- List of Figures
Shang Dynasty (c. 1766-1045
Zhou Dynasty (c.1122-256 B.C.)
Han Dynasty (c. 206 B.C-220
Tang Dynasty (c. 618-907 A.D.)
The king said: I am but a small child, yet unstintingly day and night, I act in harmony with the fonner kings to be worthy of august Tian. ...[I] make this sacrificial food vessel, this precious kuei-vessel, to succor those august paradigms, my brilliant ancestors. May it draw down [the spirits of] those exemplary men of old, who now render service at the court of Di and carry forth the magnificent mandate of august Di.
By the time that King Li (r.859-842) cast the above inscription on a bronze vessel, the terms di 帝 and tian 天 were already included in numerous records, from those of the royal court to the diverse philosophers that were flourishing during the late Western Zhou period. But what do these two words really mean? Sometimes the two terms appear interchangeable, and a significant amount of scholarship mistakenly fails to distinguish their meanings. Other sources show a distinction between the two ternls. On certain artifacts, such as the inscription above, they appear to describe a supreme deity whereas in other contexts they seem to refer to Heaven or to other definitions. Due to the amount of documentation that includes both or at least one of the terms, one would think that there should be a clear understanding of these words. However, not only do scholars today have trouble distinguishing specific definitions for these words, but it seems that even the people who used the terms in ancient China also differed in their ideas of the meanings.
Because these two terms are still used today, the study of di and tian can be traced over thousands of years. In posing the question of their meanings, this paper focuses on earlier China, seeking the origins, earlier meanings, and the development of these ideas from the Shang to the Tang dynasties. The Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties form the traditional "Three Dynasties of Chinese antiquity", during which the "golden age" of sage emperors ruled. According to legend, the Xia dynasty reigned from 2205-1766 B.C. Later records, such as the Shujing (Classic of Documents or Book of History), describe the Xia period, but there are no writings that can be unquestionably attributed to this period. Some scholars attribute certain archaeological sites to the Xia but such claims lack definitive proof. There are hints that perhaps the Xia dynasty existed, but the evidence is too unconvincing for it to be advantageous to dwell on the study of religion in this period. Clearer evidence lies with the Shang dynasty, which is dated from the mid-1700s until 1123 B.C. The Shang dynasty is the earliest period from which there is enough evidence to study the origins of the terms di and tian with more certainty. Therefore, this paper begins with the Shang. It centers on the concepts of di and tian in China from the Shang to the Tang (618-907 A.D) and the significance of their uses in the religious, political, and social realms. Perhaps the answers can shed light upon later definitions and the current understanding of political leadership and religion in pre-modern China.
We begin by examining the Shang state. After establishing the religious and political culture, I explain di's role in the Shang period. Next, I argue in support of the theory that the concept of tian does not exist in the Shang dynasty. Progressing chronologically, this paper will then investigate the Zhou dynasty. I illustrate di's position, as well as how and why it was adopted into the; Zhou religious system. It was during the Zhou period that tian originated as a divinity. Closely bound to the government of the state, di and tian found their meanings shifting with the times and political motives. I trace the ambiguous meanings of tian through the teachings of Zhou philosophers as well. Then I progress to the Han dynasty, relating how the meanings of di and tian changed and expanded. By the Tang dynasty, although most of the original definitions of the two terms remain, some of the former ideas began to be lost and replaced, especially as foreign cultures influenced Chinese beliefs.
In conclusion, I summarize some of the ideas characterizing di and tian, such as their function in legitimizing authority and their reflection of society. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that tremendous controversies continue to surround these two terms. Perhaps the ambiguities that remain in these issues will challenge other scholars to clarify them further.
One may question why I choose to retain the Chinese words di and tian throughout the majority of this paper. Many scholars prefer to translate di as "God" or "Lord". They often refer to di as Shangdi, which is commonly translated as "Lord on High." However, it is questionable whether simply choosing "God" or "Lord" is adequate to translate di. It is just as doubtful to assume that di and Shangdi are interchangeable. In fact, although the phrase is much more frequently used nowadays than the single word di, Shangdi is extraordinarily rare in the oracle inscriptions. Shima only cites three examples. Tian is usually translated as "Heaven." Although this term is generally appropriate, it would be misleading to adopt this sole translation, especially since tian could also connote both a deity and the sky. Despite all efforts to find basic terms and fundamental meanings to explain the concepts of di and tian, research has led to the discovery that these terms are not as explicit and clearly definable as one may wish. Therefore, using only "God" or "Lord" in place of di, or identifying tian as simply "Heaven," would subvert the purposes of this paper, which attempts to demonstrate the ambiguity and variety of meanings that are encompassed by di and tian. There lacks a single, clear and enduring concept of di, and especially of tian.
Difficulties abound in the study of ancient China. In searching for understanding of di and tian, controversies arise from various sources. Foremost are the problems that are common to the research of any aspect of early history; scholars can only draw conclusions based solely on the scant information that has survived the ages, such as that available through documents and archaeological artifacts. Specifically for studying di and tian, as mentioned above, the ambiguity of these terms as judged by their contexts and differing uses even at the time of their origin have resulted in other dilemmas. The controversies grow more complex as one considers the fact that a given character often appeared in different forms. The writing system during these early periods, especially the Shang dynasty, was still in the process of becoming standardized and lacked the stricter uniformity of later writing. Therefore, even when texts and inscriptions are found from this time, their interpretations are subject to more distortion as people try to distinguish the ancient characters. Yet another difficulty of reading history from ancient times arises, depending on the author(s), dates, and motives of the writings. Various authors with different perspectives from different ages, including the modern time, could have, purposely or mistakenly, skewed versions of history .Further discussion of this issue is evident later in this paper, especially in the examples of the Zhou propaganda. Along with the dilemmas mentioned above, numerous others hinder the complete understanding of early China.
Because of the complexity of the problems involved in discovering the meanings behind di and tian, proposals concerning them put forward in this paper will undoubtedly be disputed by some. However, if this paper leads to a greater awareness of Chinese history, ancient religion, or the difficulties and fascinations involved with the study of these topics, or inspires further interest in researching this field, then it has succeeded in its purpose.include '../includes/navbar.html'; ?> include '../includes/footer.html'; ?>