Time: China

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Time: China

As in other civilizations, China has delved into both the sensible and the abstract, analytical aspects of time. Social-political time traditionally used sixty-day and sixty-year cycles, and a ten-day "week" framed plans, or divinations, about the near future (these schemata are seen in 1200 b.c.e. oracle records and remained ubiquitous). Usually, Chinese days were broken into twelve "hours" and 100 subunits ("minutes"). Archaeology provides examples of early imperial (c. 250100 b.c.e.) clocks used by officialdom: one type was a gnomon chronometera small disk notched for diurnal shadows, in one case with sixty-nine subunits. Cosmic boards of the Han period (206 b.c.e. to 220 c.e.) mechanically aligned an inner wheel indicating segmented slices of time (seasons and hours) with cosmological categories and ecliptic constellations appearing on a square background. Third-century b.c.e. texts preserved in the western deserts refer to regulations for local functionaries in assigning times for signaling, delivering documents, and scheduling projects. Finally, in all time periods court experts performed time-related functions: calendar ritualists assigned dates for sacrifices and ceremonies; astrologers interpreted astral and meteorological portents, often drawing on computations for eclipses; and scholar-officials not only interpreted and debated the findings of such experts but also worked on genealogies and on philological research to correct primordial calendars, both of which played a role in political legitimacy.

Chinese thinkers did not devise philosophies, pedagogies, or keys of the sort developed in the West concerning time, and the context was chiefly driven by the state's need for cosmological and ritual correctness, and in some cases by cosmological and apocalyptic notions conveyed in Buddhist and Daoist scriptures. Yet China also produced its own sophisticated metaphysics of timemore accurately, sociocosmic "timing." The 3,000-year tradition known as "the Changes," or Yi jing (Book of changes), employed a set of arrayed lines, classically three or six per set, which was called a gua. The lines were associated with numbers; they could change in character (yin and yang) and concomitantly in numeric value; and they moved in and through other, associated, gua by means of permutations. Like dates and times of birth in Western astrology, they were used to predict career and health and to establish an individual's place in a local social or political network. The Yi jing achieved a high place in China's pedagogical, scholarly, and even political life, as influential in its way as the West's Bible. We should approach the gua system as an essential part of Chinese natural philosophy, a locus of scholarly work that linked broad areas of inquiry like cosmic patterns and regularity, divination, alchemy, chronology, medicine, and numerical principles.

Gua Time

China's most ancient, and deeply imprinted, conceptions of time developed through divination. Beginning around 1400b.c.e., diviners at the Shang courts made auguries based on linelike cracks created by heating plastrons and bones, a practice that involved complex skills in recording and tracking time by means of astral, calendric, and proto-gua devices. Yi jing provided a way to examine individual and cosmic time frames, as well as the metaphysics of time. Its oldest textual layers (the gua line matrices and various divination formulas), which stemmed in some ways from the line cracking of the Shang era, date to 800700 b.c.e.; the "Judgment" and "Images" commentaries date from about 500350 b.c.e. Later commentaries ("Great Treatise" and "Words"; roughly 350200b.c.e.) connected these time matrices with unifying metaphysical concepts. The "Judgment" and "Image" layers refer often to time (shi ) in the sense of "timeliness within a development," or "season(s)." A strong metaphysical sense is found, for example, in the Judgment commentary's section on "Gen" (Yi jing hexagram no. 52): "Gen means stopping. When the timeliness [of this specific gua ] comes to a stop, then one stops; when it goes, then one goes." This is not about duration of motion or transitional states of being, but one's own "timeliness" in being part of the gua 's field of influence.

The "Great Treatise" expanded the notional sense of time. Several words there, taken as a set, explicate "change" and, indirectly, "time": bian ("alternation," movement from state to state in a matrix); hua ("transformation" as growth, maturation, influence); tong ("projection, development," inferring an entire system from one of its aspects); fan ("reversion," a deduced return point, or node, in a cycle).

