Ming dynasty painting of the canonization of Li Zhong as part of the Heavenly Pantheon under Jade Emperor.

Shen (Chinese: ; pinyin: shén) is a Chinese word with senses of deity, god or spirit. The Japanese equivalent is shin, as in Shinto. This single Chinese term expresses a range of similar, yet differing, meanings.

The first meaning is a generic word for deities which are intimately involved in the affairs of the world, or spirits, such as dead ancestors.[1] Spirits generate entities like rivers, mountains, thunder, and stars.

A second meaning of shen refers to the human spirit or psyche that is seen in the body as luster or vigor and in the mind as vitality and enthusiasm; it is the basic power or agency within humans that accounts for life, and in order to further life to its fullest potential, the spirit (Shen) is transformed to actualize potential (Jing 精 ).[citation needed]

A third understanding of shen describes an entity as supernatural in the sense of inspiring awe or wonder because it combines categories usually kept separate, or it cannot be comprehended through normal concepts.[citation needed]

In the traditional Chinese theory of sanbao, shen is associated with the yang side of yin and yang and Jing is yin in comparison (Heaven and Earth; Earth tied to jing in particular in traditional Chinese medicine).[citation needed] Heaven is the origin of the spiritual aspect of humanity and provides ongoing spiritual influences, and therefore, it is associated with the heart, while Earth is the origin of the physical aspect of humankind/nature and is traditionally related to our kidneys or lower dantian. The ongoing harmonious interaction of Heaven and Earth creates qi in this case human and therefore is associated with the spleen, stomach and liver in the middle Jiao, which is essential to create balance and harmony of yin and yang, therefore maintaining a good standard of health and creating life.[citation needed]

It is said in the classics that the human is the best creation of Heaven and Earth.[citation needed] In traditional Chinese medicine, Taoist, Buddhist, and Chinese folk religious tradition, the balance of yin and yang is important to provide external harmony and internal health within life, thereby preventing injury, illness, or harm to body, mind, spirit, or the environment.[2]


Main article: Chinese gods and immortals

The character as it was carved on bronze inscriptions in the Western Zhou period (11th–8th centuries BC)
Chinese name
Literal meaninggod, deity
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetthần
Chữ Hán
Korean name
Japanese name
Hiragana1. かみ
2. しん

Shén (in rising 2nd tone) is the Modern Standard Chinese pronunciation of "god, deity; spirit, spiritual, supernatural; awareness, consciousness etc". Reconstructions of shén in Middle Chinese (ca. 6th-10th centuries CE) include dź'jěn (Bernhard Karlgren, substituting j for his "yod medial"), źiɪn (Zhou Fagao), ʑin (Edwin G. Pulleyblank, "Late Middle"), and zyin (William H. Baxter). Reconstructions of shén in Old Chinese (ca. 6th-3rd centuries BCE) include *djěn (Karlgren), *zdjien (Zhou), *djin (Li Fanggui), *Ljin (Baxter), and *m-lin (Axel Schuessler).

Ming dynasty Water and Land Ritual painting of military and nature spirits.

Although the etymological origin of shen is uncertain, Schuessler notes a possible Sino-Tibetan etymology; compare Chepang gliŋh "spirit of humans".[3]

The Chinese shen "spirit; etc." is also present in other East Asian languages. The Japanese Kanji is pronounced shin (しん) or jin (じん) in On'yomi (Chinese reading), and kami (かみ), (こう), or tamashii (たましい) in Kun'yomi (Japanese reading). The Korean Hanja is pronounced sin ().

The Zihui dictionary notes that had a special pronunciation shēn (level 1st tone, instead of usual 2nd shén) in the name Shen Shu 神荼, one of two "gods of the Eastern Sea", along with Yu Lu 鬱壘.

In the Vietnamese language, it is pronounced as thần.[further explanation needed]


Shen's polysemous meanings developed diachronically over three millennia. The Hanyu dazidian, an authoritative historical dictionary, distinguishes one meaning for shēn ("a deity (神名)) and eleven meanings for shén translated below:

  1. Celestial god(s)/spirit(s) of stories/legends, namely, the creator of the myriad things in heaven and earth and the supreme being. (传说中的天神,即天地万物的创造者和主宰者.)
  2. Spirit; mind, mental faculties; consciousness. Like: concentrated attention; tire the mind; concentrate one's energy and attention. (精神.如: 凝神; 劳神; 聚精会神.)
  3. Expression, demeanor; consciousness, state of mind. (表情; 神志.)
  4. Portrait, portraiture. (肖像.)
  5. Magical, supernatural, miraculous; mysterious, abstruse. Like: ability to divine the unknown, amazing foresight; highly skilled doctor; genius, masterpiece. (神奇; 玄妙. 如: 神机妙算; 神医; 神品.)
  6. Esteem, respect; valuable, precious. (尊重; 珍贵.)
  7. Rule, govern, administer. (治理.)
  8. Cautious, careful, circumspect. (谨慎.)
  9. Display, arrange, exhibit. (陈列.)
  10. Dialect. 1. Dignity, distinction. (威风.) 2. Entrancement, ecstasy. (入神.) 3. Clever, intelligent. (聪明.)
  11. Surname, family name. (姓.)

