Living in the Chinese Cosmos | Asia for Educators

The Chinese Cosmos: Basic Concepts*

To understand Chinese theology (literally “discourse about gods”), we need to explore theories about human existence, and before that we need to review some of the basic concepts of Chinese cosmology.

What is the Chinese conception of the cosmos? Any simple answer to that question, of course, merely confirms the biases assumed but not articulated by the question — that there is only one such authentically Chinese view, and that the cosmos as such, present unproblematically to all people, was a coherent topic of discussion in traditional China. Nevertheless, the answer to that question offered by one scholar of China, Joseph Needham, provides a helpful starting point for the analysis.

In Needham’s opinion, the dominant strand of ancient Chinese thought is remarkable for the way it contrasts with European ideas. While the latter approach the world religiously as created by a transcendent deity or as a battleground between spirit and matter, or scientifically as a mechanism consisting of objects and their attributes, ancient Chinese thinkers viewed the world as a complete and complex “organism.”

 “Things behaved in particular ways,” writes Needham, “not necessarily because of prior actions or impulsions of other things, but because their position in the ever-moving cyclical universe was such that they were endowed with intrinsic natures which made that behaviour inevitable for them.”(1) Rather than being created out of nothing, the world evolved into its current condition of complexity out of a prior state of simplicity and undifferentiation. The cosmos continues to change, but there is a consistent pattern to that change discernible to human beings. Observation of the seasons and celestial realms, and methods like plastromancy and scapulimancy (divination using tortoise shells and shoulder blades), dream divination, and manipulating the hexagrams of the Classic of Changes allow people to understand the pattern of the universe as a whole by focusing on the changes taking place in one of its meaningful parts.


The basic stuff out of which all things are made is called qi. Everything that ever existed, at all times, is made of qi, including inanimate matter, humans and animals, the sky, ideas and emotions, demons and ghosts, the undifferentiated state of wholeness, and the world when it is teeming with different beings.

As an axiomatic concept with a wide range of meaning, the word qi has over the years been translated in numerous ways. Different translators render it into English in three different ways:

1) “psychophysical stuff,” because it involves phenomena one would consider both psychological — connected to human thoughts and feelings — and physical;
2) “pneuma,” drawing on one early etymology of the word as vapor, steam, or breath; and
3) “vital energy,” accentuating the potential for life inherent to the more ethereal forms of qi.

These meanings of qi hold for most schools of thought in early Chinese religion; it is only with the renaissance of Confucian traditions undertaken by Zhu Xi (1130-1200; Song dynasty scholar) and others that qi is interpreted not as a single thing, part-matter and part-energy, pervading everything, but as one of two basic metaphysical building blocks. According to Zhu Xi, all things partake of both qi and li (homophonous to but different from the li meaning “ritual” or “propriety”), the latter understood as the reason a thing is what it is and its underlying “principle” or “reason.”(2)


While traditional cosmology remained monistic, in the sense that qi as the most basic constituent of the universe was a single thing rather than a duality or plurality of things, still qi was thought to move or to operate according to a pattern that did conform to two basic modes. The Chinese words for those two modalities are yin and yang.

Yin and yang are best understood in terms of symbolism. When the sun shines on a mountain at some time other than midday, the mountain has one shady side and one sunny side. Yin is the emblem for the shady side and its characteristics; yang is the emblem for the sunny side and its qualities. Since the sun has not yet warmed the yin side, it is dark, cool, and moist; plants are contracted and dormant; and water in the form of dew moves downward. The yang side of the mountain is the opposite of the yin side. It is bright, warm, and dry; plants open up and extend their stalks to catch the sun; and water in the form of fog moves upward as it evaporates.

