One major aspect of creation myths concerns the alignment of the celestial bodies in the vault of heaven, the initiation of their movements and with these the differentiation of cosmic time into day and night, months, the seasons, and the years. The perceived organic connection between man and the cosmos in early civilizations led to mankind’s primordial concern with the attunement of human activities to the cycles and the order of nature. This attunement was perhaps the most central task associated with the institution of rulership everywhere across the ancient world. In the introduction to his seminal work, Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society & Nature, Henri Frankfort (1897–1954) makes an important remark in this respect:
[I]f we refer to kingship as a political institution, we assume a point of view which would have been incomprehensible to the ancients. We imply that the human polity can be considered by itself. The ancients, however, experienced human life as part of a widely spreading network of connections which reached beyond local and national communities into the hidden depths of nature and the powers that rule nature. […] Whatever was significant was imbedded in the life of the cosmos, and it was precisely the king’s function to maintain the harmony of that integration.1
This archaic concept of kingship is what Eric Voegelin (1901–1985), in his opus magnum Order and History, has defined as a “cosmological order,” for which reason he refers to the ancient Middle Eastern empires as “cosmological empires.” It is such a primordial “compact mythological consciousness” as Frankfort describes it in the passage quoted above, that causes man to create the human communal order in analogy to the cosmos as it is perceived by the former.2
To a significant degree, this observation also applies to early China as can be seen in the specific concerns expressed in the earliest extant sources, the oracle bone inscriptions from the late Shang period, and later in the importance attached to the offices of the royal astronomer and astrologer in the ritual classics.3 By the late Warring States period, the origins of astronomy itself received its fixed place in the origin myth of the Chinese ecumene. In the “Yao dian”
commanded Xi and He, in reverent accordance with their observation of the wide heavens, to calculate and delineate the movements and appearances of the sun, the moon, the stars and the zodiacal spaces and so to deliver respectfully the seasons to the people.4
The chief concerns of early Chinese astronomy are twofold: Firstly, it was the task of the royal astronomer’s office to calculate the beginning of the year, the twelve months, intercalary months, the twenty-four solar terms and the movement and positions of the five planets so as to determine the calendric standard (lifa
A special position within this corpus of early Chinese astro-hemerological literature is occupied by the Chu Silk Manuscript (Chuboshu
Unearthed from Zidanku
First, it yielded the first corpus of original pre-Qin writings discovered in the 20th century; what is more, these were not documents of archival character, but veritable texts that can be related to the books transmitted from China’s classical tradition. Second, this was the first time that scholars were able to see an actual early manuscript written on silk. To date, silk manuscripts have been unearthed only twice – the first time at Zidanku, the second time from Tomb 3 at Mawangdui
馬王堆(ca. 168 BC), likewise at Changsha. As Warring States silk manuscripts go, those from Zidanku remain the only ones known. Third, the discovery of the Zidanku Silk Manuscripts constituted the beginning of the study of the Chu script, which has since become the best known among the several Warring States-period scripts.7
The Zidanku manuscripts, dating from around 300 BC, still constitute the sole extant Warring States writings done on silk. Prior to the discovery of the bamboo-slip manuscripts from Guodian
Despite their importance, it was not until more than twenty years after their discovery that high-quality photographic images of Zidanku Silk Manuscript I were made available to scholars. (Manuscript II and III, as well as some additional fragments the from the Zidanku find, were only rediscovered and identified in 1992.) At first, its contents had been accessible only in the form of a hand drawing done by Cai Jixiang
Two years after the manuscript was finally purchased by Dr Arthur M. Sackler (1913–1987) in 1965, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York produced magnified infrared photographs of the text, allowing scholars to identify a significant number of previously illegible graphs and thus to arrive at a better understanding of the text. Among the first studies to make use of these newly available images were Jao’s “Chu Zengshu zhi moben ji tuxiang: Sanshoushen, Feiyi yu Yindu gushenhua zhi bijiao”
Renewed interest in the Zidanku corpus arose in 1992 after Cox anonymously donated the remaining fragments of the manuscript find that were still in his possession to the Freer/Sackler gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, where the Zidanku Silk Manuscript I has been housed since the establishment of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art in 1987. It took the conservation team until 2007 to unfold, clean and produce digital images (including new images of Manuscript I) of the fragments now known as Zidanku Silk Manuscript II and III.18
The most up to date study on the entire Zidanku corpus following the eventual publication of all the extant fragments is undoubtedly Li Ling’s opus magnum Zidanku Boshu
Zidanku Silk Manuscript I consists of three interrelated texts arranged in the form of a rectangle with the two longer texts A and B juxtaposed in the center, enclosed by the third, shorter text C that occupies the four sides. The arrangement of the three texts is further encompassed by two sets of peripheral figures. The first, inner set comprises drawings of twelve spirits, corresponding to each of the twelve months from text C.21 The outer set consist of drawings of four trees, one placed in each of the four corners of the silk sheet. Their placement and color (green, red, white, and black respectively) suggest they represent the four seasons. The two center-texts are of unequal length and, most importantly, are written from vertically opposite angles so that one text always stands on its top. Whoever attempts to read both halves must shift the manuscript around 180 degrees in the process. Scholars mostly agree on the order of the manuscript as proceeding from the two texts A and B in the center to the shorter text C, located on the four sides. The arrangement of this shorter text marks the division of the year into four seasons and on a microlevel reproduces the sequence of the twelve months.22 Disagreement persists as to the sequence of the two inner texts. Most scholars now follow Li Ling in assuming the longer text A to precede the shorter text B. Jao, on the contrary, for reasons explained in the first article translated below, holds that what is now recognized as text B, should mark the logical beginning of the sequence.
