Monday, September 22, 2008


Tian is one of the oldest Chinese terms for the cosmos and a key concept in Chinese mythology, , and . During the Shang Dynasty the Chinese called god ''Shangdi'' or ''Di'' , and during the Zhou Dynasty ''Tian'' "heaven; god" became synonymous with ''Shangdi''.

In the Chinese philosophical systems of Taoism and Confucianism, ''Tian'' is often translated as "Heaven" and is mentioned in relationship to its complementary aspect of ''Di'' , which is most often translated as "Earth". These two aspects of Daoist cosmology are representative of the dualistic nature of Daoism. They are thought to maintain the two poles of the Three Realms of reality, with the middle realm occupied by Humanity .


''Tian'''s modern Chinese character 天 combines ''da'' "great; large" and ''yi'' "one", but some of the original characters in Shang oracle bone script and Zhou bronzeware script anthropomorphically portray a large head on a great person . The oracle and bronze ideograms for ''da'' 大 depict a stick figure person with arms stretched out denoting "great; large". The oracle and bronze characters for ''tian'' 天 emphasize the cranium of this "great ", either with a square head , round or disk-shaped head , or head marked with one or two lines . Since Shang scribes cut oracle inscriptions on bone or shell, their characters often have straight lines where later bronze inscriptions have curved lines. Schuessler notes the bronze graphs for ''tian'' showing a person with a round head resemble those for ''ding'' "4th Celestial stem", and suggests "The anthropomorphic graph may or may not indicate that the original meaning was 'deity', rather than 'sky'."

Besides the usual 天, ''tian'' "heaven" has several graphic variants like 兲 and the Daoist coinage 靝 .

The simplified chinese version is slightly different from the traditional chinese version . The relative lengths of the two horizontal bars are different in the two cases.


The sinologist Herrlee Creel, who wrote a comprehensive study on "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 天, "Heaven," as the highest deity, and that this same deity was also known as Ti 帝 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 , much as the Romans identified the Greek Zeus with their Jupiter.
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 its synonym ''shangdi''.

First, Creel analyzes all the ''tian'' and ''di'' occurrences meaning "god; gods" in Western Zhou era Chinese classic texts and bronze inscriptions. The '''' "Classic of Changes" has 2 ''tian'' and 1 ''di''; the ''Shi Jing'' "Classic of Poetry" has 140 ''tian'' and 43 ''di'' or ''shangdi''; and the authentic portions of the ''Shu Jing'' "Classic of Documents" have 116 ''tian'' and 25 ''di'' or ''shangdi''. His corpus of authenticated Western Zhou bronzes mention ''tian'' 91 times and ''di'' or ''shangdi'' only 4 times. Second, Creel contrasts the disparity between 175 occurrences of ''di'' or ''shangdi'' on Shang era oracle inscriptions with "at least" 26 occurrences of ''tian''. Upon examining these 26 oracle scripts that scholars have identified as ''tian'' 天 "heaven; god" , he rules out 8 cases in fragments where the contextual meaning is unclear. Of the remaining 18, Creel interprets 11 cases as graphic variants for ''da'' "great; large; big" , 3 as a place name, and 4 cases of oracles recording sacrifices ''yu tian'' 于天 "to/at Tian" (which could mean "to Heaven/God" or "at a place called Tian".

The ''Shu Jing'' chapter "''Tang Shi''" illustrates how early Zhou texts used ''tian'' "heaven; god" in contexts with ''shangdi'' "god". 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.

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'' 大 as "a large or great man". The Zhou subsequently added a head on him to denote ''tian'' 天 meaning "king, kings" . From "kings", ''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" and the visible "sky".


The semantics of ''tian'' developed diachronically. The ''Hanyu dazidian'', an historical dictionary of Chinese characters, lists 17 meanings of ''tian'' 天, translated below.

