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Joern Peter Grundmann
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Throughout the previous two chapters we have noticed that one term in particular, de , plays an important role in the discussions on the human order, both from a socio-political perspective as well as in terms of cosmological considerations. Although the sources where it occurs in undeniably cover a variety of contexts where de must mean different things, in the majority of instances quoted by Jao the term obviously functions as a symbol for a ruler’s ideal conduct in terms of attuning his rule to the cosmic rhythms and of binding his subject population by means of vertical solidarity and mutual commitment. De, in other words, seems to denote the very essence underlying the notion of early Chinese sovereignty as we have defined it in the introduction to the preceding chapter. This claim, however, stands in stark contrast to how surprisingly little we actually know about the concept’s import and the contexts in which it appeared and evolved throughout the early Chinese intellectual tradition.

This concession is by no means limited to the insights we have gained in the previous chapters of the present volume as the idea of de, commonly rendered as virtue or morality, is still widely regarded as a generic, more or less self-explanatory category within early Chinese thought, one that somehow had always been there.1 Jao, in turn, was among the first non-Western scholars to raise questions about its intellectual context and the particular needs it was responding to.2 His investigations led him to specific concerns characterizing the political discourse during the late Shang and early Zhou period. In several scholarly articles published between the latter half of the 1970s and the late 1990s, the most important of which are translated in this chapter, he shows how the idea of de evolved as a counter draft to an older, more archaic mindset according to which human affairs relied solely on divine providence. Its development describes a shift in human decision making from the reliance on divination to human agency based on moral and ritual parameters. The context for this paradigm change, according to Jao, must be seen in the intellectual separation of the human realm from the sphere of the gods as well as in the attribution of the highest instance of moral authority and judgment to a transcendent high god.3 Closely related to this paradigm change is the appearance of the notion of the Heavenly Mandate (tian ming 天命) or the Great Charge (da ling 大令 or da ming 大命 as it is referred to in Western Zhou bronze inscriptions) during the same period. While mostly associated with the ideological justification for the Zhou military conquest over Shang, as well as for dynastic change and ecumenic rulership in general, there is another, perhaps even more important side to the conception of the Heavenly Mandate. The imperative for the human ruler to match the ideal of a universal Heavenly order through the implementation of his rule over the inhabited earth below, as we find it in conjunction with claims of the receipt of the Mandate in Western Zhou bronze inscriptions as well as in the Songs and Documents, presupposes a basic disjunction between human and cosmic order, thus necessitating pragmatic action by the human sovereign to overcome it. Again, it was Benjamin I. Schwartz (1916–1999) who first recognized this point:

At its deepest level, the idea of Heaven’s Mandate presents us with a clear apprehension of the gap between the human order as it ought to be and as it actually is.4

Jao addresses this issue several times by citing the mythological episode of the violent excesses of Chi You and the Miao people that led to the separation of the realms of man from that of the spirits and Heaven. This separation could only be partially overcome by the human sovereign’s matching the order of Heaven through a strict adherence to the rules of de.

However, the category of de as Jao sees it presents us first and foremost with a hallmark of the Axial Age in early China in that it marks the emancipation of human agency from divine providence. This particular significance of de is perhaps most obvious in Jao’s studies on the various transmitted and excavated versions of the Changes (Yi ) and its commentaries. Jao holds that the concept is employed in the different layers of commentary on the work in an effort to reinterpret the institution of divination in moral terms by providing a guideline for resolving doubts and securing long-term favorable conditions. In texts such as the Book of Documents, the same concern translates into the parameters for maintaining universal rulership, while later Warring States sources reveal attempts at projecting the notion of de into a sort of “moral cosmology.” Considering a wide array of sources, Jao scrutinizes the ways in which the early Chinese literary tradition develops the idea of de in terms of a surrogate institution aimed at overcoming the element of contingency inherent in human relations, as well as in human interactions with the cosmic realm.

