Chinese contributions to Tibetan astrology.

Published in: Merigar – Journal of Western and Tibetan Culture – no. 7, March 1991

Italian version


The first part of this article is a brief preamble on the history of Chinese thought and the relations between China and Tibet in the sixth century AD. The paper introduces to the heart of a divination scheme known as the Yellow River Map – essentially based on numerology – which describes the links between the primordial Elements and the opposing and complementary forces of yin and yang. Below is analysed the sequence of changes of the Map of the River Lo, the divinatory complement of the previous scheme, adopted with some modifications by Tibetan astrologers.


In 641 AD, the Chinese princess Kung-Je, of imperial lineage, married the then king of Tibet Sonzangampo (Srong btsan sgampo). At that time, China was under the second emperor of the T’ang dynasty, T’ai-Tsung, who brought the Chinese empire to unprecedented splendour. After all, Tibet (called T’u-fan by the Chinese) had become a unified kingdom in 607. Its extraordinary military power allowed it to exercise an equal role with its great Chinese neighbour.

This high-ranking marriage produced, as it were, a concomitant geographic hierogamy, so much so that the Tibetans spoke of their country as China’s “son-in-law”. As a result, the noblest Tibetan families had the opportunity to send their children to schools in the Chinese capital. The influx of Chinese art and culture was further increased by the Tibetan request for expert artisans, silkworms, Confucian texts [1]. Princess Kung-Je brought in dowry the Jung chi in a lively framework of exchanges, an astrology treatise dating back to the ninth century BC [2]. To the preexisting Bön astrology overlaid this system called Nazì (nag rtsis), Black Astrology [3], better known as Giunzì (‘Byung rtsis), Astrology of the Elements [4].

Chinese thinking

Chinese writing is an admirable example, indeed an emblematic example, of how the sign, the ideographic trait, lends itself to evoking reality and making it tangible; the ideogram, and the thought that underlies it, has always been a powerful symbolic means for the Chinese to impose a civilising action on the reality that extends not only to the community of men but comes to include the totality of the universe. The ideogram first describes, arouses images linked to experience, and then suggests behaviour; it is integral to a series of expressions whose purpose is to order reality.

According to this understanding, man and Nature do not form two separate kingdoms but interact and evoke each other under the guidance of the supreme law of the Calendar, which rules Nature at the same time as human occupations. Occupations and habits follow a rhythmic model [5], as demonstrated by the lacking of an attitude of the Chinese towards speculative, abstract, linear thinking. They preferred to affirm a space-time reading where Time proceeds by cycles and Space, far from being a container of indefinite size, is a place that, gathering around a centre, becomes the expression of a civilised, measurable, geometrically square area.

The interaction of an indivisible Space and Time allowed Chinese thinkers to conceive a supportive image of sites and events, extensions and duration. A particular season corresponds to an East localised in Space, and to this a spatial and classification characteristic; through Time we act on Space and vice versa, through multiple references that manifest the unity of the universe. Thus the Manichean opposition that seems to rule the expression of yin and yang also falls: far from representing two opposing principles, in them, we must grasp an alternating temporal rhythm of universal manifestations, an idea that brings back to communion, to the rivalry which is a partnership between opposites [6].In this process of cognitive making rhythmic, numbers play the role of emblems; they escape the abstract linear presentation to group themselves in the form of a cycle and concrete representations to designate the plot of a finite universe. Thus placing any factor along the numerical scale meant much more than exercising an ordinal function. As Granet says: “what is ordered in fourth place is arranged in a square and is presented by four, constituting a grouping of realities whose essence is to be fourth and fourfold simultaneously” [7]. Therefore, the number is a system for decrypting events appearing with no reciprocal relationship but which in reality acquire a commonality from belonging to the exact numerical connotation. And while Space is organised around numerical emblems, Time becomes synchronic, repetitive, seasonal, expression of a cycle of rhythmic and circular change, which together with closed and square Space is at the root of predictive systems.

