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This paper will explore the proposition that the principal features of early Chinese science existed as a system of beliefs that long predated the supposed invention of that science by Tsou Yen and his school during the Warring States Period, and that those beliefs were expressed in a coherent body of myths of great antiquity. Furthermore it is proposed that the cosmology ex- pressed in those myths was of a kind widely shared by the ancient civilizations of the Eurasian continent, but that it contained in addition certain unique features, and that in the shift from the language of myth to the language of philosophy that took place in China during the Chou Period the cosmology was modified in certain ways that produced a unique Chinese science. The theoretical framework of that science was completed by the early Han Period, and, with later modifications and additions, formed the basis for scientific thought in China down to early modern times. The study of Chinese mythology has been a somewhat neglected field in modern Sinology.’ The main thrust of Sinology has, in fact, been strongly influenced by notions of both Confucian and Christian rationalism that are inimical to the study of myths as an important part of the Chinese heritage. When Ku Chieh-kang and other progressive Chinese historians of the May Fourth generation identified the tales of the sage-kings in the early Ounese histories as myths, in one respect they performed a great service, liberating us from the spurious historicism that had characterized both traditional Chinese scholarship and early Western Sinology; vide the acceptance by Legge and his contemporaries of Yao, Shun, Yii, and the Yellow Emperor as historical per- sonages. But in removing the tales of the sages from the realm of hstory later Western scholars tended to dismiss them as mere myths, not worthy of scho- larly attention. The problem was in some ways compounded by Karlgren, who proposed the excessively rigid standard of “free” and “bound” texts, accord- ing to which no text written after 221 B.C. could be held to contain valid sources of myth. As it happens, many of the myth-containing texts that we have date from after that cutoff point; in the view of Karlgren and his school,

Journal of Chinese Philosophy 5 (1978) 1-20. AN Rights Reserved. Copyright 0 1978 by D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland.



all such “myths” are to be regarded as folklore of the “little tradition” or the inventions of late writers seeking to lend prestige to their works. To be sure, the study of Chinese mythology is a difficult business, and as Sinology has been overwhelrmngly dedicated to the study of the Confucian “great tradition”, most Sinologists have found it easy to ignore mythology altogether. No early coherent account of Chinese myths exists: even the Han texts are very confusing and incomplete, and accounts of myths in genuine Chou texts (Karlgren’s “free” texts) are extremely fragmentary; moreover all of the written accounts extant have been passed many times through the filters of Confucian orthodoxy. Nevertheless some scholars accepted the challenge. The iconoclastic studies of Ku Chieh-kang himself paved the way for such scholars as Maspero, Granet, Erkes, and Hentze; whle their attempts to recon- struct the mythology of ancient Cl-una were sometimes too speculative, their overall contribution must still be highly regarded. Eberhard, in many works, showed clearly that Chinese mythology could be approached if one went be- yond the single method of rigid philology. Thus a foundation of modern scholarship does exist on which one can build further studies of Chinese mythology, but the foundation is small and uncertain. While the study of Chinese mythology remained rather torpid, in other contexts great creative strides were being taken in the theory and methodolo- gy of the study of myth. Since the Second World War, such scholars as Le’vi- Strauss, Eliade, and Pettazzoni, whle by no means always agreeing among themselves, have collectively given to the scholarly world a new and fruitful approach to the study of myths, symbols, and early systems of belief. Recent- ly a few scholars have begun to use this approach to re-open the neglected study of Chinese mythology. Careful tracing of mythic themes, renewed study of relevant texts, and the recent great progress of archaeology in China are combining to change dramatically our understanding of ancient Chinese civil- ization and its beliefs. In 1969 desantillana and von Dechend published a study2 of comparative mythology that drew heavily on structuralist methodology and synthesized the work of scholars on the myths of many different civilizations. Their the- sis was that myths (in addition to their-value as literature, dynastic legends, sources for early religion, etc.) can be read, and were from the beginning in- tended to be understood by initiates, as compendia of cosmological teach- ings. They showed with a high degree of probability that a single Grand Origin Myth was shared (in terms of structure, though not of course in



literary details) by nearly all of the great ancient civilizations of Eurasia, and that it served as a technical language for recording all of the essential features of the first of the ancient exact sciences, astronomy. Their study prompted the present author to examine in greater detail whether, and to what extent, the thesis held true in the case of Cluna, and thus whether the origins of Chinese science are to be found in a body of myths structurally identical to and shared with the myths of other great ancient civilizations. The Grand Origin Myth described by deSantillana and von Dechend exists in many local versions, of course, but all share the following essential points:

(a) a concept of a time before heaven and earth were separated, when men and gods communicated without hindrance; (b) an axis mundi - described variously as a mountain, a tree, or an axle - associated with streams or a whirl- pool draining and recirculating the waters; (c) an account of the destructive drawing apart of heaven and earth, usually associated with (d) the breaking of communication between gods and men, expressed in an expulsion myth. The same cosmic separation produces (e) a catastrophx, world-engulfing flood, finally conquered by a hero who renders the earth fit for renewed habitation, opening the era of human history. That Chi'nese mythology is characterized by all of these essential features will be demonstrated shortly. First it will be well, however, to face certain objections that might be raised to the theory as a whole. To the extent that these myths are interpreted as referring to the visible characteristics of the heavens, one might object, they need not be re- garded as shared in any meaningful sense, for the heavens are visible to every- one, and might well have been described independently in similar terms by many ancient peoples. By the same argument, portions of the myths can be accounted for by various legends of tribal dispersals and wanderings, and by the great floods, global in extent, that might actually have occurred within the span of preliterate human rnem~ry.~Tlus is answered by the methodological principle that if the essential structure of a myth (or, in other contexts, a phy- sical object or invention) is shared by two cultures, the burden of proof must be on one who argues for independent invention; coincidence is an unconvinc- ing argument, and multiple coincidence least convincing of all. Second, one might argue that even if the Grand Origin Myth was shared by the peoples of the ancient Near East, say, China is too far removed to have participated in it. The degree to which various features of the ancient civilization of China are accounted for by transmission or diffusion is still in dispute. However, it is clear that Chinese civilization did not develop in complete isolation. Wheat



