Tian (天 Pinyin Tiān) is the Chinese character for heaven or sky, though from earliest pre-history it has also connoted a force that was active in conditioning natural order and human life. As such, it holds an important place in many Chinese belief systems, such as Moism, Daoism and Confucianism. Further, the association between Tian (as Heaven) and the human political structure (with the king adopting the title tian zi ("Son of Heaven") led to the development of a uniquely Chinese understanding of the relationship between religion, politics and morality.
First and foremost, the Chinese word tian (represented by the character 天) refers simply to the celestial firmament. Though later uses add considerable nuances to this basic notion (from the ideas of destiny and the relationship with proper leadership, to the moralization of the Confucian philosophers), it never loses this basic meaning.
Further, the significance of tian as a single character led to its frequent use in compound phrases (which pervade classical and poetic literature, and have also entered vernacular Chinese as idiomatic expressions). Two of the most common include tian xia (天下), meaning "under heaven" (which refers to the entire world (as everything is, quite literally, "under Heaven")), and tian di (天地), literally "heaven and earth," but used to signify the entire universe (as everything, in the classical cosmology, belonged to the domain of one of these two polarities).
In earliest Chinese history, it is postulated that the Shang dynasty (ca. 1766-ca. 1050 B.C.E.) (who worshiped a heavenly ancestor called Shang Di) were displaced by the more war-like Zhou (ca. 1050-256 B.C.E.), who instituted a new social order and a new religious system, centered around a sky god - a "deity above who rules the Heavens" (Tian).  Under this system, Tian was considered responsible for the orderly functioning of the cosmos, including the maintenance of appropriate seasonal weather (allowing for maximal harvests and growing seasons).
As with the (semi-)divine rulers of many early civilizations (including the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt and the emperors of the Incas), the first Chinese kings (wang 王) were understood to be directly affiliated with the cosmological order, as manifested by Tian. This connection is most readily apparent in an honorific often used to describe these monarchs: tian zi (天子), which can be literally translated as "Son of Heaven." Because of this purported lineal relationship, the king was understood to possess, via his station, a thaumaturgical ability to regulate the cosmos through ritual activity:
The king, the Son of Heaven, was the instrument by which this balance [between yin and yang, growing weather and harvesting weather] was maintained. His duty was to perform the sacrifices at appropriate times and establish a relationship between Man and Heaven. In his first beginnings the king was far more priest than soldier. His terrestrial duties of government could be delegated to lesser men, his ministers. He alone could perform the magical sacrifices which assured the harmony of the divine powers…. The Son of Heaven alone sacrificed to Heaven and Earth.
The concept of Tian, in addition to its role in sacralizing the political order, moralized it as well. Specifically, the legitimacy of a king, including his right to rule, were seen from the Zhou dynasty onward as dependent upon receiving the Mandate of Heaven (tian ming 天命). As such, the rulership of the Middle Kingdom was, at least in theory, tied to the equitable use of power by those within the office. This understanding is evidenced in the relatively ancient Classic of History (a tome that came to be recognized as one of the Five Classics by the Confucian tradition):
A major impetus for the development of this doctrine was to legitimize the reign of the Zhou monarchs, who had, after all, conquered the territories belonging to the Shang dynasty. When moral excellence becomes a necessary component of maintaining Tian's sanction, usurpation by an ethical elite becomes a possibility:
The Son of Heaven could not properly fulfill his functions unless his moral nature was pure and his conduct above reproach. Heaven could not be served by a tyrant or a debauchee, the sacrifices of such a ruler would be of no avail, the divine harmony would be upset, prodigies and catastrophes would manifest the wrath of Heaven…. [Since the Zhou were invaders,] it was necessary to show why an alien family could be capable of performing the magical rites of the Son of Heaven, by which the harmony was maintained. The Shang dynasty had fallen, but their ruin had to be explained as the will of the great gods, of Heaven itself.
Tian, in a religious (or at least cosmological) context, was one of the foundational concepts for Confucianism. Since each of the early Confucian scholars built their religio-philosophical worldviews around the idea of an orderly cosmos where people could lead meaningful lives, an understanding of Tian became central to their respective humanistic programmes. However, and in spite of this notable similarity, each of them also interpreted the term in a particular manner.
