The History Of Chinese Astrology And Divination
Of Time and Tortoises
In the region of China, Mongolia and Tibet, about four thousand years ago, men were anxiously eyeing the sun and moon, trembling at eclipses, worrying about the livestock, crops and produce, and wondering what would happen next. One may safely assume the same thing was happening in the Indian subcontinent and indeed everywhere else in the world. It would be tempting to say there was some original wisdom at play in this, lending credence to the notion of “wise ancients.” Unfortunately, the ancients seem every bit as confused as we are, indeed desperately so, for the archaeological evidence indicates they began seizing inoffensive land tortoises, heating the shells with red-hot pokers and employing the resulting crack patterns to foretell the future. Click Here to see turtleshell diviners at work.
This practice is known as plastromancy. One finds it first practiced by the Neolithic inhabitants of North China around the last half of the fourth millennium, b.c.. Elsewhere in the ancient world a sheep’s shoulderblade was the favored medium, and in this case the practice is known as pyro-scapulimancy. We can speculate that although the ancients lacked wisdom they did not lack imagination. We can say they lived closer to their world than we live to ours. We can say they were a great deal more sensitive to the nuances of natural phenomena.The penalty for crossing nature with any sort of foolhardy behavior was almost certainly death. This could not be taken lightly in an age when average life-expectancy was subject to the whims of stray rocks and large birds.
In the natural world everything is important. Under penalty of starvation you take your messages where you find them. Around the fire one evening a bone is picked clean and tossed in the blaze. It cracks. You study the cracks. These cracks might tell you something. If you had the philosophical system available, they might tell you about the health and condition of the animal who sacrificed the bone. This in turn might tell you about forage possibilities in the surrounding countryside. You might think about the moisture content or the oxygen content of the air, the nature of the combustion in your fire, the quality and character of the burning wood. Click Here to examine a fragment of oracle shell from between 1339 and 1281 B.C.
If this philosophical system wasn’t available, you might content yourself with thinking that the last time you saw cracks like these things were settled and you were content. The weather was fine and food was plentiful. How do you know this? Plainly, Heaven is telling you by means of the cracks. It has to be Heaven for you know well that thunder and lightning, wind and rain, and the sun and moon are not at your immediate disposal.
I believe the Anyang turtleshell diviners are the originators of Chinese divination practice as it has evolved through the centuries, and offer us protohistoric evidence of the birth of Chinese, Tibetan and Vietnamese fate calculation.
When I study the history of turtleshell divination I am constantly inspired to recall a passage from Tibet’s history of ancient Chinese astrological thought, as expressed in the Dub-thab-selki-Melon:
Tsug-lag-tse-kyi-tsa-va-ni Ma-ha-ser-gyi-rus-bal-de. Go-vo Lhor-daa Jud-ma Chyan. Shog-yeshar-la-shog-yen- nub. Yau-lag-shes-po-tsham-zi- knan. Gan-kyalne-pade-ye teng. Dsam-lin Jig-ten Chhag- par-dod.
“The principal root of astrology, Is the great golden tortise. The tail to the north and the head above. The right and left sides lie east and west. The limbs extend to the four quarters, On which lies supreme The world Jambudvipa and rests.”
Chinese Astrology Through Tibetan Eyes
Tibetan records, which are extremely accurate, tell us that Chinese astrology and divination reached Tibet intact in 635 a.d., by means of Hun-shin Kun-ju, the Chinese wife of Sron-Tsan-Gampo, the scholarly thirty-third monarch of Tibet who ascended in 617 a.d.. Possibly there were earlier Chinese influences, passing piecemeal into Tibet’s Bon religion. But in 635 a.d. we know a whole system was delivered intact to the Tibetan literati from the Chinese literati.
Hun-shin Kun-ju was herself of royal blood, a pious Buddhist and learned in many arts. It is likely, and certainly all of the evidence leads us to so believe, that Hun-shin Kun-ju brought with her to Tibet all of the royally-favored astrological knowledge of China as was reduced to the written word by the early Seventh Century.
When we study the origin of Chinese divination through Chinese sources we have rather a confusing picture. Through wars, revolutions, disputations, tumults and suppressions, the literature of Chinese divination became fragmented. Tibet suffered no such ill influences and remained scholastically inviolate from the time of the Chinese princess of 635 a.d. until the Communist Chinese invasion of 1950. Thus, several works which are lost in the Chinese language are preserved in the Tibetan language. If we wish to study Chinese origins it is therefore useful to do so through Tibetan eyes. Tibetan sources are in perfect agreement with the best Chinese sources and offer helpful amplification.