and the horse chariot were undoubtedly imported into China during the Shang, for example; moreover, recent advances in archaeology have shown that many features of late Neolithic high civilization were widely distributed in East Asia, making the notion of a ‘North China nuclear area’ untenable and showing that opportunities for cultural transmission and diffusion in Asia were greater than has sometimes been believed? Further, Pulleyblank has recently presented evidence to support an hypothesis that Shang script significantly influenced the development of some alphabets in Western Asia during the second millenium B.C.’ Just as Neolithic Homo supiens was on the whole smarter than we modems usually wish to admit, there seems to have been a great deal more travel and communication in the ancient world than modem scholarship sometimes wishes to believe possible. Thus there is no insuperable barrier to believing that the ancient Chinese shared and held in common with other ancient peoples the cosmological con- cepts embodied in the Grand Origin myth. Did they in fact do so? Although it will not be possible here to present a complete reconstruction of a Chinese version of the Grand origin Myth, we can briefly give sufficient evidence to show that the main structure of Chinese mythology fits comfort- ably into that pattern, and that like all versions of the myth, its reference is primarily cosmological.6 To take first the case of the Urzeit, when gods and humans communicated without hmdrance: The early gods of the Chinese are familiar to most scholars, but they are usually thought of in their late, euhe- merized forms as the “sage-emperors” and their associates. In fact, of course, they were gods, with none of the worldly characteristics of real emperors. Fu Hsi and NU Kua, gods of earth and heaven whom we will encounter again be- low, are represented in Han iconography as serpent-bodied figures with human torsos and heads. K‘uei, described in late Confucian texts as the court musician of the “emperor” Shun, was a thunder-god, a green one-legged ox. The names of K’una, the would-be subduer of the great flood, and his suc- cessful son Yub the Great, are written with characters that seem to indicate that they were originally thought of as scaly insect-like or serpent-bodied creatures. In addition Yii was able to transform himself into a bear. Clearly these were no ordinary emperors. Rather they were celestial beings, whose symbolic activities took place in the heavens even when the myths assign them a conventional terrestrial location. Their mythic roles as the providers of the elements of civilization to mankind show that in the time before the begin- ning of human time, communication between humans and these gods was unhindered.



The second part of the Grand Origin Myth is also central to Chinese myth- ology. The magical mountain K’un-lun is a clear representation of the axis mundi. The myths of different cultures represent the axis mundi variously as a mountain, a tree, or a mill.de, but in structural terms they are the same. In fact all of those images are found in Chinese accounts. Huai-nan-tzuChap- ter Four, the “Treatise on Topography”, describes a mountain associated with K’un-lun which “reaches up to Heaven itself. It is called the abode of the Grand [Celestial] Emperor”.’ The same passage describes a magical tree, the Chien tree, on Mt. Tu-kuang on the (celestial) equator “by which the gods ascend and descend (to and from Heaven)”. The image of the axis mundi most commonly found in Norse mythology is that of an axle of a hand-mill; the same image is found in Wang Chung’s Lun Heng Chapter 32, and repeated cen- turies later in a poem by Su Tung-po. Wang Chung’s use of the quern-axle as an analogy may well reflect a much older tradition.* Moreover, in China as in other ancient cultures, the axis rnundi is associated with rivers or a maelstrom draining and re-circulating the waters of the cosmos; HNT 4 describes rivers circulating around and draining from Mt. K’un-lun, and the wei-lii’ maelstrom (later identified with the Kuroshio Current in the North Pacific) is found de- scribed in cosmic terms in Chuang-fzu17. Finally, the central axis is intimate- ly connected with one of the most potent of the ancient gods, Huang Ti, the Yellow Emperor, who corresponds to Saturn in Western versions of the myth. He was a smith and teacher of metallurgy, hence one of his claims later, as a euhemerized Confucian sage, to being a founder of civilization. Most impor- tant, he is the god of the center; not only of the earth, but of the universe it- self. Schlegel remarks, “In China Saturn has the title ‘Gdnie du pivot’ as the god who presides over the center, the same title which is given to the pole star”.’ The identification of Huang Ti and the planet Saturn can be establish- ed only from relatively late texts, but his function in myth indicates a long tradition of Saturn-like attributes and perhaps an identification with the plan- et itself. K’un-lun, or more specifically Mt. Pu-chou, one peak of K’un-lun, was knocked aslant in a Chinese version of the third essential feature of the Grand Origin Myth. “In ancient times Kung Kung strove with Chuan HsU for the Empire. Angered, he unloosed Mt. Pu-chou. Heaven was forced to break, the bonds with earth were ruptured. Heaven leaned over to the northwest. Hence the sun, :he moon, the stars and planets were shlfted. Earth became empty in the southeast. Hence the water poured away and dry land appeared.”” This



