Shangdi (Traditional Chinese: 上帝; Pinyin: Shàngdì; Wade-Giles: Shang Ti; literally: "High Sovereign") refers to a god or a power regarded as the spiritual ultimate by the Chinese people during the Shang Dynasty.[1] According to Yanxia Zhao, evidence shows that Shangdi was probably more transcendental than immanent, only working through lesser gods.[2] During the Zhou Dynasty, Shangdi was associated with Heaven (天 Tiān).[3] By the time of the Han dynasty, the influential Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan declared that "Shangdi is another name for Tian." Shangdi remains chiefly synonymous with Heaven in modern Chinese thought.


The earliest references to Shangdi are found in Oracle Bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600 – ca. 1046 BCE). Shangdi is first mentioned in Chinese literature in the Five Classics or Wujing, allegedly compiled by Confucius in the 6th century BCE. The Wujing was a collection of five books that represented the pinnacle of Chinese culture at that time. The oldest parts of the Wujing were first written around 1000 BCE, apparently relying on older texts. All of the five classics include references to Shangdi:

Occurrences of Shangdi (上帝) in Wujing (五經)
書經Shujing Classic of History32 times
詩經ShijingClassic of Poetry24 times
禮記LijiClassic of Rites20 times
春秋ChunqiuSpring and Autumn Annals8 times
易經YijingClassic of Changes2 times

Other classics mention Shangdi as well. Another "Classic" collection, the Four Books (四書, pinyin: Sì Shū), mentions Shangdi also, but it is a later compilation and the references are much more sparse and abstract. The highest number of occurrences appear in the earliest references; this pattern may reflect increasing rejection of Shangdi over time.

One of the five books in the Wujing is the Classic of History, (書經, pinyin: Shujing), aka Book of History, aka Esteemed Book (尚書, pinyin: Shangshu). The Shujing is possibly the earliest narrative of China, and may predate the European historian Herodotus (about 440 BCE) as a history by many centuries. This implies that Shangdi is the oldest deity directly referenced by any Chinese narrative literature. The Shujing itself is also divided into five parts, and those parts were actually considered books as well. However, the number of books or "documents" is a division that varies depending on the version or compilation. Therefore, quoted references may not match in different compilations.

The second of the five "books" inside the Shujing is called the "Book of Yu" (虞書, pinyin: Yushu). Yu, in this title, is a location, not the popular hero Yu (禹). This "book" has 4 "chapters"; and the first "chapter" is called the "Canon of Shun" (舜典, pinyin: Shun Dian). Emperor Shun was the predecessor to the heroic Da Yu (大禹), or Great Yu, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty. About the third sentence is the first mention of Shangdi. And, as it was mentioned in the previous section how yearly sacrifices to Shangdi were made by Emperor Shun, the Chinese belief in Shangdi may have been regarded as predating the Xia Dynasty.


From the earliest eras of Chinese history, Shangdi was officially worshipped through sacrificial rituals. Shangdi is believed to rule over natural and ancestral spirits, who act as his ministers. Shangdi is thought to be the Supreme Guide of both the natural order and the human order. The ruler of China in every Chinese dynasty would perform annual sacrificial rituals to Shangdi at the great Temple of Heaven in the imperial capital. During the ritual a completely healthy bull would be slaughtered and presented as an animal sacrifice to Shangdi. It is important to note that Shangdi is never represented with either images or idols. Instead, in the center building of the Temple of Heaven, in a structure called the "Imperial Vault of Heaven", a "spirit tablet" (神位, or shénwèi) inscribed with the name of Shangdi is stored on the throne, Huangtian Shangdi (皇天上帝). During an annual sacrifice, the emperor would carry these tablets to the north part of the Temple of Heaven, a place called the "Prayer Hall For Good Harvests", and place them on that throne.[4]

Christian interpretations

An ongoing debate amongst scholars is how to render the Biblical idea of God into the Chinese language.[5] Most of the controversy is over whether God should be translated as Shen (spirits or gods) or Shangdi (Most High God).[5] British missionaries of the 19th Century preferred Shangdi, as connecting more with ancient Chinese monotheism;[5] while Americans usually used Shen, because they saw the concurrent Chinese polytheism as precluding any knowledge of the "true" God in ancient history.[5] Some scholars say that imperialism and xenophobia could have influenced the gradual decline in the equivalence of God in the Western world with Shangdi and other ancient monotheisms amongst Bible translators:

There is an unwarranted skepticism towards the heathens' possession, if at all, of a very limited and low knowledge of the divine from the so-called 'natural/native religion.' The adoption of a local name for the universal God will facilitate mutual transformation of both Christianity and the native religion and culture.
Archie Lee[5]

Dr. G. Wright Doyle objects to using Shangdi because of the singularity of the term, which he finds incompatible with Trinity Doctrine, because he posits that plurality is necessary to any idea of God.[6]


  1. Zhao, Yanxia. Chinese Religion: A Contextual Approach. 2010. p. 154
  2. Zhao, Yanxia. Chinese Religion: A Contextual Approach. 2010. p. 154
  3. "Shangdi", Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011, .
  4. "JSDJ". 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Lee, Archie CC (Oct 2005), God's Asian Names: Rendering the Biblical God in Chinese, SBL Forum, 
  6. Dr. G. Wright Doyle (March 20, 2007). "God and Ancient China". Faith of Our Fathers: God in Ancient China. Global China Center. Retrieved 1 March 2011. 


This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Shangdi. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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