Ancient Chinese Theology: Shàngdì, Pángǔ, Tiān and the Dao

Before the evolution of the more esoteric and all-encompassing principle of Heaven (Tiān) which we find so prevalent in classical Chinese philosophical circles after the advent of the Zhou Dynasty, the primary divine entity that is worshipped and looked to as the source of universal order is called Shàngdì, which of course gets its name from the dynastic period of China within which it plays such a prominent theological role.

The Traditional Chinese word for Shàngdì is “上帝” – the first character 上, or shàng meaning “high”, “highest”, “first”, or “primordial”, and the second character “帝”, meaning “ruler” or “emperor”.  “帝”, or again , is also used as an epithet to the famed Yellow Emperor as well, referred to as “Huangdi” or (黄帝).  Huangdi is the first of the Five Emperors of pre-Xia Dynastic China who is credited with many of early advancements of Chinese civilization and from which the history of Chinese civilization really begins – at least according to Sīmǎ Qiān (c.145 or 135– 86 BC), the author of the Records of the Grand Historian (太史公書), or Shiji (史記)[1].  From the first chapter and verse of the Shiji we find for example:

Huangdi (Yellow emperor) was the son of Shaodian. His surname was Gongsun, and his prename Xuanyuan. Born a genius he could speak when a baby, as a boy he was quick and smart, as a youth simple and earnest, and when grown up intelligent.[2]

Huangdi to the Chinese can be looked upon as somewhat analogous to the role that King Menes plays to the Egyptians, the famed first pharaoh from prehistoric Egypt who is credited with having united Lower and Upper Egypt for the first time and from which the period of Dynastic Egyptian history begins.  Furthermore, Huangdi in a slightly different form, 皇帝, is the formal title used throughout Chinese history to denote the emperor of China, speaking to the age of (continuous) Chinese civilization, one of the oldest on the planet no doubt, as well as to the reverence and respect China has always had for its history.

We see ample evidence in the archeological and textual record of sacrificial worship of Shàngdì during the Shāng Dynasty (c. 1750 BCE–c. 1027 BCE), hence the name of the deity, i.e. the “High God of the Shang”.  The Book of Documents, or Shujing for example makes reference to offerings and sacrifices to Shàngdì by the Emperor Shun, the predecessor of Yu the Great who was the founder of the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070 BC–c. 1600 BC).  While dating these historical figures from Predynastic China is difficult if not impossible, according to the ancient Chinese historians the Xia Dynastic era is roughly from the turn of the 2nd millennium BCE to 1700/1600 BCE or so after which the Shāng Dynasty comes to power, placing the worship of Shàngdì well into the 3rd millennium BCE give or take, if not (and most likely if) from a much earlier form of sacrificial worship in prehistoric China.

What we know about the Shāng Dynasty period in China’s history comes from various archeological sites in Northeastern China as well as historical texts written in the classical period (5th through 2nd centuries BCE) that speak to the traditions in deep Chinese pre-history as well as the lineage of rulers and kingdoms, all the way back to the pseudo-mythical legendary times of Fu Xi and the Yellow Emperor that are documented in Book of Documents, or Shujing, as well as from the Records of the Grand Historian, or Shiji, which was written by Sīmǎ Qiān (c. 145/135 – 86 BCE) during the Han Dynasty.


Principal sites of prehistoric and Shang China.[3]

From these sources, we are told how the Shāng Dynasty succeeded the legendary Xia Dynasty which was established by the legendary Yu the Great (Dà Yǔ), the tamer of the Great Flood.  These empires were based primarily in the North-Eastern part of China, by the Yangtze and Yellow river, but their influence spread much further throughout what we today know as China and eventually, with the establishment of the Zhou Dynasty, came to hold sway over most of what we consider modern China today.

These people of the pre-Zhou Dynastic period lived in complex societies, made up of large towns where they domesticated animals, mastered the arts of agriculture and irrigation, as well as crafted various artifacts in Bronze, hence the term “Bronze Age” used to describe this time in China’s history.  They also mastered the art of jade carvings and we know that jade was an important luxury and jewelry item of the upper and middle classes and was used for ornamental weapons as well.

The people of pre-historic China also had a highly developed lunar calendar system (the word for Moon and Month were the same) which was used to know when to plant crops, when to harvest, when the annual flooding of the rivers in the kingdom would occur, etc.  We also see the first evidence of writing in this era of China’s history, first as inscriptions on tortoise shells and on ox bones, and then later on Bronze inscriptions, from which the terms “Oracle Bone script” and “Bronze script” originate that are used to describe the earliest forms of Chinese writing.  While it is believed that inscriptions were also made on bamboo or silk strips at this time in Chinese history, consistent with later time periods in Chinese antiquity, we do not have any evidence of such, probably due to the perishable nature of these types of artifacts.  It is clear that the forms of writing we see on the bones and bronze from this period is fairly mature however, and it can be safely assumed that writing developed in China at least in the third millennium BCE if not earlier, putting the development of Chinese writing systems historically in line with the cuneiform of the Sumer-Babylonian and Akkadian peoples in the Near East as well as the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians in North Africa.

From the archeological, written and inscription evidence, we can surmise the ancient Chinese of the Xia and Shang dynastic periods as living in fairly complex social structures which included a pseudo scribal class of shamanic priests whose functions included among others divination and healing as well as basic advisory roles to the ruling classes.  At the top of the social structure sat a supreme ruler, or Emperor.  These people not only had complex burial structures with vast and expensive artifacts left with the deceased, but also consulted the “spirits” in a form of ancestral worship on various important topics or before making important political or social decisions, speaking to the divine reverence which the ancient Chinese had for their either direct, or ancient ancestors whom they believed had divine origins similar to many of the ancient prehistorical cultures throughout the world.