Chinese myth is a particularly clear statement of the structural meaning of all such myths, whether one cites the destruction of Amlodhi’s quern in Icelandic sagas or the drawing apart of heaven and earth in Genesis: such myths cannot properly be understood except as descriptions of the tilting of the ecliptic re- lative to the celestial equator, the non-coincidence of the paths of the sun and the planets with the rotation of the fied stars around the plane of the celest- ial equator. Here the celestial significance of myths that describe an apparent- ly terrestrial event can be seen clearly. In Genesis the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden is ex- plicitly connected to their violation of the axismundi, the Tree of Knowledge. The Chinese version of the expulsion myth is not so explicit; yet we do find an account of the severing of ties between gods and men, in the myth of the driving out from the inhabited world of the San Mia0 tribes by the “sage- emperor” god Shun, because of their transgressions. The final element of the Grand Origin Myth is the Feat flood, a theme of great prominence in Chinese mythology. In some Chinese accounts the flood is made a specific consequence of the disaster caused by Kung Kung; when the bonds of heaven and earth were ruptured, the old earth was washed away and destroyed, and a new earth had to be brought into being. The flood in Chlna was conquered by Yu the Great, a figure of great magical powers, who used magical earth to dam the waters and scooped out the courses of rivers to drain them. Having conquered the flood he laid out and surveyed the nine provinces of the earth which once more was made fit for human habitation. Human time dates from Yu’s achievement; in later accounts he is made the founder of the Hsia, putatively the first of China’s dynastic periods. What evidence do we have for the antiquity that I have by implication been ascribing to these Chinese myths? First, there is physical evidence from the Shang Period to support the early appearance of the theme of myth per- taining to the axis mundi: the pid and tsungeritual jades. A’ symbols of heaven are jade discs with holes (an axis) in the center; tsung symbols of earth are squared jade tubes. In other words, heaven was thought of as round, measure- able in degrees, while earth was thought of as square, measureable with refer- ence to the four directions. The “square” earth was actually an idealized plant?, projected into the heavens beyond the boundaries of the physical earth, with “comers” at the nodes of the equinoxes and the solistices on the ecliptic (or projected onto the celestial equator).” The “round heaven - square earth” formula makes no sense whatever unless it is seen to refer to the relationship



between the fued stars and the ecliptic and the annual motion of the sun de-

termining the four seasons; thus the physical evidence of ritual jades mention- ed above shows that accounts of thisrelationship between heaven and earth - some form of the axis mundi myth - were extant in the Shang. The corrobora-

tion is more finnly established by the hsiian-chiyii-heng‘.

or “star-template

pi”, notched jade discs meant to be fitted over tsung sighting-tubes and used to locate the celestial north pole, i.e. to establish the exact location of the axis mundi and its correlate, the celestial equator. Second, the great antiquity of the Chinese dragon motif, as seen on many Shang bronzes, and the large number of dragons and serpents on the “Huai Style” bronzes and wooden artifacts from the Yangtze region suggest a paral- lel with the tendency of the Chinese, mentioned earlier, to describe their gods and mythical personages as scaly-bodied unipeds or demi-serpents. Third, it can be noted in general that the ability of myths to survive for many centuries as an oral tradition in preliterate cultures or in societies in which literacy is highly restricted, has been established in many cases through- out the world. Thus the relatively late appearance of the Ounese myths in written texts by no means establishes that the myths were created at the time the texts were written. This is a negative proof; it does not mean that the myths are necessarily earlier than the texts, but that they might be. Indeed, one could suppose that the shamans who were the custodians of the myths had a vested interest in restricting their circulation by keeping them from be- ing written down; moreover the writing down of sacred myths might per se have been viewed as a sacreligious act. If that is true the most esoteric myths would have been the last to be written down, which might account for the greater magical/symbolic detail in versions of the myths in late texts. So for example we find that in the earliest layer of the Shu ching or Book of Docu- ments (6th century B.C. or earlier) a fairly straightforward account is given of Yii the Great conquering the flood and laying out and surveying the nine provinces of the earth. That probably represents a mythic tradition many centuries older, but its first written appearance comes in a political document used for propagandistic purposes by the House of Chou. Later accounts, in such texts as the Huoi-nan-rzu that were written for other purposes and are relatively devoid of political content, include many more magical details of the same myth. Moreover, the versions of myths given in such texts (which also include the Shan-hai ching and the “T’ien wen” chapter of Ch ’u tz ’u) are often written in a style that strongly suggests oral antecedents.



Thus it is clear that all of the elements of the Grand Origin Myth described by deSantillana and von Dechend are present in Chinese mythology, and that

it is probably more reasonable to accept than to reject the unproven (and per-

haps unproveable) hypothesis that those Chinese myths greatly predate their first appearances in texts and indeed describe a cosmological view that goes

back to the earliest levels of Chinese culture. This is to say that the ancient Chnese shared a coherent and well-articulated protoscientific world-view that was the common property of Late Neolithic and early Bronze Age peoples throughout the ancient civilized world. If we were to conclude our analysis at that point, however, the strong implication would be that there was no rea- son for Chinese science to develop along lines other than those along which it developed in the West. Since that obviously was not the case, we must account

development from a shared basis.

