An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Wuxing zhi 五行志

Jan 1, 2014 © Ulrich Theobald

Wuxing zhi 五行志 "Treatise on the Five Agents" is a specialized type of chapter found in the official dynastic histories. It was first used in Ban Gu's 班固 (32-92 CE) Hanshu 漢書 and is to be found in all dynastic histories except the Weishu 魏書, Xin Wudaishi 新五代史 and Liaoshi 遼史.

The Wuxing zhi in the history Jinshu 晉書 explains that Ban Gu used the "Great Commentary" Dazhuan 大傳 (i.e. Shangshu dazhuan 尚書大傳) and enriched its statements with writings of the philosopher Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒 (179-104 BCE) and the librarians and scholars Liu Xiang 劉向 (79-8 or 77-6 BCE) and Liu Xin 劉歆 (d. 23 CE).

The Wuxing zhi in the Hanshu includes reports about the teachings of the masters Mu Meng 眭孟, Xiahou Sheng 夏侯勝, Jing Fang 京房 (77-37 BCE), Gu Yong 谷永 and Li Xun 李尋 and their disciples. The teachings of these scholars, many of which were also known as Confucian erudites, were concerned with the divination of luck and mischief of government in order to prognosticate the outcome of political rule as described in the Confucian Classic Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals".

The treatises focus on three aspects, namely the correct "Way" of rule, seen from the side of the ruler, how loyal ministers served him, how "ten thousand beings" followed their correct nature, the airs were harmonious, portents of happiness (xiuzheng 休徵) appeared, and the empire at peace; secondly, a ruler's loosing the correct Way, when "small men" were appointed to high offices, the masses behaved not in the proper way, weird airs came down, portents of disaster (jiuzheng 咎徵) appeared, and the dynasty declined; finally, the right reaction in face of natural disasters by cutting expenditure and abstaining from luxury, by the ruler's personal commitment to the establishing of a rule of virtue, a kind of "crisis management" by the emperor and his capable ministers, and the amending of faults in order to attract Heavenly auspiciousness again.

The Wuxing zhi treatises explain the rise and downfall of each dynasty with the help of metaphysical arguments.

Quotation 1. Example from the Wuxing zhi 五行志 treatise (27A) of the Hanshu 漢書
左氏傳曰昭公八年「春,石言於晉」。晉平公問於師曠,對曰;「石不能言, 神或馮焉。作事不時,怨讟動於民,則有非言之物而言。今宮室崇侈,民力 彫盡,怨讟並興,莫信其性,石之言不宜乎!」於是晉侯方築虒祁之宮。[…] 劉歆以為金石同類,是為金不從革,失其性也。劉向以為石白色為主,屬白祥。 The Zuozhuan 左傳 says, in the eighth year, in the spring, a stone spoke in the regional state of Jin 晉. Duke Ping of Jin 晉平公 (r. 558-532) asked music master Kuang 師曠, who answered: "Stones cannot speak. They may be possessed by a spirit. When a person is not timely attending to his affairs, grudges and enmities stir among the people, and mute things speak. At present your palace is lofty and extravagant, but the strength of the people is exhausted. Grudges and enmity arise together, and no one can protect his livelihood. Is it not appropriate that a stone should speak?" [The Duke of Jin] was building the Siqi Palace 虒祁宮 at this time [...]
Liu Xin 劉歆 was of the opinion that metal and stone represent the same agent, yet if metal cannot be molten and cast into another shape (commentary by Zhang Yan 張晏), it is losing its nature. Liu Xiang 劉向 held that stones were represented by the colour white, and classified [such a phenomenon] as a "white omen" (baixiang 白祥).
成帝鴻嘉三年五月乙亥,天水冀南山大石鳴,聲隆隆如雷,有頃止,聞平襄二 百四十里,野雞皆鳴。石長丈三尺,廣厚略等,旁著岸脅,去 地二百餘丈,民俗名曰石鼓。石鼓鳴,有兵。是歲,廣漢鉗子謀攻牢,篡死 罪囚鄭躬等,盜庫兵,劫略吏民,衣繡衣,自號曰山君,黨與寖廣。明年冬, 乃伏誅,自歸者三千餘人。後四年,尉氏樊並等謀反,殺陳留太守嚴普,自稱將軍, 山陽亡徒蘇令等黨與數百人盜取庫兵,經歷郡國四十餘,皆踰年乃伏誅。是時起昌 陵,作者數萬人,徙郡國吏民五千餘戶以奉陵邑。作治五年不成,乃罷昌陵,還徙 家。 In the 3rd year of the Hongjia reign-period 鴻嘉 (20-17 BCE) of Emperor Cheng 漢成帝 (r. 33-7 BCE), on the day yihai, in the commandery of Tianshui 天水, district of Jixian 冀縣, in the southern mountains, a stone was crying, long-long, like thunder. After a while, it stopped. The crying was still heard in Pingxiang 平襄, 240-li 里 away (see weights and measures), and all the pheasants in the region were crying. The stone was shaped like a cube, with a length of 3 chi 尺, but on the side, a more 200-zhang 丈 deep cliff was rising. The people used to called this place Stone Drum. [According to common saying,] when the Stone Drum cries, there will be war. In the same year, the "pincers" (qianzi 鉗子) from Guanghan 廣漢 planned to attack the local jail in order to free Zheng Gong 鄭躬 and other who were lying under a sentence to death. They plundered the arsenal and robbed the local officials and people. Their leader wore embroidered robes, called himself "Mountain Lord", and began to gather an army. A year later in winter, when he was executed, more than 3,000 people looked on. Four years later, Fan Bing 樊並 from Weishi 尉氏 and others rose in rebellion. He killed Yan Pu 嚴普, the governor of Chenliu 陳留, and adopted the title of general. Su Ling 蘇令 and other roaming bandits from Shanyang 山陽 build a crowd of several hundred people. They plundered the arsenals, ranged through more than forty commanderies and princedoms, and a year later were all executed. At that time, [the Emperor] began with [the construction of the tomb hill] Changling 昌陵, with several ten thousand workers. For this reason, he commandeered officials and state workers from more than 5,000 households from various commanderies and princedoms to settle the village there. But after five years, the project was not completed yet, and therefore abandoned.
石鳴,與晉石言同應,師曠所謂「民力彫盡」,傳云「輕百姓」者也。 虒祁離宮去絳都四十里,昌陵亦在郊野,皆與城郭同占。城郭屬金,宮室屬土,外 內之別云。 The crying stone was the same as with the stone of Jin, and what music master Kuang said about the "strength of the people being exhausted", is what the Zuozhuan calls "he despised the people" (qing baixing 輕百姓). The Siqi Palace was 40 li away from the Jin capital Jiang 絳, and Changling was located in the wilderness. In both cases, the inner and outer city walls were concerned, representing the agent metal, while the palace itself represented the agent earth, which is a distinction between the inner and the outer sphere.
Translation of Zuozhuan passage according to Durrant, Li, Schaberg 2016: 1155

