CASE 5:  Popular Belief in Ancient China

Who used the Daybook?

An analysis of the activities enumerated in the Daybook shows that its main users were farmers, soldiers, artisans, and low-ranking government officials, suggesting that the Daybook might have been adapted to the habits and expectations of the lower-middle social stratum. And of course when we talk about “using” the Daybook, we do not mean literally “reading” it, but following the instructions contained in it. The actual reading of the Daybook may have been the responsibility of special, qualified, and literate persons, who served as the transmitters of the knowledge presented in it.

Given the rate of literacy during this period—that is, around the third century BCE — it is most likely that only a small number of people in society could read and write and that many of these were government employees. Our tomb owner, Xi himself, was a government employee at the county level of local government. It has been suggested that one of his jobs was to instruct the local population in the conduct of their daily work. The Daybooks in his possession, therefore, might have enabled him to choose proper dates for various kinds of work. Since the contents of the Daybook include activities such as farming, building, commerce, and even military actions, they could have been useful to a wide range of people at that time.

To say that government officials used such books is not to imply that all officials actually believed in, say the “Red Emperor.” Wang Chong (27 – 97 CE) was an ordinary educated man, not even an official, yet he ridiculed popular beliefs in spirits and divination in his book Assessing Theories. In fact, skepticism toward religion and spiritualism was a common feature of many classical Chinese philosophies. Confucius himself declined to assert whether spirits existed, commenting only that it was beneficial to perform ceremonies “as if” they did.

So why would officials who were skeptical of spirits consult the Daybook? There were surely practical reasons for doing so. If the ordinary people feared having ceremonies on certain days because of the predictions of divinatory texts, it would be unwise for an official to try to force their compliance against their deeply-held beliefs. On the contrary, the use of such books might put the peoples’ minds at ease and make it easier to gain their cooperation. Certainly local rulers throughout European history made similar use of the religious beliefs cherished by local people.

Yet, government officials were probably not the only people who had access to the Daybook. During the Warring States period (475-221 BCE, 战国), professional day-diviners (rizhe 日者) formed a regular part of the social fabric. As specialists in divination techniques, they probably used oracle bones and handbooks such as the Daybook to choose optimum dates for people who came to them for guidance. The day-diviners also threw down the stalks of a plant called milfoil or yarrow in a complicated ritual. This would enable them to obtain a hexagram. They would then look up the hexagram in the Book of Changes, read the text found under that hexagram, and interpret it in light of the actual situation to be considered.

The fact that these specialists possessed a professional title, “rizhe” 日者, or “day-diviner,” indicates that they had an established role in society. The book Mozi (墨子), dating to several centuries before the Han empire, mentions a day-diviner in one of its essays. Also, the first universal history of China, the Shiji (the Historical Records 史记) has a chapter on the biographies of diviners. All this indicates that day-divination played a regular and important role in the lives of ordinary people. For this reason alone, texts such as the Daybook would have played a role in the administration of government at the local level.

Interpreting the content of the Daybook of Shuihudi is not an easy task. To find out how, check out CRITICAL ASSESSMENT.

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