The Times of Heaven in Chinese Ancient Philosophy



Zhang Xianglong



Since middle ages, westerners held mainly two views on time: eschatological (teleological) and physical (scientific). The former came from Christianity and understood time through the relations between human being and God. Time or history goes towards the expectable end, i.e., the Last Judgment. The latter is connected with the means of measuring time, which becomes more and more precise. To this view, time essentially has nothing to do with human's existence. It is an objective, even and irreversible passing, having no meaning by itself and serving merely as an existent form of physical beings. Certainly, from the beginning of this century, there have been new perspectives occurring in science and philosophy among which, the phenomenological one in a broader sense is especially concerned with us.

Up to now, "Chinese philosophy" is usually approached, at least in China, through the conceptual perspective of the traditional western metaphysics. Therefore, seldom interest has been put on the problem of time in Chinese ancient literature due to its non-metaphysical character. It is true that, generally speaking, there is neither teleological nor physical view on time in Chinese tradition. But, if we read the literature of pre-Qin period, especially pre-Warring-States period faithfully, we may find a striking role of time (shi2)1 in them. During the crucial "time" of Chinese history, the wise men experienced time originally and concerned themselves with it. This is a phenomenon that was extremely rare in other civilizations. We find another rarity in ancient Greece, where the philosophers, people who loved wisdom, were fascinated by mathematics and pure form (eidos) of being.

The time cared by pre-Qinese is the time of Heaven (tian1 shi2). We read in the Book of History: "The Mandate of the ruling Heaven exists only in time (shi2) and in subtle matrix (ji1)". (The Book of Yu, Yi Ji)2 The Book of Changes (The I Ching) states: "Heaven and earth become full and void, wax and wane with time". (hex.55, tuan)3 It must be pointed out that the time is not limited to "the time of four seasons" and what "the calendars" such as the calendar of Xia dynasty, or of Zhou dynasty tell. It contains subtler "tidings" (xiao1 xi1). We may call the time in the subtler sense "original time of Heaven" which is signified by a capital "Time" in this paper. But, even the time of four seasons for ancient Chinese is quite different from physical time. It is immanently linked with the rhymes of man's existence and understood in the perspective of The Changes (Yin-Yang, Eight Trigrams) and Five-Agents (wood, fire, earth, metal, water). Furthermore, the thinking on Time's manifestations in human history is not confined to what Zhou Yan (or Tsou Yen) said about "the rotations of Five Powers (or Five Virtues)", which claims that the rises and falls of dynasties correspond to the ordered rotation of the Five-Agents. There is less tightly ordered and more interesting expression of the historical Time, e.g., Dong Zhong-shu (or Tung Chung-shu)'s theory of Connecting Three Unities (tong1 san1 tong3).4

This paper will investigate the pre-Qin view of the Time and its variations. Moreover, we will see the huge influences that it exerted on Chinese culture and thoughts.


I. The Time in The Changes

The view of Time is exposed in the Thirteen Confucian Classics and the works of some other schools. Let us first examine the Time in the very first classic, The Book of Changes, which was respected by both Confucianism and Taoism. It shaped the thinking of Dao (Tao, Way) most profoundly.

Originally, The Changes is shown in the 8 trigrams and 64 hexagrams. The simplest components of them are Yin and Yang. Yin means "the darker side of a hill" or "cloudiness", while Yang signifies "the brighter side of a hill" or "opening". However, they primarily do not symbolize two types of entities or two basic material elements of the world. The Chinese compositions of the two characters implies that both have something to do with the sun (ri4), e.g., the sides of a hill facing or opposing the sun. So, The Changes says: "The Yin and Yang match sun and moon in meanings". (xi-ci 1, ch.6) For ancient Chinese, we know, "sun" (and "moon") or "day" (and night) is the origin of time that concerns with human life. The Yin-Yang in The Changes primarily means the meeting and interplaying of the two sides that makes time as well as life possible. So we read in the book: "The firm [Yang] and the yielding [Yin] are what establish the foundation [for a hexagram]. Their changes (bian4) and correlations (tong1) are what go toward the Time (qu1 shi2)." (xi-ci2, ch.1) This is the Way (Dao) and spirit (shen2, or deity) of the Changes, which contains nothing substantial and categorically determinable. As The Book of Changes says: "The inter-playing of Yin and Yang is the Way. ... The generator of the generating is the Changes. ... The indeterminableness of Yin and Yang is deity (shen2, spirit) ." (xi-ci 1, ch.5)

The so-called Four Pictures, the Eight Trigrams and the Sixty-four Hexagrams of the Changes are the Images (xiang4) resulted from the Yin-Yang's combinations on the levels of two lines (xiao2), three lines and six lines. They show the situations of "the ultimate changes (zhi4 bian4) of the world" (xi-ci 1, ch.10) and tell people how to "go timely (shi2 xing2) to correspond to Heaven". (hex.14, tuan)