Confucius built upon the inherited, cultural understanding of Tian (described above) by reinterpreting it in an immanental, humanistic light. Though it was still understood to refer to Heaven (and to orderly natural processes), these processes were interpreted in light of their relationship to lived human experience. As Tu Weiming notes, "Confucius' insistence that he loved the ancients and that he was a transmitter rather than a maker symbolises his attempt to provide a transcendental anchorage for human civilization. To Confucius, what had already been created, notably the 'ritual and music' of the human community, was not merely of humans, it was also sanctioned and sponsored by the mandate of heaven." Further, Confucian historicism can be seen as "predicated on a deep-rooted faith in the continuation of human culture not only as a historical fact but also as the unfolding of a transcendent reality."
From this perspective, human life and culture have a transcendental referent, and are based upon the sanction of Heaven. "Tian is both what our world is and how it is. The 'ten thousand things,' an expression for 'everything,' are not the creatures of a tian which is independent of what is ordered; rather, they are constitutive of it. Tian is both the creator and the field of creatures. There is not apparent distinction between the order itself, and what orders it…. But tian is not just 'things'; it is a living culture - crafted, transmitted, and now resident in a human community."
Despite the intriguing nature of these philosophical glosses, it is important to note that Confucius did not explicitly define his position on Tian, likely due to his general discomfort with discussing metaphysical or supernatural issues. As seen in the Analects (7.21):
"The Master had nothing to say about strange happenings, the use of force, disorder, or the spirits." Further, he often used the term in decidedly traditional ways, implying Heaven's active agency and involvement in human affairs. A clear example of this can be seen in the Master's mourning over his favorite disciple, where he laments: "Oh my! Tian is the ruin of me! Tian is the ruin of me!"
For Mencius, Tian played a more particularized role than it did for Confucius. In his framework, Tian was the originator of humanity's tendencies toward moral order - a position that developed organically from the sage's conviction that human nature was fundamentally good. In the text ascribed to Mencius, he argues that:
If you let people follow their feelings (original nature), they will be able to do good. This is what is meant by saying that human nature is good. If man does evil, it is not the fault of his natural endowment…. The Book of Odes says, "Heaven produces the teeming multitude. As there are things there are their specific principles. When the people keep their normal nature they will love excellent virtue."
The entirety of the Mencian position on this issue is elegantly summarized by Benjamin Schwartz:
Heaven has in fact endowed humans with a kind of transcendental 'heart within the heart' which is capable, through arduous moral effort expressing itself in moral decisions based on reflection and deliberate thought, of preserving the spontaneous heart of goodness and not losing contact with it through all the vicissitudes and assaults of our ordinary life…. [Those who follow this path] are able to understand the world in which they live, to feel at one with it and at one with Heaven. With Heaven's help, the noble man can help create world 'out there' in which all men will be able to reestablish contact with the inherent sources of their own natures.
It is only by virtue of this "heavenly" endowment that orderly and ethical human conduct are possible.
Xunzi and Mencius present divergent (almost polar opposite) perspectives on the role of Tian in human affairs. Master Xun, following his aggressively humanistic program, argues vehemently for the lack of a divinely-ordained "goodness" within people, focusing instead on the role of teachers, exemplars, and proper rituals for inculcating moral sentiments. However, he still finds a place for the depersonalized Heaven (Tian) within his framework by postulating that its orderly operations provided the inspiration for the early sage-kings (who invented the rites): "the former kings looked up and took their model from heaven, looked down and took their model from the earth, look about and took their rules from mankind. Such rules represent the ultimate principle of community harmony and unity." Commenting on this fruitful ambiguity, Benjamin Schwartz suggests: "We have already noted that the ‘objective’ order of society embodied in li and law is also on some level embedded in the order of Heaven and that in fashioning the human order the sages do not freely invent but actually make manifest a universal pattern somehow already rooted in the ultimate nature of things."
