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Shangdi (上帝, pinyin: Shàngdì, Wade-Giles Shang Ti) is the Supreme God in the original religious system of the Han Chinese people (see traditional Chinese religion), a term used from the second millennium BC to the present day, as pronounced according to the modern Mandarin dialect. Literally the term means "Above Emperor" or "Above Sovereign", which is taken to mean "Lord On High", "Highest Lord", "the God above", "the Supreme God", "Above ", or "Celestial Lord". Another title of Shangdi is simply Di (帝). Shangdi is chiefly associated with Heaven. From the earliest times of Chinese history, and especially from the Zhou Dynasty (周朝, 1122 BC to 256 BC) onwards, another name, Tian (天), is also used to refer to the Supreme God of the Chinese people (see Heaven worship). Tian is a word with multiple meanings in the ancient Chinese language; it can either mean the physical sky or the presiding God of Heaven. When Tian is used in the latter sense, it has the same meaning as Shangdi. By the time of the Han dynasty, the influential Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan declared that "Shangdi is another name for Tian." Shangdi is never represented with images or idols in Chinese tradition.


First mention

The earliest references to Shangdi are found in Oracle Bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600 BC – ca. 1046 BC). Shangdi is first mentioned in Chinese Literature in the Five Classics, allegedly compiled by Confucius in the 6th century BC. The Wujing was a collection of five books that represented the pinnacle of Chinese culture at that time. The oldest parts of the Wujing were first written around 1000 BC, apparently relying on older texts. All of the five classics include references to Shangdi:

This is just a sampling, and alternate translations and compilations will yield slightly different numbers. The total for the Wujing collection alone totals over 85 references.

Other classics mention Shangdi as well (a formalized analysis showing the development of the term over time would be useful). Another "Classic" collection, the Four Books (四書, pinyin: Sì Shū), mentions Shangdi also, but it is a later compilation and the references are much more sparse and abstract. The highest number of occurrences appear in the earliest references; this pattern may reflect increasing rejection of ShangDi over time.

One of the five books in the Wujing is the Classic of History, (書經, pinyin: Shujing), aka Book of History, aka Esteemed Book (尚書, pinyin: Shangshu). The Shujing is possibly the earliest narrative of China, and may predate the European historian Herodotus (about 440 BC) as a history by many centuries. This implies that Shangdi is the oldest deity directly referenced by any Chinese narrative literature. The Shujing itself is also divided into 5 parts, and those parts were actually considered books as well. However, the number of books or "documents" is a division that varies depending on the version or compilation. Thus quoted references may not match in different compilations.

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