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Chinese Cosmogony by Tan Chung

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Man-Nature Synthesis
by Tan Chung

This is not an in-depth study of ancient Chinese cosmogony as it requires a specialization of ancient philosophical writings and a close acquaintance with the rich folklore of China.

However, it can be said for certain that the theories of yin and yang and the five elements are a part of the ancient Chinese cosmogony. Shangshu Book of Documents) contains the earliest textual reference of wuxing (five elements).

    First we have the five elements water, fire, wood, metal and earth. Water moistens downwards. Fire heats upwards. Wood is both crooked and straight. Metal can be changed into various shapes. Earth is for planting crops. Moistening downwards makes the salty taste. Heating upwards makes the bitter taste. Crookedness and straightness make the sour taste. Changing into shapes makes the pungent taste. Crops make the sweet taste.1

Chinese civilization was born with agriculture. Here Shangshu speaks of the five elements in the words of an ancient Chinese farmer who also had handicraft skills in making wood and metal into implements.

Kong Yinda (ad 574-648) was an important Tang court-scholar who was one of the ancient authorities in expounding the Confucian cultural tradition. While annotating Liji (Book of Rites), Kong wrote that water was created in the eleventh month, fire in the sixth, wood in the first, metal in the eighth and earth in the third month.

2 In agriculture, life was incorporated into the seasonal changes of the year which came to mankind repeatedly as a routine. Kong Yinda’s comments are appended to one of the three chapters on yueling (lunar order) which deal with the twelve lunar months of the year.

Kong Yinda, in his commentary on the Shangshu passage cited above, elaborates the ancient Chinese creation of the five elements in the xici (preface) of Yijing (Book of Change).

    Heaven starts with one, Earth two, Heaven three, Earth four, Heaven five, Earth six, Heaven seven, Earth eight, Heaven nine, Earth ten.

This, said Kong, was the numbering in which the five elements were created. He continues:

    Heaven, being one, created water. Earth, being two, created fire. Heaven, being three, created wood. Earth, being four, created metal. Heaven, being five, created earth.

At this point, Heaven and Earth were without spouse.

    Earth, being six, created water. Heaven, being seven, created fire. Earth, being eight, created wood. Heaven being nine, created metal. Earth, being ten, created earth.

In this way yin and yang found their matches, and the beings of the universe took their forms.3

Jin Chunfeng, a modern Chinese scholar, has tried to find a diagram which can categorize traditional Chinese thought. He constructed the yueling tushi (diagram of [[lunar [order]]) with the yin and yang and the five elements as its nucleus. He thinks that earth was the centre of the agricultural economic activities in ancient times, hence being placed in the centre (while wood, metal, fire, water are placed in the east, west, south, north respectively). The ancient Chinese linked space with time. East was linked with spring, south with summer, west with autumn, and north with winter. Earth controlled the four seasons and was the identification of men.

Jin thinks that the above-mentioned identifications have outlined the ecological environment of the cradle of Chinese civilization in the valley of the middle stream of the Yellow River (during the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties). Men in this country noticed that when the east wind blew there came spring, therefore the east created spring and wood. In summer, hot wind came from the south which was the creator of fire and summer. Autumn was the harvest season. When the west wind blew, the crops turned golden, hence west with autumn and metal was taken in one category. Winter brought cold wind from the north, and marked the time of hiding and storing which characterized water.4

Lushi chungiu (Lu Buwei’s edition of Spring and Autumn) associates the five elements with five colours, and also with the development of ancient Chinese history. According to the textual tradition, Chinese civilization began with the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi). During the time of Huangdi the spirit of earth prevailed and its colour was yellow — hence the yellow earth and Yellow Emperor. During the time of Yu (the first king of the Xia dynasty), there was an exuberant vegetation in all the seasons which presented the colour of wood, i.e., green. During the time of Tang (the first king of Shang dynasty), the spirit of metal prevailed, presenting white colour. During the time of King Wen of Zhou, the spirit of fire prevailed, presenting red colour. Fire would be replaced by water which would present black colour. Water would, then, be absorbed by earth, and the rotation of the five elements would continue endlessly till eternity.5

The representative colours of the various seasons are the visual representations of the ecological environment. It makes sense to associate spring with green and wood as it is the season of growth of vegetation. Summer is associated with red and fire, as it is the hottest season with maximum sunshine. Associating autumn with white and metal needs a little more imagination. This probably had something to do with the withering of vegetation and transformation of a rich colourful world into whitish grey. Similarly the association of winter with water and black may be explained by the cold which forced people into hiding, thus bringing darkness. Besides this, black or other dark colours are used more often in winters.

