CHAPTER XIV. On Divination (Pu-shih).
The world believes in divination with shells and weeds. The
first class of diviners question Heaven, they say; the second, Earth.
Milfoil has something spiritual, tortoises are divine, and omens and
signs respond, when asked. Therefore they disregard the advice
of their friends, and take to divination, they neglect what is right
and wrong, and trust solely to lucky and unlucky portents. In
their belief, Heaven and Earth really make their wishes known,
and weeds and tortoises verily possess spiritual powers.
As a matter of fact, diviners do not ask Heaven and Earth,
nor have weeds or tortoises spiritual qualities. That they have,
and that Heaven and Earth are being interrogated, is an idea of
common scholars. How can we prove that?
Tse Lu asked Confucius saying, " A pig's shoulder and a sheep's
leg can serve as omens, and from creepers, rushes, straws, and
duckweed we can foreknow destiny. What need is there then for
milfoil and tortoises?"
' That is not correct,' said Confucius, ' for their names are essential. The milfoil's name means old, and the tortoise's, aged. 1
In order to elucidate doubtful things, one must ask the old and
According to this reply. milfoil is not spiritual, and the tortoise
is not divine. From the fact that importance is attached to their
names, it does not follow that they really possess such qualities.
Since they do not possess those qualities, we know that they are
not gifted with supernatural powers, and, as they do not possess
these, it is plain that Heaven and Earth cannot be asked through
Moreover, where are the mouths and the ears of Heaven and
Earth, that they may be questioned? Heaven obeys the same laws
1 A gratuitous etymology, of which the Chinese are very fond. Shih ?
= milfoil and kuei ? = tortoise have notliing whatever to do with ch'i ? = old
and kiu ? = aged.
On divination. 183
as man. To form a conception of Heaven, we must start from human
affairs. When we ask anybody, we cannot learn his opinion, unless
we see him ourselves before us, and personally address him. If we
wish to ask Heaven, Heaven is high, and its ears are far away
from us. Provided that Heaven has no ears, it is incorporeal, and
being incorporeal, it is air. How could air like clouds and fog
speak to us?
By milfoil they ask the Earth. Earth has a body like man,
but, as its ears are not near us, it cannot hear us, and not hearing us, its mouth does not speak to us. In line, if they speak
of questioning Heaven, Heaven being air cannot send omens, and,
if they address themselves to Earth, the ears of Earth are far, and
cannot hear us. What reliable proofs are there for the assertion
that Heaven and Earth speak to man?
We are living between Heaven and Earth, as lice do on the
human body. If those lice, desirous of learning man's opinion, were
emitting sounds near his ear, he would not hear them. Why?
Because there is such an enormous difference of size, that their
utterances would remain inaudible. Now, let us suppose that a
pygmy like a man puts questions to Heaven and Earth, which are
so immense; how could they understand his words, and how become
acquainted with his wishes?
Some maintain that man carries the fluid of Heaven and Earth
in his bosom. This fluid in the body is the mind, I daresay. When
man is going to divine by weeds and shells, he puts questions to
the milfoil and the tortoise. The replies which he hears with his
ears, his mind regards like its own thoughts. From the depth of
the bosom and the stomach the mind hears the explanation. Thus,
when the tortoise is cut to pieces 1 and the divining stalks grasped,
omens and signs appear. Man thinks with his mind, but when in
his thoughts he cannot arrive at a decision, he consults the milfoil
and the tortoise. In case their omens and signs harmonize with
the thoughts, the mind may be said to have been a good adviser.
Yet it happens that the heart regards something as feasable,
but the omens and signs are inauspicious, or these are felicitous,
but the heart considers them as unlucky. Now, the thoughts are
one's own spirit, and that which causes the omens and signs is
also one's spirit. In the bosom, the spirit of a body becomes the
mental power, and outside the bosom, omens and signs. It is, as
1 From Chuang Tse chap. 26, p. 4v. it appears that for divining purposes the
tortoise shell used to be cut uito 72 pieces or divining slips.
184 Lun-hêng: B. Metaphysical.
if a man enters a house, and sits down, or goes out through the
door. The walking and sitting makes no difference in his ideas,
and entering or issuing does not change his feelings. Provided that
the mind produces omens and signs, they would not be opposed
to man's thoughts.
Heaven and Earth have a body, therefore they can move. In
so far as they can move, they are like living beings, and being
alive, they resemble man. To ask a living man, we must use a
living person, then we can be sure of a reply. Should we employ
a dead man for this purpose, we would certainly not obtain an
answer. Now, Heaven and Earth are both alive, and milfoil and
tortoises are dead. How could we elicit a reply by asking the
living through the dead? The shell of a dried tortoise and the
stalk of a withered weed are supposed to question living Heaven
and Earth! Ergo the common assertion that Heaven and Earth
respond is quite erroneous.
