SHANGDI . During the Shang dynasty (c. 1550–1050 bce), prayers and sacrifices were offered to a large number of gods, collectively referred to as di. Regarded as the deified ancestors (real or putative) of the Shang royal clan and high aristocracy, the di were worshiped at regular intervals in accordance with a liturgical calendar. At appropriate times they were also consulted for aid and advice by means of the cracking of oracle bones (i.e., the practice of scapulimancy).
The Shang kings also worshiped a more powerful god, known as Shangdi (High God, or God Above). Owing to the absence of plural forms in Chinese, it is not certain that there was only one god known as Shangdi—the phrase could also mean, collectively, "high gods." But most authorities agree that it was a single deity. Shangdi might also have been regarded in some sense as an ultimate human ancestor; however, the deity was not included in the regular liturgical round of ancestral sacrifices and oracular consultations.
There is no mythic account of Shangdi's origins, nor does he appear in the mythic accounts of the founding personages (whether gods, culture heroes, or sage-emperors) of Chinese high antiquity, such as Yao, Shun, and Yu the Great. There is, however, reason to suppose some correspondence between Shangdi and Huangdi, the Yellow Thearch (a name that first appears in texts long postdating the Shang), the mythic culture hero, patron of metallurgy, and god of the center.
Unlike the lesser di, who had authority over such human-centered affairs as the king's health and his fortunes in marriage, warfare, and the hunt, Shangdi had jurisdiction in larger-scale natural and cosmic matters. According to surviving oracle-bone inscriptions, Shangdi had the power to prevent, or put an end to, plagues, drought, floods, violent storms, and other such phenomena. Shangdi apparently was never consulted directly by means of scapulimancy, and only rarely were prayers offered to him directly. Rather, when necessary the lesser gods were consulted to learn his will; they could also be asked to intercede with him on behalf of the king and his people.
While the surviving evidence does not permit a very exact description of Shang theology, it seems probable that Shangdi was thought of as a cosmic god, dwelling in or above the sky at the apex of the rotating heavens. Indeed, Shangdi might have been a deified embodiment of the pole star itself. It is certain that a few centuries after the fall of the Shang dynasty gods were thought of as being, in part, personifications of stars, planets, and astral configurations.
With the conquest of the Shang state by the Zhou dynasty around 1050 bce, Shangdi's place as the paramount deity of the royal cult was usurped by the Zhou high god, Tian ("heaven"). Tian was not simply Shangdi under another name, but the two high gods were similarly regarded as conscious but relatively impersonal cosmic forces.
The term Shangdi, however, survived the fall of the Shang dynasty and continued to appear in religious and cosmological texts for centuries thereafter. In such texts it is not so clear that the reference is always to a unitary high god; in some contexts it seems preferable to construe the term as "high gods." In some texts of the Warring States period (481–221 bce) a near-synonym, taidi ("great god"), is substituted for the term Shangdi. Regardless of which term is used, it is clear that the reference is to a celestial god (or gods) dwelling at or around the celestial pole. According to chapter 4 of the Huainanzi (139 bce), "If the height of the Kunlun [cosmic] mountain is doubled … [and redoubled, and again redoubled], it reaches up to Heaven itself. If one mounts to there, one will become a demigod. It is called the abode of the Great God [Taidi]." In his commentary to the Huainanzi, Gao You (fl. 205–212) states that "the Changhe Gate is the gate [through which] one begins an ascent to Heaven. The Gate of Heaven is the gate of the Purple Fortified Palace [i.e., the circumpolar stars] where Shangdi dwells."
With the development of the organized religion of Daoism around the end of the Latter Han dynasty (third century ce), the term Shangdi took on new prominence. As a Daoist term, however, it rarely appears alone; rather it has the general meaning "high god" in the elaborate compound titles given to the numerous divinities in the hierarchical, bureaucratically organized Daoist pantheon. Yuhuang Shangdi ("jade sovereign high god") is a characteristic example of such a divine title of nobility.
Meanwhile, the old sense of Shangdi was preserved through the officially sponsored study of classical texts by the Confucian bureaucratic elite. Every examination candidate knew by heart such stock phrases from the classics as "[King Wen] brilliantly served Shangdi and secured abundant blessings." With the development of the state cult of Confucianism and the imperial worship of and sacrifice to Heaven (Tian), Shangdi came to be regarded as a virtual synonym, perhaps somewhat more concretely conceived, of Heaven.
Finally, the term Shangdi was adopted by Protestant missionaries, and their Chinese converts, to designate the Judeo-Christian God. More commonly, however, that deity is known in Chinese by a name that was coined by the early Jesuit missionaries, Tianzhu, "Lord of Heaven."
The term Shangdi appears many times in the Confucian canon; the standard translation is that of James Legge, The Chinese Classics, 5 vols. (Oxford, 1893–1895; 3d ed., Hong Kong, 1960). For the role of Shangdi in the religion of the Shang dynasty, see Chang Tsung-tung's Der Kult der Shang-Dynastie im Spiegel der Orakelinschriften, edited by Otto Karow (Weisbaden, 1970); Henri Maspero's La Chine antique (1924; Paris, 1965), translated as China in Antiquity by Frank A. Kierman, Jr. (Amherst, Mass., 1979) treats the religious role of Shangdi in both Shang and post-Shang classical times.
John S. Major (1987)