University of Hawai'i Press

Shenming 神明 is an important term in pre-Qin Daoist thought, notably appearing in three excavated texts from two locations, Mawangdui 馬王堆 and Guodian 郭 店. The Mawangdui texts of the Shiwen and the Huangdi sijing show how shenming, both as a cosmological and a concrete physical concept, derives from the heavenly and is then applied to the human. In the Guodian text of the Taiyi shengshui, the term occupies a crucial position in the process of creation, beginning with the Great One and ending with the formation of time. The concept ranges from cosmological and metaphysical to ontological and physical meanings. The observation of its usages within their textual context contributes to understanding Pre-Qin thought and a better understanding of the development of thought and language of the time.

Shen 神, commonly rendered "spirit," and ming 明, the basic word for "light," go back far in Chinese history. By the time of the Guodian and Mawangdui manuscripts, i. e., around 300 and 168 BCE, they already had a history of over a thousand years (Jia 2014, 5-15).

The origin of the character shen is shen 申, "rod," which in the Chinese calendar, represents the ninth of the Twelve Terrestrial Branches (shierzhi 十二支; Needham 1959, 109-11). Deriving from the early pictograph for "lightning" (lei 電), the word connects to celestial movements and forces observed in cloudy weather and most probably at night. In its early form, it also includes the meaning of "extension" or "expansion," written with the same graph (Jia 2014, 4-5). Its later development as the character for "spirits" does not appear in the oracle bones, and first shows up in the Western Zhou period on bronze inscriptions, in some [End Page 1] cases looking the same as the word for "expand" as it appears on the bronze vessels (Jia 2014, 6).

The character ming originally refers to the light of sun, moon, and stars. The pictograph had a broad sense of meaning, ranging from "light" to worship vessels and even to the name of the ancestral hall in the king's palace (Maspero 1933, 251-53).

Later, the two combined into the compound mingshen, indicating the commonly worshiped deities of sun, moon, and stars. In the compound, shenming, on the other hand, they originally referred to two types of gods, atmospheric and stellar. From here, the term extended to indicate all kinds of gods in general, and later came to denote the marvelous or mysterious function of Dao, to eventually reach the personal state of human consciousness.

Shenming appears since the Warring States period, but mainly referring to the gods of Heaven and Earth (shenqi 神祇). However, like many other terms, once it entered the thought of the Hundred Schools, its meaning changed as philosophical thought advanced (Wang 2001, 220). Scholars in China trace back three groups of meanings: the gods of Heaven and Earth, the mysterious phenomenon of change, and the ability to transcend mundane cognition (Chen 2016, 176-79).

The term occurs in various texts, including those excavated from Mawangdui and Guodian. Yet questions remain about its usage there, such as, whether it is different from transmitted texts such as the later Huainanzi 淮南子 (Book of the Master of Huainan). Also, the way the term appears in the manuscripts does not match any of the three standard interpretations.

Shenming before the Qin is notable in three excavated texts. the Shiwen 十問 (Ten Questions), a medical text found at Mawangdui in the 1970's; Taiyi shengshui 太一生水 (The Great One Generated Water), a cosmological work discovered at Guodian in 1993; and the Huangdi sijing 黃帝四經 (Four Books of the Yellow Emperor), a Handynasty political treatise of the Huang-Lao 黃老 school, also from Mawangdui.

At first glance, the three seem unrelated, the sole connecting thread being the fact that none were transmitted in the long empirical history of Chinese tradition, and two out of the three happen to be excavated from the same site. However, I maintain that the connection between them is [End Page 2] immanent: they all establish and employ cosmogonic theories as the locus of their thought and as the foundation for the doctrine they propagate, whether they speak dominantly about health, governance, or the universe. Furthermore, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, I propose that the texts can, if necessary, be categorized under the rubric of Daoism, since they make an explicit connection between cosmos, governance and body.1

Studying how each of those texts use the term shenming allows an exploration of how ideas, language, and thought developed over time and space, while also elucidating the broad semantic range of the concept.


