The Concept Of Cosmic Plan In Ancient China

Whatever roles in life they played or whatever gods they worshiped, the men of Ancient China viewed themselves as actors performing on a cosmic stage. They were primarily concerned with the structure and form of the world in which they lived and with the mysterious forces that operated within the geometric framework of that world.

This framework consisted of the flat platform of earth, permeated by subterranean pipelines carrying vitalizing fluids, and surmounted by the canopy of Heaven studded with the fiery stars that controlled human destiny. The whole scene was believed to be invisibly crisscrossed by lines of force and surging power.

All men accepted the fact that this great picture of the universe could be reduced to a symbolic pattern or miniature replica and incorporated into the design of a holy shrine, the structure of a palace, the plan of a city and the layout of a garden. In each of these the men of Ancient China could trace with some exactitude the patterns of the natural order that directed the actors on the cosmic stage the guidelines to the location of the entrances and props and to the paths that must be taken to follow them wisely. Whether Buddhist or Taoist, Confucianist or unbeliever, all studied the secret geometry of the universe, tried to comprehend it, to diagram it, and to imitate it in manmade structures.

Filial Piety

Filial Piety is extolled in the story of Tung Yung, who sold himself into bondage to get the money to bury his father. Two scenes on a Sixth Century sarcophagus show him toiling in the fields (left), and meeting a beautiful maiden (right) who was sent from Heaven to free him from his servitude. 

The physical universe the earth and sky was visualized as a unit. According to the old imagery, sky and earth together made up the parts of a great chariot, its flat carriage bed shaded by an umbrella on a slightly tilted pole. “Canopy Heaven” was a blue dome covering “Chassis Earth,” the yellow flatlands.

The origin of this physical world does not seem to have concerned the men of Ancient China very much, despite their great interest in its shape. A few creation myths survive, but creator spirits did not figure significantly in their religion a striking difference from Judaism and Christianity. It appears that the stories of the creator gods known to the men of the Bronze Age had been almost entirely forgotten when the classical books were codified under the Han emperors, yet one of them was still remembered. This concerned the goddess Nu Kua, the builder of the sky. The First Century A.D. critic Wang Chung recorded what he knew of her ancient myth:

Nu Kua smelted and refined five colored stones with which to repair the blue sky. She cut off the legs of a giant sea turtle to stand as four sky poles. But since the sky is deficient in the northwest, the sun and moon move through it there; and since it is deficient in the southeast, the hundred rivers pour through it there.

After Han times, Nu Kua faded away to become a mere fairy tale being, neglected by the upper classes and ignored in the state religion. For most men the world was simply there, as had been ordained by Heaven since eternity.

The yellow earth itself was neatly subdivided into nine regions, each with its own special characteristics. These were first thought of as the land immediately surrounding the Middle Kingdom the old central plain but as knowledge of distant places increased, the boundaries were pushed back farther and farther.

The origin of the concept of the Nine Lands goes back to Yu the Great, conqueror of man hating water creatures and founder of the semi-legendary Hsia Dynasty. Yu is said to have drained the nine regions to provide land for man to live on and to have laid out the courses of the waterways, the original rivers of the world that separated them. In the ideal, geometric scheme of things, so dear to the old Chinese dream of a perfect world, these nine divisions corresponded to the eight cardinal directions, leaving the ninth in the centre for the particular domain of the Son of Heaven.


nine mansionsThe mystic meaning of the nine realms is preserved in a classic myth, known to us in a Hanera version. According to the story, a magic diagram of the earth emerged at the command of Heaven from a tributary of the Yellow River, the Lo River, on which was situated the ancient capital of Loyang. This mystical plan, known as the “Lo Document,” is believed to have appeared on the carapace of a turtle in the form of a square divided into nine parts (below). Each square had a number and each of the rows of the magic square added up to 15. In one famous book of the Chou Dynasty this diagram was called the “Universal Model” and its nine cells were sometimes called the “Nine Mansions.” The terms and the numbers are believed to have been associated with astrology and with the long-lost rituals of the shaman kings of misty antiquity. Through the magic square, Heaven had graciously allowed mankind a glimpse of one of its ultimate secrets.

