Is our Western God and China’s Heaven one and the same?

In Chinese culture, ancestor worship as practiced on Tomb Sweeping Day (Qingming festival) is closely tied to parental respect. Respect and care for one’s parents, or filial piety (xiào), is a central virtue of Confucianist ethics and a core value within Chinese society. Xiào is a reciprocation to the care one’s parents have given. It is an obligation, not a choice.

The Chinese Tomb Sweeping Day can be likened to All Souls Day (November 2nd) in the West. Especially in Catholic communities, All Souls Day is the day when people pray for and remember their dead or, in Catholic terms, their ‘faithful departed’. Bringing flowers to grave sites is one of the traditional rituals that accompany this day. In recent times, All Souls Day is also celebrated by Protestants and even atheists, since it is one of the few collective rituals they have to reconnect with their dead. Yet, it does not have the importance Chinese attach to it. In the West, this day is filled with nostalgia and the emotional processing of loss, whereas in China it is filled with filial piety (xiào), or honor, respect and care for one’s ancestors. see also

The different intensity with which remembering the ancestors plays out in West and East, may have something to do with the different religious systems that developed in both hemispheres. In the West a monotheistic god-image evolved and eventually crystalized in the Abrahamic religions and cultures of Judeism, Christianity and Islam. In Chinese religion, especially Taoism, polytheistic tendencies persisted –Taoists worship the divine Many instead of the divine One–whereas in Buddhism, another important religion in China, the concept of a deity has disappeared altogether.

To Chinese, the concept Tiān is an alternative for the God of Abrahamic religions. The concept was developed in the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC) and it means ‘Heaven’. This Heaven is the celestial aspect of the cosmos, as opposed to its earthly aspect, which is called Di. According to the I Ching, the third aspect of the cosmos is Humanity, or Tiān-dì-rén. What we call theology in the West, is called Tiān-xué, or the study of Heaven, in Chinese.

To most Chinese, God is not a divine figure, but a divine principle which rules the cosmos. This principle called Heaven originally referred to the Northern sky and the natural laws it brings. Heaven arranges and manages earthly phenomena, and it generates beings as its progenitors.

Heaven ‘appoints’ the rulers of a state including the Chinese top leaders, who are ‘Son’s of Heaven’. see also

In The Yellow Emperor Hypothesis, the cofounder and former chairman of IT provider SHI International, Leo Koguan, states that the Western God is transcendental to this world, where the Chinese God is immanent in this world. He writes: “In contrast to the God of Western religions, who is above space and time, the God of Fuxi, Xuanyuan and Wang Yangming is under in our space and time.”.

The concept of Tiān is intrinsically tied to the ancestors. Leo Koguan: “To Chinese thought, ancestor is creator”. Because of this, Heaven is regarded as zēng-zǔfù, or the ‘utmost ancestral father’; the ruler of the Chinese empire is regarded as ‘the son of Heaven’; and ancestors are regarded as the equivalent of Heaven within human society.

The ancestors are the ones that reconnect the Chinese back to Heaven. Ancestor worship can be seen as being part of their ‘religion’, as re-ligare, the Latin root of the word religion, means to re-connect. On Tomb Sweeping Day the Chinese not only celebrate their connection with the ancestors, but also their connection to Heaven.


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