An Introduction to the Occult Arts in China

 

 

李建民(中央研究院歷史語言研究所)

Li Jianmin

 

 


The Chinese term for "occult arts"(數術shushu) refers to a number of systems for determining fate. Originating in ancient China, shushu has received much attention throughout Chinese history. In ancient times, "shu"數("numbers") were considered a part of nature, and shushu (literally "art of numbers") was perceived as a system of natural laws governing the cosmos. Occult arts included both techniques and theories for understanding the relationship between human beings and the cosmos. In other words, shushu was both a traditional Chinese view of the universe and a variety of divination techniques based on this view. Thus,"shu"has the meaning of both "numbers" and "calculation."Because of the significance attributed to numbers, shushu is not synonymous with mathematics and impiles more than numerology. For instance, in shushu, numbers were perceived as either ominous or auspicious, and can therefore represent fate. Hence, to master "numbers" was to both explicate the past and envision the future, as stated simply by Yan Shigu 顏師古(581-645), a scholar of the classics:"Occult arts are divination."Further, in addition to numerology, shushu eventually came to include the study of various sorts of correspondences, including concepts related to time and space.
There are two traditional views concerning the source of Occult Arts in China. The first, scholars who consider all studies of yinyang and the Five Phases to have originated with Zou Yan 鄒衍 (fl. 300 BC). A second view, as propounded for example in the"Occult Arts"section of the Siku quanshu 四庫全書, a massive imperial collection of all manner of writings compiled in 1782, claims that study of the occult arts"is actually a branch of the study of the Changes."
However, both of these views are inaccurate. As more and more newly-excavated materials reveal, rather than coming from any one figure, the notions of yinyang and the Five Phases originated from a view of the universe that had been extracted from the practice of astronomy, calendrical calculations, and turtle-shell divination. The major Chinese occult arts took shape during the three hundred years from the Warring States period to the Western Han. Pre-Qin scholars including both Confucian and Daoist thinkers framed their thoughts within this view of the universe. For example, the ideas attributed to the Yellow Emperor and Laozi in the early Han and the cosmological theories discussed in the apocrypha (chenwei讖緯) in later years are all related to the occult arts.
According to Li Ling's recent research, Chinese divination can be divided into three main branches: astrology and cosmic models (式占 shizhan) related to the calendar; tortoise-shell reading and divination by milfoil (筮占 shizhan) based on the worship of the spirits of animals or plants; and dream interpretation, appeasement (厭劾yan ke) and propitiation (祠禳ci rang) related to ghosts and their effects on the human body.
The bibliographic section of the Hanshu漢書 states that the Han imperial library held 2,558 fascicles of writings on the occult arts shushu. These were categorized into six branches: astronomy, the calender, the Five Phases (wuxing), tortoise-shell reading (蓍龜), assorted methods of prognostication (雜占), and physiognomy (形法). "Wuxing"refers to the mutual resonance between the five phases (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth) which in ancient China were regarded as the basic forces underlying everything in the world. The Wuxing are correlated with the seasons and directions. Most of the books listed under wuxing in the Hanshu bibliography concern cosmic models for selecting auspicious days. After the Han dynasty, shushu was became a sub-category of the "Five Phases"in the dynastic histories and other relevant texts, thus expanding the concept of"the Five Phases"to include various types of divination associated with shushu. The Wuxing dayi General Principles of the Five Phases by Xiao Ji蕭吉 (late sixth century) summarizes the major theories of shushu before the Sui Dynasty.
Astronomy and the calender were eventually separated from the occult arts. The editors of the eighteenth century Siku quanshu included seven categories under the term "occult arts": mathematics(數學shuxue), divination by celestial phenomena (占候zhanhou), assessments of dwellings and tombs (相宅相墓 xiangzhai, xiangmu), divination, fortune telling and physiognomy (命書相書 mingshu, xiangshu), yinyang and the five phases, and miscellaneous arts (雜技術).
In addition, in ancient times occult arts and techniques for preserving life (方技fangji) were jointly referred to as"fangshu方術."For example, in the "Treatise on Fangshu"in the HouHan Shu (History of the Later Han), techniques for preserving life (fangji) included several branches aimed at preserving health (養生yangsheng), such as medical techniques, sexual techniques, and the ways of the immortals (神仙shenxian). Chapters on fangshu in the dynastic histories and encyclopedias (類書leishu) often discussed medicine. Occult arts and techniques for preserving life are in fact two interrelated branches of knowledge.
Books on occult arts and on technology and skills (such as medicine) share several common characteristics. Authorship is anonymous. Books are ascribed to legendary figures or emperors whose conversations were allegedly recorded in the books. Otherwise, it is claimed that the techniques or skills recorded in these books are somehow related to these legendary figures. In addition, one book may incorporate various works from different periods and of a different nature. The writings of a teacher and his disciple(s) may be collected in the same book. Another common characteristic is that knowledge of occult arts was transmitted secretly from master to disciple. Because of this secrecy, technical terms and formulas of occult arts were often lost or modified. However, occult arts still maintained a certain level of consistency.
Although quite a few techniques were lost before the Tang dynasty, newly unearthed materials on occult arts can help us to reach a new understanding of the major trends of occult arts in pre-Tang times. (For more information on these newly unearthed materials on occult arts, see Li Ling's, Zhongguo fangshu kao [A Study of Chinese Occult Arts]). These artifacts indicate that the occult arts developed rapidly during the Zhou and Qin dynasties (about 600-200 B.C.). The terminology and narrative format of the occult arts at this time had a major influence on later periods.
These newly discovered materials reveal that during the Warring States, Qin, and Han periods, one trend of the occult arts was to correlate shu, to combine time, position and direction, and even speculation about spirits. This development characterizes the Chinese concern with interaction and resonance in cosmic rhythms.
Zhang Xuecheng章學誠 (1738-1801), a prominent Qing Dynasty scholar, suggested that books of the occult arts were originally based on illustrations and charts. In the Song dynasty, the study of "yi"(易, the hexagrams of the Book of Changes) included a branch for the"study of charts and numbers"(圖數之學tushu zhixue). The recently unearthed artifacts do show that illustrations and numbers used in coordination were an important part of books on the occult arts.