From the Tibetans we learn that Fu Hi (2852-2738 b.c.), who later scholars refer to as the “legendary” first sovereign of China, wrote a treatise on the art of divination and astrology the title of which Tibetans translate as Khyen-shan, which, according to them, is the earliest such work on the subject known. The Tibetans record that the earliest written encyclopaedia of astrology came to Tibet during the Tang Dynasty, and that the art of divination Tibetans call Porthan was obtained from this work.
On the greater history of Chinese astrology the Tibetans state that during the reign of Fu Hi there came from the river “He” in Hunan Province a monster having the body of a horse and the head of a dragon. On the back of this monster were inscribed eight ba qua, or trigrams which were multiplied to sixty-four and codified in a work the Tibetans term Lyan-shan. This was known as the “First Heavenly System.” Later, a man named “Sen-non” wrote a work called Ku-hi-tsan based on Fu Hi’s first work.
Next, an individual known to the Tibetans as the third monarch, “Yihi-shyin,” began accurate observation of the heavenly bodies, assigned yin-yang properties to five elements, formed the ten stems and named the twelve branches. All of these, according to the Tibetans, were represented on a globe called “Hun-thyeu-yi.”
Finally, the Tibetans record that a “Later Heavenly System” evolved by means of a remarkable tortoise presented to the emperor Yu, circa 2205 b.c., who reading the marks on the tortoise’s back noted them to express the divisions of time and by this means improved the earlier writings on astrology.
Chinese Astrology Through Chinese Eyes
The Chinese scholars will examine the Tibetan transliterations, interrupt us at this point and make short work of the Tibetan accounts. They will tell us that “Lyan-shan” is the Lien Shan and “Ku-hi-tsan” is the Kuei Tsang. This is most interesting. The Lien Shan, or “Manifestation of Change in the Mountains,” and Kuei Tsang, or “Flow and Return to Womb and Tomb,” are the two lost books of the divination trilogy of which only the I Ching survives. The references to “Yihi-shyin” are likewise instructive.The Chinese scholars will argue that “Yihi shyin” is the tantric Buddhist monk and astronomer I-Hsing (672-717 a.d.) and that Tibetan accounts are all a revisionist history of seventh century provenance. That is possible. But reading deeply into the Tibetan sources we find that “Yihi-shyin” is Huang Ti, and that the calculations the Tibetans write of originate in his sixty-first year, or 2637 b.c., with the minister Ta Nao. And we know Chinese astrology reached Tibet before I-Hsing was born.
The modern Chinese historians tell us that it was Tsou Yen (c. 350-270 b.c.) who coalesced yin-yang theory, five element theory and drew from these the basis of divination. In Ssuma Chhien’s biographical notes on Tsou Yen he writes, “First [Tsou Yen] spoke about modern times, and from this went back to the time of Huang Ti,” here indicating the direct, pre-“Ch’in fire” linkage between inventions of 2637 b.c. and expressions of circa 260 b.c..
Tsou Yen’s works were suppressed in the Ch’in, and today we know of only nine fragments of his writing which remain intact. Yet his tradition flourished, as evidenced by the substantial familiarity with his works in the early Han; the names of his books being known to the Han reconstructionists. The late Han scholars spoke of as lost astrological theory only that which was lost in Huang Ti’s classic. Yet they were completely fluent in the practical specifics of that theory and indeed gain some of their evidence from Huang Ti’s classic as quoted in Tsou Yen’s works.
The Tibetan sources admit of the “Ch’in fire,” telling us that the Lien Shan and Kuei Tsang were indeed burnt during the Ch’in Dynasty philosophical suppression of 213 b.c. when many books were burned and scattered. The Ch’in ban was lifted by the Han in 191 b.c.. So was it Tsou Yen’s thought which made its way to Tibet in 635 a.d., or that of some other figure? And was Tsou Yen the true force of divination theory; the true holder of Huang Ti’s lineage?
