Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

Who are the principal deities in CIT?

CIT’s formal recognition of members of its pantheon went through many changes over the course of more than three thousand years. Here are some of the principal features of this vast and rather fluid phenomenon. Deities and heavenly powers generally fit into a three-level system. At the top were the powers deemed most necessary to cosmic survival. Ancient tradition includes belief in a mysterious celestial power called Shang Di. Eventually the word di came to be the standard term now translated as “emperor.” But Shang Di was still the “supreme emperor.” Standard Chinese religious usage also referred to Tian, Heaven, as a generic term for the region in which Shang Di lived. Neither Shang Di nor Tian was a personal deity actively involved in human affairs. They were rather the generic source of all things manifest in the universe. But there was yet another power behind Shang Di and Tian. That was the Dao, whose eternal energies of Yang and Yin are manifest in the universe and made known to humanity as the Will of Heaven. Also on the top level were the royal ancestors, the spirits of earth and grain, and the Earth, sometimes referred to as “empress” to Heaven’s “emperor.”

A notch lower came the principal heavenly bodies, Sun and Moon, and Jupiter, whose revolutions of the sun determine the ritual calendar. Rulers of earlier dynasties, patrons of farming and silk cultivation, and the spirits of Heaven and Earth round out the second level. Confucius was once a member of the second rank, but was elevated to the first in 1907. At the third level CIT begins to overlap somewhat with Daoism and CCT, with their more specialized and local deities. Here are gathered the deities of fire, literature, war, artillery, soil, mechanical arts, the hearth, the granary, and the home threshold. Along with the patron deity of Beijing are three dragon deities associated with the city. Finally, several historical heroes fit here as well. A deity called Guan Di or Guan Gong deserves mention as a crossover figure important in more than one pantheon listing. Guan Di is known by a wide variety of names, depending on the constituency of worshippers. Many people identify him as the God of War, though the red-faced, full-bearded deity is chiefly a paragon of civic virtue. The emperor had the authority to rearrange, shrink or expand the pantheon. He could simply decree a spirit worthy of a particular rank and eventually even declare worship of that being the practice of the realm by instituting temples in his or her honor.


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