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Sīmǎ Guāng's Letter
Against Geomancy

Sīmǎ Guāng 司马光 (1019-1086) was a distinguished palace official and historian during the Sòng dynasty (period 15). Clearly identified with Neo-Confucianism, he was a supporter of government authority, education in Confucian texts, conservative morality, and the importance of etiquette and ritual in everyday life.

Like any other Confucian official, he was repelled by some popular practices, and ever alert for fraud being worked on a gullible populace. The present text is his condemnation in 1084 of the practice of fēngshuǐ 风水 (geomancy), partly (probably mostly) on the grounds that he considered it unproven nonsense. As a demonstration of this, he reports what his puckish brother did when relatives required the brothers to consult fēngshuǐ specialists.

His primary argument, however, was that waiting for a perfect time and place for burial prevented expeditious funerals, which he maintained was unfilial, the all-purpose argument used by Confucians to condemn pretty much any behavior they disliked.

But his argument about its unfiliality was subtler than that. He argued that the motivation for following fēngshuǐ was only selfish instrumentalism rather than actual concern for the welfare of the dead, a point that has continued to be rediscovered clear up to our own day by analysts of the practice.

What would have been Confucius’ view?

The text and translation offered here are very slightly updated from:

J.J. M. de Groot 1892-1910 The Religious System of China. Leiden: E.J. Brill. Volume 3, pp. 1022-1025.

As in other bilingual materials on this site, the simplified-character text is in red and the traditional-character text in blue. Subtitles have been added. Sentences are numbered to facilitate class discussion or written reference. Readers can toggle between an English-only version and a bilingual version.

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English-Only Version

A. The Lamentable State of Things

1. The people nowadays do not bury the dead more luxuriously than they did anciently, but the importance attached to the prohibitions created by the Yīn-and-Yáng system has become much greater!
2. The treatises on burial now in circulation investigate the influences of the forms of mountains and water-courses, rocks and fields; they examine the Earth Branches and Heaven Stems, which indicate the years, months, days and hours, considering the low or high rank of the offspring in the social scale, their wealth and poverty, late or early death, intelligence or stupidity to be entirely bound up with those factors, so that burials cannot be performed unless in such-and-such grounds and at such-and-such times.
3. The whole nation is bewildered by these theories and places belief therein, in consequence of which it frequently occurs that those who lose their parents postpone their burial for a considerable time.
4. If asked the reasons why they do so, they say: ‘Year and month are not yet propitious’, or: ‘We have not yet found a felicitous plot of ground’, or: ‘Some of our family reside far from here in the service of the State and have not yet found an opportunity to come home’, or: ‘We are so poor that we are not yet able to procure the requirements for the burial’.
5. These are the causes of there being people who do not perform one single burial during their whole lives, nay, during many generations in succession, in consequence of which encoffined corpses are abandoned and lost sight of, so that it becomes unknown where they are.
6. Oh! how is it possible that such things do not make a man sigh and lament from the bottom of his heart!
7. With a view to the life to come, a man sets great value upon having posterity, that they may properly bury his remains.
8. But if his offspring act in the above way, a man is worse off than if he died on the road without leaving any son or grandson, for then some benevolent creature, on beholding him, would throw something over his remains to hide them from view.

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B. Why People Are Wrong

9. According to the ceremonial rules enacted by the ancient sovereigns, the period within which their burial must take place did not exceed seven months, and the present dynasty has ordained that every one, from the Imperial princes downwards, shall be interred ere three months have elapsed.
10. Those rules also demand that the children shall not make any change in their mourning dress before the burial, that they must eat gruel and live in sheds built against the wall, for grief that their parents are homeless, and that they shall gradually diminish their mourning after the interment.
11. But people nowadays turn a deaf ear to these rules, and openly transgress the prescripts. They put off their mourning dress ere the burial is over, occupy official posts in any part of the realm eat rice, dress in ornamented garments, drink spirits and make music.
12. Can their hearts be at ease when they do so?

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C. The Correct and Reasonable View

13. The social standing of any man, his wealth and the length of his life depend on the heavens, and his mental development on himself; but these matters stand in no connection whatever with burials, nor are they pre-influenced thereby.
14. If nevertheless everybody follows the advice of burial professors, mankind must come to suffer under a concurrence of events entailing grief and misery.
15. And how is it to be borne that people do not refrain from cruelly exposing their parents to wind and weather, merely for the purpose of establishing their own wealth and fortunes?

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D. An Instructive Example: My Family

16 Formerly, when my own forefathers were buried, my family were too poor to procure proper vaults and coffins, and they did not use these until one of them was raised to the dignity of Generalissimo.
17. Not the slightest quantity of gold, silver, pearls or jade was ever placed in their graves.
18. When the Generalissimo was to be buried, my clansmen unanimously said: ‘A burial is an occurrence of great significance in a family; may we therefore abstain from consulting geomancy? Certainly not!’
19. My elder brother Bókāng was compelled to comply with their desires, and said: ‘I assent to advising with geomancy; but where shall we find a good burial professor to consult?’
20. Upon which a clansman replied: ‘In the village close by there lives one Zhāng, a clever professor, employed by everybody in several districts’.
21. My brother called this man and promised him twenty thousand copper coins.

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22. On hearing him mention such a sum, the geomancer was greatly delighted, for he was a simple rustic, and the geomancers being at that time looked down upon by the people as mere rustics, he had never received more than a thousand coppers for a burial.
23. Still my brother said: ‘I will entrust you with the burial on condition that you follow my instructions; otherwise I shall employ another professor’.
24. ‘I will do nothing else but what you order me’, was the reply.
25. My brother himself now selected such a burial place as pleased himself best, fixed the month, year, day, and hour of the interment, the depth and dimensions of the grave, and the road along which the procession should pass, making everything agree in the best way with the circumstances.
26. He then ordered Mr. Zhāng to control his work with the help of his books of burial, and the man declared everything to be highly felicitous.
27. Which, being communicated to, the clansmen, filled them all with delight, none of them raising objections or expressing any other opinion.
28. (In spite of all this), my brother is now seventy-nine years old, and his official career has raised him up to the dignity of Minister of State.
29. And I am now sixty-six and, though unworthy of the honour, I am invested with the dignity of minister in immediate attendance upon the Emperor; moreover, twenty-three clansmen of mine are office-bearers.
30. And now behold how people who carefully employ the books of burial, are unable to surpass my family!

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E. Another Example From My Family

31. Two years ago my wife died.
32. No sooner was her coffin made than we placed her in it; no sooner were the preparatives finished than we carried her away; no sooner was her grave dug than we buried her. Nor did we waste a single word in consulting an expert in fēngshuǐ matters.
33. And yet, nothing infelicitous has up to the present befallen me, unless by other palpable causes.

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F. The Need for Action

34. Geomancers have founded false systems with which they delude the multitude; they cause woe and misery to prevail for many generations in families which are visited by death.
35. But still worse, the proposal lately made by me to the Throne in my capacity of a Censor, to the effect that the books of burial in the Empire should be forbidden, has not been agreed with by any of those who hold power under the government!
36. This disquisition is made by me, in the hopes that sons and grandsons may in future bury their dead at the proper time.
37. If they wish to learn that the requisites for burial need not be costly, let them consider what has found place with my forefathers;
38. and if they desire a proof that the books of burial deserve no belief, show them what has occurred in my family!”

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