The first article in this chapter takes us back to the origins of the ancient Chinese intellectual tradition, at least insofar as it concerns written sources. The earliest evidence we possess of early Chinese intellectual activity is undoubtedly the textual fragments found on late Shang oracle bone inscriptions (hereafter OBI).5 These very formulaic and technical writings provide us with some limited insight into a highly specialized activity that must have occupied the Shang kings and their peers to a significant degree, thus allowing for some conclusions on the late Shang elite worldview. The bulk of the oracle bone fragments found to date are inscribed with charges concerning natural or human events about to take place or not to take place in the immediate future. Often written out in positive-negative pairs, these charges were delegated to turtle plastrons or bovine scapulae for divination or verification through pyromancy. Among the most crucial decisions for the anthropologist is whether these charges ought to be understood as questions posed to the spirit world or rather as proposals or even decisions which were then tested for their validity.6

This decision comes down to how we interpret the meaning of the word signified by the graph () that is used to introduce the great majority of charges found in Shang OBI. When OBI were first deciphered after their initial discovery in 1899, scholars were quick to embrace the Shuowen jiezi’s interpretation of the graph zhen as “to question by crack-making” (bu wen 卜問), concluding that it must mean something along the lines of “asking” or “inquiring by means of divination.”7 Consequently, these charges were henceforth read and understood as questions. Jao was in fact the first scholar to question this convention in the foreword to his 1959 opus magnum Yindai zhenbu renwu tongkao 殷代貞卜人物通考 (Comprehensive study of Yin dynasty diviners), where he points out that, as far as syntax is concerned, nothing suggests the charges should be read as questions. Further on in the book, in a section titled “ ‘zhen’ zi shi yi” 貞字釋義 (on the different meanings of the graph zhen), Jao proposes four different interpretations of the graph zhen as it is used in the context of divination. Because of its significance for the articles translated in this chapter I have decided to provide the whole passage in translation below:8

  1. The most general meaning of zhen is “to make an inquiry through pyromancy (lit. crack-making)” (buwen 卜問), which denotes the entire procedure of divination. The “Tian fu” 天府 (Keeper of the Temple Treasures) passage from the “Chun guan” 春官 (Offices of Spring) section in the Zhouli relates: “In the last month of winter one arranges the jade objects in order to determine the good and bad fortunes of the coming year” (季冬陳玉以貞來歲之媺惡). In Zheng Sinong’s 鄭司農 (d. 83 AD) commentary to this passage we read: “Zhen means to inquire (wen ).” In the OBI we find the following line: “[Crack-making] on ren-yin (day 39), diviner Que testing: “… the correct [placement] of the jades” (壬寅㱿貞:[ ]).9 The phrase “zheng yu正玉 (lit. to correct / set right the jade) probably means to arrange jade pieces into a certain order, to perform a divination with them. (Another inscription reads: “Crack-making on yi-si, Bin testing: On ding-wei, in the present week, perform ale-libation and Bi will make the sui-sacrifice to Ding; in arranging [sacrificial items], give pieces of jade joined together as an offering.” [ 乙巳卜,𡧊貞: 翌丁未, 歲于丁,奠㞢()]).10 The phrase 㞢珏 reads “you jue侑珏, meaning “to lay out paired jades and present them as an offering.” The “Tai bu” 太卜 (Grand Diviner) passage from the “Chun guan” has: “For all major determinations of the polity, such as divining about establishing a ruler or divining about a major enfeoffment, [the Grand Diviner] inspects the prepared turtle plastron and then applies heat to the drilled hollows” (凡國大貞,卜立君,卜大封,則眡高作龜). Zheng Sinong’s commentary again reads: “Zhen means to inquire.”

  2. Zhen also glosses as dang (attend to, undertake responsibility for), denoting the “being in charge of / supervising the divination.” In the “Luo gao” 洛誥 (Proclamation at Luo) chapter from the Shu (Documents) we read: “We two men have been in charge of [reading the oracle]” (我二人共貞). To this the Shiwen cites Ma Rong 馬融 saying: “Zhen means dang here.” In ancient times, the graph (OC *treŋ [tr. note]) was written (OC *tˤeŋʔ [tr. note]) and glossed as dang. Dang in turn means dangzhi 當值 (to be on duty). It makes sense to adopt this interpretation in reading the phrases “bu mou zhen卜某貞 (Crack-making, someone was in charge of the divination) and “mou zhen某貞 (someone was in charge of the divination) in the OBI. These statements supposedly name the official in charge of [supervising] the divination act, the so-called li bu 蒞卜 (Divination Supervisor). In some cases, the expression was modified with “being in charge of” omitted, resulting in the phrase “bu mou zhen” being abbreviated to “bu mou卜某 (Crack-macking, someone) or “mou bu某卜 (someone, crack-making).

