Heaven Is Paramount: The Chinese Character Tian

Meaning: Heaven
Sound: /tiān/

The Chinese pictograph for “heaven” started as a human figure with a big head, which evidently emphasizes the idea of “top” or what is above man. Like this:

The symbol first appeared on artifacts known as “oracle bones,” the bones and shells onto which ancient Chinese carved characters for the purpose of divination. Those artifacts date back over 3,000 years.

The character for “heaven” can also be found on the surface of some bronze vessels made in China in the second millennium B.C.E. The character looks like this:

By the time China was truly unified in the 3rd century B.C.E, the character for “heaven” had come to assume a shape like this:

This is very close to how the character is written today.

It is significant that the Chinese character for “heaven” takes the shape of a human figure with an emphasis on the head. From early on the Chinese defined heaven in terms of man’s relationship to it, which indicates a clear humanist streak in their culture. In a Chinese dictionary compiled in the 2nd century, the character 天 (/tiān/) is defined as “supreme and highest”.

天is “supreme and highest” in both physical and religious sense. In the physical sense, 天is the sky. When the Chinese talk about weather, they say “tiān qì”, literally “sky air”. 天 also has the meaning of “a day” – that is, the light and darkness in the sky makes one day.

In its religious sense, 天stands for “Heaven”. “Tiān mìng” is a very old concept in China, which in English is generally translated as “Heavenly Mandate”. In this connection, Chinese emperors in the old days were known as “tiān zĭ”, “Son of Heaven”. In Beijing, the gate leading to the entrance of the Imperial Forbidden City is “Tiān ān Mén”, “Gate of Heavenly Peace”. Also In Beijing there is “Tian Tan” or “Temple of Heaven”, where Chinese emperors used to make offerings to the spirit above, praying for security and good harvest.

Back in the 3rd century B.C.E when a nationwide rebellion brought down the tyrannical Qin Dynasty, the Mighty Lord of Chu emerged as the victor. This lord, however, did not stay mighty for long. He soon faced rebellions against himself, lost his army, and was ultimately cornered by opponents on a river bank. Before ending his life with his own hand, the Mighty Lord of Chu cried out bitterly: “It is not that I cannot fight. Heaven is bent on destroying me!” – “tiān zhī wáng wŏ”. Traditional Chinese historians questioned the idea that Heavenly randomly punished the man. They pointed out that, while at the height of his power, the warrior had committed some outrageous acts, including the burning down of the capital city of the fallen Qin Dynasty, which rendered large numbers of people homeless. Such behavior, said the Chinese historians, could not have pleased Heaven, 天.

To the Chinese, 天 is at once physical, divine, and human.