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Names of God in China

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Names of God in China

The oldest records of the term Westerners translate as "God", "Most High God", "Greatest Lord" appear to exist in the earliest documents of Chinese literature as Shàngdì (上帝, pinyin: Shàng+dì, literally "Above Emperor"). This representation may be as old as 2000 BCE.

However, as Chinese religion changed to incorporate later interpretations of Confucianism, Daoism, & Buddhism, the term seems to have merged, in the views of some philosophers, with an impersonal Tiān, or Heaven, to produce the omnipotent omnipresent identity of Huáng Tiān Shàngdì=Huáng "Emperor"+Tiān+Shàngdì[1] (皇天上帝) or Xuán Tiān Shàngdì=Xuán "Deep"+Tiān+Shàngdì[2] (玄天上帝). The compounds Shàngtiān=Shàng+Tiān[3] and Tiāntáng=Tiān+Táng "hall"[4] have also been used for Heaven. The compounds tiānshén=tiān+shén "god"[5] and tiānxiān=tiān+xiān "immortal"[6] have been used for a deity, in a polytheistic sense. The word by itself has likewise been used for God.[7]

In addition to a reuse of some of the traditional titles, transliterations and new constructions became used by the Chinese for "God" in the Abrahamic meaning, rather than for the supreme being of traditional Chinese religion and mythology.


  • General uses 1
    • Nestorian 1.1
    • Islamic 1.2
    • Catholic 1.3
    • Protestant 1.4
  • Translations 2
    • God 2.1
    • Tetragrammaton 2.2
    • Lord 2.3
    • See also 2.4
  • References 3
  • External links 4

General uses

Outside of direct translations in religious books, the following are often-encountered translations of the Abrahamic God in general usage.


The earliest introduction of documented Judeo-Christian religion appears to be Jǐng jiào (景教, literally, "bright teaching") around 635 AD, whose proponents were Nestorian Christians from Persia. Their term for God was Zhēnzhǔ (真主, literally "Veritable Majesty," "True Lord," or "Lord of Truth.").[8] In a hymn supposed to be composed by Lü Dongbin, the Christian God is denominated by the term Tiānzhǔ (天主, literally, "Lord of Heaven"), 800 years before Matteo Ricci and his companions.[9]


Islam has enjoyed a long history in China. For Chinese Muslims, the principal term for God is also Zhēnzhǔ (真主) but transliterations of the Arabic Allâh also exist as Ālā, and as Ānlā=Ān "Peace"+ "Help"[10] (阿拉 and 安拉). The term Húdà (胡大), from Persian khudai, for God, is seen more often in north-western China.


The earliest documented Chinese Roman Catholic church was founded in China in about 1289. The Roman Catholic Church historically favored Tiānzhǔ (天主, literally, "Heavenly Lord", or "Lord of Heaven"), and so "Catholicism" is most commonly rendered Tiānzhǔ jiào=Tiānzhǔ+jiào "teach"[11] (天主教), although among Chinese Catholics the literal translation of "catholic", [12] Gōng jiào=gōng "Universal"[13]+jiào (公教), is also used.[14] Korean and Vietnamese Catholics also use cognates of the term Tiānzhǔ for God. This appears to have been used by the Catholic Church to separate Confucian traditions, which were reported to worship spirits and therefore incompatible with the exclusive biblical worship of God. Ironically, although versions of popular Confucianism became strongly associated with idol worship, traditionalists, notably the Kangxi Emperor, did not believe that such idolization accurately reflected Confucius's intent; Matteo Ricci also considered Confucius to be a philosopher rather than the founder of a religion.[15]


The earliest Protestant missionary to China, Robert Morrison, arrived there in 1807. Before this time, Bibles were not printed for distribution. Protestantism is colloquially referred to as Jīdū jìao (基督教, meaning "religion of Christ") but this term can sometimes refer to all Christians, so Xīnjìao (新教, literally, "new religion") is also used to distinguish Protestants as a group separate from Roman Catholics. Their translators, coming to China later and separately, chose to use the older terminology "Shangdi", apparently believing Shangdi was a valid or preferable representation of the "Most High God".


