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A Sketch of Chinese Natural Philosophy.
The theory of the Five Elements is no doubt of Chinese origin and its existence in ancient times proved by many old documents. We read in one of the first books of the Shuking, the "Counsels of the Great Yü," ###:
"Yü said," 1 Well! may Your Majesty think of it. Virtue implies good government, and government consists in nourishing the people. Water, fire, metal, wood, earth, and grain must be attended to. The rectification of virtue, the supply of all useful things, and ample provision for the necessaries of life must be well balanced. These nine achievements succeed each other, and the nine successive steps are praised in songs.---Caution the people with kindness, govern them with majesty, and incite them with the nine songs, in order that there may be nothing amiss."
The emperor 2 said, "Yes, 3 the earth is undisturbed now, heaven is in perfect order, and the six treasuries and three affairs properly managed. Ten thousand generations may perpetually rely on them. All this is your doing." (Legge, Classics Vol. III, Part I, p. 55 seq.)
What does it mean that the Five Elements: water, fire, metal, wood, and earth must be controlled by the Emperor? How can he exercise any power on nature?---By regulating his administration on the natural sequence of the elements, doing only those things which are in harmony with the element ruling for the time being. Natural phenomena are thus affected by the actions of the son of Heaven, being either disturbed or kept in their regular course. The Liki will give us the necessary details.
The elements are here enumerated in the series in which they overcome or destroy one another, for which the terms ### or ### are used. This part of the theory of the Five Elements seems to have been known to the compilers of the Shuking.
The above passage is quoted and explained by the Tso-chuan, Duke Wên 7th year, and its genuineness thus firmly established. The corresponding passage of the Tso-chuan reads thus:
"The book of Hsia4 says, `Caution the people with kindness, govern them with majesty, and incite them with the nine songs, that there may be nothing amiss.' The virtues of the nine achievements may be sung, and are called the nine songs. The six treasuries and the three affairs are called the nine achievements. Water, fire, metal, wood, earth, and grain are called the six treasuries. The rectification of virtue, the supply of all useful things, and ample provision for the necessaries of life are called the three affairs." 5 (Cf. Legge, Classics Vol. V, Part I, p. 247.)
In another book of the Hsia dynasty, entitled "the Speech at Kan" ###, the following words are attributed to the Emperor Ch`i ###, who is supposed to have spoken them in 2194 B.C.:
"The Lord of Hu offers violence and insult to the Five Elements, and neglects and discards the three commencements (of the seasons). Therefore Heaven employs me to destroy and cancel his appointment. Now I merely reverently mete out the punishment of Heaven." 6 (Legge, Classics Vol. III, Part I, p. 153.)
Legge rightly observes that the crime of the Lord of Hu is stated in a somewhat obscure and mystical language. The Five Elements are not to be taken in the simple physical sense, for then they could not be outraged by a sovereign, but are metaphysical terms, equivalent almost to the four seasons ###, as one commentator points out. The seasons are nothing else than the result of the revolutions of the Five Elements, and a ruler commits a crime, if for his administrative acts he does not choose the proper time, neglecting the seasons. At all events there is some theory at the bottom of the very concise expression.
Another criminal of this sort is introduced to us in the chapter Hung-fan ### (The Great Plan) of the Shuking, where the Viscount of Chi says: "I have heard that of old K`un by damming up the Great Flood threw the Five Elements into confusion. God was highly incensed at him, and did not grant him the Great Plan with the nine divisions." 7 (Legge, Classics Vol. III, Part II, p. 323.)
I suppose that the imaginary guilt of K`un did not so much consist in his illtreating the element water as in not observing the propitious time for his draining work, thereby disturbing the Five Elements i. e., the Five Seasons and thus bringing down calamities upon his people.
Further on the Hung-fan informs us of the nature of the Five Elements, the fullest description to be found in the Shuking:
"First the Five Elements: the first is termed water; the second, fire; the third wood; the fourth metal; the fifth, earth. Water is described as soaking and descending; fire as blazing and rising; wood as crooked and straight; metal as yielding and changing, whereas the nature of earth appears from sowing and reaping. That which is soaking and descending becomes salt; that which is blazing and rising becomes bitter; that which is crooked and straight becomes sour; that which is yielding and changing becomes acrid; and the produce of sowing and reaping becomes sweet." 8 (Legge, Classics Vol. III, Part II, p. 325.)
