This article first appeared in the Winter, 2005 issue of the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Alliance's newsletter
Heaven's Numbers on Earth: Ancient Astronomy and Chinese Medicine
By Matthew D. Bauer,L.Ac.
In the introduction to her landmark translation of the Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, a.k.a., the Yellow Emperor's Classic, Ilza Veith commented that three primary concepts are critical to understanding that complex work. She listed those three as: "(1) Tao, (2) Yin and Yang, and (3) the theory of the elements and, closely connected to it, the imposition upon the universe as well as upon man of a system of numbers among which the number five predominates." (P.10)
Over centuries, countless authorities have commented upon the meaning and ramifications of the concepts of Tao, yin/yang and the Five Elements (wu hsing). Far less scrutiny however, has been paid over those years to the basic concept of utilizing a "system of numbers" as a means to comprehend the nature of the universe as well as that of humankind.
Why would the number five figure so prominently within the theories of Chinese culture in general and Chinese medicine in particular? Why did the Chinese seek to use numbers as a means to organize their medical knowledge in the first place?
I first became interested in these questions 27 years ago when I began taking classes on Taoist philosophy and spirituality from a 74th generation Taoist Master by the name of Hua-Ching Ni, who went on to publish more than 40 books on various Taoist topics including translations of the main Taoist classics; the works of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, and I-Ching. During one such class, while emphasizing the important role the sun, moon, stars and planets played in the lives of the prehistoric Chinese, my teacher mentioned that the idea of wu hsing was inspired by the ancients' discovery of the orbits of the five planets. The five planets my teacher was referring to are the only five visible to the naked eye, and as such, the only planets known to our ancestors until the invention of the telescope. These are: Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. While I had seen these planets listed on some Five Elements charts, the claim that the discovery of their orbits was the inspiration for the idea of wu hsing stuck me as very important but impossible to prove as it was part of my teacher's long oral tradition and could not be backed-up with any hard evidence. Without any other supportive sources, I thought this claim would be ignored by modern scholars so I filed it away in the back of my mind, wondering from time to time why this discovery might have been regarded as so significant to the ancient Chinese.
Some years later, I happened across a book (The Mask of God: Primitive Mythology) published in the late 1950's by Joseph Campbell, the late scholar and historian who was widely regarded as the world's leading authority on the influence of myths in various cultures. In one passage of this book, Campbell relates how the discovery of the orbits of the five planets played a pivotal role in the birth of the world's first modern civilization in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) just over 5,000 years ago. According to Campbell, not only was this discovery vital, but so was the notion that went along with it; that the laws that govern the movement of the heavenly spheres must also govern life on earth. (P.146-147)
It seemed to me that it could not be a coincidence that these two authorities (Ni and Campbell), from very different backgrounds and relying on different sources, would rank this discovery as so crucial in these different cultures. This made me wonder again: Why should the discovery of the orbits of the five planets be so important?
Campbell believed this discovery helped to spawn humanity's first modern civilization because Mesopotamian leaders would come to organize society to mirror the order of the heavens. This was also the era when writing and mathematics were invented and advanced as was the calendar and the concept of the four cardinal directions of the compass. For the first time in history, large-scale public works projects were carried out under the rule of those at the top of a political and religious hierarchy. Pyramid-shaped ziggurats were erected with their four corners aligned with due north, south, east, and west. These structures, according to Campbell, were symbolized by the number five, with their four corners meeting in the neutral middle, which was raised upward to meet the heavens. The Mesopotamian calendar was composed of 12 months of 30 days each, with five intercalated days spaced in-between and celebrated as days of feast and festival - the five days when heaven's influence was strongest upon the earth.
After studying Campbell's thoughts and learning that the number five predominated ancient Mesopotamian culture as well as that of the Chinese, I began pondering what other factors these two cultures may have had in common, especially factors relating to their development and use of numbering systems. I had long been interested in why much of Chinese medicine was organized with specific numbers – like 365 acupuncture points or 12 primary qi pathways – numbers also used to organize time within the framework of a calendar. When I started studying what experts think about Mesopotamian culture, I learned these same numbering systems were crucial to the development of humanity's first modern civilization. I also learned that these numbering systems could be traced back a quest to follow the cycles of the sun, moon, stars, and planets – a quest Hua-Ching Ni teaches was also paramount in the lives of the ancient Chinese.
Today, I am convinced that ancient Chinese astronomy was instrumental to the development of Chinese medicine concepts. In my next article, I will offer more thoughts on how the ancient desire to comprehend the movement of the heavenly spheres spawned a range of crucial firsts, forever changing the way most humans began to view their world and, for the Chinese at least, the organization of medical knowledge.