Research Project


Research on the idea of "verification" (应验 yingyan) in the "Records of the Five Phases" (五行志 wuxing zhi) of the Chinese Standard Histories

Prof. Dr. Zhou Zhenhe

The Chinese people have a very long history of prognostication, and some of its aspects are closely connected with the application of "verification". The terms "verification" and "prognostication" are contrary but complementary. Based on different omens, prognostication passes judgement on the possible tendencies and results of development. Using records of disasters and unusual events, verification proves their correlation with the existing circumstances. In this way, data and resources for prognostication are collected. The more event s are corroborated, the more accurate the verifications will become, and the more authoritative the prognostications will be.

Among the 24 Chinese Standard Histories, there are 16 incorporating the genre of "records" (志 zhi). Twelve of these have the literal title "Records of the Five Phases",namely the "Book of Han", the "Book of Later Han", the "Book of Song", the "Book of Southern Qi", the "Book of Sui", the "Book of Tang", the "New Book of Tang", the "History of the Five Dynasties", the "Book of Song", the "Book of Jin", the "Book of Yuan" and the "Book of Ming". Moreover, the first half of the "Records of Mysterious Omens" (灵征志 lingzheng zhi) in the "Book of Wei" also shares the characteristics of the "Records of the Five Elements". Today, the "Records of the Five Elements" are seen as a register of disasters and unusual events, in which many natural and man-made disasters are written. The "Draft History of Qing" was compiled during the Republican Era. Influenced by the modern scientific way of thinking, the "Records of the Five Phases" has been completely replaced by the "Records of Disasters and Unusual Events" (灾异志 zaiyi zhi), but the original idea to compile the "Records of the Five Phases" was not solely to create a register of disasters and unusual events, but to show that their occurrence was caused by certain inappropriate human activities. That is to say, the purpose was to make people aware of this connection, especially the rulers. Verification is in fact the other side of prognostication. Knowing what should and should not be done, the result of verification is the same as that of prognostication.

The "Records of the Five Phases" in the Standard Histories have their origin in the "Book of Han" compiled by Ban Gu (班固, 32-92) during the Eastern Han period. In the "Book of Han", the theory of Yin and Yang is often used to interpret human circumstances, which is obviously the result of Dong Zhongshu's influence (董仲舒, 179-104 BCE). Under the impact of the School of Yin-Yang (阴阳家 Yinyang jia), the original notion of Confucianism - one should not talk about supernatural phenomena - has been discredited. Dong Zhongshu studied the "Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals" (公羊春秋 Gongyang Chunqiu) and applied the theory of the School of Yin-Yang to explain the history of more than 200 years after the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE). Later, Liu Xiang (刘向, 77 BCE-6 CE) studied the "Guliang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals" (榖粱春秋 Guliang Chunqiu) and wrote the "Commentary on the Great Plan and the Five Phases" (洪范五行传 Hongfan Wuxingzhuan). The reasoning based on verification has, therefore, been developed and finally became the theoretical foundation of the "Records of the Five Phases" in the Standard Histories. However, not all of the "Records of the Five Phases" have a theoretical background to the same extent. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), Confucianism entered another stage of development; namely, Neo-Confucianism. Scholars of this school disapproved the philosophy of Yin-yang, and in an obscure way decided to fight against superstition. Thus, Ouyang Xiu (欧阳修, 1007-1072 CE)claimed in the foreword to the "Records of the Five Phases" in the "New Book of Tang" that only disasters caused by unusual nature phenomena, but not the "verification of events" (事应 shiying) were recorded. Although the text still contains some traces of the "verification of events", it is obvious that changes have already taken place. In fact, already in the Southern and Northern Dynasties(420-589 CE), some people had already pointed out that the "verification of events" was far-fetched and difficult to believe, like Liu Zhao (刘昭, unclear ). In his commentary on the "Records of the Five Phases" in the "Book of Later Han", Liu Zhao has already drawn attention to the inconceivability that one disaster or unusual event could be verified by something that occurred 50 years later. However, before Neo-Confucianism arose, the fabricated nature of the concept of verification could hardly be profoundly exposed.

The "Records of the Five Phases" in the "Book of Song" and the "Book of Jin" compiled during the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1371 CE)show undetermined standpoints. On the one hand, the authors did not completely follow the previous logic of verification; on the other hand, they still believed that some "verification of events" should attract the attention of later generations. When the Ming Dynasty scholars (1368-1644 CE) compiled the "Book of Yuan" and the Qing scholars (1636-1911 CE) compiled the "Book of Ming", Neo-Confucianism has already became the orthodox ideology of the state. As a consequence, these two "Records" are based on Ouyang Xiu's idea, no longer focusing on the "verification of events", but on recording disasters caused by unusual natural phenomena.

The above-mentioned is a brief description of some concepts, which have influenced the compilation of the "Records of the Five Phases" in the Chinese Standard Histories. During my three months of research in Germany, I will focus on these concepts of compilation. My goal is to investigate thoroughly how the Chinese idea of "verification" originated, developed and transformed, and what is the relationship between this idea and the concept of prognostication. Besides, there is a particular type of "verification of events" - the "odd dressing" (服妖 fuyao). If time permits, I will look into this particular type.

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