The Time or timeliness that comes from "the ultimate changes" is certainly non-linear. Can we say that it is cyclical? The answer is "yes" in the sense that when the changes of the Images reach the end or the last hexagram, it goes back to the beginning or the first hexagram. But "the beginning" does not merely mean the first hexagram (QIAN), but more primordially the very meeting of Yin with Yang and the constitution of Time itself in various forms. All the devices of The Changes -- the eight directions of the trigrams, the orders and meanings of the hexagrams, the positions of the lines, etc. -- are intended to induce you to understand the complex situations of human being's life lively, i.e., in the intercourse of possible tendencies.

So, another point is: the Time is inseparable from people's knowing (zhi1) of the past and the future. "The Changes illumine the past and interpret the future. They disclose that which is subtle and open that which is covered." (xi-ci 2, ch.6)5 That is to say, the Time is the timeliness in which "a knowing of subtle matrix" (zhi1 ji1, xi-ci 2, ch.5) occurs. In the "Appended Remarks of The Changes" (xi-ci), the word "ji (subtle matrix)" means the subtlest happening between being and non-being. It has no form yet, but already rides on the initial momentum that will demonstrate itself and become dominant. "The Changes are what has enable the sages to reach all depths and to grasp the subtle matrixes of all things." (xi-ci 1, ch.10) R. Wilhelm translated the character "ji1" as "seed", signifying virtually the seed of future. So we find another paragraph saying: "The subtle matrixes (or the seeds) are the imperceptible beginning of movement, the first trace of good fortune or misfortune that shows itself. The superior man (jun1 zi3) perceives the subtle matrix and immediately takes action. He does not wait even a whole day." (xi-ci 2, ch.5) Actually, "knowing the subtle matrix", which amounts to knowing the Time, is the final goal of The Changes.

When Husserl and Heidegger inquired phenomenological time, they found that this original time, being neither cosmological nor psychological, is composed of nothing other than the dynamic and spontaneous interplaying of momentary tendencies (horizons). Even the transcendental subjectivity cannot maintains itself in the "Heraclitus' stream". It is the "ultimate changes" without any substantial assumption (e.g., the dichotomy of subject and object) that make our understanding of the world and ourselves possible. What the authors of The Changes know about "the principles of the Changes" (yi4 li3) is somehow not alien to the phenomenological view. The similarity is felt more convincingly when we compare their views on time with the traditional ones in the west mentioned at the beginning. We often meet such kind of sayings in The Changes:

The Changes is a book from which one may not hold aloof. Its Way (Dao or Tao) is forever changing and moving without rest. Flowing cyclically through the six voids (liu4 xu1, that means `six lines'), rising and sinking without fixed law, the firm [Yang] and the yielding [Yin] transform each other. They cannot be confined within a rule; It is only change that is at work here. They move inward and outward with rhythm and measure. Without and within, they teach fear and anxiety. (xi-ci 2, ch.8)


To speak of the six lines that make up the hexagrams as "six voids" manifests that, for the ancient authors, the Images of the Changes do not admit any substantial existence in their basic components. However, that does not suggest relativism and nihilism. The "cyclically flowing" and "moving inward and outward" constitute the timely moments ("rhythm and measure") and structural patterns (Images) of the lines, trigrams and hexagrams. We read, therefore, "The Changes is a book whose hexagrams begin with the first line and are summed up in the last. The lines are the essential. The six lines are put in various positions according to the meanings of the temporalized Yin-Yang (shi2 wu4)." (xi-ci II, ch.9)6

Furthermore, the "temporalized Yin-Yang" or the Time of the Changes is the source of all virtues and moralities. It is said:

The Book of Changes contains the measure of Heaven and Earth; therefore it enables us to comprehend the Way of Heaven and Earth. ... Since in this way one comes to resemble Heaven and Earth, the person is not in conflict with them. One's wisdom embraces all things, and one's Way nurtures the whole world; therefore one does not err. The person is active everywhere but does not go astray. Rejoicing in Heaven and having knowledge of the Mandate, the one is free of care. The person is harmonious with circumstances and genuine in kindness or ren (jen), therefore can practice love (ai4). (xi-ci I, ch.4)


Corresponding to "the measure of Heaven and Earth" is both wise and moral. Here the two cannot be separated. So, we find,

The kind one (ren2) discovers it [the meaning of the Changes] and calls it kind (ren or jen). The wise one discovers it and calls it wise. (xi-ci I, ch.5)


Thus the hexagram of TREADING shows the basis of virtues (de2). MODESTY shows the handle of virtues; RETURN, the stem of virtues. DURATION brings about firmness of virtues; DECREASE, cultivation of virtues; OPPRESSION, the test of virtues; THE WELL, the field of virtues; THE GENTLE, the exercise of virtues. (xi-ci II, ch.7)


