Tian (天), a Chinese religious concept, often translated as “Heaven”


The modern Chinese character and early seal script both combine  “great; large” and  “one”, but some of the original characters in Shāng oracle bone script and Zhōu bronzeware script anthropomorphically portray a large head on a great person. The ancient oracle and bronze ideograms for  大 depict a stick figure person with arms stretched out denoting “great; large”. The oracle and bronze characters for tiān 天 emphasize the cranium of this “great (person)”, either with a square or round head, or head marked with one or two lines. Schuessler (2007:495) notes the bronze graphs for tiān, showing a person with a round head, resemble those for dīng “4th Celestial stem“, and suggests “The anthropomorphic graph may or may not indicate that the original meaning was ‘deity’, rather than ‘sky’.” Two variant Chinese characters for tiān 天 “heaven” are  (written with wáng “king” and  “8”) and the Daoist coinage (with qīng “blue” and  ““, i.e., “blue sky”).

Tian was the name in modern languages include MongolianТэнгэр (“sky”), BulgarianТанграAzerbaijaniTanrı. The Chinese word for “sky” 天 (MandarintiānClassical Chinese: thīn] and Japanese Han Dynasty loanword ten) may also be related, possibly a loan from a prehistoric Central Asian language.

Tengri (Old Turkic𐱅𐰭𐰼𐰃‎; BulgarianТанграModern TurkishTanrıProto-Turkic *teŋri / *taŋrɨMongolian script: ᠲᠩᠷᠢ, TngriModern Mongolian: Тэнгэр, Tenger), is one of the names for the primary chief deity since the early Turkic (XiongnuHunnicBulgar) and Mongolic (Xianbei) peoples. Worship of Tengri is Tengrism. The core beings in Tengrism are Heavenly-Father (Tengri/Tenger Etseg) and Earth Mother (Eje/Gazar Eej). It involves shamanismanimismtotemism and ancestor worship. The Turkic form, Tengri, is attested in the 8th century Orkhon inscriptions as the Old Turkic form 𐱅𐰭𐰼𐰃‬ Teŋri. In modern Turkish, the derived word “Tanrı” is used as the generic word for “god”, or for the Abrahamic God, and is used today by Turkish people to refer to any god. The supreme deity of the traditional religion of the Chuvash is Tură.

Tengri was the national god of the Göktürks, described as the “god of the Turks” (Türük Tängrisi). The Göktürk khans based their power on a mandate from Tengri. These rulers were generally accepted as the sons of Tengri who represented him on Earth. They wore titles such as tengrikutkutluġ or kutalmysh, based on the belief that they attained the kut, the mighty spirit granted to these rulers by Tengri. Tengri was the chief deity worshipped by the ruling class of the Central Asian steppe peoples in 6th to 9th centuries (Turkic peoplesMongols and Hungarians). It lost its importance when the Uighuric kagans proclaimed Manichaeism the state religion in the 8th century. The worship of Tengri was brought into Eastern Europe by the Huns and early Bulgars. Tengri is considered to be the chief god who created all things. In addition to this celestial god, they also had minor divinities (Alps) that served the purposes of Tengri. As Gök Tanrı, he was the father of the sun (Koyash) and moon (Ay Tanrı) and also UmayErlik, and sometimes Ülgen. refref


