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published: 1/20/05
updated: 12/16/13

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The Chinese Doctrine of "Heaven"

Is there a heaven is Chinese Religion?

The idea of Heaven (T'ien) plays a prominent role in indigenous Chinese religion. The term can refer to a god, an impersonal power, or both. The concept is not well-defined, and religious scholars have had a difficult time deciding whether T'ien was believed to be a force like fate or a personal deity. It is also unclear whether the ancient Chinese believed T'ien responded to human supplication or simply worked in accordance with the principles of T'ien.

T'ien is closely associated with Shang-ti (Supreme Ruler), and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. It appears that T'ien originally referred to the sky and Shang-ti to the deity who lived there, but T'ien came to be considered a divine power as well. Shang-ti was the supreme god of the Shang dynasty (16 th-11 th cent. BCE), and scholars think Shang-ti was assimilated into T'ien under the succeeding Chou dynasty (1111–255 BC). In the early Chou, T'ien was an anthropomorphic deity, but later descriptions are more impersonal and more like nature or fate. However they were understood, Shang-ti and T'ien were believed to have power over fertility of both people and crops.

Perhaps the most important consequence of the Chinese idea of heaven is the concept of the Mandate of Heaven (t'ien-ming). According to this concept, rulers governed by divine permission and based on the ruler's virtue, not by right. Importantly, this permission was regarded as revocable if the ruler was not virtuous enough. Social and political unrest were traditionally taken as signs that the Mandate of Heaven had been revoked, and it was then permissible to overthrow those in power and replace them with the succeeding dynasty.


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