The sequence of the Five Elements is different from that in the Hsia-shu insomuch as here wood precedes metal. It is the sequence in which originally the elements were created. This at least is the opinion of Chu Hsi, which we shall examine later on. The nature of the Five Elements is described, and another category, that of the Five Tastes: salt, bitter, sour, acrid, and sweet connected therewith i. e., we have here the first classification based on the five elements. From this one to the others there is only one step. It is just this book of the Shuking which shows us the great partiality of the ancient Chinese to numerical categories and classifications. We find already the ### Five Businesses: ### demeanour, speech, seeing, hearing, and thinking, immediately following upon the five elements, and further on the ### Five Manifestations, or ### Five Atmospheric Influences as they are now called, viz. ### rain, sunshine, heat, cold, and wind (Legge, loc. cit. p. 339) which subsequently were combined with the Five Elements. The love of symbolism, and the tendency of discovering analogies between natural and moral phenomena appears already in what the Hung-fan has to say on the Five Manifestations:
"There are the auspicious manifestations:---self-possession is related to seasonable rain; orderliness, to seasonable sunshine; judiciousness, to seasonable heat; discretion, to seasonable cold; and sageness, to seasonable wind. There are likewise the evil manifestations:---excitement is related to incessant rain; confusion, to incessant sunshine; fickleness, to incessant heat; impetuosity, to incessant cold; and dullness, to incessant wind.
It is said that the emperor pays attention to the year; his ministers and high officers, to the months, and the petty officials, to the single days. When, during a year, a month, or a day, the seasonableness does not change, then all the crops ripen, the administration is enlightened, excellent persons become illustrious, and the people enjoy peace and happiness. But, when during a day, a month, or a year, the seasonableness changes, then the crops do not ripen, the administration is beclouded and unenlightened, excellent persons remain in obscurity, and the people do not enjoy quietude." 9 (Legge, loc. cit. p. 340 seq.)
Already at the beginning of the Chou dynasty, in the 11th century B.C., the Chinese had discovered some resemblance between heaven and earth, and the four seasons with the six ministries, which appears from the names of these departments recorded in the Chou-li. There is the prime minister, the chief of the Civil Office ### or ### Officer of Heaven; the minister of the interior and of revenue ### or ### Officer of Earth; the minister of ceremonies ### or ### Officer of Spring; the minister of war ### or ### Officer of Summer; the minister of punishments ### or ### Officer of Autumn; and the minister of works ### or ### Officer of Winter.
We learn from the same source that the vice-president of the Board of Ceremonies "erected altars to the Five Emperors in the four suburbs:" ### (Cf. Le Tcheou-li par E. Biot Vol. I, p. 421, 441 and Vol II, p. 324). These Five Emperors were five old rulers subsequently deified and venerated as the deities of the Five Points.
These are two more corner stones added to the system of the Five Elements. We have no literary evidence to show that this was done already at the commencement of the Chou epoch, althongh there is nothing against such a supposition. At all events this step had been taken some centuries later, for in the Tso-chuan we see the theory pretty well evolved from the nucleus observed in the older sources.
We read under Chao-kung 29th year: "Therefore there were the officers of the Five Elements, who accordingly were called the Five Officers. They, in fact, received their family and clan names, and were appointed high dignitaries. As divine spirits they were sacrificed to, and honoured, and venerated at the altars of the Spirits of the Land and Grain and the Five Sacrifices. The ruler of wood was called Kou Mang, that of fire Chu Yung, of metal Ju Shou, of water Hsüan Ming, and of earth Hou Tu . . . . . Viscount Hsien inquired of which families were these Five Officers partaking of the oblations to the Spirits of the Land and Grain and the Five Sacrifices. Tsai Mê replied: `At the time of Shao Hao there were four men: Chung, Kai, Hsiu, and Hsi, who were able to regulate metal, wood, and water. Chung was made Kou Mang, Kai was made Ju Shou, and Hsiu and Hsi, Hsüan Ming. They never were remiss in discharging their duties and in assisting Ch`iung Sang (Shao Hao). For these are the Three Sacrifices. Chuan Hsü had a son named Li, who become Chu Yung; Kung Kung had a son named Kou Lung, who became Hou Tu. For these are the Two Sacrifices. Hou Tu became Spirit of the Land and Grain and director of the fields."
