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East Asia

The William Tell of China. In remote times there appeared in the sky no less than ten suns, so that the earth was scorched and oppressed through the excessive heat. A hero, Yi ‘the excellent archer’, shot down nine of them with a magic bow. The significance of this episode is obscure. Clearly the appearance of several suns was a sign of disorder, just as two suns were visible before the fall of tyrant Chou Hsin, the last Shang monarch, but in Chinese thought arose an early awareness of space.

The Hsuan Yeh, or ‘infinite empty space school’, argued sometime before 200 that ‘the heavens were empty and void of substance. When we look up at it we can see that it is immensely high and far away, having no bounds. … The sun, the moon, and the company of stars float in the empty space, moving or standing still. All are condensed vapour.’ Because of the fundamental role of Nature in Chinese civilization—that ancient intimacy of man and environment which found expression in the Yin-Yang theory—specialists such as astronomers, astrologers, engineers, and magicians were absorbed into the imperial civil service. Science and sorcery were able to co-exist because of the idea that natural phenomena, like flooding, earthquakes, or eclipses, were connected with supernatural powers. The benevolence of Shang Ti was entreated by the priest king, the Son of Heaven; hence the attention paid to astronomy, whose predictive function in respect of heavenly movements was regarded as a state secret. Observation was a serious business. Systematic records of sun-spots were kept from 28; imperial astronomers must have observed through thin slices of jade or some similar translucent material.

Another legend about Yi concerns the elixir of life. The archer obtained the precious medicine, but his wife stole it, ate it, and flew to the moon. Evidently his bow could not help him in this instance, because ‘he was very sad at his irreparable loss’. Thus, Chuang-tzu (350–275bc) Wrote of the Way, the Tao, ‘that Yi could never catch a glimpse of it’.

Subjects: Religion.

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