Heaven-sent: Understanding Disaster in Chinese Mythology and Tradition

Abstract of talk by David W. Pankenier

Lehigh University, Sept. MFL, Maginnes Hall, 9 W Packer Avenue, Bethlehem, PA 18015, USA. e-mail: dwp0[at]lehigh.edu
Presented at the SIS Conference: Natural Catastrophes during Bronze Age Civilisations (11th-13th July 1997)

From the very beginning of their civilization the ancient Chinese were exceptionally acute observers of their natural surroundings. Few celestial or terrestrial phenomena, especially irregular occurrences, were deemed inconsequential since all were thought to convey vital intelligence from the supernatural realm. Out of this intersection between phonology and human society there developed a conviction that the Chinese state and culture enjoyed a genetic relationship with the supreme power residing in the sky. Indeed, the foundational ideology of the archaic kingship, as well as the later unified empire, held that political legitimacy was conferred directly by Heaven, and that continued enjoyment of the royal prerogative was contingent on acceptable performance. Metaphysically, this continuity was embodied in an organic philosophy of nature in which everything, including human culture, was seen as a manifestation of the material essence which pervades the universe. Throughout Chinese history, divination and portentology provided the interpretative mechanisms which allowed the Chinese to gauge Heaven's disposition at any given time. As a result, natural disasters consistently play a vital role in Chinese tradition and history as indexes of disturbances in an idealized condition of dynamic equilibrium. This paper will examine archetypal examples of disaster in Chinese tradition in an effort to provide the conference with a Chinese perspective on natural catastrophe in the early period. It is hoped this perspective will enable participants to evaluate the Chinese evidence bearing on the nature, extent, and implications of disaster for Bronze Age civilization in East Asia.


DAVID PANKENIER (Ph.D. Stanford University, 1983) is Associate Professor of Chinese and Chair of the department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, USA. His research interests include ancient Chinese archaeology, astronomy, astrology, chronology, portentology, and the pre-imperial history of the foundational notion of heaven-sanctioned political legitimacy (Heaven's Mandate). This study has led to the identification and verification of several ancient records of rare planetary massings associated with dynastic transitions in the Chinese Bronze Age (2nd millennium BCE). A comprehensive discussion of these discoveries and their ideological implications may be found in "The Cosmo-Political Background of Heaven's Mandate", Early China 20 (1995):121-176.