Research Project


Diagrammatic Aspects of Cosmological Thought. An early Song Image and Number (xiang shu) Debate Reconsidered

Holger Schneider

This research project focuses on the 11th century work "Diagrams fathoming the hidden in the numbers of the Book of Changes" written by Liu Mu 劉牧 (?1011–?1064). This work with the Chinese title Yishu gouyin tu 易數鉤隱圖 proposes a consistent and highly formalized cosmology entirely on the basis of numbers and expressed in the medium of algebraic charts. The Book of Changes Yijing is the preeminent source of Chinese cosmological thought and the most highly regarded instrument for divination at the same time. Liu Mu's work draws mainly on this classic, while taking into account apocryphal sources, Han-Dynasty image and number (xiangshu) elements, as well as Daoist notions. The hitherto largely neglected source has been shown to be relevantfrom various perspectives: it is the first notable work dealing with the Book of Changes after the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907). It is furthermore the earliest source of a number of visualizations in the transmitted literature, spawning a great controversy over the appearance, provenance and meaning of the terms Hetu (河圖) and Luoshu (洛書) as well as the Houtian Bagua (後天八卦) configuration in subsequent generations. A further outcome of the research project is a complete commented translation of Liu Mu's work. Taking this a point of departure, the interplay between formal and symbolic, quantitative and qualitative uses of numbers are considered. The present study is the first monograph dedicated to the work of Liu Mu, a topic on which earlier scholarship is rather sparse. Claims for the alleged inconsistency and probable corruption of the transmitted text could be alleviated if not entirely refuted. In conclusion, Liu Mu's abstract and formal cosmography must be considered as a pioneering step towards the mathematization of Chinese cosmology during the Song Dynasty. By implication, his work can be read as a systematic and highly rigorous endeavor to prove the efficacy of the Yijing, showing it to be consistently connected to and grounded in a synthesized theory of natural processes. Also, vital ideas of Neo-Confucianism which have been associated with contemporary and later thinkers, primarily Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 and Shao Yong 邵雍 can already be found in Liu Mu's work. As the first Song adaptation of material which dates back to the classical period, Liu Mu's stance on questions regarding the age-old controversy between image and number (xiangshu) and meaning and pattern (yili) denominations as well as on the reconstruction of the cultural foundational documents Hetu and Luoshu have been meticulously described. Further light on this early stage of the debate is shed by a close reading of Liu Mu's contemporary critic Li Gou 李覯 (1009–1059). Given the status of the Yishu gouyin tu as a groundwork for Chinese diagrammatic discourse of cosmological thought up until the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), the repertoire of concepts and approaches assembled in my study will allow for an informed assessment and appreciation of this rich body of visual material in the future.

back to "Notions of Fate and Prognostication and their Taxonomies" overview