The Shiwen appears on bamboo slips and was excavated at Mawangdui near Changsha in 1973 together with various medical texts and two editions of the Daode jing. Sharing common material features with the He Yinyang 合陰陽 (Unifying Yin and Yang; Zhou 1988, 365), they were most likely bundled together. Since the tomb containing the text was closed in approximately 168 BCE, the text itself must be from an earlier time, and was probably composed during the late Warring States period (Li and McMahon 1992, 146).2

The text discusses a series of questions and answers including those by the Yellow Emperor, dukes and princes, government officials, famous physicians and magicians. They tend to raise questions regarding life preservation and health, emphasizing how to attain cosmological unification by sexual practices.

The organizers of the bamboo slips called the text Shiwen due to its ten sections, each beginning with a series of questions followed by their [End Page 3] prolonged answers. It begins with the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi 黄帝) and the Celestial Master (Tianshi 天师) and continues with historical figures such as Da Cheng 大成, Cao Ao 曹熬, Rong Cheng 容成, Yao 尧 and Shun 舜, Wangzi Qiaofu 王子巧父, Pengzu 彭祖, Pan Geng 盤庚, Goulao 耇老, and others; some mythological some historical.

The Shiwen describes how to follow the changes of Heaven and Earth, yin and yang, and the four seasons. It also discusses diet in daily life, physical practices and breathing exercises, as well as more specifically the control over sexual life. Generally, the text places importance on life preservation or "nourishing life" (yangsheng 养生). It contains a serious analysis and discussion of those issues, while the key points are prevention of illnesses, seeking health, longevity, and oneness with the cosmos.

For example, the first chapter draws on images from the natural world while outlining the key concepts. It begins with questions in the voice of the Yellow Emperor, directed to the Celestial Master.

The Yellow Emperor asked the Celestial Master, saying:

"The myriad things, what do they obtain that makes them move? The grass and trees, what do they obtain that makes them grow? Sun and moon—what do they obtain that makes them glow?"

The Celestial Master said: "You examine the original state of Heaven, yin and yang follow their proper course, the myriad things lose it and do not continue, obtain it and profit. Be nourished by yin to concentrate yang, this will be the same as shenming.

The questions asked by the Yellow Emperor are cosmological; he is interested in how creation works. However, the Celestial Master directs the answers to the physical body, telling the Yellow Emperor how to employ the cosmological force of yin to nourish his yang and be the same as shenming. The Celestial Master continues to explain how, through correct sexual practice, one can nourish yang and correspond to shenming as a cosmic force.

The way of being nourished by yin, empty your five organs, and broaden the three points.3 The nourishment esteems stillness and then strong sexual [End Page 4] attraction arises, resist and thereby maintain the two4, the three5 are constructed and do not fail, then the strong sexual attraction is generated, the five sounds are then in accordance.

The subject under discussion here is sexual intercourse. It provides a manual for a male practitioner, while the goal is to receive as much of the female yin as possible. To absorb yin, the male must first empty his body and expand his pulse, i. e. make his pulse strong and steady. The next step is to enable the sexual arousal of the female counterpart, who in turn makes sounds that show her enjoyment. The text continues to instruct the male how to move his body and proceed to intercourse with his partner:

Suck but do not exceed five times, extend from the mouth, stem it in the heart, this being what the four assistances esteem,6 the dark wine-pot then reaches its utmost. Drink it but do not exceed five times, the mouth will necessarily taste the sweet taste, reach to the five organs, the form will then arrive to extreme relaxation.

Following these instructions, the woman attains sexual pleasure. The procedure described benefits the health of the human body and nourishes the male yang. The dark wine-pot refers to the saliva that comes from the woman's mouth, the male drinks this saliva but does not overdo it, the liquid reaches his organs and his body relaxes. In this manner, he can proceed with sexual intercourse without ejaculation.

Spread it to the flesh and skin, as well as the tips of the hair, the hair vessels then follow, the yin water then arrives, shortly after it causes the hot vapor [End Page 5] [to arrive to] the yang, firm and strong does not perish, drink and eat from the body of the object [yin], this is called the prescription to restore what is lost, corresponding to shenming. This is the Celestial Master's way of nourishing the essence of yang.

