Sunday, October 5, 2008

Shen (Chinese religion)

Shen is a keyword in Chinese philosophy, Chinese religion, and Traditional Chinese Medicine.


''Shén'' is the Modern Chinese standard Mandarin pronunciation of 神 "spirit; god, deity; spiritual, supernatural; etc". Reconstructions of ''shén'' in Middle Chinese include ''d?'jěn'' , ''?i?n'' , ''?in'' , and ''zyin'' . Reconstructions of ''shén'' in Old Chinese include *''djěn'' , *''zdjien'' , *''djin'' , *''Ljin'' , and *''m-lin'' .

Although the etymological origin of ''shen'' is uncertain, Schuessler notes a possible Sino-Tibetan etymology; compare Chepang ''gli?h'' "spirit of humans".

Chinese ''shen'' 神 "spirit; etc." is a loanword in East Asian languages. The ''Kanji'' 神 is pronounced ''shin'' or ''jin'' in ''On'yomi'' , and ''kami'' , ''kō'' , or ''tamashii'' in '''' . The ''Hanja'' 神 is pronounced ''sin'' .

The ''Zihui'' dictionary notes that 神 had a special pronunciation ''shēn'' in the name Shen Shu 神荼, one of two "gods of the Eastern Sea", along with Yu Lu 鬱壘.


''Shen'' 神's polysemous meanings developed diachronically over three millennia. The ''Hanyu dazidian'', an authoritative historical dictionary, distinguishes one meaning for ''shēn'' 神 "Name of a deity " and eleven meanings for ''shén'' 神, translated below.
# Celestial gods/spirits of stories/legends, namely, the creator of the myriad things in heaven and earth and the supreme being.
# Spirit; mind, mental faculties; consciousness. Like: concentrated attention; tire the mind; concentrate one's energy and attention.
# Expression, demeanor; consciousness, state of mind.
# Portrait, portraiture.
# Magical, supernatural, miraculous; mysterious, abstruse. Like: ability to divine the unknown, amazing foresight; highly skilled doctor; genius, masterpiece.
# Esteem, respect; valuable, precious.
# Rule, govern, administer.
# Cautious, careful, circumspect.
# Display, arrange, exhibit.
# Dialect. 1. Dignity, distinction. 2. Entrancement, ecstasy. 3. Clever, intelligent.
# Surname, family name.

This dictionary entry for ''shen'' lists early usage examples, and many of these 11 meanings were well attested prior to the Han Dynasty. Chinese classic texts use ''shen'' in meanings 1 "spirit; god", 2 "spirit, mind; attention", 3 "expression; state of mind", 5 "supernatural", and meaning 6 "esteem". The earliest examples of meaning 4 "portrait" are in Song Dynasty texts. Meanings 7-9 first occur in early Chinese dictionaries; the ''Erya'' defines ''shen'' in meanings 7 "govern" and 8 "cautious" , and the ''Guangya'' defines meaning 9 "display". Meaning 10 gives three usages in Chinese dialects . Meaning 11 "a surname" is exemplified in Shennong , the culture hero and inventor of agriculture in Chinese mythology.

The Chinese language has many of ''shen''. For instance, it is compounded with ''tian'' 天 "sky; heaven; nature; god" in ''tianshen'' 天神 "celestial spirits; heavenly gods; deities; ", with ''shan'' 山 "mountain" in ''shanshen'' 山神 "mountain spirit", and ''hua'' 話 "speech; talk; saying; story" in ''shenhua'' 神話 "mythology; myth; fairy tale". Several ''shen'' "spirit; god" compounds use names for other supernatural beings, for example, ''ling'' 靈 "spirit; soul" in ''shenling'' 神靈 "gods; spirits, various deities", ''qi'' 祇 "earth spirit" in ''shenqi'' 神祇 "celestial and terrestrial spirits", ''xian'' 仙 "Xian , transcendent" in ''shenxian'' 神仙 "spirits and immortals; divine immortal", ''guai'' 怪 "spirit; devil; monster" in ''shenguai'' 神怪 "spirits and demons; gods and spirits", and ''gui'' 鬼 "ghost, goblin; demon, devil" in ''guishen'' 鬼神 "ghosts and spirits; supernatural beings".

