Shao Yong (1011-1077 C.E.; Chinese 邵雍; Shao K'ang-chieh; or Shao Yao-fu, Shao Yung; courtesy name (zi) Yaofu), named Shào Kāngjié (邵康节) or Shao Kangjie after death, was a Song Dynasty Chinese philosopher, cosmologist, poet and historian who greatly influenced the development of Neo-Confucianism in China. Shao was considered one of the most scholarly men of his time, yet, unlike men of such stature in his society, Shao Yong avoided assuming any governmental position, spending his life in a humble hermitage outside Honan, conversing with friends and engaging in mystical speculation. Shao's influential treatise on cosmogony is the Huang-chi ching-shi shuh (Book of supreme world ordering principles).
Through his study of the great Confucian classic and work of divination, the I Ching (“Book of Changes”), Shao developed his theory that the spirit, which underlies all things, could be comprehended by understanding the division of the different elements into numbers. Shao believed the number four to be the key to understanding the world. Though his complicated numerological system was only a peripheral influence on the development of Chinese Confucian thought, the idea that the underlying principle behind the unity of the universe exists in man's mind as much as in the universe became the basis of the idealist school of Neo-Confucianism. Shao is also noted for developing the hexagram arrangement for the I Ching, a binary representation of the numbers 0 through 63. The seventeenth-century mathematician Leibniz, who developed the binary system in the West, later saw this arrangement and realized that Shao had discovered this concept centuries before, though he used it only to represent value of the scheme and not to conduct mathematical operations.
Shao Yong was born one evening in 1011 in an area known as Heng-chang, China, to Shao Gu (986-1064) and Shao Li (ca. 1032 or 1033) Shao Yong's mother, Li, was an extremely devout practitioner of Buddhism. This early exposure to Buddhism proved a major influence in Shao Yong's thought. Shao Gu, his father, was his first teacher, as was common practice in China at the time. Shao Yong's literary works indicate that Shao Gu was a scholar of philology. His father made him thoroughly familiar with the Six Confucian classics at a young age.
After receiving his early education from Shao Gu, Shao Yong sought out private schools, many of them run by monks, which taught some form of Buddhism. Around 1020, the Shao family moved to Kung-ch'eng (Guangxi) county in Wei Prefecture. Shortly after Yung's mothers death in 1022 or 1023 Yung met his most important teacher, Li Chih-ts'ai (1001-1045). Li was a former pupil of the ancient prose specialist Mu Hsiu (979-1032), and had studied the I Ching extensively under him.
Career and Later Life
Shao was originally a Daoist and refused all offer of positions in the government. He spent his life in a humble hermitage outside Honan, conversing with friends and engaging in mystical speculation. Through his study of the great Confucian classic and work of divination, the I Ching (“Classic of Changes”), he developed his theories that numbers are the basis of all existence. Shao's influential treatise on cosmogony is the Huang-chi ching-shi shuh (Book of supreme world ordering principles).
Thought and Works
Shao Yung was part of a group of intellectual thinkers who had gathered in Luoyang toward the last three decades of the eleventh century. This group had two primary objectives. One of these was to draw parallels between their own streams of thought and that of Confucianism as understood by Mencius. Secondly, they sought to undermine any links, real or perceived, between fourth century Confucianism and Buddhism and Taoism, which they viewed as inferior philosophical schools of thought. Other loosely connected members of this group of thinkers include: Cheng Yi ((1033-1107), Zhang Zai (1020-1077), Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073). Each of these thinkers had studied the ancient text, the I Ching, extensively. Shao Yung, however, approached this ancient text in an original way.
During this period of the Song Dynasty, there were two approaches to the study of the I Ching. The majority of scholars took the i-li hsueh ('meaning-principle study') approach. Shao Yong belonged to the minority who used the hsiang-shu hsueh ('image-number study') approach. The meaning-principle approach was both a literalistic and moralistic concept of study. Among these prominent thinkers, Shao Yong was the sole proponent of the iconographic and cosmological image-number approach.
Theory of Shao Yong
Shao Yong believed that the spirit that underlies all things could be comprehended by understanding the division of the different elements into numbers. Unlike his Chinese predecessors, who usually preferred the numbers two or five, Shao believed the number four to be the key to understanding the world. The universe was divided into four sections (Sun, Moon, stars, and zodiac), the body into four sense organs (eye, ear, nose, and mouth), and the Earth into four substances (fire, water, earth, and stone). Similarly, all ideas had four manifestations, all actions four choices, and so forth. This complicated system was only a peripheral influence on the development of Chinese Confucian thought. The fundamental theory was that existence has an underlying unity, which can be grasped by the superior man who understands its basic principles. The idea that the underlying principle behind the unity of the universe exists in man's mind as much as in the universe became the basis of the idealist school of neo-Confucianism.
Shao brought into Confucianism the Buddhist idea that history consists of series of repeating cycles. Shao called these cycles, known to Buddhists as kalpas, yüan, and reduced them from an astronomical length to a comprehensible duration of 129,600 years. This theory was later accepted by all branches of neo-Confucianism and made part of the official state ideology by the twelfth-century Sung scholar Zhu Xi.
Shao developed a number of different methods of prediction, known collectively as Plum Blossom Numerology. His system worked in several ways, depending on which of several alternative methodologies was used, and whether the "Early Heaven" trigram sequences (based on Fu Hsi's primal structure) or "Later Heaven" trigram sequences (based on Lo Shu, or the "Writing from the River Lo") are being used. The structure of the hexagram text was dependent on the "Later Heaven" structure, and so could be read directly from the I Ching text, while the use of the "Early Heaven" structure was more difficult and required that the predictions be made based upon the relationships of the meanings inherent in the trigrams and the relationships between them.
