God in Ancient China – Who is Shang Di?


In Part 1 of “God in Ancient China,” we explored God’s “Natural Attributes” (or things about Him that are inherent in the nature of what He is) as expressed in the research of Dr. Chan Thong.  As promised, Part 2 will deal with Shang Di’s “Moral Attributes” (or things about Him inherent in the nature of who He is).  The natural attributes of Shang Di/God were things like omnipresence, omnipotence, and eternality.   However, this kind of a god could be a cold, Deistic god… but that’s not what the Chinese Classics show us about Shang Di, nor what the Hebrew Old Testament shows us about YHWH.

*Note – most of the following material comes from Dr. Chan Kei Thong’s book Faith of Our Fathers.  It’s a fascinating read and there’s a ton of material in the book above and beyond what I share here! I highly recommend it! As of today (3/28/20) it’s only affordably available at Amazon for Kindle; hard copies are extremely expensive.  I’m not sure why… I got mine for $25.

God is Love

The God of the Bible, even and especially in the Old Testament, is a God of love (read my article 5 Things to Consider About God’s Love for a more in depth look at this).  We find a similar description of Shang Di in the Chinese Classics.  The Book of Zhou, in the Middle Section of The Great Declaration, says “Heaven loves the people, the ruler should honor Heaven.”  In the Anecdotes of Lu Ming (in the Classic of Poetry), it states that “Heaven protects and establishes you… that you many enjoy every happiness.”  Further, Mo Zi, a philosopher from 4th century BC, asks: “How do we know that Heaven loves the people of the world? Because He enlightens them universally.

These writers don’t just declare Tian‘s love out of hand, but attach application or responses to this love.  It is clear this love, which are evident in both general revelation and personal blessings, should elicit a personal response.

God is Holy

Holiness is the concept of being “set apart” or “separated.”  When relating to God, it describes an awe-inspiring otherness that causes visceral reactions to those who witness His presence.  Even the hosts of heaven can’t help but glorify Him.  The reverence that God’s holiness inspires ought to move the observer to wonder and obedience.  Dr. Thong quotes Exodus 15:11 as an example of how the followers of God should respond to Him: “Who is like You among the gods, O LORD? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders?”

Shang Di, in the Classics, is described in similar terms, not just directly, but also pleading for the Emperors and rulers of China to be virtuous and fearful of Him.  The Classic of History is replete with examples and anecdotes where the Mandate of Heaven was rescinded if a ruler did not respect and awe Heaven’s glory.

For instance, in The Council of Great Yu (from The Book of Tang), it describes the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty.

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.

The Book of Zhou further speaks of Yu, saying,

“Among the ancients who exemplified this fear there was the founder of Xia Dynasty.  When his house was at its strength, he sought for able men to honor Shang Di.” 

It also says,

“The king twice bowed low, then arose and said, ‘I am utterly insignificant and but a child; how can I govern the four quarters of the empire with such a reverent awe of the dread majesty of Heaven?'”    

A Gracious God Shows Mercy and Compassion

In the Classic of Poetry, Shang Di is described as being graceful, showing favor to those who don’t deserve it, just because it is His nature.  The Classic of Poetry, in Anecdotes of a Child, says, 

Shang Di regarded her with favor,

without injury or hurt, 

her months were complete.

She gave birth to Hou Ji, 

who received all His blessings.

In the Classic of History, in Part 2 of Tai Jia in the Book of Shang, says, “There is peace throughout our numerous regions, there has been a succession of plentiful years, Heaven does not weary in its favor.”   

This graciousness of Shang Di is the same as the God of the Bible, who grants blessings and favor on those who even deserve punishment.  Jesus shows grace to the soldier whose ear was cut off by Peter in the garden (Luke 22:51).  Time after time in the book of Judges, Yahweh shows grace to Israel following multiple transgressions.

Because of this grace, Shang Di showed mercy and compassion to the people, and the emperor was always to follow suit.  In the Announcement of Duke Zhao (from the Book of Zhou), the author writes:

“Oh! Heaven had compassion on people everywhere.  His favoring mandate fell on our founding fathers.  Let the king cultivate virtue and reverence.”   