The Yellow River Map and the Lo River Writings

“When Fu Hsi first ruled the world, he looked up and contemplated the images in the heavens; he looked down and contemplated the drawings on Earth. He contemplated the signs of birds and beasts … He proceeded directly from himself and indirectly from objects. So he invented the eight trigrams.” [8]

Fu Hsi, the mythical first Chinese emperor who drew the whole and broken lines before the Great Flood, handed down a few fragmented legends worn by time, like the wall decorations depicting him in the tombs of the Han [9]. His birth was miraculous: his mother conceived him after being fertilised by a stick floating on a river; for others, he was born in a swamp populated by dragons, taking the likeness of it. Tradition states him to be the creator of the pattern of the eight trigrams, deduced from the observation of natural phenomena, and of the numbers and five elements, obtained from an arrangement of spots observed on the back of a horse-dragon that rose from the waters of the Yellow River [10]. With the invention of oracles and writing, this primordial sovereign gave man the keys to find the meaning of the world and thus subjugate it [11]. These keys are gathered in the Ho T’u, or Map of the Yellow River, and in the Anterior Heaven trigrams. Yü the Great (in the traditional chronology 2033-1562 BC), another mythical founding emperor of the Hia dynasty, systematised the world through the nine Rubrics of the Hung fan, evoking the universal order [12] received the Rubrics from a turtle that emerged from the waters of the River Lo [13]. After dividing the world into nine regions and having travelled the soil to measure it, he established the mythical golden age, at the end of which the Lo shu, or Writings of the River Lo, disappeared. In the twelfth century of our era under the Song dynasty, they reappeared, it is said, enlightened protectors of Taoist doctrines. King Wên (1160 BC -?), credited with the Hexagrams’ invention, complemented these divinatory tables. King Wên used the Lo shu of Yü to arrange the Trigrams in the Posterior Heaven sequence and distribute the nine numerical Rubrics as a magic square.

Figure 1

The Ho T’u and Lo shu maps (fig. 1) depict the first ten numbers in the form of white (yang, odd) and black ( yin, even) dots. In the Ho T’u, each cardinal point corresponds to a double numerical classification, alternately even and odd; the internal numbers are the first four numbers of the decimal series. The external ones are the numbers from 6 to 9. These four numeric pairs are congruent to 5: by adding 5 to the internal numbers of the pairs, you get the number placed on the outside. Thus we

deduce that 5 is considered the Change number because it reverses the polarity of numbers added. Therefore, it is responsible for the central position of the map, where it is depicted in the form of a cross surrounded by a perimeter that on the north and south sides has a pair of fives forming the ten. In addition to being a principle of change for the four pairs of numbers, it modifies itself to transfigure into 10, the numerical symbol completing the cycle of change and returning to the origin. The five elements and the four orientations plus the centre are assigned to the four numeric pairs and the central 5. The decimal series is representative of the whole number sequence because we can trace all the numbers of the natural series back to the first nine by theosophical addition: 10 is the number of completion being the sum of the first and last number of the series of nine (1 + 9 = 10 = 1 + 0 = 1). From this scheme, we can deduce that the map of the Ho T’u has the function of illustrating the principle of complementarity of opposites.

The Ho t’u assigns to the Elements the order of the first five numbers, following the lesson of the Hung Fan (1 Water, 2 Fire, 3 Wood, 4 Metal, 5 Earth). In contrast, the numbers of the four numeric pairs are traditionally associated with the seasons (6 Winter, 7 Summer, 8 Spring, 9 Autumn) [14]. Through this double classification, it is possible to attest many equivalences to each site in Space and similarities between orientations and seasons. At this point, the reason for the initial orientation in the north point becomes clear. The Hung Fan writes: “(That which) moistens (and) tends downwards [Water: 1] produces salty; (that which) inflames (and) tends towards the High [Fire: 2] produces bitterness … [15]. The Hung Fan clarifies that the initial positioning is provided, in this case, by the site in Space and the period in Time where phenomena are in a state of stillness, waiting to reveal their potential. The north is the place of the “fall” of the Sun at midnight, just as water, subject to gravity, is forced to flow downwards. It is also essential to note that each combination of element, site, number and orientation is opposed by one of complementary meaning. While the Water flows and descends or freezes, the Fire warms and rises; if the Wood is vital and flexible, the Metal is inert and does not straighten once bent. The qualities of Change operate in the Earth’s bosom, a central and centralising place that provides the indispensable substrate for the alchemy of yin and yang.

