Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

Like a cast listed in the order of appearance, we wonder whether time or space comes first. Or do the two main actors appear in tandem in the first scene? An ancient philosophical debate mirrors the current scientific discussion. If indeed, the Universe is conceptual in nature,  early Taoist philosophy is a good place to start looking for clues. This post stands at the crossroads and invites to a D-tour. The last paragraph of the previous post leads to a digression, an attempt to reconnect with Chinese studies. Barbour’s interesting choice of words, that is “invariant variational’, somehow sticks with me and guides my steps back in time to some primary concepts.

Among all variational problems some are special in being invariant. 'Invariant variational' sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn't: the resolution of the apparent paradox is that the quantity which is being varied has the property of remaining unchanged when expressed in different ways.

Julian Barbour, The Janus Point, p.174

The significance of the more than 2,300-year-old Chinese manuscript Heng Xian 亙先 acquired by the Shanghai Museum in the mid-nineties is the subject of an academic debate, not to mention the circumstances that surrounded its discovery and the sequence of the bamboo slips. How one single character is read and how different the meaning of a lineup of words is depends on the reader’s take. Scholars walk a fine line in an effort to cross-reference various texts. When it comes to the transmission of ideas, their interpretation depends on the faithfulness to the source text and whether we hold the earliest text or one that may have been amended. Changes introduced in later manuscripts still provide insights on which scholars rely. Over time, the choice of words may differ, but ideas remain.


What came first is as much the subject of a debate today as it was in the past. Heng Xian says: “Being came out of something, nature came out of Being, sounds came out of nature, words came out of sounds, names came out of words, and things came out of names”. And so from ‘things’ to that which is ‘something’, we ought to retrace our steps and find our way back. But if Heng Xian is such a milestone in the evolution of ideas, why is it that the text as it was reconstructed and made public early 2000s does not explicitly speak of Dao 道? While Dao in chapter 25 of Laozi from the Mawangdui Silk Texts 馬王堆帛書 (also known as Daode Jing 道德經 ) is believed to be the Mother of the Universe, some scholars see it differently and translate the expression 天下母 as the mother of all under heaven. The emphasis on concepts such as 亙 and 或 may be interpreted as a further breakdown of the primordial chain of events. According to Sixin Ding丁四新 from the Department of Philosophy of Tsinghua University in Beijing, who studied the two intricate concepts 亙 and 或, even though the authors of the bamboo manuscript  Heng Xian contemplated cosmology more profoundly, their knowledge about the structure of cosmogony was not yet “fully developed”.  He concludes that Heng Xian uses an indefinite pronoun 或 to refer to a stage in the genesis of the cosmos. 


Waxing Crescent (NASA Goddard)

Waxing Crescent (NASA Goddard)

While the first recorded character for the Moon was a waxing crescent, the earliest representational drawing for resembles a crescent between the Earth and the Sky. Such a cosmology-related graph appears to take precedence over the character dao 道 that shows a walking head — the path of humanity. 亙 means to extend over,  to cross over from one area to another, physical or abstract. The inferred meaning may be ‘constancy’ (). Not only the expression hengdao 恆道 appears in the first chapter of Laozi, but the replacement of the character by chang 常 in later texts implies ‘constancy’ in the flow of things. It confirms the existence of a permanent and dynamic principle whose flexibility is rendered by the word ‘flow’. Volition and detachment are attributes of the flow. The two qualities seem to contradict even to neutralize or negate each other. They regulate, however, the flow of the Universe.


Waning Crescent ( NASA Goddard)

Waning Crescent ( NASA Goddard)

A wide-ranging research on the complex relationship between the Universe and Consciousness involves accessing the memories of our ancestors, merging thoughts over time and space to prompt further reflection. Such research unfolds in the now as past and future become irrelevant. Chapter 40 of Laozi acknowledges a flow reversal or cyclical aspect in the movement of Dao. It reminds me of Noether’s universal system of transformations and that, for each transformation, there exists an inverse contained in the flow of the Universe. The two corresponding concepts 亙  and 或 were in the back of my mind as I dreamt the other night about a white sphere. The next day in the moonlight at dawn I walked through the garden on the path between native roses, listened to sounds of cicadas, and gazed at flowers of the catalpa tree falling. I wondered why a pictograph of the Moon caught between the Earth and the Sky would convey the idea of eternity. For over 4.5 billion years, the Earth-Moon system has been co-evolving. The Moon remains a constant in human life and her waxing and waning provide evidence of what Barbour calls ‘invariant variational’. 



The introducing sentence 亙先無有 of the bamboo manuscript sets the stage for events prior to the formation of the Earth-Moon system and before the Sun came out of a nebula cloud of dust and gas. Some scholars chose to translate it two ways: “In the Constancy, there is first no existence” or constancy “preceded the absence of Being”. Others believe that the two characters 亙先 have to do with the ‘origin of origins’, the ‘absolute primordiality’, the ‘ultimate commencement’ as a reference to the Great Ultimate 大極. Perhaps both interpretations —constancy and an ultimate beginning — do not contradict each other and point to an ultimate state of invariance. Sarah Allan argues that the idea of the Great Ultimate as an abstract point of origin, before there was anything else, seems to be a later theoretical development. I would concur with the idea of an abstract point beyond time and space. Before crossing over into the observable Universe, there was the absence of Being. 


Do absence of Being and nothingness differ? While chapter 40 of Laozi states, “All beings come from Being; Being comes from Non-Being,”* the graph 或 adds a new stage in the genesis of the cosmos. It conveys a sense of uncertainty over a state of becoming that is neither being nor nothingness. Zhuangzi states: “Sometimes there is Being, sometimes there is nothingness. Do we ever know if Being and nothing really exist or do not really exist?”** 或 showed originally a circle and a spear or lance on the right (radical halberd) with one or more borders sometimes drawn around the circle. It implicitly refers to a battle over a domain. Neither the outcome nor the protagonists are known. It is a suspended bridge between nothingness and being, the one “without material form”** and may be understood as  ’field’, ’space’ or even ‘sphere’. 

Whether or not we can credit the Heng Xian with the introduction of the abstract concept of space into the early Chinese cosmogonic discourse, its place in the chain of transformations, preceding the appearance of Being, is peculiar enough.

Andrei Gomouline

 I read the other day that the theory of shape dynamics does not assume the existence of a spacetime but a collection of 3-geometries that may fit together to act as a four-dimensional spacetime. 或 conveys Zhuangzi’s concept of a formless existence of an accidental nature, an undetermined and vacuous form that appears as shape space at the start of time. Vacuity is what Tristan Garcia would call “the opposite of something added to the absence of something”. In the primordial chain of events, space or sphere precedes the flow 道 of things and the breath 氣 of nothingness, that is the Universe’s absolute, impersonal consciousness. All primary concepts are connected through it. Erica Brindley, with the spacetime continuum in mind, gives a modern explanation of the text with space emerging before the onset of temporality... While science and philosophy run in circles, poetry offers an escape:

Like the moon advancing to the full,
Like the sun ascending the heavens,
Like the age of the southern hills,
Never waning, never falling,
Like the luxuriance of the fir and the cypress; – May such be thy succeeding line!

The Book of Odes

* Liou Kia-hway, Lao-tseu tao to king, p.115

** Liou Kia-hway, L’oeuvre complète de Tchouang-tseu, p.104, p.40


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