Chinese contributions to Tibetan astrology
Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi, Wearing a Traditional Costume, Holding the ‘Yin-Yang’ Symbol

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 relations between China and Tibet in the 6th century AD. The essay introduces the heart of a divinatory 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. The sequence of changes in the Map of the River Lo is analysed below, a divinatory complement to the previous scheme, adopted with some modifications by Tibetan astrologers.


In 641 AD, the Chinese imperial princess Kung-Je married the then-king of Tibet Sonzangampo (Srong btsan sgampo). At that time, China was under the second emperor of the Tang 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 play an equal role with its great Chinese neighbour.

This high-ranking marriage produced, so to speak, a concomitant geographic hierogamy, so much so that the Tibetans said of their country as China’s “son-in-law”. As a result, the noblest Tibetan families were allowed to send their children to schools in the Chinese capital. The Tibetan demand for skilled artisans, silkworms, and Confucian texts further enhanced the influx of Chinese art and culture. [1]. Princess Kung-Je brought as a dowry, in a lively framework of exchanges, the Jung chi, an astrology treatise dating back to the 9th century BC. [2].The previous Bön astrology was superimposed on the system called Natsi (nag rtsis, Black Astrology) put over [3], better known as Jungtsi (‘Byung rtsis), Astrology of the Elements [4].

The Chinese thinking

Chinese writing is an admirable and 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, for the Chinese, a powerful symbolic means of imposing a civilising action on the reality that extends not only to the community of men but also includes the totality of the universe. The ideogram first describes and arouses images linked to experience and then suggests behaviours; it is an integral of 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 simultaneously with human occupations. Occupations and habits follow a rhythmic model [5], as evidenced by the lack of attitude of the Chinese towards speculative, abstract, linear thinking. They preferred to affirm a space-time reading where Time proceeds in cycles and Space, far from being a container of indefinite dimensions, is a place which, gathering around a centre, becomes the expression of a civilised, measurable, geometrically square area.

The interaction of an indivisible Space and Time has allowed Chinese thinkers to conceive a supportive image of places, events, extensions and duration. A cardinal point located in Space corresponds to a given season, and this, to 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 collapses; far from representing two opposing principles, in them, we must grasp an alternating temporal rhythm of universal manifestations, an idea that leads back to communion, to the rivalry which is a partnership between opposites [6]. In this rhythmic cognitive process, numbers play the role of emblems; they escape abstract linear presentation to group themselves in the form of a cycle and concrete representations to designate the texture 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 decryption system of events that appear without a 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 the synchronic, repetitive, seasonal expression of a cycle of rhythmic and circular changes, 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 beheld the images in the heavens; he looked down and contemplated the patterns on the Earth. He considered the signs of birds and animals … 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 solid and broken lines before the Great Flood, has handed down time-worn fragmentary legends, such as the wall decorations depicting him in the Han tombs [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 collected in the Ho Tu, or Map of the Yellow River, and the Early 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 travelling the ground 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, as enlightened protectors of Taoist doctrines. King Wen (1160 BC -?), credited with inventing the Hexagrams, completed these divination tables. King Wen used the Lo shu ofto arrange the Trigrams in the Later Heaven sequence and distribute the nine numerical Rubrics like a magic square.

The Ho Tu 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 Tu, each cardinal point corresponds to a double numerical classification, alternately even and odd. Internal numbers are the first four numbers of the decimal series; the outer ones are the numbers 6 to 9.

These four numeric pairs are congruent to 5: adding 5 to the inner numbers of the pairs gives the number on the outside. Thus, we deduce that 5 is considered the principle of Change because it reverses the polarity of the added numbers. We, therefore, owe it the central position of the map, where it is depicted in the form of a cross surrounded by a perimeter which, on the north and south sides, has a pair of fives forming ten. In addition to being the principle of Change for the four pairs of numbers, it transforms itself into 10, the numerical symbol that completes the cycle of Change and returns to the origin. The five elements and the four orientations plus the centre are assigned to the four number 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 completion number, 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 Ho Tu map illustrates the principle of complementarity of opposites.

The Ho Tu assigns the order of the first five numbers to the Elements, following the lesson of the Hung Fan (1 Water, 2 Fire, 3 Wood, 4 Metal, 5 Earth). On the contrary, 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 for 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 the salty taste; (that which) inflames (and) tends upwards [Fire: 2] produces the bitter taste … [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 place that provides the indispensable substrate for the alchemy of yin and yang.