Ancestral worship in some form or another was kept alive at least through the Han Dynasty period (206 BCE to 220 CE) and is prominently reflected in the philosophy of Confucius (551-479 BCE) which played such a foundational role in the development of Chinese thought in the latter half of the first millennium BCE.  It is within this context of ancestral worship which plays such a strong role in the theology of the prehistoric Chinese, that we must view the worship of Shàngdì, a tradition which was to later transform into the more theo-philosophical notion of Heaven, Tiān, in the Zhou Dynasty period that has persisted throughout much of China’s history.  While the rituals surrounding the worship of ancestors as well as Shàngdì, the first and foremost of the deities of the Shàng, was associated with animal, and in some cases human, sacrifice.  The latter practice was for the most part abandoned by the Zhou rulers but animal sacrifices to Shàngdì to promote a good harvest persisted up until modern times.[4]

Worship of Heaven (Shàngdì  and later Tiān) throughout China’s long history included the erection of shrines and the offering of prayers, and in the Shāng Dynasty and earlier, the use of sacrifices as a form of worship.  In fact, the last and greatest of these houses of worship was erected as recently as the 14th century CE, the so-called “Temple of Heaven” in Beijing.  The connection of Shàngdì to imperial rule and the seat of power, akin to the Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs in many respects, was prevalent even after Confucianism, Daoism, and then much later Buddhism took root in China in the latter part of the first millennium BCE, as evidenced by the rulers of China continuing to perform the annual bull sacrifice, a beast with very ancient roots in mythology, in honor of Shàngdì even into modern times.  Tiān then later plays a pivotal role in classical Chinese philosophy, a tradition that is consolidated and documented under the name of Confucius in the late Zhou, Qin and Han Dynasty periods (latter half of the first millennium BCE basically).  Emperors even into modern times are considered to be rulers over everything under heaven, or “sons of heaven” Tianzi (天下).[5]

In the archeological and textual records from pre-historic China, from Oracle bone inscriptions as early as the Shāng Dynasty in the 2nd millennium BCE, Shàngdì is presented as the ruler of Heaven and Earth and the greatest and most respected of all of the deities.  He was believed to preside over the spirit world as well, i.e. shén, and it was to Shàngdì that the emperors paid homage and sacrificed to for success in battle, a good harvest, or was appealed to for advice through various divination practices – from which the tradition surrounding the Yìjīng no doubt emerged.


One of the unique characteristics of the ancient literary tradition of the Chinese is its lack of a classic theogony in the Western sense of the term.  Yes there are records, fairly consistent accounts in fact, of the universe, the cosmos, coming into being from which Heaven and Earth are formed and from which the natural elements themselves spring forth.  It is to this basic, what can only be termed naturalist principles that the ancient Chinese turned to in order to create the structure of their society, their system of ethics, and the basis upon which the sovereign of China was to be established.

Most of the records we have in fact are works that are either sponsored by, created by, or at the very least approved by the various states that governed what we have come to know as ancient imperial China.  Within these records, as well as within various poetic and other philosophic works, there are allusions to what we might want to call mythical characters, the likes of Fu Xi or Yu the Great for example, but these figures – while retaining some pseudo-divine qualities, and who at the same time are in many cases associated with the descent from gods or deities – are not immortal beings per se but mortal beings with divine characteristics who are held up as models of leadership and founders of Chinese civilization.

We know that in Chinese antiquity, say in the pre-Shang era or Bronze Age China, we have a pantheon of sorts that does exist, for these are the very figures from which these pseudo-historical figures are supposedly descendant from.  And we also have ample evidence for the worship of the great sky god Shàngdì, to whom various sacrifices were made and who was viewed – at least from the philological evidence – as a great, anthropomorphic being.  What’s missing however, at least from the written records that have survived, is the connection between this class of immortals or gods, and the creation of the cosmos.  How did these gods come into being?  How were they formed?  Which was descended from which?  Were there multiple generations of gods?  Did one generation overthrow the next?

What we do have however, is a fairly extensive historical record that reaches back into pre-historical China that connects to these pseudo-historical figures however.  It’s just that there is this glaring missing layer as it were if we are to hold the theogonical accounts of the West as seen in the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Sumer-Babylonian civilizations all of which had theogonies that reached back from the present ruler all the way back to the great immortal beings that created the world.  While the preeminence of creation myth in the classic Western sense is absent from the written records of the first millennium BCE in ancient China we do have reference to a primordial substance from which the universe, the cosmos, emerges that has anthropomorphic qualities from some of the literature in the first few centuries CE, specifically from two works attributed to author Xu Zheng (or Hsu Cheng), an Eastern Wu official from the third century CE[6].

The first passage which survives in fragmentary form from a work called  Sanwu liji, or Historical Records of the Three Sovereign Divinities and the Five Gods, speaks to a first born semi divine figure named Pángǔ (盤古), or simply Pángǔ which means literally “coiled antiquity”, who is born from a cosmic egg that emerges from a primordial abyss, or Hùndùn, or simply Hundun (混沌), from which Heaven and Earth, the two great pillars of all classic Chinese mythos, come forth.

Heaven and earth were in chaos like a chicken’s egg, and P’an Ku was born in the middle of it. In eighteen thousand years Heaven and earth opened and unfolded. The limpid that was Yáng became the heavens, the turbid that was Yīn became the earth. P’an Ku lived within them, and in one day he went through nine transformations, becoming more divine than Heaven and wiser than earth. Each day the heavens rose ten feet higher, each day the earth grew ten feet thicker, and each day P’an Ku grew ten feet taller. And so it was that in eighteen thousand years the heavens reached their fullest height, earth reached its lowest depth, and P’an Ku became fully grown. Afterward, there were the Three Sovereign Divinities. Numbers began with one, were established with three, perfected by five, multiplied with seven, and fixed with nine. That is why Heaven is ninety thousand leagues from earth.[7]

In this passage, we see this primordial chaos to cosmic egg motif, which of course we find in many of the other ancient Eurasian cultural mythos to the West (e.g. Egypt, India, and Greece/Orphic mythos) integrated into the classical historical records of the birth of Chinese civilization which is believed to have begun with the Three Sovereigns – of which Fu Xi is typically the first.  We also see here interestingly the role of numbers, i.e. the odd numbers 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 which play such an integral role in the early Chinese theo-philosophical tradition of the Yìjīng, also called out as one of the first primordial elements of creation that is established at the very beginning of Chinese civilization.

The second passage comes from the Wuyun linian ji, or A Chronicle of the Five Cycles of Time, which is also attributed to Xu Zheng and also only survives in fragmentary form.  This version details the transformation of the first born Pángǔ directly into universal creation, very much reminiscent of the Rigvéda hymn to Puruṣa which describes a very similar process.

