ChinaManipulable 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 something—a 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 past—terms 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 strife—for 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.
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