Gospel & Universe

The Chinese Sky

This page looks at Li Bai's poetic conception of the universe in light of Daoism and Chinese astronomy. It also suggests that while Zhuangzi's Daoism confronts the possibility of infinite space, his philosophy remains idealistic. 

Li Bai's Milky Way - Digits - Tang Astronomy - May Be


Li Bai's Milky Way

In “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon” the 8th century Taoist poet Li Bai writes about dancing with his shadow, drunkenly beneath the moon. Here’s the final stanza:

I’m glad to take the moon and my shadow

as friends, even though when I drink we part company.

Nevertheless, these are friends I can count on,

these friends who have no emotion whatsoever.

I hope that one day we three will meet again,

deep in the Milky Way.

Li Bai suggests an ambiguous mystical intimacy with the natural world, from the shadow beside him to the distant stars in the sky. This combination of intimacy and distance, connection and detachment, isn’t surprising when one remembers that the Daoist version of Deity is impersonal and yet connected somehow to the human psyche. The legendary author Laozi (circa 6th C. BC) says that the Dao "produces (all things) and nourishes them" and that it "does all, and yet does not boast of it" (The Tao Teh King, 9.3, translation James Legge). The Dao came "into existence before Heaven and Earth" and "may be regarded as the Mother of all things" (25.1). Yet despite the nourishing and motherly nature of this obscure origin of everything, the universe itself is fairly ruthless: "Heaven and Earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt with" (5.1) Legge explains that the dogs of grass were used in sacrifice and "when the sacrifice was over, were thrown aside and left uncared for."

Distant yet near, the Dao is by definition — or anti-definition — impossible to grasp. The 4th century BC Zhuangzi writes that the Dao "is something inexhaustible, and yet men think it has an end; it is something unfathomable, and yet all men think its extreme limit can be reached" (The Texts of Taoism 11.4, translation James Legge). Zhuangzi's stories are filled with references linking the concept of the infinite Dao with the infinite space of the cosmos. In one of his many dramatizations of Daoist philosophy, Zhuangzi has his anthropomorphized character (Starlight) asks another anthropomorphized character (Non-entity) if the former exists: 

'Master, do you exist? or do you not exist?' [Starlight] got no answer to his question, however, and looked steadfastly to the appearance of the other, which was that of a deep void. All day long he looked to it, but could see nothing; he listened for it, but could hear nothing; he clutched at it, but got hold of nothing. Starlight then said, 'Perfect! Who can attain to this?' (5.8)

In its emphasis on mystical experience of the Void and infinite space, Daoism is perhaps one of the first religions of astronomical space — that is, one of the first epistemological and ontological systems to mix intimate, meaningful human experience with an otherwise endless and indifferent universe. Zhuangzi counsels us to enjoy ourselves "with the Tao in the land of Great Vacuity," "pursue the Great Way (on a grand scale)!", "cultivate a grand similarity with the chaos of the plastic ether," "roam in the Grand Void," "Be large-minded like space, whose four terminating points are illimitable, and form no particular enclosures," and "mount on the bird of the light and empty air, proceed beyond the six cardinal points, and wander in the region of non-entity, to dwell in the wilderness of desert space" (3.2, 3.3, 11.5, 5.7, 17.6, 7.3). He defines the Dao spatially as "the limit of the unlimited, and the boundlessness of the unbounded" (5.6).

In its refusal to define the afterlife or prescribe a clear code of conduct and belief, Daoism also shares more with agnosticism than with the great world religions. In regard to the afterlife, Zhuangzi asserts that "All things have the life (which we know), but we do not see its root; they have their goings forth, but we do not know the door by which they depart" (8.8); "What we can point to are the faggots that have been consumed; but the fire is transmitted (elsewhere), and we know not that it is over and ended" (3.4). In regard to conduct and doctrine, Zhuangzi asserts that "to start from nowhere and pursue no path is the first step towards making the Tao your own" (5.1). Unlike Confucianism — which is often seen as a necessary and complementary philosophy —  Daoism refuses to elevate doctrine or morality, expressing instead a haughty disdain for both rules and words.

I imagine the Doaist as the thumb and the Confucian as the index finger, always guiding and controlling:


The thumb is a Taoist monk.

A lug, it lags behind the index finger,

Mister Smarty-pants, Confucian, writing down rules

till the cows come home.

Pointing everything out.

But when it comes to grasping things,

the index finger’s a dolt.

Daoism offers no clear definition of God or spirit, and no clear path to get to these elusive things. And yet it suggests, hints, and intimates a connection to Nature and to the stars.

