Monday, January 07, 2008

Man plans, Heaven ordains

A regular reader has requested for an explanation of the phrase – Man plans, Heaven ordains. I would not want to call it an adage since not many Chinese would understand its meaning or believe in it. I first heard of the phrase about three decades ago from my father, since deceased, and now have to admit that I cannot remember what we discussed when he mentioned it.

It could have been on some investment plans, or during our reminiscence of a battle depicted in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or while we listened to his favorite Cantonese songs - on a long playing record - about how Fan Li of Yue trained and sent Xishi (one of the famous four beauties of China) to King Fuchai to help weaken his Wu state during the Spring and Autumn period, where usage of the phrase, ‘Man plans, Heaven ordains’, is equally apt. (Obviously, Fan Li was very reluctant to send the young beauty to Wu to face a certain death.)

For man can plan anything substantial – like an overthrow of a powerful state (Wu), revolt against an empire (Shang and Chin dynasties), the elimination of strong foes during the Three Kingdoms, or even to become very rich.

The multitude would understand those who eventually succeeded had a lot of luck, or it was their fate, their destiny. (Think King Wu of Zhou and Liu Pang of Han) The foolish may relate the successes to good Fengshui. Few would recognize that it was Heaven’s will which governs fate and destiny.

Whether we agree or not that Chuko Liang alias Kungming was the most brilliant strategist during the Three Kingdom period, his deep understanding of Heaven and Tao exceed many others. During one of his many battles against Wei, he had planned to use fire to burn his wise adversary, Sima Yi, to death. He had entrapped Sima Yi and his two sons in a valley (Shangfang Valley) before ordering the Shu soldiers to light the previously planted incendiaries at both ends of the valley. The father and sons huddled together facing eminent death from the roaring fires, before Heaven acted. A heavy thunderstorm appeared all of a sudden to extinguish the fires which upset the carefully prepared plans of Kungming. With the fires extinguished, his victims were able to get away.

After being told of their escape, with a sigh, Kungming said, ‘Man plans, Heaven ordains’*.

He was correct. History told us that Sima Yen, the grandson of Sima Yi, went on to become the first Jin emperor of China. The Jin dynasty ruled China or parts of it for 155 years.

* In his translation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, CH Brewitt Taylor translated this phrase as, “Man proposes; God disposes” for his readers in the West. Nothing wrong with that since Heaven could be more abstract for non Chinese to understand than God. He could not have presumed upon his Western readers to have studied the Yi and/or other ancient Chinese classics, or know much about Chinese culture, back in 1925.


ballantrae-reprint said...

Thanks very much for the excellent examples. Here is a relatively silly one: someone in a class once determined to use astrological transits to find the perfect time to buy a lottery ticket that would win, even though her natal chart showed she would not benefit from lotteries. She lined up and let people go ahead of her so she could buy her ticket at the perfect hour, minute and second. However, when she handed over her money while asking for the ticket, the attendant said: Sorry, I just sold the last one.
So, if man plans but Heaven ordains, how are we to live? Is there any point in planning if it can all be taken away? Or are we privy to the will of Heaven through the I Ching?
John Ballantrae

Allan said...

Hi John!

While your story sounds simple, it contains a moral. Winnings from lottery tickets and gambling prey on hopes of the people. People still need hope and some luck to look for a better life. Without hope especially during times of distress, some may take their own lives.

How we live or plan our daily lives has nothing to do with the phrase – ‘Man plans, Heaven ordains’. The ‘plans’ relate to substantial things – matters of state or becoming very rich -which are usually beyond the reach of the common people and non Yi Diviners.

Upon knowing that the timing is not right after a Yi consultation, the Junzi cheerfully waits for expected changes to come. Are Yi diviners not then privy to the will of Heaven? (Think of the numerous examples where ancient rulers consult the Yi before setting out to war.)