Thomas Wilson, the Elizabeth J. McCormack Professor of History, presented “Conceptions of Heaven and God in the Imperial Cults of China” on Feb. 11 at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His discussion focused on a cult devoted to the veneration of heaven practiced by the emperor of China and an entourage of court officials from the seventh century to the fall of imperial China in 1911.
Wilson showed that in establishing the cult of heaven at the pinnacle of the imperial pantheon, Confucian officials cited as its locus classicus the Classic of Filial Piety, which speaks of two seemingly distinct deities: heaven and high God.
He said that although the court insisted that heaven-God was one and the same entity, the details of the liturgies that the court used to venerate it belie a more complex conception of the object of veneration—the cosmological qualities of heaven required rites appropriate for deities that circulate in the celestial sphere of the cosmos, whereas the ancestral qualities of God required rites appropriate to the veneration of spirits of deceased people.
Wilson considered the range of conceptions of heaven-God and the appropriate rites to venerate it in detailed records of discussions at the imperial court from the seventh to the 18th century.