Three Kinds of Destiny

I’ll be talking about Wang Chong quite a bit on this blog in the coming months, as I’ve just plunged into a major project on his work, stemming from the past work I’ve done on his philosophical views.  There’s just far too much of philosophical interest in Lunheng to be overlooked.  The plan is to consider Wang’s philosophy in light of both Han debates and in comparison with contemporary western philosophy, to which Wang Chong’s ideas can make a number of contributions.  I’ve also made a new years resolution for 2012 to post here on UPJ more regularly, as the comments I get here are of great help to me in chiseling and polishing this “unpolished” work!

I’ve come across an interesting issue in Lunheng recently, and an interesting translation difficulty/issue.  Wang Chong distinguished three types of ming 命(destiny) in the essay Ming yi 命義, and there is a difficulty surrounding how this distinction ought to be understood.  The three types Wang mentions are zheng ming (no not that one, rather 正命), sui ming 隋命, and zao ming 遭命.  In some places, Wang seems to define these in terms of the primary cause of the destined outcome in question.  Thus zheng ming is understood as the destiny one has as a result of their xing, or natural characteristics, which have (according to Wang) nothing to do with post-birth environmental/external forces.  Sui ming is destiny one has as a result of effort, whether inadvertent or intentional.  A person who is naturally weak yet works hard to build the body might attain a different ming than they would have if they left things to their natural course, for example.  The final type, zao ming, is destiny one receives incidentally.  One might meet an early death not as the result of a frail nature or weakening oneself through one’s own efforts (say one drinks too much or fails to eat a nutritious diet, etc), but rather because one is in the wrong place at the wrong time, wandering into a battlefield, or getting hit by a runaway chariot in the road.

It is with this third type of ming that the difficulty is generated.  Wang seems to talk about zao ming as if it is only consistent with a negative, even disastrous, destiny.  Zao ming is always a ming connected with early death, bad luck, catastrophe of some type.  This is odd, to say the least.  Wang doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that one could incidentally stumble upon fortune, rather than disaster.  Sure, one could get run over by a car, but couldn’t one just as accidentally find a sack full of money on the side of the road making one rich for the rest of his life, or some other fortunate event?  Isn’t it possible, that is, for zao ming to be positive rather than negative?

Clearly noticing this correspondence between zao ming and catastrophe in Ming yi, Alfred Forke translates it “adverse destiny.”  At the end of Ming yi, however, Wang discusses zao itself (independently of the type of ming associated with zao) as something much more akin to “incident” or “accident”.  It is this sense of zao I think Wang means to call on for his use in connection with ming, even though he seems to think that zao ming is always negative.  Thus, I translate zao ming as “incidental destiny.”  Forke’s translation choice shows us something interesting, however.  I think he was on to something–that is, it does seem like Wang thinks that not only is zao ming incidental, but that it is catastrophic, or “adverse.”  Why would he think this?  Part of it doubtlessly has to do with the nature of the problem he took himself to offer a solution to with his distinction of three types of ming.  The main problem is that we often observe that those who seem to be robust and healthy (and presumably thus have a ming determining long life–Wang does say that we can determine what kind of ming one has through physical signs such as this–frail and sickly people have a ming condemning them to short life, while the healthy and strong have a ming connected to long life) nonetheless die early as the result of some accidental situation–a war, natural disaster, or other accident.  How can we square such early deaths with the coexistence of natural ming determining that they will have long lives?

The distinctions Wang makes between different types of ming is meant to answer this.  One kind of ming can supersede any other, so that zao ming (in the above case wandering into the road where a runaway chariot is bearing down) can trump zheng ming, which would in this case indicate a long life.  However, zheng ming can sometimes also trump zao ming.  For example, we might imagine a person surviving an injury in battle that would kill a less physically robust person.  Because Wang is so focused on these negative examples, in which zao ming undercuts fortune, long life, etc., he neglects possible cases of zao ming leading to positive results.

My suspicion, even though Wang is not clear on this, is that this is due to a peculiar view Wang has concerning qi and its connection to ming.  Wang argues in a number of chapters that the quality of one’s ming is due to the quantity of qi one has received from birth.  The length of one’s life, for example, connected to zheng ming, is determined the amount of qi one has.  A person with abundant qi will have a long life (barring zao, of course), and the less qi a person has, the shorter they will generally live.  No one, Wang seems to hold, has a short life or misfortune based on possession of some property (generally a type of qi), but rather misfortunes of various kinds are based on privation.  This view, perhaps, leads him to see zao ming as undercutting positive properties.  No one could gain additional qi, and this is presumably what it would take to “accidentally” gain fortunate ming.  Thus, we might read Wang (although again he is not explicit about this, and his view has to be reconstructed from a number of positions) as one cannot accidentally be fortunate.  Fortune is always a result of zheng ming (though not necessarily tied to health, talent, etc., as he argues in a number of chapters), which involves possession of positive properties (mainly abundance of qi), and anything that gets in the way of this can only affect zheng ming by undermining it.  Notice that this does not entail that the zheng ming of everyone is the same or completely positive.  It is not that zheng ming of every person commits them to a long life and zao ming might undermine this.  Rather, because people can have different quantities of qi, the zheng ming of some people can condemn them to a short life, as they have relatively little qi.  What cannot happen, however, is that zao ming intervenes and makes this person’s life longer than that specified by their zheng ming.  It can make it shorter, though.  A sickly or dying person can still meet their demise on the battlefield earlier than they would have otherwise, for example.  This, of course, still leaves the question of how sui ming works, as it seems one might make one’s life longer than it would be dependent on their zheng ming alone through effort (nutrition, doctors, etc.)

