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Some people get the single Chinese character (shén) tattooed on them (e.g. 1 2) thinking it means "God". I suspect most of them are Christians, where it's a fundamental part of their beliefs that God is unique.

Question: Does the single character 神 refer to "God" (the unique God, such as in e.g. Christianity) or just "god" or "deity"?

Plurals are used differently in Chinese and English, which makes me a bit skeptical. Also, most things in Chinese require multiple characters to refer to them uniquely.

5

It depends on your religion.

Traditionally,「神」is just a supernatural being, applied to anything from mountain gods to river gods to the sky god.

Ancient China only ever had a "Highest God"「上帝」, not a "Unique God" like Christianity/Islam/Judaism.「上帝」was never said to do things like create the universe. If you're looking for special vocabulary for a "Unique God" in the Chinese language, you won't find one, because that is not really a Chinese concept (nor a concept in most other ancient languages, which were all polytheistic, if hierarchical).

All Chinese-origin words that you see which purportedly refers to the "Unique God" are strictly a repurposement of existing Chinese vocabulary by Christians (or whatever other religion). Specifically,

  • 「神」and「上帝」are used by Protestant Christians in an attempt to connect Christianity to some form of native Chinese belief. Specifically,「上帝」is explicitly used to connect the Christian's God to the Ancient Chinese Shangdi.

  • 「上帝」is avoided by Catholic Christians, who overwhelmingly uses the term「天主」. Apparently, this is due to the exact same reason as Protestant Christians but in reverse: a previous pope wanted to explicitly avoid the Christian's God with Chinese Shangdi, because Shangdi was just part of a polytheistic religion.


In casual language,「神」is a kind of slang meaning amazing or awesome, in the same manner that god is used as a word for someone who is really good at something.

「你打球好神!簡直比NBA球星還厲害!」

Your [basket]ball play is amazing! Even better than NBA stars!

Unless someone explicitly states that they meant the Christians' God, I would rather think that the tattoos of「神」mean god as in "I'm a God/I'm awesome", etc.

4

It depends. When Christianity came again in China, missionaries borrowed local religious terms. You can expect these words are not unique to Christianity. The actually meaning relies on the context.

If one is from Christianity background, 神 is God. If not, it is not. There are alternative words for God like 上帝 and 天主.

神 was created long long time ago in oracle bone script. There is a wide range of meanings attached to it. Apart from a supreme god, and deities, even spirit of human being can call 神.

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The proper Chinese term for God is 上帝 (Shang Ti) or the Highest Sovereign. See: Legge's "Notions of the Chinese on God and Spirits." 神 is the term for "god(s)" as in small capital g.

To the Chinese, 神 are inferior to 上帝. 上帝 could be considered as being in the class/order of 神, but 神 can never be considered equal to 上帝.

There are no plural or singular forms of nouns in Chinese, so 神 could be "god" or "gods" depending on context.

Christian missionaries used 神 because 上帝 was distinctly singular. The Chinese understanding was that there was only one. The concept of the Trinity caused Westerners to use 神 and impose their own understandings on that word.

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神 means an entity having a supernatural power. it can be a god, a stone, a temple, a student with very ability to learning.

神 means any thing you can not achieve figuratively

2

神 is a common title for immortals.

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They're all 神.

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