Shi is commonly translated into English as “time”. Time is an intellectual concept that requires a metaphoric model since time has no concrete reality. “Before 1915 space and time were thought of as a fixed arena in which events took place, but which was not affected by what happened in it,” “space and time are now dynamic quantities…space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe,” Stephen Hawking remarks, on the personal level, “it was natural to think that space and time went on forever.” (Hawking, 33) Most of us conceptualize time, and conceive time as something we can spend, save, invest, or borrow, even win or lose.

There are essentially two “root metaphors” used to establish the Western conceptual schemes of time. In the Judaic-Christian tradition, God created the mortal world at a particular time and it will come to an end one day. In this scheme, God's eternal time contrasts the bounded time of the mortal world. In other words, people conceive the lives of individuals as discrete corps, with a beginning (birth) and an end (death). In this duration, each person is morally responsible for one's acts before the God who made him/her. The God will judge each individual according to one's acts at end of this time span. On the other hand, in the traditional Western philosophical-scientific tradition, both Aristotle and Newton believed in absolute time, moments of absolute time are understood as analogous to the continuous sequence of points on the line. Such model is associated with a progressive idea of history in which time moves forward without repeating itself.

In The Analects, Confucius said by a river: “It is what passes like that, indeed, not ceasing day or night.” (The Analects, SZ, 2491) Here, the term shi 逝 denotes “what passes” or “passes by”, what we call time is absent. Confucius simply contrasts the passing river with “passing.” What “passes” is both that which we call time and life. “Passing” associated with the ultimate truth, is one of names of Tao, or the nameless Way in Tao Te Ching: “I do not know its name, so style it Tao. Forced to utter it a name I call it the Great. Great means passing by, passing by means going far away, and going far away means returning.” (Gao, 350)

There is no Classical Chinese word equivalent in meaning to the English word time. The original meaning of shi is “timeliness” or “seasonality,” in which both time and space are affected. In other words, the Chinese idea of time is understood within the specific space. According to Yuelin 月令, or the Monthly Order, written no later than third century B.C., spring affects cardinal point east, and is dominated by the agent of wood; summer affects south, and is dominated by fire agent; autumn affects west, and is dominated by metal agent; winter affects north, and is dominated by water agent. The earth agent affects the central location of the intersections of the four cardinal directions, and dominates the four seasons. (Yuelin, SZ, 1352-87) By extension, shi, seasonality or timeliness refers to doing something at the appropriate time (which is determined by harmonious associations with the theory of the Five Agent), and at which time an action can succeed.

In the early Chinese texts, there is no story that describes the creation of the world out of nothingness and marks the beginning of time. In Chinese chronologies, time is not counted from a single date, such as the birth of Christ, but from repeated historical beginnings, or the foundation of a dynasty, or a royal family. On the personal level, individual lives, certainly bounded by birth and death, but each person's life is regarded as a link within the continuum of the ancestral lineage, which includes both of the living and the dead. However, the ancestral spirits related directly to the living through rituals, such as food offering etc. These spirits were not gods like those of ancient Greece, nor were they souls who stood before an almighty God to be judged.

The approach of describing Chinese idea of time as cyclical, or sometimes, of spiral by sinologists derives from a play on the Western geometrical metaphor for time, is the alternative of a straight line. It is helpful as a means of differentiating the Chinese concept from the Western metaphor of a straight line, but not a Chinese metaphor of time.


Gao, Ming 高明. 1996. Commentaries on the Silk Scroll Book of Laozi, Boshu Laozi Xiaozhu 帛書老子校註. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.

Hawking, Stephen W. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books.

SZ. Commentaries on the Thirteen Classics, Shisanjing Zhushu
十三經註疏.1979. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju.

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