views updated


TIAN . A term of basic importance in the worldview and religious life of the Chinese from the remote past to the present, tian has two principal senses: as the supreme god of the universe, and as impersonal nature. Often it is not clear in a particular instance which of these meanings is intended, and it may well be that the distinction is vague to the user.

Tian as God

The root meaning of tian is sky or the heavens, the abode of numinous beings. When used without qualifiers the term may denote the supreme deity. The earliest known use of the graph for tian occurs in ancient texts of the Zhou period (c. 1111256 bce), where it refers to the supreme deity of the Zhou people. In early Zhou times Tian was conceived as the all-powerful, purposeful, apparently anthropomorphic god who sent down blessings or disasters according to whether he was pleased or displeased with human behavior. Politically, Tian was the source of the legitimacy of the king, conferring upon the most righteous man the mandate of Heaven (tianming ) or withdrawing this mandate from corrupt or unworthy rulers. In this conception of divinity the early Zhou rulers successfully assimilated the supreme god of the preceding Shang dynasty (eighteenth century? to 1111 bce), called Di, or Shangdi. This assimilation blurred the historical and cultic distinction between the god of the Shang and the god of the Zhou. Subsequently, the terms haotian ("heaven of the vast-primal-vital-breath"), or huangtian ("august heaven"), and shangdi ("supreme ruler") were used interchangeably to denote the greatest power of the universe. As Tian and as Shangdi, this supreme power was conceived of as the creator (zaowuzhu ). In some texts, including the Yi jing (Book of changes), tian and di (Heaven and Earth) are at least figuratively anthropomorphized as the cosmic father and mother, from whose sexual intercourse all beings are produced.

Worship of Tian, as performed in the elaborate imperial rituals, was forbidden to any but the ruler, as it was the most impressive demonstration of his possession of the mandate of Heaven. But it would hardly have been possible to prevent the people from believing in and expressing their awe of Tian. In the course of time, the notion evolved that the supernatural dimension was an invisible counterpart to the temporal world. Tian was then personified as the emperor of that spirit world who, like the emperor in this world, headed a heavenly bureaucracy of deities. In this role Tian was called Yuhuang Shangdi ("supreme ruler of jadelike augustness"). The common people invoked his aid when in dire trouble, and there were temples in which he was the chief deity. Many homes contained some representation of communication with him, such as an incense brazier. Among the people he was familiarly called Tiangong ("celestial duke") or Laotianye ("old celestial lord").

The omnipresence and concern of Tian with the human world are themes of many proverbs. In some of these, the deity is obviously personified: "Tian's eyes are everywhere, they see all without anyone escaping"; "Man can be fooled, but not Tian"; "Tian punishes the sinner"; "Blessings come from Tian"; "Tian helps those who help themselves"; "Tian knows the good and evil hidden in human hearts." Other sayings, however, are either ambiguous or definitely refer to an impersonal power: "The cyclical revolutions of tian cause things to be as they are"; "Tian is empty; earth is broad"; "Intelligence is endowed by tian "; "There may not be two suns in tian "; "It is difficult to go against the Way (dao ) of tian."

The arrival of Buddhism from India and Central Asia at approximately the beginning of the common era introduced new and complicated notions of celestial beings and celestial realms. The Buddhist realms, for example, were divided into the Realm of Desire (kama-dhatu ), the Realm of Form (rupadhatu ), and the Realm of Formlessness (arupyadhatu ). These and other Buddhist realms were called tian. In the third and fourth centuries, as Daoism became a cohesive religion, it too developed elaborate notions of supernal realms and called them tian. In general, the tian of Daoism, variously twenty-eight, thirty-two, or thirty-six in number, were derived from Buddhism, although one novel idea held that counterparts to tian existed in the subterranean world. The Daoist tian are the abodes of gods and their subordinates, the perfected immortals (xian ), as well as of the souls of the virtuous dead who will one day attain immortality as perfected beings. The term tian also figures in Daoist cosmology, where xiantian ("pre-cosmic") and houtian ("cosmic," that is, the phenomenal universe) denote stages of evolution that are represented in the performance of liturgical rites.

Tian as Impersonal Nature

The word tian often appears in writings of the classical period of philosophy (sixth to third century bce), where it is used with the connotation "nature." Daoist texts of the period frequently express the idea of tian as an impersonal force that produces all natural phenomena. In this usage were blended the ideas of the will of a personal deity and a natural law. Thus, events, in particular, omens, commonly taken to signify the "decree" of tian, were here interpreted simply as having occurred spontaneously or of themselves (tianming ji ziran ). The most forceful assertion of the impersonality of tian was made by the Ru (Confucian) scholar Xunzi (fl. c. 298238 bce), who denied that tian acted in response to human actions or pleas. In his view, tian was simply the operation of the physical universe. In another instance of the impersonal use of tian, the term refers to something akin to "fate," as in the expression mingyun de tian ("Heaven-determined destiny").

