During the Chinese Shang and Zhou dynasty, the written character for “Tian” (Sky) which sometimes is used to represent “God”, was drawn as a humanoid with a head, arms and legs. Could this be an ancient Chinese reflection of the biblical idea that “humans are created in God’s image”? Maybe. The jury is still out on this one.
The study ancient Chinese history and the mystical beliefs of the ancient Chinese is very difficult, due to a language barrier, different cultural and historic contexts, and lack of sources, but this is a fascinating area of study due to the mysteries involved.
When we talk about theology, many Chinese people really dislike the idea that the Christian/Abrahamic God is equivalent to their own ancient God and may even take offense. But let us just discuss this from a purely academic and philosophical viewpoint. If, for the sake of discussion, God is real, and if He is all-powerful, He would work through all cultures and people as well. Why wouldn’t He work through the great Chinese civilization, which has been so populous and has had a long, continuous history? If there is a God, I would think He would want to work through the Chinese as well, and that the Chinese must have experienced the same power and interpreted it differently through their own cultural context.
During the time of Ancient Egypt, while the events of the Old Testament were said to have happened, China was governed by the Xia Dynasty (2070 BC — 1600 BC). The Chinese were said to have been monotheistic and worshiped one god — Shangdi.
Shangdi is translated as the most high lord. Shangdilater in Chinese history was interchangeably used or mixed with “Tian”, translated as “Sky”, sometimes thought of as “heaven” also.
The understanding of Shangdi and Tian is not uniform across Chinese history and may vary in different cultural and regional contexts, depending on which period of history that we study, because Chinese beliefs have evolved over time; however, it is suggested by many sources that the Xia mostly practice monotheism and the most high God was Shangdi. It wasn’t until the next Dynasty, the Shang (c. 1600 BC– c. 1045 BC), that Chinese started the worship of multiple Gods and began to practice divination and fortune telling on a large scale, changing the spiritual landscape of the country. (Damascene)
The Ancient Chinese described Shangdi as the following:
Shangdi was described as all powerful and wanted personal relationship with people.
Shang Di in his righteousness has the power to decide who can be emperor with “Mandate of Heaven” and is all powerful. So, the ancient Chinese saw this particular deity as supreme, above everything and everyone else, including the esteemed Chinese Emperor.
Also, the ancient Chinese were not allowed to build idols or statues to represent Shangdi. Even in the Beijing Temple of Heaven today, which was built much later during the Ming Dyansty, there are no idols. Only a plaque with the characters “Heavenly sovereign Shangdi”.
Shang Di is all knowing and represents righteousness — Ancient Chinese text from the Book of Shang wrote, “Heaven is all-intelligent and observing, let the [emperor] imitate Him, then his ministers will honor him, and the people will be governed well”.
Shang Di is described as all infinite — In The Classic of Poetry, the ancient Chinese state, “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.” In Confucius’ Record of Rites, it is written that “Shang Di is revered because His will extends to the nine realms”, so God is all powerful and extends power to all of the nine spiritual realms which ancient Chinese believed existed.
All of these descriptions share a very close parallel to the God described in the Bible, which all Christians are well versed in. Thus an argument can be constructed that perhaps the Chinese experienced the same God as the people of the Middle East, but interpreted it through their own cultural context and circumstances. However, while there are intriguing similarities in certain aspects of ancient Chinese beliefs and the concepts associated with the Abrahamic God, it is essential to acknowledge the complex context and distinct nature of each tradition. Drawing definitive conclusions require careful consideration and further scholarly analysis.
Damascene. Christ the Eternal Tao. Valaam Books, 2017.