When the firstborn, P’an Ku, was approaching death, his body was transformed. His breath became the wind and clouds; his voice became peals of thunder. His left eye became the sun; his right eye became the moon. His four limbs and five extremities became the four cardinal points and the five peaks. His blood and semen became water and rivers. His muscles and veins became the earth’s arteries; his flesh became fields and land. His hair and beard became the stars; his bodily hair became plants and trees. His teeth and bones became metal and rock; his vital marrow became pearls and jade. His sweat and bodily fluids became streaming rain. All the mites on his body were touched by the wind and evolved into the black-haired people.[8]

While both these sources come from fairly late in the historical record, again from the 3rd century CE, they do in all likelihood reflect an older mythological tradition which must have persisted in parts of ancient China, one that found a voice in the Eastern Wu.  It very possible that this more archaic tradition was perhaps ignored – or even perhaps destroyed by the classical Chinese dynastic rulers, for example in the Burning of the Books at the beginning of the Qin Dynasty – who adopted a much more cerebral and intellectual approach toward cosmic creation.

From the Dàodé Jīng for example, a text which we know goes back at least to the 4th century BCE, we see a more classic approach to cosmogony which looks at universal creation in terms of applicability toward ethics and virtue, one of the hallmarks of Daoist philosophy, but Confucian thought as well which dominates the intellectual landscape of the Imperial Dynastic period of Ancient China in the first millennium BCE.

The Dao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things. All things leave behind them the Obscurity (out of which they have come), and go forward to embrace the Brightness (into which they have emerged), while they are harmonised by the Breath of Vacancy.  What men dislike is to be orphans, to have little virtue, to be as carriages without naves; and yet these are the designations which kings and princes use for themselves. So it is that some things are increased by being diminished, and others are diminished by being increased.  What other men (thus) teach, I also teach. The violent and strong do not die their natural death. I will make this the basis of my teaching.[9]

Numerology – the One the Two and the Three – are also again here called out as basic cosmic principles which come forth from the Dao, the all-embracing term which refers to not just the cosmic world order but also looked upon as the hallmark of “right” living, or the Way of Virtue which is typically how Dàodé Jīng is transliterated into English.  But this cosmogony, if we can even call it that, is called out as a benchmark upon which “the way” is to be understood, not as creation mythos in and of itself.

Insight into ancient Daoist cosmogony beyond what limited traces that can be found in the Dàodé Jīng were discovered in 1993 on a cache of bamboo slips in a tomb dated to the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE) found in central China, just north of the former capital of the State of Chu of the Zhou Dynasty era.  The texts, known collectively as the “Guodian Chu Slips”[10] included a work entitled Tàiyī Shēngshuǐ (太一生水), literally translated as The Great One Gave Birth to Water which was found along with other classic ancient works which included a copy of the Dàodé Jīng, the Book of Rites (Liji) as well as content from the Book of Documents (Shujing).

The Great One Gave Birth to Water,

Water returned and assisted “Taiyi”,

in this way developing heaven.

Heaven returned and assisted “Taiyi”,

in this way developing the earth.

Heaven and earth [repeatedly each other assisting],

in this way developing (the “Spiritual” and the “Numinous”)

“above and below”.

“above and below” repeatedly each other assisting,

in this way developing Yīn and Yáng.

Yīn and Yáng repeatedly each other assisting,

in this way developing the four seasons.

The four seasons repeatedly each other assisting,

in this way developing cold and hot.

Cold and hot repeatedly each other assisting,

in this way developing moist and dry.

Moist and dry repeatedly each other assisting,

they developed the (circle of ) the year, and the process came to an end.


Therefore, the year

was produced by moisture and dryness;

moisture and dryness

were produced by cold and hot.

Cold and hot

and the four seasons

were produced by Yīn and Yáng.

Yīn and Yáng

were produced by  above and below.

Above and below:

were produced by  heaven and earth.

Heaven and earth

were produced by the Great One.[11]

The text fits nicely into the ancient Daoist tradition. as it describes the Dao, i.e. the “Way” (道), to be followed in a fashion that is most consistent with the Lǎozǐ’s Dàodé Jīng.  But in this work, we find a more detailed cosmogonic picture where the “Great One” (大), which clearly has anthropomorphic connotations, “gives birth to” water (水), from which Heaven and Earth emerge, from which above and below and Yīn and Yáng emerge.  Yīn and Yáng gives rise to the four seasons, which give rise to cold and hot and moist and dry, illustrating the quite naturalistic worldview of the ancient Chinese, one which consists of an ongoing generative process of opposing forces which at their elemental level are termed Yīn and Yáng.


Another perplexing and somewhat unique attribute of cosmogonical works from ancient China – with the myth of Pángǔ being a notable exception which again comes fairly late in the historical record – is their inherent skepticism, their disbelief as it were, in the simple narrative of the world being created by a god or gods, and their description of it in poetic and questioning literary prose.

One of the best examples of this tradition, which is very reminiscent of what we find in the Rigvéda CXXIX – “Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows it not.[12] – is a work called Heavenly Questions, or Tiānwèn (天問) that we find in a collection of classical Chinese poetry from the state of Chu called the Chu Ci, or Songs of Chu, which are attributed to two Warring States Period (c. late 3rd century BCE) authors and poets named Qu Yuan and Song Yu, the former of which is attributed the Heavenly Questions.  The Chu state lies at the southernmost border of classical ancient Chinese culture and although was a part of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties still retained significant distinct cultural traits, some of which are manifest in the style, language and content of the Chu Ci.


State of Chu circa 3rd century BCE[13]


According to legend, Qu Yuan compiled the Heavenly Questions after his exile from the court of Chu and subsequent wanderings, having being inspired – or perhaps better put perplexed, bewildered and perhaps transfixed – by the paintings and illustrations he found on the walls of ancient temples and caves.[14]  The text is an archaic language, cryptic almost and is very similar to a passage we find (and by we I mean David Hawkes) in the Zhuangzi, one of the foundational texts of Daoism along with the Dàodé Jīng which dates from around the same period, i.e. circa 3rd century BCE.