  3. In some cases, the term zhen exclusively refers to ‘setting right the turtle’ (zheng gui 正龜). By extension it also denotes the correctness of a matter. This meaning of zhen addresses the procedure and the outcome of the divination act. In the Zhouli we read: ‘When the polity is about to conduct a major relocation, the Taishi 大師 (Grand Preceptor) sets right the turtle’ (國大遷,大師則貞龜). Zheng Xuan’s commentary to this passage reads: ‘This means placing the turtle correctly on the place of divination’ (正龜于卜位也). The Zheng commentary further remarks: “To inquire about the correctness of a matter is called zhen” (問事之正曰貞). The Changes say: “The rectitude of the troops is auspicious for the senior man” (師貞, 丈人吉). The Tuan (Judgment) commentary says: “zhen means zheng (rectitude, correctness).” The “Shi gu” 釋詁 (Explaining ancient terms) passage in the Guangya has: “zhen means zheng (correct).” Thus, there are good determinations (liang zhen 良貞) and bad determinations (bu liang zhen 不良貞). The “Gui ce liezhuan” 龜策列傳 (Arrayed traditions of the tortoise and milfoil) in the Shiji states: “Today is a good day for performing a good determination” (今日良日,行一良貞). The text further says:


    The invocation concerning pyromancy with numinous turtles says: “[In divination], one should rely on numinous turtles [as the main medium]. Using milfoil to divine about a matter, although one obtains an auspicious outcome five times out of five, is not as efficacious as the auspiciousness obtained from a divine turtle. [The divine turtle] knows about a person’s living and dying, and whether or not someone will achieve a good determination.” […]

    Judging from this account, it follows that liang zhen means [a determination is] auspicious whereas bu liang zhen indicates inauspiciousness. These terms therefore function as determinatives used in prognostication. In OBI we frequently find the word zheng, for instance in “auspicious rectitude” (吉正),11 and “crack-making on wu-zi day, Diviner Bin … ‘correct.’ The king prognosticated, saying: ‘auspicious, correctness’” (戊子卜,𡧊正。王 曰: 吉,正).12 The ode Wenwang you sheng 文王有聲 (Renowned was King Wen) from the Book of Songs has: “The turtle determined it” (維龜正之), which means inquiring about a matter and obtaining the correct [way to proceed]. A hexagram statement (guaci 卦辭) in the Changes says: “favorable for determination / correctness” (利貞). The Kun (Compliant) hexagram says: “favorable for the determination / correctness of a mare” (利牝馬之貞). In these examples the word zhen entails the meaning of zheng as well.

  4. The graph zhen sometimes also glosses as ding (to set / fix / determine) and in some cases we find replaced by the graph ding (tripod). Since zhen glosses as zheng its meaning can be extended to comprise the notion of ding . The Shiming says: “Zhen means ding.” The graphs and represent the same sound value. In the entry for the graph , the Shuowen jiezi notes: “In pre-Han seal script (zhouwen 籒文) the graph is often used to write the word zhen .” In OBI as well there are numerous instances where the graph is being borrowed to write the word zhen. Hence this practice did not just start with the development of the seal script. In fact, we now know that many seal script forms have their origin in the script from the Yin period. To put this to a test, we find that the graphs and appear together on the same fragment, both writing the word zhen (here: to test [the charge] [A/N]), in several instances of OBI dating from the time of King Wu Ding 武丁 (ca. 1250–1192 BC). For instance, the damaged scapulae fragment Tun yi 屯乙8888 reads:

己巳鼎(): 帚() 允亡𡆥() 貞姼亡𡆥()

“Testing on ji-si day: Lady X indeed will not have misfortune. Chi encounters no misfortune.”

In the first instance, the graph is used to write the word zhen; in the second, the graph is used instead.

In summing up this discussion, Jao holds that while the graph zhen in some cases does indicate an interrogative mood when used in the sense of “to test [a charge by means of divination]” (zhenwen 貞問), in other contexts, however, it takes on an explicitly affirmative mood, for instance when conveying the notion of “being on duty” (dangzhi 當值). In yet another context it appears in the sense of divining about a matter in order to “resolve doubts” (de zheng 得正 [lit. “to obtain correctness”]). He concludes that “the commonly held assumption that a question mark should be placed after each instance of the word zhen in many cases makes no sense.”13

While Jao’s views on the topic were at first dismissed and later neglected among scholars in Taiwan and mainland China,14 similar points had been made in the West starting from the early 1970s onwards. The first western sinologist who proposed that OBI charges ought not to be read as questions, but rather as statements expressing a certain desire was David N. Keightley (1932–2017) in 1972, followed by Fr. Paul L-M Serruys (1912–1999) in 1974.15 Keightley in particular pointed out that Han and Jin commentators of the Shuowen jiezi frequently modified the latter’s interpretation of the graph zhen, which they explained in terms of “to rectify/ regulate” (zheng ) or “to fix” (ding ).16 Moreover, he suggests that the OBI graph () belongs to a word-family whose basic meaning was to “regulate, correct, stabilize.”17 Similar conclusions as to the meaning of zhen were subsequently voiced by David S. Nivison (1923–2014) who proposed to understand the meaning of zhen in Shang OBI as “to verify the correctness of a prognostication through the act of divination.”18

