One must wonder why Chinas philosophical and religious ideologies maintained a strong relationship with, reverence for, and "connection" to nature, whereas the Western world developed its infamous attitudes of "dominion," "rupture," destruction, and waste. As Yi-fu Tuan (1969) pointed out, the contrast was less strong than many environmental writers seem to think, but it was real. China and the ancient West were both based on grain agriculture, dry-grown and irrigated. They both used the plow, had states that warred with each other, had commerce and trade, and developed centralized bureaucratic empires. They both developed philosophy and "world" religions at the same time, in the Axial Age. The parallels are close. Direct contact across Central Asia was evidently a reality long before the first historically attested contacts in the Han Dynasty (Morris 2010).
One proof of the early origins of Chinas deep concern for interactions with plants and animals is the Book of Songs, the folk and court song collection compiled by Confucius. It mentions more plants than the Bible does, even though the former is not as long as some of the individual books in the latter. Nature was richer in China, more productive, and less escapable. People relied heavily on wild resources and still do in some areas.
Chinas warring states were all culturally similar and all used Chinese, at least as an elite language. The highly analytical, isolating, nature-irrelevant world of Western thought was heavily concentrated among people who traded across major ethnic and ecological frontiers (Lerro 2000): the Phoenicians (who gave us the alphabet), the Greeks, the later Jews, the Syrians. Possibly their intercultural experiences made them more analytic and less attuned to local ecologies than the Chinese were. Possibly the rationality toward nature that the Chinese did develop came mostly from interstate zones. But these explanations remain conjectural.
The basic model of the universe was of a round heaven resting on a square earth. China was at the center of the latter. Barbarian realms lay around it, and the ocean circled all. The earth was oriented by the four directions and the center, and each of these five was marked by a sacred mountain. The earth, or at least Chinas central portion of it, sloped downward from west to east, causing rivers to run eastward. In heaven, Tian, were stars, sun, and moon, all with their effects on earthly affairs. The gods lived somewhere in the heavens or in sacred lands of the far and high west.
The energy of the cosmos flows as qi ("breath" or "spirit"). Qi includes also the subtle forces that are the dynamic shapers and movers behind the static landscape of mountains and plains. Currents of qi run through the landscape, just as they do in the human body. Human qi flow parallels that in the earth. Organs have their particular qi. Blocked, stagnant, deficient, or otherwise deranged qi is the major direct cause of sickness. Stagnant qi is pathological, but pooling qi can be beneficial, bringing good influences together at particular points.
Qi can be relatively yang or yin. In an alternate view, there are different qis: yang qis and yin qis. Medical works are never quite clear as to whether qi is all one or a cover-term for many separate forces.
China may be the only traditional culture in which "male" and "female" are considered more or less accidents of a more basic set of forces, rather than basic aspects of the universe. Males are two-thirds yang in balance of forces, females two-thirds yin. This is, in fact, the ratio of androsterone hormones to estriol hormones in males and females, showing that the Chinese had a very good sense of reality. But yang and yin do not refer to maleness and femaleness. As noted above, they originally refer to the sunny and shady sides of a hill. In terms of qi, this means that yang qi is the energy seen in bright, dry, warm, golden-red influences, and yin qi is the energy of shady, moist, cool, dark influences. Males are thought to be more active and outgoing, while women have dark moist wombs.
According to early Daoist thought, which probably represents fairly widespread thinking, the Dao, the basic and original Way, gave birth to the Unity, which divided into yang and yin, whose interaction produced the Myriad Things. The yin dominated because the female accepts, engenders, and gives birth.
Whatever the Greeks may have thought about the literal role of their famous four elements in making up the world, the Chinese thought about the five Chinese elements as processes or influences. The five basic constructs of Chinese thought were traditionally called the Five Elements in English; a better term is Five Phases (Porkert 1974). The actual word translated by "element" or "phase," however, actually means "going" (xing), a term fitting well with Daoist phraseology. These xing are not components of a structure ("elements") but phases of a process. Xing can be, and often is, a synonym for dao in the literal sense of a street or road. In modern Chinese towns, dao tends to mean "road" (larger) and xing, "street" (smaller, local). So philosophers are constantly reminded of the literal meaning of these terms.
The xing transform into each other: water collects on metal, water nourishes wood, wood nourishes fire, fire produces earth (ash), earth produces metal. In reverse order, they disrupt each other: metal digs into earth, earth smothers fire, fire burns wood, trees (wood) suck up water, water rusts metal. They are connected to and defined by the five directions (including the center). Each of these had its sacred mountain.