The historical reference in Lushi chungiu is also interesting. The Chinese civilization began with the beginning of agricultural pursuit which was to get some yield from the yellow earth, with the Yellow Emperor being a typical symbol. Then, plantation brought about the increasing importance of wood and prevalence of green colour during the time of Yu which showed a stage of economic advancement. Further advancement was made by the utilization of metal during the time of Tang (which, according to Chinese tradition, was nearly a thousand years after Yu). The Shang dynasty founded by Tang was a period of magnificent bronze wares which are found in almost all the major museums of the world. King Wen of Zhou ushered in a new era of more brisk human activities with larger territories and greater population brought under the pale of Chinese civilization. The prevalence of fire signified cooking, lighting, handicraft industry and war.

Dong Zhongshu (176-104 bc), the famous Han prime minister who was responsible for creating a state ideology in the name of Confucius, used human temperament to analyze seasonal changes. Spring was the expression of happiness, there was warmth. The sun was the embodiment of joy and ecstasy which created summer. Autumn was created by anger. Sorrow made winter which was dominated by the concentration of yin, just like the sun marked the concentration of yang. Thus, spring was the spirit of love, summer was of joy, autumn of anger, and winter of sorrow. The spirit of love meant creation; that of joy meant growth; that of anger, success; that of sorrow, death and end. He concluded that:

    The dynamics of the four seasons are the ways

    guiding father and son. The will of Heaven and Earth is

    the relationship between the ruler and subject. The logic

    of yin and yang is the law of the sages.6

The Eight Trigrams (bagus) is a special growth of the Chinese cultural tradition in which both the yin and yang and the five elements play a vital role. There is no phenomenon in the universe which cannot be explained by the experts of the Eight Trigrams. Special theories of the working of the Eight Trigrams are found in the Chinese lunar calendar, and in the life of the users of the calendar even to this day of modern science and technology. Each day of the calendar is allotted one of the five elements, which dominates for two consecutive days and give way to the next in a rotation which works in the following manner :

    wood wood water water earth earth fire fire wood wood

    water water metal metal fire fire

Chinese fortune-tellers essentially use the five elements for their calculations. The five elements form a circle of one constraining the other: water constrains fire, fire constrains metal, metal constrains wood, wood constrains earth, earth constrains water. As each birth sign is associated with one of the five elements, matchmakers would normally ensure that the wife’s element does not constrain that of the husband as it would result in endless family trouble. But the element of the husband constraining that of the wife will be regarded natural and logical.

The five elements along with other concepts form the Chinese non-alphabetic script. A large number of the Chinese written characters have one of them forming a part of the stroke combinations. According to folklore a person born in a particular year should prefer some ideographic parts in his written name. For instance, a person born in the year of Tiger can be blessed with a gentle and sagacious nature, and can achieve fame and richness if his/her name has both metal (jin) and wood (mu) in it. A person born in the year of Monkey will be romantic and optimistic if he/she has water as a part of his/her name.

The holy book of Taoists, Daodejing, traces Tao as the creator of the universe. Tao has created the five elements by its movements, revolutions, dynamics and motionlessness. It has created the yin and yang and everything. Taoism as a religion has absorbed many of the domestic Chinese cults which have connections with ancient Chinese cosmogony. Taoists are ardent worshippers of the Earth-God. A variation of the Earth-God is the Wall-God (chenghuang) which guards the walled towns. Taoists also worship the Kitchen-God. According to legend, one of the culture heroes of China was Yandi who was the god of fire. After he died he became the kitchen. The five elements are also five star-gods in the Taoist tradition. The Wood-star is called Suixing, the Earth-star Zhenxing, the Metal-star Taibaixing, the Water-star Chenxing, and Fire-star Yinghuoxing. The four famous Taoist supernatural animals, also called zhenmushou (guardian-angels of the graves), are Blue-dragon, Red-bird, White-tiger, and Xuanwu. The Blue-dragon guards the east, hence blue or green. The Red-bird guards the south, hence red. The White-tiger guards the west, hence white. Xuanwu guards the north, hence black. The four different colours are those of wood and spring, fire and summer, metal and autumn, water and winter, respectively.

The Yi nationality which populates the four southwestern provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi, worships sun, moon, Water-God, Fire-God, Mountain-God, Stone-God and Heaven-God. People believe in Water-God as the controller of rains, Fire-God as the force to dispel evil spirits, Mountain-God as a protector of men from the attack of wild animals, and Stone-God as a guardian-angel against theft and children’s diseases.

