Time is a fundamental aspect of human life. The experience of time itself influences the way cultures understand time. This understanding of time, in turn, influences the way people distinguish and relate past, present, and future. (Yes that’s right, there are people of different cultures and societies that perceive the relationship of past, present and future differently from the understanding that we hold.) This understanding of the role and relation of past, present and future is very significant, because it affects how we make sense of the past – what is its purpose and significance, how do we remember it, how do we make use of it in the present, and how do we construct (or reconstruct) history. Our understanding of time is not just limited to the past, it also affects how we perceive the future, how we plan and structure our lives and activity, and what the future means to us who live in the present.
For most people in the Western world, time is understood as a linear progression from the past to the present, and eventually to the future. Time exists independently of human activity. Whether you are staring at your watch or not, time will flow from one moment to the next.
But there is a stereotypical belief that the Chinese world does not see time in the same way. There is the belief that the Chinese conceive of time as cyclical. So instead of a linear progression from past to present to future, events in the past will repeat themselves some time in the future.
How these events repeat themselves in the future depends on how one understand this cyclical progression of time. The medieval theologians in the West were extremely hostile to this idea of cyclical time. Accepting a cyclical view of time meant that events like the fall of humanity, the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ would repeat itself over and over again. To them, this was heresy and a view of time that would have undermined their entire theological system.
But back to the point.
To say simply that the Chinese conception of time is cyclical would be too simplistic. The Chinese, at least in the classical world, did not conceive of time as merely cyclical. Instead, time has a linear progression (from past to present to future), within a cyclical framework. In other words, it was a conception of time that was more of a spiral, than a pure circle or straight line.
Before I start on the spiral conception of time, it would be useful for me to first lay out some additional contextual understandings of time in the Classical Chinese world.
Time, for the Chinese is not about clock time. It is primarily about humanly-lived time. (Sure, you can still have the clock running in the background, but it wouldn’t be the Chinese’s primary concern.) Time is understood not as impersonal events, nor is it about a god’s eye view of the past, present, and future. Rather, the Chinese understood time as that which shapes people and is something that is also shaped by people
A key concept to help us gain entry into this idea is: 勢 (shi), or the propensity of things. The Sinologist Francois Jullien (1995) explains that shi refers to a “configuration or disposition of things operating through opposition and correlation.”
Chinese historians were concerned with understanding the context that gave rise to certain trends and tendencies of a moment in time, that either (1) drove an unfolding of events that was inevitable (time shaping people); or (2) compelled key historical actors to act in a certain way, thus changing the course of events (people shaping time).
Each moment in time is a valuable lesson of what to do, or what not to do. Each moment in time also offers lessons on the patterns and trends that one must look out for, and what may unfold if the situation is not handled properly. But of course, the Chinese understood that the circumstances in the past were unique to that moment, and it’s not possible to have a complete replication of all the circumstances. The world and its people are different, the circumstances and the tides of time are different too.
This is why it’s useful to think of each moment in the past as a paradigm, analogous to the Kuhnian sense. A paradigm, according to Kuhn, is a particular conceptual framework that holds its own unique sets of assumptions, beliefs, methods, techniques, and values. Similarly, moments in history are different (like different paradigms), because the people are different, the culture is dissimilar, and so the assumptions, beliefs, and values are also different. What’s also different is that the socio-politico-economic conditions have changed.
But if the past is so different from the present and future, what worth is there to study it? How is the past any relevant a lesson for the present or the future?
Chun-chieh Huang provides the answer that the Chinese look to history, study it in order to discern a historic paradigm, so as “to let it come alive” in our times today. Huang calls this the “Supertime,” where each moment of time is a thread that makes up the human tapestry of “Supertime.”
There is a temptation to think of Supertime as a kind of abstract lesson that is eternal, unchanging, and applicable to all moments in time. Seen in this light, each moment in time is merely an instantiation of this ever-present and eternal Supertime.
This, however, is a mistaken understanding of the relation of Supertime and Time.
Classical Chinese thinking had a vague sense of transcendence (by negation, e.g. not-this, not-that), they certainly didn’t have the notion of eternal, unchanging truths or principles that were universally applicable to every situation. Instead, they preferred to work within the structures of immanence (within the concrete parameters of reality), rather than going into the realm of the abstract.
Hence, one should understand Supertime as a kind of coherence constructed to make sense of past, and present (and future too). The act of looking into history, is to discern the patterns and trends of that past that make up a coherence (or could be used to form a coherence) with the present and future, in a way that makes the past a valuable historic lesson of the present and future moment.
The activity of turning to history to answer a present-day problem is the activity of reconstructing narratives, forming a bridge from one historic paradigm to another present/future paradigm. Hence, the idea that each historical moment in time is a thread of the human tapestry. Past, present, and future are made coherent and meaningful with Supertime, and conversely, it is this coherence of the Supertime that gives meaning to the understanding of moments in time. We understand the present and future through the past, and our understanding of the past is made possible through the present (and future). Going further, our understanding of the past also enriches the present, just as our understanding of the present enriches our understanding of the past. The mutual enriching understanding of both past and present simultaneously enriches our understanding of the future.
