How Historians Might Read the Daybook Today

CASE 5:  Popular Belief in Ancient China

Another way to read the Daybook is as a historian seeking evidence of the cultural and religious tradition that produced it. One of the first things a historian might do is to consider the intellectual and religious implications of this text and others like it. A historian might also attempt to extract from the text some information about the everyday lives of people in ancient China. Let’s try to do both.

Intellectual and Religious Implications

Every divination text makes certain assumptions about the way the world works, what today we call cosmology. For example, one text might assume that nature gods determine fate, in which case one might want to know what pleases the gods (which colors, which foods, which days, etc.). Another text might presume that the universe itself is set up in such a way that some days are luckier than others irrespective of the gods. These different kinds of assumptions can be inferred from what is written in a text.

Looking at the Daybook, two basic assumptions seem to underlie its cosmology:

All those who used the text to guide their daily activities must have believed that the predictions about the luck of the day apply equally to everyone, like a force of nature. In other words, just as a rainy day is a rainy day for all, a day that is inauspicious for marriage is inauspicious for anyone considering marriage on that day. One can even go so far as to say that this amounts to a mechanical view of the way in which the world operates: the world operates on its own according to certain fixed laws and doesn’t require the intervention of gods.

Secondly, it is possible to categorize the various kinds of days into a finite number of types. Because the sexagesimal system delimits what is allowable, the Daybook permits only certain possibilities for the good or bad fortune attached to individual days. Depending upon the mode of calculation employed, the entire range of possibilities may recur every ten, twelve, or, at most, sixty days, because this is how the sexagesimal system works. This is consistent with the mechanistic model underlying the first assumption. For a historian of China, it isn’t so strange that one should find a mechanistic view of the cosmos, as this is common in Daoist philosophy. The Daybook, however, suggests that these kinds of assumptions were common among ordinary people rather than exclusively among philosophers.

These assumptions inform the advice that the Daybook offers for carrying out actions in daily life. These assumptions remain in force even when the text appears to be concerned with the actions of spirits. For example, the Daybook includes exorcisms and talismans for expelling evil spirits that obstruct the way when people try to travel. One such exorcism is “the Pace of Yü:”

When you reach the gate of the district, you should stop, make three Yü steps, shout loudly saying, “I am going to set out. I hope that there is no danger. [I shall] first clean the way for Yü.” Then you should draw five lines on the ground, pick up the dirt in the middle of the lines, and carry it.

This ritual act was meant to prevent the traveler from being attacked by demons. Here we see that, although spirits are involved in the cosmos as agents, their actions are restricted by rules built into the structure of time and space and so it is possible to neutralize the threat they pose.

In other cases spirits appear not to be directly involved—it is the position of an act in space and time that can be fortunate or disastrous. For example, the construction of a new house on an inauspicious day could have dire consequences:

If the inner chamber is built, the parents will die; if the right chamber is built, the wife of the eldest son will die; if the left chamber is built, the wife of the middle son will die; if the outer wall is built, the son of the grandson will die; if the northern wall is built, the cattle and sheep will die.

The above passage suggests that the problem of construction, including the building of a new house, is the problem of geomancy. According to the interpretation of geomancers in the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), construction was a serious business because it involved the disturbance of the earth god. The direction, height, and width of a house, as well as its position in relation to surrounding structures like pools, storage facilities, wells, pigpens, gates, or roads, were all very weighty issues. Failure to correctly position a structure could have a serious impact on the fortunes of the owner. This view, also, is informed by a mechanistic view of the cosmos. Man’s fate is largely a matter of acting in the right place at the right time.

What we can learn about Everyday Life

In their present condition, the Shuihudi versions of the Daybook demonstrate a richly detailed and practical concern for the challenges people had to face in daily life and can teach us about things like the state of medical knowledge at the time and attitudes toward marriage.

The State of Medical Knowledge

A text concerning illness provides insight into how people thought sickness and gives us some clues into of the state of medical knowledge at the time. Some common foods such as “meat,” “rooster,” “dog meat,” “yellow fish,” and “dry meat,” for example, are said to cause sickness. This may suggest some knowledge of the harmful effect of spoiled meats. On the other hand, dead ancestors or malicious demons are also blamed for causing illness, a tradition that can be traced back to as early as the Shang Dynasty (1700-1027 BCE). A typical passage from the Daybook reads:

When one falls ill on the jiayi 甲乙 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.

Here, the Daybook discloses mixed paradigms for understanding the causes of illness. On the one hand illness is traced to the source of the food and even the type of container in which it was stored. [Click here to see translations of the section on ILLNESS] On the other hand the text makes presumptions about the agency of ancestors and spirits. If we compare the views expressed in the Daybook with those contained in the traditional classical texts, such as the Zuo’s Annals 左传 or the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic 黄帝内经, the differences are revealing. In the classical texts, sickness was thought to be the result of the imbalance of the six climatic conditions or qi 气: Yin, Yang, wind, rain, darkness, and brightness. This suggests an attempt to give a systematic and naturalistic explanation for the causes of illness. The Daybook, on the other hand, identifies the sources of illness in a concrete way (dead ancestors, malicious demons, and certain kinds of food treated in a particular way), revealing a rather different worldview.


The Daybook suggests that people at the local level may have held a view of the balance between duty and marriage, which differed from the official view. King Yü is said to have succeeded the wise Emperor Shun and founded the Xia Dynasty (ca. 2000-1500 BCE). Traditionally the Xia is considered to be the first dynasty in Chinese history (although modern historians do not yet agree upon whether it actually existed). King Yü, who was skilled in hydraulic engineering, is said to have spent most of his life in the countryside trying to divert water channels to prevent floods. As legend has it, his devotion to duty was so great that three times he passed his home but did not enter the house to see his new wife. This story has been told time and again in Chinese history as evidence of the Great Yü’s devotion to his work as well as his ideal of putting the welfare of the people before his own or that of his family. For this, he was often celebrated as a national hero, particularly in the writings of scholars and officials.

The two short references to King Yü that appear in the Daybook suggest a different attitude toward marriage and duty at the popular level. The first describes the day of gengshen:

This day is the gengshen 庚申, the day when King Yü left [home]….One should not give one’s daughter to marriage, or take a wife, or to take in servants and beasts; it is only good for separation. One should not travel on the day of [King Yü’s] leaving; if one does, he shall never return. (SHT 776–82)

Another paragraph says that,

guichou 癸丑, wuwu 戊午, and jiwei 己未 are the days when King Yü took the daughter of Tu Shan as wife. If the wife is not deserted, she will surely die in childbirth. (SHT 894b)

These short references suggest a very different assessment of how King Yü acted—one that considers the matter from the perspective of his wife rather than that of his country. Even though he was serving a “greater cause,” Great Yü was not very concerned about his wife’s personal needs. The Daybook acknowledges that King Yü’s poor wife must have suffered in her marriage and that such a marriage was something to be avoided. Do not marry your daughter on the day that King Yü married, it says, because this will bring bad luck to your daughter, who will be separated from her husband and suffer like King Yü’s poor wife.


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