This basic symbolism was extended to include a host of other oppositions. Yin is female, yang is male. Yin occupies the lower position, yang the higher. Any situation in the human or natural world can be analyzed within this framework; yin and yang can be used to understand the modulations of qi on a mountainside as well as the relationships within the family. The social hierarchies of gender and age, for instance — the duty of the wife to honor her husband, and of younger generations to obey older ones — were interpreted as the natural subordination of yin to yang. The same reasoning can be applied to any two members of a pair. Yin-yang symbolism simultaneously places them on an equal footing and ranks them hierarchically. On the one hand, all processes are marked by change, making it inevitable that yin and yang alternate and imperative that humans seek a harmonious balance between the two. On the other hand, the system as a whole attaches greater value to the ascendant member of the pair, the yang.

Such are the philosophical possibilities of the conceptual scheme. Some interpreters of yin and yang choose to emphasize the nondualistic, harmonious nature of the relationship, while others emphasize the imbalance, hierarchy, and conflict built into the idea.

Yinyang and Qi in Human Beings. How is human life analyzed in terms of the yin and yang modes of “material energy” (yet another rendering of qi)? Health for the individual consists in the harmonious balancing of yin and yang. When the two modes depart from their natural course, sickness and death result. Sleep, which is dark and therefore yin, needs to be balanced by wakefulness, which is yang. Salty tastes (yin) should be matched by bitter ones (yang); inactivity should alternate with movement; and so on.

Normally the material energy that constitutes a person, though constantly shifting, is unitary enough to sustain a healthy life. When the material energy is blocked, follows improper patterns, or is invaded by pathogens, then the imbalance between yin and yang threatens to pull the person apart, the coarser forms of material energy (which are yin) remaining attached to the body or near the corpse, the more ethereal forms of material energy (which are yang) tending to float up and away.

Dream-states and minor sicknesses are simply gentler forms of the personal dissociation — the radical conflict between yin and yang — that comes with spirit-possession, serious illness, and death. At death the material force composing the person dissipates, and even that dissipation follows a pattern analyzable in terms of yin and yang. The yin parts of the person — collectively called “earthly souls” (po) — move downward, constituting the corpse, perhaps also returning as a ghost to haunt the living. Since they are more like energy than matter, the yang parts of the person — collectively called “heavenly souls” (hun) — float upward. They — notice that there is more than one of each kind of “soul,” making a unique soul or even a dualism of the spirit impossible in principle — are thought to be reborn in Heaven or as another being, to be resident in the ancestral tablets, to be associated more amorphously with the ancestors stretching back seven generations, or to be in all three places at once.


The complicated term “god,” in the sense either of a being believed to be perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness or a superhuman figure worthy of worship, does not correspond straightforwardly to a single Chinese term with a similar range of meanings. Instead, there are general areas of overlap, as well as concepts that have no correspondence, between the things we (in the West) would consider “gods” and specific Chinese terms. Rather than pursuing this question from the side of modern English usage, we begin with the important Chinese terms and explain their range of meanings. [See the topic The Emperor in the Cosmic Order for a related discussion on the concept of “Heaven.”]


One of the terms crucial to understanding Chinese religion is shen, which in this unit is translated with different versions of the English word “spirit.” Below, these three words are analyzed separately as consisting of three distinct spheres of meaning, but one should keep in mind that the three senses are all rooted in a single Chinese word. They differ only in degree or realm of application, not in kind.

The first meaning of shen is confined to the domain of the individual human being: it may be translated as “spirit” in the sense of “human spirit” or “psyche.” It is the basic power or agency within humans that accounts for life. To extend life to full potential the spirit must be cultivated, resulting in ever clearer, more luminous states of being. In physiological terms “spirit” is a general term for the “heavenly souls,” in contrast to the yin elements of the person.