They also appear in the five colors of the original Chinese color system: black, white, red, yellow, and green-blue, following a very widespread tendency in the worlds languages to recognize those five as primary. They are the easiest colors for our eyes and brains to pick out. Like many languages, Chinese lumps green, blue, and light gray under one color term, qing. This can confuse translators. I recently read about a green fox in a Chinese poem. Of course it was a gray fox; the translator (I shall mercifully leave him nameless here) had mindlessly used the commonest meaning of qing instead of the obviously appropriate one. Modern Chinese has added blue, green, and purple, but only for dyes and dyed material, and the words originate from dye-stuffs; the word for pure blue is simply the word for the indigo plant. Compare
English, with its use of flower names for late-recognized colors; pink, violet, mauve, and several other color names began as flower names.
The basic colors fit the well-known tendency of the human mind to be able to hold only five to seven items easily. There are also five tones in the Chinese musical scale and most other scales worldwide; again, the human mind at work. The West uses five- or seven-toned scales. Moreover, the human mind also recognizes four or five tastes, so the Chinese could easily see that as another fivefold ranking: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and pungent.
The correlation of the five directions and five flavors is of interest to us here because it seems to refer to regional cooking styles. The center correlated with sweet, and central-eastern Chinese cooking is still notably sweeter than that of other areas. North goes with salt, and the north does have salt lakes and a salty cuisine. South goes with bitter, and southern Chinese food does make relatively more use of bitter greens and other vegetables. East goes with sour, and Chinas best vinegar comes from the central east; other correlations (especially when the center is left out) pair east with sweet, which may make more sense: eastern Chinese food has many sweets. West goes with pungent, and anyone who has had real Sichuan or Hunan food knows where that ascription comes from! West Chinas heat comes today from chiles, which were not introduced until the sixteenth or seventeenth century, but in Han, west China had brown or Sichuan peppers, smartweed, and many other spicy herbs and fruits. We know this from the Songs of the South mentioned above, which document Hunan's food in incredible detail.
The Han Dynasty began an orgy of systematizing everything under the five phases. The Han thinkers recognized five major bodily organs: kidneys, liver, heart, spleen, lungs—corresponding, in order, to water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. They recognized also five minor organs, five staple foods (various lists given), and five scents. Eventually there were five domestic animals, five favorite flowers, five favorite fruit trees, five favorite shade trees, and so on and on (see, e.g., Veith 2002: 21). Even the seasons were forced into the framework, in spite of their obvious "fourness" defined by equinoxes and solstices; the dog days of late summer were split off as a fifth season.
All these fives are dynamic fields created by the working out of qi. One might say the natural process that appears as "metal" also appears as whiteness, the west, bitter flavors, the large intestine, and so on. The idea is certainly not that the west or the large intestine was made of metal. The five major "organs" are not just the organs themselves but also the fields of physiological action they control, according to traditional Chinese physiology. In this systern, qi and blood flow around the body in their proper vessels. It is the qi circulatory system that one pricks or rubs in acupuncture and acupressure. The acupuncture and acupressure points often correspond loosely to the nerve and tendon nodes of Western medicine. In medicine, health is maintained by keeping the qi of yang and yin, the five elements, the five tastes and smells, and above all the five major and five minor organ systems all balanced and circulating properly. Imbalance, disharmony, and stagnation beget sickness. The Mongols also developed a similar, more complex system (Bold 2009).
Chinese years are arranged in cycles of twelve animals, as almost everyone knows—many Anglo-Americans and Europeans now know their "birth animals." We all know that people born in the year of the dog are (supposedly) loyal, those of the year of the tiger are wild and fierce, and so forth. Less known is that these mesh with a cycle of phases that last ten years, two years per xing. The meshing produces the full sixty-year cycle of the Chinese calendar. The element of ones birth year influences ones birth animal. I am a metal snake, which means I should be a cold and hard sort of snake. By and large, people born in metal years will be relatively cold and hard; in water years, they will tend to "go with the flow"; in wood years, natural and warm (the feel of a wood-paneled room); in fire years, fiery (of course); in earth years, earthy and down to earth.
If ones personality does not fit ones year animal, one can blame the xing. One of my daughters is a tiger, but a gentler and easier soul would be hard to imagine. She was born in a wood year, so a Chinese astrologer would say her wood element dominates her tiger birth animal.
Neighboring cultures have adopted the Chinese animal-year system. The Mongol version is even more elaborate (Sanders and Bat-Ireedui 1999). Vietnam substitutes a cat, rather recently introduced, for the rabbit. In Japan, people born in a fire horse year are believed to be so wild and unrestrained they are deadly. Rumor has it that in Japan many a doctor is paid under the table to backdate births that happen early in a fire horse year and postdate those that happen toward the end.
