Fundamental Principles

The three cosmic board systems, as is true of all other forms of shushu, operated under the same general basic principles that one encounters in traditional Chinese culture. Certain aspects of these basic principles are characteristically relevant and essential to the understanding of these three cosmic board systems. This chapter summarizes the background knowledge that will be helpful to the reader in understanding these systems.

The neo-Confucian ideas of li, qi and shu

The traditional Chinese belief in the harmony of nature was based on the close relationship between heaven (tian earth (di ±tii), and man (ren A), the so-called 'three powers' (sancai H/f). This worldview conceived of the harmonious cooperation of all matters in the universe, arising from the fact that they are all parts of a hierarchy of wholes forming a cosmic, organic pattern and obeying the internal laws of their own natures. The great Song neo-Confucianist Zhu Xi (1130-1200) identified two fundamental entities in nature, namely li ii and qi H. He said, 'Throughout the universe there is no qi without li, nor li without qi.' Elucidating these two entities further, he added:

Throughout heaven and earth there is li and there is qi. Li is the Dao (that organizes) all forms (xing from above and the root from which all things are produced. Qi is the instrument (qi f§) that (composes) all forms from below, and the tools and raw material with which all things are made. Thus men and all other things must receive this li in their moment of coming into existence, and thus obtain their specific nature (xing '14). They must also receive this qi in order to get their form (xing).

Hence Zhu Xi visualized li as something similar to a cosmic and organic pattern and qi as something reminding us of our modern concept of matter-energy, if not also the ancient ideas of pneuma and prana of the Greeks and the Hindus.1

fundamental principles

Li and qi in operation give rise to another entity, shu Iabout which Zhu Xi said: 'When there is li there is qi, and when there is qi there is shu. That is to say, shu comes between (them).'

The word 'shu' has a wide range of meanings. In its modern sense it generally refers to 'numbers', 'mathematics' and 'counting'. Less frequently it has the sense of 'to reprimand', 'to discriminate' or 'an art'. In our present context, however, it embraces not only 'mathematics' and 'numerology' but also 'calendrical science' and 'prognostications from the calendar' (lishu JliStiO as well as the 'fate and destiny' of people and things at various levels, from the country as a whole to the individual. The various kinds of 'destiny' are known as tianshu (predestination of heaven), mingshu -aplSf (fate), dingshu (predestination), and yunshu (destiny-cycle). These are in addition to the general term shushu i$Tl$( that formerly embraced mathematics, astronomy and astrology, divination and the three cosmic boards. More generally, shu refers to the way that the forces of nature operate. The mystic philosopher Zhuangzi remarked about the year 290 bc:2 'There is something which one gets from without and responds to from within but cannot express in words. It is the shu that exists in it.' Taking heed of Zhuangzi's advice, one needs go no further to make futile attempts to express shu in words or to render it into another language.

Unlike in Europe, science and the humanities have never parted company in traditional China, where every conceivable thing or phenomenon, from astronomy to astrology, from alchemy to magic, from ethics to politics, and from philosophy to the art of divination, was considered to operate under the same principles of li, qi and shu according to Zhu Xi's school of neo-Confucianism. A minor branch of neo-Confucianism known as the school of Idealism of the Mind, founded by Liu Jiuyuan S^L^ij (Liu Xiangshan IHii^LLl) (1139-1192), emphasized personal intuition. Later, it was developed further by Wang Yangming iPil'BJ (Wang Shouren 3EtF{Z) (14721520), who advocated investigating li within one's inner self. Liu and Wang generated much debate on Zhu Xi's teaching among the literati in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially during the time when they were responding to the introduction of Aristotelian science by the early Jesuits. Modifications to and new interpretations of the terms li, qi and shu were made by scholars like Fang Kongzhao v^-FL^n (1591-1655), Fang Yizhi 1j\iX® (1611-1671) and You Yi (1614P-1684).3 However, the methods of the three cosmic boards had already come to maturity by the time of the Northern Song and commentators on the three cosmic boards generally quoted from the sayings of Zhu Xi.

Yin, Yang and wuxing

Zhu Xi identified li as Taiji j^M (variously rendered as 'Supreme Ultimate' and 'Supreme Pole'), the ultimate source of all things. Zhou Dunyi MH^Sf (1017-1073) had said earlier:4

The Taiji moves and produces Yang. When movement reaches a limit it comes to rest. The Taiji at rest produces Yin. When the state of rest reaches its limit it returns to a state of motion. Motion and rest alternate, each being the source of the other. Yin and Yang take up their appointed functions to establish the 'Two Forces' (liangyi MiH). Yang is transformed by combining with Yin, and producing Water, Fire, Wood, Metal and Earth. Then the five qi diffuse harmoniously, and the four seasons take their course.