If milfoil and tortoises be like tablets, omens and signs would
represent the written characters thereon, and resemble the instructions emanating from a prince. But where would be the mouths
and the ears of Heaven and Earth, that such instructions might
be possible? "How can Heaven speak?" said Confucius. "The four
seasons roll on, and the various things are produced." 1
Heaven does not speak, nor does it hear what men say.
Heaven's nature is said to be spontaneity and non-interference. Now,
if people question Heaven and Earth, and they respond, this response would require that interference be coupled with spontaneity.
According to the text of the I-king, the art of grasping the
straws consists in sorting them into two parcels to resemble Heaven
and Earth, in grasping them by fours in imitation of the four
seasons, and in returning the superfluous straws as an emblem of
an intercalary month. 2 These resemblances are marked with the
object of forming the necessary number of diagrams, and not a
word is said about Heaven and Earth conjointly replying to man.
It is usual among men to answer, when asked, and not to reply,
unless there be any question. Should anybody knock at other
people's door without any reason, not wishing anything, or make
a useless discourse in their presence, without asking their opinion,
the master of the house would laugh, but not reply, or he would
become angry, and not give an answer. Now, let a diviner perforate
1 Analects XVII. 19.
2 Yi-king, Chi-t'se I (Legge's transl. p. 365).
On divination. 185
a tortoise shell in sheer play, or sort the milfoil for nothing,
and thus mock Heaven and Earth, he would obtain omens and
signs all the same. Would Heaven and Earth then reply indiscriminately? Or let a man revile Heaven, while divining by shells,
or beat the Earth, while drawing the lots, which is the height of
impiety, he would obtain omens and signs nevertheless. If omens
and signs are the spirit of Heaven and Earth, why do they not
extinguish the fire of the diviner, 1 burn his hand, shake his fingers,
disturb his signs, strike his body with painful diseases, and cause
his blood to freeze and to boil, instead of still showing him omens
and sending signs? Do Heaven and Earth not fear the bother, and
not disdain to take this trouble? Looking at the problem from this
point of view it becomes plain to us that the diviners do not ask
Heaven and Earth, and that omens and signs are not the replies
of the latter.
Besides, those who divine are sure to be either lucky or unlucky. Some are of opinion that good and bad luck correspond
to the good and the bad actions of mankind. Thus bliss and
felicity would accompany goodness, and calamitous changes follow
in the rear of badness. Good or bad government is the result of
goodness or badness, but I doubt that Heaven and Earth purposely
reply, when questioned by diviners. When a lucky man cuts up
a tortoise, he finds auspicious omens, whereas an unlucky one,
grasping the milfoil, obtains contrary signs. This will be shown by
the following examples.
Chou was the worst of rulers: during his reign there was an
abundance of calamitous events. Seventy times the tortoise was
consulted, and the replies were always unlucky. Therefore Tsu Yi 2
said, "Excellent men and the great tortoise dare not know anything about happiness. The worthy are not called to office, and
the large tortoise does not give good omens. A catastrophe is
When King Wu of Chou, received the heavenly appointment,
and Kao Tsu ascended the dragon throne, Heaven and men conjointly lent them their aid, and there were great numbers of wonders
and miracles. The sons of Fêng and P'ei 4 divined by shells, and
1 Which he uses in burning the tortoise shell.
2 The minister of Chou.
3 Cf. Shu-king, Hsi po k'an Li and Shi-chi chap. 3 (Chavannes, mém. Hist.
Vol. I, p. 204).
4 The countrymen of Kao Tsu, who was born in Fêng. in the sub-prefecture
of P'ei in Kiangsu.
186 Lun -Hêng: B.Metaphysical.
they likewise received propitious replies. The omens which a lucky
man attracts by his personality are invariably good, whereas
those brought about by the doings of an unlucky person are
When Shih T'ai 1 of Wei died, he had no rightful heir, but
six illegitimate sons.2 They divined, who would be the successor,
and made out that bathing and the wearing of gems would afford
an omen. Five of the sons took a bath, and adorned themselves
with precious stones, but Shih Ch'i Tse 3 said, "Who, being in mourning for a parent, can bathe and wear gems?" Hence he did not
bathe, nor wear any gems. It was he who hit the omen. The men
of Wei divining confided in the wisdom of the tortoise, 4 but it did
not possess any wisdom, the wise one was Shih Ch'i Tse himself.
