
Spring and Autumn Annals
Classic of Changes
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 commonly known by the name "Heavenly Ruling
Highest Deity" (皇天上帝, Huángtiān Shàngdì) and, in this
usage, he is especially conflated with the Taoist Jade Emperor.
Further information: Chinese theology
The Shang progenitor
In Shang sources, Di is already described as the supreme ordainer of
the events which occur in nature, such as wind, lightning and thunder,
and in human affairs and politics. All the gods of nature are
conceived as his envoys or manifestations. Shang sources also attest
his cosmological Five Ministries. Di, or Tian, as later texts
explain, did not receive cult for being too remote for living humans
to sacrifice to directly. Instead, an intermediary such as an ancestor
was necessary to convey to Di the offerings of the living.
According to some prominent scholars, including Guo Moruo,
originally identical to Ku (or Kui) or Diku ("
Divus Ku"), the
progenitor (first ancestor) of the Zi (子) lineage, the founders of
the Shang dynasty, attested in the
Shiji and other texts.
According to this interpretation, this identification had profound
political implications, because it meant that the earthly Shang kings
were themselves by birth aspects of divinity.
Further evidence from Shang sources suggests that there wasn't a
complete identification between the two, as Di controls spirits of
nature, while Kui does not; Di is frequently pictured sending down
"approvals", while Kui is never so pictured; and Kui received cult,
while Di did not. Moreover, Kui is frequently appealed in "horizontal"
relationship with other powers, undermining any portrait of him as the
apex of the pantheon.
Shangdi as the celestial pole
David Pankenier has studied the astral connections of Shangdi, drawing
on a view that interest in the sky was a focal character of the
religious practices of the Shang, but also of the earlier Xia and
Erlitou cultures. Especially intriguing is the fact that palatial and
ceremonial structures of these cultures were carefully aligned to the
celestial pole and the procession of pole stars. Pankenier notes that
the true celestial pole lies in a sky template which is vacant of
significant stars, and that the various pole stars are those nearest
to this vacant apex which is of crucial importance.
He illustrates how the Shang oracular script for Di can be projected
on the north pole template of the ancient sky in such a way that its
extremity points correspond with the visible star, while the
intersection of the linear axes at the centre will map to the vacant
celestial pole. Pankenier argues that the supreme Di was identified
with the celestial pole, an idea familiar in later stages of Chinese
religion, linking with the Tàiyī 太一 ("Great One") fully
documented as early as the 4th century BCE.
The interpretation of
Shangdi as the celestial pole, Taiyi and as Ku
the progenitor of the Shang is not contradictory. Feng Shi argues that
Ku and Di are indeed identical. The Shang probably deliberately
identified their ancestor with a universal god recognized in different
regions and local cultures in order to legitimize their power.
Contemporary Confucian theologians have emphasised differences between
the Confucian idea of Shangdi, conceived as both transcendent and
immanent, and act only as a governor of the world, and the Christian
idea of God, which they conceived contrary to those of Christian as a
deity that is completely otherwordly (transcendent) and is merely a
creator of the world.
Sacred altar at the Temple of Heaven, Beijing
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.
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.[a] During the ritual, a completely healthy bull would be
slaughtered and presented as an animal sacrifice to Shangdi.[b] The
Book of Rites
Book of Rites states the sacrifice should occur on the "longest day"
on a round-mound altar.[clarification needed] 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" (神位, shénwèi) inscribed with the name of Shangdi
is stored on the throne, Huangtian
Shangdi (皇天上帝). 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.
Conflation with Concept of Singular Universal God
See also: Chinese Rites controversy, Chinese names for the
Abrahamic religions, and Unknown God
It was during Ming and Qing dynasty, when Roman Catholicism was
Jesuit Priest Matteo Ricci, that the idea of "Shangdi"
started to be applied to the Christian conception of God.
While initially he utilized the term Tianzhu, Ricci gradually changed
the translation into "Shangdi" instead. His usage of Shangdi
was contested by Confucians, as they believed that the concept of Tian
and "Shangdi" is different from that of Christian's God: Zhōng
Shǐ-shēng, through his books, stated that
governs, while Christian's
God is a creator, and thus differ.
Ricci's translation also invited the displeasure of Dominicans and
that of the Roman Curia; On March 19, 1715,
Pope Clement XI
Pope Clement XI released
the Edict Ex Illa Die, stating that
Catholics must use "Tianzhu"
instead of "Shangdi" for Christianity's God.
