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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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Bilingual 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! 今人葬不厚于古、而拘于阴阳禁忌则甚矣。

Jīnrén zàng bù hòuyú gǔ, érJūYú yīn-yáng jìnjì zéshèn yǐ.

今人葬不厚於古、而拘於陰陽禁忌則甚矣。
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. 今之葬书乃相山川冈亩之形势、考岁月日时之支干、以为子孙贵贱贫富寿夭贤愚皆系焉、非此地非此时不可葬也。

Jīn zhī zàng shū nǎi xiāng shānchuān gāng mǔ zhī xíngshì, kǎo suìyuè rì shí zhī zhīGān, yǐwéi zǐsūn guìjiàn pín-fù shòuyāo xián yú jiē xì yān, fēi cǐdì fēi cǐshí bùkě zàng yě.

今之葬書乃相山川岡畝之形勢、考歲月日時之支干、以為子孫貴賤貧富壽夭賢愚皆繫焉、非此地非此時不可葬也。
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. 举世惑而信之、于是丧亲者往往久而不葬。

Jǔshì huò ér xìn zhī, yúshì sāng qīn zhě wǎngwǎng jiǔ ér bù zàng.

舉世惑而信之、於是喪親者往往久而不葬。
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’. 问之、曰、岁月未利也、又日、未有吉地也、又日、游宦远方、未得归也、又日、贫、朱能办葬具也。

Wèn zhī, yuē, suìyuè wèi lì yě, yòu rì, wèiyǒu jídì yě, yòu rì, yóuhuàn yuǎnfāng, wèi dé guī yě, yòu rì, pín, zhū néng bàn zàng jù yě.

問之、曰、歲月未利也、又日、未有吉地也、又日、遊宦遠方、未得歸也、又日、貧、朱能辦葬具也。
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. 至有终身累世而不葬、遂弃失尸柩、不知其处者。

Zhì yǒu zhōngshēn lěishì ér bù zàng, suì qì shī shī jiù, bùzhī qí chù zhě.

至有終身累世而不葬、遂棄失尸柩、不知其處者。
6. Oh! how is it possible that such things do not make a man sigh and lament from the bottom of his heart! 鸣呼、可不令人深叹愍哉。

Míng hū, kěbù lìngrén shēn tàn mǐn zāi.

鳴呼、可不令人深歎愍哉。
7. With a view to the life to come, a man sets great value upon having posterity, that they may properly bury his remains. 人所贵于身后有子孙者、为能藏其形骸也。

Rén suǒ guì yú shēn hòu yǒu zǐsūn zhě, wéi néng cáng qí xínghái yě.

人所貴於身後有子孫者、為能藏其形骸也。
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. 其所为乃如是、曷若无子孙死于道路、犹有仁者见而殣之耶。

Qí suǒwéi nǎirú shì, héruò wú zǐsūn sǐ yú dàolù, yóuyǒu rénzhě jiàn ér jìn zhī yé.

其所為乃如是、曷若無子孫死於道路、猶有仁者見而殣之耶。

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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. 先王制礼葬期远不过七月、今世着令自王公以下皆三月而葬。

Xiānwáng zhìlǐ zàng qī yuǎn bùguò Qīyuè, jīnshì zhuólìng zì wánggōng yǐxià jiē Sānyuè ér zàng.

先王制禮葬期遠不過七月、今世著令自王公以下皆三月而葬。
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. 又礼未葬不变服、食粥、居倚庐、哀亲之未有所归也、既葬然后渐有除变。

Yòu lǐ wèi zàng bùbiàn fú, shí zhōu, jū yǐlú, āi qīn zhī wèiyǒu suǒ guī yě, jì zàng ránhòu jiàn yǒu chú biàn.

又禮未葬不變服、食粥、居倚廬、哀親之未有所歸也、既葬然後漸有除變。
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. 今之人背礼违法。未葬而除丧、从宦四方、食稻、衣锦、饮酒、作乐。

Jīn zhī rén bèi lǐ wéifǎ. Wèi zàng ér chúsāng, cóng huàn sìfāng, shí dào, yī jǐn, yǐnjiǔ, zuòlè.

