Ancient Chinese Cosmology

Man models himself after Earth. Earth models itself after Heaven. Heaven models itself after Tao. And Tao models itself after Nature.[1] During the time of Lao Tzu, around 500 B.C, Chinese cosmology focused on the relationship between man and the universe. Even nearly 2500 years later, some historians would look back on ancient Chinese cosmology and recognize the same connection where everything is an integral part, and only a part, of a colossal cosmic pattern.[2] Regardless of the time period in Chinese history we choose to look at, we still find a continuous thread of harmony and balance between man and the universe throughout Chinese cosmology. By combining the basic concepts of Taoism and Confucianism, the ancient Chinese created a traditionally consistent, amazingly accurate, and uniquely harmonious view of the universe.

In order for us, as Westerners, to truly understand and appreciate ancient Chinese cosmology, we must first comprehend the basic ideas of Chinese philosophy. Because we have been raised on Greek and Roman interpretations of the cosmos for the past 2500 years, we are easily able to relate to their patterns of thought and their conclusions. However, with Asian cultures, most of us lack the necessary background to fully visualize and comprehend their ideas. In a mythic culture [such as the Chinese]. . . cosmology. . . [is] generated directly from a common religious structure,[3] therefore, we must first focus on ancient Chinese philosophy, before we address their cosmology.

One of the primary schools of Chinese thought is Taoism. Originally lead by Lao Tzu, Taoism is a philosophy of duality and balance. The most obvious example of this focus lies in the concept of yin and yang. These two terms represent almost all opposable forces in the universe. Yin is traditionally cool, wet, and female, while yang tends to be hot, dry, and male. Various other contrasts include: day and night, light and dark, and honest and deceitful. In the beginning, everything possesses an inner balance between yin and yang. As everything continues to exist and grow in our sensational world, it begins to fluctuate in a wave-like cycle between the two forces. The Taoist canon, or Tao-Te Ching, emphasizes this development in chapter two:

Being and nonbeing bring forth each other;

Difficult and easy complete each other;

Long and short shape each other;

Up and down slant each other;

Sound and voice match each other;

Front and back follow each other.[4]


This short excerpt not only addresses the natural flow between opposite forces, but also illustrates how one force relies on the other.

Another primary concept in Taoist philosophy is the relationship between Tao and Te. In virtually every Eastern religion, there are general concepts of or vague allusions to tao and te. However, in Taoism the two come to represent the basic foundation of the philosophy. The Tao is a very subjective and ambiguous concept. Livia Kohn, author of Early Chinese Mysticism, defines it as vague and elusive, dark and obscure, existing before time, and called at most the mother of the universe.[5] In general the Tao is penultimate force of universal movement. When a man possesses the Tao, he is said to have the virtuous characteristic of Te. Te itself is also elusive since the one of highest te does not [display/seek] te. . .[6] However, we can attempt to define such an attribute by focusing on the non-interference aspect of Taoism. The idea of non-interference or non-activity[7] comes from the emphasis on avoiding human meddling in natural affairs. Taoists expected a man with Te to live in harmony with the universe simply by accepting the duality within himself, and thus accepting the duality in nature.

The second primary school of ancient Chinese philosophy followed the teachings of Confucius. Focusing on continuous self improvement and rigid social structure, Confucianism contradicted Taoist ideals with strong emphasis on active participation. The Confucian version of Tao and Te were referred to as Jen and Li. Jen consisted of two parts. Chung was the inner core where self improvement occurred, while Shu represented the altruistic betterment that occurred when a man would better himself by helping others around him to improve themselves. The idea of Jen espoused the Confucian version of the universal Golden Rule of Do not unto others what you would not have done unto you.[8] The virtue of Jen, also engendered the concept of Li, which was the proper nature or social role of a person. He who had perfect Jen would display perfect Li.

