the heavens, the sky, the propensities associated with the sky, nature.
Misleadingly translated as “Heaven,” tian refers to the sky (Analects 19.25), and to the conditions and regularities of nature (Analects 17.19), which are held in awe (Analects 16.8). Also, tian often refers to that which is beyond human control (see Analects 9.5, 9.6, 11.9, 12.5, and 14.35). In addition, it has associations that carry over from earlier religious conceptions, which link it with ancestors and spirits.
In the Xunzi, tian as nature is stressed. In the opening passage of his “Discourse on tian,” Xunzi writes:
“Tian‘s course has regularities, which don’t exist for the sage Yao and then disappear for the tyrant Jie. Responding to them with orderly government is auspicious, while responding to them with chaos is inauspicious. If you strengthen the fundamentals and moderate expenditures, tian cannot make you poor. If you are well nourished and act according to the seasons, then tian cannot make you sick. If you follow dao and are not of two minds, tian cannot bring you to ruin.”
Ogyu Sorai, a Tokugawa period Japanese Confucian thinker who was strongly influenced by Xunzi, describes tian as follows:
“Tian needs no explanation. Everybody knows where it is. Gazing at its vast and hazy blueness, it seems dusky dim, far and high. We cannot fully fathom it. The heavenly bodies are fastened to it. Wind and rain, cold and heat, travel through it. It is where the myriad phenomena receive their conditions (ming), and is the ancestor of the hundred spirits. The most revered, it is unparalleled. Nothing could be higher than it. Thus, the ancient sage kings and enlightened rulers all ordered the world modeled tian. Venerating tian, the way was thereby put into practice in their government and teachings. Thus is the way of the sages.”
In the following two-minute clip from Living Chinese Philosophy, Roger Ames describes both the meaning of tian and the cause of common Western misinterpretations.