Here we have five sons of old legendary rulers raised to the dignity of spirits of the Five Elements after their deaths. They partake of the Five Sacrifices offered to the Five Emperors in the four suburbs and the centre i. e., they are assistant deities of the Five Points. That they were, moreover, regarded as genii of the seasons appears from their names, for Kou Mang "Curling fronds and spikelets" evidently points to spring, and Ju Shou "Sprouts gathered" designates autumn. Chu Yung referring to heat may well denote summer, and Hsüan Ming "Dark and obscure," winter. Thus we have the Five Elements and their deities connected with the Five Points and the Five Seasons. See also Vol. I, p. 518 and 576. The Five Sacrifices of Wang Ch`ung Vol. I, p. 517 are others than those of the Chou-li, here referred to.
But the most important testimony of the Tso-chuan is to be found in the following passage, Duke Chao 25th year:
"Chien Tse said, `I venture to ask what is meant by propriety?'--- Tse T`ai Shu replied, "I heard the former great officer Tse Ch`an say: Propriety is the principle of Heaven, the rule of Earth, and the basis of human conduct. This principle of Heaven and Earth is imitated by the people conforming to the luminaries of Heaven and agreeing with the nature of Earth. The Six Fluids are produced and the Five Elements made use of. The fluids become the Five Tastes, manifest themselves as the Five Colours, and appear as the Five Sounds." 10
And farther on we read: "People feel love and hatred, pleasure and anger, sorrow and joy, which feelings are produced from the Six Fluids. Therefore one carefully imitates relations and analogies, in order to regulate these Six Impulses." 11
By the Six Fluids or atmospherical influences are understood ### the Yin principle, the Yang principle, wind, rain, darkness, and light, a classification somewhat different from that of the Five Fluids of the Shuking.
In the above quoted passage the Five Elements are combined with the Five Tastes, the Five Colours, and the Five Sounds on the one side, and with the Six Fluids and the Six Impulses on the other. After all, there are but five entities which appear to us under different forms, either as substances or as atmospherical fluids, or as tastes, colours or sounds. And even human feelings are nothing else but manifestations of these fluids.
Elsewhere the Tso-chuan informs us that "the former kings constituted the five tastes and harmonized the five sounds. It is by these that they made their minds equable and regulated their administration. Sounds are nearly related to tastes." 12 (Tso-chuan, Duke Chao 20th year.)
That the antagonism of the elements was well known at the time of the Tso-chuan we infer from the following passages: "Water overcomes fire" 13 (Duke Ai, 9th year), and "Fire overcomes metal" 14 (Duke Chao, 31st year). The meeting of two opposed elements is compared to a marriage, and the stronger element subduing the weaker, called the husband, the weaker being looked upon as the wife. "Water is the husband of fire" 15 (Duke Chao, 17th year), and "fire is the wife of water" 16 (Duke Chao, 9th year).
Finally the Five Elements are connected with the cyclical signs of the Ten Stems and the Twelve Branches. A disaster is predicted on a Ping-tse or a Jên-wu day, because on these there is a meeting of water and fire, 17ping corresponding to fire, and tse to water, jên to water, and wu to fire. Since these cyclical signs serve to denote the points of the compass, the Five Elements must be referred to them also. So we read that "tse is the position of water" 18 (Duke Ai, 9th year) i. e., that water is placed in the North.
The Tso-chuan states that the Five Elements manifest themselves as the Five Colours, but does not assign the different colours to the various elements. This is done in the Chi-chung chou-shu ###, a collection of ancient texts excluded by Confucius from the Shuking, and consequently prior in time to the 6th century B.C. (Cf. Chavannes, Mem. Hist. Vol. V, p. 457). There we read: "Among the Five Elements the first, the black one, is water; the second, the red one, is fire; the third, the green one, is wood; the fourth, the white one, is metal; and the fifth, the yellow one, is earth." 19
Resuming the adduced old testimonies, we may assert that, at the time of Confucius and before, the theory of the Five Elements was known and developed in all its chief features. The elements are roughly described and conceived as partly physical, partly metaphysical entities. They vanquish one another in a certain order already given in the Shuking. The weaker element in such a contest is termed the wife, the stronger, the husband. The atmospherical fluids, closely connected with the elements, affect mankind, in so far as they are believed to produce impulses and sensations, and, conversely, human actions may influence these fluids. The sovereign especially regulates the elements by the virtue displayed in his administration. There are five officers or deities presiding over the elements and, at the same time, venerated as genii of the seasons, in the five directions, together with the Five Emperors, ruling over the five points of the compass. Thus we have a link between the elements, the seasons, and the five directions. Moreover, the fluids and the elements manifest themselves under the form of the five tastes, the five colours, and the five sounds. Tastes and colours are enumerated and assigned to the respective elements, and we may assume that the same was done with the five sounds, although we have no literary evidence to prove it. By their combination with the signs of the denary and duodenary cycles, the five elements were again located in those points of the compass to which these signs correspond.
