A star map from Dunhuang, c. 700 CE, today in the collection of the British Library. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In my research on early modern East Asian diplomacy, though it may sound purely “secular” (if that’s even the right term) and political, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole of cosmological conceptions of the Emperor’s position between Heaven and Earth, his spiritual identity and ritual role, and the relationship of all of this to conceptions of a regional or world order, with the Emperor at the center, emanating virtue so virtuous as to be seen or sensed or felt even in the most distant lands; the barbarians of those faraway lands, recognizing the Emperor’s virtue, would then naturally, as a matter of the natural proper cosmic order, would journey to the Imperial capital to pay tribute, and the beneficent Emperor, in return, would magnanimously provide these envoys with gifts. Such is foreign relations under the traditional Chinese model – tribute, and gifts, and maybe some other trade on the side.
I’m not quite sure when or how actual political policy negotiations ever took place in the Chinese case, but, at least in the meetings I am researching, between envoys of the King of Ryûkyû and the Tokugawa shogun (the shogunate having adopted & adapted certain aspects of the Chinese discourses of Imperial power & legitimacy), no such discussions of actual mundane matters took place – it was all pure ceremony – ritual obeisances, etc. Perhaps most importantly in all of this, which I think those questioning political or economic motives miss, is the belief that all of this was necessary towards maintaining the proper cosmic order; the emperor was responsible for keeping the entire cosmos spinning correctly, and if foreigners didn’t come to give tribute, and if the emperor did not reciprocate with gifts, all would fall into disorder and chaos. Perhaps the crops would stop growing; such was the importance of maintaining proper Confucian relationships.
If you’re interested in learning more about this, I would strongly recommend John King Fairbank’s edited volume The Chinese World Order (Harvard University Press, 1968). Of course, plenty of newer works draw upon this, but none have really superseded it as the seminal volume on the subject. Other things I’ve read which may be of interest include the chapters on Han Dynasty foreign relations in the Cambridge History of China, and James Hevia’s book Cherishing Men from Afar, which addresses court rituals and conflicting attitudes about foreign relations in the Macartney Embassy of 1793.
But, getting to the point of this post, anyone who has studied Chinese or Japanese history and has learned anything about the arrangement of classical Chinese capitals – such as Chang’an, and the Japanese capitals of Heijô (Nara) and Heian (Kyoto) based upon it – knows that the Imperial Palace is located in the north of the city, and faces south. The main gates of the palace, and indeed of the whole city, face south, the Audience Hall faces south, and within it, the Imperial throne faces south. Why is this? Most textbooks, if they offer an explanation at all, say something hand-wavey about geomantic beliefs and feng shui and pretty much leave it at that. And I don’t blame them. To be honest, it’s not necessarily an area of things I ever thought I’d be particularly interested in pursuing further.
But, then, as I read something on the origins of the terms huáng dì (皇帝, J: kôtei) and tiān huáng (天皇, J: tennô), the most common, standard terms today for Chinese and Japanese emperors respectively, I came across something about the association in China of the term tiān huáng with the Taoist worship of the North Star. This same essay, “Restoration, Emperor, Diet, Prefecture, or: How Japanese Concepts were Mistranslated into Western Languages” by Ben-Ami Shillony, explained that the term tiān huáng was in fact only used in China very briefly, from around 675 CE until around 705 CE. So, I dismissed the whole North Star thing as interesting but ultimately just sort of obscure and particular only to ancient Taoism. Of course, there are shrines in Japan dedicated to the kami and/or bodhisattva of the North Star, known as Myôken 妙見. But, then, this too could be easily dismissed as being just another obscure corner of Shinto belief; after all, there are kami for just about anything, and it’s not all that shocking that a strain of ancient Chinese Taoism should survive in some form somewhere in Japan.
But then, today, a discovery. The Analects of Confucius, 2:1*:
One who governs through virtue may be compared to the polestar, which occupies its place while the host of other stars pay homage to it.
I hope that I am not reading too deeply into this one passage, or jumping to conclusions too quickly, but as I read this, a concept sort of clicked into place for me. The Emperor is like the Polestar. He stands fixed, and Heaven and Earth revolve around him. This is what is meant by the Emperor being the “axis” between Heaven and Earth, a word choice I never quite understood. And, if the Emperor is associated with the North Star, then, standing at cosmic North, it makes perfect sense that everything he surveys, in all directions, would be to his South.
Now, granted, when it comes to other aspects of traditional Chinese beliefs about the cardinal directions, the Emperor is traditionally associated with Center, and yellow, and not with North, and black. But, I shall continue to keep my eyes out for further pieces to this puzzle.
*Sources of Chinese Tradition, p46.