In The Book of Changes, especially in the "tuan" or the "Commentary on Decision", 7 the character of "time" (shi2) appears frequently. For instance, in the explanatory commentaries of the first hexagram, QIAN, "shi2" or "time" occurs more than 10 times and plays a prominent hermeneutic role. In 12 hexagrams, such as the 16th (YU), the 17th (SUI), the 29th (KAN), the 49th (GE), etc., the author of tuan repeatedly praised the hexagrams for their showing "the great meaning of the time"; such as "Great indeed is the meaning of the time of ENTHUSIASM (YU)"; "Great indeed is the effect of the time of OPPOSITION (KUI, the 38th hexagram)"; "The time of REVOLUTION (GE) is truly great;" etc. He really had a deep understanding of the essential role of Time in the Changes.

Now, let us sum up the significance of "time" and "Time" in the book:

(1)The Chinese character of "time" is used to indicate the remarkable meaning of a hexagram as mentioned just above. Each of the sixty-four hexagrams expresses a special "time of hexagram", the feature of a temporal situation and the appropriate attitude that one should take as facing the situation.

(2)Every position of line (xiao2), from the first up to the sixth in every hexagram has a special time implication; e.g., signifying the sequential stages of a career from the beginning to the end. The positions with odd numbers (1, 3, 5) are the Yang-positions; whereas the even numbers indicate the Yin-positions. If the Yin or Yang of a line match that of its position, it is thought to be "in the appropriate position" (dang1 wei4); otherwise, as "in the inappropriate position". In many cases, the appropriate positions means good fortune; while the inappropriate ones predict misfortune. For these reasons, The Changes claims: "The six positions [of the lines] are established timely." (hex.1, tuan)

(3)No matter whether it is a hexagram or a line, such remarks as "riding on time", "being in time", "acting timely", "following the time", "hitting it timely", "going in good time" (cf. hex. 1, 2, 4, 14, etc, tuan) always signify "good fortune" or "no blame". Even in the unfavorable situations, such as those of KAN (hex.29), KUI (hex.38) and JIAN (hex.39), as far as the persons act according to what the time require, or "follow the time of Heaven" (hex.1, wen-yan), they can avoid the misfortune and even turn the unfavorable into their own advantages. Time is the lively ultimate for the authors of The Changes indeed.

(4)One important principle of interpreting the hexagrams is: it will be good if Yin meets with Yang; otherwise, there will come a misfortune or trouble. This is valid both to the relations between the two trigrams that compose a hexagram and to that between the lines close to each other. For example, the 11th hexagram, TAI, is composed of the two trigrams: QIAN below and KUN above. The QIAN (being creative, Heaven) has a tendency going up and the KUN (being receptive, Earth) going down. So, they are bound to meet together adequately. That just means, "TAI" indicate a wonderful situation. "Since heaven and earth meet together, the living ways of all things are opened. Because upper and lower encounter, people are of one will". (hex.11, tuan) In the 12th hexagram, FOU, the situation is opposite or bad, since in this case QIAN is above and KUN below, and therefore, they cannot meet eath other. For a similar reason, when a Yang line meet a Yin one, new way is opened and opportunity occurs. But when a Yang line faces a Yang one, the way is blocked. The authors of The Translations and Interpretations of the Changes as well as a famous commentator (Shang Binghe, 1870-1950) regard the "meeting" requirement as "the center principle of The Changes".8

"Meeting" here implies that the opposites or the two different sides to be thrown into an inter-transforming situation and thence get rid of what restrain them. As the result, the opportune (opportun-ity) and the understanding of the opportune take place. Similar to the phenomenological view that the meeting and fusion of the past and the future horizons ("Retention" and "Protention") constitutes the lively moment of the present ("Augenblick"), the meeting and interplaying of Yin and Yang, which may even be interpreted as the past and the future, gives birth to the opportune-vital force (qi4, or ch`i). "Qi" or "ch`i" in the pre-Qin time always bore the implications of "changing" and "timeliness" as well as the understanding of them. It cannot be reduced to a "qi's monism".

(5)In this direction, we comprehend the Middle (zhong1), another interpretative principle of The Changes, which says that the lines' position in the middle of the trigrams (e.g., the second and the fifth lines in a hexagram) are the most weighty and tend to bring good fortune. Moreover, the Middle should be conceived as the lively betweenness or opportuneness produced by the meeting of Yin and Yang. The qi wells up from the Middle and the opportunity or good fortune appears. This is just what we meant "Time" above.

(6)All these "principles" or the "exquisite requirements" (jiang3 jiu1) for explaining The Changes are not un-changeable rules that can work independently and linearly. They should be taken as what function together to open a timely opportunity for understanding the course of the Changes.