How (ceaselessly) heaven revolves! How (constantly) earth abides at rest! And do the sun and moon contend about their (respective) places? Who presides over and directs these (things)? Who binds and connects them together? Who is it that, without trouble or exertion on his part, causes and maintains them? Is it, perhaps, that there is some secret spring, in consequence of which they cannot be but as they are? Or is it, perhaps, that they move and turn as they do, and cannot stop of themselves? (Then) how the clouds become rain! And how the rain again forms the clouds! Who diffuses them so abundantly? Who is it that, without trouble or exertion on his part, produces this elemental enjoyment, and seems to stimulate it? The winds rise in the north; one blows to the west, and another to the east; while some rise upwards, uncertain in their direction. By whose breathing are they produced? Who is it that, without any trouble and exertion of his own, effects all their undulations? I venture to ask their cause..’[15]

Even in translation the lyric poetic element of this passage come through.  There is a mysterious inclination toward what I’ll call skepticism, again reminiscent of some of the passages in the Rigvéda as well as Platonic doctrine as a whole.  While we see a faint allusion toward the existence of a supreme anthropomorphic deity here, the context is more of an analogy or metaphor than a reference to the absolute belief in, in contrast to the ceremonial and hymnal worship texts which we find also in the Vedas and in the Hellenic-Orphic traditions for example.  And yet the lyric poetic elements are inherent in the language nonetheless.

Heavenly Questions falls in the same category of the espousal of the grand universal mystery, a fundamental skepticism about the potential for knowledge of its creator, as well as the potential for knowledge about the general mythical and pre-historical tradition of the Chu, to which the poem contains a myriad of references to, many myths and legends of which have been lost in the sands of time.

Tis said:

At the beginning of remote antiquity, Who was there to transmit the tale? When above and below had not yet taken shape, By what means could they be examined?

When darkness and light were obscured, Who could fathom them? When primal matter was the only form, How could it be recognized?

Brightness became bright and darkness dark; What has caused them to be like this? Yīn and Yáng commingle; What was basic, what transformed?

Round heaven with its nine layers, Who managed and measured it? What sort of achievement was this? Who was the first to make it?

How was the Cord tied to the Hub? How was the Heavenly Pole added to them? What did the Eight Pillars hold up? Why was there a gap in the southeast?

The borders of the ninefold heavens — Where do they stretch: where do they join? Many are their corners and angles — Who knows their number?

Upon what are the heavens folded? Where are the twelve stages divided? How are the sun and moon attached? How are the constellations arrayed?

The sun emerges from the morning vale, It comes to rest on the crepuscular horizon. From dawn until dusk, How many miles does it travel?

What virtue hath the moon, That it dies and then is reborn again? What benefit is there To harbor a bunny in its belly?

The goddess of Nü Qi had no mate; How did she get nine sons? Where does the god Bo Qiang dwell? Where does the benign wind breathe?

What closes and brings darkness? What opens and brings light? Before the Horn rises in the east, Where does the numinous sunlight hide?[16]

Leaving aside the vague mythical references in this passage which are a characteristic element of the work and surround much of the text with ambiguity and obscurity, we find the same not only skeptical cosmogonical bent that we see in the passage from the Zhuangzi quoted above, but also reference to the coalition and commingling of opposing forces which sit at the very heart of universal creation in the ancient Chinese mythos which manifests in the content and formation of the Yìjīng, with its broken and solid lines which represent Yīn, dark or shady, and Yáng, sunny or bright, respectively – which are architected by the mythical cultural figure Fu Xi to reflect the universal order of Heaven and Earth, i.e. the natural world or cosmos, through which the will of Fate itself can be revealed.

Further insight into Daoist cosmogony, if we can use that term here broadly, can be found from a set of silk texts excavated in the Southeastern China in the 1970s that dates to around the same time period and region, i.e. the state of Chu, circa 4th century BCE, as the Chu Ci.  The set of manuscripts is referred to collectively as the Mawangdui Silk Texts, or Mǎwángduī Bóshū, and includes works on topics ranging from philosophy, history, military strategy, medicine, rituals, music, astrology and mathematics.

From an ancient Chinese theo-philosophical perspective the finding is unique because it contains material that is attributed to the Yellow Emperor directly, the first and foremost of the semi divine Chinese emperors, the so-called Five Emperors, to which the beginning of Chinese civilization was attributed.  The material attributed to the Yellow Emperor from these texts, while bearing many similarities to classically Daoist philosophy, does also however bear some unique characteristics relative to the classic Daoist tradition as well.[17]

The set of manuscripts also contains two copies of the Dàodé Jīng, which not only contain some semantic and linguistic variations, but were also written in two different Chinese character sets, speaking to the various manuscript traditions of the Dàodé Jīng which existed in Chinese antiquity.  The find includes also includes the earliest known copy of the Yìjīng, as well as a short but important treatise that speaks to Daoist cosmogony specifically, i.e. the Daoyuan (道原), or Dao’s Origins.

At the beginning of eternal past,

all things penetrated and were identical with great vacuity.

Vacuous and identical with the One,

Rest at the One eternally.

Unsettled and confusing,

there was no distinction of dark and light.

Though Tao[Dao] is undifferentiated, it is autonomous: “It has no cause since ancient times”, yet “the ten thousand things[wànwù] are caused by it without any exception”.

Tao[Dao] is great and universal on the one hand, but also formless and nameless.

It has no form since antiquity,

It penetrates extensively but nameless.

Because of this,

The superior Tao[Dao] is high but cannot be perceived,

Deep but cannot be fathomed,

Manifest but no one is able to name it,

Large but no one is able to describe its form.[18]

The last but certainly not least of the ancient texts from Chinese antiquity that speak to cosmogony, the formation of the cosmos and universal world order, comes from a compilation of works entitled Huainanzi  – 淮南子 or “Writings of the Masters of Huainan” – that was compiled and edited by Liu An (c. 179-122 BCE) who was the prince of Huainan, a city in South Eastern China, who was an advisor in the court of his nephew, Emperor Wu of Han, the seventh Emperor of the Han Dynasty who ruled from 141-87 BCE.