Confucianism revolves around the pursuit of the unity of the self and Tiān (Heaven, or the traditional high god of the Zhou),
and the relationship of humankind to the Heaven.
Although Confucianism is often followed in a religious manner by the Chinese, many argue that its values are secular and that it is, therefore, less a religion than a secular morality. Proponents argue, however, that despite the secular nature of Confucianism’s teachings, it is based on a worldview that is religious. Confucianism discusses elements of the afterlife and views concerning Heaven, but it is relatively unconcerned with some spiritual matters often considered essential to religious thought, such as the nature of souls. However, Confucius is said to have believed in astrology, saying: “Heaven sends down its good or evil symbols and wise men act accordingly”. n the Analects, Confucius presents himself as a “transmitter who invented nothing”.
The principle of Heaven (Tiān lǐ 天理 or Dào 道), is the order of the creation and divine authority, monistic in its structure. Tiān (天), a key concept in Chinese thought, refers to the sky, or the heavens, nature, “heaven and earth” (that is, “all things”), and to the awe-inspiring forces beyond human control. Confucius used the term in a religious way. He wrote in the Analects (7.23) that Tian gave him life, and that Tian watched and judged. (6.28; 9.12). A person can know the movement of the Tiān, giving the sense of having a special place in the universe. (9.5) Confucius wrote that Tian spoke to him, though not in words (17.19), but the scholar Ronnie Littlejohn warns that Tian was not a personal God comparable to the God of the Abrahamic faiths in the sense of an independent creator or transcendent Being. When Confucians spoke of Tian they often meant something like what the Taoists meant by Tao (Dào): “the way things are” or “the regularities of the world.” Tiān can also be compared to the Brahman of Hindu and Vedic traditions. Zǐgòng, a disciple of Confucius, said that Tiān had set the master on the path to become a wise man (Analects 9.6). In Analects 7.23 Confucius says that he has no doubt left that the Tiān gave him life, and from it he had developed the virtue (Dé, 德). In Analects 8.19 he says that the lives of the sages and their communion with Tian are interwoven. Regarding personal gods (shén, energies who emanate from and reproduce the Tiān) enliving nature, in Analects 6.22 Confucius says that it is appropriate (義/义, yì) for people to worship (敬, jìng) them, though through proper rites (禮/礼, lǐ), implying respect of positions and discretion. ref,  ref

The concept of Heaven (Tian, 天) is pervasive in Confucianism. Confucius had a deep trust in Heaven and believed that Heaven overruled human efforts. He also believed that he was carrying out the will of Heaven, and that Heaven would not allow its servant, Confucius, to be killed until his work was done. Many attributes of Heaven were delineated in his Analects.

Confucius honored Heaven as the supreme source of goodness:

The Master said, “Great indeed was Yao as a sovereign! How majestic was he! It is only Heaven that is grand, and only Yao corresponded to it. How vast was his virtue! The people could find no name for it. How majestic was he in the works which he accomplished! How glorious in the elegant regulations which he instituted!” (VIII, xix, tr. Legge 1893:214)

Confucius felt himself personally dependent upon Heaven (VI, xxviii, tr. Legge 1893:193): “Wherein I have done improperly, may Heaven reject me! may Heaven reject me!”

Confucius believed that Heaven cannot be deceived:

The Master being very ill, Zi Lu wished the disciples to act as ministers to him. During a remission of his illness, he said, “Long has the conduct of You been deceitful! By pretending to have ministers when I have them not, whom should I impose upon? Should I impose upon Heaven? Moreover, than that I should die in the hands of ministers, is it not better that I should die in the hands of you, my disciples? And though I may not get a great burial, shall I die upon the road?” (IX, xi, tr. Legge 1893:220-221)

Confucius believed that Heaven gives people tasks to perform to teach them of virtues and morality:

The Master said, “At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning. At thirty, I stood firm. At forty, I had no doubts. At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven. At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth. At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.” (II, iv, tr. Legge 1893:146)

He believed that Heaven knew what he was doing and approved of him, even though none of the rulers on earth might want him as a guide:

The Master said, “Alas! there is no one that knows me.” Zi Gong said, “What do you mean by thus saying – that no one knows you?” The Master replied, “I do not murmur against Heaven. I do not grumble against men. My studies lie low, and my penetration rises high. But there is Heaven – that knows me!” (XIV, xxxv, tr. Legge 1893:288-9)

Perhaps the most remarkable saying, recorded twice, is one in which Confucius expresses complete trust in the overruling providence of Heaven:

The Master was put in fear in Kuang. He said, “After the death of King Wen, was not the cause of truth lodged here in me? If Heaven had wished to let this cause of truth perish, then I, a future mortal, should not have got such a relation to that cause. While Heaven does not let the cause of truth perish, what can the people of Kuang do to me?” (IX, v and VII, xxii, tr. Legge 1893:217-8) ref