II. The Pre-Qin Thinkers with the Wisdom of Time

Based on what are talked above, we can briefly express the insight of The Changes as: the meeting of Yin and Yang begets the meaningful horizons of Time and thence let the person with the Time-understanding be in the Middle of opportune moments. In the pre-Qin period, such one is looked upon as a person of the Way, of ren or a sage with heavenly wisdom.

Fan Li was a minister of Yue State. The king of Yue, Gou Jian, at first disregarded Fan Li's advice against attacking at Wu State, and was defeated badly by Wu. After experiencing extremely difficulties and shames, the king under Fan Li's close guidance strove for almost twenty years to revive the state and waited patiently for the opportune time to destroy Wu State. Fan had a deep understanding of the Yin-Yang changes and the significance of Time. He said: "The Way of Heaven is full but not overflowing, flourishing but not proud, working but not conceited. Sages go with Time, and thus are called `observing the Time'." (Guo-yu, Yue 2)9 But the Time is so fluctuating and unstable to a lot of people that they were puzzled and punished by it all the time. In the contrast, Fan Li "follows the eternity of Yin-Yang's changes" (ibid.) and therefore can know the rhymes of the Time, i.e., its beginning, growing and maturing, as well as its positive or negative tendencies. He gave his advices quite a few times against the king's intentions to act untimely. What he was patiently awaiting and painfully trying to achieve was the best time or opportunity that admitted "the participation of man's experience into the course of Heaven-Earth". (ibid.) As soon as the Time came, he urged the king to send his army immediately, since "those who follow the Time go with the Time without any delay, like those who are fighting against fire or those who are chasing the escapee." (ibid.) His strategies to fight, i.e., to march or to retreat, to offend or to defend, etc., matched to the changes of Yin-Yang, "followed the rotating Way of the Heaven without a stop." Finally, "the army of Wu State was routed without fighting". The Wu State tried to get an humble peace treaty. While the king intended to agree, Fan Li spoke strongly against it from the perspective of the time of Heaven. He said: "What the sages achieve come from their following Time. In the case that you obtain the Time but do not realize what the Time brings to you, you will be punished by the Heaven." (ibid.) Finally, Fan beat the drum by himself and the army of Yue destroyed the Wu State completely. He is really a man of understanding the Changes and the Time.

Confucius was the most influential thinker in Chinese history. But the Analects (Lun Yun), the most parts of which are composed of the dialogues between Confucius and his disciples, does not record the theoretical discussions on such "big" issues as "the Way of Heaven", "the essence of human" (Analects, 5:13),10 "the definite essence of profit, destiny and ren". (Analects, 9:1) Because of the lack of theoretic interest, Confucius was played down by Hegel in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy. For the similar reason, quite a few scholars respect the Analects merely for its historical rather than thinking value. In my view, however, the Analects actually contains original and purest thinking of Confucianism. Although Confucius did not depend on the hexagrams to think and teach, the thought of ren is closely related to The Changes in terms of a deeper understanding of "yi" or arts. The "six arts" that connect with him are: the Books of Changes, History, Poetry, Rites, Music and the Spring and Autumn Annals. It is also said that the six arts means ceremonies, music, archery, carriage-driving, writing and mathematics. "Arts" require nimbleness, resourcefulness in changes, and the sense of measure. These can be cultivated so as to enhance students' sensibility of "Changes" and "Time".

Art is the key to understand Confucius as a person and as a thinker. In the Analects, we find: "When I was young, I was in humble circumstances, and therefore, I acquired much ability to do the simple things of humble folk. ... The Master said: `I have not been given official employment and therefore I acquired the ability for the arts." (Analects, 9:6) In fact, "acquiring the ability for the arts" most profoundly shaped Confucius' personality and his way of thinking. Therefore, it was said by the Analects that "The Master was entirely free from four things: He had no foregone conclusions, no predeterminations, no obstinacy, and no egoism." (Analects, 9:4) It was the learning of the "arts" that made him repulse any kind of conceptualization and formalization that are supposed to stand above the stream of changes and time. For instance, rites for him is primarily not the formalized and defined rules, but the art that enables the practioners to behave timely and correspond to the rhymes of Heaven. So we find in The Book of Rites: "For rites, timeliness is the most important; and the ordering is the second." (Rites, Li Ji) When a Confucian goes into the timing of rites, he gets rid of his ego and fuses himself with the others and with the world. So, Confucius claims that "To subdue one's self and return to rites (or propriety) is ren (jen, humanity, perfect virtue)." (Analects, 12:1) Such a man of ren "loves human beings" (12:22) and "knows the Mandate of Heaven". (2:4) For these reasons, it is essentially necessary for a Confucian to participate into the rites on the spot; otherwise, the timeliness would not be experienced and understood. He says: "I consider my not being present at the sacrifice, as if I did not sacrifice." (Analects, 3:12) Speaking positively, the Analects describes: "At the moment that he sacrificed to the spirits (shen2), he went into the lively presence of the spirits." (3:12) "Spirits" or "deities" (shen2) for Confucius always mean what were experienced in the opportun-ity that was brought out by the living acts of rites and music. This can be seen as a manifestation of the Changes' saying: "The indeterminableness of Yin and Yang is deity." (xi-ci 1, ch.5)