By about 100 b.c.e., the most concrete sense of time (qua timing) in Yi jing was the notion carried in the fourth term, fan: astronomic reversal and return of solstices and diurnal and sidereal cycles. But, like all other concepts of time and change, this is analogized as yin-yang dualism; even in twelfth-century b.c.e. inscriptions, diviners had used the interplay of even and odd numbers in a gua and observed the way one gua reached out to a "changed" correspondent and functioned to bridge time in situations of prediction. During the Han dynasty, brilliant metaphysician-ritualists like Jing Fang and Yang Xiong worked to unify mathematics, musical theory, calendrics, and gua systematics. Beginning around 300 c.e., diviners increasingly used astral position timing and integrated various numerate techniques, spurring technical elaborations in personal astrology (death and important career-date predictions). The culture at large became attuned to the numerate and mechanized aspects of time as they sought to establish personal "timing."

Finally in the Yi jing system, "position" is a key component of time. The term wei refers not only to the situation surrounding a specific one of the six stacked lines of a gua but also to the line's interrelations. For example, a gua 's wei at the second line, traditionally a time of deference in a career, takes cues from its concurrent, yet future, partner wei at line five (career apogee, or seat of power). Gua time developed around the social appropriateness of one's wei, how much help one received from all entities acting in the matrix (the wan-wu ), and, hermetically, the correctness of one's own union with the gua system.

Manipulable Time and Social Time: Progress, Alchemy, Salvation

Some observers of China have thought that Chinese time was entirely cyclical. It is true that political life traditionally was based on dynastic rise and fall and the attendant appeals to astral cycles, and religious ideas and movements frequently were founded upon era cycles. But China was not much different from other civilizations. Linear chronology, unique cosmic moment, and social progress can be seen in various, albeit not always culturally dominant, contexts concerning time.

The pathbreaking historian Sima Qian (d. c. 90 b.c.e.), for example, honed the use of tables (time-linear in concept) to demonstrate the role of genealogies and blood lines in political history. Moreover, his remarks often suggest that a dynasty should not be a passive recipient of judgments derived from divination but should also be headed toward somethinga socio-cosmic correctness and unity. Joseph Needham considered, perhaps too emphatically, that the technical and intellectual work of court experts to achieve that unity was scientific "progress," a way to understand linearity in Chinese time. But his observation prompts fruitful speculation. Chinese scholarship and bureaucratic institutions always recognized previous toilers and their goals. Scholar-officials occasionally sought to restore antique knowledge, in order to explain via commentaries rather technical matters or confront the influence of outside (foreign, in the case of Muslim and then Jesuit) court-appointed experts. Modern historians of Chinese sciences have fleshed out particular cases, and in them we see that "progress" often was ad hoc and piecemeal, or thwarted politically. Moreover, such "progress" was actually quite backward-looking, like sixteenth-and seventeenth-century European humanists who sought truths lodged in the biblical pastterms and keys to natural knowledge whose meanings had become obscured.

Another way to view Chinese ideas of time is through the cosmologies implied in computational astronomy. Early astronomers recognized what we term Metonic periods and Saros cycles, yet they were also attempting to reconcile the regularities of such cycles with all-important numerological constants. Unwieldy greatest common denominators resulted from factoring lunar, solar, and sidereal conjunctions, and such large numbers would represent a primordial cycle that could evidence new, or reformed, dynasties. Concomitantly, predictive astronomy often failed because of the need to fudge aesthetically desirable numerologies with data from incomplete, ad hoc observations of solstitial moments and tropical year lengths. Besides dyadic, "five phases," and other cycles, Chinese experts undertook to grasp enormous reaches of cosmic time and the way human society and politics fit into it.

Daoist cult scriptures applied similar sorts of calculated eras to their propaganda during dynastic strifefor instance, calculations that claimed when a judgment of the corrupt by the sage-god Laozi or the Dao itself would occur. One example is the fourth-century c.e. Purple Texts Inscribed by the Spirits, which influenced ideas of dynastic and millennial time, affecting legitimation ideologies as late as the reunification of China in the sixth and seventh centuries. Scriptures of this sort utilized calendrical arts to provide yet other numerological bases for arguing the existence of ending-nodes in the large conjunction cycles. Daoist scriptural time-concepts frequently meshed with Buddhist ones. In the Buddho-Daoist mélange of scriptures and cult aims, tantric materials offered protection against apocalypse, as in the spells carried in the Lotus Sutra, which reached broad popular consumption from about 400 to 800 c.e. Such theologies reflect the cyclical nature of Chinese time but also furnish extremely important examples of unique (nonlinear, noncyclical) divine intervention into social time. Daoist scriptures speak of "seed people" planted by the Dao in order to renew the postapocalyptic world.

