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AsiaChinese Cosmologies

Chinese cosmologies are, like Indian and Buddhist ones, manifold in their diversity. Some of the oldest originated from the Shang dynasty (c. 1554–1045/1040 B.C.E.), and appear initially to account for the general characteristics of the observed world. For example, the cosmos is often understood as consisting of a dome-shaped heaven (represented as a circle) and a square earth; China, the "Middle Kingdom," is situated at its center, with the surrounding world represented as kingdoms situated at each of the four cardinal points and mountains at each of the corners. Allan notes that this cosmology not only resembles a turtle (as many have observed), but more importantly that it resembles the plastron (breastplate) of a turtle; this association is significant because it points to the mythic overlay that accompanied these cosmologies: the plastron was among the most prominent mediums for divination in early Chinese rituals. In this basic cosmology, two of the most prominent features of Chinese cosmologies are already starting to develop: first, the duality between heaven and earth anticipates the later and broader duality between yin and yang; second, there is an assumed correlation between the cosmos in its entirety and the cosmos as found in any one of its parts (such as the turtle plastron). Yet Shang cosmologies remained for the most part very basic, overseen by the supreme Lord, Shang Di, and controlled by various spiritual beings.

The Zhou dynasty (roughly 1100–250 B.C.E.) inaugurated a move from tribal society to feudal society, and the cosmologies of this period reflect that change. For example, the king takes on the title of "Son of heaven," thus situating himself cosmologically as that which links heaven and earth. This move simultaneously afforded him cosmic legitimacy, while also constraining him with the responsibility of ensuring that the order of earth appropriately modeled the order of heaven. This latter responsibility was termed the "Mandate of Heaven," and was taken to be a universal moral law that rulers could either observe (and continue to rule) or neglect (and lose their right to rule). Both duality and correlative thinking remained evident in Zhou cosmology, although the anthropomorphic spiritual powers of the Shang were replaced by moral principle in the Zhou in a way that both validated and restrained rulers even at the highest level, as seen in the Shijing (Classic of Odes) and the Shujing (Classic of Documents).

The cosmography of the Zhou also developed that of the Shang in much greater detail. Whereas the Shang understood earth to be square in a broad sense, the Zhou came to see space generally in terms of square units. In order to provide a more detailed description of the earth, squares were divided into nine smaller squares, each of which could be further divided to the desired level of detail; typically, this took the form of a 3 by 3 grid, but there are other variants. The result of such division was that most of Chinese cosmography was understood in terms of nines: nine domains in the Zhou empire, nine branches of the Yellow River, and so on. The most famous example of this division is the well-field system of taxation, whereby eight farmers would each farm one of the peripheral plots on a 3 by 3 grid, with the center square tended by all eight and its yield being given as a tax payment to the government. It is remarkable that even the division of land and labor was taken to be best ordered as a microcosm of the larger cosmic landscape.

What is perhaps most important about Zhou cosmologies, however, is that they set the terms for all subsequent Chinese cosmology. The most prominent features are fourfold: the duality between yin and yang, the five agents (water, fire, earth, wood, and metal), and the sixty-four hexagrams. First, the duality between yin and yang is taken to be characteristic of the cosmos as a whole, embodied in the dualities between dark and light, weak and strong, cold and hot, female and male (respectively); the profound message of this duality, however, is that these apparent opposites are actually fundamentally related, balancing, propagating, and flowing out of one another, for example, the Daodejing (Classic of the Way and Virtue) and the Yijing (Classic of Change). The theory of the five agents, in turn, represents the perpetual transformation of things as a characteristic and entirely natural feature of the cosmos; Zhou cosmologists correlated these with virtues, feelings, and arrangements of time, and used them to explain changes in everything from seasons to dynasties (for example, the Shujing, the Xunzi, the Lüshi chunqiu [ Springs and Autumns of Mr. Lü ]). Finally, the sixty-four hexagrams consist of sets of six lines that are each either broken (associated with yin) or unbroken (associated with yang); whereas earlier Chinese tradition had used these for the purposes of divination, Zhou cosmologists began to attribute cosmological significance to them by associating them with all of the possible types of change within the cosmos.

The earliest written accounts of Japanese cosmology are found in the Kojiki ("Records of Ancient Matters," 712 C.E.) and the Nihongi ("Chronicles of Japan," 720 C.E.). These texts originate in a time in Japanese history when Buddhism was already a significant influence, and thus serve not only as mythico-historical accounts of the origins and history of the Japanese people but also as the founding documents for the Shinto religion (which had hitherto been transmitted in spoken word and ritual practice). The presence of external influences is already apparent in these documents: the Nihongi, for instance, compares the initial state of the cosmos to an egg that, as heavy and light parts separate, form the heavens and the earth (as seen in many other Asian cosmogonies). The most significant influences, however, appear to stem from Chinese thought: most notably, In and Yô, presented in the Nihongi as the complementary forces underlying the cosmos, arguably stand as Japanese representations of yin and yang.

Despite their apparent external influences, Japanese sources also reveal their distinctiveness, as found most clearly in the epic of Izanagi and Izanami as found in Kojiki. Izanagi ("male-who-invites") and Izanami ("female-who-invites") represent the last generation of a series of spontaneously generated primordial gods, who develop out of one another in increasing complexity and differentiation. Izanagi and Izanami descend from High Heaven (Takamahara) to the unformed world to create the islands of Japan. These islands, as well as a host of smaller gods (kami), are brought about primarily as products of the sexual union of Izanagi and Izanami. Ultimately, however, Izanami dies while giving birth to the god of fire—she is scorched to death, producing even more gods in the process—and descends to the land of the dead (Yomi-no-kuni). In his rage Izanagi destroys the god of fire for his matricide, and in his grief he enters into the land of the dead to recover his wife. However, when he finds her and sees her decaying corpse, Izanami becomes enraged and pursues him with a host of demons. When he reaches the path between the land of the living and the land of the dead, Izanagi seals the path with a large stone. Following rituals of purification and grief (through which still more gods were created), Izanagi ascends to High Heaven, leaving the land of the living to the gods he has created. These gods continue to propagate and differentiate, eventually giving birth to the Imperial Family, the Japanese people, and the rest of the creatures and features of Japan.

This basic creation myth establishes the basic tripartite cosmology of the Shinto religion, consisting of High Heaven, the world of the living, and the world of the dead. It is also used to account for a wide variety of features of the cosmos, from such mundane features as the prevalence of fire (attributed to the pulverization of the god of fire for his matricide) to the victory of life over death (as embodied by the victory of Izanagi over Izanami at the path to the land of the dead). Although Japanese cosmology would become increasingly influenced by more pan-Asian religious and philosophical traditions—most notably, Buddhism—the Shinto cosmogony and cosmology laid out in the Kojiki and the Nihongi continue to influence popular belief in Japan. Indeed, insofar as these accounts serve to express the mythical origins of the Japanese people, they have become all the more influential as the Japanese have sought to develop and emphasize their own distinctive national identity.

Whether explained with respect to yin and yang, the five agents, or the sixty-four hexagrams (texts often drew on all three), Chinese cosmologies ultimately grounded these differentiations in a common source. This is identified in a number of different ways, but most commonly as the Supreme Ultimate (tiaji, which generates yin and yang), or the Dao itself (which is prior even to the taiji). The primary point of Chinese cosmology is that, while the cosmos embodies a wide variety of oppositions, changes, and transformations, these are ultimately the natural expressions of an underlying cosmic balance and harmony. While subsequent Chinese would alter the precise nature of the grounding and differentiation of the cosmos, both the terms laid out in the Zhou and its emphasis on cosmic balance and harmony would remain landmarks of Chinese cosmology.

If the Zhou introduced the main tenets of Chinese cosmology, it was the Han (202 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) who brought these tenets together and systematized them. For example, it was during the Han that the great commentaries on the Yijing and the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals) were written. Characteristic of this systematization is the heightened role of correlative thinking, which takes on a detailed, precise, and often even numerical character. Perhaps the most prominent example of Han cosmology is that of Dong Zhongshu (c. 195–c. 105 B.C.E.), as found in his Chunqiu fanlu (Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn Annals). Whereas the Yijing had related all things on a general level, Dong related them in exact detail: every thing or event can be seen as the direct result of other things and events, resulting in a highly complicated but also highly ordered cosmos. More importantly, this order of the cosmos as a whole is replicated at every level of existence, such that the human body, social relations, and imperial governance are all seen to be perfect microcosms of the larger cosmos. Dong's interest in the Chunqiu fanlu thus arises from his desire to use past records of interaction to aid present decisions in better modeling the balance and harmony of the cosmos.

Yet for all of their systematization and rigor, Han cosmologies proved too rigid for subsequent dynasties. Scientific advances compromised the perfect order asserted by Han cosmologists, persistent political upheavals rendered many of their political associations irrelevant, and the introduction of Buddhism into China shifted philosophical interest away from cosmology and toward metaphysics. In the Song dynasty (960–1279 C.E.), which witnessed a revival of interest in classical Chinese sources amid the rise of Neo-Confucianism, many of the terms and concepts informing Chinese cosmology were revived—for example, Zhou Dunyi's Taijitu shuo (Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate) and Shao Yong's Huangji jingshi shu (Book of the Supreme Ultimate Ordering the World). In both the Song and the Ming (1368–1644 C.E.) dynasties, these concepts were often reworked with remarkable ingenuity—the most prominent example of this is Zhu Xi's (1130–1200 C.E.) reinterpretation of the cosmos in terms of li (principle) and qi (material form)—although it must be noted that Neo-Confucian interest, following the lead of Neo-Daoism and Buddhism, was decidedly more metaphysical than cosmological. Ultimately, not even this resurgence of interest succeeded in stemming the tide of increasing cosmological skepticism in Chinese thought.

In the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), this skepticism reached its height. Seventeenth-century China experienced a marked increase of interest and renaissance in mathematics, astronomy, and geography, due in part to the introduction of Western science by means of the Jesuits. However, these new studies ran counter to the Chinese traditions of numerology, correlation of the orders of heaven and earth, and geometric cosmogony, thus calling these traditions into serious question. Such critique was far from unprecedented (for example, Wang Chong [c. 27–c. 100 C.E.], Ouyang Xiu [1007–1072 C.E.]), but it is only in the late Ming and Qing dynasties that scientific development had enough momentum to seriously call into question such long-standing Chinese traditions (for example, Gu Yenwu [1613–1682 C.E.], Wang Fuzhi [1619–1692 C.E.]). According to John Henderson, this shift was so significant as to inaugurate something of an "anti-cosmology"—a cosmology that, in contrast to the traditional Chinese approach via correlative thinking about an ordered cosmos, took irregularity and nonuniformity to be defining characteristics of the cosmos (for example, Wang Tingxiang [1474–1544 C.E.]). Henderson goes on to argue that it was ultimately this distrust of correlative thinking in cosmology that lead to a similar distrust of scientific models in China, thus effectively cutting it off from the broader scientific revolution and global cosmological conversation.


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Robert Smid

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cosine to Cyano groupCosmology - Asia - Buddhist Cosmologies, Chinese Cosmologies, Bibliography