Biblical Concepts in Ancient China
Temple of Heaven and Ancient Chinese Writings
It is generally believed that Christianity spread from the West to the East, and many Christian historians dated the arrival of the Nestorian (景教) monks of the Assyrian Church to China during the Tang dynasty (唐朝) in 635 AD as the beginning of Christianity in China. But there are evidences that many Biblical concepts may be found in ancient Chinese history. This paper examines the ancient ceremony called Border Sacrifice (郊祀) performed every year by emperors, as early as 2250 BC in the Shang (商) dynasty, and also the written characters of ancient China. It explores the conceptual similarities between these two ancient civilizations, Hebrew and Chinese, and the likelihood that these similarities are the results a shared common heritage that dates back to the patriarch of Genesis.
The best way to begin is at the Temple of Heaven (天壇) in Beijing. The present-day “horseshoe shape” Temple of Heaven Park covers some 2.73 km2, three times larger than Forbidden City. The 3-storey iconic building in Figure 1 is called the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest (祈年殿). There are 3 important structures in Temple of Heaven, shown in the map (Figure 2). Opposite the Hall of Prayer is the Circular Mound Altar (圜丘坛) in the south (Figure 3), and the Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇) (Figure 8 ) is in between them. The Vault is surrounded by a circular Echo Wall (回声墙).
The Temple of Heaven was built in 1420 and had undergone many modifications. The Border Sacrifice ceremony begins at the 3-tier Circular Mound Altar using either a calf or a lamb. Then proceeds north to Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, where the emperor offers prayers to Heaven.
Though complete description of the Border Sacrifice was not formalized until 1366 AD in the Collected Statutes of the Ming Dynasty (大明会典), there are ample ancient Chinese references to emperors performing the Border Sacrifice. The earliest account was in Shu Jing (書经) compiled by Confucius himself. It was recorded that Emperor Shun (舜帝 2255 BC) “offered sacrifice to ShangDi” (上帝, Ruler Above) at Mount Tai (泰山) in Shandong Province (山東). Thus it is generally accepted that Border Sacrifices were performed well before the birth of Moses (1500 BC). Confucius considered the sacrifice so important that he said, “He who understands the ceremonies of the sacrifices to Heaven and Earth…would find the government of a kingdom as easy as look into his palm”. The Border Sacrifice was moved from Mount Tai to Beijing in about 15th Century AD. The ceremony was officially terminated in 1911 when the Nationalist Chinese Republic overthrew the Qing imperial government. But tourists may still enjoy viewing a re-enactment ceremony each January or February around the time of the Chinese New Year in Beijing. Figures 5 and 6 show a re-enactment of the Border Sacrifice ceremony.
The iconic building in the Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Map of Temple of Heaven Park, Beijing
Figure 7 shows part of the actual text in Chinese of the ceremonial prayer offered by the emperor, during the Border Sacrifice ceremony. The text is taken from the Collected Statutes of The Ming Dynasty. This image is reproduced with permission from a book by Nelson, Broadbery & Zhou (2010). The writings on the right of the tableau is the original text in classical wenyen (文言), while the writings on the left is the transliteration into today’s Chinese writing style known as paihui (白话), which is easily understood by most people.
A close examination of the actual text of the prayer offered during the Border Sacrifice with Biblical accounts of the creation story, particularly in the Book of Genesis, shows remarkable similarities.
The Table below compares side by side, the English translation of the prayer and related Biblical texts. It is hard not to notice the similarity between them.
Table 1: Comparing Text of the Border Sacrifice Prayer and the Bible
Birdseye view of Temple of Heaven from south to north. The Circular Mount Altar is in the foreground while the Hall of Prayer is in the far north.
A closeup view of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest (祈年殿)
How could this happen? Two very different and independent ancient civilizations, Hebrews and Chinese, share such similar notions of ShangDi or God, noting that the Border Sacrifice existed well before the time of Moses (that is the Book of Genesis). If these two civilizations evolved independently, such similarity will be highly unlikely. Would it be possible that these two civilizations indeed share a common origin because they are both descendants of the Biblical Noah? After all, stories of a BIG flood are common during ancient China’s “Legendary Time”.
Another interesting observation relates to the inside of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest and of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Surprisingly there are no idols or images of the “gods” inside as one would expect in Buddhist or Taoist temples. The central display is an inscription containing only the words Heavenly Sovereign ShangDi (皇天上帝). The center of Figure 9 is a plaque showing two columns: the right column is the Chinese writing, while the left column is the Manchurian writing, because this is a photo of the insider of the Hall of Prayer in Qing dynasty. Thus this “God” that the ancient Chinese worshiped seems to be monotheistic and is not represented by any images, an idea that is not unfamiliar to the Hebrews. The second command of the Decalogue explicitly forbids the worship of images. Is this another pointer to the shared common origin of the Chinese and Hebrew theistic concepts?
Border of Sacrifice ceremony in front of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest
Let us now turn to Chinese writings. Chinese characters may be classified into two general categories: Wen (文), simple or primitive pictures, and Zi (字), compound characters. Wen are essentially pictograms (象形), that is, they are pictures or icons of objects in nature. Zi are compound or indicative symbols (指事), used to represent or associate with more complex concepts, events, or stories. Thus, a method to form new character is to combine “primitive” characters in juxtaposition. A good example for this construction method is the word above (上, shang) and below (下, xia), noting that the former has a component above the horizontal line while the later has a component below the horizontal line. The observant reader will see that the word shang is in fact part of the name for God or "ShangDi" (上帝 ), Ruler Above .
