An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Hongfan 洪範

Mar 22, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

Hongfan 洪範 "The Great Plan" is a chapter of the Confucian Classic Shangshu 尚書. It describes the world view of the Zhou period 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) in metaphysical terms. Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145 or 135 – 86 BCE), author of the history Shiji 史記, purports (ch. 4 Zhou benji 周本紀) that once King Wu 周武王 of the Zhou dynasty interviewed Prince Jizi 箕子, the last surviving member of the Shang dynasty 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), about the "Way of Heaven" (tiandao 天道). The answers of the Prince are to be found in the Hongfan.

Opinions differ as to the time when the text was compiled. According to traditional belief it originated in the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE), but even then it must be assumed that at least some paragraphs were added in later times.

The Hongfan is the oldest surviving text that described the theory of the Five Agents (wuxing 五行). It explains that Gun 鯀, father of Yu the Great 大禹, tried to block the floods of the rivers by using earth but failed because he was ignorant of the particular nature of the two elements water and earth and the relations between them. His son Yu was more intelligent and relied on the construction of canals in order to redirect the force of floods. Yu's method was a correct application of the element to guide the waters along dykes and embankments, and not by dams that obstructed the elementary power of the water.

The nature of the Five Agents is explained as follows: "(The nature of) water is to soak and descend; of fire, to blaze and ascend; of wood, to be crooked and straight; of metal, to yield and change; while (that of) earth is seen in seed-sowing and in-gathering. That which soaks and descends becomes salt; that which blazes and ascends becomes bitter; that which is crooked and straight becomes sour; that which yields and changes becomes acrid; and from seed-sowing and in-gathering comes sweetness." (transl. Legge 1865) Marxist scholars explain that this image of nature revealed inherent dialectics, and a materialist approach.

The Great Plan to assume control over the earth consisted of "nine divisions" (jiuchou 九疇).

Table 1. The Nine Divisions (jiuchou 九疇) of the Hongfan
Knowledge of the Nature of the Five Agents (wuxing 五行)
shui water; to soak and descend; salty
huo fire; to blaze and ascend; bitter
mu wood; to be crooked and straight; sour
jin metal; to yield and change; acrid
tu earth; seed-sowing and in-gathering; sweet
The Five Personal Matters (wushi 五事)
mao bodily demeanour or respectfulness and gravity
yan speech or accordance with reason and orderliness
shi seeing or clearness and wisdom
ting hearing or distinctness and deliberation
si thinking or perspicaciousness and sageness
The Eight Objects of Government (bazheng 八政)
shi food
huo wealth and articles of convenience
si sacrifices
司空 sikong the business of the Minister of Works
司徒 situ the business of the Minister of Education
司寇 sikou the business of the Minister of Justice
bin observances to be paid to guests
shi the army
The Five Dividers of Time (wuji 五紀)
sui the year and the planet Jupiter
yue the month and the moon
ri the day and the sun
星辰 xingchen the stars and zodiacal spaces
曆數 lishu calendar calculations
Royal Perfection (huangji 皇極)
The Three Virtues (sande 三德)
正直 zhengzhi correctness and straightforwardness
剛克 gangke strong rule
柔克 rouke mild rule
The Examination of Doubts by Prognostication (jiyi 稽疑)
yu rain
qi clearing up
meng cloudiness
yi want of connexion
ke crossing
zhen inner diagrams
hui outer diagrams
The Various Verifications in Divination (shuzheng 庶徵)
yu rain
yang sunshine
ao ‘heat’
han cold
feng wind
shi seasonableness
The Five Sources of Happiness (wufu 五福)
shou long life
fu riches
康寧 kangning soundness of body and serenity of mind
攸好德 you haode the love of virtue
考終命 kao zhongming fulfilling to the end the will of Heaven
The Awing Use of the Six Occasions of Suffering (liuji 六極)
凶短折 xiong duan zhe misfortune shortening the life
ji sickness
you distress of ming
pin poverty
e wickedness
ruo weakness

The correct observation of these nine divisions would result in excellent rule ("royal perfection") and a prospering empire. The methods to be applied include styles of government, aims to be laid stress on, as well as divination methods to find out the best points of time to exert these ideal forms of rule. The ideal form of government is described as follows: "The sovereign, having established (in himself) the highest degree and pattern of excellence, concentrates in his own person the five (sources of) happiness, and proceeds to diffuse them, and give them to the multitudes of the people. Then they, on their part, embodying your perfection, will give it (back) to you, and secure the preservation of it. Among all the multitudes of the people there will be no unlawful confederacies, and among men (in office) there will be no bad and selfish combinations; let the sovereign establish in (himself) the highest degree and pattern of excellence. Among all the multitudes of the people there will be those who have ability to plan and to act, and who keep themselves (from evil) - do you keep such in mind; and there will be those who, not coming up to the highest point of excellence, yet do not involve themselves in evil - let the sovereign receive such. And when a placid satisfaction appears in their countenances, and they say, "Our love is fixed on virtue," do you then confer favours on them; those men will in this way advance to the perfection of the sovereign. Do not let him oppress the friendless and childless, nor let him fear the high and distinguished. When men (in office) have ability and administrative power, let them be made still more to cultivate their conduct; and the prosperity of the country will be promoted. All (such) right men, having a competency, will go on in goodness. If you cannot cause them to have what they love in their families, they will forthwith proceed to be guilty of crime. As to those who have not the love of virtue, although you confer favours (and emoluments) on them, they will (only) involve you in the guilt of employing the evil." (Legge 1865)

The Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) commentator Kong Anguo 孔安國 (late 2nd cent. BCE) was of the opinion that the set of nine rules was designated according to the so-called Luoshu 洛書 diagram to be seen on the back of a turtle emerging from the River Luo. The oldest separate commentary on the Hongfan chapters is Hu Yuan's 胡瑗 (993-1059) Hongfan kouyi 洪範口義. Zhao Shanxiang 趙善湘 (d. 1242) wrote a commentary called Hongfan tongyi 洪範統一, Huang Daozhou 黃道周 (1585-1646) the Hongfan mingyi 洪範明義, and Hu Wei 胡渭 (1633-1714) the commentary Hongfan zhenglun 洪範正論.

Sources: ● Translations according to James Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. 3, The Shoo King, or the Book of Historical Documents (London: Frowde, 1865).