Around the middle of the Chou Period, in the sixth century B.C. or so, two complementary tlungs of great importance were taking place. First, the various nuclei of civilization in the eastern mainland of Asia - the area that was to become the country called China - were coalescing into a single civiliza-

tion that can properly be called Chinese.” For example, the previously auto- nomous civilizations of Shang/Chou along the Yellow River and the civilization that later became the state of Ch’u in the Huai/Yangtze region increased their contacts and interpenetrated one another to such an extent that they could be regarded as parts of a single culture. Many other such cultural mergers were taking place at the same time. Second, the world-views of those cultures, which had been articulated in myths kept in the custody and memory of shamans and diviners, were being harmonized and reconciled; the shared world- view that emerged was couched in a newly invented vocabulary and rhetoric of philosophy by a rising new group of scholars and teachers. Religion being

a conservative force, the myths themselves survived this change, sometimes

for many centuries; they continued to influence religious practice into and beyond the Han; many of them were written down in one context or another

for clear differences in

and can be retrieved today. But the arena of progress in cosmology had moved from that of religion to that of philosophy. That philosophy was being articu- lated in the context of an increasingly unified, powerful, self-confident nat- ional culture during the Warring States Period. The relatively localized and weak culture areas of Late Neolithic and early Bronze Age Eurasia were, given

a sufficient expanse of time, conducive to the wide sharing of concepts and modes of expression; the more powerful and self-conscious civilizations and



empires of the first millenium B.C. tended conversely to foster the separate development of philosophies differentiated along national/cultural lines. Thus whde the common world-view created in previous millenia was the foundation on which the Warring States philosophers built, the edifice they created was quite different from those built on similar foundations elsewhere in the Old World. The distinguishing features of Chinese cosmology in its developed (i.e. late Warring States and early Han) form can be divided into descriptive char- acteristics and operational characteristics. The former include a cosmography describing heaven as round and earth as square, with heaven and earth as par- allel planes or curves, a polar axis/equatorial plane orientation, and a schema- tic division of the earth into a 3 x 3 grid or a multiple network of 3 x 3 grids. The operational characteristics include an organic conception of cosmic pro- cess, expressed in a cosmogony without a first cause or creator,yin-ymgg*h complementary dualism, the theory of wu hsing’ or the Five Phases, other theories of categories, and resonant action at a distance through the medium of ch ‘ij. It will readily be seen that the descriptive characteristics of the cosmology are embodied in the myths mentioned earlier - Kung Kung and the tilting of the axis, the great flood and its draining, etc. The schematic cosmography of nine super-continents, each divided into nine continents each of which is fur- ther divided into nine provinces, the most characteristic feature of the cosmo- graphy of Tsou Yen, derives directly from the myth of Yu the Great dividing the earth into nine provinces after the conquest of the flood. The further ela- boration of that mythic element by Tsou Yen is related directly to the Five Phases and the numerology of the magic square of three, as wdl be seen below. It remains to be shown here that the operational elements of Chinese cosmol- ogy also derive from early notions of the pre-philosophical era. It is often stated that the Chinese are the only major civilization without a creation myth. That assertion is not strictly ~0rrect.l~The Chinese have no myth of an external Creator, and in that respect they differ from the charac- teristic tradition of the Western cultures. But the Chinese did have an impor- tant cosmogonic myth (the locus classicus for which is Chuung-tzu 7), namely the differentiation of the phenomenal world from primordial chaos, hun-funk. For our purposes the importance of that myth (which is closely related to the cosmogonic myth of Pan Ku.that appears in late Han texts and may be of “southwestern barbarian” origin)is that it showsthe world to have come to be



without the intervention of an external creator; rather the evolution of the world from hun-run takes place because of the operation of an internal, uni- tary world-principle, the Tao. The Tao can be neither apprehended nor named, for to do so would imply the existence of other-than-Tao, a contradiction. Everything manifests Tao and operates according to Tao. One operational

principle characteristic of

cosmogony in the Chinese tradition is a statement to the effect that “one pro- duces two, which produces multiplicity”.” Since change is characteristic of the Tao, and produces duality and multi- plicity, the operational principles of Chinese cosmology, i.e. the manifesta- tions of Tao, are to be found in the interactions of things, which are arranged in numerical categories. The most important of those categories are those of two and five.’6 Duality - male and female, heaven and earth, light and dark, good and evil - is such a natural part of human experience that it might seem futile to enquire into the basis of Chinese dualistic philosophy. Nevertheless, in keeping with our interpretation of myth as cosmology, there is evidence that for the early Chinese the primary dualism, the one that mattered above all others, was that of heaven and earth. The abundant Shang jade ritual implements mentioned earlier are one indication of this. The gods Fu Hsi and NU Kua are assigne,d both great antiquity and great power in Chinese myths; Fu Hsi represents earth, NU Kua heaven. Portrayals of them with linked serpent tails, Fu Hsi holding a square, NU Kua holding a compass or disc, were a favorite element of Han religious art.” While we now have no examples of that iconography that greatly predate the Han, the mythic tradition of which the two gods, in that guise, are a part is very old. From some time during the Spring and Autumn Period, the technical termsyin andyang began to be used to denote the same dualistic concept. The terms seem originally to have meant “a hill- side in shade” and “a hillside in sunlight”; later they may also have taken on the meanings of “cool” and “warm’’.18 It is of great importance that the con- cept of dualism in China was always one of complementary dualism; note the intertwined tails of Fu Hsi and NU Kua. The Chinese concept was quite dif- ferent from the Zoroastrian struggle of light to overcome darkness, good to overcome evil; yin and yang were equally manifestations of Tao, and thus free from ethical values. In philosophical cosmology, yin and yang became the basis for dualistic categories, so that yin embraced earth, femaleness, cool- ness, darkness, moistness, and many other qualities; yang embraced their