The was a result of extensive intellectual debates and the compilation of various treatises and works by leading Daoist, Legalist, Confucianist and other scholars who were brought together to comprehensive philosophical and socio-political work that established the rational and intellectual foundations required for the perfect state, akin to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics except covering a much wider base of intellectual thought, and representing the collaboration and contributions of many scholars representing a variety of philosophical schools of thought rather than the work of a single individual.

As such while it’s difficult to assign the content to a single philosophical school per se, the work covers a much more in depth look at all facets of theo-philosophical thought that underpin the ideal state relative to the works of Plato and Aristotle to the West.  The Huainanzi for example, and relevant to our exploration of ancient Chinese cosmogony here, addresses rather explicitly universal creation as it was understood by the predominant Han Dynasty philosophic schools, and its relationship in turn to the ethical and moral precepts of the individual which were to be aligned with this balance of cosmic and earthly (naturalistic) principles, which in turn were to be applied to the socio-political sphere as well, an intellectual connection and relationship that is absent from Plato and Aristotle’s works on the same subject.[19]

Similar to Plato’s Republic however, the overall purpose The Huainanzi is the exploration of the philosophical and intellectual foundations upon which the ideal state should be built, a state which should be governed by a ruler who is trained in such disciplines, very much akin to the notion Plato’s Philosopher King.  The work in general then was designed to serve as a handbook or guidebook of sorts for the ideal sovereign.

From the 3rd Chapter of The Huainanzi, a chapter devoted to what can be best termed ancient Chinese astrology given the title “Celestial Patterns” which describes in painstaking detail the realm of the Heavens which includes the stars, the zodiac, phases of the moon and sun, the four seasons, etc. with the underling purpose of describing the model which is to be followed in the subsequent Chapter, “Terrestrial Patterns”, we find the following description of the formation of the universe which has some very unique characteristics relative to the other cosmogonic narratives that are extant from Chinese antiquity.

When Heaven and Earth were yet unformed, all was

Ascending and flying,

Diving and delving.

Thus it was called the Grand Inception.

The Grand Inception produced the Nebulous Void.

The Nebulous Void produced space-time [yŭzhòu or cosmos];

space-time produced the original qì.

A boundary [divided] the original qì.

That which was pure and bright spread out to form Heaven;

That which was heavy and turbid congealed to form Earth.

It is easy for that which is pure and subtle to converge

But difficult for the heavy and turbid to congeal.


Heaven was completed first;

Earth was fixed afterword.

The conjoined essences of Heaven and Earth produced Yīn and Yáng.

The supersessive essences of Yīn and Yáng caused the four seasons.

The scattered essences of the four seasons created the myriad things [wànwù].

The hot qì of accumulated Yáng produced fire; the essence of fiery qì became the sun.

The cold qì of accumulated Yīn produced water; the essence of watery qì became the moon.

The overflowing qì of the essences of the sun and the moon made the stars and planets.

To Heaven belong the sun. moon, stars and planets;

To Earth belong waters and floods, dust and soil.[20]

While we do find here some of the classic Daoist cosmogonic principles referenced – such as the basic division of the realms of Heaven and Earth, the establishment of the basic opposing forces of Yīn and Yáng from which emerge the four seasons and the ten thousand things, i.e. wànwù, we also find some intermediary steps in the universal creative process here that we do not find, at least not directly, in any of the other cosmogonic material from Chinese antiquity.

In particular, we see a reference to what is translated here as the “Grand Inception”, reference to a single creative event from which the “Nebulous Void” is created from which the cosmos itself in its material manifestation (yŭzhòu, or literally “cosmos” which the author here translates as “space-time”) comes forth.  What is notably absent from this account is any anthropomorphic attributes that are assigned to any layer of this creative process, one of the unique attributes of classical Chinese philosophy from antiquity which this text clearly reflects.

But we also find here is perhaps our earliest introduction to the importance of the notion of  (or alternatively in later Chinese literature transliterated as ch’i), which plays such a primary role in later, more evolved forms of Daoist philosophy.  It is the primordial for example from which Heaven and Earth are formed, playing the same role as the cosmic egg in the Pángǔ mythical narrative and it is the coagulation of and Yáng which produce fire which in turn creates the sun and the coagulation of and Yīn which produce water from which the moon is created. [21]

Overall however, we find here in a fairly mature and influential theo-philosophical and socio-political work from the 2nd century BCE generally consistent ancient Chinese cosmological themes that lack an anthropomorphic emphasis and focus on the basic primordial principles which delineate Heaven and Earth, the very same principles which govern the universal order.  It also describes the fundamental dualism which is so characteristic of Daoist philosophy, the interplay of the basic forces of Yīn (shady or dark) and Yáng (sunny or bright) from which the universal world order is not only established, but an understanding of which can lead to a balanced and harmonious life of virtue, i.e. the “Way” or Dao.  This universal world, this cosmogony as it were, is looked upon in this tradition not only as an explanation of how the cosmos was created and is maintained, but also as the benchmark and set of guiding principles upon which the realm of man – both individually and collectively – should be aligned for happiness (Aristotle’s eudaemonia) but also looked to for the creation and establishment of the ideal state – i.e. the source of the principle of the “Mandate of Heaven”.


The final component of the last classically Western theogonical narrative that is seemingly absent from the Far Eastern tradition is this connection drawn between those that rule, and the divine.  We see this quite clearly in the ancient Egyptian civilization, with the Sumer-Babylonians, and even although more implicitly than explicitly, with the Hellenic tradition, where each established the supremacy of a single godhead, a single deity, who was not only the leader of the respective “pantheon” of gods, but also from which authority and rule descended.  With the ancient Egyptians this was more explicit, as the pharaoh was a direct descendant of, or claimed direct access to, the greatest ruler of the Egyptian gods – Amon-Ra for example.  This was less explicit in the Hellenic tradition where all of the Theogonies more or less established the supremacy of Zeus over the “gods of old”, the belief in which united the people of Greece under one cultural and religious (theological) tradition.  With the Sumer-Babylonians, and their ritualistic and ceremonious worship of Marduk that is evident in the tradition surrounding the Enûma Eliš, we see this link between those that rule and their relationship with the ruler of the gods clearly established.  The Persians too, united under one god – Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of ancient Zoroastrian faith – to whom the kings pledged their allegiance and from whom they ultimately gained their source of power over the people that they governed.