In “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon” Li Bai suggests that the universe is indifferent, yet he does so within a Daoist context. The universe isn't actively cruel, like the pagan gods who act like wanton boys who kill us for their sport, as Shakespeare puts it in King Lear. Nor is it as crushing as the grim Naturalist universe that followed in the footsteps of Darwin in the late Nineteenth Century. Nevertheless, we can see the impassiveness of the heavens in Li Bai’s poem when he writes that the physical world immediately around him (his shadow) and the astrophysical world far above him (the moon) have “no emotion whatsoever.”

In the face of this indifference, Li Bai nevertheless proposes an amicable encounter with the moon and Milky Way. He ends his poem not with a statement of belief, but with a word that's the closest agnostics come to belief: hope.

Nevertheless, these are friends I can count on,

these friends who have no emotion whatsoever.

I hope that one day we three will meet again,

deep in the Milky Way.


Tang Astronomy

Writing in the middle of the Tang Dynasty (618-987), Li Bai couldn’t have known many hard facts about what he refers to as “the Milky Way.”

Not that Chinese astronomy wasn’t advanced for its time: astronomical observations began as early as the Shang Dynasty (2nd millennium BC). The British biologist and sinologist Joseph Needham "has described the ancient Chinese as the most persistent and accurate observers of celestial phenomena anywhere in the world before the Islamic astronomers." In his book China (2008), Needham writes that something as basic as the chronology of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC) is "anchored on an eclipse recorded in the texts and identified astronomically as occurring in 841 BC, 'the first absolute date in Chinese history.'" Nor were the Chinese afraid to speculate: during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), Xuan Ye “viewed the heavens as infinite in extent and the celestial bodies as floating about at rare intervals.” He believed that "the speed of the luminaries depends on their individual natures, which shows they are not attached to anything." The Chinese were also "aware that new stars could appear. In 185 AD, they were the first to observe and write about a supernova, now known as the SN 185.”*

Li Bai’s 8th century also saw substantial advances, boosted by input from India (which had built on Greek and Babylonian astronomy, and had also made crucial advances in decimal notation). For instance, Yi Xing set up thirteen astronomical observation sites from Vietnam to Lake Baikal.* 

Despite these advances, Li Bai couldn’t know if Xuan Ye’s earlier notion of infinite space was likely to be true. Without the spectrography used by Doppler and Hubble he couldn’t know that a nebula differed from a far-off galaxy, or that Andromeda existed in a realm of space many orders more distant than the sources of light in our own galaxy. He couldn’t really know what — or where — the Milky Way was.

Despite his Daoist propensity to ponder the vastness of the cosmos, Li Bai couldn’t know that the stars were in fact — and not just in poetic speculation — the closest thing we know to the infinity he attributes to his cherished Dao.


May Be

There may be realms or beings that exist beyond matter, waves, gravity, and light. Zhuangzi may be right that there's a "grand perfection of Heaven and Earth" and that the Dao "seems to be lost in obscurity, but it continues; now it seems to glide away, and have no form, but it is still spirit-like. All things are nourished by it, without their knowing it" (3.4, 5.2).

There may be a ring of saints in the highest Heaven, encircling God in what Dante called the Blessed Rose. Nel ciel di più della sua luce fu io / In the heaven which contains more of [God’s] Light was I — is a fine phrase indeed.

might be pic.jpg
golden ladies in heaven natnl gallery.jpg

The poetic possibilities are tempting. Drunk on love, or in the mystic’s tavern, each star beckons from the abode, where the eternal are — to borrow Shelley’s phrase from stanza 53 of Adonais.

Each beauty seems divine: lips pink as morning clouds, hearts red as roses in the archetypal Garden of Love. Angels dancing on a pinprick of light, seven billion light-years away.

There may be any number of wonderful places.


Yet for the moment at the core of everything, beyond the misty peaks and circling satellites, lie the enormous lattice-work of the gravity-bound stars.

Phantom Landscape III , by Yang Yongliang, 2007-8, in the British Museum (clipped photo by RYC)

Phantom Landscape III, by Yang Yongliang, 2007-8, in the British Museum (clipped photo by RYC)

NASA Hubble team image of the Carina constellation at a distance of 20,000 light years (from http://hubblesite.org/image/3519/news_release/2015-12)

NASA Hubble team image of the Carina constellation at a distance of 20,000 light years (from http://hubblesite.org/image/3519/news_release/2015-12)



* See Needham and Ronan, Cosmic Understanding: Philosophy and Science of the Universe, Princeton UP, 1993; China, Chapter 2: "Sages and Heroes: Footprints of Zhou"; Wikipedia pages on “Chinese Astronomy," “Stars; Observation History," and "Yi Xing."



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