This is a large hanging scroll consisting of a rubbing of a stone carving of the famous diagram of the Confucians known as ‘the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate’. This must have been made in a Confucian temple, possibly one which no longer exists.

This diagram was originated by a Neo-Confucian philosopher called Zhou Dunyi (old spelling, Chou Tun-i). That was his pen name. His real name was Zhou Lian-Xi, and his dates were 1017-1073. He is often regarded as the founder of the philosophical movement known as Neo-Confucianism, which was a vast renewed  flowering of Confucian philosophy during the period of time which in Europe was known as the Middle Ages.

One of Zhou’s writings is called ‘An Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate’, which accompanied the actual diagram which he drew, and which is reproduced here. Here we quote from Wing-tsit Chan’s translation, though we have replaced ‘Great’ with ‘Supreme’, which is the more usual translation of the Chinese title in this context, and is the translation used by most scholars:

‘The Ultimate of Non-being and also the Supreme Ultimate [tai-chi]! The Supreme Ultimate through movement generates yang. When its activity reaches its limit, it becomes tranquil. Through tranquillity the Supreme Ultimate generates yin. When tranquillity reaches its limit, activity begins again. So movement and tranquillity alternate and become the root of each other, giving rise to the distinction of yin and yang, and the two modes are thus established.

‘By the transformation of yang and its union with yin, the Five Agents of Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, and Earth arise. When these five material forces [chi] are distributed in harmonious order, the four seasons run their course.’

In the centre of the scroll, the five circles with rounded archaic characters in them represent the Five Agents (often called the Five Elements, though that is probably somewhat misleading, as it leads Westerners to think in terms of the traditional ‘four elements’ of Western philosophy), and the lines connecting them represent their multiple connections in the many transformations of physical reality. The top left is Fire, the top right is Water, the middle is Earth, the bottom left is Wood, and the bottom right is Metal. The sixth empty circle represents ‘the Indeterminate’, when the Five Agents unite and are without separation.

The empty circle at the top of the diagram represents ‘Non-being’, as Chan translates it, or ‘Nothingness’, as Carsun Chang translates it. From this issues materiality. The large circle below that shows the alternating interactions of yin and yang, the two forces being represented by alternating light (yang) and dark (yin) lines. From these interactions originate the Five Agents below the circle of yin-yang interaction.

The large empty circle beneath the Five Agents represents the Supreme Ultimate, which is achieved when male and female unite.

The large empty circle beneath that also represents the Supreme Ultimate, but in the sense of all transformations of forms and the evolution of all things.

In its totality, the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate represents the Universe. The diagram and Zhou’s remarks concerning it were discussed and studied for centuries after him. All the succeeding Neo-Confucian philosophers wrote commentaries upon it. It is thus the most important diagram of the entire Confucian tradition. It is not known whether any other scroll rubbing of the Diagram exists today.  

Berthold Laufer
Diagram of The Supreme Ultimate