To understand the significance of dreams in ancient China and how they were interpreted and used to guide or validate the path a person was on, one must first understand how ancient Chinese viewed dreams.
According to the ancient Chinese, we humans have a soul that consists of two components. One, which is more physically oriented and secular in nature is called Po and was associated with the concept of Yin. And a second component was called Hun, which was associated with the concept of Yang and was considered to be more spiritually affiliated.
During the time you are awake, both parts of the soul are linked, while during sleep, the link dissolves, allowing the Hun soul (yang) to ascend and leave the body. During this time, the Hun soul is said to be able to commune with gods and the souls of the departed. Because the Po and Hun souls remain linked, and the Po soul (yin) remains in the body during sleep, you are able to gain divine insights by remembering the outer bodily experiences of the Hun soul (during sleep) once you wake up. According to this understanding, it is easy to see the important role dreams and their interpretation played in Chinese culture.
The prophecy dreams of Zhou Bida
The importance of dreams to the ancient Chinese cannot be overstated. Illustrating this importance is a story about Zhou Bida (1126-1204), who was a Suzhou native in the Southern Song Dynasty. He is well known in Chinese culture as a most talented and remarkable scholar, and was among those learning to become an official during the reign of Emperor Xiaozong (1163-1189) of the Southern Song Dynasty.
Zhou Bida served in the government for more than 40 years, beginning in the reign of Emperor Gaozong (1127-1162) through the reign of Emperor Guangzong (1190-1194). He was raised by his uncle because, at the age of 11, Zhou lost both his mother and father. Thanks to his bright intellect, he passed the official examination and became an official in the drug administration. Besides a bright intellect, Zhou also had a fine character, which is illustrated by his sacrificing his official position to save one of his subordinates from the death penalty.
Warehouse fire and the fall of Zhou
One day, the drug warehouse that Zhou was in charge of accidentally caught fire. The flames went out of control and destroyed dozens of other civilian houses as well. When the prosecutor probed the case, Zhou asked him: “If the cause of the fire is due to the subordinate’s negligence, what is the penalty according to the law?” The prosecutor replied: “It is punishable by imposing the death sentence.” Zhou again asked: “If the cause of the fire is due to the controller’s negligence, then what is the penalty according to the law?” The prosecutor replied: “It is dismissal from the official post.” In response, Zhou sacrificed his career and took all the responsibility for the fire incident to protect and save his subordinate from the death penalty.
Wang Boa’s dream of welcoming a prime minister
Wang Bao was Zhou’s father-in-law. After Zhou lost his official position, he gathered his wife and newly born child and moved to his father-in-law’s home. It was winter and a heavy snowfall had covered the courtyard of the Bao residence so that the servant of the house was sweeping at the time of Zhou’s arrival. Coincidentally, the night before Zhou returned, his father-in-law had a dream in which he saw himself sweeping the snow to welcome a prime minister. When Zhou arrived, and as the servant was sweeping the courtyard, his father-in-law Wang Bao sighed and said: “In sweeping the snow today, I thought I would receive a prime minister, but instead, I received a commoner who just lost his official post.”
The underworld dream
Even though Zhou had fallen from such a high post, he did not give up his courier. Zhou and his family remained at his father-in-law’s house for 3 years, during which time he studied hard and passed the imperial examination to become a scholar. With his profound knowledge, he even went on to become prime minister.
One night, on the eve of his examination, Zhou had a dream. He saw himself entering the underworld — the home of the dead. There, he saw a judge reprimanding a constable, saying: “This person has a big heart, full of virtue, and he will be a prime minister in the future. However, you have carved his image into an ugly one! What have you to say about this?” The constable pleaded with the judge to allow him to put a mustache on the prime minister’s face, which he immediately did — on Zhou. When Zhou woke up from the dream, he felt pain on his cheeks.
Interpretation of the two dreams
In one dream, Zhou’s father-in-law dreamt that he would welcome a prime minister, but on the following morning, it was only Zhou who arrived after losing his position as an official. He had lost his position because he self-sacrificed for the wellbeing of another. The second dream was by Zhou himself, in which he dreamt that a judge gave him credit for his virtue and foretold that due to his virtue, he would become prime minister.
The two strange dreams, if we interpreted them in relation to Zhou’s further life path, predicted that he would become prime minister. He sacrificed his career without hesitation for the life of another. And if we understand the deeper meaning of his second dream, it was precisely the virtue of his selfless sacrifice that paved the path to his even greater position in the future.
Dreams in many cases seem to allow us a glimpse into the divine principles of life in ways that we are not capable of perceiving in a conscious state. Have you ever dreamt of something that later happened? Give us your thoughts and leave a comment below.
Researched by Chua BC