The second meaning of shen may be rendered in English as “spirits” or “gods,” the latter written in lowercase because Chinese spirits and gods need not be seen as all-powerful, transcendent, or creators of the world. They are intimately involved in the affairs of the world, generally lacking a perch or time frame completely beyond the human realm. An early Chinese dictionary explains: “Shen are the spirits of Heaven. They draw out the ten thousand things.”(3) As the spirits associated with objects like stars, mountains, and streams, they exercise a direct influence on things in this world, making phenomena appear and causing things to extend themselves. In this sense of “spirits,” shen are yang and opposed to the yin class of things known in Chinese as gui, “ghosts” or “demons.” The two words put together, as in the combined form guishen (“ghosts and spirits”), cover all manner of spiritual beings in the largest sense, those benevolent and malevolent, lucky and unlucky. In this view, spirits are manifestations of the yang material force, and ghosts are manifestations of the yin material force.

The nineteenth-century Dutch scholar Jan J. M. de Groot emphasized this aspect of the Chinese worldview, claiming that “animism” was an apt characterization of Chinese religion because all parts of the universe — rocks, trees, planets, animals, humans — could be animated by spirits, good or bad. As support for that thesis he quotes a disciple of Zhu Xi (1130-1200; Song dynasty scholar): “Between Heaven and Earth there is no thing that does not consist of yin and yang, and there is no place where yin and yang are not found. Therefore there is no place where gods and spirits do not exist.”(4)

Shen in its third meaning can be translated as “spiritual.” An entity is “spiritual” in the sense of inspiring awe or wonder because it combines categories usually kept separate, or it cannot be comprehended through normal concepts. The Classic of Changes states, “‘Spiritual’ means not measured by yin and yang.”(5) Things that are numinous cross categories. They cannot be fathomed as either yin or yang, and they possess the power to disrupt the entire system of yin and yang. A related synonym, one that emphasizes the power of such spiritual things, is ling, meaning “numinous” or possessing unusual spiritual characteristics. Examples that are considered shen in the sense of “spiritual” include albino members of a species; beings that are part-animal, part-human; women who die before marriage and turn into ghosts receiving no care; people who die in unusual ways like suicide or on battlefields far from home; and people whose bodies fail to decompose or emit strange signs after death.

The fact that these three fields of meaning (“spirit,” “spirits,” and “spiritual”) can be traced to a single word has important implications for analyzing Chinese religion. Perhaps most importantly, it indicates that there is no unbridgeable gap separating humans from gods or, for that matter, separating good spirits from demons. All are composed of the same basic stuff, qi, and there is no ontological distinction between them. Humans are born with the capacity to transform their spirit into one of the gods of the Chinese pantheon.


Notes and References

(1) Joseph Needham, with the research assistance of Wang Ling, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 2: History of Scientific Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), p. 281.
(2) Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Anne Walthall, and James B. Palais offer the following formulation of the relationship between qi and li in their East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 168: “The neo-Confucian explanation of the workings of principle (li) and vital energy (qi) can be seen as a response to the sophisticated metaphysics of Buddhism. The principle for something could be moral or physical; for example, the principle for wives is essentially moral in nature, that for trees, physical. For either to exist, however, there must also be the energy and substance that constitute things. The theory of principle and vital energy allowed Song thinkers to validate Mencius’s claim of the goodness of human nature and still explain human wrongdoing: principle underlying human beings is good, but their endowment of vital energy is more or less impure, giving rise to selfish impulses.”
(3) Shuowen jiezi, Xu Shen (d. 120), in Shuowen jiezi gulin zhengbu hebian, ed. Duan Yucai (1735-1815) and Ding Fubao, 12 vols. (Taibei: Dingwen shuju, 1977), 2:86a.
(4) Jan J. M. de Groot, The Religious System of China: Its Ancient Forms, Evolution, History and Present Aspect, Manners, Customs and Social Institutions Connected Therewith, 6 vols. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1892-1910), 4:51. (Translation here differs slightly from original.)
(5) Zhouyi yinde, Harvard-Yenching Institute Sinological Index Series, Supplement no. 10 (reprint ed., Taibei: Ch’eng-wen Publishing Co., 1966), p. 41a.