In China, the problem of the mode of OBI charges was again addressed by Qiu Xigui 裘錫圭 in 1988 in his influential “Guanyu Yinxu buci de mingci shifou wenju de kaocha” 關於殷墟卜辭的命詞是否問句的考察 (An examination of whether the charges in Shang Oracle-Bone Inscriptions are questions).19 Qiu’s article prompted Edward L. Shaughnessy to render it in English translation; it was published alongside of Nivison’s hitherto unpublished “The ‘question’ question” as the opening papers for an Early China forum on the topic of OBI charges, featuring further studies and responses by Fan Yuzhou 范毓周, Jao Tsung-i, David N. Keightley, Jean A. LeFeuvre (1922–2010), Li Xueqin and Shaughnessy himself.20 At least since then, the great majority of scholars understand the verb zhen in OBI charges as seeking affirmation of a desired or decided upon course of affairs and henceforth to read the charges as statements.

Jao, who contributed to the 1989 Early China forum with a short commentary piece,21 took up this discussion again in 1998. In the first article translated below, he expands the issue into a full-fledged philosophy of “zhen.” By providing the means to foretell and to anticipate the future, the idea behind zhen, in Jao’s view, constituted the very rationale on which the standards of compliance between the human and spiritual realms could be established in the worldview of the late Shang diviners. Summarizing the points made in the Early China forum to some extent,22 Jao begins his study by showing that the aspect of inquiry implied in the notion of zhen lies in determining the correctness of a matter. To become meaningful, the act of divination had to be preceded by human resolve and determination as to the course that future events should take. Jao emphasizes the crucial role that human decision-making had played in the process of divination. He then proceeds to analyze the concept’s import in the different recensions of the Changes and their commentarial layers. He shows how in the divinatory classics zhen is associated with the idea of attaining correctness and appropriateness in human affairs, so that a sovereign might obtain a perpetual mandate to rule. Citing the Ruist reception of the Changes, he suggests that the ultimate means to attain this state of appropriateness was to study the moral implications of the hexagram- and line-statements and to develop an attitude of revering virtue (jing de 敬德), both in socio-political and in ritual matters. The somewhat opaque notion of “revering virtue,” which Jao does not explain in analytical terms, resonates with current findings by Dennis Schilling, whose important work on the tradition of the Changes interprets the meaning of de with respect to its occurrence in the hexagram statements as implying the “duties and obligations of the sovereign as well as of the people obligated to him.”23 In terms of the Change’s predictive function, he points out that de “can be said to be the power to fulfill one’s destiny,” for “ ‘virtue’  makes developments predictable and, like duty and obligation, ensures perseverance and continuity in the political and social sphere.”24 This amounts to the quintessence of the latter part of Jao’s philosophy of zhen put in modern analytical terms.

In the next article, Jao traces the origins of morals in early China, as well as in the ancient world in general, back to the worship of a universal sky god, closely following the argument in F. M. Cornford’s (1874–1943) seminal study, From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1912). For Jao, the idea of virtue or morals in early China emerged in the form of a reverential attitude towards Heaven that expressed itself in ritual propriety and accountability for the well-being of the people. The latter task he sees inextricably linked to a ruling house’s receipt of the Heavenly Mandate.25 The element of contingency introduced into the human condition through the notion of the Mandate led, according to Jao, to a mentality of fearfulness and reverence among the ruling elites which in turn prompted the necessity to produce such works as the Changes and the ritual classics. Jao continues this line of thought into the last article of this chapter where he stresses that due to Heaven’s design becoming manifest in an ideal ecumenic human order, the human ruler is capable of assuming the role of Heaven by abiding by a set of heavenly decreed moral rules. This in turn opened the path for the development towards autonomy of human agency in early Chinese thought.

The last two articles in this chapter may be seen as an attempt to reconstruct the early conceptual history of de. Yet despite the almost encyclopedic effort Jao undertakes in collating the different sources, these two articles also reveal the limitations of the sort of traditional “literati-scholarship” that Jao had been practicing. By letting the sources largely speak for themselves, or by using the language of the sources in describing the latter, Jao stops short of developing an analytical terminology that would have made it possible for him to state his argument in a more scientific manner. This often leaves the reader, especially the translator, guessing as to the modern scholarly interpretation of the various sources he cites. More often than not, the rendering of these passages and concepts into English necessarily reflects the translator’s own understanding of them rather than Jao’s.