The male, resisting ejaculation, attains longevity and more importantly, unison with Heaven and Earth, or in other words-corresponds to shenming. In the Shiwen shenming appears many times, twice in the first section, "be the same as shenming" (jiyu shenming 稽于神明) and corresponding to shenming (tongyu shenming 通于神明).

This means that both male and female arrive at unison with Heaven and Earth. We can use two examples from the Zhouyi 周易 (Zhou Book of Changes) to exemplify this point. The Xici xia 繫辭下 section of the Zhouyi states: "The constant intermingling of Heaven and Earth gives shape to all things. The sexual union of man and woman gives life to all things." Sexual union is connected to Heaven and Earth, allowing the human body to emulate cosmic forces and participate in the ongoing process of generation.

As the same text has it, "The interaction of one yin and one yang is called Dao, the resulting constant generative process is called change." During intercourse, yin and yang intermingle, and that is how a person obtains and embodies Dao, resulting in a participation of the generative process of change and creation. Thus, the conclusion is that shenming does not refer to personal spiritual illumination or enlightenment, but to a cosmic force that the human being embodies.

Another clue appears in hexagram 63 of the sixty-four hexagrams of the Zhouyi. This hexagram is thought of as representing human sexuality: the top has water, clouds—representing the female, while the bottom is fire, light and man. This image corresponds to the concept of shenming as it appears in the cosmological context.

Some scholars (Harper 1998, 120; Wang 2001, 221; Li 2002, 48; Xiong 2000, 535-36; Knoblock 1998, 253) maintain the terms shen and ming originally referred to religious concepts. In his glossary, John Knoblock shows that it often represented "gods in general," "divine beings," or "spirits generally" (1988, 253). E. J. Machle agrees and notes that "this use is still current—images in Buddhist and Daoist temples are referred to as shenming" (1993, 160). [End Page 6]

Donald Harper maintains that one of the original meanings of shenming was "external spirits." In his opinion, during the Warring States, the term often appeared in this sense, but already at that time it adopted some newer meanings (1998, 120). Xiong Tieji points out that shenming in many ancient texts indicates the spirits of Heaven and Earth (2000, 533-34). Harper also holds that one of the original meanings was "magical efficacy possessed by spirits," and the use of the term was common in the Warring States Period (1998, 120).

Pang Pu believes that one important meaning of shenming is "marvelous function of Heaven and Earth," which in turn means "nature's nourishing influence." This usage is common both in the Zhuangzi 莊子 and the Huainanzi (2000, 193). In addition, Knoblock points out that ming 明 often refers to "a kind of passive 'sacred' quality that is attached to anything used in sacrifices" (1988, 253).

Regarding the Shiwen, the English version renders shenming as "spirit illumination" (Harper 1998, 391), which is not entirely precise. First, the text employs its terminology in such a way that cosmological forces describe the human body. People embody these forces and ultimately, through bodily practices, attain a cosmological situation that places them as an active part of the ongoing transformations between Heaven and Earth.

More specifically, shenming here appears in the context of yin and yang. Nourished by yin, the practitioner can concentrate yang and may attain a state of shenming, becoming part of a creative cosmological force. As the text ends with the prescription to restore what was lost (yang), the person becomes one with the cosmic force of shenming (tongyu shenming 通於神明). He activates shenming in his own personal body. How much, then, does this have to do with what Westerners mean by "spirit"?

In English, the word "spirit" goes back to the Latin word spiritus. "breath." It has various meanings and connotations. As Wikipedia has it, "The word 'spirit' is often used metaphysically to refer to the consciousness or personality. The notions of a person's spirit and soul often overlap, as both contrast with body and both are believed to survive bodily death in some religions, and spirit can also have the sense of ghost, i. e., a manifestation of the spirit of a deceased person or refer to any incorporeal or immaterial being, such as demons or deities." In translations of the Bible "the Spirit" (with a capital S) specifically denotes the Holy Spirit. [End Page 7] The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "the soul of a person, as commended to God, or passing out of the body, in the moment of death."7

This should already make clear that the English "spirit" is quite different from Chinese shen in Pre-Qin times. A definition appears in the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字(Explanation of Characters), relating it, among others, to the idea of extension (shen), part of the original character as noted above. When a practitioner stretches out to the universe and begins to embody its forces, this extension of the physical bodies makes it resonate with cosmic patterns, becoming more whole in the process. This is not spirit in the Western sense, nor even the idea of cognition that corresponds to shenming in earlier texts.