The classic picture of the flat, square earth was complicated by the presence of mountains. But these too could be explained: summits came close to Heaven and so could draw readily on heavenly energies. This was particularly true of the mountains believed to have been placed by divine design at the four corners of the earth and at its centre. The ancient Chinese thought that they could identify these five sacred mountains among the uplands that surrounded the yellow plain of the Middle Kingdom. They were the cloud gatherers, the rain bringers and the snow accumulating watersheds, the foci of the most important forces that brought fertility to the nation’s farmlands. These divine mountains became the sites of religious activities and of permanent religious establishments. The gods were thought to walk on their summits.

Traditionally, the most important of the five was Mount T’ai, the rugged massif that looked down on the west country. To this mountain went the great monarchs of Ancient China with their entire courts to carry out elaborate ceremonies aimed at renewing their connections with Heaven. In so doing they strengthened their inner powers, lengthened their lives and inaugurated eras of universal peace.

The five mountains completed the Chinese model of the physical universe. Over all was the heavenly umbrella studded with the glittering stars, themselves inhabited by powerful spirits. Below was the ninefold land on which men worked and prayed. Between stood the five sacred mountains that led the divine energies into their proper earthly channels to the benefit of all.

But the energies themselves -bewildering invisible forces of nature needed to be systematized for easy comprehension. Shortly before the beginning of the Han period in the Third Century B.C., it came to be categorized as either yin-oriented or yang-oriented. The tasty Chinese partridge was considered a yang bird because, it was reported, it always took flight toward the south where the solar heat was at a maximum. A typical manifestation of yin was the phosphorescence in the sea, which was called “yin fire,” the cold mysterious fire that welled up from the shadowy depths of the ocean at night. The interplay of yin versus yang was believed to be present everywhere in the universe and the correct balance between these two forces was thought to be essential to the perfect life.

The most important of these schemes was a system that postulated two fundamental energies, yin and yang. The basic meaning of these words were “shaded” (yin) and “sunlit” (yang). Symbolically, they stood for “female, dark, terrestrial, recessive, cool, submissive,” and “male, bright, celestial, aggressive, warm, dominant.”

They might be thought of as comparable to negative and positive electricity. The yin power reached its climax in the world at the time of the winter solstice. Then the Son of Heaven made the greatest of all sacrifices, the sacrifice to Heaven in the southern suburb of the capital, and brought back the warm celestial force of yang to draw the new crops out of the wet soil. The yang force reached its own maximum in midsummer and then began to decline, yielding to the power of yin.

In the course of time all facets of life-great and small, animate and inanimate-came to be categorized as either yin-oriented or yang-oriented. The tasty Chinese partridge was considered a yang bird because, it was reported, it always took flight toward the south where the solar heat was at a maximum. A typical manifestation of yin was the phosphorescence in the sea, which was called “yin fire,” the cold mysterious fire that welled up from the shadowy depths of the ocean at night. The interplay of yin versus yang was believed to be present everywhere in the universe and the correct balance between these two forces was thought to be essential to the perfect life.

This simple dualism is represented most prominently in a book, edited in Han times, called the I Ching, the “Book of Changes.” It is a miscellany of ancient farmers’ lore and diviners’ prognostics, but it contains an exhaustive list of items that can be associated with either yin or yang. For example, it defines the yang principle as the hot, dry, fertilizing sun source and goes on to elaborate its meaning in a long chain of associated symbols: “Its image is Heaven, it is suzerain, it is father … ” and so on, down to jade, ice and horses.

The I Ching also purports to be an interpretation of a document on yin-yang dualism called the Ho Chart, which was traditionally believed to have been brought to the Ho, or Yellow River, by a dragon horse from Heaven. The chart consists of eight trigrams, or figures of three, made of various combinations of only two symbols that came to be associated with yin and yang. This set of trigrams and the I Ching commentary on them was referred to constantly and used to interpret all kinds of situations. A sage could explain an earthquake or tell a husband how to deal with an errant wife. Even a veterinarian could fit his treatment to the system. There was one remedy for yang animals (such as horses, which rise front-end first) and another remedy for yin animals (such as camels, which rise hind-end first).

