What Are The Traditional Chinese Views of Fate?

Until today, among those proverbs that have been long popular, one proverb—“human life is predestined” is still familiar to quite a lot of Chinese people. When a person suffers some hardship, he may murmur these words in deep remorse; or, when he meets something happy, he may also utter these words complacently. This proverb reflects the traditional Chinese people’s view of fate in their minds. One of the foundations of such a view of fate is Confucius’ “theory on the universe”. In brief, the view of fate believes that man’s life and fate are not in the hands themselves, instead, it is Heaven somewhere that controls man’s life, longevity, and fortune. In the traditional sense, the view of the life of the Chinese is exactly a kind of view of fate, which is a thinking mode and a basic concept that link human life with fate.

Qu Yuan, who is a great Chinese poet in the Pre-Qin Period, in his Heavenly Questions proposed simple scientific questions: “Who passed down the tales at the beginning of creation?… Yin and Yang are mixed together, but which of them is the origin? The sky has nine layers, but who manages and measures it?” As a matter of fact, they are asking how heaven and earth were created and how the universe was formed. It seems that there have been scientific answers to these questions today, but at that time, such questions were beyond doubt extremely difficult for our ancestors. Only relying on the limited knowledge of nature, self and society acquired by them, these questions were rather hard to be answered. Thus, along with these questions, a lot of mythical tales, like the myth of Pan Gu who was said to have created the world by separating the heaven and the earth, the myth of Nüwa who created mankind with earth, the myth of Jingwei who was a mythical bird trying to fill the ocean with stones and so on, began to emerge, spread and take root in the ideological world of the Chinese. Whether they come from imagination or there indeed are some legendary records, in the eyes of the Chinese in ancient times, these miraculous and great characters are gods with supernatural power, who are the incarnation and manifestation of the power of Heaven. They are the representatives of Heaven but also linked with mankind, which is a natural choice in the minds of ancient people. Ancient people do not possess the mighty power like them, but they need to link the power with themselves so that they can find confidence and a foundation for their own existence. Therefore, in the minds of ancient people, Heaven and man are integrated together.

Harmony between man and Heaven becomes the philosophy of ancient Chinese

Human power comes from nature, and human life comes from Heaven; the formation of such a concept initially is because human beings realized the mightiness of natural power and the tininess of human power in their struggle with Nature. In many cases, due to the low technological level and cognitive ability, human beings can only obtain life resources from nature; thus, human life, to a great extent, is conditioned by nature and even depends on its gift and endowment. However, Nature, as Heaven, is not far away from man, which can not only provide resources and nourishment for human survival, but also bestow favors on man as he wishes. On the basis of abiding by Heavenly rules, Heaven and man are integrated, and thus, the world view of “harmony between man and Heaven” becomes the philosophy of ancient Chinese people, and the way of survival under the guidance of such philosophy shapes the traditional view of the fate of the Chinese.

In such a view of fate, there are conflicts between man and Heaven, thus, they will not always be totally in accordance with each other, however, nor will they be totally separated from each other, and ultimately, they will be integrated and united together.

Man is the most highly endowed among all creatures. Heaven sees and hears what man sees and hears.

Therefore, different from the mode of thinking in Western religion or creation myth that man should absolutely submit to some deity or god, in the conception of ancient Chinese people, man and Heaven are united, perhaps man cannot escape his fate, but human power still can conquer nature, as the ancient saying goes: “man can conquer nature”. In the Book of History ·Great Speech, it says “Man is the most highly endowed among all creatures. Heaven sees and hears what man sees and hears”, which implies the affirmation of the subject status and subject role of man.