Rather, in the Shiwen the idea is that a practitioner can extending the body to participate in the world as a cosmological force. Here shenming has a distinctly spiritual dimension, even if physiologically based. The text, then, presents shenming not so much as a personal trait than as a cosmological force, equivalent to something like sun and moon, their power engaged individually.

The overall goal of the Shiwen, moreover, is to instruct a male person how to nourish his yang. It focuses not on his spirit or his cognitive abilities, but simply his male energy, which he can restore through correct sexual practice. The central focus is not a spiritual activity or a cognitive effort, but a physical practice. Therefore, connecting a cosmological force to a concrete physical being is not to be understood in terms of spirit, but rather as something generative that can be equivalent to participating in the ongoing process of creation.

Since the Shiwen is a medical text that discusses the human body and its cultivation to attain longevity, its background philosophy is the unification of body and cosmos, the idea of imitating the natural world and equalizing natural with human forces. Shenming here, therefore, does not refer to cognition; on the contrary, it refers to the state of the cosmos, to the natural world, and to creation. [End Page 8]

Taiyi shengshui

The Taiyi shengshui was discovered at Guodian in 1993 along with quite a large number of other materials (see Cook 2012).8 Sharing common material features with the Laozi C, many scholars concluded that it was a lost part of the Laozi (Allan 2003, 253-57; Cui 1998, 31-35). However, examining the cosmology the text proposes, it is fundamentally distinct. The text is primarily cosmological, providing a unique cosmogony otherwise unknown.

Shenming here is strongly cosmological, placed between Heaven and Earth and yin and yang. It forms a key link in the chain of generation that ends with the formation of time. The cosmic development proceeds as follows:

The Great One generates water. The water, on return, assists the Great One, thus forming the sky. The sky, returning, assists the great one, thus forming the earth.

The sky and the earth again assist one another, thus forming shen and ming. Shen and ming again assist one another, thus forming yin and yang.

Yin and yang return and assist one another, thus forming the four seasons. The four seasons return and assist one another, thus forming cold and heat. Cold and heat further return and assist one another, thus forming wet and dry. Wet and dry return and assist, thus the year is formed and the process comes to a stop.

Here the process of cosmological unfolding begins with the Great One and ends with accomplishment of the yearly cycle. In this cycle of creation, in this process of cosmic unfolding, shenming is positioned after the formation of Heaven and Earth, and forms yin and yang. Since yin and yang originate in the movement of light and shadow, the illuminators come first.

Scholars (Li 2000; Chen 2007; Jia 2014) have read this differently. Wang Bo (2001), for example, points out three different interpretations, including his own: (1) the mysterious function between Heaven and Earth, (2) light or the essence of light, (3) sun and moon (2001, 219-23). [End Page 9]

Based on the context, Wang Bo reads shenming in the Taiyi shengshui as indicating the sun and the moon (2001, 219-23). From "Heaven and Earth" to "dry and damp," the text presents a series of opposite yet complementary pairs: Heaven and Earth, yin and yang, spring summer and autumn winter, cold and hot, and so on. It also speaks of them as "mutually assisting" (xiang fu 相輔), indicating which means that there are two opposite but complementary forces or things assisting each other.

Henceforth, shen and ming cannot be exceptions, they also should serve as a pair with a mutual assisting relationship. This pair, like all others, should be two opposites. In addition, in the above sequence, except for shenming, all the pairs are very clear and specific, therefore we draw the conclusion that shenming cannot be the sole concept of mystery and abstraction, it must be something clear and specific like all the others. An interpretation of shenming as something spiritual or as a mysterious function of Heaven and Earth would be too abstract.