China in the mid of 19th century, the
Protestant missionaries also encountered a similar issue; some
preferred the term "Shangdi", while some preferred the term Shen
(god). A conference held in 1877 in Shanghai, discussing the
translation issue, also believed that "Shangdi" of
the Christian concept of
God are different in nature.
However, by the 20th century, most British missionaries, some
Catholics, Chinese Orthodox Christians, and
Shangdi as a connection with Chinese native monotheism with some
further the argument by linking it with the unknown god as described
in bible passage of Acts 17:23-31.
Catholics preferred to
avoid it, due to compromises with the local authority in order to do
their missions, as well as fear such translation may associate the
God to Chinese polytheism.
Nowadays, through the secular Chinese-language media, the Chinese word
of "Shangdi" and "Tian" are frequently used to as a translation for
the singular universal deity with minimal religious attachment to the
Christian idea of God, while Confucians and intellectuals in
China and Taiwan attempt to realign the term to
its original meaning. The
Catholics officially use the term Tianzhu
(Chinese: 天主, Tiānzhǔ), lit. "The Lord of Heaven", while
Evangelicals typically utilize
Shangdi (上帝) and/or Shen (神, "The
Chinese rites controversy
Names of God
God in China
Religion in China
Chinese folk religion
^ For instance, the
Classic of History
Classic of History records the Duke of Zhou
building an altar in the southern part of Luo.
^ Although the
Duke of Zhou
Duke of Zhou is presented as sacrificing two.
^ Eno (2008), p. 70.
^ a b Chang (2000).
^ a b Huang (2007), p. 457.
^ a b Eno (2008), p. 74.
^ a b Zhao, Yanxia. Chinese Religion: A Contextual Approach. 2010. p.
^ Jeaneane D. Fowler, Merv Fowler, 2008, Chinese religions: beliefs
and practices, Sussex Academic Press.
^ Wu, 8
^ Wu, 173
^ "Shangdi", Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011 .
^ Book of Documents.
^ "Chinese Philosophy".
China Renmin Univ., 2006.
Book of Documents
Book of Documents says: "August Heaven has no partisan
affections: it supports only the virtuous".
Zuo Zhuan says: "Unless one is virtuous, the people will not be
in harmony and the spirits will not partake of one's offerings. What
the spirits are attracted to is one's virtue".
^ Dong Zhongshu. Chunqiu Fanlu.
^ Eno (2008), p. 71.
^ a b Eno (2008), p. 72.
^ a b Eno (2008), p. 73.
^ Eno (2008), pp. 73-74.
^ Eno (2008), p. 75.
^ Zhōng Shǐ-shēng, 天学初征:
^ Xu Yahui. Caltonhill, Mark & al., trans. Ancient Chinese
Writing: Oracle Bone Inscriptions from the Ruins of Yin. Academia
National Palace Museum
National Palace Museum (Taipei), 2002. Govt. Publ. No.
^ "JSDJ". Archived from the original on 2005-12-14.
^ Chinese Orthodox Church
^ Legge, James, The Religions of China, Hodder and Stoughton, 1880,
p24-25: "'He sacrificed specifically, but with the ordinary forms, to
ShangTi' -that is, we have seen, to God."
^ Lee, Archie CC (Oct 2005), God's Asian Names: Rendering the Biblical
God in Chinese, SBL Forum
Look up 上帝 in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Chang, Ruth H. (2000). "Understanding Di and Tian: Deity and Heaven
from Shang to Tang Dynasties" (PDF). Sino-Platonic Papers. Victor H.
Mair (108). ISSN 2157-9679.
Eno, Robert (2008), "Shang State Religion and the Pantheon of the
Oracle Texts", in Lagerwey, John; Kalinowski, Marc, Early Chinese
Religion: Part One: Shang Through Han (1250 BC-220 AD), Early Chinese
Religion, Brill, pp. 41–102, ISBN 9004168354
Huang, Yong (2007). "Confucian Theology: Three Models". Religion
Compass. Blackwell. 1 (4): 455–478.
doi:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2007.00032.x. ISSN 2157-9679.
Creel, Herrlee G., The Origins of Statecraft in China.
Wu, K. C. (1982). The Chinese Heritage. New York: Crown Publishers.
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