Thus, while I agree with Forke’s intuition that zao ming is necessarily (relatively) negative, I think we should still translate it as “incidental destiny” rather than “adverse destiny.”

5 responses to “Three Kinds of Destiny

  1. Hi Alexus –

    Very interesting! I write knowing nothing about Wang Chong (except what I have read in other posts of yours and not forgotten).

    To me the term “destiny” suggests something like fate, and hence some determinant other than (I don’t mean instead of) natural physical endowment, practice, or accident. And to me the term “destiny” doesn’t obviously encompass all the good and bad in how things go for one, but only the main or terminal things. So I wonder whether “destiny” is a good translation of what Wang means by 命 here?

    One obvious possibility is “how things go for one.”

    But your observations here suggest a different conception, though I can’t think of an English word that fully serves. I want a word like “cut” that means allotment or portion or share, but specifically such a quantity determined in a negative way, by elimination as it were; as the fates determine the length of one’s life by cutting a thread. (“Cut” is just a little too crude and ambiguous.) Thus the idea might be that one’s zheng (real, overall) cut is given by one’s xing, as one’s cut of the universal qi; and practice or accident can cut further.

    Is there any foundation for such an idea in things Wang or anybody else ever says about 命?

  2. Hi Bill-
    LOL great video! Thanks for your help on this–I definitely share your worries about the translation of ming. I use “destiny” mainly because of my inability as of yet to think of anything accurate yet serviceable. I like your suggestion of something like “cut”–I think that’s exactly what Wang is talking about when it comes to the ming governing length of life. Part of the problem is that in addition to the three types of ming I discuss in this post (zheng, sui, and zao), he also makes another distinction between types of ming governing different aspects of one’s life. So there is a ming connected to the “natural properties” that might be considered part of xing, and another connected to (determining) the things one encounters in the world. I guess one way to think of this might be in terms of “internal” and “external” ming. The “internal” ming does seem to me to be linked with xing. Wang says at the beginning of the Qi Shou chapter of Lunheng:


    One problem is that both of these kinds of ming can be further distinguished into zheng, sui. and zao. So it seems (strangely) that there is a certain series of events that one ought to encounter given their “external” zheng ming, but that “external” sui and zao can get in the way of this as well. Which in some sense seems like it should be right if Wang is a determinist, (and in some places sounds like he is) but even then, if he’s a thoroughgoing determinist, how can it possibly be that sui or zao could ever undermine zheng?

    I think what you say at the end is exactly right, about xing being determined by qi, and both linked to ming (the “internal” kind here). He claims as much (although he uses ming alone, without qualifying it as zheng, but it’s clear what he means) in Qi Shou:


  3. Hm. A problem with “cut” is that “getting another cut” (e.g. after the zheng) doesn’t sound like getting less, it sounds like getting more. I wonder about the uses of 命. If we think of it as “life,” then extra 命 would seem to imply more life; and similarly if we think of 命 as a mandate, an empowering authorization. But I have a vague memory of having found, in some old search session, that a common early use of 命 was to mean “death sentence” — in which case a second 命 for the same person might imply a still earlier death. Maybe I’m misremembering.

    (I think I see in your gravatar a patch of blue sky, which would explain why the owl is just sitting there, yes?)

  4. That ming as “death sentence” reading is interesting–where did you find that? I’ll have to look into that!
    This owl, by the way, is in a (really cool) local museum. It’s actually dark outside but they kept it artificially daytime inside the cage. It’s a burrowing owl, which is diurnal unlike its nocturnal owl cousins. This was a pretty cool thing actually–this owl was eating a mouse in a corner while people walked by looking, and as soon as I came up to the glass, it left its meal, flew up to this branch and started staring at me. My wife snapped this photo–we both thought it was funny, as I’ve long thought of the owl as something like a personal totem animal. I’m sure it recognized its kindred spirit and was trying to impart to me some essential truth! 😉

  5. It’s a great picture. I think it’s a good sign that your daemon didn’t mind showing that it recognized you.
    I wish I remembered where or whether I found the ming thing, but if I found it it was in history texts by way of some machine search at the Chinese Text Project.

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