How the Daybook Was Read in Ancient Times

CASE 5:  Popular Belief in Ancient China


The Texts of the Daybook

The individual short texts in the Daybook fall into two broad types: calendrical texts and predictions. Calendrical texts make up the first type. These usually take the form of tables that provide an overview of all the days in an entire year, enumerated by the stem 干 and branch 支 sexagesimal system. The use of numbers in this book conveyed to the reader its systematic nature, a feature we might classify today as proto-scientific. At the time it almost certainly helped to convince users of the book’s reliability.

These calendrical tables are usually accompanied by explanatory texts that categorize the nature of different days according to different suitable activities, again following the sexagesimal system. The basic function of such texts is to give the reader an overview of the dates on which it is suitable to do certain things (like plant seeds or get married), and unsuitable to do others (like build a house or travel). Most of us are familiar with comparable texts in a similar format from astrological columns in our local newspapers.

The second type of texts provide detailed predictions regarding a diversity of specific subjects, such as marriage, childbirth, the construction of buildings, travel, the making of garments, illness, burglary, planting seeds, seeking an audience with officials, dream divination, exorcistic practices, and so on. To read translations of the sections shown above, click here on CHU and CHILDBIRTH.

These different sections of the Daybook are designed to make critical information easy to access. Basically these are expert manuals that help the non-specialist to make critical decisions in daily life. The calendrical texts provide quick but general information about what you should or should not do within a specific time period (for example, a particular day might be unlucky for travel). Again, modern horoscopes provide similar kinds of information.

We can see that the calendrical texts helped people to avoid adversity. The prediction texts provided information that could help the non-specialist deal with adversity should it occur. Let’s take as an example some passages on illness:

SHT 797–800 [SHT: Slip number follows those given in Yunmeng Shuihudi Qinmu (Peking: Wenwu Chubanshe, 1981)].
SHT 797–98: When one falls ill on the jia 甲 and yi 乙 days, it is caused by the [ghosts] of one’s parents. It is acquired through meat that comes from the east and that has been placed in a lacquer container. On the days of wu 戊 and ji 己, the illness will become serious. The sick person will get better on the geng 庚 day and recover by the xin 辛 day. If one is not well [by the xin day], the uncomfortable feeling is in the east and the harm is in the east. The color blue means death.

SHT 799–800: When one falls ill on the bing 丙 and ding 丁 days, it is caused by the [ghosts] of one’s grandparents. It is acquired through red meat, rooster [meat], and wine. On the days of geng and xin, the illness will become serious. The sick person will get better on the ren 壬 day and recover by the gui 癸 day. If one is not well [by the gui day], the uncomfortable feeling is in the south and the harm is in the south. The color red means death.

Each of these passages provides 4 kinds of critical information:

1. It explains the cause of one’s illness.
2. It reveals the medium through which the illness was transmitted.

3. It reveals the course of the illness over time, when you will get better or worse.

4.It helps to determine if the illness will end in death.

Clearly these are all things that a doctor today would wish to determine. Notice also that the predictions are all time and space dependent. Some illnesses come from the south; a particular kind of misfortune will only occur on certain days, and so on. This means that the readers of these texts had to be proficient at consulting the fairly complex calendrical system in use at that time.

Considering the kind of information included in the Daybook, we can infer that its readers wanted to maximize the odds of success in many critical life events such as marriage, building a house, dealing with illness, and so on. They appear to have believed that one key to success was situating their activities in the most favorable time and, sometimes, the most favorable direction or place. Understanding this is one key to reading the Daybook, as a guide to living.

Find out How Historians Might Read the Daybook Today.

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