Text B presents us with a cosmogonic creation myth of the kind we encountered in the first chapter. The text, given in the translation of Li and Cook below, starts with the marriage of the two cosmic deities Baoxi
[T]hey […] rested and acted (in turn) controlling the sidewalls (of the calendrical plan); they helped calculate time by steps. They separated (heaven) above and (earth) below. Since the mountains were out of order, they then named the mountains, rivers, and four seas. […] [W]hen there was yet no sun or moon, […] the four gods stepped in succession to indicate the year; these are the four seasons. […]
After hundreds and thousands of years, the sun and the moon were finally born, (but) the Nine Continents were not level so the mountains [… (collapsed?)]. Therefore, the gods created […] to cover (the Nine Continents). When the skydome shook, they used green, red, yellow, white, and black trees as supporting poles. Yan Di thereupon ordered Zhurong to make the four gods descend to set up the Three Heavens and with […] distribute the four poles. […]
Gong Gong calculated and set in motion the Ten Days and the Four Times. […] When the hundred spirits and the wind and rain became calendrically incorrect and disordered, he made the sun and the moon take turns working and resting. Thus, we have the divisions of late night, morning, afternoon and evening.24
Here we encounter again the Flame Thearch (Yan Di
When heaven and earth create calamities, the Heaven’s Cudgel (Tianpou) star creates (sweeping) destruction, sending (the destruction) down throughout all four regions (of the earth). Mountains collapse, springs gush forth geysers. This is called “contravention.” If you contravene the years (and) the months, then upon entering the seventh or eighth day of the month there will be fog, frost, and clouds of dust, and you will not be able to function according (to heaven’s plan).
In such a year, there will be trouble in the western territories, and if the sun and the moon get out of order, there will be halos surrounding (them) and trouble in the eastern territories. All under heaven will be at war and harm will come to the king.25
As if to provide an answer on how to avoid contravening the cosmic rhythms, the third text consists of unfavorable and favorable hemerological indications for each of the individual months, several instances of which will be discussed in the first article of this chapter.26
While the overall conception of the manuscript is now generally agreed on, positions still vary as to whether one should categorize it together with the monthly ordinances from the transmitted ritual classics and regard it as a daybook-type of almanac, or see in it an astronomical treatise of the sort found in the official dynastic histories. This issue brings us back to Jao Tsung-i. Apart from transcribing and annotating the manuscript,27 Jao was a lively participant in these sorts of debates. He expounded his views on the nature, import and context of Zidanku Silk Manuscript I in a systematic fashion at a symposium titled “Early Chinese Art and its Possible Influence in the Pacific Basin,” arranged by the Department of Art History and Archaeology of Columbia University in New York City, from August 21–25, 1967. His conference manuscript has been translated into English and published by Noel Barnard in the conference proceedings under the title “Some Aspects of the Calendar, Astrology, and Religious Concepts of the Ch’u People as Revealed in the Ch’u Silk Manuscript.”28 Numerous studies were to follow over the next decades.29 In the two articles chosen for this chapter, we follow Jao in exploring the relation between the text from Zidanku Silk Manuscript I and astronomical treatises from the ritual classics and early imperial dynastic histories. The Manuscript, in the way Jao understood it, preserves an important part of the astronomical and astrological knowledge of the ancient Chu culture. It was his declared goal to establish the manuscript as a Chu counterpart to the transmitted “Tianguan shu”
However, the main reason I have chosen to include these articles in this volume, is because Jao time and again addresses in them the overarching concern of this book, namely man’s attunement to the cosmos and the world of the gods as the basis for ritual praxis and morals. In the quotation above from part A of Zidanku Silk Manuscript I we have learned that when humans contravened the cosmic order the heavens were believed to send down signs in the form of celestial or meteorological portents, sometimes paired with natural calamities. Jao focuses here particularly on the phenomenon of lunar irregularities, de (ce) ni
Only when the gods, the Five Governors [of the Five Phases], and the four risings are without problems and the reliable (calendrical) constancies guide the people will the Five Governors be illuminated and the Hundred Spirits be thus presented with sacrificial feasts. This is what is called “Favor and Affection,” when the many spirits are favorable. The God said: “Extend your respect to them! Never be disrespectful. When heaven creates good fortune, the spirits will then bring it to you. When heaven creates demonic (influences), the gods will (likewise) provide you with them. Be attentive and respectful in (your) preparations and the heavenly pattern will thus be the guiding standard. In the end, the heavenly [… (pattern?)] will be the model for the people below. Respect it without fail!”32
The logic behind ritual praxis is seen here as the fulfilment of good government in terms of the ritual integration of the human polity into the cosmic order. This is again quite similar to what Voegelin writes with respect to the Ancient Near East:
In Mesopotamian and Egyptian societies of the ancient Near East, the order of the empire is symbolized as an analogue to the order of the cosmos; its creation and perpetuation as well are symbolized in terms of cosmic creation. The rituals refer to the empire as an already existent and established part of the cosmos.33
This statement in turn reverberates with Frankfort’s observation cited above, that “whatever was significant” in the perception of early man “was imbedded in the life of the cosmos, and it was precisely the king’s function to maintain the harmony of that integration.” For Jao, maintaining this harmony is linked to the idea of establishing constancy (heng
Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society & Nature, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948), 3.