Consider, for instance, the "Illustration of a Human Figure" (人字圖Renzi tu), on the silk documents unearthed from the Mawangdui tombs at Changsha in 1973. The character"zi"字 in"Renzi"人字 means childbirth. This illustration, in which certain bodily locations are related to time and date of birth, is used to predict the fate or possible personality of a newly-born baby. The"Renzi"illustration uses the figure of a human body to represent the four seasons. It also locates the Earthly Branches 地支 at the seven parts of a human body to predict the fortune of the baby. The twelve Earthly Branches are a sequence of time markers, used for both the monthly and the diurnal double-hour cycles. Why does this illustration take the human figure as its foundation?
According to the notes on the illustration, different connotations were ascribed to different parts of the human body. For example, the head represents"wealth, "while the bottom of the feet represents"low status,"the arm-pits correspond to"love"and the hands represent"cleverness."In other words, the"Renzi"illustration constructs an analogy between body parts and the fortune of a baby. The male and female vital vapors (qi) were considered to corresponded to the different elements of the Earthly Branches as used in the calender. Emblematic of the four seasons, the Earthly Branches in the"Human Figure Illustration"represent changes in energy through the year. Readers of the illustration need to begin from the head and end at the genitalia, a procedure symbolizing the transitions of the four seasons. Finally, this illustration sets seven as a unit number. Here shu is regarded as an independent entity that exists before and after heaven and earth. The regularity of shu further represents the notion of a fixed "number" or fate which affects people and events. In sum, the inner logic of the occult arts as expressed in the"Renzi"illustration is shown by the relations between the four seasons, yinyang, and numbers. The metaphorical meanings of different body parts in the illustration predict the possible personalities of a baby.
The"Yucang maibao tu "or"Burying the Afterbirth Chart Secreted by Yu"禹藏埋胞圖, another silk document discovered at Mawangdui, reveals a similar framework of interactions between heaven and humans. The "bao"胞 in "maibao"refers to afterbirth. People in ancient China used this chart to select the proper time, place, and direction to bury the afterbirth, in order influence the fate, intelligence and life-span of a new-born baby.
This chart consists of three parts: 1) The whole chart is a large square made of twelve small squares representing the twelve months. The twelve squares are arranged in a clockwise order starting from the bottom left square, which is labeled "First Month." The rest of the squares are labeled sequentially. 2) Each monthly square is divided into twelve directions, by a diagram called"ersheng sigou tu"二蠅四鉤圖 (chart of two cords and four hooks). 3) Each of the twelve monthly squares is marked with two"death"positions and 10 numbers, ranging from 20 to 120. The"death"positions and numbers differ for each month. The person who buries the afterbirth has to strictly observe several rules concerning time, direction, and numbers.
The"ersheng sigou tu"(chart of two cords and four hooks) is particularly interesting. According to the Tianwen 天文 "Celestial Patterns" chapter of the Huainan zi准南子, heaven is supported by two cords and four hooks. The two cords intersect each other perpendicularly through the center of heaven. The four corners of heaven are tied and supported by the four hooks. When read in conjunction with the Twelve Earthly Branches, the "Chart of two cords and four hooks" becomes a model of the universe. The two cords and four hooks can be interpreted as representing "temporal spaces," an important concept for understanding the occult arts. Similar charts or figures of temporal spaces can also be seen in devices, such the liubo六博 chart and the guiju mirror規矩鏡 (or TLV diagram) that embodied the ancient view of the cosmos. The twelve-month chart of"Burying the Afterbirth Secreted by Yu"is just such a chart. The positions of"dashi"(大時,Great Period) or"xiaoshi"(小時,Small Period) are unlucky positions to bury the afterbirth, and are the two positions labeled"death"for each month. Dashi originated from observations of the Year Star (Jupiter), while"xiaoshi"was based on observations of either the Little Dipper (斗 柄doubing), or of the lunar-founding (月建yuejian) which was based on observation of the Big Dipper.
The"Chart of Burying the Afterbirth Secreted by Yu" incorporates all the elements used in the practice of occult arts in later generations. The chart as a whole is a map with the north at the bottom and the south at the top, west at the right and east at the left. The internal charts (twelve-month charts) are all based on the universal layout of the two cords and four hooks. Numbers in the small charts symbolize the length of one's life. Therefore, in this chart heaven, earth (directions), and man (life-span) form a set of corresponding referents. A baby's future is connected with the action of burying the afterbirth. The intermediary between the interactions is the "vital vapor" (qi) that effects the correspondence between similar or related matters.
This method of correlative thinking relies on symbolic and formulaic language to derive endless inferences from any given reference point. Zou Yan's biography, in the Meng Xun chapter 孟荀列傳 of the Shiji史記, describes his techniques with the following:"He would first test his theory on a small scale, and then extrapolated through inference until it encompassed everything."Chinese traditional practical technologies and skills adopted this mode of thinking, with classical Chinese medicine being a well-known example.
The documents demonstrate that the occult arts were of pragmatic value, and were, and continue to be, integrated and into the daily lives of ordinary people. For example, in ancient times, manuals on occult arts were published for the general public and communities in modern China still use almanacs incorporating the occult arts. On the other hand, because occult arts were often used to predict the future of state affairs, and because their mysterious character was considered a threat to the established order, the practice of occult arts has been inseparable from the manipulation of political power. Therefore, knowledge of the occult arts, especially astronomy and astrology, was usually controlled by the government which often forbade private study in these fields.
The prominent scholar Gu Jiegang 顧頡剛(1883-1980) had once said that among all branches of Chinese learning, the occult arts is the most difficult, and that the most impenetrable sections of books on military arts or medicine are mostly related to the occult arts. The importance of the study of the occult arts is not limited to understanding the occult arts themselves. The occult arts had an important influence on many aspects of traditional Chinese culture, and were a major force throughout Chinese history.