The system quickly took a firm hold in official circles and, although there were severe penalties for daring commoners who presumed to study the most esoteric of these dangerous secrets, it proved to be a boon both to sincere diviners of the future and to all sorts of charlatans. For men who were convinced of the truth of the yin-yang idea and few men seem to have doubted it after Han times virtually all phenomena could be explained by it.

Important as yin and yang were to early Chinese thought about the world, these two forces were not the only ones that had to be taken into account. Equally powerful was the set of “Five Activities” named “Water,” “Fire,” “Wood,” “Metal” and “Earth.” These, like the yin-yang dualism, appear first in books of the Fourth and Third Centuries B.C.

Symbol of the North

Symbol of the north, the tortoise was one of the five sacred animals of Chinese cosmology. Often, as in this Third Century representation, it was shown intertwined with a snake.

Superficially the “Five Activities” seem to resemble the Four Elements of Western tradition”Earth,” “Air,” “Fire” and “Water.” But they are not inert “elements” out of which material things are built; they are active dynamic agencies at work in all natural processes.

The Five Activities were associated with the five directions, the five primary colors and the five sacred animals. The four seasons were assigned to four of the Activities, Earth being excluded because it represented all seasons:

earth center

To many early Chinese these associations seemed quite natural. It appears appropriate to link Earth with Center and with Yellow when one considers that the Chinese civilization began on the yellow soil of the valley of the Yellow River, China’s second longest, which was believed to be the center of the world. Similarly, it was not illogical to link the southern part of China with its red soil to the element of fire.

Like yin and yang, the Activities ultimately acquired an extensive list of additional symbolic correlations, but these were arranged by categories such as tastes, smells, the seasons, domestic animals, sense organs, grains, instruments and even government agencies. Sheep were associated with Wood, fowl with Fire, ox with Earth, dogs with Metal and pigs with Water; the Ministry of Agriculture was linked to Wood, the Ministry of War to Fire, the capital city to Earth, the Ministry of Justice to Metal and the Ministry of Works to Water.

Only one Activity was supposed to be dominant at a given time and each Activity became most important in a fixed sequence. Thus Wood was overcome by Fire, Fire was overcome by Water, and Water was overcome by Earth.

The interworkings of the five, properly understood, accounted for all phenomena and all historical events. Imbalance meant trouble and showed itself in war, plague and famine. The Book of T’ang cites the drying up of rivers in the summer of 805 as an example of over activity of Fire, which caused a derangement in the Water Activity.

Ambitious politicians could promote new dynasties in accordance with the scheme: “Metal” could overcome “Wood”; therefore revolutionaries challenging a dynasty associated with “Wood” were likely to triumph if they carried a white banner since white was associated with “Metal.”

In addition to the yin-yang and Five Activity theories about cosmic forces, there was an older and less rigid one. In this view, the whole world was crisscrossed by a bewildering variety of vapors or invisible fluids, called ch’i. Even the seemingly solid earth was permeated with divine pipelines that carried these vital fluids quickly from one place to another.

Normally their effects were local: those of South China guaranteed the growth of tasty tangerines there; those of North China produced only the thorny lime. But sometimes an unusually powerful focus of force, such as a virtuous, Heaven-approved ruler, could divert a ch’i from its normal range. So it was said that the noble Emperor Li Lung-chi drew the ch’i from the tropical provinces northward to his park in Chang-an. causing its tangerines to bear unexpected fruit. When Li Lung-chi was sent into exile, the ch’i of the south went awry and the oranges on a holy mountain near Canton failed to appear.

Such was the cosmic geometry of the world and such were the cosmic dynamics that animated it. They could not be ignored and all prudent men studied their hidden secrets. Because it was considered so important for men to conform to the basic patterns in their daily life as well as when performing religious ceremonies, the Chinese tried to model their cities and palaces, their houses and gardens, after the great cosmic patterns. In so doing, they made the perfection of man’s Heavengiven environment visible in simplified form.

Special care was taken to consider the natural forces in the construction of sacred buildings, where the shaman-kings of the Bronze Age performed magical and symbolic pantomimes and from which they issued the holy almanac, a divinely inspired calendar for the coming year. The great example of such a building was the sacred hall of the Chou kings, called the “Luminous Hall.”