Confucius' deep love of poetry and music is seldom among the ancient world-famous thinkers. Not only he himself was fond of citing the versions in the Poetry to illustrate his own views, but also he encouraged strongly his students to interpret it creatively, as to bring forward the opportunity for understanding rites and other arts. Furthermore, for Confucius, the Spring and Autumn Annals is not merely a historical literature, but a timely and opportune expression of his political, social and ethical thoughts as well. Perhaps we may say, the five Confucian arts other than the Changes can also be seen as the "hexagrams" or the Images of Time-telling that are transformed into language.

This is the origin of Confucius's thinking of Middle Way. Without the primordial horizons of Time opened by the artistic activities, there would be no "ultimate (zhi4, perfect) virtue" of the Middle Way but merely eclecticism. To the greatest Chinese thinker, the appropriate meaning of the Mean (zhong1 yong1, the Middle Way) is "the timely Middle" or "making a timely hit" (shi2 zhong4). (Mean, ch.2)11 The man who really knows the Mean "can `hit it right' at any time", or "can always put himself in the best opportunity". So, the Mean says:

Before the feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy are aroused, it is called Mean (zhong1, equilibrium, centrality). when these feelings are aroused and each and all attain due measure and rhyme, it is called Harmony. The Mean is the great foundation or source of the world, and the Harmony its integrating path. When the mean and the harmony are realized to the highest degree, Heaven and Earth will attain their proper order and all things will flourish. (Mean, ch.1)


Why "before the feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy are aroused, it is called mean"? Because at that moment, the momentum of feeling has been built but not yet been realized as "what" can be objectified. This is the meaning of Mean, a borderline situation between being and non-being, and the pure momentum of moment or Time in coming (future). So it is "the great foundation of the world". When the feelings are aroused, they are realized into the present and the past; but since all of them attain due measure and rhyme, they are essentially connected with the momentum of Mean or the Time coming. Therefore, "it is called harmony". To say that the Mean is the great foundation of the world amounts to the claim that the time of Heaven in original (future) sense is the living source of the world. Certainly it is an expression of the insight of The Changes in another way. Mencius' praise of Confucius as "the Sage of the Time" (Mencius, ch.10) truly "hits it right"!

These presentations show the extreme sensitivity and original understanding of the Time in pre-Qin. It must be pointed out, however, that so-called "following Time", "increasing and decreasing with the Time", "keeping the Time", etc. primarily do not (merely) mean "to act according to schedule", but to participate into the primordial constitution or happening of the Time. Because of the participation and constitution, the "keeping" or "following" is possible. There is no "historical determinism" here. For the similar reason, following the Time in the appropriate sense means being transformed by the Time, becoming "sincerity" (cheng2), and therewith "being able to assist in the transforming and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth". (Mean, ch.22) Therefore, "following Time" is not an "opportunism" either. It is rather an "opportunity-making". "Because the Way complements the internal with the external and vice versa [and therefore brings out sincerity], it makes possible to do anything timely." (Mean, ch.25)


III. The Manifestations of the Time

The Changes, due to its original insight in the Time, was from the very beginning not only a book of telling fortune in narrow sense, but much more, it was a book of understanding the opportune-ness or opportunity that can bring fortune to its followers. So, it functioned as the "gene" of Chinese culture and shaped it in every respect, from calendar, medicine, military arts, architecture, literary and handy arts, to morality and political-social thoughts.

Since the early period, Chinese calendar was connected to the hexagrams in The Changes. "The Diagram of Directions and Positions Matched to 12 Hexagrams" is an ancient one, which pairs off 12 hexagrams with the 12 directions (30 degree between each two) and the 12 "earthly branches (di4 zhi1)". From it, we can see the changes of Yin and Yang in the 12 two-hour periods of a day or in the 12 months of a year, because the 12 hexagrams were chosen and put into such an order that they form a cycle showing the orderly increase and decrease of the numbers of Yin's or Yang's lines in the hexagrams. This diagram demonstrates the relation between (one day's or one year's) time and spacial directions. There are numerous similar but more sophisticated diagrams. For instance, "The Diagram of Showing the 72 Terms of Phenology by the Changes of Yin-Yang in Hexagrams", "The Diagram of Showing 6 Days and 7 Fens with the Changes of Yin-Yang in Hexagrams", which took the "24 solar terms" into consideration. We know that the 24 solar terms are directly related to human activities in ancient, agricultural China.

