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The Portrayal of Shangdi and Universe in Chinese Classical Texts

The frequently quoted philosophy of Shangdi (Chinese: 上帝, translated as highest deity; pinyin: Shàngdì) in Oracle Bone Script and ancient Chinese books, often aligns closely with the theistic view of God in the Old Testament.

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Transcendent yet formless

During the Shang dynasty (from 1600 to 1046 B.C.), the character Di() was frequently referenced in Oracle Bone Script, though the Elder Days saw no hieroglyphic word but an ideograph to represent Shangdi.

Some scholars suggest that the character of “帝” resembles the shape of “蒂” (the base of the flower), symbolizing the source of life. Others propose that it resembles an alter, where priests place firewood to burn. Both explanations highlight the formlessness of Shangdi, indicating that pictographic characters are inadequate to express it. Consequently, our ancestors developed transfer characters (sometimes referred to as mutually explanatorycharacters, 转注字). Thus, Shangdi is not a tangible object but an existence with transcendent attributes.

In bronze texts (so called jinwen, inscriptions on ritual bronze vessels), wei huang shang di (惟皇上帝)refers to the supreme sovereignty. Huangdenotes the highest and mightiest, symbolizing ultimate truth, and often associated with Shangdi, the the supreme deity. This suggests that from the Chinese perspective, Shangdi embodies primacy, transcendence and formlessness.

Also in Oracle Bone Script, the Chinese character “天” (heaven), is composed of the character “人” (human) below and the character “一” (one) above. Drawing two strokes of the character “一” forms the character “上” (up). This indicates that heaven is above humans, and “上” carries the connotation of transcendence. The Shuowen Jiezi, also known as An Explication of Written Characters (《说文解字》), states “heaven is what dian (颠) is,” with Dian signifying supremacy. Thus, in the minds of the Chinese people, heaven is synonymous with Shangdi.

“Jiaoji” (郊祭, sacrifices to heaven and earth): to serve Shangdi

The concept of Shangdi is evident in ancient sacrificial rites, as mentioned in the Zhongyong (or Doctrine of the Mean, 《中庸》): “Sacrifices to heaven and earth are to serve Shangdi.”

Similarly, in this ancient book, the author referred to “禘尝之义”, which is equivalent to “禘祭”, a grand religious rite to worship heaven and earth. The Chinese character “禘” is composed of “示” on the left and “帝” on the right. Some interpretations suggest that “示” in Oracle Bone Script originates from “一”, like heaven, symbolizing a deity descending from heaven to earth, while others believe that “一” represents Shangdi. Additionally, The Shuowen Jiezi states: “Shi (示), revolves around deity.”

One of the chapters in Liji, or Record of Rites(《礼记》), advocates that emperors offer sacrifices to their ancestors when conducting sacrificial rites to Shangdi. The presence of both Shangdi and ancestors is believed to bestow wisdom of governance upon the emperors. In the other chapter (《礼记·郊特牲》), a convincing argument is presented for why people need to worship Shangdi and their ancestors. With Shangdi’s presence with our ancestors, the kinship of our ancestors and us extends to include Shangdi. Thus, the transcendent existence of Shangdi and the kinship relationship with the highest deity are not mutually exclusive.

Shangdi dominates heaven, earth and its servants

As recorded in Oracle Bone Script, Shangdi sent rains and dispensed winds; Shangdi also poured on disasters and blessings, exerting transcending dominance over nature. Through sacrificial rituals, individuals could experience the presence of Shangdi, establishing a connection between Shangdi and human world, akin to a pathway that facilitates communication. Thus, their relationship was inseparable.

The book Ye Zhong Pian Yu (鄴中片羽), edited in 1942, mentions a record in Oracle Bone Script, stating “既系于上帝” (Everything is linked to Shangdi). The term “风” (wind) is also a frequent word in Oracle Bone Script, similar to “凤” (phoenix, a formless and spiritual creature). Other descriptions like “帝其令风” (Shangdi controlled winds) and “帝使风” (Shangdi used winds) reveal that the wind god was not a subordinate god, but rather a messenger of Shangdi who issued orders and carried out missions. Additionally, the Chinese book Taiping Yulan (《太平御览》) states: “The messenger of wind is the Angle of heaven.”

Chinese emperors believed that Shangdi was the supreme authority over everything in the universe. All gods, and every thing in heaven and earth, were considered messengers of Shangdi, and they exited in harmonious relations.