Old books tell us that the design of the Luminous Hall followed the underlying geometry of the universe, but unfortunately no details of the application of this geometry to the actual building have survived. We know only that the “Nine Mansions” of the “Universal Model” of the earth were associated with the magical compartments of this hall. The Luminous Hall remains for us as it did for the medieval Chinese-a tantalizing vision of antiquity, when men were closer to the gods.

The Luminous Hall vanished before the fall of the Chou Dynasty in the Third Century B.C., but it was not forgotten. In later eras, when the royal palace had absorbed most of its sacred functions, several attempts were made to restore it as a separate building and institution. But neither the antiquarians nor the ritualists knew its proper form.

The most famous of the reconstructions was carried out in the year 688, during the reign of the Empress Wu, a female “Son of Heaven.” She created an elaborate edifice, surmounted by a polished sphere to collect the sacred fires of Heaven, but this must have been very different from the ancient original. The old Luminous Hall had probably been a simple building a wooden sanctuary where magical aims could be realized even if it did not have fancy marble staircases and iron pillars.

The ancient Luminous Hall is only a single instance of a sacred diagram embodied on a reduced scale in actual wood, earth and stone. In some measure, all the royal houses and all the halls of antiquity were similar representations of the cosmic stage, carefully designed for the magical dramas of the Son of Heaven. The rectilinear plan of the world was similarly reflected in the capital cities that appear to have been based in some fashion on the Heaven given magic square from the Lo River.

Archeologists have found that the ancient Shang capital excavated at the modern town of Chengchou had an outer wall of rammed earth in the shape of a square, raised on the summit of a Stone Age wall. Probably both the royal capital of Chou and the cities of the great feudal lords were built on the same cosmic plan. Still, we know very little indeed about these Bronze Age cities.

With the establishment of the Han Empire in the Third Century B.C. the picture becomes much clearer. From that time on there are descriptions of the two great capital cities of the Chinese world: one was Loyang, located in the northeast on the River Lo; the other was the walled city of Changan, “Long Security,” on the south bank of the River Wei in a strategic valley traversed by ancient trade routes to Central Asia. The distinguished historian Pan Ku praised the cosmic design of Ch’ang-an and its great palace:

Their frame and image were matched with Heaven and Earth,

Their warp-lines and weft-lines were matched with yin and yang.

Other early writers debated the relative glories of the two capitals inconclusively. But the greatest of these writers was a contemporary of Pan Ku, the First Century astronomer Chang Heng, who gave the palm to Ch’ ang-an. In his poems he suggested that a capital city properly designed in accordance with cosmic principles would magically compel all the emperor’s subject peoples to adopt the Chinese civilization, He therefore praised the wisdom of the founder of the Han Dynasty in his selection of the right location for his capital:

For his purpose, he took thought of the spirits of Heaven and Earth,

That he might suitably determine the place that was to be the Heavenly City.

Chang Hengs eulogies also praised the buildings and public places of the capital the jeweled palace of the Han Emperor Liu Che, built on its quintuple terrace of rammed earth and painted with representations of Heaven, Earth and all the gods; the teeming market places; and the vast parks, abounding in every sort of fish and game.

The great metropolis of Chang-an fell into ruins after the collapse of Han, and during the age of division and invasion, barbarians from the north grazed their flocks in its suburbs. But it was revived in all its glory under the splendid medieval monarchs of T’ang.

To a foreign visitor this new Ch’ ang-an must have seemed the most dazzling metropolis in the world. Indeed the medieval city can only be compared to Babylon, Alexandria and Rome in their greatest days. It was laid out in beautiful symmetry-a model of the land of the gods, a paradise on earth. The city was structured in accordance with the divine plan, in the form of a rectangle oriented according to the cardinal directions. It was subdivided into smaller squares by its grid of streets, the major ones leading to ceremonial gateways, named in accordance with the symbolism of the Five Activities. The gateways faced the four sacred mountains, the most important of them opening toward the south, the holy direction symbolized by yang, red and summer the special direction of the Son of Heaven himself.