But if we look closer for this connection between the originators of ancient Chinese civilization, from which imperial rule is established, and the connection to the divine – what we call the pantheon in the West which has no true counterpart to the ancient Chinese, we can find a similar pattern.  Ancient Chinese civilization by all standard accounts, most of them categorized as historical narratives rather than mythical narratives (if the distinction makes any difference), start with the so called Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors.  This is the age of the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, and the era of Fu Xi, the creator of the original trigrams from which the Yìjīng tradition springs, and from which Dynastic China begins its history – first with the Xia Dynasty, then with the Shang, followed by the Zhou and then into the Qin, Han and later dynasties the latter of which become part of the historical records rather than steeped in myth and tradition as the many of the legends surrounding the earlier dynasties are.

We find a good example of this connection between the pseudo-mythical originators of Chinese civilization from pre-history with the divine, or semi divine, from a fairly late commentary on the Shiji, or the Records of the Grand Historian, authored by Sima Zhen (or Ssŭma Chêng) of the 7th century CE, an Introduction that (according to Herbert J. Allen, one of the earliest translators of this ancient Chinese classic into English from the very end of the 19th century) was typically included in most renditions of the Shiji as part of what one might call a “standard” Introduction.  Sima Zhen’s commentary is known as the Shiji Suoyin, which means “Seeking the Obscure in the Grand Scribe’s Records”.  In it, Sima Zhen outlines the account of the Three Sovereigns, the legendary originators of Chinese civilization which precedes the time of the Five Emperors (the first and foremost of these Five Emperors being the pseudo-divine Yellow Emperor, i.e. Huangdi)which is where the Shiji begins, filling in a gap in the “historical” record as it were.

T‘aihao (Great Brilliant), or P‘aohsi [Fu Xi], of the surname Fêng (wind), superseding Suijên (fire producer), succeeded Heaven as King.  His mother, named Huahsü, trod in the footprint of a giant at Thunder lake, and bore P‘aohsi at Ch‘êngchi. He had a serpent’s body, a man’s head, and the virtue of a sage. ‘Looking up he contemplated the forms exhibited in the heavens, and looking down he observed the patterns shown on the earth: he observed also around him the ornamental markings of the birds and beasts, and the different suitabilities of the soil. As to what was near he found things for consideration in his own person, and as to the remote in things in general. He first delineated the eight Trigrams [bāguà] in order to show fully the virtues of the gods, and to classify the qualities of the myriads of things [wànwù].  He worked out a system of recording by tablets in lieu of ‘knotted cords,’ and marriage rites were then first instituted, a pair of skins being given as wedding presents.  ‘He made nets to teach men how to snare animals and to fish,’ and so he was called Fuhsi [Fu Xi] (hidden victim).  He kept beasts for sacrificial purposes in his kitchen, and so he was called P‘aohsi (kitchen victims).  There being a dragon omen, he enrolled dragons among his officers, and they were styled dragon leaders.  He made the thirty-five-stringed lute.  Ruling under the influence of the element Wood, he directed his thoughts to the season of spring; thus the Book of Changes [Yìjīng] says ‘The god came forth from Orient brightness, and made (the year begin with) the first month of spring.’  This god was Great Brilliant. His capital was in Ch‘ên.  In the East he built a fêng monument on Mount T‘ai.  Having reigned eleven years he died.  His posterity in the ‘Spring and Autumn’ period (721-480 B.C.) were Jênhsü, Hsüchü, and Ch‘uanyü, who all, one after the other, bore the surname Fêng.[22]

The reference here to P’aohsi (the Wade-Giles Romanized name of Paoxi in Pinyin) is another name for Fu Xi , the heroic figure from Chinese antiquity who is attributed with having created the original trigrams, the bāguà, according to the tradition surrounding the Yìjīng commentary, i.e. the Ten Wings, which was appended to the Yìjīng hexagrams in the latter part of the first millennium BCE.   Chinese historians and mythologists have attributed many of the original components of ancient Chinese civilization – fishing, marital ceremonies, a system of writing, music and the like to Fu Xi and clearly Sima Zhen is following, and recording, this long-standing tradition.  What’s interesting and unique about this account however is that it speaks to this narrative of Fu Xi directly, attributes his descent from Heaven itself, and directly integrates him into the very fabric of ancient Chinese history.  Also interestingly it describes him as having a serpent’s body and a man’s head, harkening back somewhat to the Neolithic figures of half man and half beast that were such a marked characteristic of the Egyptian pantheon for example.

Sima Zhen continues:

Nükua, also of the surname Fêng, had the body of a serpent, the head of a man, and the virtue of a holy man. He came to the throne in the room of Fuhsi, under the title Nühsi. He made no hand-drums, and only fashioned the reed organ; accordingly the Book of Changes [Yìjīng] does not refer to him, and he had no share in the revolutions of the five elements. Ntikua is said by one author to have also reigned under the influence of the element Wood. Now several generations after Fuhsi, the elements metal, wood, etc., came round in regular rotation, and Nükua being the first to attain special distinction on account of his great merits, and also as one of the three sovereigns, was hurriedly referred to as the ‘wood king.’ In his last year one of the princes named Kūng kung, whose duty it was to administer the criminal law, became violent and played the tyrant. He did not rule properly, for he sought by the element water to subdue that of wood. He also fought with Ch‘uyung and was not victorious, when, falling into a rage, he butted with his head against the Incomplete mountain, and brought it down. The ‘pillar of heaven’ was broken and a corner of the earth was wanting. Nükua then fused five-coloured stones to repair heaven, cut off the feet of a tortoise to establish the four extremities of earth, collected the ashes of burnt reeds to stop the inundation, and so rescued the land of Chichow. After this the earth was at rest, the heaven made whole and the old things were unchanged. Nükua died, and Shênnung began his reign.

