The God early Chinese worshipped

When you think about Chinese history and culture, you probably think of Confucius as the beginning of Chinese culture and civilization. But you would be wrong because Confucius only came in at half time. Before Confucius, there was already 2,000 years of Chinese history and records before Confucius even came on the scene. And then another 2000 plus years to us now. What I am sharing with you to pay attention to comes at the beginning of the Chinese civilization. I believe the knowledge of God is brought over after the dispersion at the Tower of Babel. When we talk about foreign religion, Buddhism only came into China in 68 AD and only flourished during the Tang dynasty in the 400s and because the result is the Tang dynasty became debauchery.

First of all, I want to talk about what the ancient Chinese wrote about this God, the supreme God. These are documents, these are not hearsays, these are Chinese classics that have been accepted as authority for thousands of years. The ancient Chinese had to memorize this in order to get a job and inside these Chinese classes, there are two terms used for the supreme God. The first comes from the word “大” (“da” means “great”) and it’s called “天” (“tian” means “sky” or “heaven”). “天” is one greater than great “大”, as you can see one stroke above “大”. This is the supreme being. Nowadays when we talk about “天”, we refer mostly to the sky. But just like in English, “heaven” can mean “the sky” but also can mean “God”. I discovered that the ancient Chinese mostly refer to “天” as the personal God. You can see Confucius wrote in the Analects “He who offends Heaven  “天” has none to whom he can pray.” Obviously, he is not talking about the sky; he’s talking about a Person that is a supreme Being, and you can offend him and you can pray to him. If you go to the 1 Samuel 2:25, ElI told his two sons the same thing. If you offend against men, you may have recourse, but if you offend against heaven, good luck. 

This is another famous saying of Confucius. He is reviewing his life and he said at 50, I knew the mandates of heaven. If Confucius is talking about the sky (meaning the natural phenomenon), he wouldn’t be a very smart man. Children at school age already start to master natural laws and principles. But here he is talking about a very important concept called the “mandate of heaven”. This is a very ingenious concept that renews the Chinese civilization generation after generation. The Chinese civilization, along with the Hebrew civilization, are the two longest surviving civilizations in the world. All the others have gone by the wayside except for the Chinese and the Hebrews. The Hebrews because of the hand of God. For the Chinese, it is this concept of the “mandate of heaven”. Because this mandate is a will of God and it becomes the governing factor in the Chinese society, and therefore when the emperor does not exhibit the character of God, the people can rise up and overthrow him. Confucius is not talking about fate, he’s not talking about natural phenomenon, he’s talking about a will of God and that makes sense. 50 years old and he started to understand the will of God. The other term that is even more honorific is “上帝” (“shangti”). Most Chinese nowadays, when they hear the word “上帝” (“shangti”), they think about the Christian God. “神” (“God”) is generic but “上帝” (“shangti”) automatically means the Christian God. Actually, this is a generic Chinese term; it was not brought in by Western missionaries. Modern Chinese don’t understand that. They thought that “上帝” (“shangti”) is an imported term. Those two terms “天” (“tian”) and “上帝” (“shangti”) are clarified by a Han dynasty historian Zheng Xuan. He said “上帝” (“shangti”) is another name for Heaven. The spirits do not have two Lords.” (Sima Qian, Historical Records, Vol 28, Book 6 page 624). You see the word “神” (“God”). Nowadays, we use it for “God”, which is also true. In the ancient times, it refers to spirits.  “神” (“shen”) can be the capital G “God” or the small g “god”. Zheng Xuan is saying that God has two names – either “上帝” (“shangti”) or “天” (“tian”). That is not unique. In our Christian faith, we know God as “Jehovah” (or “Yahweh”), we know him as “El Shaddai”,  we know him as “elohim”, we know him as “Jesus”, “Emmanuel”. Different names emphasize different attributes of God. They’re not different gods. I have researched and found that in the 19th century, there were synologists. These were really dedicated researchers and experts and I will just briefly share two with you. 

One is W. H. Melhurst and his conclusion is “In no case do we find “上帝” (“shangti”) exhibited under any figurative representations. Indeed we are warned against confounding him with the images in the temples. While the supreme ruler is declared again and again to be distinct from the visible heavens. The main idea attached to “上帝” (“shangti”) is universal supremacy, uncontrollable power, justice, glory, majesty and dominion.” (A Dissertation on the Theology of the Chinese with a View to the Elucidation of the Most Appropriate Term for Expressing the Deity in the Chinese Language, Shanghai: The Mission Press 1847, page 273 – 274)