What we do today is a product of the overarching narrative (a narrative constructed to be coherent with mutually-enriching understanding of the past, present and future). But our actions also have the power to rewrite that overarching narrative, either for ourselves or for society, thus shaping Time itself (and Supertime too), forming a new coherence of the past (and enriching our understanding of it at the same time), with the altered present moment (and the altered conceptions of what the future holds for us).
How is this any relevant to the idea of cyclical or spiralling time?
In the classical Chinese world, agriculture was an activity that shaped a lot of their cultural thinking. Time was conceived primarily in terms of the agricultural cycles of planting and harvesting. Human activities revolved around agricultural cycles, and in turn, agricultural cycles were used to mark human activities, and to record human events. The term we now use today to indicate the year (年 nian) used to refer to harvesting cycles, whereas the term we use today to indicate age (歲 sui) used to refer to the planting cycles. Human concerns were placed within the constraints of one’s time as expressed in terms of the harvesting and planting cycles.
Over time, a more sophisticated way of marking time was developed, incorporating both the harvesting and planting cycles, and several other counting systems (i.e. cardinal and ordinal numbers and the use of the Ten Heavenly Stems and the Twelve Earthly Branches). These calendrical marks revolved in cycles and were used to indicate the occurrence of events. But, the Chinese were well aware of the importance of context to make sense of an event. This made them pay extra attention to the way they recorded events. It was not enough just to put a calendrical dating to an event. The early historians also included a series of other events (e.g. abnormal or irregular occurrences, and even the positions of stars) to augment the context, as a reflection of their understanding of the situatedness of human activity with Heaven and Earth. (This, by the way, made it very easy for modern scholars to reconstruct the precise dates of ancient Chinese records.)
So yes, the early Chinese saw life as revolving through cycles and seasons, and they marked events with these cyclical calendrical datings. But at the same time, it was this cyclical motion of time that structured the way the Chinese saw and understood the world. Things occur according to the seasons. There is an appropriate time for planting, an appropriate time for harvesting. There are seasons for specific actions, there are seasons for specific phenomena. All things have their cycles and their seasons. Everything, including irregularities, was understood in terms of this cyclical understanding of time.
But as I mentioned earlier, a cyclical understanding of time could be a circular conception (i.e. time repeats itself) or a spiral conception (i.e. repeated alternating seasons of change).
The Classical Chinese world did not have this circular conception, but a spiral conception. The future may repeat itself, but not exactly. The future repeats itself just as how the seasons return annually. Going back to the idea of Time and Supertime, the present and the future are seen in terms of the coherent narrative of the Supertime. Repetitions of events are like repetitions of seasons, of cycles, of patterns. They repeat but with an ever-changing context. This new context offers fresh opportunities for new content, and a new time paradigm. Though the paradigm and context may be different with each new time cycle, it is Supertime that gives the present and future a coherence with the cyclical (spiral) past. Each present event can be understood as an expression of past events.
When an abnormal/irregular incident occurs that cannot be understood in terms of the past, this new event demands a new look at the past, so as to revise the overarching Supertime narrative. Thinkers and scholars, will engage in the activity of re-creating a new coherence to reconcile the present with the past, and subsequently form that new Supertime narrative to understand the future. And it is with this overarching Supertime narrative that allows us also to identify repeated trends as it repeats and re-presents itself in a different form due to the ever-changing context and paradigm. In this way, the Chinese are able to look to the historical past for lessons on how to engage and respond to these repeated trends.
Lastly, I wish to discussion an interesting question about time: Is there a narrative of progress? The Western world likes to conceive of linear time as having some sort of progress, e.g. progresses made in science and technology, where we are more aware of the truths of the universe, more developed in our technologies, and more enlightened as a civilisation. What would the Chinese conception of time have to say about this? I think it might be better to call it a narrative of cumulation, or cumulative effects, instead of progress. As cycles repeat themselves, there is a cumulative effective. Either for the better, or for the worse. As the cumulative effect gains momentum with each cycle, it sets a propensity for people and things to behave in a certain way, and consequently an inevitable direction by which events unfold for better or for worse. Hence, the spiral motion may go upwards or downwards. But of course, all is not deterministic.
As I have said earlier, the Chinese conceptions of time is a very human-centred conception. We are not at the mercy of time. Time and the coherent narrative of Supertime shapes us, and we are shaped by it. So if we are trending towards something undesirable, as a society, we are responsible for it, but we can also do something to mitigate its effects or to change its direction. We have the power to shape time, but only if we, like the sages of ages past, carefully observe the changes in time and act in a timely manner.
Time and Space in Chinese Culture, eds. Chun-chieh Huang and Erik Zurcher (Leiden: Brill, 1995).
Notions of Time in Chinese Historical Thinking, eds. Chun-chieh Huang & John B. Henderson (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2006).