What is 天 Tian?

In Wang Chong’s essay Tan tian (談天) “Discussing Tian” (I leave it untranslated here so as not to beg questions), he (as usual) criticizes a number of common views concerning what tian is and what it does.  This discussion leaves open the question, however, of just what Wang himself thinks that tian is and does.  We get some indication of Wang’s view on this in other essays of the Lunheng, and a bit in the Tan tian itself, but for the most part we are left to piece together his position on tian, as he focuses much more on undermining incorrect positions than advancing his own concerning tianThis, of course, is not (as some have argued) the case with all the concepts Wang discusses–he gives very robust positive accounts of qi 氣 and ming 命, for example.

In Tan tian, Wang argues against the views that 1) Tian is fluid/vapor 2) tian is close to us, 3) tian has a mind or agency, 4) tian can reward, punish, or even be aware of individual human activities.  He seems particularly concerned in Tan tian with refuting the view that tian is a fluid (identifiable with the sky) and thus close to humans, a view he attributes to ru scholars.

Toward the end of Tan tian, Wang has this to say: 人生於天,何嫌天無氣?猶有體在上,與人相遠。(Humans originate in tian, how can we then criticize the view that tian is not a fluid?  It resembles something with a body, above humans and far distant.) [note: Wang is using 氣 here in its non-technical sense of “fluid/vapor” as opposed to 體 ti (body)]

So tian is a physical entity (this keeps with Wang’s general materialism), and is something that creates (somehow) humans, or plays a role in their creation.  And it is far distant, above the sky.  This is strange.  If tian is something like a “first material principle,” why insist that it is distant?  He argues in Tan tian and elsewhere that even if tian were capable of having the mental states, will, and ability required to reward and punish us for actions, it is too distant from us to hand out rewards or punishments.  But if this is the case, how can it have been instrumental in our creation and endowment with a certain quantity of qi? (see my previous post on qi and ming here).

In addition, if tian is a body rather than something like a principle, it’s unclear how it could be responsible for the creation of humans other than through a kind of distant “first cause” relationship.  Perhaps the distant, physical tian first created the cosmos and its workings (spontaneously, of course), and the resulting birth of the individual human somewhere down the line is then attributable ultimately to the first creative act of tian.  This seems inconsistent with some things Wang says elsewhere in the Lunheng, however, where he claims that tian provides individual humans with their alloted qi.  Of course, we might work this out by reading such claims to mean that tian is ultimately, if not directly, responsible for the measure of qi one receives.  But then what is directly responsible?  What mechanistic process determines my quantity of qi?  The qi of my parents?  Features of the environment in which I was born?

All of this just raises more questions, which I’ll have to try to answer by digging deeper into the issue of tian in the Lunheng.  Back to the text I go…

3 responses to “What is 天 Tian?

  1. for meditators or qi gong practitioners who have had kundalini or qi becomes palpable energies, sometimes quite dramatically, will have an interest in tian, because it is the only way to translate some sanskrit words into chinese.

    the energies are real. the mind describing them is stretched to find language to describe them.

  2. Hi Alexus,

    I’m not sure what live philosophical problem this links up with for you, but I find your report quite intriguing, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

  3. I recall that much is said about Tian in chapters 42 and 54, ones that have to do with “Daoist” ideas. One example comes from Chapter 54:
    天地合氣,萬物自生,猶夫婦合氣,子自生矣。… 天動不欲以生物,而物自生,此則自然也。施氣不欲為物,而物自為,此則無為也。謂天自然無為者何?氣也。恬淡無欲,無為無事者也…
    “By the fusion of the (Yin and Yang) ethers of Heaven and Earth, all things are spontaneously produced, just as by the union of the fluids of husband and wife, children are spontaneously produced … When Heaven moves, it does not desire to produce things thereby, but things are produced of their own accord: such is spontaneity (Ziran). When it gives forth its ether, it does not desire to create things, but things are created of themselves: such is non-activity (Wuwei). What is it of Heaven that is thus a spontaneous and non-acting principle? It is its ethers, which are placid, tranquil, desire nothing, do nothing, and are concerned with nothing …” (Feng Youlan, History of Chinese Philosophy Vol. 2, page 152)

    re: “人生於天,何嫌天無氣? : Humans originate in tian, how can we then criticize the view that tian is not a fluid?”

    Though I haven’t read the whole passage Wuqi 無氣 would seem to be “lacks Qi” or “lacks energy/force, rather than “is not a fluid” (非氣).

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