Another one is James Legge. He was considered the foremost synologist in the world, even by the Chinese themselves. He completely mastered the Chinese classic. He spent 25 years to translate all the Chinese classics with very good annotations, a man of great scholarship. He was engaged in a heated debate over whether the Chinese knew God. There were some who absolutely refused, foreign missionaries who said “No, the Chinese could not have known about God” and they refused to use the term “上帝” (“shangti”) so they use the word “神” (“shen”). If you’re familiar with Chinese bible, there are two versions – one is the “神” (“shen”) version and the other one is the “上帝” (“shangti”) version. James Legge has written a masterpiece “But the Chinese stand out distinctly from all other heathen nations in these two points – that their representations of “上帝” (“shangti”) are consistent throughout and that they never raise any other being to an approximation to him. He is always the same – the creator and sovereign ruler, holy and just and good. And no other is ever made equal or second to him. He has no rival.” (The Notions of the Chinese Concerning God and Spirits, Hong Kong Register 1852)

The ancient Chinese’ understanding of “天” (“tian”) and “上帝” (“shangti”) are fully described in the classics. In no place did the ancient Chinese make an idol of “上帝” (“shangti”). If you go to seminary, you will certainly take a course called Systematic Theology, which is a study of God, his attributes. You find that God is sovereign.

“The conclusive appointment of Heaven rests on your person; you must eventually ascend the throne of the great sovereign.” (Classic of History, Book of Yu, Counsels of Great Yu, end of paragraph 14)

God is eternal.

“King Wen lives above, his virtues shine in heaven. Though of Zhou nation is old, God’s mandate is still with us. The Zhou nation was not established when the time of  “帝” (“ti”)’s mandate had not arrived. King Wen’s soul is active and he lives in the presence of “上帝” (“shangti”).” (Poetry, Anecdotes of King Wen, vs 1-2)

God is immutable – he doesn’t change, he’s all-powerful, he’s all-knowing, he’s ever present, he’s infinite, he is love.

“Almighty Heaven has given this Middle Kingdom with its people and territories to the former kings.” (Classic of History, Book of Zhou, Timber of Zi Tree, paragraph 6)

“Heaven is all-intelligent and observing, let the godly (emperor) imitate Him, then his ministers will honor him, and the people will be governed well.” (Classic of History, Book of Shang, The Charge of Yue, Middle Section, beginning of paragraph 3)

“上帝” (“shangti”) is revered because His will extends to nine limits (i.e. everywhere).” (Record of Rites, Confucius, Xian Ju, verse 29)

“Only the mandate of Heaven is absolute and eternal, majestic and infinite.” (Poetry, Praise, Anecdotes of Zhou Praise of Qing Miao, Wei Tian Zhi Ming, beginning of chapter 1)

“Heaven loves the people, the ruler should honor Heaven.” (Classic of History, Book of Zhou, The Great Declaration, Middle Section, beginning of paragraph 4)

The mandate of heaven is actually founded on this: The ancient Chinese believe that God loves them and will assign a regent – the emperor – to rule them according to his will. When the ruler does not exhibit the attributes of God – the grace, the mercy, the justice, the righteousness – the people have the right to overturn the dynasty because they say “No, this guy is not from God.” Because God has first overturned him, then they can rise up. The Chinese term for “revolution” means “change of mandate”. The mandate is first changed in heaven and then the people are empowered to apply that on earth. Revolution did not start in the Western world until the Reformation and that is also based on the same idea that people can revolt and overthrow the rulers. They never did that in the medieval time but only after the Reformation. They started there because they believe that they are empowered by God, to act on behalf of God. Rhis is all based on the idea that God loves them and God will provide the ruler that will rule them well. In modern Chinese, religion is transactional. When I was four years old, I remember my parents would bring me to the temple to get numbers so that my parents can buy the lottery. Even in my small mind I thought “These gods are so foolish, you give them a bit of oranges and a bit of sweets and they have to return you thousands of dollars. It’s a very poor transaction.” Idolatry is transactional but the relationship with God that we have in Jesus Christ and the ancient Chinese’ is based on love. 

You may have studied “墨 子” (“Mo Zi”), a famous ancient Chinese philosopher. “How do we know that Heaven loves the people of the world? Because he enlightens them universally.” (Mo Zi, Volume 7, The Will of Heaven Part 1, paragraph 5). In other words, God gives people wisdom and the ability to think because he loves them. 

God is holy.

“It is virtue which moves Heaven. There is no distance to which it does not reach. Pride brings loss, humility brings rewards. This is the way of Heaven.” (Classic of History, The Book of Tang, The Counsel of Great Yu, middle of paragraph 21)

God is gracious. 

“Great Heaven has graciously favored the House of Shang, and granted to you, O young king, at last to become virtuous, this is truly a great thing for generations to come.” (Classic of History, Book of Shang, Tai Jia Part 2, verse 2)

It’s a very important character of the emperor that he must exhibit grace. He must be able to pardon people when it is the right thing to do.

God is faithful.

“Faithfulness is the way of Heaven, to be faithful is a man’s way.” (Book of Means, Chapter 20, verse 18)