Shangdi (上帝, pinyin: Shàngdì, Wade-Giles Shang Ti), or simply Di (帝), is the High God (or Clan Ancestor) postulated in the earliest-known religious system of the Han Chinese people. The term can literally be translated as "Emperor (or Sovereign) Above," "Lord On High," "Highest Lord," "the Supreme God," or "Celestial Lord." While such terminology implies parallels with the divinities of the world's monotheistic traditions, two important differences must be acknowledged: first, while Shangdi was understood as a patriarchal ruler deity, this conception was not conflated with a role in the cosmogony; second, He was seen as one deity (ancestor) among many.[1] In this way, Shangdi bears more similarities to the dyeus figures in Indo-European religions (e.g., Zeus, Jupiter, Tiwaz) than to the God of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

As noted above, Shangdi was an important religious concept from the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1766 B.C.E. - ca. 1050 B.C.E.) onwards, where he was seemingly understood as a composite ancestor of the ruling dynasty. From the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) (1122 B.C.E. to 256 B.C.E.), however, the deity's position in the Chinese religious imagination was replaced by Tian (天), a more distant and moralistic figure. Though later writers conflated the two deities, archaeological investigation of the earliest instances of the name Tian belie this position.[2]

This being said, Shangdi is also the name given for God in the Standard Mandarin Union Version of the Bible, though shen 神 (lit. spirit or deity) was also adopted by Protestant missionaries in China to refer to the Christian God. Much like the ancestors, Shangdi is never represented with images or idols in Chinese tradition.


Historical Evidence of Belief in Shangdi

The earliest references to Shangdi are found in Oracle Bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600 B.C.E. - ca. 1046 B.C.E.). These inscriptions, which record the royal court's prophetic queries to the gods and ancestors, provide considerable evidence for the characterization of Shangdi as an immanent, personal force, as they credit the deity's pleasure or displeasure for many of the vicissitudes of life. For example, one extant text puts forth the following query:

"It has not rained [for a long time]. Is Di harming this city [at Anyang]; does Di not approve [of our actions]? The king prognosticated saying, "It is Di who is harming the city; [Di] dies not approve." (Yizhu 620)[3]

Apart from these mantic inscriptions, Shangdi is first mentioned in Chinese literature in the Five Classics, (五經, pinyin: Wujing) allegedly compiled by Confucius in the sixth century B.C.E. The Wujing was a collection of five books that represented the pinnacle of Chinese culture at that time, the oldest strata of which were first written around 1000 B.C.E. All of the five classics include references to Shangdi:

Occurrences of Shangdi (上帝) in Wujing (五經)[4]
char pinyin English occurrence
書經 Shujing Classic of History 32 times
詩經 Shijing Classic of Poetry 24 times
禮記 Liji Classic of Rites 20 times
春秋 Chunqiu Spring and Autumn Annals 08 times
易經 Yi jing Classic of Changes 02 times

In particular, the Classic of History (書經, pinyin: Shujing), which is possibly the earliest recorded Chinese narrative, contains many references to the deity, with the majority found in its (historically) earliest chapters. For instance, the second of the Shujing's five books, the "Book of Yu" (虞書, pinyin: Yushu), speaks numerous times of Shangdi in its description of the exploits of Emperor Shun (the predecessor to the heroic Da Yu (大禹), the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty). This section specifically describes the emperor's yearly sacrifices to Shangdi,[4] a fact the supports the Confucian contention that belief in Shangdi predated the Xia Dynasty.

Other classics mention Shangdi as well, though a formalized analysis showing the development of the term over time would be useful. Another "Classic" collection, the Four Books (四書, pinyin: Sishu), also mentions Shangdi, but it is a later compilation and the references are much more sparse and abstract, as the term had already begun to be displaced by "Tian."

Meaning & Use of Name

As noted above, the name "Shangdi" (上帝) refers to the Supreme God (or Supreme Ancestor) in the original religious system of the Han Chinese people. Literally, the term means "Above Emperor," which is taken to mean "Lord On High," "Highest Lord," or "Celestial Lord." As previously demonstrated, this particular understanding is tremendously ancient, with recorded usages spanning over three thousands years. This being said, the original notion of Shangdi came to be conflated with Tian (literally, "Heaven") from the Zhou Dynasty (周朝) onwards. By the time of the Han dynasty, the influential Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan declared that "Shangdi is another name for Tian." This historical development is summarized in Paper's excellent The Gods are Drunk:

Di (power - translated by many as "God") was an amorphous concept, not anthropomorphized, but the mythicized ancestor spirits could be communicated to and became intercessors with Shangdi (supreme power). Indeed, Robert Eno (1990) has recently argued that the term Di meant ancestors themselves as a collective. ... [However,] Chang Kwang-chih (1976:193) has pointed out that, in the Zhou period, "Shang Ti [Shangdi] now becomes divorced from any identification with the Shang ancestors and the world of the gods and the world of the ancestors become two distinctly different worlds." Chang places the reason for this shift to political expediency since the Shang ruling clan (Zi clan) had identified its ancestors with Shangdi, and the Zhou ruling clan (Ji clan) would not, of course, accept the Zi clan's conception of its power and the influence of its ancestral spirits.[5]

In general, this transition from Shangdi to Tian was characterized by a movement from a clan-based relational cosmos to a more universalized, moralistic understanding of the world.