The Early Heaven Sequence

Figure 2

The arrangement of the trigrams, according to Fu Hsi, offers us a comparison between complementary aspects in the form of whole and broken lines (fig. 2). By observing the figure, we will notice that by adding the lines that make up the opposed Trigrams, we will always obtain a total of three whole lines and three broken lines. Here, the need to maintain a state of balance between opposing yet harmonious forces seems to dominate.

Kkienn (1) is the fertilising, creative principle, the Heaven, opposite to Kkunn (8), symbolising the Earth and the Mother.

The second pair of opposites (2-7) is formed by Tui (Lake) and Kenn (Mountain), i.e. the existence of the Void contemplates the presence of the Fullness. It is followed by Li (3, Fire) and Kkann (6, Water), the Ascending and Descending, to end with Cenn (4, Thunder) and Sunn (5, Wind), the telluric motion and the aerial motion. In the Hung Fan, the Rubric 8, which corresponds to the number of trigrams, is associated with the 8 Winds (see note 12), the 8 directions of Space and the 8 outer regions of the square divided into nine parts; 8 is the number that represents all the tangible space. In this arrangement, the 9, there being only eight trigrams, disappears; but it reappears occultly in the sum of the numbers associated with the opposite pairs of trigrams. 9 is the number of non-change, therefore of celestial perfection expressed by the arrangement of the Early Heaven [16]: in the Hung Fan, the number 9 are the Songs, the fulfilment of the Breath, the epiphany of the One that rules and harmonises from its ideal centre the eight regions of space.

Of course, these considerations are made possible by the particular numerical arrangement of the Early Heaven Trigrams. Unlike in the Ho t’u, number 1 is associated with the Fire element and no longer with Water; this initialisation suggests the prevalence of the creative and productive side of the Logos and the light of consciousness, if not the summer culmination. But the Kkienn trigram does not correctly designate the summer, nor the Fire and the South direction (phenomena and orientations that are proper to Li); here, it is important to observe not the phenomenon itself but the celestial scheme that precedes the Change. The Early Heaven Sequence is a sort of anticipation of reality, like the Platonic world of Ideas; this characteristic enables it to exercise a divination mode not relying on the consequentiality of events but on the archetype or symbol in which we recognise the event [17]. To the left of the KkiennKkunn axis, pure yang and pure yin, we find the three trigrams (numbered 2, 3 and 4) whose lower line is yang; these lines are therefore related to, or have a basis, yang. However, we observe how in the second and third trigram, Tui and Li, the dominance of yang lines translates into a reversal of polarity (the sum of two yang lines, odd, with a yin line, even, gives an even result, yin, feminine). In fact, Tui and Li are traditionally associated with the youngest daughter and the middle daughter. With the number 4, the last of the series on the left, associated with Cenn, the Thunder, the situation changes abruptly; the polarity is positive again, and this pushes the only remaining yang line into action: the Thunder leaves the Earth and becomes Sunn, the Wind, the Mild, the Penetrating, the feminine polarity. From this point forward, the baseline is yin, and eventually, the yang is pushed up until it disappears into Kkunn, the pure yin of the north.

Figure 3

An axis traced for the NE and SW points divides the yang-based Trigrams from the yin-based ones (fig 3). By abstracting from the primary lines, we obtain what the Hsi t’su (see note 10) calls the four secondary symbols (fig. 4) to which we attribute the strong numbers of the Ho t’u. We find the pairs of lines arranged from the Great Yang to the Great Yin (from 1 to 4 and 5 to 8) on the sides of this axis. In the Ho t’u, the double numbering emphasises the yin and yang polarity of the Elements, ordered according to the sequence Water-Fire-Wood-Metal. The same series is preserved into the

arrangement of the Trigrams (i.e. to 6, Great Yin, corresponds the Water Element in Ho t’u and so on). This repetition brings about the double polarity of the Elements – to the left and the right of our axis – of the four secondary symbols arrangement. Considering the possibility of breaking down the Trigrams into their simplest constituents, the Early Heaven does not appear as an orderer but as a Trigram generator. We can undoubtedly trace a not cyclical but constitutive sequence formed by various degrees of manifestation and the alternation of opposite polarities within this structure.