今之人背禮違法。未葬而除喪、從宦四方、食稻、衣錦、飲酒、作樂。
12. Can their hearts be at ease when they do so? 其心安乎。

Qí xīn’ān hū.

其心安乎。

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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. 人之贵贱贫富寿夭系于天、贤愚系于人、固无关预于葬。

Rén zhī guìjiàn pín-fù shòuyāo xìyú tiān, xián yú xìyú rén, gù wúguān yù yú zàng.

人之貴賤貧富壽夭繫於天、賢愚繫於人、固無關預於葬。
14. If nevertheless everybody follows the advice of burial professors, mankind must come to suffer under a concurrence of events entailing grief and misery. 就使皆如葬师之言、为人子者方当哀穷之际。

Jiùshǐ jiē rú zàng shī zhī yán, wéirén zi zhě fāng dāng āi qióng zhījì.

就使皆如葬師之言、為人子者方當哀窮之際。
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? 何忍不顾其亲之暴露、乃欲自营福利耶。

Hé rěn bùgù qí qīn zhī bàolù, nǎi yù zìyíng fúlì yé.

何忍不顧其親之暴露、乃欲自營福利耶。

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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. 昔者吾诸祖之葬也家甚贫、不能具椁棺、自太尉公而下始有棺榔。

Xīzhě wú zhū zǔ zhī zàng yě jiāshi pín, bù néng jù guǒ guān, zì tài wèi gōng ér xià shǐ yǒu guān láng.

昔者吾諸祖之葬也家甚貧、不能具槨棺、自太尉公而下始有棺榔。
17. Not the slightest quantity of gold, silver, pearls or jade was ever placed in their graves. 然金银珠玉之物未尝以锱铢入于圹中。

Rán jīnyín zhūyù zhī wù wèicháng yǐ zīzhū rù yú kuàng zhōng.

然金銀珠玉之物未嘗以錙銖入於壙中。
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!’ 将葬太尉公、族人皆曰、葬者家之大事、奈何不询阴阳、此必不可。

Jiāng zàng tài wèi gōng, zúrén jiē yuē, zàng zhě jiā zhī dà shì, nàihé bù xún yīn-yáng, cǐ bì bùkě.

將葬太尉公、族人皆曰、葬者家之大事、奈何不詢陰陽、此必不可。
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?’ 吾兄伯康无如之何、乃曰、询于阴阳则可矣、安得良葬师而询之。

Wúxiōng bó kāng wúrú zhī hé, nǎi yuē, xún yú yīn-yáng zé kě yǐ, āndé liáng zàng shī ér xún zhī.

吾兄伯康無如之何、乃曰、詢于陰陽則可矣、安得良葬師而詢之。
20. Upon which a clansman replied: ‘In the village close by there lives one Zhāng, a clever professor, employed by everybody in several districts’. 族人曰、近村有张生者、良师也、数县皆用之。

Zúrén yuē, jìn cūn yǒu zhāng shēng zhě, liángshī yě, shù xiàn jiē yòng zhī.

族人曰、近村有張生者、良師也、數縣皆用之。
21. My brother called this man and promised him twenty thousand copper coins. 兄乃召张生、许以钱二万。

Xiōng nǎi zhào zhāng shēng, xǔ yǐ qián èrwàn.

兄乃召張生、許以錢二萬。

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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. 张生野夫也、世为葬师为野人、葬所得不过千钱、闻之大喜。

Zhāng shēng yěfū yě, shì wéi zàng shī wéi yěrén, zàng suǒdé bùguò qiān qián, wén zhī dà xǐ.

張生野夫也、世為葬師為野人、葬所得不過千錢、聞之大喜。
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’. 兄曰、汝能用吾言吾俾尔葬、不用吾言将求他师。

Xiōng yuē, rǔ néng yòng wú yán wú bǐ ěr zàng, bùyòng wú yán jiāng qiú tā shī.

兄曰、汝能用吾言吾俾爾葬、不用吾言將求他師。
24. ‘I will do nothing else but what you order me’, was the reply. 张师曰、唯命是听。

Zhāng shī yuē, wéimìngshìtīng.

張師曰、唯命是聽。
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. 于是兄自以已意处岁月日时、及扩之深浅广狭、道路所从出、皆取便于事者。

Yúshì xiōng zì yǐ yǐ yì chù suìyuè rì shí, jí kuò zhī shēnqiǎn guǎng xiá, dàolù suǒ cóng chū, jiē qǔbiàn yú shì zhě.

於是兄自以已意處歲月日時、及擴之深淺廣狹、道路所從出、皆取便於事者。
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. 使张生以葬书绿饰之、日大吉。

Shǐ zhāng shēng yǐ zàng shū lǜ shì zhī, rì dàjí.

使張生以葬書綠飾之、日大吉。
27. Which, being communicated to, the clansmen, filled them all with delight, none of them raising objections or expressing any other opinion. 以示族人、皆悦、无违异者。

Yǐshì zúrén, jiē yuè, wú wéiyì zhě.

以示族人、皆悅、無違異者。
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. 今吾兄年七十九、以列卿致仕。

Jīnwú xiōng nián qīshí jiǔ, yǐ liè qīng zhìshì.

今吾兄年七十九、以列卿致仕。
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. 吾年六十六、忝备侍从、宗族之从仕者二十有三人。

Wú nián liùshí liù, tiǎn bèi shìcóng, zōngzú zhī cóng shì zhě èrshí yǒu sān rén.

吾年六十六、忝備侍從、宗族之從仕者二十有三人。
30. And now behold how people who carefully employ the books of burial, are unable to surpass my family! 视他人之谨用葬书未必胜吾家也。

Shì tārén zhī jǐn yòng zàng shū wèibì shèng wú jiā yě.

視他人之謹用葬書未必勝吾家也。

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E. Another Example From My Family

31. Two years ago my wife died. 前年吾妻死。

Qiánnián wú qī sǐ.

前年吾妻死。
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. 棺成而敛、装办而行、扩成而葬、未尝以一言询阴阳家。

Guān chéng ér liǎn, zhuāng bàn ér xíng, kuò chéng ér zàng, wèicháng yǐ yīyán xún yīnyángjiā.

棺成而斂、裝辦而行、擴成而葬、未嘗以一言詢陰陽家。
33. And yet, nothing infelicitous has up to the present befallen me, unless by other palpable causes. 迄今亦无他故吾尝疾。

Qìjīn yì wútā gùwú cháng jí.

迄今亦無他故吾嘗疾。

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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. 阴阳家立邪说以惑众、为世患于丧家。

Yīnyángjiā lì xiéshuō yǐ huò zhòng, wéi shì huàn yú sàngjiā.

陰陽家立邪說以惑衆、為世患於喪家。
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! 尤甚、顷为谏官尝奏乞禁天下葬书。 当时执政莫以为意。

Yóushèn, qǐng wéi jiàn guān cháng zòu qǐ jìn tiānxià zàng shū. Dāngshí zhízhèng mò yǐwéi yì.

尤甚、頃為諫官嘗奏乞禁天下葬書。 當時執政莫以為意。
36. This disquisition is made by me, in the hopes that sons and grandsons may in future bury their dead at the proper time. 今着兹论、庶俾后之子孙葬必以时。

Jīn zhù cé lùn, shù bǐ hòu zhī zǐ sūn zàng bì yǐ shí.

今著兹論、庶俾後之子孫葬必以時。
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; 欲知葬具之不必厚、视吾祖、

yù zhī zàng jù zhī bùbì hòu, shì wú zǔ,

欲知葬具之不必厚、視吾祖、
38. and if they desire a proof that the books of burial deserve no belief, show them what has occurred in my family!” 欲知葬书不足信,视吾家。

yù zhī zàng shū bùzúxìn,shì wú jiā.

欲知葬書不足信,視吾家。


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