An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Shao Yong 邵雍

Apr 13, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

Shao Yong 邵雍 (1011-1077), courtesy name Yaofu 堯夫, style Baiyuan Xiansheng 百源先生 or Anle Xiansheng 安樂先生, known as Shaozi 邵子 "Master Shao", was and one of the five great Neo-Confucian scholars of the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126) (Beisong wu zi 北宋五子), the others being Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 (1017-1073), Zhang Zai 張載 (1020-1077), and the brothers Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107).

His family hailed from Fanyang 范陽 (today's Zhuoxian 涿縣, Hebei), but moved to Gongcheng 共城 (Huixian 輝縣, Henan), where the local district magistrate Li Zhicai 李之才 was impressed by the boy's interest in classical studies, and presented him with a book on Yijing 易經 numerology (shuxiang 象數). Shao Yong was very fond of this book, the speculation with the eight trigrams (bagua 八卦), hexagrams and the Yellow River Chart (Hetu 河圖) and the Inscription of River Luo (Luoshu 洛書), and developed out of it an interpretation of the world on the base of numerology. In his later years, Shao Yong lived in Luoyang 洛陽 (today in Henan), where he was befriended with scholars like Fu Bi 富弼 (1004-1083), Sima Guang 司馬光 (1019-1086), Lü Gongzhu 呂公著 (1018-1089) and the Cheng brothers and discussed with them philosophical matters in his studio Anle Cave 安樂窩, which Sima Guang had donated to him. He was several times recommended for public office, but declined. Shao was posthumously awarded the position of an editorial director (zhuzuolang 著作郎) of the Imperial Library (bishusheng 秘書省). His posthumous title is Shao Kangjiegong 邵康節公.

Shao Yong’s writings include the books Huangji jingshi 皇極經世, a kind of cosmological chronology, and Yuqiao wendui 漁樵問對. From the aspect of philosophy, the chapters Guanwu neipian 觀物內篇 and Guanwu waipian 觀物外篇 are the most interesting. His collected writings are called Yichuan jirang ji 伊川擊壤集. Xu Bida 徐必達 (1562-1645) compiled the collection Shaozi quanshu 邵子全書.

Shao Yong's cosmology was based on the idea that the universe was a product of the "utmost extreme" (Taiji 太極), a concept derived from Daoism and the Classic Yijing "Book of Changes". The "utmost extreme", identical to the universal principle (dao wei taiji 道為太極), in which all matter was "unified" (yi 一), produced Heaven (tian 天) and Earth (di 地), the former being the result of movements (dong 動), and the latter that of rest or quiescence (jing 靜). Movement and rest were called the two potentials (liangyi 兩儀).

The Utmost Extreme itself was immovable, which was its original character (xing 性). The emergence of the Utmost Extreme expressed its divinity (shen 神) with the power to bring matter into movement. This movement created numbers (shu 數), out of which emblems or archetypes (xiang 象) were produced, and out of the latter, objects or implements (qi 器). The change of objects in the course of their live brought them back to the originary divinity.

Activities like movement and rest alternated in a circular way which means that at the moment of most intensive movement (the status of Yang 陽 or gang 剛 "hardness"), things began to decelerate and changed gradually to the status of inactivity or motionlessness (Yin 陰 or rou 柔 "softness"). This change was nothing else than the birth of sun, moon, and stars, and of the cycle of the five agents. The movements of Heaven were expressed in Yin and Yang (night and day, new moon and full moon), and that of the Earth in softness and hardness (e.g. of soil and water). All objects in the cosmos consisted of one and the same matter (qi 氣), the "density" of which determined the physical character of things. The four factors Yin, Yang, hard and soft were called the "four phenomena" (sixiang 四象). Depending on the intensity of Yin and Yang, they generated the eight hexagrams (bagua 八卦), with the eight conditions Greater Yang (taiyang 太陽), Greater Yin (taiyin 太陰), Lesser Yang (shaoyang 少陽), Lesser Yin (shaoyin 少陰), greater softness (tairou 太柔), greater hardness (taigang 太剛), lesser softness (shaorou 少柔), and lesser hardness (shaogang 少剛). These eight conditions originated the meteorological phenomena, plants and animals, properties and characteristics.

The movement and change of the "ten thousand things" (wanwu 萬物) was determined by the numbers and archetypical emblems of the Primordial Heaven or "what antedates Heaven" (xiantian 先天, before the Utmost Extreme split into Heaven and Earth) that can be described as a set of preconditions implanted into every object and being. As to humans, these preconditions were installed in his heart (xin 心).