Confucius himself was a ritual and sacrificial master. In Analects 3.12 he explains that religious rituals produce meaningful experiences. Rites and sacrifices to the gods have an ethical importance: they generate good life, because taking part in them leads to the overcoming of the self. Analects 10.11 tells that Confucius always took a small part of his food and placed it on the sacrificial bowls as an offering to his ancestors.
In original Confucianism the concept of Tiān expresses a form of pantheism. Other philosophical currents, like Mohism, developed a more theistic idea of the Tiān. In Taoism and Confucianism, Tiān (the celestial aspect of the cosmos, often translated as “Heaven”) is mentioned in relationship to its complementary aspect of Dì (地, often translated as “Earth”). These two aspects of Daoist cosmology are representative of the dualistic nature of Taoism. They are thought to maintain the two poles of the Three Realms (三界) of reality, with the middle realm occupied by Humanity (人, Rén),[2] and the lower world occupied by Demons (魔, Mó) and Ghosts (鬼, Guǐ). Tiān (天) is one of the oldest Chinese terms for heaven and a key concept in Chinese mythology, philosophy, and religion.
During the Shang Dynasty (17–11th centuries BCE), the Chinese referred to their supreme god as Shàngdì (上帝, “Lord on High”) or Dì (帝,”Lord”). During the following Zhou Dynasty, Tiān became synonymous with this figure. Heaven worship was, before the 20th century, an orthodox state religion of China. The modern Chinese character 天 and early seal script both combine dà 大 “great; large” and yī 一 “one”, but some of the original characters in Shāng oracle bone script and Zhōu bronzeware script anthropomorphically portray a large head on a great person. The ancient oracle and bronze ideograms for dà 大 depict a stick figure person with arms stretched out denoting “great; large”. The oracle and bronze characters for tiān 天 emphasize the cranium of this “great (person)”, either with a square or round head, or head marked with one or two lines. Schuessler (2007:495) notes the bronze graphs for tiān, showing a person with a round head, resemble those for dīng 丁 “4th Celestial stem”, and suggests “The anthropomorphic graph may or may not indicate that the original meaning was ‘deity’, rather than ‘sky’.” Two variant Chinese characters for tiān 天 “heaven” are 兲 (written with 王 wáng “king” and 八 bā “8”) and the Daoist coinage 靝 (with 青 qīng “blue” and 氣 “qì”, i.e., “blue sky”). The sinologist Herrlee Creel, who wrote a comprehensive study on “The Origin of the Deity T’ien” (1970:493–506), 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 (or Shang Ti), much as the Romans identified the Greek Zeus with their Jupiter. (1970:493). 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 Yi Jing “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 (1970:464–75) 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 (like Guo Moruo) have identified as tian 天 “heaven; god” (1970:494–5), 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” (e.g., tian i shang 天邑商 for da i shang 大邑商 “great settlement Shang”), 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” (湯誓 “Tang’s Speech”) 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.
 
The king said, “Come, ye multitudes of the people, listen all to my words. It is not I, the little child [a humble name used by kings], who dare to undertake what may seem to be a rebellious enterprise; but for the many crimes of the sovereign of Hsiâ [Xia] Heaven has given the charge [tianming, see Compounds below] to destroy him. Now, ye multitudes, you are saying, ‘Our prince does not compassionate us, but (is calling us) away from our husbandry to attack and punish the ruler of Hsiâ.’ I have indeed heard these words of you all; but the sovereign of Hsiâ is an offender, and, as I fear God [shangdi], I dare not but punish him. Now you are saying, ‘What are the crimes of Hsiâ to us?’ The king of Hsiâ does nothing but exhaust the strength of his people, and exercise oppression in the cities of Hsiâ. His people have all become idle in his service, and will not assist him. They are saying, ‘When will this sun expire? We will all perish with thee.’ Such is the course of the sovereign of Hsiâ, and now I must go and punish him. Assist, I pray you, me, the one man, to carry out the punishment appointed by Heaven [tian]. I will greatly reward you. On no account disbelieve me; — I will not eat my words. If you do not obey the words which I have spoken to you, I will put your children with you to death; — you shall find no forgiveness.” (tr. James Legge 1865:173–5)
 
Having established that Tian was not a deity of the Shang people, Creel (1970:501–6) 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” (cf. wang 王 “king; ruler”, which had oracle graphs picturing a line under a “great person” and bronze graphs that added the top line). 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” (where ancestral kings and gods supposedly lived) and the visible “sky”.
 