Chinese alchemy engaged in measurement and analysis. Although that in itself might imply notions of time, alchemy focused not on time but on the effort to "construct a model of the Tao, to reproduce in a limited space on a shortened time scale the cyclical energetics of the cosmos" (Sivin, 1976, p. 523). The early alchemical tradition known as Zhouyi can tong qi (originating in the second century and elaborated in Tang and Song times) was concerned with the progress of cosmogonic time and for that purpose used Han-era gua calendrics. Ultimately, such approaches to "timing" and "timeliness" carry with them elements of the timeless, namely, the Dao principle of numero-cosmogony as found in Laozi, Huainanzi, and Zhuangzi, and as made precise by the Yi jing system. Time as quantifiable durations of states and qualifiable modes of change was not a primary concern.

Metaphysical Time: Terms and Philosophies

From about 500 to 200 b.c.e. several Chinese thinkers conceived time abstractly and without reference to gua systematics. Passages in Zhuangzi, Huainanzi, and Shuowen jiezi (a second-century c.e. lexicon) drew upon extant terms connoting "time," linking them with categories for space and motion: these terms included shi (season, historical moment), yu (spatial expanse, first delineated as the area of a roof's perimeter, later "the four directions plus up," and, for Zhuangzi, "reality without anything in it [the void-expanse]"), and zhou (the cyclic, expected return of any moving thing; for Zhuangzi, "what goes on extensively but has no beginning or end"); hence the binome yuzhou limitless expanse conjoined with cyclical return. The oldest terms were not intentionally abstract, but pointed to social time, timeliness of action, and spatiality as products of motion and change.

When the oldest Zhuangzi passages were created (probably c. 300 b.c.e.), logico-analytic debates were popular, and we find statements of a certain Hui Shi, who states the paradox, "One sets out for Yue today, but arrives in the past." The authorial voice, Zhuangzi, ridicules Hui Shi's mode of knowledge, yet the much later (fourth century c.e.) commentary takes it seriously, arguing that the "setting out" and the "arriving" (abstractly analogized as "knowing" and its known "entity") are like facing mirrors, which make a continuum of reflection: thus the "knowing" about "setting out for Yue" engages simultaneously with its dyadic partner, the "arriving."

Equally striking was the Mohists' approach to time. Early Mohists (roughly 400350 b.c.e.) were an influential community dedicated to knowledge, ethics, and supplying political-military services to regional courts. Their writings were poorly transmitted and taken up only rarely by later Chinese scholars. The brilliant reconstruction of the jumbled extant version of the Mohist Canon by A. C. Graham has shown that time was articulated with brief declarations of such notions as light, weight, speed, and geometric axioms. One logical premise concerns "Duration: what fills out different times. Extension: what fills different locations." The later Mohists (about 300 b.c.e.) blended their own thoughts into the Canon and distinguished between times with and without duration: "Of times in a movement some have duration, others do not have duration. The beginning does not have duration."

Demands of Ritual Precision and the Impact of Western Learning

Since at least about 150 b.c.e. Chinese scholars, in the relatively rarefied contexts of court rites and projects, had perceived that space and time were quantifiable through measurement and notation of positions. But with the impact of Western learning after 1600, not only did the royal court become increasingly chronometric, so did urban and mercantile culture. In 1644 an important Jesuit, Adam Schall von Bell, proposed to the court that the one hundred minutes of the day be changed to ninety-six for purposes of meshing with the European twenty-four-hour clock. Gear-driven clocks introduced by Jesuits and other westerners made an enormous impact, and through much of the 1700s the court employed Jesuit clock technicians. Throughout urban China clock makers found a niche, and we even have writings on their arts that contain thoughts about time in a new, ontologically self-contained way, not part of traditional, relatively indirect, approaches to "time."