Chang-an stretched about six miles from east to west and about five miles north to south and was protected by a wall 17 and one half feet high, built of rammed earth faced with brick and ashlar. The basic grid consisted of 25 broad carriageways flanked by drainage ditches, and hemmed at some times by fruit trees, at others by elm and pagoda trees. All of the chief north-south streets were more than 480 feet wide Fifth Avenue in New York is only 100 feet wide. It was traversed by many canals, some of them quite large, and all connecting with the River Wei, which brought goods from all over the empire.

Except for two large market areas in the eastern and western parts of the city, the palace complex in the north and some smaller areas taken over by the government or religious establishments, all the spaces between the streets were occupied by residential wards. These were surrounded by low walls with gates that were locked at the evening curfew, and each ward had its maze of lanes and alleys that passed among the houses, the neighborhood shops and the service establishments.

It is thought that Chang-an had about two million inhabitants in the first half of the Eighth Century, during the golden years of Emperor Li Lung-chi. Among them were large numbers of imperial guards, monks and nuns, as well as many foreigners, both visitors and residents, including Turks, Tibetans, Sogdians, Arabs and Persians. The population thinned out toward the south, where there were open fields, private parks and burial grounds with their shrines.

There were many magnificent buildings, both public and private. These included the residences of the great nobles, fantastically large and extravagantly furnished. At one time there were 64 magnificent Buddhist monasteries, 27 Buddhist nunneries, 10 Taoist monasteries and six Taoist nunneries, four Zoroastrian temples (chiefly for the use of Persian expatriates), a Manichean temple and a Nestorian Christian church.

The palace enclosure was a city in itself called “Great Luminous Palace” a name reminiscent of the ancient “Luminous Hall.” It was built on a majestic height called “Dragon Head Plain,” from which it overlooked the rest of the city. The complex was approached by a bluish stone-paved road that curved in the form of a dragon’s tail. Within the complex were great basilicas for formal audiences and every sort of lesser structure, ranging from pleasure pavilions to libraries and archives. There were artistically landscaped lakes, which reflected weeping willows and many-colored flowers; there were private shrines, barracks and even such amenities as a polo field. Below the palace enclosure to the south was a grand vista of the checkerboard city, and far off beyond it lay the blue southern hills where the great noblemen had their country villas.

To most medieval Chinese a journey to Changan was a holy pilgrimage. This was the city of the divine king, and the ascent to the sacred palace on its dragon hill like a paradise on the summit of a holy mountain-was an enactment of the journey of the human soul to the mountain of the gods. This theme of the journey of the released soul to a mountain paradise is as old as Chinese literature. In Han times, the philosopher Wang Chung had noted the common opinion that “seeing the godking in a dream is in fact the soul’s ascent to Heaven; ascent to Heaven is like the ascent of a mountain.” The Great Luminous Palace of Tang brought the old dream down to earth.

Like other manmade replicas of the unseen, supernatural world, the Great Luminous Palace on its miniature world mountain was perishable. Early in 904 A.D., after a quarter century of civil war, the powerful war lord Chu Chiian-chung brought the Tang Dynasty to an end and transferred the capital to Loyang. The great mansions and palace buildings of Ch’ang-an, ravaged by arson and pillage, were dismantled, and their timbers floated downstream to the new capital. Massive walls were demolished; beautiful water parks were allowed to silt up.

For generations afterward, the site of the great capital provided a theme for melancholy reflection by poets on the transience of human glory. Wei Chuang, who lived during the fall of T’ang, wrote:

Filling my eyes walls and doorways, where herbs of spring are deep.

Wounded times! wounded affairs! even more wounded hearts!

The carriage wheels, the horses’ traces-nuhere are they now?

At the twelve towers of jade they are nowhere to be found.

But the idea of an earthly paradise did not die out. Though the splendid palaces passed away, men continued to build gardens that also represented the cosmic order, though on a much smaller scale.

A garden represented two worlds simultaneously the physical and the spiritual. Stones and water were the essential components used to portray the physical world. Stones were analogous to the human skeletal structure and water corresponded to vitalizing blood and breath; stones and water together represented the anatomy of the earth. At the same time, a garden was a model of the paradises of the gods on their incredibly remote hilltops, and the trees and flowering shrubs planted in them symbolized the world trees and gem trees that ornamented those distant Edens.

