Richard Torgerson and Dr. David Honey, Asian and Near Eastern Languages
Tian, commonly translated as Heaven, was the core of religious and political ideology during the beginning of the Zhou dynasty.i The Zhou dynasty (1027- 221 BC) was a period started and shaped by a belief in Tian, Tianming (the right to rule bestowed by Heaven), and the Tianzi (the emperor – or son of Heaven). But just what, or who, was Tian to the Chinese during the Zhou dynasty? During this study I examined five modern and five ancient scholars’ views concerning Tian. I utilized Classical Chinese texts and numerous translations, with a special focus on the Book of Poetry. The Book of Poetry is an assortment of texts written prior to Confucius by multiple authors, containing well over one hundred uses of the word Tian. My initial goal was to come to a better understanding of how Tian was conceived during the Zhou dynasty. Because Tian served a central role in Chinese politics, religion, etc., understanding how the Chinese people perceived Tian anciently will provide insights into further study of Chinese civilization.
Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism all trace their roots back to the Zhou dynasty. Confucius (551-478 BC), Mencius (371-289 BC), and Xunzi (298-238 BC), represent some of the greatest from the Confucian school of thought. Mozi (ca.490-403 BC)ii was the founder of Mohism, a religion which emphasized universal love and human responsibility, all based on a belief in Tian. Daoism stemmed from the philosopher Laozi and the book attributed to him – the Dao de Jing. Despite their respective differences, Confucius, Mencius, Xunzi, Mozi and Laozi all had a belief in Tian. The Book of Poetry reveals that usage of the word Tian ranged from reverence of a just and loving God, to contempt against a distant, unjust entity. This shift in feeling reflects the fact that a “theory of reality replaced a potential theology in the Chinese philosophical tradition.”iii
Confucius believed Tian was just and loving, a protector of the virtuous, and one who was displeased with improper conduct. Confucius also spoke of Tian in connection with matters such as the continuation or obliteration of societies, death, affluence, and honor.iv Confucius came “to know the Decrees of Heaven,” and believed Tian gave him the “mission to clarify the Doctrine and to practice the Way.”v
To Mencius, Tian clearly had personal characteristics, ethical qualities, and was seen as something, or some being, one should venerate or serve; “[f]or this reason, it is unlikely that [Tian] refers merely to an impersonal natural order. Mencius believed the ethical predispositions of the heart/mind had their source in [Tian] and provided human beings with an access to [Tian].”vi A quick assessment of Legge’s translation of Mencius shows us Tian is used about thirty-six times in reference to a supreme, governing power, but only six instances of Tian actually refer to the natural sky. vii
Many scholars have stressed “[Xunzi’s] philosophy is practical rather than theoretical; he was interested in man as part of a social order rather than in cosmological speculations.”viii However, this focus on social order and responsibility did not reduce his belief in deity. In Xunzi’s Tianlun his first major argument surrounds the need to respond appropriately to Tian.ix He is not concerned with “how Tian’s Dao works, or how Tian follows its Dao, or even what Tian can or cannot do in general, but … how we respond to [Tian].”x
Although it is still unclear exactly how Laozi perceived Tian, the Dao de Jing contains numerous passages wherein people are directly compared with or paralleled to Heaven, as if Tian is the pinnacle of human existence. Laozi wrote: “The knowledge of [the] unchanging rule produces a (grand) capacity and forbearance, and that capacity and forbearance lead to a community (of feeling with all things). From this community of feeling comes a kingliness of character; and he who is king-like goes on to be heaven-like. In that likeness to heaven he possesses the Tao.”xi Most prior translations have ignored the fact that in many instances Laozi does not refer simply to the Way (Dao), but to the Tiandao, or the Way of Tian.
Mozi’s first point of disagreement with the Confucianists of his day hinged upon their denial of the existence of Tian and the spirits. Mozi preached a doctrine of mutual love based on the belief that Tian loved all people and desired all to love one another. Mozi believed Tian’s love was manifested through meting out justice to the murderer, rewarding those who do right,xii and structuring, perhaps even creating,xiii the world.
This study has strengthened my initial hypothesis that many ancient Chinese considered Tian as an all-powerful being with human form. I have also found evidence suggesting that ancient views of Tian were as multifaceted and transient as modern conceptions of deity. xiv It is clear that while some revered and strived to follow Tian, others felt betrayed or neglected by Tian, while still others denied Tian’s existence. I have also come to recognize that every intellectual has his/her own worldview. One source is not sufficient; one translation is not enough. Comparing the original Classical Chinese with different translations has been significantly more informative than reading ancient Chinese philosophy filtered through only one person’s worldview (including my own). Our belated analysis of what Tian meant to those who wrote over 2000 years ago is separated by an enormous chasm of time, perspective, and cultural differences. Discussion of religion and deity, in their day as well as ours, is forever complicated by linguistic, religious, and personal differences. Religious debate concerning the form and nature of deity will likely continue throughout time.
i Schwartz, Benjamin I. 1985. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 39
ii Hansen, Chad. 1996. http://www.hku.hk/philodep/ch/moencyred.html. August 15, 2002.
iii Cheng, Chung-Ying. Reality and divinity in Chinese philosophy.
iv Shun, Kwong-loi. 1997. Mencius and Early Chinese Thought. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 18.
v U. Hattori. 1936. Confucius’ Conviction of His Heavenly Mission. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 1.105-6.
vi Shun, Kwong-loi. 1997. Mencius and Early Chinese Thought. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 209.
vii Legge, James. 1970. The Works of Mencius. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 531.
viii Dubs, Homer H. 1927. Hsuntze The Moulder of Ancient Confucianism. London: Arthur Probsthain. 57.
ix Machle, Edward J. 1993. Nature and Heaven in the Xunzi A study of the Tian Lun. Albany: State University of New York Press. 64.
x ibid. 86.
xi Legge, James. 1959. The Texts of Taoism. New York: The Julian Press. 107-108.
xii Feng, Yu-lan. 1958. A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. Ed. by Derk Bodde. New York: Macmillan Co. 56
xiii Lowe, Scott. 1992. Mo Tzu’s religious blueprint for a Chinese utopia. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press.
xiv Ing, Michael. 2002. What Think Ye of Heaven? The Corporeal Decline of a Chinese Deity. Unpublished paper.