Many Chinese, familiar with Jesuit ideas, consciously isolated Western challenges to Chinese notions of time from the accompanying cosmological and theological arguments. Some, however, engaged the new theology. Zhuang Qiyuan (15591633), who was influenced by Jesuits, pondered integrating the Christian "god" into Confucianism: "People of our age all know there is a Heaven, but they do not all know the reason why Heaven is Heaven. If Heaven had no ruler, then there would only be the present moment, motionless and stagnant, dreamlike without the mysterious spirit." His descendant Zhuang Cunyu (17191788), not Jesuit-influenced in the same way, wrote that the "Great Ultimate" (an Yi jing schema for cosmic unity) is "Heaven. Nothing is prior to the beginning of Heaven." The latter Zhuang was arguing that Confucian (Yi jing ) cosmology was temporally prior to all things, implicitly positing the Chinese view as favorable to a Christian heaven. The Zhuangs were influential in fostering the Han Learning movement. From about 1600 to 1825 quite a few leading scholars reconstructed Han-era masters of Yi jing systematics (like the aforementioned Jing Fang), purged their product of any Buddhist and Daoist taint, and reexamined China's own early mathematics. The movement developed tools for potentially taking astronomy and math back from the Jesuit grip. Yet the Western worldview would dominate, and after the 1949 Communist revolution, with its assaults on intellectual culture, Chinese traditionwhich had once accommodated a fine variety, including hermetic gua time, Daoist eschatology, and ad hoc technical progress in time-related arts like math, computational astronomy, and musicwas replaced by modern science and physics and by reductionist interpretations of Western philosophy.

False dichotomies like "China the cyclical" versus "the West as progressive" do not work. Arnaldo Momigliano once demolished such caricatures about Jewish versus Greek "time," noting that even within one culture we must not automatically compare a historian's ideas about time with a philosopher's (given the latter's unbounded room for natural and metaphysical speculation). The same caveat applies to Chinese ideas of time. Educated officials, who wrote history, had to address the demands of political cycles, yet their classicist work could be "regressive"seeking a perfect, primordial age of unity. Court ritualists perceived a certain progress in their arts, and alchemical writers and metaphysical philosophers used time-related ideas to pursue ontology and epistemology. The gua time presented here is just one possible, if important, way to approach a Chinese "concept" of time. The history of Chinese alchemy and medicine will in the future present other models, as will studies of scholar-ritualists.

See also Alchemy: China ; Astrology: China ; Calendar ; Chinese Thought ; Cosmology: Asia ; Daoism ; Mohism .


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Libbrecht, Ulrich. "Chinese Concepts of Time: Yü-chou as Space-Time." In Time and Temporality in Intercultural Perspective, edited by Douwe Tiemersma and H. A. F. Oosterling. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996. The first part is a critical review of Needham's piece.

Loewe, Michael. "The Cycle of Cathay: Concepts of Time in Han China and Their Problems." In Time and Space in Chinese Culture, edited by Chun-chieh Huang and Erik Zürcher. Leiden and New York: Brill, 1995.

Needham, Joseph. "Time and Knowledge in China and the West." In The Voices of Time: A Cooperative Survey of Man's Views of Time as Expressed by the Sciences and by the Humanities, edited by J. T. Fraser. 2nd ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. Nathan Sivin has convincingly demonstrated the unfeasibility of Needham's take on the "scientific" nature of Chinese Daoism.

Pregadio, Fabrizio. "The Representation of Time in the Zhouyi cantong qi. " Cahiers d'Extrême-Asie 8 (1995): 155173.

Sivin, Nathan. "Chinese Alchemy and the Manipulation of Time." Isis 67 (1976): 512526. Closer analysis of Daoist-alchemical "time," to which Needham alluded briefly.

. "Chinese Concepts of Time." The Earlham Review 1 (1966): 8292.

. "Cosmos and Computation in Early Chinese Mathematical Astronomy." in T'oung Pao, 2nd ser., 55 (1969): 173. A pathbreaking study of the historical and political implications of early seekers after precision in eclipse ephemerides, and their abilities (and failures) to perceive and apply cumulative achievements in mathematical astronomy.

Swanson, Gerald. "The Concept of Change in the Great Treatise. " In Explorations in Early Chinese Cosmology, edited by Henry Rosemont Jr. Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1984.

Howard L. Goodman