Tao is change. Thus the most typical expression of



opposites. The dualism of earth and heaven remained paramount, and second- ary dualisms in the phenomenal world were related to that one. Equal in importance to the category of dualism was the category of five:

wu-hsing, the Five Phases.” As is well known, the five - denoted by the sym- bols wood, fire, earth, metal, and water - are paradigms of types of activity and change, rather than types of constituent matter. In keeping with the gen- eral principle that change is a manifestation of Tao, great attention was paid to transformations from each phase to the next. Various enumeration orders of the five were developed and used as explanatory devices for different types of change; for example, the “mutual production order” (given above) was used to describe the cycle of the seasons. A “mutual overcoming order” (fire overcomes metal, which overcomes wood, which overcomes earth, which overcomes water, wwch overcomes fire) was used most often to describe and explain cyclical changes resulting in death or extinction at each change in the cycle, such as the life cycle of crops. Later, when cosmology was brought to the service of political philosophy during the Han, it was used to explain the periodic overthrow of dynasties by their successors. Many other such enum- eration orders existed, some with specialized applications in music, metallur- gical alchemy, etc.*’ As was the case with yin and yang, long lists of correla- tions of different types of things with the Five Phases were made.” Thus for example there were five musical notes, five directions (including the center), five tastes, five colors, etc. In some cases a certain amount of forcing was re- quired, as with seasons; an artificial season of “midsummer” was created in order to produce a symmetry with other groups of five. Once the correlations and the enumeration orders were known by the natural philosopher, they could be used to predict, for example, the best annual planting sequence for grains and legumes, or the successive characteristics of cyclically transformed alchemical substances. The system of categories was made more flexible and useful when the Five Phases were combined with yin and yang - at a given time a thing might be correlated with one of the Five Phases and have either a yin or a yang aspect - to increase their explanatory framework. Various explanations have been attempted for why the Chinese counted five sueh Phases rather than some other number. Some of the explanations verge on casuistry: five is a ‘‘useful number numerologically”, or “there are five fingers on a hand”. I believe that the most plausible hypothesis is that the five are derived from the five visible planets. DeSantillana and von Dechend show that in all of the cultures that possessed some version of the Grand



Origin Myth, the five planets were regarded as important gods; by analogy we would expect that to be the case in China also. In fact, enumerations of cor- relates of the Five Phases prominently include five planets and five sage-em- perors (gods); so for example the planet Saturn and the god Huang Ti are linked with Phase earth, and thus also with the center - the axis mundi.22 From that example it will be clear that the assignment of the planets/gods to their Five Phases correlates was by no means arbitrary. To take another ex- ample, Jupiter, with its nearly 12-year orbit (corresponding to the 12 branches of the Chinese sexagenary cycle) was regarded as an important determinant of time ;23 Jupiter was correlated with Fu Hsi and the Phase wood (thus also with the direction east, the direction of the vernal equinox), so in Five Phase theory Fu Hsi becomes a god-regulator of earthly time as well as the god of earth it- self in yin-yang dualism. The term wu hsing itself provides a clue to the origin of the Five Phases in the five planets. Hsing’ has two meanings: “to move” and “a row or column”. The five planets answer both of those definitions: they are the only “stars” that move, hence they are conspicuous by their movement; and it was believed that the five planets lined up in a row at the beginning of an epoch of time, which then lasted until the planets came around into a row again. (In Han ast- ronomy much attention was paid to calculating concordance cycles of orbital times to determine the length of such epochs.24) Moreover, in the Chou the five planets were commonly called the “five walkers”, wu pum ;hsing (as a verb) and pu are near-synonyms. Finally, in Karlgren’s reconstruction of the pronunciation of archaic Chinese, there is a close pun between wu hsing (*g’?hg) and wu hangn (*g’wing), “five sovereigns”, the five sage-emperors or gods.25 .The hypothesis suggested here, then, is that for the early (i.e. Spring and Autumn Period or earlier) Chinese the five visible planets were gods, and that each god had sovereignty over certain types of activity and natural change. During the Warring States Period ths function of the gods as cosmic paradi- gms was abstracted into a philosophcal principle, for which the term wu hsing was invented; the origin of the concept suggested the choice of the term. It must be noted that the above reasoning cannot be regarded as a proof of the origin of the Five Phases, but only as a plausible hypothesis. Because of the lack of textual evidence predating the Warring States Period, it is very


