Shen is the Chinese word for "god", "deity", "spirit" or theos. This single Chinese term expresses a range of similar, yet differing, meanings. The first meaning may refer to spirits or gods that are intimately involved in the affairs of the world. Spirits generate entities like rivers, mountains, thunder and stars. A second meaning of shen refers to the human spirit or psyche; 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 must be grown and cultivated. A third understanding of shen describes an entity as spiritual in the sense of inspiring awe or wonder because it combines categories usually kept separate, or it cannot be comprehended through normal concepts.
A starting point for an understanding of shen is the meeting place of Heaven and Earth, which is mankind. Heaven is the origin of the spiritual aspect of humanity and provides ongoing spiritual influences, while Earth is the origin of the physical aspect of humankind. The ongoing harmonious interaction of Heaven and Earth in man is essential to maintaining life. In Chinese religious tradition, balancing yin and yang is important to provide organization of life and prevent harm to body and spirit.
Shén (in rising 2nd tone) is the Modern Standard Chinese pronunciation of 神 "spirit; god, deity; 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).
The Chinese shen 神 "spirit; etc." is also in other East Asian languages. The Japanese Kanji 神 is pronounced shin (しん) or jin (じん) in On'yomi (Chinese reading), and kami (かみ), kō (こう), or tamashii (たましい) in Kun'yomi (Japanese reading). The Korean Hanja 神 is pronounced sin (신).
The Zihui dictionary notes that 神 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.
Shen's polysemous meanings developed diachronically over three millennia. The Hanyu dazidian, an authoritative historical dictionary, distinguishes one meaning for shēn ("Name of a deity (神名)) and eleven meanings for shén 神 translated below:
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 "spirit; god", 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 天 "sky; heaven; nature; god" in tianshen 天神 "celestial spirits; heavenly gods; deities; (Buddhism) deva", with shan 山 "mountain" in shanshen 山神 "mountain spirit", and hua 話 "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 靈 "spirit; soul" in shenling 神靈 "gods; spirits, various deities", qi 祇 "earth spirit" in shenqi 神祇 "celestial and terrestrial spirits", xian 仙 "Xian (Taoism), transcendent" in shenxian 神仙 "spirits and immortals; divine immortal", guai 怪 "spirit; devil; monster" in shenguai 神怪 "spirits and demons; gods and spirits", and gui 鬼 "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.— 1963:790
The primary meaning of shen is translatable as English "spirit, spirits, Spirit, spiritual beings; celestial spirits; ancestral spirits" or "god, gods, God; deity, deities, supernatural beings", etc. Shen is sometimes loosely translated as "soul", but Chinese hun and po distinguishes hun 魂 "spiritual soul" and po 魄 "physical soul". Instead of struggling to translate shen 神, it can be transliterated as a loanword. The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) defines shen, "In Chinese philosophy: a god, person of supernatural power, or the spirit of a dead person."
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.
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 天 was the Zhou term, and shen was a later usage (see Feng Yu-Lan 1952:22–6, 30–1). Modern terms for "God" include shangdi, zhu 主, tianzhu 天主 (esp. Catholics), and shen 神 (esp. Protestants).
The character 神 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, 神 combines the "altar/worship radical" 礻or 示 and a phonetic of shēn 申 "9th Earthly Branch; extend, stretch; prolong, repeat". Compare this phonetic element differentiated with the "person radical" in shen 伸 "stretch", the "silk radical" in shen 紳 "official's sash", the "mouth radical" in shen 呻 "chant, drone", the "stone radical" in shen 砷 "arsenic", the "earth radical" in kun 坤 "soil", and the "big radical" in yan 奄 "cover". (See the List of Kangxi radicals.)
Chinese shen 申 "extend" was anciently a phonetic loan character for shen 神 "spirit". The Mawangdui Silk Texts include two copies of the Dao De Jing and the "A Text" writes shen interchangeably as 申and 神: "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, tr. Mair 1990:30). The Shuowen Jiezi defines shen 申 as shen 神 and says that in the 7th lunar month when yin forces increase, bodies shenshu 申束 "bind up".
The earliest written forms of shen 神 "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 神 has not been identified in Shang Dynasty Oracle bone script records, the phonetic shen 申 has. Paleographers interpret the Oracle script of 申 as a pictograph of a "lightning bolt". This was graphically differentiated between dian 電 "lightning; electricity" with the "cloud radical" and shen 神 with the "worship radical", semantically suggesting both "lightning" and "spirits" coming down from the heavens.