The thinking of "the increase and decrease of Yin-Yang (in hexagrams)" linked with the principle of "Five-Agents" provided the fundamental framework for the doctrines in later periods, such as that of Chinese medicine and Dong Zhong-shu's Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals. One way of linking Yin-Yang with Five-Agents is the diagrams mentioned above. The "four times" or four seasons (si4 shi2) match with wood, fire, metal and water; the last section of summer (ji4 xia4) corresponds to earth. From the spatial views, spring-wood matches with east, summer-fire with south, autumn-metal with west, winter-water with north; and finally as well as most importantly, the last section of summer-earth with the center of all directions. In this way, the Five-Agents and the directions have their own times. The relations among them are "producing (sheng1)" and "overcoming (ke4)". In the order of spring-wood, summer-fire, the last section of summer-earth, autumn-metal and winter-water, the previous produces the one immediately behind, and overcomes the other one behind. For example, spring-wood produces summer-fire, and overcomes the last section of summer-earth.

The Inner Classic of Yellow Emperor is the oldest and the most influential medical book in Chinese history. It closely follows the thinking of the Heaven's time, or of the Yin-Yang and Five-Agents, and therewith brings out systematic principle of the internal organs' images (zang4 xiang4), the acupuncture meridians, and the five movements connected with the six vital energies. The Inner Classic says: "The Five-Agents and Yin-Yang are the Way of Heaven and Earth, the final principles of all things, the father and mother of changes, the origins of living and killing, and the house of divine brightness. So, it is necessary to understand them first." (Suwen, ch.66)12 According to these doctrines, the five organs of human body, which should be comprehended in functional rather than anatomic sense, match with the Five-Agents: liver with wood, heart with fire, spleen with earth, lungs with metal, and kidneys with water. Therefore, liver is primarily connected to spring, heart to summer, spleen to last summer, lung to autumn, and kidney to winter. (Suwen, ch.22) With this, the organs have their times of Heaven and the producing-overcoming relations among themselves. Men are supposed to nourish their lives and heal their diseases in accordance with the principle. It tells what a living pattern should be in a certain time; violating it leads to illness. (Suwen, ch.68) For example, "The three months of spring are the time of sprouting and opening. Heaven-Earth encourages birth and everything get flourishing. During this time, one should sleep later (than in winter) and get up early, take a long walk in the opening, wear a relaxed clothe and loosen the hair, in order to let the aspiration (zhi4) to occur; to produce rather than to kill, to give rather than to grab, to award rather than to punish. This is the response to the qi (the vital and timely energy) of spring and is the Way of nourishing lives." "Violating the time (spring) requirements, liver would be damaged, so that in the coming summer, the disease of coldness would be caused, and power to make lives to grow would be fewer." (Suwen, ch.2) For the same reason, the ways of treating the patients and choosing the medicines should respond to "the time of spouting and opening". Moreover, because the Yin-Yang and Five-Agents is supposed to exist in every domain and on every level, e.g., "five colors", "five tastes", "five wills", etc., we meet such rhymes and requirements everywhere. That just means, we meet the times of Heaven everywhere.

The theory of acupuncture meridians and points links with The Changes more directly, and they are the ways of the five internal organs and six viscera to respond to the times of Heaven. The Inner Classic tells: "The twelve meridians are what the five internal organs and six viscera respond to the Way of Heaven." (Lingshu, ch.11) The meridians are either Yin or Yang ones. Every meridian has five big acupoints, which certainly match with the Five-Agents and Five-Times (four seasons plus the last summer). As treating a patient, the acupoints are chosen and stimulated not only in considering what the disease is, but also in corresponding to the times of Heaven which mean seasons, months, days, two-hour periods in a day, and so on. According to the doctrine of " the timely movements of vital energy (qi) and blood " , the vital energy and blood of man's body are supposed to flow into each of the twelve meridians in accord to the twelve two-hours periods (shi2 chen2) that bear the names of the twelve Earthly Branches (di4 zhi1). And, the five big acupoints on each meridian are paired up with the 10 Heavenly Stems (each acupoint with two stems). Then, in terms of the 60 combinations (gan1 zhi1) of the 10 Heavenly Stems with the 12 Earthly Branches, we can deduce, which acupoint or which meridian is opened at what period of a certain day. It guided such activities as identifying diseases, choosing specific herbs and their quantities, nourishing lives, arranging qi-gong exercise's time and place, etc. In sum, the exquisite particularity and the finest elaboration in the life of ancient China came from the views on the times of Heaven that took their origin in The Changes.