Figure 4

The Lo Shu Map

Figure 5

In the map of Lo Shu, the Writings of the River Lo of Emperor , the numbers are arranged within a perimeter formed by an alternation of black and white dots (fig. 5). They do not include congruous pairs as in the Ho t’u. However, we can still keep the number structure balanced if we couple the numbers on the arms of a clockwise rotating swastika while at the same time swapping the orientation of pairs 2-7 and 4-9 (from south to west and vice versa) (fig. 6). Now, the swastika is a purely solar symbol, productive,

rotational, particularly suited to represent a cyclical system or, in this case, a seasonal alternation.

Figure 6

The numbers of the Lo shu form a magic square of order 3 (fig. 7); the sum of the numbers placed on the diagonals, the bisectors and the sides of the square gives as a result 15 [18]. In the Western Hermetic tradition, there are extensive references to magical squares, commonly used in the applications of talismanic art. For the Chinese, the magic square reflected the architectural constitution of the Ming t’ang, the Calendar House (see note 5).

Figure 7

The Ming t’ang can be considered a templum (temple) in the etymological sense of the term [19], a sacred place that encloses in proportion the nine regions of the universe. It had twelve openings, one for each month of the year, placed on the outer sides of the perimeter squares; the central rooms had a single threshold, while the rooms at the top of the building had two. The purpose of the royal circumambulation inside the enclosure was precisely to activate the resonances

and correspondences between Heaven and Earth by travelling through the temple rooms in a clockwise direction (the apparent daily motion of the Sun). Stopping month by month in front of the twelve openings, the emperor would proclaim the ordinances (Yüeh ling) suited to the circumstances of the time. The central room had no lights on the outside, symbolising the regenerating centre where the emperor stayed in the middle of the year. The number 5, the emblem of the centre and the central number of the series of nine, is well suited to represent the privileged place in which the “Activity of Heaven” is directly reflected, a point that potentially encloses the Universe.

The arrangement of the remaining numbers of the magic square respects some fundamental axioms. Even numbers are placed at the vertices of the square while odd numbers occupy the bisectors. Here, we must see a distinction between the productive aspects (odd numbers) and the plastic and formative aspects (even numbers) of the event: in the Ming t’ang, the angle rooms have two (even) openings. The sum of the numbers lined up in the squares always gives 15; from its theosophical sum (1 + 5), we have 6, a number related to the circle: the Heaven (number 6 is the ideal ratio between the radius and its circumference). The presence of 5 and 6, numerical symbols of Earth and Heaven, respectively, confirms the intention to show a hierogamy between complementary principles, an aspect made evident by the architectural structure of the Ming t’ang with its square base the round vault. Singular fact: if we read the congruous pairs, imagining placing them on the arms of the swastika (fig. 6), such as 94, 83, 72, 61, 50 (the couple 5-10), we get a total of 360, a sign that the rotation movement represented in the magic square through the swastika is that of the year (fig. 8).

Figure 8

Such a coupling of numbers is not accidental: the association of weak (from 1 to 4) and strong (from 6 to 9) digits of the series of nine is related by a precise correspondence relationship (for example, numbers 9 and 4 are the last ones of the weak and strong series respectively). Let us remember that the weak numbers, by their proximity to the origin, represent the Emblems of primordial substances, the Elements. In contrast, the strong ones are associated with the

Seasons, to the changes that the Sky produces on Earth through the temporal cycle. In fact, the series 50, 61, … is congruent to 11, a numerical emblem that summarises the union of Heaven, (6), and Earth, (5).

