Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

A Tu (圖) is Worth…

I was thinking about Zhou Dunyi’s Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate (taijitu 太極圖).

Well, about the general idea of such diagrams (tu) really. I’ve been a relative ignoramus about this, but some reading that I’ve been doing recently about whether or not Chinese characters are ideographs got me thinking about diagrams (there are very vehement denials of that thesis by linguists recently, from DeFrancis onward; I think Chad Hansen defends a version of the thesis, though he must have figured out a way to do it without relying on any “language of thought” assumptions). Apparently there was a movement, or “school” of diagrams and numerology. Robin Wang writes in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“From the Han dynasty through the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912 CE), there was a consistent tension between two schools of thought: the school of xiangshu (images and numbers) and the school of yili (meanings and reasoning). At issue between them is how best to interpret the classics, particularly the Yijing. The question often was posed as: ‘Am I interpreting the six classics or are the six classics interpreting me?’

For the school of Xiangshu the way to interpret the classics is to produce a figurative and numerological representation of the universe through xiang (images) and shu (numbers). It held that xiangshu are indispensable structures expressing the Way of heaven, earth and human being. Thus the school of Xiangshu takes the position that ‘I interpret the classics’ by means of the images and numbers. The emphasis is on the appreciation of classics. The school of Yili, on the other hand, focuses on an exploration of the meanings of the classics on the basis of one’s own reconstruction. In other word, the school of Yili treats all classics as supporting evidence for their own ideas and theories. The emphasis is more on idiosyncratic new theories rather than the explanation of the classics. In what follows, our inquiry focuses on the legacy of the Xiangshu school.”

Does anyone know whether what Wang means by the “am I interpreting the classics or are they interpreting me” question is explicit in texts? That would be interesting, I think, for its early hermeneutic sophistication–depending on how early the question is made explicit I suppose.

Anyway, as usual, I have puzzles about diagrams–by now some of you have figured out that “puzzling” is my first approach to anything. One is about how a diagram is helpful. I assume it can display certain relationships through spatial metaphor better than linear discourse could. But how, in general, is a spatial metaphor very helpful for relaying information about non-spatial relationships? Related to that puzzle, I wonder whether sometimes the metaphor itself becomes something that needs explanation and ends up being unhelpful. Take the taijitu, for example. The diagram is, presumably, supposed to be helpful in explaining cosmological relationships. Every time I look at it however (or more to the point, every time a student asks about it), I feel like the diagram is itself a mystery. There’s further irony in the existence of the difficult commentary literature that develops around what the diagram is meant to convey. So, is the diagram helpful in this case or has it only generated an “epi-problem” over and above the cosmological relationships it was meant to clarify?

I wonder if there is something that makes this a general problem or just an issue for particular diagrams, such as the taijitu.

February 24th, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Daoism, Taoism | 5 comments

5 Responses to A Tu (圖) is Worth…

  1. Boram Lee says:


    I’m more clueless on this than you are. On the taiji tu, though, you probably know about Yi T’oegye’s TEN DIAGRAMS ON SAGE LEARNING (Sheng xue shi tu), which Michael Kalton translated in his TO BECOME A SAGE. His translation is available in its entirety here:


    Perhaps some of the questions are answered in Kalton’s book (I haven’t read it myself, only snippets of it).

  2. Dan Robins says:

    I bet I’m even more clueless on this than Boram. But I do know Hansen’s view on “ideographs”: it’s not that the characters stand for ideas, it’s that they play a role analogous to ideas in early Chinese assumptions about language. (The argument is in “Chinese Ideographs and Western Ideas,” JAS 52.2.)

  3. Interesting questions, Manyul.

    The critics of Yili learning certainly accused them of treating the classics as commentaries on themselves, but I don’t think the defenders of Yili learning explicitly embraced the slogan “the classics comment on me” (經注我). Still, there are a number of neo-Confucians who made statements in the neighborhood of this slogan. Lu Xiangshan is known for the shocking assertion that the “Six Classics are my footnotes” (六經皆我註腳).

    In any case, I’d say it’s pretty clear that hermeneutics had already become quite sophisticated by the Ming dynasty. And there’s plenty of secondary literature on Song-Ming hermeneutics to show for it. XIAO Yang and Al Martinich are circulating a very nice paper on Zhu Xi and ideal interpretation, for example.

  4. Luis Andrade says:

    Every time I look at it however (or more to the point, every time a student asks about it), I feel like the diagram is itself a mystery. There’s further irony in the existence of the difficult commentary literature that develops around what the diagram is meant to convey. So, is the diagram helpful in this case or has it only generated an “epi-problem” over and above the cosmological relationships it was meant to clarify?

    Hi Manyul,

    “Walking on frost, hardened ice results,” is the way a friend translates 履霜堅冰至。, the text of of the first line of Hexagram 2, Kun. That should serve as a warning for the onset of OCD when it comes to picking up the Yijing and giving it a serious try at peeling its layers of meaning: It get’s harder as the study progresses… LOL!

    Now, bear with me as I talk from the point of view and experience of a layman–and a lexica to match–when it comes to philosophy, as a discipline. My question is: why do you think diagrams of the type of the Taijitu above, must be self-evident, pop in front of out eyes, full of meaning? They are not mean to explain anything but to transmit knowledge. Now, there is a subtle dichotomy in that sentence. The same way a book can transmit knowledge, one must know how to read to access whatever it communicates. What must be realized is that those interesting pictures were iniciatic in nature and meant to be transmitted within closed hermetic circles. As a matter of fact, most of them were thought out, and/or created, during the Han Dinasty. They were used as described above, were orally transmitted, and then some sages, like Zhou Dunyi of the Song Dinasty, brought them out to light in philosophical discourse. One may be tempted to believe that Song philosophers were totally novel in their ideas while in fact what they did was to openly discuss and write about things that remained secret for centuries. The novelty was the openness and democratization of knowledge, not the material. Don’t mistake me though as I’m not discrediting those philosophers, like Shao Yong or Zhou Dunyi, as nobody can deny their merit as beacons of their time, but making the
    point that their sources of inspiration precede them by centuries.

    If you like old diagrams related to the Yijing, visit my site where I scanned a series of them from the books of General George T. Cheng, a contemporary Yi scholar (d.2000) that wrote extensively about the Yijing:



  5. It might help to think of this diagram as a chart of relationships, like a flow chart, rather than a spatial map. This diagram and its predecessor, the Wujitu hermetica.info/Wujitu.jpg might be thought of as a psychological counterpart to the Periodic Table, charting relationships between its elements and showing progressive levels of abstraction. I think this diagram is particularly important historically. If you tease apart the second sphere down into its two components, you can see, iI think, the earliest version of the Tree of Life in the Western Qabalah, perhaps brought to Europe by the Arabs after the eleventh century. Both diagrams set up an extended analogy correlating dimensions of the world with parts of the mind.


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