In this paper, we only have time to look at three examples. The first is the word 婪, to covet or to desire. This character consists of three parts: a tree 木, a second tree 木, and a woman 女. The juxtaposition of these three parts seem to depict a woman facing one tree, perhaps looking longingly, with her back to the second tree. This is reminiscent of Genesis 3:6 ,”So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate…”. While it is impossible to scientifically prove beyond doubts that this was indeed the origin of the word 婪 (because the origin of most Chinese characters are not known), the coincidence with the Genesis story is difficult to be totally ignored. The first tree is probably the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, while the second tree, to which the woman turned her back is probably the Tree of Life. Therefore, is it possible that the Chines word for "to covet or to desire" came from the Biblical story of the Fall.
The second example is the word lamb, 羔, which consists of two primitive parts. The character on the top is the word sheep, 羊, while that at the bottom, represented by the four dots, is the word fire, 火. This description of the word lamb, indicates that the lamb is a sacrificial animal, to be offered as a burnt offering on a fire (See Figure 10). The question is, where would the ancient Chinese get this concept of a lamb from? Is there a commonality with the Hebrew's practice of offering lamb as a burnt offering? What was the first thing that Noah did when he came out of the ark? Did he not offer a burnt offering? (Genesis 8:20).
The third example is even more remarkable. This is the Chinese word for righteousness, 義, pronounced “yi”. This word 義 is composed of two parts: the upper part,羊 which is the word “lamb” or “sheep”, and the lower part 我 which is the word “me” or “I”. The new word is formed by putting a lamb, 羊 on top of me, 我 - in other words “to cover me with the Lamb”. The new word thus form is “Righteousness” or 義. Now, where did the ancient Chinese get this theological notion of covering one with the lamb to form this word 義 or righteousness? But since western Christianity (Nestorianism) did not reach China until 7th century, how could this Biblical concept got passed to China? Would it be possible that the Chinese learned their stories of Biblical redemption from their Noachian patriarch?
The Emperor proceeding to the Hall of Prayer to offer
the prayer of the Border Sacrifice
Chinese text of the prayer offered during Border Sacrifice
While the exact circumstances and the origins of these (and other) Chinese characters cannot be fully ascertained, the coincidence and association with these concepts appears to be something that cannot be totally ignored. Those interested in a more in-depth study of Biblical concepts in ancient Chinese Wenzi (文字) are referred the article by Voo & Hovee (1999), the book by Chan & Fu (2009), and the book by Nelson, Broadberry, & Zhou (2010) listed in the Reference section of this paper. The later book even traced the Chinese characters to the older form known as the Oracle Bone writing (甲骨文字).
In this article, we attempted to show that many Biblical concepts, particularly those found in Genesis, may also be found among two ancient Chinese institutions: the Border Sacrifice at Temple of Heaven, and the Chinese writing, Wenzi. The association and similarities are easily recognizable. If these concepts originated from Genesis patriarchs, then it is not unreasonable to believe that the God (Shangdi) worshiped by the Chinese are the same God of the Hebrews.
Postscript: The Temple of Heaven was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. It was described as "a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design which simply and graphically illustrates a cosmogony of great importance for the evolution of one of the world’s great civilizations... "
The Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇) is the middle structure
Inside the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest and the Imperial Vault of Heaven, there are no idols but only the inscription Heavenly Sovereign Shangdi (皇天上帝)
The Chinese word lamb consists of a sheep on top of fire,
signifying that lamb is used for sacrifice.
The Chinese Oracle Bone Writings
Chan, K.T. & Fu, C.L. (2009) Faith of Our Fathers - God in ancient China, Zondervan Press. Book website: http://www.faithofourfathersbooks.com/index.html
China.org (2012), The Temple of Heaven, retrieved from http://www.china.org.cn/english/kuaixun/75120.htm.
Kang, C.H. & Nelson, E.R. (1979) The Discovery of Genesis , Concordia Publishing House: St Louise, MO.
Legge, J. (1852) The Notions of the Chinese Concerning God and Spirits, Hong Kong Register Office, Hong Kong, pp. 24-25.
Legge, J. (1893) The Shu Jing (Book of Historical Documents): The Books of Yu, 1,6, The Chinese Classics, Vol. III, p. 33-34. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Legge, J. (1932) The Chinese Classic, Vol 1, Confucius Analects, The Doctrine of The Mean, Ch XIX, p.6. Southern Material Center Inc., Taipei, Taiwan.
Nelson, E.R., Broadberry, R.E. & Zhou Jiang (Traslator) (2010), Oracle Bones Speak (甲骨揭秘 Jingu Jiemi), World Affair Press: Beijing, China.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in China, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_World_Heritage_Sites_in_China
Voo, K.S. & Hovee, L. (1999) The Lamb of God hidden in the Chinese characters, TJ, Journal of Creation, 13(1) 81-91. Retrieved 1/12/2012 from http://www.thesourceoflove.com/english.pdf
Last updated August 17, 2012 by Bruce W. Lo