In the Appendix to Couvreur's Dietionary there is a table of the Five Elements and their corresponding categories, altogether 12 columns. Of these we have so far traced nine, only the five heavenly Emperors, the five planets, and the five viscera have not yet been mentioned. But these also were referred to the elements in the Chou dynasty, as we shall see from the Liki and other works.
A short sketch of a natural philosophy is given in the chapter Li-yün of the Liki (Legge, Sacred Books Vol. XXVII p. 380 seq.), in which the Five Elements play a part. Man is said to be the product of the forces of Heaven and Earth, by the interaction of the Yin and the Yang, the union of the animal and intelligent spirits, and the finest matter of the Five Elements. 20 This, of course, would account for the many relations existing between the elements and the human body as well as human actions. Moreover, the Five Elements are distributed over the Four Seasons. 21 They are in constant movement and alternately exhaust one another. Each of them becomes in its turn the fundamental one just like the Four Seasons and the Twelve Months. 22 It is not expressly stated that the five sounds, the five tastes, and the five colours are identical with the five elements, but they are mentioned in close connexion with the elements and declared to undergo similar regular revolutions by which each sound, taste, and colour for a certain time becomes the principal one. Throughout the whole treatise we notice the intimate relation of human life to all the forces of nature, the elements included.
The chapter Li-yün ### is by some attributed to Tse Yu, a disciple of Confucius or to his disciples and regarded as one of the most valuable parts of the Liki. I do not share Legge's view that the ideas about elements, numbers, colours, & c. are Taoistic admixtures to the commonsense of Confucianism, for we have met them all in the Confucian Classics. (Cf. Legge's Liki, Introduction p. 24.)
How the elements and their correlates were distributed over the twelve months we learn from another book of the Liki, the Yüeh-ling ### (Legge, eod. p. 249 seq.) embodying the fullest scheme of this theory in classical literature. It is a sort of a calendar clearly showing us how much the doctrine of the five elements was interwoven with the life of the ancient Chinese. For each of the four seasons it is stated that the Grand Annalist informed the Son of Heaven of the day on which the season began and of the element ruling over the three months composing the season. The element earth alone had no proper season.
About the first month of spring we learn that its days are chia and yi,23 its divine ruler is T`ai Hao, and the attending spirit Kou Mang. Its creatures are the scaly, its musical note is chio, its number 8,24 its taste is sour, its smell is rank. Its sacrifice is that at the inner door,25 and for this the spleen of the victim is essential. The east winds resolve the cold. The Son of Heaven occupies the apartment on the left of the Ch`ing-yang Fane,26 and rides in a carriage drawn by green dragon horses, carrying a green flag and wearing green robes and pieces of green jade. His food consists in wheat and mutton. At the head of his ministers and the feudal princes, the emperor meets the spring in the eastern suburb. The inspectors of the fields are ordered to reside in the lands having an eastward exposure. They instruct the people, and see that all the necessary measures for cultivating the fields be taken. Prohibitions are issued against cutting down trees and the killing of young animals, birds, or insects. No fortifications are to be erected, no warlike operations to be undertaken, for they would be sure to be followed by the calamities from Heaven. I refrain from quoting all the other prescriptions and defences and would only draw attention to the characteristical last paragraph of this section which has its counterpart in all the other months:
"If in the first month of spring the governmental proceedings proper to summer were carried out, the rain would fall unseasonably, plants and trees would decay prematurely, and the states would be kept in continual fear. If the proceedings proper to autumn were carried out, there would be great pestilence among the people; boisterous winds would work their violence; rain would descend in torrents; orach, fescue, darnel, and southern-wood would grow up together. If the proceedings proper to winter were carried out, pools of water would produce their destructive effects, snow and frost would prove very injurious, and the first sown seeds would not enter the ground."