early Chinese thought; one’s only recourse is to draw inferences about early

to establish the influence of planet-gods and their characteristics on



thought from later evidence, and that is full of uncertainties. Furthermore, other influences on the origin of the term and concept of wu hsing must be considered, for example the term wu fang”, five directions (later an important correlate group of the Five Phases), a term found in Shang oracle bone inscrip- tions.” Nevertheless, it does seem reasonable to believe that something like the Five Phases existed as a cosmological principle in the pre-phlosophical state of Chinese thought, expressed in myths about the characteristics of the gods of the five planets. So again we see that a key concept of Chinese science probably can be traced back to Chinese versions of widespread cosmological myths. As the philosophical concepts of Chinese cosmology developed during the Warring States Period, other theories of categories came into use: categories of three (including the triad of heaven, earth, and man, which became impor- tant in Han thought after Tung Chung-shu); of eight, based on the trigrams of the Book of Changes; of ten and twelve, based on the stems and branches of the sexagenery cycle, etc. Some categories, such as four and six,are found occasionally in the texts but seem not to have been widely used; they were mostly discarded by the time of the Han. All of these categories could be used in combination with yin-yang and the Five Phases as classificatory and explan- atory devices. It should be noted in passing that the categories of eight, ten, and twelve all obviously derive from concepts that greatly predate the Warring States Period. Essential to the theory of categories that characterized Chinese science as it was developed during the Warring States Period is the concept of resonance, i.e. simultaneous, spontaneous action at a distance between or among things in the same category. (The standard Chinese illustration of the concept is the “spontaneous” vibration of a lute string when a similarly tuned string on an- other lute nearby is plucked.) The Chinese universe, which was uncreated and which came into being through the spontaneous action of the Tao, was in ef- fect a gigantic organism, in whch every part could in theory affect the whole and every other part, as an infection in one’s toe can cause a fever to spread throughout the entire body. The categories of yin and yang, the Five Phases, etc., and their archaic antecedents, were a way of bringing some intellectual order to that organic, wholistic concept of the universe. The theory of cate- gories simply says that while everything in the universe can and does affect everything else, things in the same category or sub-category affect, resonate with, one another most strongly, regularly, and predictably. Resonance within



a category took place through the medium of ch ’i. Ch ’ioriginally had the mea- ning “breath”, but as a technical term it came to mean “specific activity””:

“All things resemble their ch ‘i,all things

the uncreated, organic nature of the universe was one of the earliest distin- guishing features of Chinese cosmology, as we noted earlier, the concept of re- sonance must have been implicit in the system from its origins. Nevertheless, one cannot with certainty isolate the concept in the mythology as we now have it, and it would appear that the invention of the technical term ch i was one of the more important achievements of Tsou Yen and his school in their transformation of archaic mythology into natural philosophy. Thus the Warring States philosophers who were responsible for the creation of the language of natural philosophy were far more than translaters of con- cepts from one system of expression to another. While it is true that “mytho- logical thought is not necessarily in essence (or in terms of ‘structure’) any less intellectual or ‘logical’ than philosophical or scientific thought”?9 it is true at the same time that the language of myth is less precise than the lang- uage of phdosophy. To speak of yin-yang and the Five Phases, and their inter- actions through the medium of ch ’i, allows much greater precision than to speak in allegories of heaven and earth and the five gods. Once a precise lang- uage of science came into practical use, a satisfyingly exact description of the cosmos and its nature could be attempted. Perhaps a single example will suf- fice to show how tightly woven the cloth of Tsou Yen’s natural philosophy could be. It was mentioned earlier that Tsou Yen described the world as being divided into nine great continents, each further divided and subdivided by nines. The basic cosmography obtained was a 3 x 3 grid system, an abstraction of the nine provinces of Yii the Great. A 3 x 3 grid is also the form of the magic square of three, which was invented in China around the time of Tsou Yen. Among the correlations of the Five Phases are numbers themselves; each Phase was correlated with two numbers between 1 and 10. If the numbers of the magic square of three are replaced by their wu hsing categories and read anti-clockwise, the “mutual overcoming” sequence of the Five Phases is ob- tained: See Figures 1 and 2. It is an open question whether the invention of the magic square led to the assignment of the numerical correlates of the Five Phases or whether manipu- lation of grid arrangements of the Five Phases together with their numerical correlates led to the invention of the magic square. In any case it is clear that natural philosophers in the late Chou and early Han were involved in some

repond to their own class.”” Since











wo /ia


Fig. 1.

ing any straight line produces a sum of 15.

The magic square of three; add-

Five Phase correlates of

the magic square, read anticlockwise, form the mutual overcoming sequence of the Five Phases.

Fig. 2.


very complex and abstract correlative speculation linking schematic cosmo- graphy, numerology, and the operations of Tao as expressed in the cyclical transformation of the Five Phases.m At the same time that such developments were taking place in natural phi- losophy, the myths in which the antecedents of the phdosophcal concepts had been conserved were being written down. They would no doubt have been intelligible as cosmological myths to educated men of the Warring States, but the frontier of scientific activity had long since moved elsewhere; the myths were understood increasingly in a religious sense only. Finally the sci- entific meaning of the language of myth was lost almost beyond retrieval; by the Latter Han skeptics could comment that if heaven were round and earth square, the corners would not fit. The depletion of the original meaning of the myths was hastened during the Han by the rise of state Confucianism. As the myth-bearing texts were ed- ited by the increasingly powerful Confucian scholars surrounding the throne, gods became sage-emperors, cosmic events were transplanted onto the ferru jima of China, and the newly secularized, human sage-emperors became para- gons of Confucian virtue, in order to bolster the ideology of the recently cre- ated imperial state. After the sage emperors had been firmly fixed in human roles, cosmic time tended to yield to historical time when the Chinese thought about their origins. The secularization of myth had begun as a part of the PO- litically-oriented philosophy of the followers of Confucius during the Warring States Period; it was effectively completed during the Former Han by Tung Chung-shu, the great synthesizer who united Confucianism and cosmology, erasing the distinction between ethics and natural philosophy. The effect was to enlist cosmology in the service of state ideology and to make natural philo- sophy subject to the political wishes of the ruling elite. Predictably a dead hand was laid on scientific creativity; the result of this “early over-investment



in untenable metaphysical as~umptions”~’was that working scientists tended

to operate outside the official mainstream, using the concepts and termino- logy embalmed in ideology by Tung Chung-shu only when lip service required it. So for example official astronomers after the Han worked with a mathema-

