Rationalising ‘天’ (Tian1) in Modern China

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天 (Tian1) – Divine-Sky

The Chinese ideogram ‘天’ (tian1) is an ancient character which dates back to the Bone Oracle Period of around 2000 BCE in China (i.e. during the latter Xin Dynasty and the early Shang Dynasty). An example of this early depiction of ‘天’ (tian1) is as follows:

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Bone Oracle – Circa 2000 BCE

During the Bronze era of the Western Zhou Dynasty (circa 1046 BCE), the ‘天’ (tian1) ideogram was depicted like this:

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Bronze Script – Circa 1046 BCE

An example of the  ‘天’ (tian1) character during the Lesser Seal era (circa 220 BCE) is as follows:

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Lesser Seal – Circa 220 BCE

During the Han Period (206 BCE-220 CE) the ‘天’ (tian1) ideogram developed into this character which conveys a picture of a man stood under a structure depicted as being positioned above his head:


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Liu Shu – Circa 206 BCE)

The modern character ‘天’ (tian1) possess an upper particle of ‘一’ (yi1) which literally translates as ‘one’ (1). The ‘天’ (tian1) ideogram also contains the lower particle of ‘大’ (da4), Whereas  ‘一’ (yi1) depicts the all-embracing sky,  ‘大’ (da4) is said to show a big man with arms and legs powerfully striving. A literal interpretation of ‘天’ (tian1)  could mean a ‘great oneness’ of ‘one greatness’, depending upon context. No matter how big or powerful a great man (such as an able scholar or effective warrior) is in the world, the sky is ALWAYS greater (i.e. ‘bigger’). The perception of humanity, although inhabiting the human body, has the potential to expand into and through the environment. Therefore, even an accomplished person (historically depicted as a ‘man’, but now including women and girls), has more room for growth through the concept of self-transcendence. As the Shang and Zhou Dynasties imbued the sky with transcendent qualities (including vague concepts of theistic entities), what is above is not only ‘great’, but may also be considered ‘divine’. What the ancient Chinese concept of ‘天’ (tian1) definitely is NOT, is a Christian–defined ‘heaven’. In the past I have regularly translated this term as ‘divine-sky’, but it could more properly be presented as ‘transcendent-sky’. The problem is how much the intended audience understands the concepts being presented. Certainly within the thinking of philosophical Daoism, ‘天’ (tian1) refers to the ‘stilling’ of the mind, the expansion of consciousness, and the permeation of conscious awareness throughout the universe. There is an assumption that ‘天’ (tian1) represents the principle of potential growth and expansion. Of course, within everyday Chinese language, ‘天’ (tian1) is used to refer to the ‘sky’ with no underlying philosophical implications. In the West there is often a misunderstanding (even amongst some Daoists) that ‘天’ (tian1) refers to a Christian-type of ‘heaven’ from which mystical beings emerge and control the world. This is incorrect despite the fact that there are certain types of non-Western superstitions in China that do advocate this or that type of deity, although many Daoist gods actually live in the world (through statues and shrines) an are believed to some how control human destiny in this manner. This is a concept found within religious Daoism – which is a different tradition to that being explained in this essay.

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