In Lo shu, the Elements gain a double place, except for Water and Fire, which are the numerical extremes of the solstitial axis [20]. If we join all the map numbers with a line following the natural order (from 1 to 9), we will obtain a sequence of Elements in which the Earth is in reciprocal action with the remaining Elements: Water-Earth -Wood Wood-Earth-Metal, Metal-Earth-Fire. Water and Fire in this scheme have a whole yang connotation, but on the other hand, the Earth comes out in the open by gaining two positions (2 and 8). The Earth still retains the central position with the number 5 expressing itself outwardly with its numerical mode of completion (10 = 2 + 8): the Earth divides, presenting itself both in the series of weak numbers and in the strong numbers, giving rise to the formation of two secondary poles. Figure 8 depicts the geometric scheme generated by the magic square arrangement of the numbers, a double spiral, the double action of the cosmic force, which is identified in all its aspects with the distribution of yin and yang in the unfolding of the annual cycle. As I wrote elsewhere, “a magic square is a symbolic grid which serves to establish the determinism of a fact by considering the latter the meeting point of space-time coordinates. According to the rules of the magic square, any event (for example, a birth) is located at the intersection of active (cross of odd numbers) and passive (the diagonal of even numbers) shaping forces that determine its appearance and time of incarnation following the terrestrial and celestial laws.” [21]

The Later Heaven Sequence

Figure 9

According to King Wen (fig. 9), the arrangement of the trigrams is somehow exemplifying the scheme of Lo shu (Fig. 3). Unlike the Fu hsi system, it does not have its numbering but is associated with the magic square numbers. The reading of the trigrams according to the natural order of numbers (from 1 to 9) brings about an alternation of yang and yin [22] by the odd-even

distribution order of numbers already highlighted in the Lo Shu. The circular reading of the sequence of trigrams (fig. 2 and 3) is in analogy with the seasonal cycle. It begins from Cenn, the Thunder, the Exciting, the yang line that erupts from the earth like the energy of Spring (point E), and gets to Kenn, the Arrest, the Mount, the end of the rain and the winter season and the beginning of a new cycle (point NE).

Even in the Early Heaven Sequence of Fu Hsi, we can see a seasonal disposition with a fundamental difference. In the Later Heaven Sequence, the two pairs of trigrams occupying the intermediate positions form an asymmetrical total of yin and yang lines (respectively five yang lines and one yin on the SE-NW axis and five yin lines and one yang on the SW-NE axis). Insofar as the intermediate axes are unbalanced, they bring change with them and mark the transition phases. Inversely, the “idealistic” conception underlying the arrangement of the Early Heaven – as well as the symmetry of all the pairs of trigrams – is even more evident by the Kkienn and Kkunn trigrams and by the solstitial position they occupy in this sequence. In fact, we consider mixtures of yin and yang in nature and not, as in this case, juxtapositions of pure yin and yang forces [23]. In the Early Heaven Sequence, the male and female trigrams are designated based on the line of each trigram that turns inside the figure (whole = male; broken = female). In the Later Heaven Sequence, the subdivision criterion is centred on the numerical value of the whole and broken lines that make up the trigrams (see note 22). In this way, an axis passing through the SE-NW points divides the octant into a half where the trigrams, except Kkunn, have a yang prevalence (the summer hemisphere) and into another half where the process takes on opposite values ​​(winter hemisphere). However, keep in mind that each half contains the same number of yin and yang lines (six yin and six yang lines ): since it is a seasonal distribution, the global balance of the cycle must be respected.

The Barka (spar kha)

Giunzì astrology (‘byung rtsis) draws from the relations between the Elements a series of calculations aimed at defining the characteristics of five aspects of the individual (in association with the cycle of the twelve animals): Uantan (dbang-tan), Strength or Ability; Sòg (srog), Life; Lus (Lus), Body; Lúnda (klung-rta), Fortune; Lá (bla), Soul. In the use of these calculations, Tibetan astrology does not differ, in principle, from the formative aspects of Chinese astrology, of which we have exposed thought and methods. But clearly, we must recognise an autonomous approach to the ways of using Chinese thought. Then there is the calculation of the Meua (sme-ba), the Number of the Individual; Meua is built on a 180-year cycle (Mèkorsme ‘khor) formed by the interaction of the 12 animals, the 5 Elements and the numbers from 1 to 9. The spatial location of the numbers is identical to the magic square of order 3. Still, this calculation being specifically Bön, the Number-Element association changes radically from the Chinese [24]. Meua means skin mole, a point of collection and concentration of the individual’s energy following various secondary causes.

