Tian (Classical Chinese: 天; Pinyin: tiān; Wade-Giles: t'ien; literally: Sky or heaven, heavens; god, gods) is one of the oldest Chinese terms for the cosmos and a key concept in Chinese mythology, philosophy, and religion. During the Shang Dynasty (17–11th centuries BCE) the Chinese called god Shangdi (上帝 "lord on high") or Di ("lord"), and during the Zhou Dynasty (11th–3rd centuries BCE) Tian "heaven; god" became synonymous with Shangdi. Heaven worship was, for thousands of years, the orthodox state religion of imperial China.
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 Dì (地), which is most 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 Ren).
Tian's modern Chinese character 天 combines da 大 "great; large" and yi 一 "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 ancient 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 (person)", either with a square or round 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 (2007:495) notes the bronze graphs for tian, showing a person with a round head, resemble those for ding 丁 "4th Celestial stem", and suggests "The anthropomorphic graph may or may not indicate that the original meaning was 'deity', rather than '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".
In the other hand, Tian may be related to the Altaic sky deity named Tengri or Tengger (Old Turkic: Tengri; Mongolian: Тэнгэр, Tenger; Chinese: 腾格里, Mandarin: Ténggélǐ; Turkish: Gök Tanrı) and possibly was a loan from a prehistoric Central Asian language.
The concept of Heaven (Tian, 天) is found pervasively in Confucianism. Confucius used the term Heaven as a synonym for Shangdi. Confucius had an intimate trust in Heaven and believed that Heaven overrules human efforts, that he was carrying out the will of Heaven, and so Heaven will not allow its servant, Confucius, to be killed until his work is 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)
For Mozi, Heaven is the divine ruler, just as the Son of Heaven is the earthly ruler. Mozi believed that spirits and minor gods exist (monarch), but their function is to carry out the will of Heaven, watching for evil-doers and punishing them. Mozi taught that Heaven loves all people equally and that each person should similarly love all human beings without distinguishing between his own relatives and those of others (Dubs, 1959-1960:163-172). Mozi criticized the Confucians of his own time for not following the teachings of Confucius. In Mozi's Will of Heaven (天志), he writes:
Moreover, I know Heaven loves men dearly not without reason. Heaven ordered the sun, the moon, and the stars to enlighten and guide them. Heaven ordained the four seasons, Spring, Autumn, Winter, and Summer, to regulate them. Heaven sent down snow, frost, rain, and dew to grow the five grains and flax and silk that so the people could use and enjoy them. Heaven established the hills and rivers, ravines and valleys, and arranged many things to minister to man's good or bring him evil. He appointed the dukes and lords to reward the virtuous and punish the wicked, and to gather metal and wood, birds and beasts, and to engage in cultivating the five grains and flax and silk to provide for the people's food and clothing. This has been so from antiquity to the present." (tr. Mei 1929:145) 
There are three major schools on cosmology. Most other hypothesis were developed from them.
Gatian shuo (蓋天說) "Canopy-Heavens hypothesis" origined from the text Zhou Bi Suan Jing. The earth is covered by a material Tian.
Huntian shuo (渾天說) "Egg-like hypothesis". The earth surrounded by a Tian sphere rotating over it. The celestial bodies are attached to the Tian sphere. A summary is in Zhang Heng's article Armillary sphere.
Xuanye shuo (宣夜說) "Firmament hypothesis". The tian is an infinite space. The celestial bodies were light matters floating on it move by Qi. A summary by Ji Meng (郗萌) is in the astronomical chapters of the book of Jin.
The number of vertical heaven layers in Taoism is different, the most common saying is the 36 Tian developed from Durenjing (度人經). There are also 36 Grotto-Heavens and 72 blessed lands (洞天福地) in the earth where Taoist gods lived.
I Kwan 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". The enlightened ones lived in Li Tian, common devas lived in the Qi Tian and our world is Xiang Tian.
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 [following the summer solstice]. 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 [a xiehouyu simile for "unable to finish anything"]. 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 ["die"]; heavenly troops and heavenly generals ["invincible army"]; heavenly goddesses scatter blossoms [a Vimalakirti Sutra reference to "Buddha's arrival"]. 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 [shang, about 15 acres]. 方言. 垧.
- A family name, surname. 姓.
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 tayn, tyen, tien, 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.
The Modern Standard Chinese pronunciation of 天 "sky, heaven; heavenly deity, god" is tiān in level first tone. The character is read as Cantonese tin1; Taiwanese thiN1 or thian1; Vietnamese yêu or thiên; Korean cheon or ch'ŏn (천); and Japanese ten in On'yomi (borrowed Chinese reading) and ame or sora in Kun'yomi (native Japanese reading).
Tiān 天 reconstructions in Middle Chinese (ca. 6th–10th centuries CE) include t'ien (Bernhard Karlgren), t'iɛn (Zhou Fagao), tʰɛn > tʰian (Edwin G. Pulleyblank), and then (William H. Baxter). Reconstructions in Old Chinese (ca. 6th–3rd centuries BCE) include *t'ien (Karlgren), *t'en (Zhou), *hlin (Baxter), and *thîn (Schuessler).
For the etymology of tian, Schuessler (2007:495) says, "Because the deity Tiān came into prominence with the Zhou dynasty (a western state), a Central Asian origin has been suggested". He cites 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".
Tian is the component in hundreds of Chinese compounds. Some significant ones include:
- tianming (天命 "Mandate of Heaven") "divine mandate, God's will; fate, destiny; one's lifespan"
- tianzi (天子 "Son of Heaven"), an honorific designation for the "Emperor; Chinese sovereign" (Tianzi accounts for 28 of the 140 tian occurrences in the Shi Jing above.)
- tianxia (天下, lit. "all under heaven") "the world, earth; China"
- tiandi (天地, lit "heaven and earth") "the world; the universe"
- The connection was noted by Max Müller in Lectures on the Science of Religion (1870). Axel Schüssler (2007:495): "Because the deity Tiān came into prominence with the Zhou dynasty (a western state), a Central Asian origin has been suggested, note Mongolian tengri 'sky, heaven, heavenly deity'" (Shaughnessy Sino-Platonic Papers, July 1989, and others, like Shirakawa Shizuka before him)."
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- 中国之最 - 13世界上最早揭示月食成因的人：东汉科学家张衡
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- Schuessler, Axel. 2007. ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. University of Hawaii Press.
- Oracle, Bronze, and Seal characters for 天, Richard Sears
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