By the Neo-Confucian period (ca. 1100 C.E.), the complex metaphysics postulated by the imported Buddhist tradition made the Tian-based cosmology of the early Confucian period seem relatively simplistic. Thus, the majority of these thinkers tended to build their philosophical systems around other concepts (most often vital force (qi) or pattern (li). At best, Tian became simply an analogue, as with Zhu Xi, who "identifies Principle with Heaven (tian), with the Way (Dao) and with the Supreme Ultimate (taiji), thus affirming that Principle is the origin of the world, the final sanction of life, the inner nature of all thins, and the power and source of evolution."
For Laozi, Tian's role in creating and perpetuating the natural order is of ultimate importance:
Because of this disinterested (almost mechanistic) mode of operation, however, he cautions that Tian is utterly unconcerned with human welfare: "Heaven and Earth are not humane (ren). They regard all things as straw dogs." The "straw dogs" mentioned in this passage were ritual implements that were revered prior to the performance of the rite and discarded immediately upon its completion.
Despite this somewhat traditional perspective, the Dao De Jing does make two notable additions to the classical understanding of Tian. First, it predicates the existence of Heaven upon the Dao - a hitherto unprecedented metaphysical formulation. Second, it sets up Heaven and Earth, in their non-self-interested operation (wu-wei), as models for human conduct:
Zhuangzi, in the text bearing his name, develops some similar themes in his understanding of Tian. Specifically, he uses the concept of Heaven as a counterpart to Earth (in keeping with the idiomatic usage introduced above) and as a synonym for the “processual” aspect of the Dao
As in the Dao De Jing, the Zhuangzi predicates Heaven upon the Dao, giving the latter term ontological primacy:
Zhuangzi further explores this unique understanding of Dao and Heaven through the parable of the “piping of the earth.” In it, a student asks his venerable teacher how to effectively meditate (making “the body like a withered tree and the mind like dead ashes”). The teacher replies that doing so requires one to “hear the piping of Heaven.” When asked to extrapolate, he continues:
In this tale, the relationship between Dao and Heaven is elucidated: the Dao is the source of change and action in the world (as it is the ultimate cause of the wind), and Heaven is the worldly, instantiated form of this process (as it is credited for directly causing action (by “blowing on [each of] the ten thousand things in a different way”). For this reason, the text suggests that one who can understand “the Way [Dao]… may be called the Reservoir of Heaven.”
The Moist tradition, which flourished during the Hundred Schools of Thought period (700-220 B.C.E.), propounded views of Tian that held much in common with their Daoist and Confucian contemporaries, though their conception of its nature and role were far more specific than either. Namely, they believed that Tian referred to a quasi-anthropomorphic deity who viewed human actions with omniscient vision and dealt out rewards and punishments accordingly. As described by Benjamin Schwartz:
The order of human society (and, one would presuppose, of the cosmos) is produced and maintained by the purposeful cooperation of Heaven, spirits, and men of good will in the face of what seems to be the inherently centrifugal tendencies of the pluralistic, recalcitrant world of the "ten thousand things." … Order must be imposed on chaos. Unless men believe that Heaven, the spirits, and they themselves can exert themselves constantly and without relaxation against the disintegrating tendencies, disorder and chaos will prevail.
Despite the stated importance of Tian in this framework, it is not necessarily the case that Moism was a more religious doctrine than the Confucian or Daoist theories with which it was contending. As A. C. Graham notes, "there is little evidence of a spiritual dimension deeper than a guilty fear of ghosts. The Mohists are in a sense less religious than some they would denounce as skeptics. The awe and resignation with which thinkers as far apart as Confucius and Chuang-tzu [Zhuangzi] accept the decree of Heaven has much more of the sense of the holy than anything in Mo-tzu."
The term Tian was used by early Christian missionaries (namely the Jesuits) as a fitting translation for the Christian "Lord" or "God" when compiling Chinese versions of the Christian Gospels. This presumed congruence is directly attested to by Matteo Ricci, who argued that:
Whether westerners or easterners, we have the same mind. The only difference lies in the languages. At the very beginning, Confucius said that to cultivate one should serve one's parents first and then extend to know Heaven. When it came to Mencius, he set up his theory of serving Heaven with your cultivation. That means serving Heaven is as same as serving one's parents since Heaven is the supreme parent of everything.
While certain parallels between the concepts definitely exist, it is undeniable that using these terms in a one-to-one correspondence served to exaggerate similarities and disguise differences between the two traditions.
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