God in Ancient China – Who is Shang Di? Part 2: Moral Attributes

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!

Hiatus OVER! What’s Next?

Hello everyone!

Back in 2019 I posted that I would be taking a hiatus from writing on this blog.  I am a music teacher and I had received a grant to build a recording studio in my high school.  I had no clue what I was doing and needed to focus on that.

Since then, I have learned a LOT! I have plans for the new Contemporary Music class I’ll be teaching next year, I know what a DAW is, I know what an Audio/Digital interface is and how it works, and suddenly, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have a lot more time on my hands to refine and develop my mixing and mastering skills.  Woo!

(By the way, if you ever need advice and guidance on sound equipment and how to get started on your own home studio, I highly recommend Sweetwater, and Dustin Keesbury in particular.  He was fantastic and a huge help to me!)

Now that I have that monster more or less under control, I wanted to share my plans for the future of this blog.

The Goal: Write a Book!

This goal of writing a book grew out of a lot of prayer and a desire to help people struggling with the same questions I had regarding science and my Christian faith.  This all started about six or seven years ago when I was meeting regularly with a great friend and mentor, Matt.  He and I had been meeting to study the Bible and discuss Christian apologetics.

He inspired me with the strength of his character and his insightful approach to the Bible and how we should apply it to all aspects of our daily lives.  I’d always wanted to write, to teach, to serve others, to wrestle with tough questions; why not write a book as a tool to do all these things?

I resolved to write this book, but it was only going to happen with God’s help and guidance.  I felt wholly unprepared and unqualified because… well, frankly, I’m not a writer by trade, I was unfamiliar with the subject matter I wanted to write about, and daunted by the task of trying to fit it all in very busy home- and work-life.

A recipe for success, right?  🙂

But God helped me in addressing all these concerns, and now, here I am… writing this entry!

The Purpose and the Plan

The questions that started all of this were:

What about ‘that guy’ on the desert island who’d never heard of Jesus or God?

Is there or has there ever been such a person?

Is God truly Just for letting this person go to hell if he’d never had a chance to hear the Gospel?

While there are very good (and brief) answers to these offered by Christian apologists and philosophers like William Lane Craig and Frank Turek, I kept pressing and asking, well, what if this? What if that? (I’m obnoxious like that)

So in November of 2017 I developed a plan to write the book.

  • Year 1 and 2 – Research and Practice writing using a blog
  • Year 3 – Write the first draft
  • Year 4 – Edit/Revise toward a final draft
  • Year 5 – Seek editors and publishers, or figure out how to self-publish

I am now in my third year, and I’m ready to start sharing my findings.  The answers I discovered were surprising and ultimately quite satisfying, but in the process they enriched the way I understood Jesus’ mission, Christianity as a whole, world history, my faith, and how big my God truly is.

My purpose for this is to provide a resource and food-for-thought to both Christians and non-Christians, especially missionaries, apologists, and anyone interested in history, science, or religion.  I studied several topics and I hope people will find them as fascinating and rewarding to study as I have.

Here are some of the topics: 

  • The existence of a transcendent God.
  • The science of human origins and its Biblical resonances.
  • The history of early humanity and our spread across the globe.
  • The religion of these earliest humans (it’s not you think!).
  • Soteriology (the study of salvation) and its implications for all people.
  • The development of world religions in light of a Deuteronomy 32 supernatural worldview from ancient times to today.
  • A defense of this supernatural worldview of Christianity and its incredible implications for missions, discipleship, and evangelism.

Now, being a music teacher, my training is not in any of this; I am not a scholar and I don’t pretend to be one.  However, my contribution, and why I think God has led me here, is what I’ve synthesized from these various threads of interest.  I am excited to share what I’ve found over the next few months.

I will do my best to release weekly articles laying the groundwork and background knowledge on these topics.  Then I will present my hypotheses and defend my positions using the materials I’ve discovered.

So… join me on this adventure and we’ll see what happens.  I pray you will be as changed and encouraged as I have been these past several years.  🙂

Love you all! God bless you and your family in these uncertain times.

God in Ancient China – Who is Shang Di? Part 1: Natural Attributes

God in Ancient China – Who is Shang Di?


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.