It is imaginable that, these principle, Yin-Yang and Five Agents which contain significance of Time, can be applied to political and historical problems. According to the famous historian Si-ma Qian (or Ssu-ma Ch'ien), Zou Yan (or Tsou Yen, 305-240 B.C.?) in the period of Warring States "examined deeply into the increase and decrease of Yin and Yang, ... mentioned and cited the fact that ever since the separation of Heaven and Earth, the Five-Virtues (the manifestations of the Five-Agents) have been in rotation. The reign of each Virtue or Power was quite appropriate and how has it corresponded to fact!" (Shi Ji, or Records of the Historian, ch.74) It seems that Zou Yan consciously combined "the increase and decrease of Yin-Yang", "the Five-Virtues (Five-Agents)" with the "reign" of emperors or kings. The Five-Virtues are not limited to denote the seasons, but can refer to the historical times or dynasties.

It was said that Confucius in the Spring and Autumn Annals "implicitly expressed his appraisals and denouncements, differed the good from the evil" by the narrations that totally merged into the historical situations of that time. So, it was said that the Annals implied "the subtle words and great [moral] meanings". Dong Zhong-shu (or Tung Chung-shu, c.179 - c.104 B.C.) in Han dynasty tried to interpreted the "subtle words" and showed the "great meanings" by the principles of Yin-Yang and Five-Agents. He believed that "Heaven and human beings are identified". (Gems, ch.49)13 For him, the essence of Heaven is Time, so that of human beings is also Time. Heaven has four times or seasons, so human has the four qis or four vital energies, i.e., pleasure, anger, sadness and happiness. The sayings can be reversed as to state: the Heaven has the four qis and human bears four seasons. (Gems, ch.46) The key is, however, that "following the Heaven results in great harmony; violating the Heaven entails great disorder". (Gems, ch.49)

Therefore, the king completely observes what the Heaven does, match the time of Heaven to make achievements. ... The likes and dislikes, the pleasures and angers of the king are the four seasons of the Heaven. Both change themselves in order to make achievements. If the Heaven conducts the change timely, the year is beautiful; otherwise, the year is bad. Similarly, in the case that the king changes himself righteously or opportunely, the world (or the time) is in harmony; otherwise, the world is in disorder. Therefore, the harmonious world (or time) identifies itself with the beautiful year in rhythm, the disordered world with the bad year in rhythm. In this way, the identity of the Way of Heaven with the principles of human beings is shown. (Gems, ch.4)


We see that for Dong, the king identifies or connects himself with the Heaven in terms of Time or timeliness. It is another manifestation or derivation of the thoughts in The Changes.

Dong holds also that the contents of all virtues of human beings, such as ren (jen), piety, faithfulness, wisdom, etc., come from following the Heaven. [omitted]

About the changes of the dynasties or times, Dong proposes the doctrine of "Three Unities" (san4 tong3) or "Three Correct Beginnings" (san1 zheng4). The "Three Unities" means three dynasties in succession; each one "unites the world" and distinguishes itself from the other two by a specific color, calendar, and system of ceremonies and music. The color originally comes from phenological time. For instance, in the thirteenth (the first) month of Xia Calendar, "The vital energy (qi), integrated by Heaven, begins to penetrate and transform things. It is seen that buds beginning to appear in plants are black (or dark)." (Gems, ch.23) If a dynasty takes this month as "the correct beginning (zheng4 yue4)" of its calendar, it assumes black to be its "principle of unity". Therefore, everything symbolically important, such as courtly costumes, horses, carriages, etc., should be black. The other two unities are colored white and red. Dong and Confucianism as a whole, as well as the emperors since then paid special attention to the correct determination of the first month of the dynasty's calendar, because it was believed to symbolize that the Mandate of Heaven was given to a new dynasty. "One becomes a king only after he has received the Mandate of Heaven. As the king, he will determine for his dynasty which days to be the first and middle days of the month at beginning; and he will changes the color of clothes worn at court, institute systems of ceremonies and music, and therewith unify the whole world. All this is to show that the dynasty has changed and that the new king is not succeeding any human being, and to make it very clear that he has received the Mandate from the Heaven." (Gems, ch.23)

From this, we know that in ancient China, the ruling "orthodox" (zheng4 tong3) means "correct, timely beginning" (zheng4) and "unifying the world in the rhythm of Heaven" (tong3). It essentially contains an insight of Time. The primary duty of a Confucian is to follow the timing Mandate of Heaven. Therefore, Confucians did not always try to maintain the social hierarchy in favor of the kings and emperors, but, in accord to the principle of the changes of Yin-Yang and Heaven's Way, to participate the revolutions or great changes timely that brought out new era or dynasty. The Changes states: "Heaven and Earth brings about revolution and radical change, and the four seasons complete themselves thereby. Tang and Wu (the kings who overthrew old dynasties and established new ones) brought about revolutions of dynasties because they followed the Heaven and responded to people's requirements. The Time of REVOLUTION is truly great!" (Changes, hex.49, tuan)