As with the anthropomorphic conception of tian, the naturalistic interpretation was given its most authoritative expression in the Yi jing. There, tian is symbolized by the trigram qian, and is thus another term for the positive, male, creative principle or force (yang). Its complement is di, or earth, symbolized by the trigram kun, representing the negative, female, receptive principle or force (yin). The ceaseless, ever-changing interactions and permutations of these complementary principles or forces produce the universe and all beings, and are responsible for their birth, growth, decay, and death.

Although impersonal, the "naturalistic" tian has a close functional relationship with man. The classical philosophers see this relationship in a variety of not necessarily reconcilable ways:

Human life or life span depends upon tian (renzhiming zai tian ).

Man is a microcosm of the universe, his feet being "square," as earth is, and his head round, as Heaven is.

Man's nature (xing ) is conferred at birth by tian.

Man should model himself upon tian (fatian ).

Since tian is impersonal, it is man who acts as the mind (or heart) of tian.

Man and tian constantly interact in mutual stimulus and response (a view denied, as we have seen, by Xunzi).

The function of tian is to create, while the function of man is to nurture and bring to perfection those created things.

Tian serves as the moral example for man, who can only attain his complete human development through the discipline of moral steadfastness (cheng ).

Here again, the concept of tian is ambiguous: while moral perfection would seem to be possible only for a person, yet the unfailing regularity, benevolence, and impartiality of tian could also be interpreted in moral terms.

In the neo-Confucian movement, which began during the Tang dynasty (618907) and came to maturity during the Song period (9601279), philosophers again utilized the term tian in various new ways. The neo-Confucian goal may be stated in religious terms as an ultimate self-transformation for the attainment of sainthood or sageliness (shengren ). Most important was a concept called the tianli ("principle of tian " or "heavenly principle"), which was interpreted in a number of ways. It stood for the sum of the anciently enunciated virtues of the Confucian tradition; it was a name for the metaphysical substance or embodiment of the dao (xingshang daoti ); it was identified as mind; it was identified as conscience, which produced the innate knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong (liangxi or liangzhi ); it was moral perfection, the very opposite of human desires (renyu ), a proposition rejected by certain later neo-Confucians; or it designated the totality of all principles, being cosmic Principle. These were some of the concepts the neo-Confucians used in constructing a metaphysics that had been lacking in the ancient Confucian system. They attempted, in this way, to arrive at an understanding of the nature of ultimate reality or the Absolute. In their philosophies, the term tian was used for this ultimate reality and also identified with other terms that had the same meaningdao, li, taiji, and (in Wang Yangming's thought) xin ("heart-and-mind"). Although the tian of the neo-Confucians was an impersonal metaphysical principle, even in this usage theistic implications were not entirely absent.

See Also

Dao and De; Li; Shangdi; Taiji; Yuhuang.


There is no monographic treatment of tian in English, and the only one in a Western language, Anton Lübke's Der Himmel der Chinesen (Leipzig, 1931), is not easily available in many North American libraries. A good overall discussion is found in Alfred Forke's The World-Conception of the Chinese (1925; reprint, New York, 1975). On Tian as the god of the Zhou people, see Herrlee G. Creel's "The Origin of the Deity T'ien," in volume 1, appendix C of his The Origins of Statecraft in China (Chicago, 1970). On the concept of Tian (i. e., Shangdi) as the supreme deity, see James Legge's The Notions of the Chinese concerning God and Spirits (1852; reprint, Taibei, 1971). A suggestive recent interpretation is Ha Tai Kim's "Transcendence Without and Within: The Concept of T'ien in Confucianism," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 3 (Fall 1972): 146160.

For the role of tian in political and social traditions, the definitive treatment is Yang Ch'ing-k'un's Religion in Chinese Society (Berkeley, 1961); see the index references s.v. Heaven. Proverbs showing generally held notions of tian are sampled in Clifford H. Plopper's Chinese Religion Seen through the Proverb (1926; reprint, New York, 1969), pp. 2329, 5976. Various concepts of tian are discussed in H. G. Lamont's "An Early Ninth Century Debate on Heaven," Asia Major 18 (1973): 181208 and 19 (1974): 3785, although this article is technical and contains considerable extraneous material. An important discussion is found in J. J. M. de Groot's Les fêtes annuellement célébrées à Émoui (Amoy ), vol. 1 (1886; reprint, Taibei, 1977), pp. 3583.

Laurence G. Thompson (1987)

About this article


Updated About content Print Article Share Article