Like time, space is an abstract term for a complex set of ideas. Different cultures differ in how they divide up their world, assign values to its parts, and measure them. In the biblical viewpoint, Genesis describes the creation of the world out of nothingness, God dwells in heaven, and part of his creation humankind dwells on earth. Alternatively, cosmological speculation is at the beginning of Greek philosophy, in Ptolemy's cosmos, the four agents of earth, fire, air, and water are subordinated to cardinal points of planetary gods, and the colors of the agents are attached to the gods.

Although the European spatial grid of cardinal points existed since antiquity, its role in the structure of the cosmos was less important than that in China. Whereas the Chinese used a spatial frame of cardinal points to organize the components of nature, the Greeks used the planetary gods. On the personal level, wrote Yi-Fu Tuan, “space is a common symbol of freedom in the Western world. Space lies open; it suggests the future and invites action.” (Tuan: 55)

Just as there is no Classical Chinese word equivalent to the English space, there is no English word that may be readily to translate the Chinese yuzhou or tiandi. Yuzhou commonly translated into English as space or universe. The original meaning of yu is the eaves of house, and zhou is the top of roof. Tiandi commonly translated as heaven and earth. However, according to Huainan zi 淮南子, or Prince Huainan, written in the second century B.C., “The way of heaven is round, and the way of earth is square.” (Liu, 80) This account takes the plane of earth to be a projection into space of the equator. The round heaven is “defined by the circle of the celestial equator,” and the square earth is “defined by the solstitial and equinoctial points projected onto the celestial equator.” (Major, 133)

For a long time, archeologists and historians were puzzled by the Neolithic (3000-2000 B.C.) jade cong 玉琮 that is a square section with a circular, central hole and short collars to the ends. The new studies indicate that cong as a ritualistic object represents the old Chinese cosmological idea of “circular sky and square earth.” Thus cong functions as a power object that connects heaven and earth, humans and divine.

The Chinese spatial model, with its center as its main point, places at the intersection of the four cardinal directions of the compass. Animal symbols lie at the four sides. To the east is qinglong 青龍, or the Blue Dragon that is associated with the color of blue, the agent of wood, and season of spring. The south is zhuque 朱雀, or the Red Phoenix, summer, and fire agent. The west is baihu 白虎, or the White Tiger, autumn, and metal agent. The north is xuanwu 玄武, or the Black Turtle, winter, and water agent. At the center of cosmos is man of the yellow earth agent. Each of the four animals resonates each seven of the twenty-eight asterisms of stars and constellations with the North Dipper in the center.

These Han dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) roof tiles are the spiritual animal symbols. A the blue dragon, B the red bird, C the white tiger, D the black turtle

Nevertheless, the essential idea here is ganying 感應, or the “sympathy” among man, events, and stars. In this cosmological order, things and events belonging to the same category affect each other. The process, however, is not mechanical causation but rather “resonant.” For instance, the direction of west resonates human emotions (sorrow and regret), organs (lungs, skin, and hair), and certain human or social activities. It is symbolic of weapons, war, death, and harvest, of fruitful conclusion and calmness of twilight, of memory and regret… Therefore, in fall, “the emperor wears white outfit, offering ancestors with livers of animal, riding black tailed white horse with white flag, sleeping in the west palace, he engages in war, hunting…” (Liu, 172) The idea stresses how human behavior can influence nature, but the converse is also believed to occur.

Scholars have argued that the origin of Chinese cosmological thinking was established by the time of Zou Yan 鄒衍 School of cosmology (ca. 250 B.C.). In 1987, a Neolithic tomb (yangshao period ca. 5000 B.C.) was unearthed in Henan, China, which evidently predated the Chinese cosmological thinking to a much earlier time. The tomb represents a microcosm of the ancient Chinese world. The south side of the tomb that was above the head of the skeleton was round-shaped, while its north side at the skeleton's feet was square shaped. More importantly, the remains of the body were accompanied by two figures assembled in shells, a dragon to the east and a tiger to the west. To the north side next to the feet of skeleton, a triangle assembled in shells as the representation of the North Dipper. Harvard anthropology professor K. C. Chang remarks that the discovery of the tomb not only predates the Chinese cosmological concepts to a much earlier time (as early as 6000 years ago), but also reflects the later Taoist practice of sanjiao 三蹻, or “flying on dragon or tiger traveling through the boundaries of space and time.” This notion indicates the sanjiao practice, stated in both Baopu zi 抱朴子 and the Taoist Canon 道藏, originated in the Neolithic Shamanic practice. (Chang, 148)

The yangshao 仰韶 culture (7000-5000 B.C.) tomb was unearthed in 1987.

The Chinese conceptual schemes, or “root metaphors” of time and space may be concluded by Mircea Eliade's remarks: “As for the structure and rhythms of universe, there is perfect unity and continuity among the various fundamental conceptions from the time of Shang to the revolution of 1911. The traditional image of the universe is that of the Center traversed by a vertical axis connecting zenith and nadir and framed by the four quarters. Heaven is round (it has the shape of an egg) and the Earth is square. The sphere of Heaven encloses the Earth. When the earth is represented as square body of a chariot, a central pillar supports the dais, which is round like Heaven. Each of the five cosmological numbers—four quarters and one Center—has a color, a taste, a sound, and a particular symbol. China is situated at the center of the world, the capital is in the middle of the kingdom, and the royal palace is at the center of the capital.” (Eliade, 15)


Chang, K.C. 1999. Collected Treatises on Chinese Archaeology, Zhongguo kaoguxue lunwenji 中國考古學論集. Beijing: Shenghuo Dushu Xinzhi Press.

Eliade, Mircea. 1984. A History of Religious Ideas II, From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Liu, Wendian 劉文典. 1989. Commentaries on Prince Huainan, Huainan honglie jijie 淮南鴻烈集解. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.

Major, John S.1984. “The Five Phases, Magic Squares, and Schematic Cosmography.” in JAAR Thematic Studies 50 (2): 133-136.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 2002. Space and Place, the Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University Minnesota Press.

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