Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

Progressive and Regressive Time Cycles in Taoist Ritual

Kristofer Schipper and Wang Hsiu-huei

Summary Taoist ritual in its social function is called ke, a word that basically means "measure," "class." The Chinese word for science (kexue) is a derivative; it conveys the idea of systematic, classificatory study (xue). Taoist ritual can be seen as a metaphorical pursuit of science.

In Chinese thought, the universe is apprehended as an infinity of nesting time cycles that, because of their formal correspondences, may be manipulated as though they were interchangeable, as when the alchemist produces in his laboratory a greatly accelerated model of cosmic process so that he can contemplate the latter as an aspect of the workings of the Tao. Taoist liturgy constructs similar cosmological models as ritual areas in which all beings are classified according to time measures. These models are oblated; Taoism has no other form of sacrifice.

The construction of the visible ritual area enacts the creative process of the universe. The time cycles, which are laid out visibly in a mandalalike structure, belong to a hierarchy of systems of outer time, that is, time as it exists in Creation after the opening up of chaos and the diversification of the energies it contained. Time that was before Creation is seen as inner time. Inner time is apprehended as a gestational process of ninefold transformation, from an invisible and undifferentiated state to the existence of form. Ritual enacts the simultaneous progression of (accelerated) outer time cycles and the regression of the inner cycle. Both culminate in the final moment of oblation.

In order to enact the passage from outer to inner time, Taoist ritual follows the paradigm of an ancient but hitherto little studied calendar theory with a corresponding divining technique called the Hidden Period (dunjia). This theory is based on the idea that the sexagenary time cycle shows a certain irregularity that results in an imbalance, and allows therefore an Irrational Opening (qimen). These concepts offered a model of stability in the time perception of this world inasmuch as progressive time was counterbalanced by a hidden regressive cycle.

The present paper discusses these fundamental concepts in relationship to that equally fundamental aspect of Chinese civilization which is Taoist ritual. But many other aspects of Chinese thought and science, such as mythology, theology, medicine, strategy, architecture, and landscape painting, have been influenced by these same theories. Certainly such a characteristic view of time elaborated by this great culture should not go unstudied by scholars of the Western tradition. The Chinese cosmological theories have long inspired Western thought. The concepts of inner and outer time, of the Hidden Period and the Irrational Opening, which have been studied little in modern times, should add a new dimension to our knowledge of these theories. The elaborate treatment given to cosmogony in this respect, the place of placental existence as a bridge between outer and inner time, the attempt to give a precise account of the emergence of order from chaos, all this might well be of interest to scholars in anthropology and comparative religion.


1. Taoist Ritual

The relationship between Taoism and Chinese science has been easy to perceive ( Needham 1959, 33-164), but difficult to explain ( Sivin 1978). One of the questions that arise in this

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