Moreover, the interpretation of shenming as the sun and the moon is a view that exists from ancient times. Wang Bo gives two examples: "secretly assisted by shenming and produced the divining plants" Zhouyi, Shuogua 說卦 ("Explanation of the Trigrams"). This was interpreted in the Eastern Han by Xun Shuang 荀爽(128-190AD) as: "Shen is part of Heaven; ming is part of Earth. Shen illuminates through the night; ming shines through daylight." This interpretation from the Eastern Han explicitly explains shen as the moon and ming as the sun or sunlight.

Another example comes from the Tianxia 天下 (All under Heaven) chapter of the Zhuangzi: "how does the shen descend and how does the ming ascend? The sage generates, and the king accomplishes, all come from one." Using the terminology of "descending" and "ascending" to describe shenming shows us that shenming has the same terminology used to describe the movements of the sun and the moon.

The sequence described in the Taiyi shengshui forms a cosmogony and describes a unique creation process. Its uniqueness is that it does not end in the existence of Heaven, Earth and the myriad things, but rather with the completion of time. That is, the purpose of the creation process is not to explain how the myriad thing emerged, but tells us how time was formed. This is very different from the cosmology we see in the Laozi that begins with Dao and ends with the myriad beings. The "year" [End Page 10] (sui 歲) is a notion of time and used for setting the calendar. Thus, when talking about time, especially in ancient times, such a discussion without sun and moon would be impossible. As stated in the Shiliu jing 十六經 (Sixteen Classics) of the Huangdi sijing: "Counting the days, calendaring the month, marking the years, this follows the course of the sun and the moon."

Many philosophical concepts in ancient China originate from a religious or sacrificial tradition, and shenming is no exception. In the Zuozhuan, (Sanggong 40) 左傳·喪公四十年: "Revere as if it was the shenming."

Even in this rather early religious tradition, shenming already incorporates the meaning of the illuminators, as we see in the Shiji 史記 (Historical Annals): "It is said that shenming resides in the North-East, the West is its basis.". Or in the Jijie 集解 section: "Shenming, the sun."

Amid the transformation of thought that occurred in the Warring States period, shenming received more meanings, however still connected to the original. For example, shenming is often used to express wisdom, someone who can see things clearly in the phrase from the Neiye 內業 (Inward Training; trl. Roth 1999) of the Guanzi 管子: "Shenming, illumines the knowledge of the myriad beings". The word "to illumine" (zhao 照) shows a connection to the sun and the moon. Thus, this concept developed into a reflection of a persons' wisdom.

The Yaodian 堯典 chapter of the Shangshu 尚書 states, "The calendar imitates the sun, moon and stars, respect and instruct the times to the people." This shows the connection of the sun and the moon to the calculation of the year. People in antiquity observed the sun and the moon to define the year and the four seasons. Thus, in a text like the Taiyi shenshui, with a cosmogony that ends with the establishment of time, shenming emerges to represent the sun and the moon.

Szabó offers a new interpretation of shenming according to the text. "In the second half of the Warring States period, the term shenming often referred to a pair of concepts, namely two opposite natures. The word shen frequently meant the qi-condensing (or qi-absorbing) nature, the nature of the earth, while the word ming often denoted the qi-extending (or qi-issuing) nature, the nature of Heaven" (2003, 260-61).

To prove his theory, Szabó elaborates on the discussion of qi in different texts such as the Huainanzi, the Neiye of the Guanzi, Xunzi 荀子, and others, showing how qi inherently connects to both shen and ming. [End Page 11] The attachment qi to the meaning of shenming is indeed both innovative and interesting, however, reading qi into the Taiyi shengshui's cosmological system is problematic. The text begins with the Great One and water as the forces that create Heaven and Earth. This usage of water is unique in the context of cosmological evolution and provides us with an alternative theory of creation, one that is not initiated by qi. In contrast to other texts, the Taiyi shengshui does not end with the myriad beings but with time, and therefore it makes sense that a theory constructing time and not matter would not need the employment of qi as part of its process.9

Li Ling (1998) illustrates this process visually:

Great One→water→

Heaven→shen→yang→spring and summer→heat→dryness

Earth→ming→yin→fall and winter→cold→dampness

This shows the process of creation from the Great One and water, it also shows the importance of water in this process. In the Laozi, water is a metaphor that describes Dao; here it is elevated into an important concept that participates in the generation of the universe.