Cf. Maurice P. Hogan’s introduction to Eric Voegelin’s Order and History Volume I: Israel and Revelation, ed. Maurice P. Hogan (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2001 ), 1–14, as well as Voegelin’s own introduction (Ibid., 39–53).
Cf. Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 3: Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970 ), 186–94.
Shu 1.60–77; Translation adapted from James Legge, The Chinese Classics, Volume III: The Shoo King, or The Book of Historical Documents (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960 ), 18.
Cf. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 3, 390–7
See the contributions in Donald Harper and Marc Kalinowski, eds., Books of Fate and Popular Culture in Early China: The Daybook Manuscripts of the Warring States, Qin and Han (Leiden: Brill, 2017), for an introduction to the field of early Chinese hemerology.
Li Ling, The Chu Silk Manuscripts from Zidanku, Changsha (Hunan Province), Volume 1: Discovery and Transmission, trans. and ed., Lothar von Falkenhausen (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2020), XV.
See Jingmen Shi Bowuguan
See Ma Chengyuan
See Li/von Falkenhausen, The Chu Silk Manuscripts from Zidanku, for a detailed account of the incredible history of the manuscript’s discovery and transmission.
See his Changsha chutu Zhanguo zengshu xin shi
Wenwu (1964) 9: 8–20.
Two other important studies published outside of China during that time are Hayashi Minao
See Jao Tsung-i, “Chu Zengshu zhi moben ji tuxiang: Sanshoushen, Feiyi yu Yindu gushenhua zhi bijiao”
Noel Barnard, Scientific Examination of an Ancient Chinese Document as a Prelude to Decipherment, Translation, and Historical Assessment: The Ch’u Silk Manuscript, Revised and Enlarged. Studies on the Ch’u Silk Manuscript, pt. 1. Monographs on Far Eastern History, vol. 4 (Canberra: Australian National University, 1972).
Noel Barnard, The Ch’u Silk Manuscript: Translation and Commentary. Studies on the Ch’u Silk Manuscript, pt. 2. Monographs on Far Eastern History, vol. 5 (Canberra: Australian National University, 1973).
Li Ling, Changsha Zidanku zhanguo Chuboshu yanjiu
Cf. Li Ling, “The Zidanku Silk Manuscripts,” in Harper and Kalinowski, Books of Fate and Popular Culture in Early China, 259–67. For the latest images of the fragments of Zidanku Manuscript I, II and III, see Li Ling, Zidanku Boshu
Li Ling, Zidanku Boshu.
Li Ling and Constance A. Cook, “Translation of the Chu Silk Manuscript,” in Defining Chu: Image and Reality in Ancient China, ed. Constance A. Cook and John Major (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999), 171–6, reprinted in Li Ling, Chu boshu yanjiu (shiyi zhong)
Cf. Hayashi, “The Twelve Gods of the Chan-kuo Period Silk Manuscript Excavated at Ch’ang-sha,” 123–86.
Li Ling, Chu boshu yanjiu (shiyi zhong), 247–8.
Li Ling, Chu boshu yanjiu (shiyi zhong), 246.
Taking into account the immense progress that has been made in the conservation and study of the manuscript within the last thirty years, as well as the fact that most of the findings in Jao’s “Chu Zengshu shuzheng” are discussed in English in Barnard (1973), it would not make much sense here to attempt a translation of even the latest revision of Jao’s “Chu boshu xin zheng,” as for the most part the latter basically follows the initial version from 1968. For the time being, the reader should refer to translation of Li Ling and Cook to gain a basic understanding of the text’s import.
Barnard and Fraser, eds., Early Chinese Art and its Possible Influence in the Pacific Basin, 113–122.
See his Chuboshu
Following K. C. Chang, who opened up the field of Chu-studies with his pioneering “Huanan shiqian minzu wenhuashi tigang”
The interpretation of the binome deni
Li Ling, Chu boshu yanjiu (shiyi zhong), 247.
Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis: Zur Theorie der Geschichte und Politik (Munich: Piper, 1966), 201. The translation into English is my own.