Another very small nationality called Bulang in the Bulang Hill area in Yunnan (with a population of less than one lakh) worships Fire-God and Earth-God. People worship Fire-God for protection from fire. They worship Earth-God for safety to human life and for a bumper harvest. They conceive a Water-spirit which has a human-head with a snake-body. The Water-spirit comes out for mischief during heavy rains and flood. They also worship the Mountain-God to protect them and give them prosperity, as they are mountain-dwellers leading difficult lives. Many of them are Buddhists; but Buddhism does not conflict with their traditional beliefs.

The Bai nationality which resides in Yunnan, Guizhou and Hu’nan have an earth-breaking ceremony in the spring festival every year in order to have good weather and good harvest. People also worship the Mountain-God for good crops and protection of the domestic animals. The Miao race which was a major native population of south China and is now spread in Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, Hu’nan, Sichuan, Hubei, has a strong Earth-God worship. Every village has a temple for the Earth-God. The temple for the Earth-God is equally popular among the Han residents of south China.

A teleological approach has been used here to study the five elements, and to ponder upon the purpose of the ancients in such an analysis. The major approach of ancient Chinese thinking was to synthesize human activities with their natural environment, which contrasts with the European approach of isolating various objects to gain a deeper insight into their nature and dynamics. Many Chinese feel that these two approaches have led the Europeans to develop modern science and technology, while such a development escaped China. The Chinese approach has been holistic. Although people did observe natural phenomena, they established too early an organic linkage between man and nature. One aspect of this man-nature synthesis was to humanize nature, attributing a human character to natural changes. Conversely, the other aspect of synthesis subjected men under the domination of nature, to bind human activities to movements of the sun, moon and stars.

Some modern Chinese scholars, like Jin Chunfeng, do not disparage the Chinese holistic tradition. Jin thinks it provides a very ideal scientific approach. First, the approach does not concentrate on isolated individual entities, but on the entirety or the system as a whole. Second it is not static, but dynamic, grasping the movements of the objective entities within the evolutions of time and qi (ether). Third, it does not take into consideration the inner structure and composition of an object, but on its function and nature. Since every object is a process of flowing and revolving, it only maintains a temporary stability which should not be mistaken as a fixed structure. Fourth, the approach does not eye on the functions and natures of the parts, but on the functions and responses of the whole. Fifth, it does not pay attention to the geometric models and trajectories, but tries to size up the entire developmental trend of the objects.7 Jin illustrates these characteristics of the Chinese tradition by the example of Chinese medicine. Chinese pathology treats every organ of the body as a moving process, as the entire body is in a process of decaying, like the river flowing downwards. Stability is viewed as in a state of ephemeral whirlpool.8 Chinese medicine treats ailment as a disturbance of the natural equilibrium in the body, and tries to send input to the body to sustain its vitality to slow down the process of decay. After all, the human body, like all other beings in the universe, is the combination of yin and yang and the five elements.

I would like to make clear that I am neither a believer of the five elements and yin and yang, nor sceptical about the expertize in them which I have no share in me. There could be some similarities between the Chinese ancient and tribal cosmogonies and those of India. Indian scholars are welcome to explore the field.


    1. Kong Yinda, et al., Shisanjing zhengyi (Annotated edition of the Thirteen Classics), reprint, Beijing, Zhonghua Bookshop, 1980, vol. I, p. 188.

    2. Ibid., p. 1354.

    3. Ibid., p. 188.

    4. Jin Chunfeng, " ‘Yueling’ tushi yu Zhongguo gudai siwei fangshide tedian jiqi dui kexue zhexuede yingxiang" ("The Lunar Order Diagram and Characteristics of the Ancient Chinese way of Thinking as well as its Impact on Science and Philosophy"), In Zhongguo wenhua yu Zhongguo zhexue (Chinese Culture and Chinese Philosophy), comp. Shenzhen University, Beijing, Eastern Publishing House, 1986, pp. 128-30.

    5. Liu Yuanyan, "Lushi chungiu shi xianqin gejia sixiang zuidade zonghezhe" ("Lushi chungiu is the Greatest Summary of the Ideas of Various Schools in the Pre-Qin Period"), ibid., p. 174.

    6. Ye Xiaoqing, "Zhongguo chuantong ziran’guan Yu jindai kexue" ("The Traditional Chinese View of Nature and Modern Science"), In Kexue chuantong yu wenhua: Zhongguo jindai kexue luohoude yuanyin (Science, Tradition and Culture: Causes of China’s Lagging Behind in Science in Modern Times), Xi’an, Shaanxi Science and Technology Publishing House, 1983, pp. 159-60.

    7. Jin Chunfeng, op cit., p. 132.

    8. Ibid., p. 133.