He governed his State well, and what he said was excellent, hence
the felicitous auguries. Had no recourse been taken to divination
at that time, and the people alone be consulted, they would nevertheless have declared in his favour. Why? Because the heart and
its feelings are nothing else than luck and mishap. If this be true,
it disposes of the truth of divination. While the shells are being
cut in pieces, and the straws sorted, omens and signs take place
spontaneously, and while they appear, happiness and misfortune
happen of their own accord, and the lucky as well as the unlucky
fall in with them by chance.
The lucky meet with good omens, whereas the unlucky encounter bad signs. Thus wherever the lucky pass, things are
pleasant to them, and wherever they look, they behold felicitous
objects. Yet those pleasant things and felicitous objects are not
special auguries for the lucky. In a similar manner the unlucky
encounter all sorts of hardships on their way. These good and
bad things are not the response of Heaven, it is by chance that
they fall to the lot of the good and the bad. The lucky and unlucky omens obtained by cutting the tortoise and drawing the
milfoil are like the happiness and the unhappiness which we experience. This much we gather from the following instances.
When King Wu of Chou was down-spirited, the Duke of
Chou consulted three tortoises, and said that he would meet with
1 The Li-ki writes Shih T'ai Chung.
2 From his concubines.
3 A feudal ford in Wei, mentioned in the Tso-chuan, Duko Chung 12th year
(681 B.C.), as influencing the policy of his native State.
4 So far the story is culled from the Li-ki, T'an Kung II (Legge, Sacred Books
Vol. XXVII, p. 181).
On divination. 187
success.1 When the minister of Lu, Chuang Shu, 2 had got a son, Mu
Shu, 3 he drew the lots with the help of the Yi-king and encountered the
36th diagram4 which became the 15th.5 In regard to the divination
with shells the term to meet 6 is used, and the expression to encounter
is applied to the drawing of straws. Thus, as a matter of fact,
the replies were obtained by mere chance, and were not the outcome of goodness or badness.
The good meet with happiness, and the wicked encounter misfortune. The law of Heaven is spontaneity, it does nothing for
the sake of man. The happiness attending the government of a
ruler must be judged by the same principle. When a prince chances
to be virtuous, it just so happens that there is peace and joy, and
that many wonderful and auspicious things appear. Contrariwise,
when there happens to be, a degenerate ruler, all this is reversed.
There are many people discoursing on divination, but very
few who understand its real meaning. Some hold that divination
must not be practised by itself, but that circumstances are to be
taken into account. The tortoise being cut, and the milfoil grasped,
omens and signs appear. Seeing unusual signs, the diviners resort
to their imagination: auspicious omens they explain as disastrous,
and unlucky signs as auspicious. If in such a case luck and mishap do not become manifest, people say that divination is not to
When King Wu of Chou destroyed Chou, 7 the interpreters put
a bad construction upon the omens, and spoke of a great calamity.
T'ai Kung flung the stalks away, and trampled upon the tortoise
saying, "How can dried bones and dead herbs know fate?"
In case the omens and sign's obtained by divination do not
correspond to happiness and misfortune, there must have been a
1 The Duke of Chou had built three altars to his three ancestors, whom he
consulted on the fate of his sick brother Wu Wang. He probably had one tortoise
for each altar. (Cf. Shi-chi chap. 33, p. Iv. and p. 205.)
2 Shu Sun Chuang Shu or Shu Sun Tê Chên. When he died in 603 b.c, he
received the posthumous name Chuang.
3 The same as Shu Sun Mu Tse mentioned in Chap. XVII. His clan name
was Shu Sun, Mu being his posthumous title.
4 The diagram Ming-i.
5 The diagram Ch'ien. Wang Chung here quotes a passage from the Tso-
chuan, Duke Ch'ao 5th year (Legge Vol. V, Pt. II, p. 604) where the expression
" encountered " ? is used.
7 The last emperor of the Shang dynasty, Chou Hsin ??
188 Lun-Hêng: B. Metaphysical.
mistake. When the soothsayers are unable to ascertain fate, it is
thrown into confusion, and owing to this confusion T'ai Kung disparaged divination.
Divination by shells and stalks bears a resemblance to the
administration of a wise emperor, and the omens of divination are
like the auspicious portents during the reign of such an emperor.
