The human master of the ceremonies who makes the World go round is the monarch of the Sinic universal state; and, in virtue of the superhuman scope of his function, the Emperor was officially styled the Son of Heaven; yet this Heaven who, in the Sinic Society, was the adoptive father of the magician-in-chief, was as pale as the sky on a frosty winter day in Northern China.
“Création savante de la mythologie politique, le Souverain d’En-haut n’a qu’une existence littéraire. Ce patron dynastique, chanté par les poètes de la cour royale, n’a jamais dû jouir d’un grand crédit auprès des ‘petites gens’, ainsi que semble le prouver l’échec [failure] de la propagande théocratique de Mö tseu [Mo-tse] [bracket in original; he lived early in the Warring States period, c 470-c 391 BC]. Confuciens ou Taoïstes ne lui accordent aucune considération. Pour eux, les seuls êtres sacrés, ce sont les Saints ou les Sages.”
[Footnote: Granet, op. cit., p. 587. [Cited previously as “Marcel Granet in his La Pensée Chinoise (Paris 1934, Renaissance du Livre.”).] It will be seen that the Sinic philosophers were of one mind with their Indic confrères in assigning a higher rank in the hierarchy of Existence to a disciplined human being than to a volatile divinity. (For the Buddhist sages’ attitude towards the gods of the Vedic Pantheon see [page references for the same volume of the Study].)]
Indeed, this celestial stalking-horse of the human manipulator of the Sinic Universe had so faint a personality that, in the affiliated Far Eastern Society at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of the Christian Era, the Jesuit missionaries in China raised a storm [within the Church] when – in their eagerness to translate the doctrines of Christianity into terms that would be familiar and agreeable to their prospective converts – they employed the Chinese word for Heaven, T’ien, to render their Latin word Deus. In A.D. 1693 the Papal Vicar-General of the Chinese province of Fukien, Bishop Maigrot, issued an edict prescribing that Deus must henceforth be rendered in Chinese no longer by the single word T’ien (Heaven) but by the phrase T’ien Chu (the Lord of Heaven); in 1704 Bishop Maigrot’s edict was confirmed by a decree of Pope Clement XI; and the prospects of Catholicism in China were compromised – as it proved, beyond rehabilitation – when, in December 1706, Bishop Maigrot was summoned into the Emperor K’ang Hsi’s presence and was dismissed into banishment for his outrageous presumption in venturing to dispute with the Son of Heaven himself on the meaning of the Chinese word T’ien, although he was convicted by the Emperor, in a personal colloquy, of being quite unversed in the Sinic philosophy and even ignorant of the Chinese language.
This unhappy controversy might never have arisen if, in the Sinic World some two thousand years before the day of the Manchu Emperor K’ang Hsi and the French Bishop Maigrot, an enrichment of the Sinic conception of the magical order of the Universe [with the Emperor himself for the Universe’s hub] had not brought with it a proportionate impoverishment of the Sinic conception of the Godhead. For the T’ien whose personality was so faint that a Papal Vicar-General was unwilling to recognize in him a counterpart of the Christian Deus (notwithstanding the willingness of the Son of Heaven to wield his immense authority under an alleged mandate from this nebulous power) was an abstraction from an earlier Shangti (“Supreme Ancestor”) whose claim to have been a personal god would appear to be less open to doubt.
Even Shangdi was never represented with images or idols. Wikipedia: “During the Shang Dynasty (17th–11th centuries BCE) the Chinese called god Shangdi (上帝 ‘lord on high’) or Di (‘lord’), and during the Zhōu Dynasty (11th–3rd centuries BCE) Tian (‘heaven’).” The idea of the Mandate of Heaven appeared early in the Zhōu era. Tian neither neatly followed nor neatly replaced Shangdi. They are sometimes synonymous.
“A trend of ‘depersonalization’ of Shangdi began to appear, or at least grow, after the Warring States (戰國) period [ie from the time to which Toynbee is referring here] with the ascension of Daoism. Oddly, later Daoism appears to restore personality traits to Heaven, around 900 AD.”
Looking heavenwards: a Beauvais tapestry showing Jesuit astronomers with the Kangxi Emperor
A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939