Furthermore, it is more interesting to notice that Dong advocated not only the diachronic changes of dynasties, but also the synchronic existence of the dynasties. The latter was called "Connecting Three Unities (tong1 san1 tong3)". It holds that, although the new dynasty is the dominant unity in the new time, the previous two dynasties should be allowed to exist in a "horizontal" or "marginal" way. That is, the heirs of the previous two unities are granted the title of Duke and have their own states with 100 square li. In the states, they are allowed "to wear their traditional costumes, practice their own rites and music; and when the duke-kings go to seen the dominant emperor, allowed to claim themselves or be addressed as noble guests rather than subjects". (Gems, ch.23) They are two "Unities" because they are still using their own time-systems or calendars, and thereby keep their own colors and rites. They represent both "the past" and in a sense "the future", since the previous "Unity" at least will formally re-appear and dominate a time in future. The fusion of the past (tradition), the future and the present is the Time implication of the "Connecting Three Unities". The "changes" and the "connections" together constitute the lively experiences of the Time that cannot occur in a single Unity. The experiences manifest the subtle interplaying of kindness (ren), righteousness and hope, and give original and harmonious senses to history, culture and society. In terms of the "Connecting Three Unities" we understand better the significance of Confucius' saying: "To revive states that had been extinguished, to restore families whose line of succession had been broken, and to call to office those who had retired into obscurity, so that throughout the world the hearts of the people turn toward you." (Analects, 20:1) This is the most distinguished feature of the Time in political and social domain. As a Temporalized humanism, it seems to find no equivalent in the west.



1.The time of Heaven or the Time is not the form of physical as well as eschatological beings, but the original happening of "the ultimate Changes".

2.The Time is intimately linked with human understanding of his\her existential situation.

3.Therefore, the Time itself has meanings, both intelligible and ethical as well as aesthetical.

4.The Time is un-linear. It can manifest itself as cyclical, but the true significance of the cycle is to go back to the origin.

5.The awareness of the Time appears during the activities of arts in broader sense, because they bring out the situations of "subtle changes" and "constituting meanings on the spot". To speak the other way round, every art in ancient China, including that of thinking, is full of the timely intuitions and understandings, whether it is medical, architectural, literary, military or political.



1.The numbers after the spelling of Chinese characters indicate the tones of the characters.

2.If there is no indication, the translation of the Chinese classics is done by the author of this paper. It will be notified if the version refers to or simply comes from a previous translation.

To reduce the notes, the sources will be given in parentheses.

3.My own translation. Refer to The I Ching, tr. R. Wilhelm, English tr. by C. F. Baynes, Princeton University Press, 1969, p.670.

The Book of Changes is divided into the texts and the commentaries. The texts consist of sixty-four hexagrams (abbreviated to "hex.") and judgments on them. The commentaries contain seven parts: (1)tuan, commentary on decision; (2)xiang (hsiang), commentary on the images; (3)wen-yan, commentary on the words of texts; (4)xi-ci, appended remarks; (5)shuo-gua, discussions of the trigrams; (6)xu-gua, remarks on the order of the hexagrams; (7)za-gua, miscellaneous remarks on the hexagrams. Numbers (1), (2) and (4) each has two parts. So, there are "ten wings" of the book in total.

The exact time of making this book is undecided. It is sure that the "commentaries" or "ten wings" came much later. However, they occurred no later than the third or fourth century B.C.

4.Cf. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, tr. & comp. by Wing-tsit Chan, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp.287-288.

5.Refer to R. Wilhelm's translation. This is the case in most following translations of The Changes.

6.The "wu" (things) here signifies "the lines' Yin-Yang". Cf. The Translation and the Interpretation of the Book of Changes, p.600.

7.This "Commentary" is regarded by scholars as one of the earliest among the "ten wings". It came out no later than the fifth century B.C.

8.The Translations and Interpretations of the Changes, p.45.

9.Guo-yu or Conversations of the States is a book recording the "discourses" of the people belonging different states in the Spring and Autumn period. The scholars nowadays believe that it appeared at the beginning of the Warring States period.

10.The translations of the Analects refers to that of J. Legge's The Philosophy of Confucius (New York: Peter Pauper) and Wing-tsit Chan's A Source Book in Chinese Book (Princeton University Press, 1963).

11.Cf. Wing-tsit Chan's translation in the Source Book.

12."Suwen (The Essential Questions)" is one of the two parts of the Inner Classic. Another one is "Lingshu (The Pivot of Spirit)". The Inner Classic of Yellow Emperor as a book appeared no later than the period of Warring States.

13.The "Gems" signifies the Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals, which is the masterpiece of Dong Zhong-shu.