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On the Character”神”


The notion of a Thunder God is a familiar figure in popular culture—People
magazine's sexiest man alive in 2014, actor Chris Hemsworth,springs to mind,
wielding the sacred hammer mjolnir to defend New York and London against
alien invasions as he declares his undying love for the beautiful Natalie
Portman in recent Marvel blockbusters. This Norse-inspired hero represents a
well-known cultural trope, but it is perhaps less well-known that the ancient
Chinese had a similar way of looking at their deities, so much so that the
earliest Chinese character for "god" comes in the form of lightning. It occurred
during the Shang Dynasty (1600 BCE – 1046 BCE) when the concept of god was
written down as a swirl of lightning on oracle bones. The
modern equivalent of the pictogram is 申 (shēn). Later, the radical 示(shì),
indicating worship, was added to the left side. 示 was also a pictogram in the
form of an altar on which the sacrifice was presented. With that, the character
is complete: 神 (shén), the mysterious, all-powerful deity.

According to Chinese folk religion everything is governed by a god: the god
of wind, or 风神 (fēngshén); the god of thunder, or 雷神 (léishén); and the god of
sun, or 太阳神 (tàiyáng shén). Those are just some of the gods of the sky. When you
look down to the earth, there are the mountain gods, or 山神 (shānshén); the sea
gods, or 海神 (hǎishén); and the river gods, 河神 (héshén). Even in the modest
household of the common man, there's the door god, or 门神 (ménshén), and stove
god, or 灶神 (zàoshén), whose duties are to ward off evil and to record the deeds
of the family. Of course, practical as the Chinese people are, their most
worshiped deity is probably the god of wealth, or 财神 (cáishén). He is often
represented as a gentleman with a red silk robe with golden
embroidery who smiles and holds a jade scepter named ruyi in his right hand,
with a gold sycee (a traditional ingot) on the left, the god of wealth can be
found anywhere there's business to be done.

神 can also be used to describe genius and great talent. In the past, people
used to refer to a doctor with great medical skills as 神医 (shényī), a
particularly smart kid is called 神童 (shéntóng), and a crack shot is 神枪手
(shénqiāngshǒu). 神 goes on to mean "magical and amazing" and forms a series of
words and phrases. For instance, 神通广大 (shén tōng guǎng dà) means "be infinitely
resourceful", as in 他打探起小道消息来,真是神通广大 (tā dǎtàn qǐ xiǎodào xiāoxi lái, zhēnshi
shén tōng guǎng dà), meaning, "He is infinitely resourceful at
digging up gossip." 神乎其神 (shén hū qí shén) means "miraculous" but not without a
satirical tone, as in 这种保健品被吹得神乎其神 (zhèzhǒng bǎojiànpǐn bèi chuīde shén hū qí
shén, this dietary supplement ispraised to the heavens).

神 and 鬼 (guǐ, ghost) often go hand in hand to mean superpowers or the
supernatural. 鬼使神差 (guǐ shǐ shén chāi), literally "manipulated by ghosts and
gods", is used to describe surprising coincidences, unexpected events, or having
done something inexplicable, as in 我鬼使神差地把盐加进了咖啡里 (wǒ guǐ shǐ shén chāi de bǎ
yán jiā jìn le kāfēi lǐ). As if manipulated by the spirits, I added salt to my
coffee). Another phrase, 鬼斧神工 (guǐ fǔ shén gōng) literally means "ghosts' axes
with god's technique" and is used to describe uncanny workmanship.
The phrase 神出鬼没 (shén chū guǐ mò), literally "to appear like a god and disappear
like a ghost", is often used to describe mysterious goings on. If something is
conducted in secrecy, we use the phrase 神不知,鬼不觉 (shén bù zhī, guǐ bù jué),
literally "unknown to god or ghost".

Chinese culture has never really been heavily religious, especially with the
influence of Confucianism. Confucius told people "to respect ghosts and gods but
also keep your distance" (敬鬼神而远之 jìng guǐ shén ér yuǎn zhī). In addition, there
are a series of god/ghost combinations with negative connotations, such as 牛鬼蛇神
(niú guǐ shé shén), literally "ox ghosts and snake gods", which means "wicked
people of all descriptions". Other phrases include 装神弄鬼 (zhuāng shén nòng guǐ,
to disguise oneself as a ghost or a deity [to deceive people])
and 疑神疑鬼 (yí shén yí guǐ, be unreasonably suspicious).

Perhaps because the human mind is equally mysterious and elusive, 神 is also
associated with mental and intellectual themes. For instance, 神智 (shénzhì) means
"mind and intellect", while 神经 (shénjīng) is "nerve". From divine power to the
complex human mind, 神 encompasses a wide range of subjects, all of which started
with thunder and lightning from the heavens.


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