The fivefold system involved a great deal of forcing salient natural features into a rather rigid order. It climaxed in the Han Dynasty, began to give way to resurgent yin-yang cosmology in the following centuries, and slowly lost appeal except among tradition-conscious scholars. It remained the basis of The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic, Chinas most famous medical work, and thus was never forgotten, but it gradually lost much of its cultural significance.
Poets mined it for images, antiquarians insisted on using it, but the practical traditional medicine I saw in East Asia in the 1960s and 1970s was based on quite other principles. Even in Han, the Yellow Emperor was unique in its obsession with fives; other texts, like the Discourse on Fevers (Shanghan Fun) and most of the texts recently found in Han tombs, are more empirical, if still far from modern biological theory. Today, except for the continuing fascination with birth animals, the old numerological system is more a curiosity than anything else.
Before and during Han, however, this cosmology developed into an extremely elaborate system by the yin-yang school of philosophers. This was a loose assemblage of thinkers that culminated with the synthesist Zou Yan (ca. 350-270 BCE) around 305-240 (Chang Chun-shu 2007a: 115) but developed largely in the Han Dynasty (Liu An 2010). They were a naturalistic group and fed into the rise of alchemy (Needham 1976:12). These thinkers speculated on the basic cosmic principles, including heaven, earth, humanity, the yin and yang, and the five phases.
These correspondences, and other similarities and connections in the real world, were mediated by resonance. Ganying, resonance or responsiveness, was a key concept in Han thought. All things are linked by flow of qi; therefore, acting in way X in one realm has effect X in another. A related concept is qiyun, qi resonance; it is the concept that qi animates all things and that there can be some form of ganying between things that share some sort of qi. Similarity or parallelism could be taken to mean that there were real flows of qi, similarities in basic principle, or similarities in basic nature. An artist who truly captures the essence or spirit of a bird or tree or mountain has done more than portray it accurately; he has captured or called up its qi through qiyun.
Thus, doing things in one realm will affect other realms that are similar in spirit. Nurturing orphans nurtures crops; executing criminals would cut off the shoots and is best left till harvest is going on, or, better, finished.
Ganying makes sense of the analogies that are the basis of much philosophical discourse and argument in early China. Western readers tend to find these maddeningly ad hoc, illogical, and irrational. To modern Western philosophers, analogies seem a silly way to argue. To the ancient Chinese, however, good analogies were based on actual ganying—on real dynamic linkages of some sort. A useful contemporary analogy (!) is the entanglement of separated quarks in modern physics.
This was spelled out in many texts, but the "Ling Shu" (Spiritual Pivot) section of The Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic is clearest. This book is basically about acupuncture, but it discusses the theoretical basis of that medical modality at great length. The discussions reveal that acupuncture is about regulating the flow of blood and qi in the body. The terms used—flow, stagnation, overflow, overabundance, blocking, deficiency, turbidity, and so on—have little to do with anything biomedically verifiable but are exactly the terms used for irrigation in agriculture. Correcting problems of qi involves draining, supplementing deficiency, unblocking, and so on—point for point, what a water boss does to his canals. Clearly, the analogy of bodily dynamics with water dynamics is not a "mere" analogy, it is ganying. There are also many passages that equate governing a state with governing the body. Finally, the book ends in a sort of climax of applied resonance theory:
Heaven is round. Earth is flat. Mans head is round and his feet are flat, making the correspondences and resonances. Heaven has the sun and moon. Man has two eyes. Earth has the nine regions. Man has the nine orifices. Heaven has wind and rain. Man has joy and anger. Heaven has thunder and lightning. Man has tones and sounds. Heaven has the four seasons. Man has the four limbs.... Heaven has winter and summer. Man has chills and fevers. Heaven has the ten days of the celestial stems. Mans hands have ten fingers. The earthly branches are twelve. Mans feet have ten toes, plus the penis and testicles make the correspondence. Women lack these latter two sections but can enwomb the human body [i.e., the female genitalia correspond to the male and thus make up twelve]. Heaven has yin and yang. Man has male and female.... Earth has high mountains. Man has shoulder and knee caps. Earth has deep valleys. Man has armpits and the crease of the knee.... Earth has grass and greens. Man has fine hairs. Heaven has day and night. Man has sleeping and waking.... Earth in the fourth month cannot produce grass. Man in later years does not produce children. (Wu Jing-Nuan 1993: 227; "Man" translates ren, "person of either sex"; note that women are specifically mentioned)
These correspondences may strain a modern readers sense of reality, but it all makes logical sense in ancient Chinese terms. Humans naturally find patterns and seize on any similarities to construct patterned representations of this sort. This basic fact of human psychology was recognized by Plato and Aristotle and developed by Kant and many thinkers since. However, the correspondence system was extended beyond all reason and became enormously complex, rigid, and unwieldy. This circumstance unfortunately had a hugely limiting and constricting effect on Chinas thought after Han. The fivefold correspondences and the accompanying theories of resonance and mystic cosmological influence stifled more accurate science; they provided a convenient, time-hallowed, but ultimately sterile substitute. This body of theory was true science—it was not religious or magical, it was based on observation and logic, and it underlay much thinking and research—but, unlike modern science, it did not lead to further work and ultimate replacement by a better theory (T. Kuhn 1962). It simply continued.
In this view, the body was a microcosm of the universe, a center of health, and a place to nourish. Mark Lewis, in The Construction of Space in Early China (2006a: 13-76), describes early accounts of the body. The heart was the seat of mind, emotion, and control of the whole microcosm. Ritual nourished the mind, just as food and drink nourish the body. Energy flows included the famous qi, then becoming defined as a subtle breath cycling through bodily channels and divided into yang and yin energies. The soul was complex: the heavenly hurt soul or fraction of the soul (it may already have had its own subcomponents, as it did later) was more yang. Thepo soul (or soul-fraction, again with components) was earthier and more yin and stayed with the body. In general, tombs and tomb writings indicate that the hun was expected to stay with the body as long as possible, at least up to decay, when it flew to heaven, or simply dispersed; the po soul always remained in the earth.
Natural energies manifested as odd or distinctive appearances; for instance, the brave man looked like a proper bully. Physiognomy was already a "science," albeit a very shaky one (Lewis 2006: 70); even the great Han skeptic Wang Chong (1907) believed in it.
In the more arcane schools of traditional Chinese thought, the entire earth was a macrocosm similar to the microcosm that was the human body (Stein 1990). Chinese farmers and fishers had only a vague idea of this, and educated people sometimes did not believe it, but in Daoism the idea is developed systematically (Schipper 1993). It is also developed systematically in medicine and physiology.
It follows reasonably enough from the foregoing discussion that China has no equivalent of the English word "supernatural." Communicating with the supramundane beings involved special techniques of sacrifice, ritual, and prayer but was otherwise like communicating with ordinary mortals.
Supramundanes—gods, ghosts, ancestors, disembodied forces, animal powers—must be contacted, today as in Zhou and Han, through burning incense at set points (shrines or temples), offering tea and wine in ritual ways, and sometimes performing other more expensive and serious rites. If necessary, they are invoked by special professionals who can go into trance and become possessed. In this case, one can actually talk to a supramundane being.
Shen—supranatural persons, as opposed to disembodied forces—have limited powers and need things from humans. They exchange what they can provide—health, fertility, good weather—for what we can provide: food, drink, incense, sacrifice goods. They also want entertainment and appreciate Chinese opera, which is performed for them on festival days. Supramundane beings include tree spirits, mountain spirits, weather and sky spirits, and locality spirits. Powerful impersonal forces, including cosmic qi and disembodied good and evil, are also involved.
Chinese lacks anything exactly equivalent to the English words and concepts "religion," "philosophy," and "cosmology." "Religion" is best translated by the verb-object construction bai shen, "worshiping divinities." The word frequently translated as "religion," jiao, means "organized body of teaching"— secular or religious. Purely secular philosophy that is organized into a real school, like philosophic Confucianism or Platonism, is a jiao. Chinese folk religion is not; it lacks a sacred text and an intellectual lineage. Separating religion from secular philosophy requires the use of a combination word like zongjiao, spiritual teachings.
Thus there is not the sharp opposition and separation of sacred and secular that occurs in the West. This disjunction was made part of Dürkheims widely used definition of religion (Dürkheim 1995), which China thus calls into question. Philosophy in the ordinary sense of the word—serious thought about Big Questions—has always been common and well developed in China, but the highly technical, logical, analytic way of thinking that is the "philosophy" of Western world academic departments was only modestly developed in China (though it did exist; see Harbsmeier 1998). The Chinese always preferred to harness their sophisticated thinking to immediate political and social concerns. They rarely pursued the pure, abstract speculation beloved of Westerners, except when directly influenced by the alien philosophy of Buddhism. "Cosmology" is a looser term, but Chinese cosmology does not separate religion, philosophy, scientific speculation, and hardheaded factual observation and is close to what anthropologists call "worldview" (Kearney 1984).