Shangdi, the source of humanity, order and destiny

Shangdi communicated with humans, assigning them the task of governing people and creatures on earth. If a ruler sinned, like the notorious tyrant Xia Jie, his destiny was to perish. Shangdi would then raise up another virtuous person to overthrow and replace him. In reverence for Shangdi, the new ruler would fight to defeat the wrongdoer in order to safeguard Shangdi’s justice.

In the Book of History, chapter Yi Xun (Instructions of Yi, 《尚书·伊训》) suggests that Shangdi’s blessings follow a pattern -- rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. Goodness is considered the guiding principle, rooted in the hearts of individuals. Chapter Tang Shi (Tang’s Admonishment, 《尚书·汤誓》) mentions that Shangdi put justice and loyalty in the hearts of people, so that they are with one mind. Shangdi examines the heart and the mind of the emperor, while people serve as Shangdi’s eyes and ears that oversee the emperor. As stated in chapter Tai Shi (《尚书·泰誓》), “天视自我民视,天听自我民听” (Shangdi sees what people see, and hears what people hear).

Chapter Hong Fan (《洪范》) reveals that Shangdi is not only the creator of the human mind’s nature, but also the maker of the universal order of beauty and virtue, the fundamental laws and norms. Shangdi, who nurtures the natural elements (five phases), establishes supreme principles for governing the world. The emperor must revere and serve Shangdi. In the Da Ming of Shi Jing  (《诗经·大明》) , Wen, the ruler of Zhou, “小心翼翼,昭事上帝” (serve Shangdi with discretion), and was highly moral and benevolent. As a result, blessings abounded, and neighboring nations submitted to this king who govern with integrity (聿怀多福,其德不回,以受方国).

Shangdi upholds justice, and bestows goodness upon the world

In Lv Xing (The Penal Code of Lv, 《吕刑》), five forms of torture are mentioned as punishment to wrongdoing. Shangdi observed a world stained with bloodshed, where people suffered without offering sacrifices. Mercy was granted to those enduring suffering, leading to the downfall of tyranny. In ancient China, the concept of Shangdi uphoding justice prevailed. The emperor’s legitimacy rested on justice and moral standards set by Shangdi.

Emperors must revere and fear the supreme being to fulfill their destiny. As King Wu of Zhou rallied his soldiers’ morale before battle, he said that “予小子夙夜祗惧,受命文考,类于上帝。” (Cautious and fearful during the day and at night, I am ordered to attack Zhou. I also make sacrifices to Shangdi.)

The Shi Jing includes a poem named Sheng Min (《诗经·烝民》), reading “天生烝民,有物有则。民之秉彝,好是懿德” (All people and all things on earth are born with rational rules, which are virtues.) People should obey the rules and be virtuous.

The poem Da Ming (《诗经·大明》) describes Shangdi as transcendent and supreme, who shines on the earth brightly. The supreme one sees all of the earth, working for the sake of the happiness of humans. And the presence of Shangdi examines human hearts, especially those of emperors. Thus, it says:“上帝临女,无贰尔心” (When Shangdi comes to you, you should serve the one with all your heart). Consequently, emperors must be godly, virtuous and kind.

Eternity in the afterlife

Regarding eternity in the afterlife, Oracle Bone Script has frequent descriptions of “王宾帝” (emperors close to Shangdi). Interestingly, not all emperors were on the list, suggesting that those who sinned could not come close to that righteous judge. The poem The Wenwang (《诗经·文王》) Emperor says, “文王陟降,在帝左右” (The Wenwang emperor was righteous enough to ascend into heaven and descend to the earth as well. He could always be at Shangdi’s side).

Since the ancient Chinese accepted the idea of a transcendent and benevolent Shangdi, it reflects the existence of a heavenly world where people go after departing this world. Moreover, it implies that ancestors in heaven could communicate with people on the earth in some way.

Many of the Chinese characters and classical texts, such as Oracle Bone Script, jinwen, Shang Shu,and Shi Jing, offer insight into how the ancient Chinese perceived the universe. It was a world structured around principles of morality and justice, with moral guidelines shaping a rational order for heaven, earth, and humanity. The ancient Chinese culture fostered a moral and rational universe centered on Shangdi, imbued with metaphysical and theological attributes.

Author: Liang Yancheng

Translator: Bei Feng