Two of the very few notable studies to address the early conceptual history of the term are Donald J. Munro, The Concept of Man in Early China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969), 84–116; 185–97; and Vassili Kryukov, “Symbols of Power and Communication in Pre-Confucian China (On the Anthropology of de): Preliminary Assumptions,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 58.2 (1995): 314–33. A complete overview of the conceptual history of de from late Shang times to the late Han period as well as a discussion of various conflicting scholarly opinions on this topic has been attempted in Scott A. Barnwell, “The Evolution of the Concept of De in Early China,” Sino-Platonic Papers 235 (2013).


In the West, apart from Munro, The Concept of Man, and Kryukov, “Symbols of Power and Communication,” David S. Nivison’s, The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy, ed. Bryan W. Van Norden (Chicago: Open Court, 1996), 17–119, also deserves mention in this context.


Benjamin I. Schwartz was arguably the first to point out this distinction between the divine sphere and the socio-political geography of man that led to the identification of Heaven and Di with the universal pattern for human order and the attribution to it of the ultimate judgement over the course of human conduct which he defines as the hallmark of the intellectual transition from the Shang to the Zhou period. See Benjamin I. Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985), 41–55.


Schwartz, The World of Thought in Ancient China, 53.


The best English-language introduction to the field of Shang OBI and the history of their study is David N. Keightley, Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).


See ibid, 28–56 an overview of Shang divination inscriptions.


Cf. the discussions in Li Xiaoding 李孝定, Jiagu wenzi jishi 甲骨文字集釋 (Taipei: Academia Sinica, 1965), 1104–08.


Jao Tsung-i, Yindai zhenbu renwu tongkao 殷代貞卜人物通考, 2 vols. (Hong Kong: The University of Hong Kong Press, 1959): 1: 70–1. My translation below follows the reprinted version of this work in WJ 2: 70–1.


Hu Houxuan 胡厚宣, Zhanhou Jing-Jin xinhuo jiaguji 戰後京津薪穫甲骨集 (Shanghai: Qunlian, 1954), no. 1343 = Heji 7053 recto.


Hu Houxuan 胡厚宣, Jiagu xucun 甲骨續存, 3 vols. (Shanghai: Qunlian, 1955), 3: 72 = Heji 4059 recto.


Jao gives this fragment as Tun yi 屯乙 5989. I was not able to confirm this information or to locate the fragment in HJ.


Jiagu xucun, 1: 655 = HJ 17684.


Jao, Yindai zhenbu renwu tongkao, 1: 71.


Reflecting on his argument about thirty years later, Jao remarks: “At that time, no one was willing to accept my opinion. This was particularly true of the students of Dong Zuobin 董作賓 (1895–1963), who not only would not agree but did not even deign to disagree” (“Early China Forum: Jao Tsung-i 饒宗頤,” trans. Edward L. Shaughnessy, Early China 14 [1989]: 134).


See David Keightley, “Shih cheng: A New Hypothesis about the Nature of Shang Divination,” paper presented at the conference “Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast,” Monterey, California, 17 June 1972; and Paul L-M Serruys, “Studies in the Language of the Shang Oracle Inscriptions,” T’oung Pao 60.1–3 (1974): 12–120.


Keightley, “Shih cheng,” 9–11.


Ibid, 1–4; 40–41.


David S. Nivison, “The ‘Question’ Question,” paper presented to the International Conference on Shang Civilization, East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawai’i, September 1982, subsequently revised and published in Early China 14 (1989): 115–25.


Qiu Xigui 裘錫圭, “Guanyu Yinxu buci de mingci shifou wenju de kaocha” 關於殷墟卜辭的命詞是否問句的考察, Zhongguo yuwen 中國語文 (1988) 1: 1–20.


See Early China 14 (1989): 77–172.


“Early China Forum: Jao Tsung-I 饒宗頤,” 133–38.


Somewhat problematically in my view, he does not name, let alone give credit to any of the participants of the Early China forum, although he clearly reiterates points made therein by Qiu Xigui, Nivison, Keightley and Li Xueqin, oftentimes citing the same sources as they did to furnish their arguments, throughout his own study.


Dennis Schilling, “Virtue in the ‘Book of Changes’,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 48 (2021): 126.


Ibid, 128.


This relation has been first pointed out in Herrlee Creel, The Origins of Statecraft in China, Volume 1: The Western Chou Empire (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), 81–100.

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