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Chinese Mythology 101: Tian

By Celia Lee 5 October 2023

Header image courtesy of Andrey Filippov (via Wikimedia Commons)

Monotheisms such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have a clear supreme ruler. Polytheisms and myths often have a god amongst gods, such as Zeus in ancient Greek religion and Odin in old Germanic paganism and Norse mythology. The same is also the case in Chinese culture, with today’s two widespread belief systems—Taoism and Chinese folk religion—featuring a supreme deity overseeing matters of the divine, the mortal, and the dead.

In this latest instalment of our Chinese Mythology 101 series, we unpack the ideas and concepts surrounding the supreme deity Tian, explore the extent of its divine power, and its current role in Taoism and present-day Chinese folk beliefs.

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Deity supreme

References to the almighty Tian (天; “sky”) designate a powerful divine force that dictates anything and everything that happens on Earth, whether it be the weather and natural disasters, or karma and relationships between humans—interestingly, not unlike monotheistic deities. Tian is associated with the concept of sky, and therefore also Heaven.

The big man in the sky (literally)

Chinese script—including the character for sky, or Tian—has largely evolved since the late second millennium BC, when it first appeared in the form of semi-hieroglyphs engraved on bones used in divine rituals of the Shang dynasty.

During the Shang dynasty, pictures of a large person with a big head and arms stretched out in an imposing stance represented the concept of sky. Variants of this character feature a square, round, or two-lined head. While this anthropomorphic representation faded out of usage as the Chinese script developed, this teaches us that the sky has been associated with a divine figure since time immemorial.

The modern character for Tian (天) is actually made up of two other characters stacked on top of each other. “一” means “one” and “大” means “big”—the biggest and the first, both fitting for the supreme god. Other interpretations of the modern character suggest that “天” is made up of “二,” meaning “two” and “人,” as in “human.” In this instance, the top line represents Heaven, while the bottom line represents the mortal realm, both pierced through by the “human” character.

Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China. Photo: Andrey Filippov (via Wikimedia Commons)

Compound divinity

When the character “天” is part of a compound, it gives a divine connotation to the new word created. The most common example is the transcription of “heaven and earth” (天地; tin1 dei6; “sky and earth”). While “天” can literally mean both “sky” and “Heaven,” the meaning of this phrase is always “heaven and earth.”

Other heavenly associations include idioms used when referring to emperors of dynastic China as well as matters out of human control, such as fate and destiny. The saying “son of Heaven” (天子; tin1 zi2) is a honorific title for any emperor considered as a direct descendent of a god (a powerful political and religious doctrine that is similar to the divine right of kings in late sixteenth-century Europe). The compound formed by “天命” (tin1 ming6; “sky” and “mandate” or “sky” and “life”) literally translate to “the mandate of Heaven,” and this phrase can also point to one’s destiny, fate, or, more poetically, “life granted by Heaven.”

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16th century depiction of the Jade Emperor (via Wikimedia Commons)

Tian, the ultimate overachiever

Tian can designate destiny, fate, and emperors, but these are only a few of the divine concept’s long list of possible roles. There is a lot to explore in religious conceptions of Tian, especially in Confucianism and Taoism, so let’s start there.

Tian is a pervasive divine force in Confucianism. In multiple passages of Confucius’s Analects, the scholar touches on the varied abilities of Heaven, describing Tian as a source of goodness, an undeceivable all-seeing being, a teacher, and a regulator of mortal virtues and morality. The ancient scholar Mozi shares similar views, considering Tian as the divine ruler of Heaven, watching over spirits and minor demons tasked with monitoring and punishing evildoers.

Portrait of the Jade Emperor, Ming Dynasty (via Wikimedia Commons)

Given Tian’s association with goodness, and as a regulator of right and wrong on Earth, it is often personified as “Lord Heaven” (上帝; soeng6 dai3) in Confucianism, and as the “Jade Emperor” (玉皇; juk6 wong4) in Taoism. In Taoism, Tian is also associated to the “dao”—the path of life that Taoists should follow.

Tian has similar meanings in Chinese folk religion. As Heaven, Tian is made up of levels containing morally ambiguous creatures and spirits prominent in the folk pantheon. As the regulator of good and evil on Earth, Tian is believed to hold immense power and influence world-class events such as earthquakes and pandemics, as well as minor mishaps such as household quarrels.

The concept of Tian is also found in ancient Chinese cosmology, Buddhism, Japanese Shinto religion, and other Asian belief systems. Needless to say, it is not easy being Tian.

“Collected by the sky:” Tian in local culture

Tian’s divine aura also shines when used, most interestingly, in Cantonese idioms and pop culture. When arguing over minor moral issues and dilemmas, you can use the phrase “being punished by Heaven” (比收; bei2 tin1 sau1; “being collected by the sky”). Let’s say a friend has cheated you out of some money for their own gain, in which case, you could say: “Beware of being punished by Heaven!” (因住比收). The phrase suggests that Tian can observe the wrongs of the mortal world and dole out punishment to guilty parties. An all-seeing force is not one you want to mess with!

Another occurrence of Tian goes back to a commercial aired in Hong Kong in the early 2000s. A short video promoting mental health came with a memorable slogan: “Why does it only rain when I play ball? Could it be that Tian doesn’t like me too?” (打波先黎落雨, 唔通連個都唔鍾意我?). Although only briefly mentioned—and, granted, it is not the focus of the commercial—this particular mention of Tian shows a collective social understanding of its power as the supreme deity.

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.