Ancient China Simplified
by Edward Harper Parker
Public Domain Books
Chapter XLVI - Oracles and Omens
Consulting the oracles seems to have been a universal practice, and there are numerous historical allusions, made by statesmen of the orthodox principalities, to supposed interpretations attached to this or that combination of mystic signs or diagrams from the “Changes,” together with arguments as to their specific meaning or omen in given circumstances. Doubtless the Chinese of those dates, like our own searchers for religious “analogies” and mysteries, examined with perfect good faith combinations of the Diagrams which to us appear arrant nonsense; and there can be no doubt of Confucius’ own individual zeal, though the fact that he thought fifty years’ study at least would be necessary for full comprehension points to the tacit confession that he had totally failed to understand much of the mystery. The Changes are supposed to have been developed by the father of the Warrior King when (about 1160 B.C.) he was in prison under the tyrannous suspicions of the last Shang emperor; and we have seen that the ruler of Ts’u was his tutor, at a time when Ts’u was not yet vassal to Chou. Like the Odes, Book, and Rites, the Changes were Chou literature, though possibly the unwritten traditions of earlier dynasties may have contributed to that literature; which, indeed, seems very likely, as Ts’u was already able to teach Chou.
Another form of augury was the examination of the marks on the carapax of a tortoise; thus the Martial King in 146 consulted, and found unfavourable, such marks–this was before attacking the last Shang emperor; and it was only at the earnest instigation of his chief henchman (afterwards vassal king and founder of Ts’i) that he was prevailed upon to proceed. Possibly he borrowed Eastern ideas from this founder of Ts’i too. Later on, the Martial King’s younger brother, the Duke of Chou, consulted the oracle along with the same Ts’i adviser: this was done before the three ancestral altars of their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, in order to ascertain if the Emperor (i.e. the Martial King) would recover from a sickness. In 1109 the Martial King’s son and successor sent one of his uncles or near relatives to examine the site of modern Ho-nan Fu, with a view to transferring the metropolis thither, and, the oracles being favourable, the Nine Tripods were removed to that place, and it was afterwards called the “Eastern Metropolis” (the original or western capital was not moved for over 300 years after that). It was at the same time foretold that there would be thirty more reigns, of 700 years in all: this was “Heaven’s decree.” On the other hand, when the Duke of Chou died during a tempest, the young Emperor was advised not to consult the oracles as to what the storm signified, because his uncle’s virtues were so manifest that Heaven itself had, by the agency of a tempest, spontaneously announced the fact.
Astrology was another form of soothsaying. In 780 B.C. the imperial astrologer (one of those two men, by the way, whom erroneous tradition 1000 years later confused with Lao-tsz) foretold the rise of Ts’i, Tsin, Ts’u, and Ts’in, upon the ruins of the imperial power; in 773 the same astrologer repeated the prophecy to the imperial prince then recently enfeoffed by his relative the Emperor in the state of CHENG. In 705 the imperial astrologer, when passing through the orthodox state of CH’EN, foretold from the diagrams that a scion of the CH’EN house would obtain the throne of Ts’i (which actually took place when the maire du palais, to the horror of Confucius, assassinated the last legitimate duke in 481 B.C.); this particular prophecy is doubly interesting, because the diagrams from the Changes, thus cited in detail in Confucius’ history, correspond exactly with the diagrams of the Book of Changes as we have it now, since Confucius manipulated it–proof that no change has taken place in this part of the text at least.
The ruler of Ts’in in the year 762, nine years after receiving the western half of the Chou imperial domain, and being recognized as a first-class vassal, consulted the oracle as to whither he should move his own capital. In the year 677 the oracles once more decided the then reigning ruler to shift his capital to (the modern) Feng-siang Fu in West Shen Si; the oracles added: “And later you will water your steeds in the Yellow River"; which came to pass after the conquests and annexations of 643 B.C., as already related. In 374 B.C. the imperial astrologer (the second man whom tradition, 300 years later this time, erroneously confused with Lao-tsz) then on a visit to the now royal Ts’in court said: “After 500 years of separation Ts’in is reunited to our imperial house; in 77 years more a domineering monarch will arise.” Seven years later the “raining down of metal” (probably some natural phenomenon not clearly understood at the time) was considered a good omen in connection with the new capital, now placed on the south bank of the River Wei. After Ts’in had conquered China, there are numerous other instances of oracles, omens, and so forth, all supposed to have had political significance.