# Human forehead; head, cranium. 人的額部; 腦袋.
# Anciently, to tattoo/brand the forehead as a kind of punishment. 古代一種在額頭上刺字的刑罰.
# The heavens, the sky, the firmament. 天空.
# Celestial bodies; celestial phenomena, meteorological phenomena. 天體; 天象.
# Nature, natural. A general reference to objective inevitability beyond human will. 自然. 泛指不以人意志為轉移的客觀必然性.
# Natural, innate; instinctive, inborn. 自然的; 天性的.
# Natural character/quality of a person or thing; natural instinct, inborn nature, disposition. 人或物的自然形質; 天性.
# A reference to a particular sky/space. 特指某一空間.
# Season; seasons. Like: winter; the three hot 10-day periods . 時令; 季節. 如: 冬天; 三伏天.
# Weather; climate. 天氣; 氣候.
# Day, time of one day and night, or especially the time from sunrise to sunset. Like: today; yesterday; busy all day; go fishing for three days and dry the nets for two . 一晝夜的時間, 或專指日出到日落的時間. 如: 今天; 昨天; 忙了一天; 三天打魚, 兩天曬網.
# God, heaven, celestial spirit, of the natural world. 天神, 上帝, 自然界的主宰者.
# Heaven, heavenly, a superstitious person's reference to the gods, Buddhas, or immortals; or to the worlds where they live. Like: go to heaven ; heavenly troops and heavenly generals ; heavenly goddesses scatter blossoms . 迷信的人指神佛仙人或他們生活的那個世界. 如: 歸天; 天兵天將; 天女散花.
# Anciently, the king, monarch, sovereign; also referring to elders in human relationships. 古代指君王; 也指人倫中的尊者.
# Object upon which one depends or relies. 所依存或依靠的對象.
# Dialect. A measure of land . 方言. 垧.
# A family name, surname. 姓.

The Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan differentiates five different meanings of ''tian'' in early Chinese writings:
A material or physical ''T'ien'' or sky, that is, the ''T'ien'' often spoken of in apposition to earth, as in the common phrase which refers to the physical universe as 'Heaven and Earth' .

A ruling or presiding ''T'ien'', that is, one such as is meant in the phrase, 'Imperial Heaven Supreme Emperor' , in which anthropomorphic ''T'ien'' and ''Ti'' are signified.

A fatalistic ''T'ien'', equivalent to the concept of Fate , a term applied to all those events in human life over which man himself has no control. This is the ''T'ien'' Mencius refers to when he says: "As to the accomplishment of a great deed, that is with ''T'ien''" .

A naturalistic ''T'ien'', that is, one equivalent to the English word Nature. This is the sort of ''T'ien'' described in the 'Discussion on ''T'ien''' in the .

An ethical ''T'ien'', that is, one having a moral principle and which is the highest primordial principle of the universe. This is the sort of ''T'ien'' which the refers to in its opening sentence when it says: "What ''T'ien'' confers is called his nature."

The ''Oxford English Dictionary'' enters the English loanword ''t'ien'' "Chinese thought: Heaven; the Deity." The earliest recorded usages for these spelling variants are: 1613 ''Tayn'', 1710 ''Tien'', 1747 ''Tyen'', and 1878 ''T'ien''.


The modern Standard Mandarin pronunciation of 天 "sky, heaven; heavenly deity, god" is ''tiān'' in level first . The character is read as Standard Cantonese ''tin1''; ''thiN1'' or ''thian1''; ''yêu'' or ''thiên''; ''cheon'' or ''ch'?n'' ; and ''ten'' in ''On'yomi'' and ''ame'' or ''sora'' in '''' .

''Tiān'' 天 reconstructions in Middle Chinese include ''t'ien'' , ''t'i?n'' , ''t??n'' > ''t?ian'' , and ''then'' . Reconstructions in Old Chinese include *''t'ien'' , *''t'en'' , *''hlin'' , and *''th?n'' .


For the etymology of ''tian'', Schuessler says, "Because the deity Tiān came into prominence with the Zhou dynasty , a Central Asian origin has been suggested." He cites the word ''tengri'' "sky, heaven, heavenly deity" or the words ''tale?'' and ''tǎ-lya?'' "sky". Schuessler also suggests a likely connection between Chinese ''tiān'' 天, ''diān'' 巔 "summit, mountaintop", and ''diān'' 顛 "summit, top of the head, forehead", which have cognates such as ''ti?'' "sky".


''Tian'' is the component in hundreds of Chinese . Some significant ones include:
*''tianming'' "divine mandate, God's will; fate, destiny; one's lifespan"
*''tianzi'' , an honorific designation for the "Emperor; Chinese sovereign"
*''tianxia'' "the world, earth; China"
*''tiandi'' "the world; the universe"

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