However, the emphasis here is not on water, but on shenming, and the diagram shows its important position and division. Shen is between sky and yang; ming is between earth and yin. Shen, therefore, relates to Heaven and yang, it is of celestial importance and comes prior to yang, also participating in its formulation. Ming, although translated as "light" and close to yang in meaning, here rests between Earth and yin. Earth produces ming; ming produces yin. Yin as shadow is visible only on earth.

The Hengxian 恆先 (Primordial Constancy), another early manuscript, further illuminates this distinction. "Murky qi generates Earth; clear qi generates Heaven." This makes it clear that murky energy is classified as yin, while clear qi is yang.

Although the murky contrasts with ming, it does so on condition that shen is above and thus ming rests below. In short, the Taiyi shengshui [End Page 12] presents shenming as a cosmological concept, an opposite yet complementary pair and not a compound, a set of forces that participate in the formation of yin and yang, second only to Heaven and Earth in the process of generation.

Huangdi sijing

The Huangdi sijing was excavated at Mawangdui in 1973 along with other Daoist and medical texts. Written on silk, it consists of four parts, named after their initial words Jingfa 經法, Shida jing 十大經, Cheng 稱, and Daoyuan 道原. Believed to constitute the lost books of the Yellow Emperor, scholars call the collection the "Four Books of the Yellow Emperor" (Chen 2007, 31-41).10

The Mingli 名理 section of the Jingfa 经法 says:

Dao is the origin of shenming. Shenming is the ability for one to stand inside the measure and to see those outside the measure. Being able to stand [in-side] the measure, he is trusted though uttering no word. Being able to see those outside the measure, he makes his words indisputable. Being able to stand inside the measure, he is free from motion when in tranquility; he is free from transformation in activity. Because he is free from motion in tranquility and free from transformation in activity, we call this shenming. Shenming is the key to correctly seeing and knowing."

Here shenming is appears as a mysterious function of Dao. More specifically, the passage allows four interpretations. 1) "Dao is the origin of shenming" means that shenming comes from Dao and is a product of Dao; 2) "Shenming stands inside the measure and is seen outside the measure." This defines shenming in connection to measures (du 度), following Wang Bo's reading, who takes the jian 見 to read xian 現, indicating that shenming resides within the measures, but can be revealed beyond (2001, 222).

3) "Still and unmoving, moving but not transforming—this is called shen." This identifies the characteristics of shenming as unmoving and unchanging, constant and permanent. 4) "Shenming is the key (ji 稽) to [End Page 13] correct insight (jianzhi 見知)." The latter term refers to cognition, often rendered "insight" or "know." Ji, "the key," often appears in the Jingfa, indicating foundation or basis. Thus, shenming forms the base of knowledge.

Shenming here is something objective, related to measures and characterized by permanence. It is neither mysterious nor obscure, but the root of clarity and foundation of perceptive insight. What, then, does it mean for anything to be "inside the measure"? It means to be the central pivot of all systems that can be described and measured, to form the basis of all classifications and structure. And what is "outside the measures"? The concrete, visible manifestation of all things measurable. As the Lun 論 (Discussions) section of the Jingfa says,

The plan of Heaven as executed by the three illuminators—the sun rising and setting, north and south providing poles—this is the foundation of all measures. The moon waxes and wanes, its coming and going has constancy and forms the foundation of all (calendar) calculations. The stars are regular, never losing their course; they form the foundation of all regular periodical appearance s (xin 信).

Measures, calculations, and regular periodical appearances have similar meanings. Here the discussion focuses on their foundations, i. e., the pattern of sun, moon, and stars. The pattern of the illuminators is Dao, that is, heavenly Dao. At the same time, it is also shenming, hence shenming is the foundation of all measures. The illuminators, and their Dao—and through them heavenly Dao—thus closely relate to the concept of shenming.

