Heaven's Numbers on Earth: Ancient Astronomy and Chinese Medicine
In the introduction to her landmark translation of the Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, a.k.a., the Yellow Emperor’s Classic, Ilza Veith commented that three primary concepts are critical to understanding that complex work. She listed those three as: "(1) Tao, (2) Yin and Yang, and (3) the theory of the elements and, closely connected to it, the imposition upon the universe as well as upon man of a system of numbers among which the number five predominates" (Veith 1972, p10).
Over centuries, countless authorities have commented upon the meaning and ramifications of the concepts of Tao, yin/yang and the Five Phases (wu hsing). Far less scrutiny however, has been paid over those years to the basic concept of utilizing a “system of numbers” as a means to comprehend the nature of the universe as well as that of humankind.
Why would the number five figure so prominently within the theories of Chinese culture in general and Chinese medicine in particular? Why did the Chinese seek to use numbers as a means to organize their medical knowledge in the first place?
I first became interested in these questions in 1978 ago when I began taking classes on Taoist philosophy and spirituality from a 74th generation Taoist Master by the name of Hua-Ching Ni author of more than 40 books on various Taoist topics. During one such class, while emphasizing the important role the sun, moon, stars and planets played in the lives of the prehistoric Chinese, Master Ni mentioned that the idea of wu hsing was inspired by the ancients’ discovery of the orbits of the five planets. The five planets my teacher was referring to are the only five visible to the naked eye, and as such, the only planets known to our ancestors until the invention of the telescope. These are: Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. While I had seen these planets listed on some Five Phase charts, the claim that the discovery of their orbits was the inspiration for the idea of wu hsing struck me as very important but impossible to prove as it was part of my teacher’s long oral tradition and could not be backed-up with any hard evidence. Without any other supportive sources, I thought this claim would be ignored by modern scholars so I filed it away in the back of my mind, wondering from time to time why this discovery might have been regarded as so significant to the ancient Chinese.
A second source
Some years later, I happened across a book (The Mask of God: Primitive Mythology) published in the late 1950’s by Joseph Campbell, the late scholar and historian who was widely regarded as the world’s leading authority on the influence of myths in various cultures. In one passage of this book, Campbell relates how the discovery of the orbits of the five planets played a pivotal role in the birth of the world’s first modern civilization in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) just over 5,000 years ago. According to Campbell, not only was this discovery vital, but so was the notion that went along with it; that the laws that govern the movement of the heavenly spheres must also govern life on earth Campbell 1959, p146-147).
It seemed to me that it could not be a coincidence that these two authorities (Ni and Campbell), from very different backgrounds and relying on different sources, would rank this discovery as so crucial in these different cultures. This made me wonder again: Why should the discovery of the orbits of the five planets be so important?
Campbell believed this discovery helped to spawn humanity’s first modern civilization because Mesopotamian leaders organized that society to mirror the order of the heavens seen in the cycles of the heavenly spheres. This was also the era when writing and mathematics were invented as was the calendar and the concept of the four cardinal directions of the compass. For the first time in history, large-scale public works projects were carried out under the rule of those at the top of a political and religious hierarchy. Pyramid-shaped ziggurats were erected with their four corners aligned with due north, south, east, and west. These structures, according to Campbell, were symbolized by the number five, with their four corners meeting in the neutral middle, which was raised upward to meet the heavens. The Mesopotamian calendar was composed of 12 months of 30 days each, with five intercalated days spaced in-between and celebrated as days of feast and festival - the five days when heaven’s influence was strongest upon the earth.
After studying Campbell’s thoughts and learning that the number five dominated ancient Mesopotamian culture, I began pondering what other factors Chinese and Mesopotamian cultures may have had in common, especially factors relating to their development and use of numbering systems. I had long been interested in why much of Chinese medicine was organized with specific numbers – like 365 acupuncture points or 12 primary qi pathways – numbers also used to organize time within the framework of a calendar. When I started studying what experts think about Mesopotamian culture, I learned these same numbering systems were crucial to the development of humanity’s first modern civilization. I also learned that these numbering systems could be traced back a quest to follow the cycles of the sun, moon, stars, and planets – a quest Hua-Ching Ni taught was also paramount in the lives of the ancient Chinese.