Together Water, Fire, Wood, Metal and Earth form the five xing (wuxing), a cluster of power that has been rendered variously as the 'Five Phases', 'Five Agents', 'Five Elements', etc. These translations vary according to the purposes of individual writers. However, in the present context we shall also be referring to the wuxing undergoing phases of change according to the seasons. To avoid further ambiguity because of these additional phases, I have left the term 'wuxing' as it is here without translating it. It is sufficient for our present purposes to think of the wuxing as five powerful forces or agents that are in continuous, cyclic motion, unlike the 'fundamental' substances that modern chemists call 'elements'. These five powerful forces find parallel in the Four Elements of the ancient Greeks, and the catvarimaha-bhutani in Buddhism.5 It is interesting to note that when the Jesuits introduced the Four Elements to China the word 'element' was rendered into Chinese as 'yuan tu', but when they talked about the Chinese wuxing they regarded them as 'Five Elements'.

Much has been written on the concept of wuxing. Among the earliest works on the subject are the Huainanzi fBffirF' (Book of the Prince of Huainan) written by a group of scholars at the household of Liu An S'lic (c.120 bc), and Dong Zhongshu's Jlfti? (fl. 179-93 bc) Chunqiu fanlu (Abundant1 Dewdrops in Spring-and-Autumn). However, for the study of shushu the most important work has been Xiao Ji's lp Wuxing dayi EiT^ft (Important Meanings of the Wuxing), for which the reader can refer to a recent work by Kalinowski.6 It suffices to give only the bare minimum of description here to facilitate an understanding of the three cosmic boards.

The wuxing operate under two fundamental principles: that of Mutual Production (xiangsheng ffi^fe) and that of Mutual Conquest (xiangke ffi&J) (see Figure 2.1). In the order of Mutual Production, Water produces Wood, Wood produces Fire, Fire produces Earth, Earth produces Metal, and Metal produces Wood. The process operates in a cycle. In the order of Mutual Conquest, Water conquers Fire, which conquers Metal, which conquers Wood, which conquers Earth, and which conquers Water. The process again operates in a cycle. The word lke ®1' is also rendered here as 'control' and 'subjugate' depending on the context.

From the two fundamental principles of Mutual Production and Mutual Conquest two corollaries are deduced, e.g. the principle of Control (xiangzhi



-» production

Figure 2.1 Order of Mutual Production and Conquest of wuxing.

-» production

Figure 2.1 Order of Mutual Production and Conquest of wuxing.

ffi rtr!l) and the principle of Masking (xianghua ^EHk). The principle of Control says that Water conquers Fire but the process can be controlled by Earth (which controls Water)-, Fire conquers Metal but the process can be controlled by Water; Metal conquers Wood but the process can be controlled by Fire; Wood conquers Earth but the process can be controlled by Metal; and Earth conquers Water but the process can be controlled by Wood. In the principle of Masking, we find that Water conquers Fire but the process can be masked by Wood (which replenishes or produces more Fire); Fire conquers Metal but the process can be masked by Earth; Metal conquers Wood but the process can be masked by Water; Wood conquers Earth but the process can be masked by Fire; and Earth conquers Water but the process can be masked by Metal. In the principle of Control, the ancient Chinese seemed to be treading the path of thought that modern scientists use to explain the ecological balance of the animal species. For example, the ladybird feeds on the aphid, but a species of bird in turn feeds on the ladybird. The presence of this kind of bird is beneficial to the aphid because it thins the number of ladybirds. We can also cite an example in public health to show the principle of Masking at work. The number of mosquitoes around the house may be kept down by spraying the rooms with insecticides. However, if empty tins and bottles are left all over the backyard for water to accumulate and mosquitoes to breed in, there will still be mosquitoes around the place. These principles are the very basics that any student of the three cosmic boards or the art of fate-calculation must first learn.

Ordinals and the sexagenary cycle

According to the shushu theorists, the wuxing possess both qi and material forms (zbi M). Their qi circulate in the sky and heavens (tian 5c) above, while their material forms find their places on the earth (di ife) below. Their motion and rest, or their expansion and contraction, give rise to the two states of Yang and Yin Pi. Hence the ordinals of the ten 'celestial stems' (tiangan and those of the 12 'terrestrial branches' (dizhi M^L) are produced.7 (See Table 2.1.)

Table 2.1


Celestial stem

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