In the traditional view of fate, what takes first place is man’s worship of Heaven. In ancient Chinese people’s understanding, nature is divided into three realms: heaven, the mortal world and hell. People believe that outside the real natural world, they are living in, there is a heaven where the paramount ruler Jade Emperor and his concubines, as well as countless divine troops, live, and only those moral and talented people in the mortal world, where most people are common mortals who live mortal lives, can ascend to heaven and become immortals; whereas all those ordinary people will die, and those perpetrators will be thrown into hell to be punished. In the conception of the Chinese, heaven is good and beautiful, and the mortal world is ordinary, while hell is ugly and frightening. People in the mortal world will always get old one day. If a person is able to ascend to heaven, it means that he has entered into the kingdom of happiness and gotten rid of all miseries; whereas those who are thrown into hell will either turn into beasts of burden and continue to suffer punishment in the next life, or will never be freed and get new life. The gradually better realms from hell to the mortal world and then to heaven provide people living in the secular world with an active life impetus to strive to ascend to heaven and avoid being cast into hell. In order to achieve this purpose, people in the mortal world should comply with the rules of morality and etiquette, that is to say, they should keep striving to get opportunities of being good and avoid evil consequences.

Those who develop rules of morality and etiquette are the ones holding the power of law enforcement on behalf of Heaven, whose supreme ruler is the spokesman of Heaven, that is, the “Son of Heaven”. In ancient China, only the emperor can be called the Son of Heaven, for only he is the son of Heaven, the legitimate representative of Heaven, and the one who is sent to the mortal world by Heaven to rule and manage this world. In order to express his identity as the Son of Heaven as well as his gratitude to Heaven for its grace, the emperor should conduct grand ceremonies of Sacrifice to Heaven. Standing in awe of the Mandate of Heaven, people are bound to obey the will of Heaven and submit to the rule of the emperor. Making use of such logic and mythical authority, the emperor becomes a secularized ruler in view of the fate of the Chinese. Although the emperor is still a human being, he is by no means an ordinary one, but the one grasping absolute power over life and death. In the feudal society of China that lasted for over two thousand years, the emperor was the supreme authority that determined the lives and rights to live of mortals. For over two thousand years, for the sake of divine and secular power, the emperor, under the authority and glory of Heaven, governed the thoughts of the Chinese and also formally controlled the view of life of the Chinese.

Then, how do ordinary people view such kind of life that is granted by Heaven? In the eyes of many Chinese people, birth and life are two different things: being born means good fortune, and having a life means happiness. Man’s birth is out of chance, which is a Heaven-sent opportunity; man’s life is also a gift of Heaven, but it does not exclude man’s efforts after the birth. In other words, one’s struggle and hard work in the world can only exchange for the chance of changing fate; as for the things that he can or cannot obtain in the next life, it is impossible for him to make any change by means of his subjective will. Man’s struggle and hard work can only lead to changes in his life after birth. However, in the traditional view of fate, even one’s life after birth, whether it is changeable or unchangeable, has been predestined and already arranged by Heaven; the man just lives his life in accordance with the arrangement of Heaven. It is readily seen that in the traditional view of the fate of the Chinese, fatalism is a dominant concept. Since such fatalism is beneficial to the so-called feudal rule arranged by Heaven, it is highly welcomed by the rulers. Over the past two thousand years, such a view of fate has still remained in the minds of some Chinese people, although it is no longer the dominant value nowadays, it has not completely disappeared as yet.

In Chinese society, there is still an informal profession—fortune-telling, which has a long history in China. Once it was quite popular in some eras. Of course, in Western society, there also appeared prophets like palm readers or fortune tellers at one time. However, different from Western prophets who place emphasis on the prophecy of the future, Chinese fortune-tellers not only predict and foretell the future, but also tell about the previous life of man, and often link up the previous life, this life and the next life together to predict the transition of man’s fate based on a standard or values. For example, a fortune teller may tell you that in your previous life, you were Wenquxing (a God of Literature and Art) in heaven, the one who is wise and talented. You are the reincarnation of Wenquxing, therefore you are more intelligent and more possible to achieve success in literature and art as well as other areas that are closely related to talent and intelligence. And then, he will tell you that you will be a man of letters with outstanding literary or artistic talent in the coming days. This fate is Heaven-sent and predestined. Such a fatalistic prophecy may be rooted in the lives of some people, and imperceptibly but inexorably becomes dependable values that support human life and survival, and thereby turns into an excuse for those people who believe in this fate for either striving for better results or making no more effort and simply waiting for the “pie in the sky”.

Why do the Chinese value “fate”?