tical astronomy that changed and developed to meet new scientific demands placed on it, but for centuries they continued to write official documents in

terms of phdosophical theories that they no longer used in their

not all of natural philosophy was fossilized during the Han, and many sc‘ien- tists, often characterized asTaoists and working in such fields as alchemy and medicine outside the official philosophical establishment, developed to im- pressive lengths the basically cosmological principles of great antiquity that had been established as the foundation of Chinese science before the Han. Much time and many words have been spent (and in this writer’s opinion, wasted) in trying to deal with China’s “failure” to develop modern science. A useful answer will not be possible until we greatly increase our understand- ing of Chinese science and the society that produced it, and even then the question will have to be asked differently. But inasmuch as this article has em- phasized the antiquity and commonality of the myths that expressed an arch- aic cosmology widely shared throughout the ancient world, it will be useful to summarize and conclude our discussion with a brief consideration of how philosophers working at opposite ends of Asia around the 4th century B.C.

wrought great changes on the shared archaic cosmology, changes that perman- ently set their cultures’ sciences on divergent tracks.


In his

Timaeus, Plato lays down three principles that,

he says, must define

and limit any discussion of physics. These, as summarized by Cornford, are

as follows:33

(1) The eternal is the intelligible; what comes to be is the sensible. Since the world is sensible, it must be a thing that comes to be. (2) Whatever comes to be must have a cause. Therefore the world has a cause - a maker and father, but he is hard to find. (3) The work of any maker wiU be good only if he fashions it after an eternal model. The world is good, so its model must have been eternal.

A point-by-point comparison of this view with the basic tenets of Chinese

cosmology reveals clearly how widely the two views diverged, once the shift

had been made from myth to philosophy; in fact the divergence was virtually

required because of the lack of a creator-god in the Chinese version of the Grand Origin Myth. We have no Chinese text comparable to the Timaeus, but

if one were to summarize the general principles of Clunese cosmology as



Cornford summarized Plato’s, we would have something like the following:

(1) The eternal, which is the Tao, is beyond both intellection and the senses; it can be approached but not reached. The Tao manifests itself in change, which is both intelligible and sensible. (2) Since change is a manifestation of the eternal Tao, change is eternal; there is no external fust cause or creator. Coming-tebe and ceasing-to-be, accretion and dissolution, are manifestations of cyclical transformation having neither first cause nor fmal end. (3) Since the world has no fust cause it can have no external model. The world

is neither good nor bad, values.

While the myths of ancient Greece and ancient China were both examples of the pan-Eurasian Grand Origin Myth and thus embody common cosmolog- ical concepts, the radically different cosmogonic myths of the two cultures re- sulted in natural sciences founded on different principles, once the shift was made from mythology to natural philosophy in the two greatest civilizations of the first millenium B.C. The Greek view was characterized above all by an eternal first cause or creator external to the cosmos itself; thus the main thrust of Greek natural philosophy was to discover the laws laid down by the creator for the ordering of the cosmos. The Chinese organic world had a cosmogony but no first cause or creator, and the only eternal principle, Tao, was function- ally equivalent to change itself. Thus the maia thrust of Chinese natural philo- sophy was to look for organic relationships within the system, as anything ex- ternal was inconceivable. This led the Chinese to a profound philosophical apprehension of natural harmony and natural change; but unfortunately for the future of Chinese science, man was perhaps integrated too completely into the cosmic organism. For once political principles and ethical values began to be seen as integral to the world-system the idea of Tao was compromised, and cosmology tended to serve the interests of the ruling class rather than forming the basis for scientific enquiry. (The somewhat special relationship between man and the creator in the Greek perception perhaps allowed their intellectual heirs to view the natural world with greater detachment and clarity.) For ths and doubtless many other reasons there was in post-Han China a wide and widening gap between technological achievement and scientific theory ; that gap was never bridged, despite mighty achievements during the Sung, as it was to be during the Western Renaissance. The scientific breakthrough of the Renaissance came about in part because the study of mechanics occupied a central place in Western thought that it could not occupy for the Chinese. The principles inherited and transformed by Tsou Yen and his followers led the Chinese to a science of organism and an ideal of harmony like that of an

and cannot appropriately be described in terms of such human



ecosystem; the principles of their Western counterparts led the West to a sci- ence of mechanism and the harmony of a perfectly created universe. The Western view, having resulted in the creation of modern science, would seem to have the greater claim on our attention; but meanwhile modern science has begun to consider cosmological ideas that are philosophically, if not scientific- ally, reminiscent of early Chinese notions of organism and eternal, uncreated change. The search for understanding has not ended with ourselves, and mean- while to neglect the views of cosmology and natural phdosophy that informed Chinese civilization for so long would be to neglect a part of the richness of human experience that belongs to us all.