Wing-Tsit Chan distinguishes four philosophical meanings of this ''guishen'': "spiritual beings", "ancestors", "gods and demons", and "positive and negative spiritual forces".
In ancient times ''shen'' usually refers to heavenly beings while ''kuei'' refers to spirits of deceased human beings. In later-day sacrifices, ''kuei-shen'' together refers to ancestors. In popular religions ''shen'' means gods and demons . In Neo-Confucianism ''kuai-shen'' may refer to all these three categories but more often than not the term refers to the activity of the material force . Chang Tsai's dictum, "The negative spirit and positive spirit are the spontaneous activity of the two material forces ," has become the generally accepted definition.

The primary meaning of ''shen'' is translatable as English "spirit, spirits, Spirit, spiritual beings; celestial spirits; ancestral spirits" or "god, gods, God; deity, deities, supernatural beings", etc. ''Shen'' is sometimes loosely translated as "soul", but Chinese distinguishes ''hun'' 魂 "spiritual soul" and ''po'' 魄 "physical soul". Instead of struggling to translate ''shen'' 神, it can be transliterated as a loanword. The ''Oxford English Dictionary'' defines ''shen'', "In Chinese philosophy: a god, person of supernatural power, or the spirit of a dead person."

''Shen'' plays a central role in Christian translational disputes over Chinese terms for God. Among the early Chinese "god; God" names, ''shangdi'' 上帝 or ''di'' was the Shang term, ''tian'' 天 was the Zhou term, and ''shen'' was a later usage . Modern terms for "God" include ''shangdi'', ''zhu'' 主, ''tianzhu'' 天主 , and ''shen'' 神 .


The character 神 for ''shen'' exemplifies the most common class in Chinese character classification: ''xíngshēngzì'' 形聲字 "pictophonetic compounds, semantic-phonetic compounds", which combine a that roughly indicates meaning and a phonetic that roughly indicates pronunciation. In this case, 神 combines the "altar/worship radical" 礻or 示 and a phonetic of ''shēn'' 申 "9th Earthly Branch; extend, stretch; prolong, repeat". Compare this phonetic element differentiated with the "person radical" in ''shen'' 伸 "stretch", the "silk radical" in ''shen'' 紳 "official's sash", the "mouth radical" in ''shen'' 呻 "chant, drone", the "stone radical" in ''shen'' 砷 "arsenic", the "earth radical" in ''kun'' 坤 "soil", and the "big radical" in ''yan'' 奄 "cover".

Chinese ''shen'' 申 "extend" was anciently a phonetic loan character for ''shen'' 神 "spirit". The Mawangdui Silk Texts include two copies of the Dao De Jing and the "A Text" writes ''shen'' interchangeably as 申and 神: "If one oversees all under heaven in accord with the Way, demons have no spirit. It is not that the demons have no spirit, but that their spirits do not harm people." . The ''Shuowen Jiezi'' defines ''shen'' 申 as ''shen'' 神 and says that in the 7th lunar month when ''yin'' forces increase, bodies ''shenshu'' 申束 "bind up".

The earliest written forms of ''shen'' 神 "spirit; god" occur in Zhou Dynasty Bronzeware script and Qin Dynasty Seal script characters . Although 神 has not been identified in Shang Dynasty Oracle bone script records, the phonetic'' shen'' 申 has. Paleographers interpret the Oracle script of 申 as a pictograph of a "lightning bolt". This was graphically differentiated between ''dian'' 電 "lightening; electricity" with the "cloud radical" and ''shen'' 神 with the "worship radical", semantically suggesting both "lightning" and "spirits" coming down from the heavens.

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