Astronomy and Civilization in the New Enlightenment

Volume 107 of the series Analecta Husserliana pp 167-173


The Contribution Of Musical Theory To An Ancient Chinese Concept Of The Universe

  • Alice WilliamsonAffiliated withCentre for Astrophysics Research, The University of Hertfordshire Email author 

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In early Chinese thought music and music-related concepts formed key elements to the way in which the cosmos was envisaged and written about. This paper unfolds how passages of late Zhou and early Han documents such as the Lushi Chunqiu, Huainanzi, Xunzi and Yue Ji cross over, in their implied symbolic concepts and use of language, between musical theory and cosmology – from the correlation of positions of stars with musical tones, to the use of cosmological symbols to describe music, and vice versa. Why was there this cross over? Did this use of music provide a “more complete” picture of the Universe for the Chinese, or were there other, political reasons behind it? The paper expands on these key questions through analysis of the texts, and goes on to ask whether this research into, and material of ancient China can shed any light on the modern, western view of interdisciplinarity between sciences and the arts. In this paper I discuss the use of ancient Chinese musical theory within their concept of the cosmos and its systems and processes, covering both the mathematics of musical harmonics as well as the way in which early Chinese scholars wrote about music and the universe. I refer here to four key ancient texts from my period: The Lüshi Chunqiu; the writings of Xunzi; the Yue Ji (Record of Music); and the Huainanzi. After this discussion I consider why these crossovers existed, and more generally, whether such correlative cosmology from the ancient period could inform us today.