Historical Figures: Shao Yong, Great Chinese Philosopher and Cosmologist
Shao Yong (A.D. 1011–1077) was a philosopher, poet, and cosmologist of the Northern Song Dynasty. In his youth, he was extraordinarily intelligent and became determined to understand the principles of the evolution of the universe.
Although Shao Yong’s name is not very well known to the general public in China due to the Cultural Revolution, he is one of the most prominent figures in Chinese Confucianism. Some of his sayings are still popular, such as “A year’s plan starts with spring. A day’s plan starts with morning. A life’s plan starts with diligence.”
Developing a New School of Thought
As one of the “Five Scholars of the Northern Song,” Shao Yong, along with Zhou Dunyi, Zhang Zai, Cheng Hao, and Cheng Yi, established Neo-Confucianism, which is the watershed in the development of Confucianism in China.
Among the five, Shao Yong is, perhaps, the most mysterious. His research and contribution to Neo-Confucianism is very unique and distinct from the others due to his Daoist roots and his practice and research of supernatural phenomena and abilities.
The most representative of Shao Yong’s works is the “Huangji Jingshi Shu” or “Book of Supreme World Order Principles.”
In the book, Shao illustrates life truths through the perspectives of Taiji, the Dao, yin and yang, Heaven and Earth, sense and sensibility, divine and human, etc., to explain the origin and development of the universe, including the human world.
These perspectives are the foundation of Neo-Confucianism. From the Song through to the late Qing dynasties, scholars perfected Neo-Confucianism based on the framework set up by Shao Yong and the four other founders.
A Life of Science and Mystery
In his middle age, Shao Yong detached himself from society and lived in seclusion to study, write, and teach.
Shao was well-versed in ancient scripts and classic literature, yet humble and kind to other scholars. Whenever he traveled, local officials and intellectual groups would compete for the honor of having him stay with them. The emperor summoned him several times to offer him a government position but he politely turned the imperial proposals down.
Based on the principles of the Eight Trigrams (a set of ancient Chinese symbolic signs) in the “Yi Jing,” or “Book of Changes,” and Daoist thought, Shao Yong created his own cosmological system and doctrine.
Shao Yong believed in the destiny of all things and that everything could be comprehended by understanding the division of different elements into numbers.
According to the Britannica Encyclopedia, “Shao Yong’s mathematical ideas also influenced the 18th-century European philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the development of a binary arithmetical system—i.e., one based on only two digits.”
Shao Yong was also regarded by some scholars as the best at precognition and retro-cognition and it was said that his divinations were very accurate. One story tells of his mysterious yet magical intuitions.
One spring morning, Shao Yong set up a fortune-telling booth near the foot of a bridge. Presently, a farmer stopped and asked for his fortune. Shao Yong asked him to pick from slips of paper with Chinese characters on them. The farmer chose one and handed it to Shao Yong. It was the character “?” (chopstick). Shao Yong said to the farmer, “Congratulations, you will enjoy a delicious meal for lunch today. Go home and wait.”
The farmer returned home and found his nephew waiting for him. “Today is my father’s 60th birthday,” said the nephew. “He would like to invite you to his birthday party and to have a drink.” The surprised farmer changed into clean clothes and happily went to the party.
That afternoon, there came another man asking about his fortune. He also picked out the character “?.” Shao told this man, “It looks bad. Something will happen to you today and you will be jailed.” The man immediately thought that it would be unlikely he could be jailed if he stayed inside, so he returned home and went straight to bed.
Suddenly, the man was awakened by a woman shouting that his pigs were ravaging her vegetable garden. In a moment of anger, he punched her and the woman, who had been sick, fell down and unexpectedly died. In no time at all, the man was arrested and sent to jail.
Later that afternoon, as Shao Yong was about to pack up his booth and go home, a man came riding from the south and bid him stay. “Sir, I have heard of your talent at divination and ask that you tell my fortune for me.” The slip this man chose was also the character “?.” Shao told him that it was not a good sign and that he would be drenched later in the day.
However, since it was a sunny and cloudless day, the man disregarded Shao’s warning and rode uncaring back to his nearby home. As soon as he approached the gate, he was showered with water. His wife, who did not realize he was entering the home, had drenched him while throwing out dirty water.
Predicting the Future of China
Shao Yong was also a poet. One of Shao Yong’s masterpieces was the 10 poems of the “Plum Blossom Ode,” believed by many to have accurately predicted major events in Chinese history.
Some scholars have matched Shao’s poems with dynastic changes after his death. It is said that the 10th section of the “Plum Blossom Ode” foretold what would happen in China today. It is believed that it refers to the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, the wide spread of Falun Dafa, and the destined fall of the CCP, among other predictions.
Although neither official nor monk, through his literary works and cosmological practice, Shao Yong had a profound impact on social and spiritual thought in ancient China.