Shao developed another system as the foundation for the Predestination Lifechart, although one legend states that this system was passed on to him by an old man at the end of his life.
Shao is also noted for developing the hexagram arrangement for the I Ching, a binary representation of the numbers 0 through 63. The seventeenth-century mathematician Leibniz, who developed the binary system in the West, later saw this arrangement and realized that Shao had discovered this concept centuries before, though he used it only to represent the value of the scheme and not to conduct mathematical operations.
Shao Yong is also famous for his poetry and for his interest in the game of Go (Weiqi), and for having written the longest Chinese poem in existence: "Great ode to watching Weiqi" (觀棋大吟), as well as his "Long ode to watching Weiqi" (觀棋長吟).
The "Great ode to watching Weiqi" is available in Chinese at 
The shorter "Long Ode" is available in the original Chinese at 
A translation of 觀棋長吟 follows:
Long Ode to Watching Weiqi Shao Yong
In a quiet courtyard in the spring, with evening's light filtering through the leaves,
guests relax on the veranda and watch as two compete at weiqi.
Each calls into themselves the divine and the infernal,
sculpting mountains and rivers into their world.
Across the board, dragons and serpents array for battle,
geese scatter as collapsing fortresses are sacked;
masses die, pushed into pits by Qin's soldiers,
and the drama's audience is left in awe of its General Jin.
To sit at the board is to raise halberd and taste combat,
to endure the freezing and brave the flames in the constant changes;
life and death each will come to both masters,
but victory and defeat must each go to one.
On this road, one strips away the other's disguises,
in life, one must erect one's own facade;
dreadful is a wound to the exposed belly or heart,
merely painful is an injury to the face, which can be cured;
Effective is a blow that strikes home in an opponent's back,
successful are schemes that use repeated feints and deceit.
Look at the activity on the streets of our capital,
if you were to go elsewhere, wouldn't it be the same?
Stories about Shao Yong
There are numerous legends and stories about the predictions of Shao Yong. The following well-known traditional stories are excerpted from Da Liu's I ching numerology:
The Borrowing Neighbor. One New Year's Eve Shao and his son heard a single knock on the door. A neighbor had come to borrow something. Shao asked his son to predict what it was, using the cues of the single knock and the date and time of the knock. The son used the principles of prediction to calculate that the desired article had metal and was short, and that it also had wood and was long. A hoe, he decided. "No," Shao said, "he wants to borrow an ax!" The neighbor did ask to borrow an ax. After he had left, Shao explained that in making predictions it is also necessary to consider the circumstances. It was cold and the ground was covered with snow. How could anyone use a hoe now? Also, on New Year's Eve, it was a custom to build a fire in the house. Thus, it is always necessary to apply experience and knowledge to arrive at the proper analysis of any situation.
The Fate of the Lantern. Shao had bought a glass lantern. Curious, he calculated its fate, and discovered that it would be broken on a particular date at noon. He remembered this date and time, and shortly before the time arrived, he decided to discover how the lantern would be broken. He placed the lantern on a table and sat down to watch. It soon was time for lunch, and his wife called to him repeatedly to come and eat, but he did not come. Finally, upset, she went to find him. When she saw him staring at the lantern so intently and ignoring her, she became angry and hit the lantern hard with a stick. Surprised, Shao jumped up and laughed.
How Shao Protected His Grave. When Shao was close to death, he called his son to discuss his funeral arrangements. He particularly told him to not place any valuables into his coffin with him, and strangest of all, he told him to be sure that the young daughter of his eastern neighbor witnessed his whole burial procedure from beginning to end. This was done according to his instructions, and the young girl witnessed Shao's body being placed into his coffin and its burial. Eventually she grew into a woman and bore a son. Unfortunately, he became a gambler and wastrel, and his friends were bandits and graverobbers! One day she overheard them discussing plans to rob Shao's grave because, since he was such a famous man, it undoubtedly contained many valuables. She told them to leave Shao in peace because as a girl she had witnessed the fact that his coffin contained only his body in plain wrappings. [This incident is a well-known fact in the life of Sung Chiang, the leader of these bandits, and (according to Dai Lu) the story has been included in a novel of his life, Suei Hu, which has been translated into English as All Men Are Brothers.]
How Shao "Wrote" His Own Biography. Oh Yang Fei, a subordinate of a famous statesman and historian named Szu-Ma Kuang, was sent on an official mission. Since he was going to be passing through Shao's area, he was given permission to stop and visit him. Shao entertained Oh and told him about his life in great detail. He not only spoke of his work and writings, but also described his family's history and information about his marriage and his sons. Shao even went so far as to repeat all this information several times during Oh's stay. At the gate, as Oh was leaving, Shao told him to not forget what he had told him. Many years later, after Shao died the emperor ordered Oh, who was then an official court historian, to write a biography of Shao for the official annals of the dynasty. Oh was able to do this accurately based on the information which Shao had told him years before.
- Don J. Wyatt. The recluse of Loyang: Shao Yung and the moral evolution of early Sung thought. (Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawai'i Press, 1996.), 12, 13, 16
- Chan, Wing-tsit. 1969. A source book in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691019649
- Da, Liu, and Shao Yung. 1979. I ching numerology: based on Shao Yung's classic Plum blossom numerology. San Francisco: Harper & Row. ISBN 0060616687
- Wyatt, Don J. 1996. The recluse of Loyang: Shao Yung and the moral evolution of early Sung thought. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0824817559
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