Dartmouth College


For a fuller treatment of this issue see John S.Major, “Topography and Cosmology in Early Han Thought: Chapter Four of the Huai-nun-tzu”,doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 1973, pp. 20-21; and N.J. Girardot, “The Problem of Creation Mythology in the Study of Chinese Religion”, History of Religion 15, 4: 289-318 (May, 1976), pp. 294-297. Giorgio DeSantillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet’s Mill. Boston, Gambit Press, 1969. The nature of this book’s argument is such that it will be difficult to give specific page references to it below, but the book taken as a whole is an important part of the background of this article. Cesare Emiliani et aL, in “Paleoclimatological Analysis of Late Quaternary Cores from the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico”, Science 189:1083-88 (September 1975) show that a great flood caused by receding glaciation, and capable of flooding inhabited coastal areas throughout the world, occurred about 11,600 years ago. They postulate that this “gave rise to the deluge stones common to many traditions” (p. 1087) and note that the date given coincides precisely with Plato’s date for the great flood and the sinking of Atlantis [ Timeus, 23e.j Plato’s date, being based on irrelevant criteria, is surely a coinci- dence, but the suggestion that the actual event produced the common mythic structure of the flood is highly plausible. Nevertheless, the symbolism of that structure more pro- bably refers to cosmology (i.e. the consequences of the splitting apart of heaven and earth) than to a single event preserved in the collective human memory. See Judith Treistman, The Prehistory of China. New York, American Museum of Nat- ural History/Doubleday and Co., 1970, passim; Ping-ti Ho, The Cradle of rhe East. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1975;K.C. Chang, Early Chinese Civilization. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1976. See also John S. Major, review of Ho and Chang, Isis, December 1977. For an hypothesis on the transmission of the Eurasian Grand Origin Myth to Shang China through the ancestors of the Ch’u people,

see John

Religion, February 1978.

S. Major, ‘Research Priorities in the Study of Ch’u Religion’, Hisrory of



E.G. Pulleyblank, ‘‘The Chinese Cyclical Signs and the Origins of the Alphabet”, paper presented to the Western Branch of the American Oriental Society, Stanford University, (California, March 23,1975). The best general account of Chinese mythology is given in Derk Bodde, “Myths of

Ancient China”, in Samuel N. Kramer,

Doubleday and Co., 1961, pp369-406. Bodde also deals with the differences between

Karlgren’s and Eberhard’s approaches to Chinese mythology.

Huai-nan hung-lieh chi-chieh’, ed. Liu Shu-ya‘. Shang-hai, Commercial Press, 1926, 4:4b. Hereafter HNT. * Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China. Seven vols. projected; Cambridge, at the University Press, 1965. III:214. Hereafter Needham, SCC. G. Schlegel, Uranographie Chinoise. (Leiden, 1875), p.525. Quoted in translation in desantillana and von Dechend, p. 135. lo HNT 3:lb-2. l1 See deSantillana and von Dechend, p.62, for a discussion of the occurrence of the “round heaven-square earth” formula in the myths of many other cultures. Needham, SCC III:333-9. l3 Treistman, passim. l4 For a fuller treatment of this question see Girardot, pp. 298-304. lS See for example Lao-tzu 42, HNT 1, HNT 7. l6 Derk Bodde, ‘Types of Chinese Categorical Thinking”, Journal ofrhe American Or-

ed., Mythologies of rhe Ancient World. New Y ork,

iental Sociery 59.2:200-19 (1939), and 2 32-26 a.

l7 Compare the intertwined bodies and tails of the two dragons - yh and yang?- on the Changsha Silk Painting discovered at Ma-wang-tui. See An Chih-minr, “Ch’angsha hsin

fa-hsien-ti Hsi-Han po-hua shih-t’ an”’, Kaokut 124:43-53 (1973, no. 1). ’*Jordan Paper, “The Early Development of Chinese Cosmology”, paper presented at

the 29th International Congress of Orientalists, (Paris, July 16-22, 1973). l9 Because the term wu hsing has none of the connotations of “basic matter” of the Greek “elements”, sroicheion, this translation, suggested by Prof. N. Sivin, is pre- ferable to the conventional “five elements”.

Needham, SCC 11, passim, but especially pp.

’*See the table of correlations in Needham, SCC II:262-3. Needham, SCC III:398. Cf. HNT 4:la: “Everything that is upon the earth lies within the six cardinal points and the outer limits of the four directions. The sun and moon illumine it, the stars and planets rule it. The four seasons regulate it, r’ai-suiu [invisible counter-orbital correlate

of Jupiter] controls it.” Nathan Sivin, “Cosmos and Computation in Early Chinese Mathematical Astronomy”, T’oungPao55:l-73 (1969), pp.9,64-67.

25 Bernhard Karlgren, “Grammatica Serica Recensa”, Bulletin of rhe Museum of Fur

Eastern Antiquities 29:l-332



26 Yang Hsiang-k’uei”, “Wu hsing shuo ti ch’i-yuan chi ch’i yen-pienw”, Chung-kuo

ku-tai che-hsuehlun-ts’ungX,(Peking, 1957), pp. 13-31.

27 For a discussion of the term ch ’isee Nathan Sivin, Chinese Alchemy : Preliminary

Studies, Cambridge (Harvard University Press, 1968). Preface, p. xvii. za HNT4:7b.

29 The position of Ltvi-Straws, summarized by Girardot, p. 3 11.



Major, ‘Topography and Cosmology’, pp. 103-107. See also John S. Major, ’The Five Phases, Magic Squares, and Schematic Cosmography’, paper presented at the Work- shop on Classical Chinese Thought, Harvard University, August 1976.

31 Nathan Sivin, “Copemicus in China”, Colloquia Copemica II:63-122. Ossolineum,

1973. P. 70 n. 6.

Ibid p. 71 ; also Nathan Sivin, “Cosmosand Computation in Early Chinese Mathemat- ical Astronomy”, passim.

33 Plato, Timaeus, tr. F. M. Cornford. Library of Liberal Arts 106,(New York, Bobbs-

Merrill, 1959). p. 15.




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