From the Houhanshu 後漢書 on (ch. 103-105), the chapters on the Five Agents were arranged according to categories, first not yet very systematically (disrespectfulness, abundant rain, strange occurrences caused by or concerning clothes, ill omens in chicken, strange phenomena emerging from plants which can predict disasters, collapsing roofs, sayings and songs on the street predicting events, draughts, were-wolves, etc., and ending with solar and lunar eclipses), but then in a more scientific way. The Qingshigao 清史稿 calls the chapter (40-44) Zaiyi zhi 災異志 "Natural disasters and extraordinary phenomena".

Table 1. Categories of imbalances of the Five Agents as found in historiographical writings
Houhanshu 後漢書 103-108 Suishu 隋書 22-23 Xintangshu 新唐書 34-36 Mingshi 明史 2-30
木不曲直 wood is not crooked or straight
貌不恭 貌不恭 cases of immodesty
狂人 lunatics
淫雨 常雨水 常雨 恆雨 long-lasting rain
大雨雪 heavy rain and snow
木冰 木冰 wood is freezing
大雨雹 heavy rain with hail
服妖 服妖 服妖 服妖 strange occurrences with clothes and adornments
雞禍 雞禍 雞禍 雞禍 freaks (birth defects) of chicken
龜孽 龜孽 strange occurrences with tortoises
下體生上之痾 diseases of the upper body found in the lower part
青眚 青眚青祥 青眚青祥 青眚青祥 fortune and misfortune related to green matters
屋自壞 roofs collapse by themselves
鼠妖 鼠孽 strange occurrences with rats
木妖 strange occurrences with wood
金沴木 金沴木 metal disturbs wood
言不從 金不從革 metal does not yield and change
常暘 恆暘 long-lasting drought
詩妖 詩妖 詩妖 strange occurrences with poems
訛言 訛言 strange occurrences with sayings
狼食人 毛蟲之孽 毛蟲之孽 毛蟲之孽 strange occurrences with hairy creatures
犬禍 犬禍 犬禍 freaks of dogs
(口舌之痾) (diseases of the mouth and tongue)
白眚白祥 白眚白祥 白眚白祥 fortune and misfortune related to white matters
金異, 金石之妖 strange occurrences with metal and stones
木沴金 木沴金 wood disturbs metal
火不炎上 fire does not blaze and ascend
災火 常燠 常燠 恆燠 long-lasting heat
草妖 草妖 草妖 草異 strange occurrences in plants
羽蟲孽 羽蟲之孽 羽蟲之孽 羽蟲之孽 strange occurrences with winged creatures
羊禍 羊禍 羊禍 羊禍 freaks of sheep
(目疾) (diseases of the eye)
赤眚赤祥 赤眚赤祥 赤眚赤祥 fortune and misfortune related to red matters
火災 fire disasters
火異 strange occurrences with fire
水沴火 water disturbs fire
水不潤下 water does not soak and descend
水變色 水變 water changes colour
大寒 常寒 恆寒 long-lasting cold
雲陰 常陰 恆陰 long-lasting cloud covers
鼓妖 鼓妖 鼓妖 strange occurrences with drums (thunder)
魚孽 魚孽 魚孽 魚孽 strange occurrences with fish
蟲妖 蝗蝻 locusts
彘禍 豕禍 豕禍 freaks of pigs
冬雷 雷電 雷震 flash and thunder
雪霜 snow and frost
冰雹 hail
無雲而雨 rain without clouds
黑眚黑祥 黑眚黑祥 黑眚黑祥 fortune and misfortune related to black matters
大水 水潦 inundations
投蜺 虹蜺 rainbows
射妖 射妖 strange occurrences with archery
龍蛇孽 龍蛇之孽 龍蛇孽 龍蛇之孽 strange occurrences with dragons and snakes
