the symbolism of numbers

The following is an extract from the introduction of a new book by Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée, The Symbolism of Numbers in Traditional China.                                                                                                                                                                             

Numbers, expressions of One

Numbers are agents of the production of the world, from the heart of the One. They symbolize an organization which is perceptible to us and understood by us, and which the human mind imposes on the universe in a process of constant transformation. They function as the operators of cosmic life in perpetual evolution.

Everything takes shape through addition and multiplication, through an accumulation of the quantities which can ultimately be measured and weighed, reflecting the image of the development of an embryo during gestation. These measurements, which assume the use of numbers, make the structure, principles and workings of life intelligible. The amount which can be measured, and which is assumed to have a shape, belongs to earth. The structure, the preexisting organization, which controls the shape to be taken, belongs to heaven.

Numbers therefore control heaven/earth from the point at which heaven exercises its control over earth; the instruments of that control are the natural laws expressed through numbers (shu 數). They are the most purified expression of the invisible structure of the universe, the way of heaven, perceptible in its earthly manifestations. They show the way in which this order is to be understood, how it is to be adhered to and how we should behave as a result.

Thus it is through numbers that the living world becomes comprehensible. Numbers indicate the level of reality at which we speak; each level is a different quality of qi manifesting itself. It could be said that each number expresses an individual potentiality which it gives to the entities which it controls, and that each number imparts a common quality to the series it controls.


Yang sheng (養 生) is term that has become familiar to us in the context of various ‘nourishing life’ practices. It is an ancient term, and specific yang sheng texts have been found which date back to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. Some of these texts specifically stress diet, exercise and sexual practices which are considered to enhance the vitality and possibly even lengthen life. But the early chapters of the Neijing suggest that it is in the ability to observe what is appropriate at a particular time and for a particular individual that the real art of nourishing life resides.

Yang (養) is to nourish, and includes the most common character for eating food shi (食), but it has a wider meaning than simple nourishment for the body – it is to nurture, to care for, to maintain, not only physically. It is commonly used to describe the way parents take care of their children, and it includes the idea of education, a nourishment of the mind. It is found in early Daoist texts, such as the Neiye, for nourishing the heart/mind, and in Confucian texts for building character. Read more

heaven earth, yin yang

yin and yang in huainanzi chapter 3

‘When Heaven and Earth were yet unformed, all was ascending and flying, diving and delving. Thus it is called the primal beginning. The dao begins in the nebulous void. The nebulous void produces space-time; space-time produces the primordial qi.

A shoreline (divides) the primordial qi. That which is pure and bright spreads out to form heaven; the heavy and turbid congeals to form earth. It is easy for that which is pure and subtle to disperse, but difficult for the heavy and turbid to congeal. Therefore, first  heaven is completed, and then earth fixed.

The combined essences of heaven and earth produce yin and yang. The successive essences of yin and yang cause the four seasons. The scattered essences of the four seasons create the ten thousand things.’ Read more

the triple heater and ‘no form’

The Nanjing (Difficulty 25) states that the triple heater (san jiao 三 焦) and master heart (xin zhu 心 主) have a ‘name but no form (you ming wu xing 有 名 無 形)’. This statement has been debated throughout the centuries, earlier commentaries, including Sun Simiao, suggesting that the use of ‘no form’ (wu xing 無 形) within the Nanjing is close to the meaning found in early Daoist texts – referring to that which is un-manifest, coming before physical manifestation – and maybe holding the qi patterning for future manifestation. They imply that the triple heater and heart master have no physical substance but are functions of qi. Nanjing 8 and 66 make a connection between the triple heater and ming men (life gate, or the gate of the unfolding of life), Difficulty 66 suggesting that the three heaters are ‘the agents for the distribution of original qi (yuan qi 原 氣)’.

Read more

Communication and circulation 通

There are many characters used for the vital function of free-flow of blood and qi throughout the body, but the most important and commonly used is tong (通).

The character tong (通) describes any kind of communication which is free from obstruction; it is particularly used for the spreading and free movement of qi, but can describe communication between people as much as free-flow within the organism. In classical Chinese it is to open the way, to open dialogue, to allow the mingling of different things, ideas, people. It is to give free access to something; to penetrate and to permeate. Read more


Recently our server crashed and we lost the last two blogs. They have now been re-instated. I was particularly concerned that the tribute to our great friend Tim Gordon disappeared.

Tim’s memorial service will take place this Friday (July 7th) at 2pm at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1

Tim’s Preface to Jing Shen

On the translation of Jing Shen – chapter 7 of the Huainanzi

Our group has been meeting for more than twenty years. The thrust of our work has been the joy of learning about translation from Chinese helped by our illustrious guides, and the insights we gain from the process of producing a translation paying scrupulous attention to the original Chinese characters and text. Read more

Tim Gordon

Tim Gordon has been a great supporter of Monkey Press and was involved in the earliest seminars of Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée in the UK. His years as a medical doctor and researcher made him sharp inquisitor into the meanings of the Chinese medical texts, and Father Larre would often call upon him to clarity certain concepts in the light of modern science. His voice is occasionally heard in the early Monkey Press transcripts of the seminars. Read more

yuan – source 原/元

Two characters are found with the meaning of source or origin, and both have the pronunciation of yuan – though with a different toning. Both characters can be found within the expression yuan qi, and most sinologists suggest that they are interchangeable in this context. Others suggest that yuan (元) should be translated as origin – yuan (原) as source.

Etymologically, yuan (元) is to be above everything else, the most important, the highest principle. It is found in ancient oracular inscriptions, where it is often used in relation to the original ancestry. It is metaphysical and obscure, reflecting the mysterious, deep origins of life, the universe and everything. Read more

the northern quarter

The following is an extract from the Monkey Press book The Kidneys which has recently been re-edited and reprinted. This section is on the text of Suwen Chapter 5, which deals with the resonances of the five elements/phases. Here, at the beginning of the description of the resonances of the kidneys, Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée discusses the nature of the north, water and their relationship to the origins of life.

suwen chapter 5:

‘The northern quarter gives rise to cold, cold produces water, water produces the salty, the salty produces the kidneys, the kidneys produce bones and marrow, marrow produces the liver; the kidneys master the ear.

‘In heaven it is cold, on earth it is water, among the parts of the body it is the bones, among the zang it is the kidneys, among colours it is black, among notes it is yu, among sounds it is to sigh, among movements which react to change it is to shiver, …among the expressions of will-power it is fear.

‘In the north there are always two animals – the snake and the tortoise.’ Read more