Since a long time ago, the ancient Chinese have cried “Man can conquer nature”, and along with the flourishing of science and the improvement of human ability and technology to transform nature, atheism also appeared and began to be known to more and more people; however, the belief in “life is fated, so are riches and honor” has always been like a continuous chain intertwined in the minds of the Chinese people, forming their view of life. Well, why do the Chinese value “fate”? For this, there are two reasons:

First, the formation of the view of fate is related to the process of man’s transformation of nature and the fight against Heaven. Generally speaking, when the power of man is inferior to that of Heaven, people will realize that there is an irresistible power beyond their own ability that they cannot manage and control, thus, they tend to be resigned to fate. Heaven and fate provide people with a sense of dependence, which makes people become numb in souls and also feel hopeful in submission. Just as the example mentioned above, even if a person clearly knows that he is not some reincarnation of Wenquxing, he is still willing to believe such a lie of the fortune-teller, so that he can find a sense of superiority in it.

Second, for an organized society, the view of fate is conducive to its stability and order. The supreme authority of Heaven and fate as well as their paramount controlling force make the ordinary people feel afraid and in awe, and thus restrict their thinking and behavior. As a result, there will be more obedience and less disobedience, more consistency and less difference.

In the traditional Chinese view of fate, people believe that there is a kind of power of Heaven beyond human power, and people are subject to the constraint of the Mandate of Heaven that they cannot control, nevertheless, in the face of their own fate, they may not necessarily be totally powerless. In fact, many people will regard the Mandate of Heaven as some sort of constant law or the “principle” of life after acquiring a fairly scientific understanding of nature and external power. Facing this constant law, people don’t always have to wait passively but can adapt to it actively, for which there are two reasons: one is to prolong life, and the other is to make their lives more valuable and significant. Therefore, those who pursue a high value of life will carry forward the “principle” of life and put it in the first place. For them, life is precious, but moral principles are more valuable and should be cherished. In a certain sense, the traditional view of fate reflects a kind of culture, which is a way of interpreting the relationship between man and nature, and it also reflects the way of thinking and value judgment of the ancient Chinese people. In such a way of thinking and value judgment, there contains the Chinese people’s interpretation and positioning of the understanding of life.

The core value throughout the traditional Chinese view of fate is “life”.

One of the core values throughout the traditional Chinese view of fate is “life”,i.e.the endless life, which refers to the emergence, growth and continuation of the life of all creatures. Chinese people respect and value the concept of “life” very much, and there have been doctrines and evaluations in this regard since a long time ago. As the old saying goes “production and reproduction are what is called the change”, and “the greatest attribute of heaven and earth is the giving and maintaining of life”, the purport it expresses is that a general rule of the boundless universe is the endless life and the constant changes; the life, living and survival of man are no exception. With the aim of survival and reproduction, both the material life and spiritual life of man should be prolonged. However, all the efforts for the sake of the prolongation of man’s material life will fall through along with death at last, whereas the efforts for the sake of the prolongation of man’s spiritual life can be immortal owing to the “great virtue, great conduct and great learning”.

In traditional Chinese society, people know the mandate of Heaven and stand in awe of it, but meanwhile, they have no fear of fate; people have no means to prolong their natural life span, but they can extend their spiritual life by means of the pursuit of the value of life. It should be admitted that this is indeed a wise way that the ancient Chinese people find to resolve the contradiction between life and fate, which reflects the living wisdom of the Chinese. Today, it seems that there may be nothing strange about the view of the fate of the Chinese; however, at the turn of the 20th century, when it was introduced into foreign countries and cultures by the missionaries and thinkers who came to China, it was often classified as ridiculous, pitiful and even ignorant view of life, which seemed to be not worthy of appreciation and difficult to win acceptance and respect. If we take a look at the writings that introduce the Chinese people’s view of life by many missionaries, we can find that such an attitude is rather obvious. It should be noted that the traditional view of the fate of the Chinese is linked with Chinese creation myths, just like the relationship between the view of the fate of the Westerner and Western religion and the mythology of genesis. They both reflect a kind of value judgment of life at the time of the genesis of Chinese and Western cultures, which may not be fully accepted at the present time, but their emergence is of inevitability at that time.

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