These portents are unusual, and the omens are extraordinary and
marvellous. It is for this reason that the diviners fall into error,
and it is the unusual which blindfolds the emperor's advisers to
such a degree, that in their blindness they declare a peaceful government to be mismanaged, and in their error call bad what is auspicious. Lucky omens a lucky man can fall in with, and, when
during a reign auspicious portents are met with, it is a manifestation
of the virtue of a wise ruler. When the King of Chou destroyed
Chou, he encountered the omens of a bird and a fish, why did his
diviners regard these as unlucky omens? Had King Wu's elevation
not been predestinated, he ought not to have met with portents,
when going out. Provided that it was Wu Wang's fate to rise, the
diviners should not have thought it inauspicious. Thus, since the
divination for King Wu could not be unlucky, but was declared to
be so, this interpretation was erroneous.
When Lu was going to attack Yüeh, the diviners by milfoil
gave their verdict to the effect that the tripod had broken its leg.
Tse Kung explained this as evil. Why? Because the tripod had its
leg broken, and for moving on one uses the legs. (Consequently
he considered it luilucky. Confucius, on the other hand, explained
it as lucky, saying, "The people of Yüeh are living on the water;
to reach them one requires boats, not legs." Therefore he called
it lucky. Lu invaded Yüeh, and in fact defeated it.
Tse Kung explained the breaking of the leg of the tripod as
evil, just as the interpretation of the diviners of Chou was adverse.
But in spite of this adverse comment there was certainly luck, and
in accordance with the right explanation of the broken leg Yüeh
could be invaded. In Chou there were many persons who could
give a straightforward interpretation like Tse Kung, but very few
gifted with the same subtle reasoning power as Confucius. Consequently, upon viewing an unusual omen, they were unable to catch
Because Wu Wang had no fault, when the divining took
place, and nevertheless got a bad omen, people think that divination must not be practised by itself, and is but of little service
in government. But it serves to show that there are spiritual
On Divination. 189
powers, and that a plan is not merely the production of somebody's brain. 1
Writers and chroniclers have collected all sorts of events, as
Han Fei Tse for instance, who in his chapter on the embellishment
of false doctrines 2 examines the proofs of those manifestations.
There he depreciates divination by shells, stigmatises that by weeds,
and condemns the common belief in their usefulness. As a matter
of fact, divination can be made use of, yet it happens that the
diviners are mistaken in their interpretations. In the chapter Hung-
fan we read concerning the investigation of doubts that, as regards
exceptional portents explained by divination, the son of heaven must
be asked, but that sometimes the ministers and officials are also
able to offer a solution. 3 Owing to this inability to give a correct
explanation, omens and signs often do not prove true, hence the
distrust in the usefulness of divination.
Duke Wên of Chin was at war with the viscount of Ch'u. He
dreamt that he was wrestling with King Chêng, 4 who gained the
upper hand, and sucked his brains. This was interpreted as inauspicious, but Chin Fan 5 said, " It is lucky. Your Highness could
look up to heaven, while Ch'u was bending down under the weight
of his guilt. Sucking your brains means softening and craving for
mercy.'' 6 The battle was fought, and Chin was in fact victorious,
as Chin Fan had prognosticated.
The interpretation of dreams is like the explanation of the
signs of the tortoise. The oneirocritics of Chin did not see the
purport of the visions, as the diviners of Chou did not understand
the nature of the omens of the tortoise-shell. Visions are perfectly
true, and omens perfectly correct, but human knowledge is unsufficient. and the reasoning therefore not to the point.
There is still another report, according to which King Wu, when
attacking Chou, consulted the tortoise, but the tortoise was deformed." The diviners regarded this as very unpropitious, but T'ai
1 Those in power win the people over to their views by showing that the
omens are favourable, and that the spirits causing them give their approval.
2 Chapter XIX of Han Fei Tse's work.
3 Cf. Shu-king, Hang-fan, Pt. V, Bk. IV, 20 (Legge Vol. Ill, Pt. II, p. 334).
4 The viscount of Ch'u, who styled himself king.
5 The Tso-ckuan calls him Tse Fan.
6 Quotation from the Tso-chuan, Duke Hsi 28th year (631 b.c).
7 I surmise from the context that the character ?+? must denote some
deformity of the tortoise. Kang-hi says in the appendix that the meaning is
Lun-Heng: B. Metaphysical.
Kung said, " The deformation of the tortoise means bad luck for
sacrifices, but victory in war." King Wu followed his advice, and
at length destroyed Chou. If this be really so, this story is like
the utterances of Confucius on the diagrams, and Ch'in Fan's interpretation of the dream. Omens and signs are true by any means,
if good and bad fortunes do not happen as predicted, it is the
fault of the diviners who do not understand their business.
On Death. 191