From the relationship between Jen and Li , Confucius created a rigid social order consisting of the five basic relationships people shared and ranked them in order of subordination. Among them were the relationship between emperor and the masses, between father and son, and between husband and wife. These relationships lead to moral rules and a focus on active participation by man in the matters of the universe. One of the most famous examples of this concept was the Mandate of Heaven. According to Confucius, the emperor received authority from heaven. If he was a benevolent and righteous ruler, his mandate would continue. However, should he lose face (respect) with heaven and his mandate were revoked, the people had the right to remove him from office. The mandate of heaven exemplifies the equality Confucius envisioned for society where moral-spiritual qualities[9] determined worth, rather than social distinctions.

Torn between the pacifistic ideals of the Taoists and the assertive nature of Confucius teachings, yet drawn the harmonious goals of both philosophies, the Chinese faced both contradictory and complimentary interpretations of the universe. They basically had two choices: follow the pattern of the Greeks and accept one interpretation as fact and dismiss the other, or combine attributes of both philosophies and create a universally appealing cosmology. Fortunately, they chose the latter.


Chinese Astronomical Philosophy

The Chinese interpretation of the physical orientation of the universe had little philosophical influence. There are many different individual interpretations, but each contain many common basic ideas of universal structure. We know that the Chinese did in fact distinguish between stars and planets,[10] and that they acknowledged the erratic behavior of many celestial bodies. There were primarily three models of celestial orientation. Gai Tian was the theory of the dome shaped heaven. It placed what we today call Ursa Major at the center of the celestial dome, and China at the center of the Earth. The school of Hun Tian envisioned a spherical heaven shaped much like a hens egg [where] the earth is like the yolk. . . that was supported by vapor (qi). . .[11] This particular theory lead to many technological advances in astronomy such as armillary rings and spheres. Finally, the theory of Xuan Ye suggested the unprecedented thought of an infinite universe with suspended celestial bodies. In almost all of these interpretations of the heavens, a celestial wind, or vapor, supported the heavenly bodies. This is a very common Chinese concept in which the wind not only suspended the fixed stars in the sky, but also, due to a viscous drag[12] from the earth, caused the backwards motion of the sun, the moon, the five visible planets, and the stars.

Another common perception in Chinese cosmology was the shape of Heaven and Earth. The earth was divided into nine continents, each surrounded by ocean, and further divided into nine provinces. There is some question as to the actual shape of the provinces, but most suspect it to begin with the ya shape consisting of one square surrounded on each side by one square, representing the four directions. Next, the corners, representing the additional directions, such as northwest, are added to complete the three by three square.

The Chinese perceived Heaven to be round. It had nine levels; each of which was separated by a gate and guarded by a particular animal. The highest level, the Palace of Purple Tenuity, was where the Emperor of Heaven lived in the constellation we call Ursa Major. At the center of Heaven was the North Pole and the polar star. The celestial pole was a critical characteristic of Chinese cosmology. To the Chinese, the center was the most important geographical point because it was the closest to Heaven. They believed that the heart of civilization lay at the center of the earth, and as the land spread out, the lands and its inhabitants became more savage. Naturally, this emphasis on the center point lead to the polar axis as a pivotal aspect of Chinese astronomy. While the Greeks focused on the constellations on the horizon and created a solar calendar, the Chinese observed the circum polar stars, which lead them to devise a lunar calendar instead. The polar axis which ran from the polar star, south to Earth was the pivot of the heavens. The heavenly vault slid up and down this axis while the earth itself oscillated along it to create the seasons. The stars around the pole were also an integral part of Chinese cosmology. The circumpolar stars were the key constellations to the lunar mansions of the hsiu. At the equator, the Chinese divided the sky arbitrarily into twenty-eight divisions, each corresponding to a equatorial and a circumpolar constellation. Based on which mansion the moon occupied at night, the Chinese created their lunar calendar.