A number of terms for "God" exist in the Judaeo-Christian Bible. For example, the first occurrence of a term for God in the Bible is in Genesis 1:1 and is rendered in the English as "God". However, many other titles (such as LORD — usually capitalized, as a replacement for the tetragrammaton — Almighty, etc.) are also used.


The term used commonly in Protestant Chinese bibles for God is Shén, or "神". This term is much more generic, meaning god, God, spirit, or soul. This probably appeals to groups who are not committed to interpreting Shangdi as a historical or spiritual equivalent to the "God Most High" of the Bible. The issue has remained controversial for over a century and Protestant organizations have published two versions of the Bible, using the two different words.


In addition, the Tetragrammaton, a four letter pronunciation of the name of God from the original Hebrew often rendered as "YHWH", is rendered in different ways. Catholics have translated this into Yǎwēi (雅威, literally "Elegant Powerful," cf. English "Yahweh"). Protestants originally rendered it as Yéhuǒhuá (爺火華, literally "(old) Gentleman of Fiery Magnificence," cf. English "Jehovah"). A modern Protestant usage is Yēhéhuá (耶和華, phonetic). Some versions translate this term as Shàngzhǔ (上主, literally "Above Lord"), similar to the translation decision that uses a capitalized "LORD" by both Catholics and traditional Protestants. Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans particularly use Shàngzhǔ in prayers of the Eucharist.[16]


The term Zhǔ (主,literally "Lord") is used by both Catholics and traditional Protestants in less formal prayers, and usually by contemporary Protestants.

Other less formal terms are used, for example, Tīanfù (天父, literally "Heavenly Father").

See also


  1. ^ "huáng" in Collins Chinese Concise Dictionary, Second Edition (2006), New York: HarperCollins.
  2. ^ "xuán" in Collins Chinese Concise Dictionary, Second Edition (2006), New York: HarperCollins.
  3. ^ "shàngtiān" under headword "shàng" in Collins Chinese Concise Dictionary, Second Edition (2006), New York: HarperCollins.
  4. ^ "tiāntáng" under headword "tiān", and "táng", in Collins Chinese Concise Dictionary, Second Edition (2006), New York: HarperCollins.
  5. ^ "god" in Collins Chinese Concise Dictionary, Second Edition (2006), New York: HarperCollins.
  6. ^ "tiānxiān" under headword "tiān", and "xiān", in Collins Chinese Concise Dictionary, Second Edition (2006), New York: HarperCollins.
  7. ^ "dì" in Collins Chinese Concise Dictionary, Second Edition (2006), New York: HarperCollins.
  8. ^ "Zhēnzhŭ", under headword "zhēn" in Collins Chinese Concise Dictionary (2005), Glasgow: Collins.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Cf. "ānjìng" "peaceful", under headword "ān", and "lā", in Collins Chinese Concise Dictionary, Second Edition (2006), New York: HarperCollins.
  11. ^ "jiào" in Collins Chinese Dictionary, Second Edition (2006), New York: HarperCollins.
  12. ^ As in the Creed Caput Firmiter from Lateran IV, Una vero est fidelium universalis Ecclesia, in Henricius Denzinger and Ioannes Bapt. Umberg, SJ, edd., (1937), Enchiridion Symbolorum, Definitionum et Declarationum, de Rebus Fidei et Morum, Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, Canon 1, No. 430, p. 200.
  13. ^ Cf. "gōnglĭ" "universal truth" under headword "gōng" in Collins Chinese Concise Dictionary, Second Edition (2006), New York: HarperCollins.
  14. ^
  15. ^ Vincent Cronin (1955/2015), The Wise Man from the West, San Francisco: Ignatius, passim.
  16. ^

External links

  • Example - notice how Shen and Shangti (shangdi) alternatives are offered at the top of the page.
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