The blazing god, Shênnung, was of the Chiang family. His mother, named Nutêng, was Yukua’s daughter and Shaotien’s wife. Influenced by a sacred dragon, she brought forth the blazing god with a man’s body and an ox’s head. He grew up on the banks of the Chiang river, whence he derived his surname. As he ruled by the influence of the element fire, he was called ‘blazing god,’ and named his officers by the help of fire. “He cut down trees to make agricultural implements, bending timber into the shape of plough handles and spades, and taught the people the art of husbandry. As he was the first to give lessons in agriculture he was styled ‘divine husbandman.’ Then sacrifices were offered at the close of the year, and red thongs used for garlanding plants and trees. He was the first to taste the different herbs, and the first to make use of them for medicinal purposes. He also made the five-stringed lute.” He taught people how to hold mid-day markets, when they bartered their wares and retired, everyone having got what he wanted. He reduplicated the eight Trigrams, and thus obtained sixty-four symbols. He first of all had his capital at Ch‘en, and then dwelt at Ch‘üfou. After reigning 120 years he died, and was buried at Ch‘angsha. Shênnung originally came from Liehshan (burning mountain), so Tso (ch‘iu ming) speaks of the son of the burning mountain called ‘Pillar,’ and also Lishan (whetstone mountain). The book of rites [Liji] says: this was the individual of the whetstone mount who was in possession of the empire. Shênnung took for his consort the daughter of ‘Rushing water,’ named T‘ingpa, who bore a son, the Emperor Ai (alas), who had a son, Emperor K‘o (conqueror), who had a son, Emperor Yü-wang (elm net). There were altogether eight generations, lasting 530 years, after which Hsien-yüan arose. His descendants were Choufu, Kanhsü, Hsilu, Ch‘ichi, I-hsiang, and Shenlu, who were all of the Chiang tribe, and princes, or else one of the presidents of the four mountains. Under the Chou dynasty a great prince, the chief of Shen, was a loyal minister of the king, and Hsülieh, of the Ch‘i State, was the leader of the princes of the Middle Kingdom. Now the bounties conferred by the holy men were great and extensive, so their reigns were glorious and long, and their progeny numerous.

According to one author the three sovereigns were the sovereign of Heaven, the sovereign of Earth, and the sovereign of Man. From the beginning of creation the relations between prince and subject were carefully worked out, and as the accounts cannot be entirely rejected, they are appended hereto. When heaven and earth were first set up, there were twelve sovereigns of heaven, who lived in retirement, in a state of inaction, converts from the busy world, kings ruling under the influence of the element Wood. The period began with these 12 brothers Shêti, who reigned 18,000 years each. The 11 sovereigns of Earth, kings ruling under the influence of the element fire were 11 persons, from ‘Bear’s Ear’ and ‘Dragon gate’ mountains, who also reigned 18,000 years each. The 9 sovereigns of Man, who rode in cloud chariots drawn by 6 winged creatures, came from ‘Valley mouth,’ and were 9 brothers, who each held sway over one of the 9 provinces, and built cities and towns. They reigned for 150 periods, that is for 45,600 years. After the sovereigns of Man came the Five dragons, Suijên, Tat‘ing, Pohuang, Chung Yáng, Chuan-hsü, Li-liu, Lilien, Hêhsü, Ts‘unlu, Huntun, Haoying, Yuch‘ao, Chujang, Kot‘ien, Yink‘ang, and Wu-huai, for these are the styles of the imperial dynasties after the age of the three sovereigns, but there being no record in the chronological lists, we cannot tell the names of the kings, the lengths of their reigns, or the localities of their capitals. In a poem of Han’s it is stated that in ancient days over 10,000 persons erected fêng monuments on Mount T‘ai, and hollowed out ground for altars on Liangfu. Confucius observes on this that he does not know all these persons, and Kuan Iwu says that 72 persons built fêng monuments on Mount T‘ai, of whom he knew 12. Now the first of these was Wuhuai, but before Wuhuai, and after the sovereign of Heaven, the chronology covers such a vast period of time that one cannot enumerate all the emperors and kings. At any rate the old books are lost, and one cannot argue it out beforehand, yet we should never say that there were no such emperors or kings. So the ‘Spring and Autumn’ classic has it recorded that from the creation to the capture of the Lin (B.C. 481) 3,276,000 years, divided into ten epochs, have elapsed, or 370,600 years (according to some authors). The first epoch was called that of the 9 chiefs, the 2nd the Five dragons, the 3rd Shêti, the 4th Holo, the 5th Lient‘ung. the 6th Hsüming, the 7th Hsiufei, the 8th Huit‘i, the 9th Shênt‘ung, and the 10th Liuchi. Now it was arranged in the time of Huangti that the Liuchi should be added to the other 9 epochs. The above is inserted here by way of supplementing the record.[23]

While a fairly lengthy passage it’s important and relevant here because firstly it illustrates how the ancient Chinese saw their history, as one that began in the age of the Three Sovereigns upon which the civilization itself was started, a time in history “lost from the records” but still remembered and passed down from generation in myths and legends, many of which are captured here.  We have the divine heritage of these Three Sovereigns laid out, and their pseudo-mythical description as variants and man and beast, harkening not only back to the ancient Egyptian pantheon, but also to Upper Paleolithic shamanic practices in general which for the most part did not see the clear distinction between man and beast that we have today, and who believed, if we are take evidence from the variety of cave art drawings found throughout Eurasia from this time period, in this pseudo-imaginary world where man and beast merged into these divine figures, these divine figures which became the gods of these ancient peoples and to which the Chinese looked to for the establishment of their civilization.

Another important distinction to of the ancient Chinese from its Western counterparts who look to solve the same problem – namely connect their historicity with divine heritage – is that Sima Zhen is documenting the record here, filling in part of the historical record that was left out by “The Grand Historian” Sīmǎ Qiān, he’s not creating lyrical poetry that could be sung to audiences like Ovid or Homer, or documenting sacred mantras or phrases that have been handed down from divine authority to be used in ancient rites, rituals or sacrifices that were no doubt part of the practices of the ancient Persians and Indians as recorded in the Avesta and the Vedas respectively.  This is a much more practical approach and style, and one that clearly serves a socio-political need as well as it establishes the lineage between the gods themselves and those that rule, which is effectively the same purpose of the ancient Egyptian mythos, and the Enûma Eliš, and even the Five Books of Moses at the end of the day.  So while the classic theogony, or cosmogony, might be missing, the connection between the divine and the human still remains in the ancient Chinese tradition, just in a different form as it were.