Another possibility is that Tian may be related to Tengri and possibly was a loan word from a prehistoric Central Asian language (Müller 1870).

The Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan differentiates five different meanings of tian in early Chinese writings:

(1) 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’ (T’ien Ti 天地).
(2) A ruling or presiding T’ien, that is, one such as is meant in the phrase, ‘Imperial Heaven Supreme Emperor’ (Huang T’ien Shang Ti), in which anthropomorphic T’ien and Ti are signified.
(3) A fatalistic T’ien, equivalent to the concept of Fate (ming 命), 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” ([Mencius], Ib, 14).
(4) 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 [Hsün Tzǔ] (ch. 17).

(5) 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 [Chung Yung] (Doctrine of the Mean) refers to in its opening sentence when it says: “What T’ien confers (on man) is called his nature.” (1952:31)

The Oxford English Dictionary enters the English loanword t’ien (also tayntyentien, and tiān) “Chinese thought: Heaven; the Deity.” The earliest recorded usages for these spelling variants are: 1613 Tayn, 1710 Tien, 1747 Tyen, and 1878 T’ien. For the etymology of tiān, Schuessler (2007:495) links it with the Mongolian word tengri “sky, heaven, heavenly deity” or the Tibeto-Burman words taleŋ (Adi) and tǎ-lyaŋ (Lepcha), both meaning “sky”. Schuessler (2007:211) 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 Naga tiŋ “sky”.

Confucianism went through a number of phases of being repressed or unpopular, as in the earlier part of the Han dynasty, or being tolerated, even accepted, with the later Han years being an example of this. It is not until the 12th century AD, though, that it has become such an accepted part of the state that the Analects themselves are integrated into civil service tests. This success came via Neo-Confucianism, an attempt to reform the philosophy, which had been influenced by Taoism and Buddhism and was seen as moving toward mysticism and superstition.

Neo-Confucianism was an attempt to create a more rationalist and secular form of Confucianism by rejecting superstitious and mystical elements of Taoism and Buddhism that had influenced Confucianism during and after the Han Dynasty. Although the Neo-Confucianists were critical of Taoism and Buddhism, the two did have an influence on the philosophy, and the Neo-Confucianists borrowed terms and concepts from both. However, unlike the Buddhists and Taoists, who saw metaphysics as a catalyst for spiritual development, religious enlightenment, and immortality, the Neo-Confucianists used metaphysics as a guide for developing a rationalist ethical philosophy. Neo-Confucianism has its origins in the Tang Dynasty; the Confucianist scholars Han Yu and Li Ao are seen as forebears of the Neo-Confucianists of the Song Dynasty. The Song Dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073) is seen as the first true “pioneer” of Neo-Confucianism, using Daoist metaphysics as a framework for his ethical philosophy. Neo-Confucianism developed both as a renaissance of traditional Confucian ideas, and as a reaction to the ideas of Buddhism and religious Daoism. Although the Neo-Confucianists denounced Buddhist metaphysics, Neo-Confucianism did borrow Daoist and Buddhist terminology and concepts. refref, ref


In Buddhism: The Tian are the heaven worlds and pure lands in Buddhist cosmology. Some devas are also called Tian. ref

In Buddhism is one of many different types of non-human beings who share the godlike characteristics of being more powerful, longer-lived, and, in general, much happier than humans, although the same level of veneration is not paid to them as to buddhas. The concept of devas was adopted in Japan partly because of the similarity to the Shinto‘s concept of kami. Other words used in Buddhist texts to refer to similar supernatural beings are devatā (“divinity”) and devaputta (“son of god”). While the former is a synonym for deva (“deity”), the latter refers specifically to one of these beings who is young and has newly arisen in its heavenly world. ref

Taoism: The number of vertical heaven layers in Taoism is different, the most common saying is the 36 Tian developed from Durenjing (度人經). ref

I-Kuan Tao: In I-Kuan Tao, Tian are divided into 3 vertical worlds. Li Tian (理天) “heaven of truth”, Qi Tian (氣天) “heaven of spirit” and Xiang Tian (象天) “heaven of matter”. ref