Unlike the Zeus or Norse pantheons, Chinese supreme deities are not very well defined. Generally speaking the chief deity of Chinese traditional beliefs is a personification of the sky; this character however evolved through the centuries as Chinese religious beliefs developed.
Strictly speaking the
haotian shang-ti (昊天上帝) is the supreme deity of traditional Chinese religions. He is attested to in the earliest Chinese writings as
tian, and thus dates to the earliest period in Chinese civilisation. This is also the belief maintained in Confucianism. His name is usually abbreviated to just
In contrast, the Jade Emperor is the ruler of heaven in the Taoist tradition. He emerged much later in the late Han Dynasty, as a Taoist interpretation of the traditional
shang-ti and personification of Polaris. However, in the Taoist hierarchy the Jade Emperor is in fact second to the Three Purities. By definition, therefore, he is not supreme.
The jurisdiction of the Jade Emperor closely resembles that of the temporal bureaucracy. Superimposed on him are the Three Pure Ones, represented by the triumvirate of the Celestial-honourd Primordial, the Supreme Old sovereign (Laotzu) and a third god, which are simple plagiarisms of the Buddhist trikaya.
- Crotty, Robert B., ed. The Charles Strong Lectures: 1972-1984. Brill Archive, 1987.
For some period during the same dynasty, the Pole Star was worshiped (by imperial decree) as the supreme deity
tai-yi (太乙), eclipsing
shang-ti. Confucianism ultimately rejected this interpretation however, and Taiyi was subsequently demoted in official dedications.