The Early Heaven Sequence

According to Fu Hsi, the arrangement of the trigrams offers us a comparison between complementary aspects in the form of solid and broken lines (fig. 2).

Observing the figure, we will notice that by adding the lines that make up the opposed Trigrams, we will always obtain three solid and three broken lines. Here, the need to balance 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 principle, to end with Cenn (4, Thunder) and Sunn (5, Wind), the telluric motion and the aerial motion. In the Hung Fan, Rubric 8, which corresponds to the number of trigrams, is associated with the eight Winds (see note 12), the eight directions of Space, and the eight 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.

Naturally, these considerations are made possible by the particular numerical arrangement of the Early Heaven Trigrams. Unlike in the Ho Tu, 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 either summer or 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 allows it to exercise a divinatory method, 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 Kkienn–Kkunn axis, pure yang and pure yin, we find the three trigrams (numbered 2, 3 and 4) whose bottom line is yang; these lines are therefore related to or have basis yang. However, in the second and third trigrams, Tui and Li, the predominance of yang lines translates into a reversal of polarity (the sum of two yang-odd lines with a yin-even line gives an even result, yin, feminine). Tui and Li are traditionally associated with the youngest and middle daughters. 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 drives the one remaining yang line into action: 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.

An axis traced through 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 tsu (see note 10) calls the four secondary symbols (fig. 4) to which we attribute the strong numbers of the Ho Tu. We find the pairs of lines arranged from the Great Yang to Great Yin (from 1 to 4 and 5 to 8) on either side of this axis. In the Ho Tu, the double numbering underlines the yin and yang polarity of the Elements, ordered according to the sequence Water-Fire-Wood-Metal. The same series is preserved in the arrangement of the Trigrams (i.e., 6, Great Yin, corresponds to the Water Element in Ho Tu 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 a coordinator but as a Trigram generator. We can undoubtedly trace a non-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

In the Lo Shu Map, Emperor Yu’s Lo River Writings, the numbers are arranged within a perimeter formed by alternating black and white dots (fig. 5).

However, we can still keep the number structure balanced if we pair the numbers on the arms of a clockwise rotating swastika while at the same time swapping the orientation of the pairs 2-7 and 4-9 (south to west and vice versa) (fig. 6).

The swastika is a purely solar, productive, rotary symbol, particularly suitable for representing a cyclical system or, in this case, a seasonal alternation.

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 is 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 tang, the Calendar House (see note 5).

The Ming tang can be considered a templum (temple) in the etymological sense of the term [19], a sacred place which proportionately encloses 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 vertices of the building had two. The royal circumambulation within the enclosure was supposed to activate the resonances and correspondences between Heaven and Earth by walking through the temple rooms in a clockwise direction (the apparent daily motion of the Sun). Pausing month by month in front of the twelve openings, the emperor would proclaim the ordinances (Yueh 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, ends itself well to representing the privileged place where the “Activity of Heaven” is directly reflected. This point 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 it is necessary to distinguish between the productive aspects (odd numbers) and the plastic and formative aspects (even numbers) of the manifestation: in the Ming tang, the corner 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, the number relating to the circle: Heaven (number 6 is the ideal ratio between the radius and its circumference). The presence of 5 and 6, numerical symbols of the 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 tang with its square base and round vault.

Singular fact: if we read the congruous pairs, imagining placing them on the arms of the swastika (fig. 6), 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).

This pairing of numbers is not accidental: the association of the weak (from 1 to 4) and strong (from 6 to 9) digits of the set of nine is related by a precise correspondence ratio (for example, the numbers 9 and 4 are the last of the weak and strong series respectively). Due to their proximity to the origin, the weak numbers represent the Emblems of the primordial substances, the Elements. On the other hand, the strong ones are associated with the Seasons, with the changes that Heaven produces on Earth through the time cycle. In fact, the series 50, 61, … is congruent to 11, a numerical emblem which sums up 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 solstice axis [20]. If we join all the numbers of the map with a line following the natural order (from 1 to 9), we 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. In this scheme, Water and Fire have a yang connotation in this diagram, but the Earth comes out in the open, gaining two positions (2 and 8). The Earth still retains the central position with the number 5, which is expressed externally 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, and the dual action of the cosmic force, which is identified in all its aspects with the distribution of yin and yang in the unfolding of the year. As I have written elsewhere, “a magic square is a symbolic grid which establishes the determinism of a fact considering it the meeting point of space-time coordinates. According to the rules of the magic square, any event (for example, a birth) lies at the intersection of active (cross of odd numbers) and passive (diagonal of even numbers) formative forces that determine its appearance and time of incarnation following the terrestrial and celestial laws.” [21]

The Later Heaven Sequence

King Wen’s arrangement of trigrams  (fig. 9) somewhat exemplifies the scheme of Lo shu (fig. 3).