According to Zhang Dainian, "in ancient Daoist philosophy, the terms shen, jingshen, and shenming have a deeper meaning. Not only do they refer to the spirit of people, but also to some situation of Heaven and Earth, the wondrous function of the natural world" (1996, 549-50).

In its literal meaning, shenming refers to the wondrous function of Dao, used in this manner in the Huangdi sijing as well as in the Tianxia 天 下 chapter of the Zhuangzi. "What provides Heaven and Earth with beauty is called the endurance of shenming." The Neiye chapter of the Guanzi says, "Heaven's benevolence and Earth's righteousness naturally arrive of themselves. The utmost of shenming is to illumine knowledge of [End Page 14] the myriad beings." The Ziran 自然 chapter of the Wenzi 文子 notes, "Great Dao . . . transforming without permanence, holding the origin of the one, corresponding without boundaries, that is shenming." The Xici 繫辭 section of the Zhouyi speaks of "corresponding to the virtue of shenming, classifying the qualities of the myriad things, . . . embodying the transformations of Heaven and Earth, and matching the virtues of shenming." The Ruxiao 儒效 chapter of the Xunzi says: "correspond to shenming and participate in Heaven and Earth." Finally, the outer chapters of the Guiguzi 鬼谷子 speak of "great Dao" as the "origin of shenming."

Following this literal meaning, the term extends into two directions. On the one hand, it refers to the mysterious function of "the gods of Heaven and Earth," as demonstrated in the Zuozhuan: "Love as you love your parents, admire as you admire sun and moon, revere as you revere shenming, fear as you fear the sound of thunder," and in the Shuogua section of the Zhouyi: "Anciently, when the sages composed the Yi, they secretly assisted in shenming and produced the rules for using the divining plant."

On the other hand, the term also appears in the sense of the function of human thought, i. e., jingshen 精神 and wisdom. The Qiwulun 齊物論 chapter of the Zhuangzi has, "Labor your cognition to become one." The Xinshu shang 心術上(Art of the Heart I) chapter of the Guanzi notes, "Rid yourself of selfish desires and stop talking, as if shenming is deposited." The Quanxue 勸學 chapter of the Xunzi states, "Accumulate goodness to establish virtue and shenming will arrive on its own." Its Jiebi 解蔽 chapter further says, "The heart-mind is the ruler of the body; shenming is its master." Similarly, the Yulao 喻老 chapter of the Hanfeizi 韓非子 reads, "The orifices are the doors and windows of shenming, thus it is said: shenming does not part from actuality." The Yuanyou 远游 chapter of the Chuci 楚辞, finally, speaks of "preserving the purity of shenming."

Those examples show that the term shenming carried a broad semantic range, some religious and abstract, some physical and concrete. Most generally, it inherently connects to the thre illuminators—sun, moon, and stars. Originating from observations of the night sky, shenming is to be revered and secretly consulted. It is, in essence, a religious concept or cosmological force, while yet also indicating a concrete force that enables human perception of the world. [End Page 15]

The Huangdi sijing refers to shenming three times, always in its literal sense, never implying its extended meanings of "jingshen" or "gods of Heaven and Earth."

The central part of the term, moreover, is shen. The word alone appears twelve times in the text, six times standing for shenming, and six times referring to "the gods of Heaven and Earth." The same feature also appears in the Guoci 國次 chapter. "There is no escaping one's shen; . . . who knows their shen?" The Lun section notes that "essence is in shen" and speaks of "arriving at the utmost of shen." And the Daoyuan 道 原 chapter has, "Mysterious and obscure, it fills everything." Here shen consistently refers to shenming or at least holds a similar meaning.


The fact that shenming appears in many ancient Chinese texts shows that the concept played a common role in pre-Qin thought. In Daoism, moreover, it directly connects to Dao, the Great One, Heaven and Earth, as well as yin and yang. Here it is most strongly a cosmogonic concept.

