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Yarrow stalk divination signals complex reasoning in Zhou Dynasty

LIU YAN | 2019-04-01 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The mechanism of counting in yarrow stalk divination is complex and involves intensive math. After counting, there comes the task of converting the counts into one line of the hexagram, through which a situation is predicted. Photo: IC


Since ancient times, people have used various methods of divination to look into their future, to prevent the occurrence of unwanted events and to understand the best development of a situation. There are a variety of methods to practice the mantic arts, or bushi in Chinese. Reading the patterns of cracks on a turtle shell or ox’s shoulder bone after heating it with rocks or sticks is called bu while the manipulation of a group of yarrow stalks is called shi. In the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BCE), the turtle-shell method was more popular, whereas in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE), its reputation was gradually overtaken by the yarrow stalks.

The reason why the latter became more valued was that the ancient Chinese discovered numerology in work and life, by which they set rules for nature and society. In this way, as human reasoning expanded, the role of gods shrank. Therefore, it is safe to say that the shift from turtle-shell divination to yarrow stalk divination in the Shang and Zhou dynasties signaled the emergence of complex reasoning in early China.


Worship of gods
In ancient China, gods were regarded as the masters of important affairs, and divination served as a tool to explore the will of deities or spirits. Therefore, turtle-shell divination and yarrow stalk divination both played an important role in political affairs and social activities at that time.

In Chinese classic the Book of Documents, there are multiple quotations about how gods were the final judge of all things on earth. In the chapter “Tai Jia,” it says, “The former king kept his eye continually on the bright requirements of Heaven, and so he maintained the worship of the spirits of heaven and earth, of those presiding over the land and the grain, and of those of the ancestral temple—all with a sincere reverence. Heaven took notice of his virtue, and caused its great appointment to light on him, that he should soothe and tranquillize the myriad regions.” This proves that the king could only rule the nation well with the mighty aid of the gods of heaven and earth.

In the chapter “Announcement of Tang,” it says, “The King of Xia extinguished his virtue, and played the tyrant, extending his oppression over you, the people of the myriad regions. Suffering from his cruel injuries, and unable to endure the wormwood and poison, you protested with one accord your innocence to the spirits of heaven and earth. The way of Heaven is to bless the good, and make the bad miserable. It sent down calamities on Xia, to make manifest its guilt.” Again, the gods punished the cruel ruler of Xia for the misery he placed upon his people. The universal principle was that gods praised the good but punished the bad.

Therefore, learning the will of deities and spirits was crucial for the fate of states and kingdoms. In the chapter “Pan Geng,” Pan Geng wishes to move the capital to Yin, but the people will not go to dwell there. So he says, “I have consulted the tortoise-shell, and obtained the reply: ‘This is no place for us.’” Turtle-shell divination was used as the key evidence to persuade people to relocate to a new capital.

Similarly, in the chapter “Announcement Concerning Luo,” the Duke of Zhou prays to deities, asking for guidance to receive an appointment, so that he can become an intelligent sovereign of the people. He says, “I divined by the shell concerning the ground about the li-water on the north of the He. I then divined concerning the east of the Jian-water, and the west of the Chan, when the ground near the Luo was indicated.”

In the chapter “Decade of Wen Wang” in the Book of Poetry, it says, “The King examined and divined about settling in the capital of Hao. The tortoise-shell decided the site and King Wu completed the city.” As we can see, rulers must consult gods through divination in state affairs such as building or moving to a new capital. For ordinary people, fortunetelling is also important in deciding a range of matters. In the Book of Poetry, there are records that show the arrangement of folk marriage also required the gods’ guidance.


Official historians
Since gods were able to decide the fate of men, people who could communicate with them were highly valued in ancient times.

As recorded, there were two kinds of witches and wizards: One focused on worshiping gods and the other was keen on learning from traditions of literature and experience. The former emphasized service to deities and spirits in accordance with specific forms of worship, divination and ceremonies. The latter emphasized the study and collation of classics and the interpretation of historical experience, thus they gradually developed into official historians. In the recording of divination experience, it is evident that in addition to respect and fear for the unknown, complex reasoning was also looming.

Though the idea that deities and spirits are omnipotent was still dominant, official historians found that phenology and celestial phenomena closely related to human beings had rules to follow.

In the chapter “Canon of Yao” in the Book of Documents, it says: “The Emperor Yao commanded the Xis and the Hes, who were in charge of observing the zodiacal spaces, 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 be observed by the people.”

In the later chapter “Canon of Shun,” it notes that when choosing a successor, Yao specifically tested Shun’s knowledge of astronomy and geography before offering him the throne.
There are also records that the Xi and the He were executed because of their false interpretation of the signs of Heaven. In the chapter “Punitive Expedition of Yin,” it says, “The Xi and the He, however, as if they heard nothing and knew nothing, so stupidly went they astray from their duties in the matter of the heavenly appearances, and rendered themselves liable to the death appointed by the former kings.”

Historians systematized and abstracted the experience of astronomy and phenology, and then used numerology to form an encompassing calendar that included predictions of auspicious and ominous dates for planting, harvest, marriage, construction and so on. On this basis, people carried out production and daily activities and even argued for the legitimacy of the existence and ruling of emperors.

The appearance of historians reflected the importance of human experience and the awakening of human consciousness. By inheriting and summarizing the experience, people grew out of their simple awe and worship of Heaven to realize the unity of worship and rational cognition.


Complex reasoning
Compared to counting the cracks in a turtle shell, the yarrow stalk method involves complex math and reasoning, providing more objective connections to human activities. The core of yarrow stalk divination is the use of numerology and arithmology to deduce. The wide application of the Book of Changes in the Shang and Zhou dynasties proved that the yarrow stalk method had gradually replaced turtle-shell divination.

More importantly, historians used numerology to generalize natural and social rules, namely calendars and systems. In practice, humans gradually came to know the four seasons, eight major solar terms, 12 months, 24 solar terms and 72 pentads. While the way of Heaven was sacred, the recording and deduction of numerological signs was objective and effective.

Corresponding to the man-made calendar, phenology and ceremony were also stipulated. People started to measure the land and divide it into administrative regions. Subsequently, for different types of cities, the city wall’s height and width, the population, and taxes were all regulated by numbers. In the chapter “Great Plan,” there are clear explanations of the five elements, five personal matters, five dividers of time, three virtues, five sources of happiness and six occasions of suffering. Eventually, the relationships between numerology and astronomy, calendars, rhythms, rituals and measurements were clarified, so that people’s social lives could be guided by rules.
Historians made objective rules for human society through numerology, which is the embodiment of rational thought. With the deepened understanding of numerology and arithmology, people’s pursuit of objectivity and social rules constantly improved, manifesting in the emergence of complex reasoning.


Liu Yan is from the School of Chinese Classics at Renmin University of China.


edited by YANG XUE