In 645 the ruler of the neighbouring state of Tsin consults the oracles in order to ascertain who will be the most suitable war charioteer. A few years before that the court diviner foretold the future success of the petty Ngwei sub-principality of Tsin, which in 403 B.C. actually became a separate vassal kingdom. In 575 Tsin dared not, at the moment, accept the battle challenge of Tsu, because the particular day was a dies nefas, being the last day of the moon. Meanwhile the spies of the Ts’u army discerned that the Tsin leaders were consulting the oracles before the tablets of their ancestors in the field tent. In 535 the Ts’in administration consulted its own astrologer upon the point: “Will the state of Ch’en survive?” The answer was: “When it secures Ts’i, it will perish.” As just explained, a scion of the Ch’en house did practically obtain Ts’i in 481 B.C., and the very next year Ch’en was annexed by Ts’u. In 510 the Tsin astrologer prophesied the destruction of Wu by Yiieh within forty years, and also the predominancy of the Lu private family so intimately connected with Confucius’ troubles. There were not lacking sensible men, even in those days, who ridiculed the science of astrology: for instance, Shuh Hiang of Tsin–the man who so strongly disapproved Tsz-ch’an’s written laws, and the man who discussed with the Ts’i envoy, the philosopher Yen-tsz, the worthlessness of their respective dukes–said on one occasion when the “course of the heavens towards north-west” was supposed to indicate a success for Tsin: “The course of the heavens, as that of our success, lies in the qualities of the prince, and not in the situation of the stars.”
Tsz-ch’an of Cheng himself pooh-poohed oracular warnings, and said that he preferred to do his best, and leave omens to do their worst. On one occasion, outside the south gate of the Cheng capital, two snakes (one from the city, one from outside) were observed fighting; the one from the inside was defeated. Sure enough! the exiled duke six years after that returned to his own. So, in the state of Lu, the children sang: “When the thrushes come and make their nests, the ruler will go to a place on the Tsin frontier; when the thrushes settle here, the duke will be abroad"– in allusion to the future ejecting of the reigning prince by the powerful family above referred to. And, again (480 B.C.), in the state of Sung, whose terrestrial position was supposed to be “invaded” by the then peculiar celestial position of the planet Mars: it was suggested, however, to the ruling prince that he might “pass on” the threatened disaster to his ministers, to his people, or to their harvests–a solution the duke declined to avail himself of. ’Yours are indeed the words of a sage,’ said the astrologer.
We now come to the semi-civilized state of Ts’u, which seems to have had its oracles with the best of them, at all events after 560 B.C. At that date it was explained to the King that “the ancient emperors would at times consult the oracles for five years before deciding upon an expedition, or fixing the date of it; they were content to await patiently the decrees of Heaven.” In 537 the Ts’u king, having a prince of Wu in his power, sent to ask him ironically if he had duly consulted the oracles. “Yes,” said the prince, “every ruler has his tortoise, and it is easy to demonstrate by our oracles how injurious it will be for you if any harm comes to me.” This presence of mind saved his life. In 528 a Ts’u usurper invited a man who had once assisted him to name any post he would like. The man chose that of diviner, which, it appears, was an office of the first rank. The father of this king had secretly arranged with a concubine, notwithstanding the Ts’u rule (or possibly in accordance with it) that one of the youngest sons should succeed, to “sacrifice from a distance to the gods in general, and ask of them which of five sons should sacrifice to the spirits of the land"; then he buried a jade symbol of rule in the ancestral temple, and ordered the five sons to enter after proper purification; the three sons who happened to touch the spot reigned one after the other. In 489 the King of Ts’u, then engaged in assisting the orthodox state of Ch’en against the attacks of Wu, interrogated the imperial astrologer (who must have been there on a visit): “What is the meaning of that halo, like a bird’s wings, on each side of the sun?” The astrologer replied: “It presages calamity, but you can transfer it to your generals.” The generals then offered to consult the gods themselves, and even to sacrifice their own persons if necessary; but the King declined (on the same ground as the Duke of Sung above mentioned) because “my generals are my own limbs.” It was then proposed to transfer the calamity to the Yellow River. “No, the Yellow River has never played me false: ever since we received our fief, we have never at full moon sacrificed beyond the River Han and Yang-tsz.” Confucius registered his approval of this answer. It will be remembered that just at this time Confucius was hanging about Ch’Uen and coquetting with Ts’u, so that possibly this approval had something to do with his own prospects.
In recording these instances of prophecies and omens (which might be multiplied tenfold), it is desired to show how one main set of ideas pervaded the whole. We should not be too ready to ridicule them, or to hint at “after the event.” Our own Scriptures are full of similar prophecies, and what is good for us is good for the Chinese. If the celestial movements can be foretold, why not corresponding terrestrial movements, each corner of the earth being on the meridian of something? In the infancy of science, it is rather a question of good faith than of truth; and even the truth, if we insist on expecting it, was rudely guessed at by such great thinkers as Tsz-ch’an and Shuh Hiang.