However, shenming held various meanings, ranging from the ability of cognition to a metaphysical description of the state of Heaven and Earth. In the Zhuangzi, it may also refer to xinshen 心神, that is, mind or consciousness. Most commonly, though, its reading matches the passage in the Huangdi sijing which uses the term to refer to the ability to perceive the foundation of All under Heaven, that is, the ability to grasp the real and fundamental condition of the world without any illusions. This, then, is not "spirit" in the Western sense, but more something akin to "illuminated insight."

Shenming in this sense appears in the Zhuangzi, Guanzi, Hanfeizi, and Xunzi. But this is not its sole meaning. Shenming is metaphysical, whether the metaphysical implication refers to human consciousness or to cosmos, and most generally indicates ability rather than spirit be it the ability of the human mind or of the cosmos. Just as Dao can be heavenly (tiandao 天道) or human (rendao 人道), so shenming can belong to the heavenly or the human, depending on context. The Zhuangzi provides instances of both: the Qiwulun chapter uses it to refer to the ability of the mind; the Tianxia chapter has it refer to the ability of Heaven and Earth. [End Page 16] Neither in any way imply the connotation of "to breathe" or "soul," ideas that would match the original meaning of the word "spirit" in English.

In other words, the rendition "spirit illumination" does not convey the full meaning of shenming in early or even medieval Daoism. A better translation, based on the Zhouyi, would be something like "godlike," however, this still does not cover the full range of the term. Closely examining the context of its various appearances and especially the usage in the Qiwulun, a better word would be "the basis of cognition."

The three early texts examined, moreover, present the cosmological framework of this cognitive base as functioning in a close relationship to Dao and serving as an active participant in cosmic creation. Essentially initiated by Dao or the Great One, shen and ming are the illuminators, the powers of light in the night sky. Each text sees the concept slightly differently, however, their divergent readings still all go back to the roots of the concept in sun, moon, and stars. Among all works, the Taiyi shengshui sticks most closely to the original meaning, presenting shenming as an active cosmological concept, a force that actively participates in the formulation of time, measures, the calendar, and human cognition.

Sharon Y. Small

Sharon Y. Small is Ph.D. candidate in the Philosophy Department of Pe-king University. Her main areas of research are Pre-Qin Chinese philosophy, Early Daoism, and Ancient Chu manuscripts. In addition to her academic research she is also a translator of modern academic works from Chinese to English. Email:



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1. For historical definitions of terms like Daoism, I use the Shiji 史記, specifically the Taishigong zixu di qishi. 太史公自序第七十 (4.2481).

2. I base this claim on the usage of language and different concepts, as in the Warring States period the concept shenming was commonly used in Daoist texts. Thus, I go a step further and claim that the Shiwen is also a Daoist text, as I base this claim on the images used from the natural world and the cosmology provided in this text, this claim is also supported by contemporary Chinese scholars. See, for example, Cao forthcoming.

3. I base my understanding of different phrases upon the explanatory notes given by Zhou 1988. The last part of this phrase refers to the first part, saying that the nourishment by qi is preserved in the body. The "three points" most likely refer to the three points on the wrist where pulse is measured in traditional Chinese Medicine, the three points are called cun 寸, guan 關, and chi 尺.

4. This sentence refers to the male resisting ejaculation and thereby maintaining sexual intercourse between the two-the male and the female. (Zhou 1988, 365)

5. "Three" here refers to the number of thrusts the male makes with his sexual organ, at this point he is to go in and out three times. (Zhou 1988, 365)

6. The four assistances refer to the four limbs in the human body. This metaphor comes from political practice, the heart as the ruler of the body is then connected to the four assistances standing for the four chief administrators of the ruler. (Harper 1998, 405)

8. There are various English translations of the Taiyi shengshui, see especially: Cook 2012, 343-54; Allan 2003, 237-85; Meyer 2008, 286-89.

9. However, qi is not absent from the Taiyi shengshui, as we see in the phrase, "Below it is soil but it is called Earth; above it is qi but it is called Heaven." This means that if we are to account qi as part of the creative process, it comes before shen and ming and forms the sky.

10. For English translations see, among others, Yates 1997; Chang and Feng 1998.

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