馬禍 馬禍 馬禍 馬異 freaks of horses
人痾 人痾 人痾 human diseases
人化 human transformations
死復生 revenants
疾疫 plagues
天鳴 cries from the sky
隕石 隕石 meteors
火沴水 火沴水 fire disturbs water
稼穡不成 sowing and gathering cannot be completed
大風拔樹 常風 常風 恆風 long-lasting wind
風霾晦冥 wind and fog, dusty storms darkening daylight
夜妖 夜妖 omens expressed by darkness
華孽 華孽 花妖 strange flowers and blossoms
牛疫 cattle fever
牛禍 牛禍 牛禍 freaks of cattle
心腹之痾 diseases of heart and intestines
黃眚黃祥 黃眚黃祥 黃眚黃祥 fortune and misfortune related to yellow matters
裸蟲之孽 臝蟲之孽 蟲孽 strange insects and vermin
木金水火沴土 木金水火沴土 wood, fire, metal, or water disturbs earth
地震 地震 earthquakes
山崩 山摧 山頹 landslides
地陷 the soil collapses
雨毛, 地生毛 hair is raining or grows out of the earth
年饑 year-long famine
山鳴 山鳴 mountains cry
土為變怪 earth turns strange
Quotation 2. Examples of extraordinary natural phenomena from the Zhaiyi zhi 災異志 treatise (ch. 40-44) in the Qingshigao 清史稿
道光十一年冬,元氏、南樂大雪,井凍,冰深四五尺。十一年十二月朔,撫寧大雪,平地深三尺,飛鳥多凍死。 Daoguang 11, Winter. Heavy snow in Yuanshi 元氏 and Nanle 南樂. The wells froze up to a thickness of the ice of 4-5 chi. DG 12/12, heavy snow in Funing 撫寧, with a cover of 3 chi. Many birds died by the frost.
康熙元年三月初八日,臨榆昏霧竟日。十六年,清河陰霧四十餘日。二十年三月,桐鄉恆陰.二十二年三月,蕭縣重霧傷麥。 Kangxi 1/3/8, thick fog in Linyu 臨榆, lasting the whole day. KX 16, more than 40 days of fog in Qinghe 清河. KX 20/3, long-lasting fog in Tongxiang 桐鄉. KX 22/3, thick fog hurting the grain in Xiaoxian 蕭縣.
雍正元年正月,鶴慶大雨雹。三月,融縣雨雹。二年五月,福山雨雹,大如雞卵。 Yongzheng 1/1, heavy hail in Heqing 鶴慶. YZ 1/3, hail in Rongxian 融縣. YZ 2/5, hail in Fushan 福山 with hailstones large as eggs.
嘉慶六年,東湖修孔子廟,見白龍乘風飛去。九年,曲陽濟瀆河水暴發,見龍車數乘涉水而沒,水退。 Jiaqing 6, when the Confucius Temple in Donghu 東湖 was constructed, white dragons were seen riding on the wind. JQ 9, the water of River Jidu 濟瀆 in Quyang 曲陽 was boiling, and several dragon chariots were seen riding over the waves. When they immersed, the water retreated.
道光元年九月,日照縣民趙希常妻張氏一產三男。 DG 1/9, the wife of Zhao Xichang 趙希常 from the district of Rizhao 日照, Ms Zhang 張氏, gave birth to three sons at once.
乾隆六年八月,宜昌埓山有聲如牛鳴,聲聞數十里,數十晝夜不息,自止。 Qianlong 6/8, there was a sound in Mt. Lie 埓山 near Yichang 宜昌 like the mooing of cows, hearable in a distance of dozens of li. It did not stop for many weeks day and night, but in the end finished by itself.
康熙十五年九月,渭水赤。三十二年,襄陵水赤,半月始復。 KX 15/9, red water in River Wei 渭水. KX 32, red water in Xiangling 襄陵 which only stopped after half a month.
Gao Liushui 高流水 (1996). "Wuxing zhi 五行志", in Feng Kezheng 馮克正, Fu Qingsheng 傅慶升 (ed.), Zhuzi baijia da cidian 諸子百家大辭典 (Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chubanshe), 432.