Numbers, measuring and Yin/Yang
Authorities tell us that the first use of numbers as a means to measure nature most likely arose from our ancestors desire to follow the cycle of the moon; the word “moon” itself being derived from a word that means “to measure”. As the moon was the only source of light during the long, dark nights, it was observed closely and found to change in size and shape virtually every night. This made following its cycle a natural for our ancient ancestors, leading to the invention of counting. It also provided the first formal system with which to measure time.
The practice of measuring time took a giant leap forward when another repeating cycle was discovered: the cycle of the rising sun. The dawn sun’s position on the eastern horizon shifts ever-so-slightly every morning. In the summer it reaches a spot as far north on the eastern horizon as it can ever reach and then appears to rise in that same spot for 2-3 days. This happens at the time of year we call the Summer Solstice; the world “solstice” meaning “sun stands still.” The sun then begins to inch southward until it reaches a spot as far south as it will ever reach – a spot signifying the Winter Solstice. As with the cycle of the moon, this solar cycle continually repeats itself and was used by the ancients to greatly expand their system for measuring time as now the cycle of the moon could be contrasted with the cycle of the sun allowing for far greater specificity in measuring time.
It may well be that the practice of contrasting the cycle of the moon with that of the sun greatly influenced the concept of yin/yang. If you think about it, yin/yang is a system of measuring by contrasting opposites. In Chinese medicine, we measure our patient’s qi dynamics by contrasting hot to cold, excess to deficient, internal to external, etc. This basic system of contrasting opposites was taken to more complex levels with such systems as the Six Divisions, the Eight Principals, or the 10 Stems and 12 Branches. When considered at their basic core, all these numeric based systems rely on measuring things within the context of contrasting opposites.
The Other Lights in the Sky
As important as the discovery of the cycles of the moon and sun was to our ancestors, their next discovery was perhaps the most impressive: the discovery that the countless stars also followed a repeating pattern. The stars came to be known as “fixed stars” once it was realized they held their positions as they circled overhead in their own yearly cycle. The idea of constellations (groups of stars) was developed to help follow this pattern. With this shocking discovery, repeating cycles for all the lights in the sky had been discovered – or so the ancients thought.
For reasons unknown to our ancestors, five stubborn stars appeared to have a mind of their own, meandering around the night’s sky, following no discernable pattern whatsoever. These five were the five planets – the word “planet” meaning “wanderer” or “to wander.” The term “wu hsing” comes from the words “wu” or “five” and “hsing” a verb meaning “to go.” Whether these stars were called “five to go” or “five wanderers”, they must have seemed very special indeed when compared to the thousands of other fixed stars. These five represented the last of the heavenly spheres whose cyclic movements had yet to be deciphered.
Eventually, of course, our ancestors figured out the orbits of these five also. Like the last pieces of humankind’s most complex puzzle, the orbits of the five wanderers were found to also follow repeating, predictable patterns. Now there were seven cycles that could be contrasted against each other and the number seven, as well as the number five, would be seen as mystic in many cultures.
The “system of numbers” dominated by the number five that Ilza Veith commented on was a reflection of the era when humankind’s first great civilizations sprang forth and leaders sought to organize society to mirror the order their pioneering research found in the heavens. My own years of research has convinced me that Chinese medicine theories were inspired first and foremost by ancient astronomy which also formed the foundation of Taoist beliefs. I hope to write more on this subject in future articles.
Matthew D. Bauer began studying Taoist history, philosophy, and spirituality in 1978 with a 74th generation Taoist Master. He has practice Chinese medicine since 1986 and recently published "The Healing Power of Acupressure and Acupuncture: A Complete Guide to Timeless Traditions and Modern Practice" (Avery; 2005) a book that explores the roots of Chinese medicine. For further information see; www.MatthewDBauer.com
Campbell, J. (1959). The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York: Viking Press.
Veith, L. (1972). The Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine California: University of California Press.