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Chinese Thought

Heaven And Humans

Divergent as these schools are in terms of metaphysical views and political vision, they developed their ideas and theories around a certain number of key themes, such as Heaven and humans, the Way and changes, the past and today, knowledge and the criteria of truth, the internal and the external realms, and so on. Of these themes the relation between Heaven and humans stands at the center, underlying almost all the important ideas and ideals propagated by the major thinkers, and functioning as the core of Chinese thought in later history. Heaven is a convenient translation of tian, which, originally meaning "sky" above us, contains multidimensional meanings, such as the natural order, the religious ultimate (the Lord of Heaven), the source of the political order (the Mandate of Heaven), and the moral order. In search of the Way of Heaven and its relation to the way of humans, Chinese thinkers of the Axial era (800–200 B.C.E.) raised a number of questions such as whether or not Heaven or the Will of Heaven could be known, whether or not Heaven would intervene in human affairs, and what attitude humans should have toward Heaven. The majority of the early philosophers came to the understanding that harmonious interaction between Heaven and humans was the key to the solving of all social, political, and philosophical problems.

In its metaphysical and physical connotation, Heaven refers to the cosmos, the material world, the Natural Law, or simply Nature, in which humans live, act, and regenerate, and to which humans conform. When asked why he did not speak, Confucius pointed out that silent Heaven ran its course by its law rather than by its words: "What does Heaven ever say? Yet there are the four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming into being" (Confucius 17:19, p. 146). Major Daoist masters took Dao (the Way) as the original substance of Heaven, and regarded the returning to Heaven as a necessary step for the unity with Dao: "Humans follow the way of Earth; Earth follows the way of Heaven; Heaven follows Dao, and Dao follows its own nature" (Laozi, chapter 25; see Laozi, 1963, p. 82). Xunzi understood Heaven as the natural order operating according to unchanging principles, arguing that Heaven ran its courses constantly and did not change along with the events in the human society. Against the religious and moralist teaching that Heaven would bless the good and punish evil, Xunzi believed that Heaven did not intervene in human affairs but provided the environment in which all living things exist. Differing from the ideas that humans could do nothing in relation to the natural order, however, Xunzi defends the position of humans in the world that while performing their duties in accord with seasonal changes, humans should not simply glorify and obey Heaven, but rather must "regulate what Heaven has mandated and use it" (Xunzi, vol. 3, p. 21). The texts of The Book of Changes (Yi jing) provided many insights into the nature and function of the universal order (Heaven and Earth) that underlies the myriad phenomena and defines the natural law of Heaven as the foundation of human existence. Represented by the sage, humans are equipped with the power and intelligence to stay in tune with the natural order.

Applied in the spiritual realm, Heaven signifies an anthropomorphic Lord (huang tian) who presides above, and rules over or governs directly, the spiritual and material worlds, by which humans fulfill their destiny. In the Confucian classics, particularly the Book of Poetry, the Book of Documents, and the Book of Rites, Heaven and humans are locked in a mandate giver and receiver relation: while the king rules the world by the Mandate of Heaven (tian ming), he must be responsible to Heaven above him. It is a fundamental belief that as the spiritual power, Heaven awards virtuous people with the right to govern and punishes those who depart from the Way, which will definitively lead to the collapse of the dynasty. Succeeding to this tradition, Confucius claimed that "Heaven alone is great!" (Confucius 8:19, p. 94), believing that whether or not the Way prevailed in the world was predetermined by Heaven, and that his mission to transmit the ancient culture was endowed by the power of Heaven. However, Confucius admitted that it was not easy for ordinary people to understand the will of Heaven, and that the only path to this kind of knowledge was through learning and practice (Confucius 2:4, p. 63). This theme is further illustrated in the Mengzi, where humans are required to know their heart/mind first: by extending the heart/mind, we are able to know the will of Heaven and to serve Heaven (Mencius 7 A:1, p. 182). The spiritual relationship between Heaven and humans is clearly explained in Mohism: Heaven is like the watchdog above us and nobody would be able to evade Heaven's eyes. For Mozi, Heaven desires righteousness and hates unrighteousness, and if we devote ourselves to righteousness then we are doing what Heaven desires, and if we disobey the will of Heaven then we are bringing misfortune and calamity upon ourselves (Mozi, p. 79).

For a majority of Confucian followers, Heaven is the source of virtues, the prototype of the moral order that guides humans in their social life, and the supreme sanction of human behavior. Confucius claimed that "Heaven has given birth to virtues that are in me" (Confucius 7:23, p. 89). Mengzi believed that there are two kinds of honors, the honors bestowed by Heaven (for example, humaneness, righteousness, sincerity, and the like) and the honors bestowed by humans (for example, positions and ranks in the government). He believed that the former should be sought after first and the latter would follow as a matter of course (Mengzi 6A:16, pp. 168–169). Even Xunzi, who attempted to separate the natural order and the moral order, defining the three roots of rituals as serving Heaven above and Earth below, paying honor to one's fore-bears and exalting rulers and teachers, drew much from the moral significance of Heaven (Xunzi, vol. 3, p. 58). Later Confucians in general took Heaven and Earth as the model of moral rules and principles; for example, just as Heaven is above and the earth below, so too the sovereign is placed over his ministers and subjects, parents over their children, and a husband over his wife. Although other schools did not emphasize as much the moral nature of Heaven as the Confucians did, they argued from different perspectives that the Way of Heaven was the foundation of moral virtues. Mozi drew upon his understanding that Heaven has its will, and argued that humans must follow Heaven's will, devoting themselves to the good fortune and prosperity of the people (Mozi, p. 79). Regarding Heaven as a natural process revolving ceaselessly, the Zhuangzi nevertheless requires the virtue of emperors and kings to take Heaven and Earth as its ancestor, the Way and its virtue as its master, and to take nonaction as its constant rule (Zhuangzi, p. 144). Han Fei believed that the Way was the beginning of all beings and the measures of right and wrong, although under Daoist influence he argued that only by being empty and still could the ruler hold fast to the Way (Han Fei, p. 16).

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterChinese Thought - The Origin, The Rise Of Rational Thinking, Heaven And Humans, Syncretic Philosophies, Bibliography