Unlike Fu his’s system, it does not have its own 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 as the energy of Spring (point E), and ends with Kenn, the Arrest, the Mount, the end of the rain and winter season and the beginning of a new cycle (NE point).

Even in Fu Hsi’s Early Heaven Sequence, we can see a seasonal arrangement with a key 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). To the extent that they are unbalanced, the intermediate axes bring change with them and mark the transition phases. Conversely, the “idealistic” conception underlying the arrangement of the Early Heaven – as well as the symmetry of all 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 in nature mixtures of yin and yang and not, as in this case, juxtapositions of pure yin and yang forces [23]. In the Early Heaven Sequence, the masculine and feminine trigrams are designated based on the line of each trigram that turns inside the figure (solid = male; broken = female). In the Later Heaven Sequence, the subdivision criterion is centred on the numerical value of the solid 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 ​​(the winter hemisphere). However, let’s 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)

Jungtsi astrology (Byung rtsis) draws from the relationships 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; Sog (srog), Life; Lus (Lus), Body; Lunda (klung-rta), Fortune; La (bla), Soul. In using these calculations, Tibetan astrology does not differ, in principle, from the formative aspects of Chinese astrology, whose thinking and methods we have discussed. But clearly, we need to recognise an autonomous approach to using Chinese thought. Then there is the calculation of the mewa (sme-ba), the Number of the Individual; mewa is based on a 180-year cycle (Mekor, sme ‘khor) formed by the interaction of the 12 animals, the 5 Elements and the numbers 1 to 9. The spatial placement of the numbers is identical to the magic square of order 3. However, since this calculation is specifically Bön, the Number-Element association changes radically with respect to Chinese [24]. Mewa means skin mole, collection point and concentration of the individual’s energy due to various secondary causes.

Finally, there is a different way of calculating an aspect of the individual’s energy, this time closely related to King Wen‘s trigrams, called Barka (spar-Kha, diagram in Tibetan) (fig. 10).

The orientation of the Trigrams follows the usual pattern, with the south at the top. The geometry of the scheme is no longer octagonal but square, with the intermediate directions of the octagon replaced by the vertices of the square [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 Earth element (while in Lo Shu, the SE-NW axis is flanked by Wood and Metal). Here the Earth is present in four ways exemplified by the trigrams Kon (Kkunn, the Earthmother; 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 links the Barka to the arrangement of the rooms in the Ming tang, where the room at the vertex had two lights and 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 matter of making the earthly action of Heaven evident, as seen in Ken interacting with Son, Heaven covering the Earth with two yang lines smoothing it with the force of the Wind. Then we have Kon, the pure Earth rising to Heaven with the two yin lines of Sin, the Mount. These four modes of change manifest the results of the mutual interaction between pure yin and pure yang in the context of cyclical recurrences.

We can calculate the Barka by year, month and day of birth (following the indications of the Tibetan calendar) or by a person’s age to highlight the positive or negative correlations with the current moment. When calculating a person’s age, we follow a different procedure for men and women. For males, the first year corresponds to Li; the other years correspond to the subsequent trigrams by counting clockwise. For females, 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 will obtain Son). This procedure also applies to the search for the trigram of the month and day. In this case, we must be careful to consider that the male months (odd-numbered) have Li as Barka of the first day; 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, i.e., with the phases of Change. There is a hierogamy of Heaven and Earth in the Later Heaven Sequence; the cyclical reading of the Barka has significance not only for the seasons but also applies to the ages of life. The human microcosm reflects the macrocosmic manifestation; it mirrors itself in a reality it recognises as its own. In a male birth, the prevalence of yang force creates a solar, fertilising current that arises from the ascending power of Li, Fire. The female birth embodies the dominance of the universal substance with a yin character, capable of being penetrated and modified – therefore destroyed – by the vivifying male Fire; it originates in Kam, the gestation Water, and has an anti-clockwise, lunar movement. The cyclical nature of the Barka not only embraces the symbolism of the year; 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 can also be applied. Epiphany of the Sun and Moon – the cosmic principles of yin and 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 their knowledge or, as usual among Tibetans, through rites and propitiatory actions.