Research Project


The Hidden Vacuity: Divination, Combinatorial arts and Rationality in the late work of Sima Guang (1019-1086)

Prof. Dr. Stéphane Feuillas

At his death in 1086, Sima Guang, the great historian of the Northern Song dynasty and the first opponent of the reforms of Wang Anshi (1021-1086), left to his family a partially unfinished manuscript whose structure is nevertheless complete. This book, called Qianxu [The Hidden Vacuity], is presented as a set of eight charts and tables in which the essence of Sima Guang’s philosophy concerning Nature, the political and social order and moral practice is contained. It follows an intense interpretive work that began in Luoyang when Sima was far from the court, work resulting in writing a commentary on the Book of Changes [Yijing] and another (completed in 1082) on the Canon of Supreme Mystery [Taixuan jing ], composed by Yang Xiong (53 BC- 18 AD) of the Han Dynasty, and supposed to be an imitation of the former. As Sima Guang puts it, “the Mystery takes the Changes as its pattern and the Vacuity takes the Mystery as its model.” These three books combine into a single movement development of a kind of metaphysics and divination. The research we intend to undertake will try to decipher, in the context of the Song Dynasty, some of the questions raised by the nature and the composition of the book itself. In the current work, I can here only mention a few possible directions: the status of imitation; the status of numbers, of numerology and of the combinatory arts; the core philosophy of the late Sima Guang; and the fineness of the divinatory prognosis This research program aims to contribute towards determining the role of mantic practices and constructions in the philosophy of the eleventh century’s literati.