An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Huangji jingshi shu 皇極經世書

Aug 26, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Huangji jingshi shu 皇極經世書 "Book of the August Ultimate through the ages", short Huangji jingshi, is a Daoist treatise written by the early Northern-Song 北宋 (960-1126) numerologist and philosopher Shao Yong 邵雍 (1011-1077). According to Chao Yuezhi's 晁說之 (1059-1129) biography of Shao Yong's teacher Li Zhicai 李之才 (980-1045), the arithmetical knowledge and the metaphysical speculation derived from it goes back to the Daoist master Chen Tuan 陳摶 (871-989).

The book Huangji jingshi is a writing about the "order of things on earth" (wuli 物理, the modern term for "physics"). The term huangji 皇極 comes from the chapter Hongfan 洪範 "The Great Plan" in the Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents", where "the establishment and use of royal perfection" is one of the divisions of the "Great Plan". The Tang-period 唐 (618-907) commentator Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574-648) explains that huangji signified the "great centre" (dazhong 大中) which was a means to measure the affairs of the world (jingwei shishi 經緯世事).

The 12-juan-long book is divided into three parts and describes the whole course of Chinese history from the viewpoint of the effects of the trigrams (guaxiang 卦象) of the "Book of Changes" Yijing 易經. In the first six fascicles, the author explains, with the logic of the Yijing hexagrams and their visual realization, how the world and society developed from mythological times under the reign of Emperor Yao 堯 to the end of the Five Dynasties period 五代 (907-960). The fascicles 7 to 10 are dedicated to the explanation of the influence of cosmology on music.

The central part of the book are the chapters Guanwu neipian 觀物內篇 (11) and Guanwu waipian 觀物外篇 (12). The Waipian was presumably written by disciples of Shao Yong. In the Guanwu chapters "Observing things", Shao Yong explains his doctrine of the Anterior Heaven (xiantian zhi xue 先天之學). He argues that there were pre-modeled patterns for all objects and living beings in the Anterior Heaven, according to which the ten thousand beings were generated. All things on earth were therefore only copies of these ideal models. With the help of many illustrations and diagrams, Shao Yong demonstrates the patterns of the Former Heaven models and their realization. In this type of creation, numbers play an important role and show that Shao Yong's philosophy was heavily influenced by numerology with a little taste of what modern Chinese scholars call "occultism" (shenmizhuyi 神秘主義).

Despite of this occultist background, Shao Yong's status as a forerunner of the great Neo-Confucians made the Huangji jingshi shu an important source for many Song-period philosophers.

The teachings of Shao Yong's book were perpetuated and commented by Wang Shi 王湜 (Yixue 易學), Zhu Bi 祝泌 (Huangji jingshi jie 皇極經世解 and Qishujue 起數訣), Zhang Xingcheng 張行成 (Huangji jingshi suoyin 皇極經世索隱), Huang Ji 黃畿 (1464-1513, Huangji jingshi shu zhuan 皇極經世書傳) and the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Wang Zhi 王植 (1681-1766, Huangji jingshu shu jie 皇極經世書解).

The great Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) praised Shao Yong for his comprehensive explanation of the universe by the book Yijing. Yet he also criticized him because a mantic book like the Yijing could not be used to explain the world in terms of regular astronomical calculations (tuibu 推步). Zhu Xi objects that changes in the Yijing were not bound to regular periods, as Shao Yong postulated in his book. The influence of Daoism can be seen in Shao Yong's political concept that order comes out of chaos, and each order had to go over to chaos one day.

The Huangji jingshi is part of the Daoist Canon Daozang 道藏 and included in the imperial series Siku quanshu 四庫全書.

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