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Heaven (Tien)

Heaven (Tien) is the principal Chinese deity; in strictness the sole deity, for there is no family of upper gods; heaven receives all the worship that is directed aloft. It is the clear vault, the friendly ever-present and all-seeing blue that is meant, not the windy nor the rainy sky, but that which is above all agitations, and which all beings of the air or of the earth look up to and serve. It is conceived as living. It is not a separable spirit, not a power behind, that is worshipped, but heaven itself,the living heaven of that early thought, which has not yet come to distinguish between matter and spirit, the living heaven which is over all, knows all, orders and governs all.

To this heaven other names are given, even in the oldest writings Ti, Ruler; or Shang-ti, Supreme Ruler. Did the Chinese conceive this ruler as identical with heaven, or as a personality dwelling in it or above it? It has been held that the two beliefs are not the same; that the Chinese of the earliest times worshipped the Supreme Ruler, i.e. the one God, Ti, and afterwards fell away from that position of pure monotheism and declined to the worship of the material object, heaven. The early Catholic missionaries argued that the Chinese Shang-ti was equivalent to the Christian "God," and signified a being other than the sky, the Supreme Power of the universe. The Chinese, however, generally denied that they made any such distinction, and even declared that they could not understand it. The names Heaven and Supreme Ruler are used by them indiscriminately: one notices that Confucius does not use the personal form, but only speaks of heaven; "heaven," he says, when feeling distressed, "is destroying me."

The emperor is especially designated as Son of Heaven, originally not so arrogant a title as it seems today, nor even as Homer uses the same words of any "heavenborn king," but one indicating that Heaven regards the emperor as a son. But the mere fact that a man is a king, that is, superior to common man, makes him a superior man, a superman, hence filled with godlike power; and being so he is divine. Only the emperor was of old allowed to sacrifice to Heaven and Earth. Himself the Son of Heaven and as worthy of worship as Heaven itself (being revered while alive with the three prostrations and nine kowtows with which Heaven is revered), the emperor, who is called "Mate of Heaven," adores Heaven as if Heaven were his own ancestor. The real significance of this feature of early Chinese religion1 lies in its betrayal of the exclusiveness of the worship. To the common man, Heaven was too glorious and majestic to approach; his private gods were his ancestors and the lower spirits.

Although forbidden to do so by Confucian rule, yet private persons at the later times did not hesitate to offer incense and prayer to Heaven on the new and full moons. "The Chinese say that Heaven should be worshipped only by the emperor. This is the theory, but it is not strictly carried into practice. Some profess to worship Heaven once a year, others twice a month." Even in worshipping Heaven, it was not as God but as a spirit with whom Earth as another spirit is associated. "The husbandman at harvest acknowledges that it is his duty to thank Heaven and worship Earth".

The general distinction between T'ien (Thien), Heaven, "bright and high," and Ti, Ruler, or Shang Ti, Supreme Lord (God) is this. T'ien remains more materialistic; the blue sky, "vast and distant," although it is "our parent," inclines to the idea of an abstract power like Fate.1 But Shang Ti is more a personal anthropomorphized spirit in heaven, who may walk on earth. Yet circa 600 B. C., in the Shu King, there is usually no difference between Heaven and God (Shang Ti). The titles interchange in the same passage; it is only that the general trend of expression tends to make "bright and glorious" Shang Ti more personal and "bright and high" T'ien more an indefinite Skypower. But often there is not even this distinction. Both are called "Supreme." Shang Ti is the heavenly spirit; Heaven is the blue sky conceived as intelligent and moral orderer of the universe. The idea of God, far from beginning with an abstraction, grows out of the conception of the blue bright wide sky as a power superior to the power of the high hill, etc. In this the Chinese thought as did the Aryans, who regarded the "bright sky" as "Sky-Father" and as the Father in Heaven.

The Supreme Power directs all things, and is an everpresent governor both in the natural and in the moral sphere. These two spheres indeed are not regarded as distinct. Nature reveals in all its changes the mind of its ruler, and human conduct is regarded as an outward thing, as a phenomenon on the same plane with the movements of nature; the two are supposed to be part of one system and to act directly on each other. As Heaven both governs the weather and looks after men's actions, for "every day heaven witnesses our actions and is present in the places where we are," these two aspects of providence are closely blended and are in fact the same. Heaven makes its will known in a natural way.

It is one of the most peculiar features of Chinese religion that it knows no revelation, no miracles, no divine interferences. It has a belief in destiny, Ming; every one has his Ming, but it is only known when it is accomplished. "Does Heaven plainly declare its Ming?" Confucius is asked; and he replies, "No, heaven speaks not; by the order of events its will is known, not otherwise." Man learns by the external occurrences how Heaven is disposed towards him. When there is excessive rain or long drought, this shows that the harmony between Heaven and the earth is disturbed. It belongs to the emperor to put this right. He alone is entitled to offer sacrifice to Heaven ; he stands in the closest relation to Heaven, who is the ancestor of his house; and when Heaven is seen to be displeased, the emperor must restore the harmony by governing his subjects better or by sacrifices. In an extreme case, when the emperor is seen to have fallen under the displeasure of Heaven, the conclusion is drawn that he must no longer be emperor. The people then are entitled to depose him and to set up a new ruler, through whom the necessary transactions with Heaven can be properly carried on. The belief has always been held in China, and is operative to this day, that it can be known when Heaven has rejected a ruler, and that it belongs to the people to carry that sentence into effect.

The "will of Heaven" is ascertained by dreams and divination.1 The common form of divination was by the tortoise-shell, the arched back probably representing the vault of heaven. This was heated till it cracked, the lines representing an answer. The lines of the Yih King probably were used in divination. Other indications were given by the stalks of a plant, the millefoil or yarrow. God sends a dream to indicate whom a king should choose as his minister (Shu King). In political changes, however, the voice of the people is the voice of God. "Heaven loves the people" (not the king); "Heaven will effect what the people desire"; "to the king the people is God." Maintenance of the Right Order by means of a man who revolts against tyranny is always regarded as part of the divine plan, with which all spirits and good men will agree.

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