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 "deity", 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 6, which is attested elsewhere), and the Guangya defines meaning 9 "display". Meaning 10 gives three usages in Chinese dialects (technically "topolects", see Fangyan). Meaning 11 "a surname" is exemplified in Shennong ("Divine Farmer"), the culture hero and inventor of agriculture in Chinese mythology.

The Chinese language has many compounds of shen. For instance, it is compounded with tian "sky; heaven; nature; god" in tianshen 天神 "celestial spirits; heavenly gods; deities; (Buddhism) deva", with shan "mountain" in shanshen 山神 "mountain spirit", and hua "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 "spirit; soul" in shenling 神靈 "gods; spirits, various deities", qi "earth spirit" in shenqi 神祇 "celestial and terrestrial spirits", xian "Xian (Taoism), transcendent" in shenxian 神仙 "spirits and immortals; divine immortal", guai "spirit; devil; monster" in shenguai 神怪 "spirits and demons; gods and spirits", and gui "ghost, goblin; demon, devil" in guishen 鬼神 "ghosts and spirits; supernatural beings". The earliest discovered character form for shen suggests two components. The right side of the character gives the basic meaning and pronunciation, as well as providing a graphic representation of flashing lightning from the clouds. This visual displays ancient people’s belief that lightning was the manifestation of god.1 The left side displays a modified character shi which pertains to ritual ceremonies, worship, or prayer. This concept originally referred to stone table used for offering ceremonial sacrifices to the gods.

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 (who are good) and demons (who are not always good). 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 (ch'i). Chang Tsai's dictum, "The negative spirit (kuei) and positive spirit (shen) are the spontaneous activity of the two material forces (yin and yang)," has become the generally accepted definition.[4]

The primary meaning of shen is translatable in English as god, gods, God; deity, deities, spirit, spiritual, spiritlike,[1] spirits, Spirit, spiritual beings; celestial spirits; ancestral spirits, supernatural beings, etc. Shen is sometimes loosely translated as "soul", but Chinese hun and po distinguishes hun "spiritual soul" and po "physical soul". Shen can be used as a loanword. The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) defines shen in these terms, "In Chinese philosophy: a god, person of supernatural power, or the spirit of a dead person." Shen can also refer to a living, "'spiritual' or 'spiritlike'" person or people when they accomplish things perceived to be superhuman, such as saving "people through the power of Virtue."[1]

In acupuncture, shen is a pure spiritual energy devoid of memory and personality traits, whereas hun is the spiritual energy associated with the personality and po the energy tied to the sustenance of the physical body. In this system, shen resides in the heart and departs first at death, hun resides in the liver and departs second, and po resides in the lungs and departs last.[5][6]

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 was the Zhou term, and shen was a later usage (see Feng Yu-Lan.[7] Modern terms for "God" include shangdi, zhu , tianzhu 天主 (esp. Catholics), and shen (esp. Protestants).


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

Chinese shen "extend" was anciently a phonetic loan character for shen "spirit". The Mawangdui Silk Texts include two copies of the Dao De Jing and the "A Text" writes shen interchangeably as and : "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." (chap. 60).[8] The Shuowen Jiezi defines shen as shen and says that in the 7th lunar month when yin forces increase, bodies shenshu 申束 "bind up".[citation needed]

The earliest written forms of shen "spirit; god" occur in Zhou dynasty bronzeware script and Qin dynasty seal script characters (compare the variants shown on the "Chinese etymology" link below). Although has not been identified in Shang dynasty oracle bone script records, the phonetic shen has. Paleographers interpret the Oracle script of as a pictograph of a "lightning bolt".[citation needed] This was graphically differentiated between dian "lightning; electricity" with the "cloud radical" and shen with the "worship radical", semantically suggesting both "lightning" and "spirits" coming down from the heavens.

See also


  1. ^ a b c Ivanhoe, Philip J.; Van Norden, Bryan W. (2005). Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (2nd ed.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. pp. 391–392. ISBN 0-87220-781-1. OCLC 60826646.
  2. ^ "The Su Wen of the Huangdi Neijing (Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor)". World Digital Library (www.wdl.org). 1115–1234. Archived from the original on 2021-03-22. Retrieved 2020-10-31.
  3. ^ Schuessler, Axel (2007). ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese. Honolulu HI: University of Hawai'i Press. p. 458. ISBN 9780824829759. Archived from the original on 2021-06-06. Retrieved 2021-06-13.
  4. ^ Chan, Wing-Tsit. 1963. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton University Press. p. 790.
  5. ^ Reilly, Christopher, L.Ac., The Spirit of Acupuncture Archived 2014-08-28 at the Wayback Machine, Times-Union.com, posted Feb. 18, 2009.
  6. ^ de Morant, G. S., Chinese Acupuncture Archived 2020-08-19 at the Wayback Machine, Paradigm Publications, 1994, pp. 87-8.
  7. ^ Fung, Yu-Lan (1983) [1952]. History of Chinese Philosophy. Vol. I - The Period of the Philosophers. Translated by Derk Bodde. Princeton University Press. pp. 22–6, 30–1. ISBN 9780691020211.
  8. ^ Tr. Mair, Victor H. 1990. Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way, by Lao Tzu; an entirely new translation based on the recently discovered Ma-wang-tui manuscripts. Bantam Books. p. 30.

Further reading