From the earliest eras of Chinese history, Shangdi was a central deity in the upper-class/state cult, where He was officially worshiped through sacrificial rituals. Many of these rites, as noted above, suggest that Shangdi ruled over natural and ancestral spirits, who act as His ministers.[6] In the imperial period, once the identification between the personalized Shangdi of the Shang dynasty and the moralistic Tian of the Zhou dynasty was complete, the royal cult continued to honor the High God through annual rites. For example, 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 an unblemished bull would be slaughtered and presented as an animal sacrifice to Shangdi, where it was offered to the god's "spirit tablet" (神位, or shénwèi).[7] 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 the throne.

In addition to the identification with Tian, popular worship also came to conflate Shangdi with the Jade Emperor, the head of the celestial pantheon.[8]


Uniquely, Chinese traditions do not appear to have a narrative for Shangdi in the earliest texts. Nor are there physical representations of him. However, the many references to Shangdi do assign attributes to his character, including: maleness, emotion, compassion, intellect, judgment, mastery, and greatness.

  • The Shu Jing (書經), the earliest of Chinese narratives (described above), represents Shangdi as a good god who punishes evil and rewards goodness. "Shangdi is not invariant [for he judges a person according to his actions]. On the good-doer He sends down blessings, and on the evil-doer He sends down miseries."[9]
  • The Shijing (詩經), the earliest of Chinese poetries, attributes speech to him in poem 241. Other significant portrayals include poems 245, 236, 300; as well as poems 192, 224, 235, 254, 255, 258, 274, 276, and 304.
  • The Wujing (五經), and the official sacrificial rituals show people praying to Shangdi (i.e. Liji (禮記) 04:1:13; aka Liji Book 4, Section 1, verse 13).[10]

These portrayals appear to predate Daoist or Buddhist interpretations by anywhere from 500 to 2000 years.

Chinese Christianity

See also: Chinese Rites Controversy

Shangdi is also one of the main names used by Chinese Christians for the Christian God. It is first used in the southern China edition of the Chinese Union Version, a Mandarin Chinese translation of the Christian Bible. Nineteenth century British Protestant missionaries in China, such as James Legge, used the name Shangdi to refer to the Christian God, while American Protestant missionaries in northern China in the early twentieth century preferred the alternative Shen (神, pinyin: Shén), and another edition was printed reflecting this usage. By contrast, historically, Chinese Catholics have predominantly used the term "Tian Zhu" (天主, pinyin: tian1 zhu3; literally, "Lord of Heaven") to address God. Chinese philosophers of religion also use the name Shangdi to refer to the philosophical God. Newer versions of Chinese bibles that uses "Shen" add a space known as nuo tai before the character (" 神") to preserve formatting of the "Shangdi" editions.[11]


  1. Lawrence Thompsons, Chinese Religion: An Introduction, 5th ed (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1996, ISBN 0534255361), 2-3.
  2. For instance, the Han dynasty Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan declared that "Shangdi is another name for Tian."
  3. Robert Eno, "Early Oracle Inscriptions" in Donald S. Lopez Jr.'s Religions of China in Practice. 47. See also Muchou Poo's In Search of Personal Welfare: A View of Ancient Chinese Religion (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996, ISBN 07914363606), 23-29.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ethel R. Nelson, Richard E Broadberry, and Ginger Tong Chock, God's Promise to the Chinese (Dunlap, TN: Read Books Publisher, 1997, ISBN 0937869015), 2.
  5. Paper, 47, 106.
  6. See Poo (1996); Paper (1995).
  7. This tablet was inscribed with the name "Supreme Sovereign God of Heaven" (皇天上帝, Huangtian Shangdi).
  8. Werner, 410-411.
  9. 惟上帝不常,作善降之百祥,作不善降之百殃。Shujing Ch. 13, the Instructions of Yi.
  10. Note: The verse numbers of quoted references may vary due to the variety of compilations and translation of these texts.
  11. For a clear overview of the Christian uses of the term, see David E. Mungello's "Sinological Torque: The Influence of Cultural Preoccupations on Seventeenth-Century Missionary Interpretations of Confucianism," Philosophy East and West 28:2 (April 1978), 123-141.


  • Creel, Herrlee Glessner. The Origins of Statecraft in China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. ISBN 0226120430
  • Fitzgerald, C. P. China: A Short Cultural History. London: The Cresset Library, 1986. ISBN 0-09-168751-9
  • Goodrich, Anne S. Peking Paper Gods: A Look at Home Worship. Monumenta Serica Monograph Series XXIII. Nettetal: Steyler-Verlag, 1991. ISBN 3-8050-0284-X
  • Lopez, Donald S. (ed.). Religions of China in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. ISBN 0691021449
  • Nelson, Ethel R., Richard E. Broadberry, and Ginger Tong Chock. God's Promise to the Chinese. Dunlap, TN: Read Books Publisher, 1997. ISBN 0937869015
  • Paper, Jordan. The Spirits are Drunk: Comparative Approaches to Chinese Religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995. ISBN 0791423166
  • Poo, Mu-chou. In Search of Personal Welfare: A View of Ancient Chinese Religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998. ISBN 0791436306
  • von Glahn, Richard. The Sinister Way: The Divine and Demonic in Chinese Religious Culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004. ISBN 0-520-23408-1
  • Werner, E. T. C. A Dictionary of Chinese Mythology. Wakefield, NH: Longwood Academic, 1990. ISBN 0-89341-034-9


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