The ancient Chinese had Shàngdì, no doubt, the great god of the Shàng people to whom the people worshipped and turned to for guidance and sacrificed to for success in battle, for good harvest, and the general well-being of their people.  But the myths of the Shang people are lost, no doubt erased from the archeological and written records – what little there may have been in Bronze Age China – by the Zhou when they come to power and when Shàngdì was replaced by Tiān, i.e. Heaven, as the overarching theological principle to which the new ruling class looked to not only as their justification for rule itself, but also for guidance as a theological and philosophical principle upon which basic ethics and morality, as well as the structure of a well governed society, should be based.  Tiān was not worshipped per se, at least not in the classic pre-historic sense with sacrifices and ritual, but nonetheless was the theo-philosophical foundation upon which the great philosophies of Classical Chinese antiquity are based, arguably some of the most profound and influential works of all of antiquity.


[1] The Shiji is written toward the end of the first millennium BCE in the Han Dynasty and is one of the definitive works of literature from Chinese antiquity.  Akin to the Histories of Herodotus in many respects.

[2] Records of the Grand Historian by Sīmǎ Qiān.  Partial translation adapted from Herbert J. Allen’s “Ssŭma Ch’ien’s Historical Records” (Royal Asiatic Society, 1894).  Verse 1 from Chapter 1, “Annals of the Five Emperors”.  From Chinese Text Project at

[3] Adapted from A. Herrmann, An Historical Atlas of China (1966); Aldine Publishing Company.  From online Encyclopedia Britannica.

[4] Bull or Ox sacrifices were made at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, constructed in the 15th century, were performed up until the Ming and Qing dynasty period, i.e. the 14th to early 20th century.  The height of such ceremonial worship was performed by the Emperor during the winter solstice, where precise rituals and observances had to be followed to ensure a good harvest.

[5]See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Shàngdì’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 August 2016, 07:31 UTC, <àngdì&oldid=737016165&gt; [accessed 6 September 2016].

[6] Wu, or Eastern Wu or Southern Wu, was one of the three major states prevalent in the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE) of Chinese antiquity in the 3rd century CE that held influence over a large art of what is today Eastern China.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Eastern Wu’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 August 2016, 05:26 UTC, <; [accessed 14 September 2016].

[7] From the Sanwu liji, or Historical Records of the Three Sovereign Divinities and the Five Gods, by Xu Zheng.  Translation by Anne Birrell from Chinese Mythology.  An Introduction.  Johns Hopkins University Press 1993.  Pages 32-33.

[8] From the Wuyun linian ji, or A Chronicle of the Five Cycles of Time by Xu Zheng.  Translation by Anne Birrell from Chinese Mythology.  An Introduction.  Johns Hopkins University Press 1993.  Page 33.

[9] Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu.  Translation by James Legge.  Sacred Books of the East, Vol 39.  1891.  Verse 42.  From Chinese Text Project at

[10] See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Guodian Chu Slips’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 December 2015, 01:03 UTC, <; [accessed 14 September 2016].

[11] Tàiyī Shēngshǔi, The Great One Gave Birth to Water.  Bamboo slips 1-8.  Translation after Lao Tzu’s Te-Tao Ching.  A Translation of the Startling New Documents Found at Guodian by Robert G. Henricks, Columbia University press 2000, pgs. 123-129 and Dàodé Jīng. A Philosophical Translation by Roger T Ames & David L. Hall.  Random House Publishing Group 2010, pgs. 225-231.  Text from

[12]Rig Véda CXXIX.  “Creation”.  Translation by T.H. Griffith, 1896.  Froméda/rv10129.htm.

[13]From Wikipedia contributors, ‘Chu (state)’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 September 2016, 01:26 UTC, <; [accessed 15 September 2016].

[14]The Songs of the South: An Ancient Chinese Anthology of Poems by Qu Yuan and Other Poets.  Translated and Introduction by David Hawkes.  Penguin Books, 1985.  Pgs. 122-126.

[15] From The Texts of Taoism, translated by James Legge.  Part I of II.  Sacred Books of the East, Volume 39.  1891.  Zhuangzi by Master Zhuang (aka Zhuangzi).  Chapter 14, “The Revolution of Heaven” (天運).  Chinese Text Project.  From

[16] Heavenly Questions.  From;.

[17] See The Silk Manuscripts on Taoism by Jan Yün-hua.  Published by Brill.  T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 63, Livr. 1 (1977), pp. 70-75.

[18] The Silk Manuscripts on Taoism by Jan Yün-hua.  Published by Brill.  T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 63, Livr. 1 (1977): pgs. 75-76.

[19]Albeit dealt with in separate but related treatises such as Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Plato’s Timaeus.

[20] The Huainanzi.  Liu An, King of Huainan.  A guide to the theory and practice of Government in Early Han China.  Translated and Edited by John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Seth Meyer and Harold D. Roth.  Columbia University Press, 2010.  Chapter 3, “Celestial Patterns”, verse 3.1 pg. 48114-115.

[21] In early Oracle, Bronze and Seal script, , or ch’i, is depicted as “气” and is typically taken to denote “breath” or “air”.  The term is typically transliterated into English as “vapor”, “breath”, or “air” but a more accurate translation would be “vital energy” or “life force”.  Parallels to the Chinese notion of from a theo-philosophical perspective can be found in the notion of “prāṇa” in Vedic philosophy, or even in the notion of “pneuma”, or divine spirit, of the Stoics.   can also be seen akin to the Holy Spirit of Christianity or even on a lighter note as “the force” of the Star Wars trilogy which has captivated the modern psyche of the West.  It is this very same energy or force for example that is leveraged and manipulated in the ancient Chinese medicinal practice of acupuncture which has become popular in the West as of late and has been used in China and throughout Southeast Asia for centuries.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Qi’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 September 2016, 21:42 UTC, <; [accessed 16 September 2016].

[22] Ssuma Ch’iens’s Historical Records by Herbert J. Allen.  Originally published in 1894 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 26 (2): 269-295.  Text

[23] Ssuma Ch’iens’s Historical Records by Herbert J. Allen.  Originally published in 1894 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 26 (2): 269-295.  Text

Categories: Ancient Civilization, Ancient Cosmology, Essays

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