Thursday, 25 April 2013

Religion in China: five phase cosmology

What’s black and white and five all over? Chinese yin-yang, five-phase cosmology, that’s what.


The concept of yin and yang - as I discussed in last week's post - anchor religious thought in China, but there are five more concepts at the heart of Chinese religious practice. Here is the key idea: a deep understanding of nature and culture depends on careful calculations of how yin and yang interact with five 'phases' or 'agents' in (and beyond) the world. If yin and yang can be said both to power and reflect the unerring changes all around us (cold always becoming warm and then cold again; night always becoming day and night again), the five phases can be seen as a complex series of annotations that gave philosophers and religious thinkers ways of classifying and explaining the world in detail. They took these combinations of twos and fives to staggering levels of complexity that affected every element of Chinese religious doctrine and ritual practice during the imperial period. They continue to this day.

Whether we are discussing yin and yang or the five phases, the entire trajectory is geared toward unending alternation and relentless change. Although the phases and the processes by which they were explained varied according to the conceptual orientations of different thinkers, the single common thread is that the world is always 'in process', always moving - always changing.

So what are these 'five phases' that Westerners commonly call the 'five elements?' Wood (木), fire (火), earth (土), metal (金), water (水), (wood, fire, metal…you get the point). What I want to talk about today is the 'correlative' nature of these concepts. You see, they connect; they correlate. It is best to review some of the yin-yang correlations before exploring the five phases. The following list picks up where we left off last week:

Yang
Yin
Hard
Soft
Male
Female
Activity
Rest
Expansion
Contraction
Dry
Moist
Summer
Winter

The five-phase list takes the theme from there. It is both exhilarating (the whole world can be covered, and in much more subtle detail than yin-yang duality can sustain) and perplexing (how can the world be broken down into fives?). Take a look at some of the most common breakdowns of this five-phase world - there are many dozens - and remember that they are in a continual process of becoming the next marker in the series. They are not 'essential' categories. Everything moves.

Correlation
Wood
Fire
Earth
Metal
Water
Direction
East
South
Centre
West
North
Season
Spring
Summer
Mid-point
Autumn
Winter
Colour
Green
Red
Yellow
White
Black
Taste
Sour
Bitter
Sweet
Acrid
Salty
Number
Eight
Seven
Five
Nine
Six
Divine ruler
Tai Hao
Yan Di
Yellow Emperor
Shao Hao
Zhuan Xu
Attendant
Gou Mang
Zhu Yong
Hou Tu
Ru Shou
Xuan Ming
Sacrifices
Inner door
Hearth
Inner court
Outer court
well
Stems
jia-yi
bing-ding
wu-ji
geng-xin
ren-gui
Organ
Spleen
Lung
Heart
Liver
Kindneys
Animals
Sheep
Fowl
Ox
Dog
pig
Creatures
Scales
Feathers
Naked
Hairy
Shell
Smells
Goatish
Burning
Fragrant
Rank
Rotten
Virtues
Humaneness
Wisdom
Trust
Rightness
Ritual
Planets
Jupiter
Mars
Saturn
Venus
Mercury
Officers
Agriculture
War
Works
Interior
Justice
Yin-yang
Lesser yang
Greater yang
Balanced
Lesser yin
 Greater yin

This chart emphasises patterns, not the 'things'. The idea that the world moves of its own accord is one of the many reasons why the idea of an all-powerful creator never took root in China. As we will see in a few weeks, China's creation myth is one of the least powerful, least 'creationist' stories of beginnings ever made. The complex and intermixed correlations of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water - along with their yin and yang attributes - helped to sustain an impersonal and distinctly non-theistic worldview that differs markedly from the powerful theistic religions that were to develop to the west of China.

Reminding ourselves again that they are not static categories, let's take a look at the concepts 'in action'. One of the most magnificent sources of intellectual history for early China - a book called the Spring and Autumn Annals of Mr. Lü (呂氏春秋) - begins with a large cluster of the correlations we saw above. It describes what the 'son of heaven' needs to do to make time, space, and the cosmos cohere in the first month of spring. Note especially the way that the entire 'east/spring' column is made to correlate according to the needs of the season:

"[The correlations for the first month of spring are] the days jia and yi, the Ruler Taihao, attendant spirit Goumang, creatures with scales, the melodic note jue…the number eight, sour tastes, rank smells, and sacrificial offerings at the inner door. During sacrifice, the spleen is given ritual priority….

"[In the Hall of Light], the Son of Heaven resides in the Green Yang room, rides in a Phoenix chariot propelled by green 'dragons' and decorated with streaming green banners. He wears green attire with jade-green accouterments. He is nourished on millet and mutton…" (Wu Jinhua and Zhu Daowei, eds, Lüshi chunqiu yizhu [Annotated Spring and Autumn Annals of Mr. Lü]. (Taibei: Jianan Publishing, 1998))

That's a whole chariot full of linkages, and it makes for a useful introduction to the rhetoric of religious and philosophical texts throughout Chinese history. Yin, yang, and the five phases weave and flow in proper sequence, and human beings need to make sure that their own actions accord with the sequencing, whether they are ruling 'all under heaven' or just paying homage to the family's ancestors. These correlations also lie behind the prominent emphasis on 'timing' and 'placement' in Chinese ritual to this day.

Let's conclude this week with a warning about bad timing from the very same almanac. This passage explains all that will go wrong if the proper regulations are not put into effect in the correct manner. It is a lesson in the disaster thought to follow from mixing up the correlates and the calendar: "If, in the first month of spring, the summer regulations are instituted, then unseasonable winds and rains will occur, grasses and trees will wilt early, and the state will be vexed. If the autumn regulations are instituted, the people will encounter great pestilence, biting winds and fierce rains will frequently arrive...If the winter regulations are instituted, heavy flooding will inundate the land, frost and snow will cause serious damage, and the first spring crops will not be able to be planted."

In short, it’s all about timing—and the conjunction (correlation, really) of nature and culture. Wear red robes in the south room of the great hall in the first month, and the heavens will pour down stinking pitch. You've mixed up spring and summer. Wear green in the east room, and all will be well. A quick glance at various Chinese medical techniques will show how many of these correlations continue to be practiced today, and Chinese temple culture is laden with similar parallels. If we think deeply about the matter, we will even start to see a few seasonal correlates in our own lives (and in much more serious fashion than knowing when not to wear white shoes or order gin and tonic).

First, you need to do the right thing (as the saying goes). That is only part of the challenge, though. You also have to do it at the right time. Or it will fail.

Everything from the happiness of the ancestors to the well being of the imperial state itself has depended on this sense of yin-yang, five-phase timing in Chinese history. As we will see in the coming weeks, the comparative implications (including a very different perspective on 'causation' than can be found in the West) are enormous. @sima1085

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