God is Faithful

God never breaks His promises and always provides what we need (Deuteronomy 7).  This faithfulness is also demonstrated of Shang Di in Classics.  These authors demonstrated trust in Heaven’s reliability:

The ordinances of Heaven, how deep are they and unceasing!” (Wei Tian Zhi Min, from the Classic of Poetry)

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

God is Good

The Psalms are brimming with declarations of how good God is.  He is always desiring the best for us and even pleads through his prophets for His people to test Him with obedience so that He can shower them with more blessings than they can handle! (ex. Malachi 3:8-10)

We see the same desire to promote the happiness and joy of others found in Shang Di.  Emperor Yu is said in the Book of Tang that “Almighty Heaven regarded him with His favoring mandate, Giving him all the four seas so that he reigns as ruler of all under heaven.”  The Book of Zhou also claimed Shang Di changed the rulers of China for the good of the people.  When the Xia Dynasty became cruel, Shang Di passed the Mandate of Heaven on to the Shang Dynasty: “Tang [the first Shang emperor], rising to the throne, greatly administered teh bright ordinances of Shang Di.”

My favorite passage Dr. Thong quotes is from the Book of Poetry (Chen Gong):

What have you to seek for? How to manage the new abundant crops? How beautiful are the wheat and barley.  Whose bright produce we shall receive! The bright and glorious Shang Di will in them give us an abundant year.

God is Just and Righteous

The God of the Bible is Just, and holds people accountable according to His own perfect standard of Righteousness (which cannot be attained).  Though He provides a way to be forgiven through the resurrection of Jesus Christ out of love and grace, His perfect Justice still had to be satisfied by Jesus paying the penalty for our sins.  God insists on this high standard of behavior and thought-life because it is in His nature to do so.

Shang Di also insists on a high level of righteousness from the Chinese, especially the rulers.

For the many sins of the Xia Dynasty, Heaven has given the charge to destroy them.” (from Speech of Tang, from Classic of History)

“In Heaven’s inspection of men below, He first considers their righteousness.  He bestows on them length of years or otherwise.  Heaven does not cut short men’s lives – they cut short their lives themselves.”  (from Day of Sacrifice of Gao Zong, from Classic of History)

Now, in modern times, just as in the Biblical Book of Job, people question God’s Justice.  The Anecdotes of Tang from the Classic of Poetry addresses this:

“It is not Shang Di that has caused this evil time,

but it arises from Yin’s not using the proven [ways].

Although you do not have old and experienced men,

there are still classic models [to guide you].

But you will not listen to them,

so the great mandate is overthrown!”

God is Wise

The last moral attribute of God that Dr. Thong covers has to do with the Wisdom of God/Shang Di.  One of the coolest things about the Bible, in my opinion, is how God’s Wisdom is so prominent that “she” is actually personified as Yahweh’s co-eternal partner in the book of Proverbs (by the way, if this sounds awesome to you, read this article Who Is Lady Wisdom in Provers 8? by Dr. Michael Heiser)! God’s infinite intelligence, omniscience, and even middle knowledge loom large in the Bible.

Shang Di shares these characteristics!

From the Classic of Poetry, we read “Great Heaven is very intelligent” (Anecdotes of Tang) and “O intelligent and high Heaven, Who enlightens and rules the people below.”  (Xiao Ming, from Anecdotes of North Hill)  The Book of Shang and the Book of Zhou show that wise rulers’ source of wisdom was from Heaven:

Heaven gifted our king with valor and wisdom to govern the vast nation.” (from Announcement of Zhong Hui)

“Examining the men of old, there was the founder of the Xia Dynasty.  Heaven guided his mind, allowed his descendants to succeed him, and protected them.  He acquainted himself with Heaven and was obedient.”  (from Zhao Gao, beginning of verse 11)


So far, we’ve established that the God of the Bible, Yahweh, and the ancient Chinese God Shang Di share both natural attributes and moral attributes.  However, is there anything indicating that this God of ancient China desires the same things as the God of the New Testament? Did the ancient Chinese truly worship the God of the Bible?

Next time we will look into issues of sacrifice, the expectations for emperors, and clues that could show us if the ancient Chinese were waiting for a man like Jesus!