God in Ancient China – Who is Shang Di?
- Introduction – Why Study This?
- Part 1 – Natural Attributes of Shang Di
- Part 2 – Moral Attributes of Shang Di
- Appendix – The Wise Men, Chinese Records, and Prophesy
Who is Shang Di?
Faith of Our Fathers, written by Dr. Thong, Chan Kei in 2007 and updated in 2018, is an incredible primer on his research and historical study into the Ancient China. He focuses on the Five Classics (Wu Jing, 五經), and the Four Books (Sishu, 四書). These are the bedrock of Chinese culture were compiled by Confucius (the Classics) and philosopher Zhu Xi (the Four Books) as a primer to the classics. These authoritative sources detail the history, culture, wisdom literature, and imperial duties of the emperors.
In the earliest of these documents, Shang Di (上帝), which means “Supreme Lord” or “Lord on High,” refers to the Creator of the Universe. In later writings, the Creator is also referred to as Tian (天) and is often translated “Heaven.” This is the similar to the Hebrew terms for God, like elohim (אֱלֹהִים ) which refers to “spiritual beings/gods”, El Shaddai (אֵל שַׁדַּי) or “God Almighty,” and יַהְוֶה (Yahweh, God’s personal name revealed to Moses).
The greatest Jesuit evangelists who came in the 16th and 17th centuries to China were astonished to learn that Shang Di and YHWH bore striking resemblance in their character and their desire for righteousness and relationship. Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who was actually the only Westerner to make it onto the “Tribure to Chinese History” mural in Beijing, famously stated “He who is called Lord of Heaven in my humble country is He who is called Shang Di in Chinese.” Others like Johann von Bell (1592-1666) and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688), who were also well respected in China and earned the respect and acceptance of the emperors of that time, came to the same conclusion.
How do we know they’re the same? While there are many ways to approach this question, I think the most convincing argument concerns the comparison between understanding the characteristics of Shang Di and the attributes of the Judeo-Christian God. The following material is mostly from Faith of our Fathers, chapter 3.
Attribute #1: The Name Says It All
Di or Ti is a phoneme designating a form of “deity” in many cultures (hence the word deity! I laughed out loud when I read that!). In Chinese, Di is “Lord” and Shang meaning “above, upon, to honor, to esteem highly.” Later, with Tian (which can be translated using its component pictographs as something like “One above the greatest of all”) as God’s title, we see that the Chinese saw this particular deity as supreme above everything and everyone else, including the Emperor. Both YHWH and Shang Di are the ultimate Creator beings, above whom there exists no one else.
In the same way in English we say “God” or “god” to distinguish between YHWH and other spiritual entities, the Chinese did something similar. Di can mean “god” but Shang Di always referred to the Creator of the Universe in the Classics. Also, below Shang Di were the shen (神), or spirits. Though worship of these shen entities did happen (just like the Jews in the Old Testament followed idols and other gods), there is always a clear difference in the Classics between the two.
Attribute #2: God is Sovereign
Revelation 19:16 calls our God “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Many places in the Classics describe the famous “Mandate of Heaven”, indicating that Shang Di rules the whole earth and decides who has the right to be a king. He also revokes that right or Mandate when the king consistently acts in an unrighteous way. (p. 226)
Attribute #3: God is Eternal
It is telling that nowhere in Sima Qian’s Historical Records, which covers almost 2000 years of history, does he even try to explain the origin of Shang Di. In the Classic of Poetry, the poem “King Wen is on High” records how a “virtuous” ruler will live forever with God. All over the Bible, God is characterized as being eternal. The obvious example is the first verses of Genesis where He created the heavens and the earth, and started time itself, meaning that He is outside of it.
Attribute #4: God is Immutable
God doesn’t change because “He is perfect”; there’s no need. (p. 90) His attributes demonstrated in the Classics show an unchanging God throughout the ages.
Attribute #5: God is All-Powerful
Psalm 33:6 says “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Shang Di exhibits this same omnipotence, evidenced by His subjecting of a powerful dynasty to the authority of a new one (Classic of Poetry, Da Ya, end of Chapter of 4).
Attribute #6: God is All-Knowing
In the Book of Shang and the The Charge of Yue (Classic of History), the writer states “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.” This comports with Psalm 139 which states, “Even before there is a word on my toungue, Behold, O LORD, You know it all.”
Attribute #7: God is Omnipresent
In Jeremiah 23, Jeremiah records God asking rhetorical questions (by the way, I love it when God gets snarky!): “Can a man hide himself in hiding places so I do not see him?” and “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” In Confucius’ Record of Rites it says “Shang Di is revered because His will extends to the nine limits [i.e. everywhere].” (p. 93)
Attribute #8: God is Infinite
The Classic of Poetry states “Heaven gave birth to the multitudes, and is vast enough to govern all creation with rules and principles” and “Only the mandate of Heaven is absolute and eternal, majestic and infinite.” (p. 94) This is similar to what King Solomon confesses in 1 Kings 8:27: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built!”
Now, these eight attributes listed describe the characteristics of God that can be arrived at through philosophical reasoning (like the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument or the Ontological Argument). However, this doesn’t get us any closer to the Christian God. Are YHWH and Shang Di two names for the same entity? Next time we will look at the even more intriguing Moral Attributes. Then, you’ll start to see His personality really start shining through.