Selected Bibliography
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volumes. This work covers astrology, divination, the selection of
auspicious days, fortune-telling, physiognomy and other techniques.
Liu, Daochao, trans. and commentary. Xieji bianfang shu [協紀辯方書]
(1741)Nanning:Guangxi renmin chubanshe, 1993.
Nakamura, Shohachi. Goygo taigi kochu [Commentary on the General
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Harper, Donald. "Warring states, qin, and Han manuscripts related to

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Notes on figures.
Figure 1. Illustration of Two Cords and Four Hooks. This can be interpreted as a representation of

"temporal spaces."


Figure 2: Illustration of Human Figure. Ma, Jixing. Mawangdui guyishu kaoshi


[Notes on ancient medical books from mawangdui].


(Changsha:Hunan kexue jishu chubanshe, 1992.):815.


Figure 3: Burying the Afterbirth Chart Collected by Yu. Committee of Silk


Documents from Mawangdui,ed. Mawangdui hanmu boshu (si) [Silk


documents from Mawangdui,IV]. (Beijing:wenwu chubanshe,


1985);134.


Figure 4. Illustration of Temporal Spaces on the Liubo Board 六博棋.(Wood


statues playing Liubo六博棋, unearthed from Eastern Han tomb(s) at


Wuwei county, Gansu Province).Ding, Xiaoyu. Zhongguo guyong


baimiao [Sketches of ancient Chinese wooden


statues].(Beijing:Beijing gondyi meishu chubanshe,1991):48.


Figure 5. Divination by Gambling 博局占. Yiwan hanmujiandu [Wooden


tablets from Han tomb(s) at Yiwan].(Beijing:Zhonghua


shuju,1997):125.