In a similar way the other months are described. We abstract therefrom the following Table (pp. 440 and 441).
The Yüeh-ling is now universally ascribed to Lü Pu Wei of the 3rd century B.C. (Legge, Liki, Indroduction p. 20), but there is no reason to suppose that it was invented by him and that it is not a calendar of the Chou period, for its contents accords very well with other sources and was, at all events, regarded as a genuine record of old customs by the compilers of the Liki.
The literary evidence of ancient texts collected above is more than sufficient, I trust, to establish the fact that the theory of the Five Elements is of Chinese origin. This has been contested by no less an authority than Ed. Chavannes, who is of opinion that the Chinese have borrowed it from the Turks (cf. Ed. Chavannes, "Le cycle turc des douze animaux," T`oung-pao, Série II Vol. VII No. 1 p. 96-98). His view can hardly be upheld against the old texts. L. de Saussure ("Les origines de l'astronomie chinoise," T`oung-pao 1910, Vol. XI p. 265-288) has already disposed of it. To his counter-arguments, with which I concur in general, some more may be added. It is rather surprising that of all the Chinese authors who have written on the five elements almost nobody refers to Tsou Yen whom Chavannes believes to have been the first exponent of the Turkish theory in China. They all go back to the old Chinese sources quoted above. In the fourth or the fifth centuries B.C. when the Turkish theory must have found its way into China, the Turkish tribes, Hsiung-nu or Scythians bordering on the Chinese empire were practically barbarians from whom the Chinese could not learn much. In the Shi-chi chap. 110 they are described as nomads without cities who could not write and did not care for the moral laws. The accounts found in Herodotus Book IV seem to confirm that, at that early age, the Turkish tribes lived in a very primitive state of culture, and it is highly improbable that the theory of the interaction of the elements, supposing a mystical sympathy of all the forces of nature, an attempt at a natural philosophy, should have been devised by an uncivilised people like the early Turks. To the Chinese mind such sorts of speculations have been familiar from time immemorial. In ancient times the Turks most likely received the little culture they had from their neighbours, the Chinese, and when, subsequently, the Çakas made their incursions into Bactria and India, from the Greeks and Indians. When, many centuries later, they went over from Buddhism to the Islam, their language as well as their civilisation fell under the influence of the Arabs and Persians. They possessed very little originality, wherefore the invention of the theory of the five elements cannot well be set down to their credit.
I strongly doubt that at the time of Tsou Yen the Hsiung-nu already possessed any notion of the elements, which require a more advanced state of civilisation than theirs was. Their descendants, the Uigurs, know 4 elements, but which? Fire, wind, water, and earth (Kudatku Bilik by H. Vámbéry p. 75 and 78). They are the same as those of the Greeks and Indians, and they evidently learned them from these directly or through the Arabs, as they must have borrowed the seven planets and the twelve signs of the zodiac from the same source. After deducting these foreign loans, there remains nothing originally Turkish.
Even if the 4 elements: fire, wind, water, and earth were of Turkish invention, it would not help us much, for the 4 elements of the soi-disant semi-Turkish Ch`in dynasty, according to Chavannes, must have been: fire,wood, metal, and earth i. e., besides two elements occurring in Europe as well, they embrace two characteristically Chinese elements: wood and metal unknown in Europe and India.
I should say that the principal passage on which Chavannes bases his belief in the Turkish origin of the theory of the five elements, admits of a totally different interpretation than that of the eminent sinologist. The Emperor Han Kao Tsu expressed his astonishment that in Ch`in only four heavenly emperors were sacrificed to, since he had heard that there were five in heaven. (Mém. Hist. Vol. III, p. 449.) In my opinion this means to say that the emperor knew that before the Ch`in epoch there were five emperors worshipped under the Chou, and that he simply reverted to the old custom, changed by the Ch`in, by instituting a sacrifice to the black emperor, the representative of water.