The Chinese calendar was particularly notable because the equinoxes and solstices marked the center of the seasons rather than the beginnings. The Chinese also had two separate calendars. The Hsia Hsiao Ching was more of a farmers almanac divided into twelve months which would forecast the weather. The Hsiao Tai Li, however, was much more detailed. It contained not only monthly divisions and observations, but also the various sacrifices and instructions on how to perform them.

Like many other cosmologies, the Chinese interpretation of the universe was not completely secular. There was an incredibly strong emphasis on harmony and balance that obviously originated from philosophical ideas. The Chinese were, overall, a very structured society. In accordance with the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang, everything in the universe had a counterpart. The fusang tree in the east over which the sun would rise, complimented the ruo tree in the west which watched the sun set every evening. The Yellow Springs that flowed under and supported the earth opposed the sky above. Another example of this balance is the Chinese dependence on numerology and various characteristics to determine and maintain a celestial and earthly balance. Five was a very auspicious number. There were the five directions: north, south, east, west, and center. Each had a corresponding color, animal, element, and flavor. Each of these aspects had to be mixed and balanced in everyday life, be it in the food people ate, the houses they built, or the furniture they chose. Nine was also a very divine number. It was the number of perfect yang and highest completeness.[13] There were nine continents with nine provinces. China naturally had the most honorably place of eighty-one, which was the ninth of the ninth. There were also nine layers to Heaven. The Round Mound at the Temple of heaven has nine rings at its zenith, each comprised of stones in multiples of nine. It is overwhelmingly obvious the great extent to which the Chinese took this numerology. To them, following the rules of numerology was more than showing respect to heaven and nature, but more importantly, it was continuing the celestial balance between Heaven and Earth.

Although we can readily observe the influence of cosmology on Chinese society through their architecture and cuisine, the most convincing example of the extent to which that influence went is the impact of astronomy on the government and politics. In Chinese society, astronomy was whole heartedly supported by the government. There were two primary astronomical figures: the emperor himself and the Imperial Astronomer. The emperor was the foundation of the celestial balance. Analogous to the pole star, he was the conduit between Heaven and Earth as he who fixes the four cardinal points.[14] The emperors duty was to reestablish the calendar every year, and to maintain the celestial balance by performing annual sacrifices to both Heaven and Earth on the winter and summer solstice respectively. The Imperial Astronomer was responsible for the continuation and smooth running of the calendar. He did this by continually observing the sky and collecting data from the subordinate astronomers. The Imperial Astronomer would then use his observations to foretell the future and advise the emperor based on his findings. While the duties of the emperor and the Imperial Astronomer are important to cosmological influence on politics, the penultimate example of this relationship is the Mandate of Heaven. Originally a Confucian concept, the Mandate was the authority that made the emperor the celestial link. It provided the Chinese cosmology with a harmony between Heaven and Earth, and also a balance of power between the emperor and the people.

Ancient Chinese cosmology is more than a cultures interpretation of the universe. It is a definition of a society. The complex overlapping of cosmology, philosophy and propriety illustrates the intertwining of science, religion, and politics in ancient Chinese culture. Because the Chinese were able to create a cosmology that consisted of two opposing popular philosophies, they were also able to integrate it into a rigidly structured society. The ancient Chinese cosmology had a sensible and universal appeal that made it one of the most innovative and unprecedented interpretations in history.


Allan, Sarah. The Shape of the Turtle. Albany: State University of new York Press. 1991.

Chan, W.T. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. (Handout)

Colin, A. Ronan. The Shorter Science 2: Civiilization in China. (Handout)

Eno, Robert. The Confucian Creation of Heaven. Albany: State University of New york Press. 1990.

Hetherington, N.S. Cosomology. (Handout)

Kohn, Livia. Early Chinese Mysticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1992.

Smith, Richard and D.W.Y. Kwok. Cosmology, Ontology, and Human Efficacy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii press. 1993.

Taoism. The Encyclopedia of Religion. 1987.