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IX. The Five Elements under their Religious and Metaphysical Aspect.

The veneration of the Five Elements or properly speaking of the deities presiding over the elements reaches back to the commencement of the Chou dynasty. In the Chou-li we met with the Five Sacrifices offered to the Five Heavenly Emperors, the deities of the five directions whose altars were erected in the four suburbs and the centre. They were old legendary rulers deified as the spirits of the Five Points and the Five Elements. Subsequently, they received five assistant spirits, also sons of old emperors, credited with the power of mastering the elements, and therefore revered as the spirits of the Five Elements and the Four Seasons. The spirit of Earth alone had no special season. They partook of the sacrifices made to the Five Emperors (p. 434). In the Liki each season has a couple of these deities, a Heavenly Emperor or divine ruler and his attendant spirit.

The Five Sacrifices to these deities of the elements were performed by the emperor and the princes in the proper season. The Five Sacrifices of the house viz. the outer and the inner door, the hearth, the inner court, and the well were likewise referred to the five elements (cf. p. 439, Note 1). They were offered by the great officers, scholars and common people performing only one or two of them. 1 At the sacrifice the part of the victim which is supposed to correspond to the respective element was essential. Besides, the entire ceremonial to be observed by the emperor at these religious functions was more or less connected with the theory of the Five Elements. The hall occupied by the emperor was situated so as to be turned towards the quarter ruled by the predominating element. The colour of his horses, his flag, his robes, and his jade ornaments had to correspond to the colour of the worshipped element. His food, meat as well as vegetables, was similarly determined.

But not the religious life of the ancient Chinese alone, their political life is also overshadowed by the elements. In the Shuking already we found the statement that the good qualities of the sovereign:---self possession, orderliness, judiciousness, discretion, and sageness are related to the seasonable atmospheric influences i. e., to the fluids of the elements proper to the season, whereas their vices:---excitement, confusion, fickleness, impetuosity, and dullness are the correlates of such fluids as are out of season. Seasonable fluids produce rich harvests, call forth a good government, and make people happy; unseasonable ones have the opposite result (p. 434).

On the other hand, the actions of the sovereign and his administration have an influence upon the seasons and the weather, and thereby may bring down calamities upon his subjects. The Liki enumerates all proceedings which may be done during each season and which may not. The latter are not wicked in themselves, but they do not harmonise with the imaginary nature of the ruling element. In spring everything favourable to the cultivation of the fields must be done, and all destructive measures are forbidden. Trees must not be cut, young animals, birds, or insects not be killed. No warlike operations aiming at the destruction of human life are to be undertaken. The Liki points out all the natural calamities:---heavy rainfalls, storms, pestilence, & c. caused by unseasonable administrative acts (p. 439).

Kuan Tse prescribes five administrative measures for each season, the observation of which secures happiness and the accomplishment of one's desires, whereas its disregard entails misfortune. Even an eclipse of the sun and the moon and the appearance of a comet are the upshot of unseasonable government. Since malpractices in the rewarding of meritorious actions are the cause of an eclipse of the sun, and since unjust punishments and a want of harmony have brought about the eclipse of the moon and the appearance of the comet, by removing these causes the effects are removed also (p. 451).

According to the Huang Ti su-wên there is felicity only in the case that the element governing a season has its proper quantity, being neither excessive nor defective. That means to say that in summer, for instance, it must not be too hot, but not too cool either, and that in winter it must not be too cold, but, on the other side, not too warm. A cool summer and a warm winter are fraught with all kinds of evils. The vegetation suffers, and especially man is attacked by diseases (p. 449).

Tung Chung Shu, who more than others looks upon the elements as moral entities, puts forward a great variety of cases, in which the principal element of a season comes into collision with the other elements. The terminology sounds very abstract and profound, but the meaning is very simple. Tung Chung Shu wants to show the effect of extraordinary changes of the character of the seasons, one season assuming that of another and losing its own nature:

"When (in autumn) metal meets with water, fish become torpid; when it meets with wood, plants and trees sprout again; when it meets with fire, plants and trees blossom in autumn; and when it meets with earth the Five Grains do not mature. 2 When (in winter) water meets with wood, the hibernating insects do not hide; when it meets with earth, the insects that ought to become torpid come out in winter; when it meets with fire, a star falls down; and when metal meets with water, winter becomes very cold." 3

Like Kuan Tse Tung Chung Shu maintains that natural calamities, the result of irregularities of the elements and the seasons, must be laid to the charge of the sovereign and his administration, and that they will cease, as soon as the latter are reformed. Thus he says of spring and summer: ---"When wood undergoes an extraordinary change, spring withers, and autumn blossoms; there are great floods in autumn, and there is too much rain in spring. This has its cause in excessive personal services. Taxes and imposts are too heavy; the people become impoverished, revolt, and leave the path of virtue, and many starve. This may be remedied by a decrease of the services and a reduction of imposts and taxes, by taking the grain from the granaries and distributing it among the distressed."

"When fire undergoes an extraordinary change, winter becomes warm, and summer cool. This is because the ruler is not enlightened:--- Excellent men are not rewarded, bad characters not removed; unworthy persons occupy the places of honour, and worthies live in obscurity. Therefore heat and cold are out of order, and the people visited with diseases and epidemies. This state of affairs may be helped by raising good and wise men, rewarding merit and appointing the virtuous." 4

These ideas may seem odd, but they are not illogical. If the virtues of the ruler are manifestations of the Five Elements, an axiom laid down by the old Classics and contested by nobody, then there must be fixed relations between the two, and a change on one side affect the other. Irregularities of the elements and the seasons must also manifest themselves in the conduct of the sovereign and his government, and any deviations of the latter, have an influence on the seasons and the weather, with which the happiness of the people living on agriculture was closely connected.


1. See Liki, Legge's translation p. 225 and Lun-hêng Vol. I, p. 519.

2. Metal is supposed to meet with the other four elements or to collide with them, as the text says. That merely signifies that, in consequence of the preponderance of these unseasonable elements, autumn changes its character and, in its temperature, resembles spring, summer, or winter. In the next clause winter is supposed to undergo similar changes. The consequences of these irregularities of the seasons are, most of them, taken from experience and not contradicted by facts.

3. ### Tung Chung Shu XIV, 1 r.

4. Loc. cit. ### Tung Chung Shu XIV, 1 v.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia