Unity of Heaven and Mankind: The Wisdom of Traditional Chinese Culture

By Lucy Crawford | November 19, 2021
Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. She has great sympathy for Chinese and human suffering in general. With a Master's degree in Education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China. She lives in Calgary with her husband and four children.
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Traditional-Chinese-landscape-painting-Wikimedia-Commons
In his traditional Chinese painting, Mr. Chen Minglou depicts great unity of heaven and mankind, demonstrating the values of Ancient China. This image is but a small portion of the full painting, A trip to Hills and Lakes in Spring, which is a 100 meter long visual tribute to environmental protection. (Image: Poemandpainting via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Traditional Chinese culture was inspired by the divine. The wisdom of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and the understanding of “the unity of heaven and mankind (天人合一)” enabled Chinese civilization to endure for thousands of years.

“When one is good, heaven and earth know it; when one is evil, heaven and earth also know it.” Ancient Chinese viewed their relationship with the Cosmo based on the principle of “Unity of Heaven and Man.” They believed that heaven and man could sense each other (天人感應).  Heavenly signs and changes in the human realm corresponded directly to one another, and heaven governed the fate of man and society, determining good and bad fortunes. 

Historical records of righteous rulers

Historically, each dynasty attached great importance to disasters and unusual natural phenomena. An official post (欽天監 ) was set up to stargaze, monitor cosmic phenomena, earthquakes, etc., to collect relevant information and make recommendations to the emperor.

The virtue of Cheng Tang

The book History of the Shang Dynasty (商史) records that, upon his accession to the throne, Cheng Tang, the founding ruler of the Shang Dynasty, witnessed a seven-year drought. He finally went to the mulberry forest and prayed sincerely to heaven, probing what he could have done to cause the calamity: 

“Is it because I have been negligent in my government? Or have I made my subjects fail in their duties? Have I been extravagant and corrupt in my court? Or have I allowed my wives to be powerful and disruptive?  Perhaps I have been loose in the administration of my officials? Or is it that I listened to slander so that the villain gained power?” By the time he finished speaking, it had begun to rain heavily for thousands of miles around. 

The story of “Tang praying at the mulberry forest (汤祷桑林),” is a factual account of the ancient state’s political life, reflecting the wisdom and spirit of the late emperors. Righteous rulers of the past focused on cultivating themselves, were not too vain to accept advice, and showed courage and responsibility. Confucianism classified it as “holy virtue and fine rules (圣德芳规),” which became a moral spirit of ancient officialdom, also called “official virtue (官德).”

State of Song saved by remorse

The book Han Shi Wai Zhuan (韩诗外传) recorded that during the Spring and Autumn Period (春秋时期,771 to 476 BC), the State of Song was once hit by a great flood, and the State of Lu sent an envoy to offer condolences. The ruler of Song responded, “I was unkind, for my fasting was not honest enough, and the levies disturbed the lives of the people, so heaven sent this disaster. It has added to the worries of your ruler, so as to trouble you to come.” 

Confucius commented on the event, saying “It seems that the state of Song will probably be very hopeful.” When his students asked why, Confucius replied, “When Jie and Zhou (last ruler of Xia and Shang Dynasty respectively) had faults but did not admit them, they soon perished. Shang Tang and Zhou Wen Wang knew how to admit their faults and soon prospered. To be able to correct one’s faults is the way of a superior man, and there is no greater virtue than that.” The state of Song did become a rich and powerful country later.

Huang’s compassion helped end a drought

According to History of the Ming Dynasty (明史), when Huang Tingxuan (黄廷宣) became the governor of Taicang, there had been a severe drought for several years, and the people were suffering from famine because the fields were barren for thousands of miles. Huang immediately opened a warehouse for disaster relief and requested that the emperor reduce taxation and depose all corrupt officials. He suggested the appointment of wise people to implement good governance. 

He sincerely prayed to heaven in the open air. The rain started to fall on the whole territory of Taicang, while other states and counties were still in drought. People said that this was the reward from heaven for Huang’s virtuous administration and love for the people.

Drought caused by selfish pride ceases after mistake is acknowledged

The Qing Dynasty’s Historical Records (清史稿) recorded the following story. Emperor Jiaqing (嘉庆, 1760-1820), after he acceded to the throne, issued an edict seeking advice. Officials at all levels gave advice to the court. A thousand-word-long petition on the shortcomings of the dynastic government was submitted by a man named Hong Liangji. His words were sharp and angered Emperor Jiaqing who imprisoned him and condemned him to death. 

Later, Jiaqing regretted his sentence and instead ordered him to be exiled to Yili. After Hong Liangji was exiled, in April of that year, northern China suffered a severe drought. 

The local officials prayed for rain, but it didn’t rain; Jiaqing prayed for rain, but no rain fell; he set up a congee kitchen to help the hungry, but nothing changed; he ordered a pardon for the prisoners, but still it didn’t rain. 

Emperor Jiaqing was worried and felt that he had done something wrong. Thinking that he might have wronged Hong Liangji and angered the heavens, he decided to issue an edict to vindicate Hong Liangji. In the imperial edict, he publicly blamed himself for punishing the official who had written the petition and said, “Hong Liangji’s arguments are sufficient to enlighten my heart, so they are inscribed on the right side of my seat and viewed from time to time.” He admitted that the charge imposed on Hong Liangji, which was “trickery and selfishness,” was all false. 

In order to show his sincerity, he decided to copy the vindication edict himself. After he finished the last stroke of the final character, a lightning bolt broke through the sky, followed by thunder and heavy rain! Emperor Jiaqing sighed: “The Divine supervision watches every breath. It’s really awe-inspiring.”

The power to shape history lies in our beliefs

Natural calamities have been present throughout history, but there are also records of many cases where people who did good deeds were spared from threats such as plague and fire, demonstrating that being virtuous and good brought favor and protection from heaven. Even in times of danger, things were turned around and kept safe because “the blessing from heaven ensures that there is no harm.”

In ancient times, the Chinese people believed in and abided by the unity of heaven and man. They respected heaven and the Divine, trusting in the connection between heaven and man and that good and evil were rewarded accordingly. Great emphasis was placed on morality and its role in society. 

The unity and harmony between heaven, earth and man, and the resulting traditional culture, gave the Chinese nation great vitality and inner cohesion. In this way, China was able to  thrive and prosper over the long course of its 5000 year history, right up until 70 years ago when the Chinese Communist Party took power and made an enemy of traditional culture and values.