At first sight the theory of the Five Elements and the classifications ingrafted thereon may seem strange to us, and one of the many Chinese peculiarities, but sociology teaches us that similar classifications, though based on other principles of division, are common all over the world and among people not connected with one another. Such classifications must, therefore, be a product of human nature which is more or less the same everywhere. Consequently, we need not look for a foreign origin of the Chinese theory.
Most Australian natives divide up the things of the world conformably to their clans and fraternities, which, each of them, have their special totems. All things belonging to the same group are allied and, so to say, the same reality under different forms. Animals of the same class must not be eaten by their kindred. (E. Durkheim and M. Mauss, De quelques formes primitives de classifications, in L'Année Sociologique, Paris 1901-02, Vol. 6 p. 17.) The totems are not only animals but also plants, fruits and other objects. They may be natural phenomena as well, such as wind, water, the sun, clouds amongst the Aruntas (p. 28 Note 2). With the totem fire are connected the branches of eucalyptus, the red leaves of the érémophile, the sounds of trumpets, warmth, love (p. 31).
A tribe of the Sioux in North America has grouped all objects according to the position occupied by their clans in their camp viz. right, left, in the front, and in the rear (p. 47).
Another tribe of the North American Indians, the Zuñis, have taken the seven directions: north, south, west, east, the zenith, the nadir, and the centre as the basis for their classifications, and filled them up with all the things in which they are specially interested. Thus they have the following equations:
North: wind, winter, the pelican, the crane, the green oak, strength, destruction, yellow
West: water, spring, moist wind, the bear, the wild dog, vernal herbs, peace, hunting, blue
South: fire, summer, agriculture, medicine, red
East: earth, seeds, frost, the buck, the antilope, the turkey, magic, religion, white, & c. (p. 35 seq.).
The Dacotahs have a similar division, but they have lost their clans. The Australian Wotjoballuk have distributed their clans and their correlates over thirteen points of the compass (p. 51).
The classifications according to clans and totems appear to be the more primitive; and those starting from the points of the compass are probably derived from the grouping of the clans in the camp.
It is owing to the preponderance of astrology amongst the Chaldeans that with them and their successors, Greeks and Romans, the planets have become the corner stones of very similar classifications. The Chaldeans have attributed the following colours to the planets:
Saturn = black, Jupiter = light red, Mars = purple, the Sun = golden, Venus = white, and Mercury = blue.
Ptolemy gives them somewhat different colours: Saturn = a livid grey, Jupiter = white, Mars = red, the Sun = golden, Venus = yellow, and Mercury = changing colours. The scholiasts also differ and only agree in the colours of Mars (red) and the Sun (golden) (A. Bouché Leclercq, L'Astrologie Grecque, Paris 1899 p. 313, 314).
In addition to colours, metals, plants, and animals are also classified under these planets. Thus mercury is the metal of the homonymous planet; dragons, snakes, foxes, cats, night birds, donkeys, and hares resort from Saturn; wild beasts, monkeys, pigs, from Mars (p. 317, 318). Moreover Ptolemy has distributed the parts of the body and the senses among the seven planets according to the following scheme:
Saturn: the right ear, the bladder, the spleen, the phlegm, the bones.
Jupiter: the sense of touch, the lungs, the arteries, the semen.
Mars: the left ear, the kidneys, the veins, the testicles.
Sun: the eyes, the brain, the heart, the nerves---all the chief organs.
Venus: the smells exciting love, the liver, the seat of prophecy, the flesh.
Mercury: the tongue, the gall.
Moon: the taste, the stomach, the womb (p. 321).
This system has undergone a great many modifications at the hands of later authors, for instance Demophilus and Hermippus.
Proclus teaches that the different spheres of the human spirit correspond to the spheres of the stars: Fixed stars = intellectual life, Saturn = contemplation, Jupiter = political and social instincts, Mars = passionateness, Sun = perceptive faculties, Venus = desires, Mercury = faculty of speech, Moon = vegetative life (p. 325).
In the middle-ages the Kabbala sets forth various systems of classification simultaneously. According to the Sepher Iezirah (9th-10th cent. A.D.) the world has been built up by the Three Elements named the Three Mothers: fire is the substance of heaven, water that from which the earth was produced, and both antagonistic elements are separated by the third element, air. These Three Elements govern the Three Seasons:---summer, the rainy season, and the cool season and the Three Parts of the Body:---the head, the breast, and the belly. This gives the following table: