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Taoist Religion and the Starry Clusters Bright

Ming Dynasty Jade Emperor
The Taoist God 玉皇大帝

Taoist Religion and the Starry Clusters Bright

Madison Morrison

Taoist dragon staircase art

The idea that the Sun originated in a star cluster is at odds with the classical view of clusters. The Five Chinese Classics: Astronomers have traditionally classified clusters into two types: The Book of Changes, the Book of History, the Book of Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals. The galactic clusters. Were the authoritative texts in the Confucian tradition, read before all others in the canon. And the globular clusters. The Four Books: the Great Learning, the Analects, the Mencius and the Mean. The former are young, sparsely populated and located in or near the plane of our own galaxy. Once the Song dynasty was established, they were to be read first instead. The prototypical example of a galactic cluster is Praesepe, also known as the Beehive Cluster, or as M44. And were regarded as embodying the most cherished teachings of Confucius. (“A Galactic Cluster,” from Scientific American)

Taoist temple Taipei

It was one of the first objects at which Galileo pointed his telescope, four centuries ago (in 1609). Zhu Xi was primarily responsible for giving the Four Books a philosophical precedence over the Five Classics. What looked like a splotch of light turned out to be an array of stars. Having studied these texts for 50 years and commented on them for 30, in 1192 Zhu published them as the Four Masters. Up to 350. My purpose here is two-fold: to examine his reading of the Analects. All born 700 million years ago. And to explore the genre of interlinear commentary, highlighting its usefulness as a reflection on the words of a text, by which the commentator conveys his understanding of its meaning while shaping and conditioning future readings and understandings of that text by others, in both his own and later generations. (Daniel K. Gardner, Zhu Xi’s Reading of Confucius [Columbia U.P.])

Taoist dragon staircase detail Taoist dragon bing Taoist dragon column Taoist dragon column detail

Suddenly, it has become easy to see how the euro — that grand, flawed experiment in monetary union — could come apart at the seams. We’re not talking about a distant prospect, either. Things could fall apart with stunning speed, in a matter of months, not years. And the costs — both economic and, arguably even more important, political — could be huge. This doesn’t have to happen; the euro (or at least most of it) could still be saved. But it will require that European leaders, especially in Germany and at the European Central Bank, start acting very differently from the way they’ve acted these past few years. They need to stop moralizing and deal with reality; they need to stop temporizing and, for once, get ahead of the curve.

Taoist street paver

I wish I was optimistic. (Paul Krugman, “Apocalypse fairly soon” [NYT])

Taoist altar
Tian-long Temple to Fu-de Zheng-shen

Here I examine Zhu Xi’s reading of the Analects, one of the Four Books and a text much revered since the Han period as the expression of the teachings of Confucius himself. I look at how Zhu’s reading of this most central of books helped reshape the Confucian intellectual tradition in the Song, a reshaping that reverberated strongly through the next seven centuries in China, in Choson Korea (1392-1910) and Tokugawa Japan (1600-1868), where it likewise was warmly embraced. I focus on Zhu Xi’s commentary on the Analects, first translating critical passages from the text of the Analects with Zhu’s commentary and then analyzing Zhu’s interpretation in some depth. My aim is to demonstrate, first, that Zhu Xi was dramatically rethinking the Confucian tradition through his Song reading of the canon and, second, how his reading in particular was different from others.

Fu-de Zheng-shen relief
Fu-de Zheng-shen aka Tu-di Gong

By contrast, globular clusters are very old, densely populated, and located throughout the galaxy, not just in a single plane. When the euro came into existence, there was a great wave of optimism in Europe — and that, it turned out, was the worst thing that could have happened. Money poured into Spain and other nations, which were now seen as safe investments; this flood of capital fueled huge housing bubbles and huge trade deficits. The first of these was discovered in 1746 by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Maraldi and is now known as M15. Then, with the financial crisis of 2008, the flood dried up, causing severe slumps in the very nations that had boomed before. At that point, Europe’s lack of political union became a severe liability. Florida and Spain both had housing bubbles, but when Florida’s bubble burst, retirees could still count on getting their Social Security and Medicare checks from Washington.

Three Taoist gods
五府王爺  溫府王爺  李府王爺

Taoist insense bing

It contains about a million stars, each with an age of about twelve billion years. It therefore is essential that we appreciate how the texts of the Analects had been read traditionally. To that end, I examine the third-century commentary of He Yan (190-149), which until the Song was regarded as the standard reading of the text. By also translating He Yan’s commentary on each passage and comparing it with Zhu Xi’s, we can study the differences in their understandings and begin to analyze the factors that might help explain them. Spain received no comparable support, and so the burst bubble turned into a fiscal crisis. In short, one of my principal objectives is to study the role of interlinear commentary in the tradition of Chinese textual exegesis. Europe’s answer has been austerity: savage spending cuts in an attempt to reassure the bond markets, upon which it depends.


The trouble is that neither category, the galactic cluster nor the globular cluster, fits our Sun. As any sensible economist could have told you (and we did, we did), these cuts deepened the depression in Europe’s troubled economies, which both further undermined investor confidence and led to growing political instability. Ever since the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1050-221 BC), the Chinese had been composing commentaries on the texts especially meaningful to them. The Sun’s advanced age of 4.6 billion years suggests that it should have been born in a globular cluster, yet its location in the galactic disk points to a galactic cluster. By the late Zhou, the Spring and Autumn Annals had already attracted much commentary.

Taoist chairs

And now at long last comes the moment of truth that we had predicted.

Taoist dudes

In all these commentaries, which continue through the Han and other intermediate dynasties, the “base” or “target” text is interrupted by the commentary, whose purpose in part is to provide glosses, both phonetic and semantic, for individual characters in the base text, and to offer guidance as to how the passage is to be read. Our focal point is Greece. In recent decades we have realized that not all clusters are galactic or globular. Voters, who are understandably angry at policies that have produced 22 per cent unemployment, have turned on the parties enforcing these policies. We have evidence that all sorts of other texts were treated in this way: interlinear commentaries were written not only on the “Ru,” or Confucian, texts, but also on the Huainanzi, the Chuci (the Songs of Chu), the Laozi (Dao De Jing), the Wuxing (Five Virtues) and the Taixuan Jing (Elemental Changes).


What changed our minds? By the close of the Han, few authoritative texts in the Chinese tradition were read without the assistance of an accompanying interlinear commentary. Our minds were changed by scientific observation of the star cluster R136, which is located in one of the Milky Way’s small satellite galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud. From the 2nd century through to the early years of the 20th century, the typical reader read the opening passage of the text and then the interlinear commentary on that passage; from interlinear commentary he would return to the next passage of the text and on again to the interlinear commentary. First discovered in 1960, R136 was initially thought to be a single, giant star, about 2,000 times as massive as the Sun and about 100 million times as bright. The process continued, passage after passage, from the first lines of text to the very end.


And who was responsible? Because the entire Greek political establishment was in effect bullied into endorsing a doomed economic orthodoxy, the result of voter revulsion has created rising power for extremists. Thus the reading of the base text throughout was interrupted and informed by the reading of the companion commentary. In 1985 Gerd Weigelt and Gerhard Baier, both then working at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, used recent high-resolution imaging techniques to show that R136 is actually a cluster of about 10,000 stars, a few million years old. Even if the polls are wrong and the governing coalition somehow ekes out a majority in the next round of voting, the game is basically up. It is as dense as a globular but as young as a galactic cluster, with characteristics of both types. Greece won’t, can’t pursue the policies that Germany and the European Central Bank is demanding that it adopt.


After reading interlinear commentary became an established practice, so too did writing interlinear commentary become an established intellectual activity for literati. R136 was the missing link between them. So now what? From the Han on, philosophers devoted considerable effort to preparing interlinear commentary on important texts. As of today, Greece is experiencing a “bank jog,” sort of a slow motion bank run, as depositors pull out their cash in anticipation of a possible Greek exit from the euro. Since then, observers have found several clusters like R136 in our galaxy. In this way the corpus of Chinese commentary grew to be very full and very rich. Other galaxies such as the Antennae contain hundreds if not thousands of them. Around each of the jing, or classics (in the canon of authoritative Confucian texts), there grew up volumes and volumes of commentarial writing.

Taoist decoration

The discovery that stars continue to form in clusters so dense that they could be mistaken for a single star is astonishing. Reading the various commentaries on a canonical text allows us not only to observe that the Confucian interpretive community was, in fact, an ever changing one but also to chart in detail how ideas, beliefs and values important to that community underwent historical change over the centuries at the hands of different interpreters of a constant text. This led to consternation among theorists. On the one hand, we were relieved, because we had not been able to explain R136 as a single superstar; on the other hand, we had to reconsider everything that we thought we knew about star clusters. Europe’s central bank is in effect financing this bank “run” by lending Greece the necessary euros. We now think that all stars, including the Sun, were very likely born in tight clusters like R136.


When the central bank decides that it can lend no more, Greece will be forced to abandon the euro and issue its own currency again. How does a cluster form? The demonstration that the euro is in fact reversible would lead in turn, to runs on Spanish and Italian banks, so once again the European Central Bank would have to choose whether to provide open-ended financing; if it were to say no, the euro as a whole would blow up. A cluster forms out of a single interstellar gas cloud and, over time, evolves into either a galactic or globular cluster, depending on its mass and environment. Thus, as a genre that illuminates the Confucian past and that documents especially well the vibrancy and changing nature of that past, commentary is indispensible to the study of Chinese intellectual history. The members of a cluster galaxy span a range of masses, with a few heavy stars and a multitude of lightweight stars.


Yet financing isn’t enough. The least massive stars, like the Sun, are the most common. Italy and, in particular, Spain must be offered hope, an economic environment in which they have some reasonable prospect of emerging from austerity and recession, not to say depression. Mine is part of a study of Zhu Xi’s reexamination of one of the most central and influential texts in the Confucian tradition, the Analects. Realistically, the only way to provide such an environment would be for the central bank to drop its obsession with price stability. For each star of fifteen to 25 solar masses a cluster contains some 1,500 lesser stars. For it to accept and indeed encourage several years of 3 per cent or 4 per cent inflation in Europe. This sets the minimum mass of the Sun’s birth cluster. The variety of issues that I have addressed here, both implicitly and explicitly, include: (And more inflation than in Germany.)

Longshan dragon
Longshan Temple, Taipei

Fenghuang nanning
Fenghuang Lake, Nanning

The maximum mass is set by the fact that the larger a cluster is, the longer it takes for massive stars to settle toward the center, where they have the greatest likelihood of affecting their small brethren. (1) Why did Zhu Xi choose to write interlinear commentary as a vehicle for expressing his understanding of the Analects and the Confucian tradition? Such a star, of which there are about 3,500, lives for six to twelve million years before exploding and disintegrating, so it must have formed about this long before the Sun did. (2) How did Zhu understand his relationship to the base text, the Analects? Sun-like stars arise several million years later; a cluster of inferred mass was too flimsy to evolve into a globular cluster; instead it dispersed after 200 million years; the stars at its center shed gas in stellar winds and eventually exploded, reducing the cluster’s density and weakening its gravitational field.

Guan-yin Taipei motorcyclists
觀世音菩薩 Guan Shi-yin Pusa

Both the central bankers and the Germans hate this idea, but it’s the only plausible way to save the euro. Consequently, the cluster expanded and might have fallen apart. (3) How did Zhu negotiate between the words of sages past and the beliefs and conventions of contemporary readers? Even if it survived this early out-gassing, interactions among stars and the tidal forces exerted by the rest of the galaxy drove its slow dissolution. For the past two years European leaders have responded to crisis with half-measures. Before the cluster disintegrated, stars were so densely packed that one of them could easily have passed through the solar system. But they have made no use of the time afforded them. (4) How did Zhu’s commentary shape other people’s reading and understanding of the text? Now time has run out. Some have suggested as an explanation that we once experienced a stellar close encounter.

Taoist abundance

A stellar close encounter, however, would have pulled planets, comets and asteroids from their original circular, planar obits into highly elliptical, inclined orbits. (5) How was Zhu’s commentary on the Analects influenced and mediated by earlier traditions of commentary? Many comets beyond a distance of 50 astronomical units (AU), past the orbit of Pluto, have highly skewed orbits; moreover, the internal dynamics of the solar system cannot account for this. So, will Europe finally rise to the occasion? The most likely explanation is that they were stirred up by a star passing 1,000 AU away. Let’s hope so. The planets, though, have regular orbits, indicating that no stellar intruder ever came within 100 AU of the Sun. And not just because of the consequences of a euro breakup. The Sun’s orbit, traced back in time, suggests that our solar system was born farther out in the galaxy than it is now located.


And finally, (6) How did his commentary mediate the reading of the text by other commentators over the next seven hundred years? For another star in the cluster to have passed 1,000 AU away with reasonable probability over the cluster’s lifetime, the cluster would have to have been less than ten light-years in diameter. Think of it this way: Conversely, for a star not to come within 100 AU, the cluster had to be greater than three light years in diameter. Failure of the euro would amount to a huge defeat for the broader European project, the attempt to bring peace, prosperity and democracy to a continent with a terrible history. In short, the Sun’s birth cluster looked like R136 but much less dense, so that stars were far enough apart not to interfere with planet formation. This might prove dangerous. Theorists can go further and ask where exactly in the galaxy the birth cluster had its origin.

Taoist vase

By translating two commentaries I hope to illustrate the dynamic and complex relationship between the classical text and the interlinear commentary. The solar system revolves around the galactic center in an almost circular orbit with the disk. This is no mean task. At the moment we are located 30,000 light-years from the center and fifteen light-years from the plane of the disk, orbiting at a speed of 234 km per second. We all have a big stake in Europe’s economic and political success. At this rate, the sun has made 27 circuits since its formation. But it’s up to the Europeans themselves to deliver that success. The orbit is not a closed loop but a more complicated shape, one that is determined by the gravitational field of the galaxy. The world is waiting to see if they’re up to the task. Not only does interlinear commentary draw meaning from the text, it also, simultaneously, endows it with meaning.

Taoist neighborhood