Among East Asian / Confucian empires (China and Vietnam, maybe others), emperors ruled under a philosophical concept known as Mandate of Heaven - that is, heaven will grant a specific ruler the right of government based on virtue, and natural disasters were seen as signs of heaven's displeasure with the current ruler. Under this belief system, the emperor has the title of Son of Heaven (天子).

Unlike Japanese emperors that also have the same title (tenshi) who are literally descended from Amaterasu, there is no lineage in the Chinese system, only a title anointed by heaven. But who or what is "heaven"? Is it an actual god, like the supreme god Shangdi? The Celestial Bureaucracy as a whole - and if so, are there gods within the "mandate" system, such as judges, bringers of natural disasters and so on? Or some other concept of "heaven" entirely?

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    In this case "Heaven" (天, tian) refers to the supreme sky deity. During this period the personification of the sky has not yet progressed very far.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 4:38

1 Answer 1


The Father is the deity Tien... but not really.

Firstly, "Heaven" (天, tian) refers to the supreme sky deity. Sinologist Herrlee Glessner Creel says in The Origins of Statecraft in China:

For three thousand years it has been believed that from time immemorial all Chinese revered T'ien 天, "Heaven," as the highest deity, and that this same deity was also known as Ti 帝 or Shang Ti 上帝. But the new materials that have become available in the present century, and especially the Shang inscriptions, make it evident that this was not the case. It appears rather that T'ien is not named at all in the Shang inscriptions, which instead refer with great frequency to Ti or Shang Ti. T'ien appears only with the Chou, and was apparently a Chou deity. After the conquest the Chou considered T'ien to be identical with the Shang deity Ti (or Shang Ti), much as the Romans identified the Greek Zeus with their Jupiter.

However, in China this phrase "Son of Heaven" should not be taken literally. In Heritage of China: Contemporary Perspectives on Chinese Civilization, it states:

The ruler soon bore a new title that was based on the legitimating concept of the Mandate of Heaven: the Son of Heaven. The term was not taken in the literal sense to mean that the Chou king was descended from Heaven and therefore divine, but it did convey the idea that the King had been chosen by Heaven. Just as lineage heads were patrimonially responsible to the Chou king, so too was he responsible, as a son, to Heaven, who could withdraw the mandate and confer it on a more deserving, that is, a more morally responsible, ruling house.

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