The earliest Chinese gardens of which we have any knowledge are those of the kings and great lords of Chou. They seem to have been stocked with every sort of bird and beast, and were at once hunting parks, zoological gardens, places for recreation, and magical symbols. That a king could hunt animals from all over his realm in this limited space signified that all of the creatures of the world were in his power. An ancient ode to Wen Wang, founder of Chou, describes such a scene:

The king is in the holy park,

Where doe and hart are cowering;

Doe and hart are sleek and spruce,

White birds shimmer and shine.

The king is at the holy pond:

At its brim the fish are leaping.

Divine plan

The Divine Plan, based on the concept of a rectangular universe, is reflected in the grid layout of the T’ang capital, Ch’ang-an. Covering some 30 square miles, the city was divided into residential wards, two main markets and several parks. Visitors entered from the south, the holy direction; the main thoroughfare, the Street of the Vermilion Sparrow, symbolized by its name the color and animal associated with the south. This street led to the Imperial City, reserved for government buildings, and the Palace City, part of the royal household. Northeast of the city, set among hills, was the Great Luminous Palace, the emperor’s home.

The greatest garden of Han times was the huge hunting park of the monarch Liu Che outside the capital of Chang-an: it is described in the poems of Chang Heng arid other Han writers as a gigantic model of the empire. The park was a virtual museum containing specimens of every beautiful animal, plant and stone in the Chinese world; it was the emperor’s realm in miniature and symbolized the vast domain that owed him allegiance. The major rivers of the Middle Kingdom, stocked with fine fishes, were recreated there and even specimens of economic minerals were on display. The great holy mountains were represented too, duplicated by masses of rock and earth.

It was not until the period of division and invasion after the fall of Han in the Third Century A.D. that the idea of a garden as a place for spiritual enrichment through intimate communion with natural beauty began to appear. At that time, some men, bemused by thoughts of the artificiality and transience of public life and inspired by Buddhist and Taoist ideas about nature, were conceiving of gardens as simpler affairs, not much different from bits of unspoiled wilderness. This view was encouraged by new experiences of travelers and emigrants to the south; there they began to appreciate a greener, lusher and warmer environment than they had ever known. Between the Han and T’ang periods a profound feeling for real trees and rocks and birds and flowers had been developing among sensitive men. No longer were they considered only as symbols of cosmic forces; they were thought of as living and even lovable creatures. In late T’ang times the climax of these tendencies was seen in the development of the wild, romantic garden.

Most influential in creating this taste was the Ninth Century magnate Li Te-yii, a rhan of solitary temperament who devoted what time he could to writing and to his gardens. His urban garden in Chang-an was renowned for its strangely shaped stones and gnarled pines that were becoming the vogue among gardeners and painters. But his greatest pride was his country garden in the hills south of the eastern capital of Loyang, which was described by a contemporary writer as a veritable paradise, a suitable residence for godlike beings. Within its three mile periphery it contained specimens from every part of the empire many of them new and exotic plants such as magnolias, camellias, the crimson berried nandin and the rare golden larch. He also kept birds and rare stones there and his great pride was a replica of the gorges of the Yangtze River. The great man justified his interest in these as necessary for a poet, who must be accurate when dealing with nature.

An innovation for which Li Te-yu was largely responsible was the transformation of the miniature world-mountain, a basic element of the garden, from a mound of earth and rubble to a single huge stone. He loved rocks of fantastic and even grotesque contours, especially waterworn, perforated limestone, and because of his influence the chief attraction of many a Ninth Century garden became a massive, twisted rock representing a Taoist mountain paradise.

Gradually, the Chinese garden was being perfected, its representation of the cosmic diagram more and more reflecting the multiplicity and subtleties of the real world. And yet the old idea of a garden paradise persisted.

To the talented Buddhist painter and poet of the Tenth Century, Kuan-hsiu, mountains were still crystalline palaces and earthly gardens were still paradises of the gods. Describing an actual garden, glowing with rare blossoms, he wrote: “The peach flowers seem to open up on a palace of the sylphs.” The dream of an earthly garden of the spirit lived on after kings and their sacred halls and cosmic parks had vanished.

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