Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": A CHINESE THEORY OF PORTENTS


(Tung Chung-shu, 'Ch'un-ch'iu fan-lu,' 30)

Tung Chung-shu lived 179?-104? B.C. The title of this Iengthy work from which the following selection is taken may be rendered in English as 'Deep Significance of the Spring and Autumn Annals.'

The creatures of Heaven and earth at times display unusual changes and these are called wonders. Lesser ones are called ominous portents. The portents always come first and are followed by wonders. Portents are Heaven's warnings, wonders are Heaven's threats. Heaven first sends warnings, and if men do not understand, then it sends wonders to awe them. This is what the Book of Odes means when it says: 'We tremble at the awe and the fearfulness of Heaven!' The genesis of all such portents and wonders is a direct result of errors in the state. When the first indications of error begin to appear in the state, Heaven sends forth ominous portents and calamities to warn men and announce the fact. if, in spite of these warnings and announcements, men still do not realize how they have gone wrong, then Heaven sends prodigies and wonders to terrify them. if, after these terrors, men still know no awe or fear, then calamity and misfortune will visit them. From this we may see that the will of Heaven is benevolent, for it has no desire to trap or betray mankind.

If we examine these wonders and portents carefully, we may discern the will of Heaven. The will of Heaven desires us to do certain things and not to do others. As to those things which Heaven wishes and does not wish, if a man searches within himself, he will surely find warnings of them in his own heart, and if he looks about him at daily affairs, he will find verification of these warnings in the state. Thus we can discern the will of Heaven in these portents and wonders. We should not hate such signs, but stand in awe of them, considering that Heaven wishes to repair our faults and save us from our errors. Therefore it takes this way to warn us.


Translation by Burton Watson, in Wm. Theodore de Bary (ed.), Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960) p.187

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