Figure 10

Finally, there is a different way of calculating an aspect of the individual’s energy, this time strictly connected to King Wen‘s trigrams, called in Tibetan Barka (spar-kha), Diagram (fig. 10). The orientation of the Trigrams follows the usual pattern, with the south at the top. The scheme’s geometry is no longer octagonal but square, with the octagon’s intermediate directions replaced by the square’s vertices [25].

In the Barka, the Element-Trigram association does not fit the usual Lo Shu pattern. The vertices of the square, corresponding to the intermediate axes of the octant, are delegated to the element Earth (while in Lo Shu, the SE-NW axis is flanked by Wood and Metal). Here the Earth is present in four modalities exemplified by the trigrams Kon (Kkunn, the Earth-Mother; Ken (Kkienn), the Heaven-Father (Earth-Heaven), Sin (Kenn), the Mount (Earth-Mount); and finally Son (Sunn), the Wind (Plain-Wind).

The presence of the Earth at the four corners closely relates the Barka to the arrangement of the rooms in the Ming t’ang, where the room at the vertex guaranteed itself two lights, two openings, identifying itself with a passive function, yin, of receptivity. Nor is it surprising that yang trigrams such as Ken and Sin are associated with Earth. Here it is a question of making evident the earthly action of Heaven, as can be seen in Ken interacting with Son, the Sky covering the Earth with two yang lines smoothing it with the force of the Wind. Then we have Kon, the pure Earth that rises to Heaven with the two yin lines of Sin, the Mount. These four modalities of change manifest the results of the reciprocal interaction between pure yin and pure yang in the context of cyclical courses and recurrences.

We can calculate the Barka for the year, month and day of birth (following the indications of the Tibetan calendar) or for the person’s age to highlight the positive or negative correlations with the current moment. In calculating the person’s age, we follow a different procedure for men and women. For the male sex, the first year corresponds to Li; the other years correspond to the subsequent trigrams by counting clockwise. For the female sex, we start from Kam and continue counting counterclockwise (for example, a 6-year-old male will have Sin as a trigram, while for a female of the same age, we get Son). This procedure also applies to the search for the trigram of the month and day. In this case, we must have the foresight to consider that the male months (odd-numbered) have as Barka of the first day Li; the female months (even-numbered) instead begin with Kam and from these two follow the Barka of the other days.

The clockwise and counterclockwise motion followed in searching for the trigram is in common with the processes of production and destruction of the cosmic cycle, that is, with the phases of Change. Since a hierogamy of Heaven and Earth exists in the Later Heaven Sequence, the cyclical reading of the Barka has a meaning not only seasonal but also applies to the ages of life. The human microcosm reflects the macrocosmic manifestation; it is mirrored in a reality that it recognises as its own. In a male birth, the prevalence of yang force creates a solar, hourly, fertilising current that arises from the ascending power of Li, Fire. The feminine birth embodies the dominance of the universal Substance with a humid character, yin, capable of being penetrated and modified – therefore destroyed – by the vivifying male Fire; it originates in Kam, the gestation Water, and has a counterclockwise, lunar movement. The cyclical nature of the Barka not only embraces the symbolism of the year; we can also apply the cyclical recourse to the monthly stations generated by the lunisolar cycle and the diurnal subdivision expression of the earth’s rotation motion around its axis. Epiphany of the Sun and Moon – the cosmic principles of yin – yang, the Barka Diagrams offer an image of the totality of phenomena and their antagonism, allowing the individual to harmonise with the most significant universal cycles through knowledge of them or, as in custom among Tibetans, through rituals and propitiatory actions.