The Tibetans indicate Tsou Yen was a minor figure and the true lineage came in a 1,600 year old tradition from Huang Ti to King Wen and his son, the Duke of Chou, circa the first millennium, whence it passed through Confucian hands. This is important to Chinese scholars because it illuminates the controversy which surrounds Tsou Yen as the supposed “originator” of five element theory. Fortunately, because we know precisely when and with who Chinese astrology entered Tibet, it also demonstrates what was considered “pure divination” and what was not. Taking the Tibetan sources as a whole and carefully consulting the Chinese sources, we have to say Tsou Yen was a pivotal figure but that he did not originate five element theory or its application to divination.
The Tibetan evidence regarding the mysterious tortoise of Yu is even more enticing to Chinese scholars. Modern students claim that the Lo Shu, or Lo Map and Ho Thu or Ho Map had no original application in divination. Hu Wei (c. 1706 a.d.) claimed that the Lo Map and Ho Map had originally nothing to do with the I Ching, but had been appended to it by the Taoist Chhen Thuan, circa 950 a.d. But the Tibetan texts are explicit on this point, reflecting that as of 635 a.d. the Lo Map and Ho Map were integral parts of I Ching divination theory as received from China.Click Here to examine the Ho Map and the Lo Map.
The Chinese could not, in 635 a.d., bring to Tibet something that they did not possess. But what of earlier times? Is there any chance the Tibetans can bridge the gap formed by the Ch’in suppression? Can we find in Tibetan divination something that did not come from China but logically would have come from China?
We get a clue from an early fourteenth century Tibetan Bon work that codifies Bon oral and written tradition as it applies to astrology: the dDus-pa Rin-po-che Dri-ma Med-pa gZi-brjid Rab-tu hBar-bahi mDo, or “Precious Compendium, the Blazing Sutra Immaculate and Glorious,” known as the gZi-brjid , or “The Glorious” for short.
The gZi-brjid chapter on prediction lists four kinds of astrological calculation:
1. The “Mirror of Mysterious Horoscopes”
2. The sPar-kha and sMe-ba circle.
3. Time Wheel of the Elements
4. Combination and Effect calculation by the ju-zag method.
The “Mirror of Mysterious Horoscopes” thereafter described is entirely Chinese in origin. The sPar-kha are of course the eight trigrams, a Chinese invention. The sMe-ba are the nine numerals of the Chinese Lo Map. The “Elements and Time Periods” are Chinese in origin, and the ju-zag method relates to symbolic correlations between the elements and their supposed birth and death cycle which are, again, Chinese conventions. As we have seen, all of these are datable to pre-Ch’in times and were known to the Han reconstructionists.
In order to discover the lost threads of Chinese astrology we have to carefully dissect Tibetan methods of calculation, cull out that which is indigenously Tibetan or has filtered in from India, and then carefully contrast these with the earliest known Chinese methods of calculation.
When I attempted this laborious process I came to the conclusion that about 3,750 b.c., give or take a century or two, men formed questions in “yes” or “no” postulates and cracked five or ten pairs of tortoises in order to gain an reliable average answer from the resulting cracks. They recorded the answers with reference to a then-prevalent system of dating. Later, other men came upon the records and through inspired collation, developed theories of natural behavior. They also used the tortoise shells as a kind of mirror of the heavens, relating that which was recorded below to that which was observed above.
These theories spawned methods which in turn fostered traditions. The traditions passed from the third millennium to the second millennium and on to the first millennium more or less intact. The textual support for these traditions was disturbed for about 175 years during the last part of the first millennium but the traditions themselves were maintained, particularly as to the methods of calculation, which employed certain equipment that survived the 175 year hiatus. Thereafter, the traditions flourished and we can reach them in their pure form even today. As Fan Yeh wrote in the History of the Later Han:
“The theories of yin and yang and astrology and calendrics are mentioned often in the memorial classics. Yet the works themselves, the marvelous tablets of jade slips and gold-thread bindings, are secluded in the archives of the luminous divine, secured on altars of jade. There is no way for us to see them. But when it comes to the designs of the Lo-shu, the script of the Lo River delivered on the back of a turtle, and the Ho-t’u, charts brought by a dragon from the Yellow River, the arts of Chi-tzu, and the texts of Shih-k’uang, the division of apocrypha and portents, and the charms of Ch’ien-chueh–in short, all the means for investigating and exploring the dark and profound, for viewing and apprehending the domain of man–these we can learn of from time to time.”