Every thought and action could therefore be traced back to the foreordinations in man's heart (and the centre of objects as well). Heaven, as a kind of supernatural force, endowed man with an individual destiny (ming 命, see tianming 天命) which determined his character (xing 性). Character might be expressed in emotions (qing 情) in the case of humans, but was expressed by natural principles of order (li 理) also in animals, plants, and objects as well. While the character of humans and things was "public" and lucid or clearly visible, emotions were a private and not apparent matter.

The difference between objects, plants, animals, and man was that humans, as the "crown of the Creation" (wu zhi zhi 物之至) were able to receive with their sensual organs the character of all other objects and beings, in other words, "the heart was identical to the Utmost Extreme" (xin wei taiji 心為太極). This proposition goes back to Meng Ke 孟軻 (385-304 or 372-289, Mengzi 孟子), who had explained that "the ten thousand being are all complete in the human self" (wanwu jie bei yu wo 萬物皆備於我”, ch. Jinxin 盡心 A). Man was thus able to objectively "observe things by [the emanation of] things" (yi wu guan wu 以物觀物), and not just to assess things from his own, subjective perspective (yi wo guan wu 以我觀物). Yet the most outstanding superiority of man was that humans were able to recognize the underlying universal principles (li 理) of the cosmos by observing and assessing things with his heart, and not just with the eyes. Among humans, the "superior man" (shengren 聖人) would use his heart to understand the hearts of others, one individual to understand all others, one object to conceive ten thousand others, and one generation or age to comprehend the next. A sage or superior man thus represented the meaning, words, labours, and functions of Heaven.

In his historical cosmology, Shao Yong tried to describe the process of waxing and waning of historical ages. Influenced by the Buddhist concept of aeons (kalpa), Shao established the concept of cycles (yuan 元) of 129,600 years, divided into twelve epochs (hui 會) of 10,800 years, each of which consisted of 30 revolutions (yun 運) of 360 years. One revolution included 12 generations (shi 世) of 30 years.

1yuancycle129,600 years
12huiepoch10,800 years
30yunrevolution360 years
12shigeneration30 years
30nianyear1 year
12yuemonth1/12 years
30riday1/360 years
12chendouble-hour1/4,320 years
30fen"minute"1/129,600 years

This concept was an extension of the usual phases of measured time, namely 30 "minutes" (shifen 時分, corresponding to 4 minutes SI) per double-hour (shichen 時辰, 120 minutes SI), 12 double-hours per day, 30 days per lunar month, and 12 months per year. In a similar way, the cycle of the twelve Celestial Stems could be applied to these cycles, eras, and rounds. Shao believed that Heaven had emerged in the epoch (hui) of the Stem zi 子, the Earth in the epoch of the Stem chou 丑, and man in the epoch of the Stem yin 寅. Just like these phases had their beginning and end and then changed to the next, the course of history was determined by a cycle of beginning, maturation, and decline of dynasties and ages. The epoch of the Stem yi 已 was the age of the mythological emperor Yao 堯, the er epoch a of the Stem wu 午 that of the historical dynasties of China. The epoch hai 亥 would be the last one, in which the whole cosmos would come to an end, before it would start again in a new cycles.

The character of each era was different from the next. While the mythological emperors ruled as augusts (huang 皇) and sovereigns (di 帝), with a mode of virtue (de 道) based on the Way (dao 道, i.e. natural principles), those of the three generations produced rules of "[virtuous] kings" (wang 王) convincing their subjects by "skills" (gong 功), and all subsequent dynasties were but "[selfish] hegemons" (ba 霸) commanding the people by force (li 力). The tool of righteousness and responsibility (yi 義) was by then replaced by pure search for interests and profit (li 利).

This kind of numerology-emblemology (Feng 1952: 452) and cosmology was applied to the Confucian system of the five types of social relations (wu lun 五倫) between ruler and minister (jun chen 君臣), father and son (fu zi 父子), husband and wife (fu fu 夫婦), older and younger brothers (xiong di 兄弟), and friends (pengyou 朋友). The righteous obligations between ruler and minister were the following: xxx 月去(leave)日則明生而遲,近(approach)日則魄(dark part of moon)生而疾. The husband was like the sun, emerging in the east, while his wife was like the moon, emerging in the west. The righteous and expected social behavior of every human role was like one part of the time schedule of Shao's numerological cosmology. Failing to fulfill one's social role meant that the whole system was disturbed and the perpetrator ran contrary to the natural principles of order (li 理). The superior man had therefore to be watchful over himself when he was alone (shen du 慎獨).

The most important disciples of Shao Yong were Wang Yu 王豫, Shao Wen 邵溫, Zhang Min 張岷, Zhang Xingren 張行成 and Zhu Bi 祝泌. Shao's belief in the perfectness of the human mind deeply influenced the "School of the Mind" (xinxue 心學) of Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵 (1139-1193) and Wang Shouren 王守仁 (Wang Yangming 王陽明, 1472-1529).

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