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Omen Watching, Mantic Observation, Aeromancy, and Learning to ‘See’: The Rise and Messy Multiplicity of Zhanhou 占候 in Late Han and Medieval China

Stephan N. Kory


This article investigates the early history of a Chinese mantic practice unattested before the late first century CE known as zhanhou 占候 (lit., omen watching; divination through observation; divination of atmo-spheric or meteorological conditions). While early occurrences of the term primarily present it as a learned form of divination used to forecast human fortune through the interpretation of anomalous emanations of qi 氣 in heaven-and-earth (e.g., wind; clouds; rain; rainbows), zhanhou is also variously classified as an astrological, Five Agents, or military technique; and variously identified as a hemerological, medical, and contemplative-visualization practice by the end of the Tang. I not only contend that zhanhou’s inherent polysemy and its multiple identities helped broaden and perpetuate its transmission during the first millennium of the Common Era, but also that the same messy multiplicity makes its early history and development difficult—but not impossible—to trace and understand. Zhanhou closely resembles many earlier named forms of astrology and divination focused on the observation and interpretation of macrocosmic qi conditions or phenomena, but late Han and early medieval writers carved out a space for zhanhou. This was done through increasingly frequent use of the term, by explicitly distinguishing it from similar families of techniques (e.g., astrology; turtle and yarrow divination; yinyang; algorithmic mantic techniques), and by identifying and constructing networks and lineages of practitioners, both of which helped form and perpetuate zhanhou’s identity as a discrete technique (shu 術). The present study compares different definitions and translations of zhanhou, analyzes a handful of late Han occurrences, and illustrates the term’s increasingly widespread medieval circulation, chiefly through biographic narratives and technical texts.

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