The school of Esoteric Speculations

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The School of Esoteric Speculations, benefiting from the active support of the rulers, flourished during the Han dynasty. Esoteric Speculations were derived from a mysterious type of religious augury, also called 'Prophecy' ( 讖語 Chenyu ), used to predict fortune and misfortune. As they were often accompanied by written drawings, they were also called 'Occult Signs' ( 圖讖 Tuchen ). The ancients often used them during political struggles. For example, during the later days of the reign of the first emperor of China Qin Shihuang, the Book of Recorded Charts ( 錄圖書 Lutu Shu ) predicted the end of the Qin dynasty. Other prophecies stated that 'the first emperor will die and the land will be divided' and that `this year, the Ancestral Dragon will die'. Books of Auguries ( 緯書 Weishu ) were a kind of scripture which gave mysterious and esoteric interpretations to the Confucian classics. For example, the Divine Prognostications of the Book of Filial Piety ( 孝經授神契 Xiaojing Yuanshenqi ) claimed that Confucius had predicted that Liu Bang would become emperor.

Actually, Esoteric Speculations were a kind of ancient political psychology based on religious propaganda, used by leaders seeking or already possessing political power to manipulate public opinion, win over the masses who believed in the notion of the Mandate from Heaven ( 天命 Tianming ), and legitimize their hold on power.

Between the Ai and Ping periods at the end of the Western Han dynasty, the School of Esoteric Speculations flourished greatly under the encouragement of Wang Mang and Liu Xiu, until it became the dominant ideology of the Eastern Han. At that time, Dong Zhongshu interpreted the Confucian classics using the esoteric Yin-Yang and Five Phases ( 五行 Wuxing ) theories and promoted the notion of Correspondence Between Heaven and Man ( 天人感應 Tianren Ganying ), leading Confucianism to acquire religious characteristics. The merging of the Confucians and Magicians ( 方士 Fangshi ) gave a strong religious atmosphere to Han society; such a context was favourable for creation of religious organizations by the Immortalist Magicians ( 神仙方士 Shenxian Fangshi ). Thus the birth of organized Daoism during the Eastern Han was not a coincidence, and is inseparable from the flourishing of the School of Esoteric Speculations. Just as the Esoteric Speculators received revelations deifying Confucius, the early Daoists gradually turned Laozi into the Founder of their religion, the Supreme Venerable Sovereign( 太上老君 Taishang Laojun ). Later Daoism also made a great use of Occult Signs, such as the famous prophecy of the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties, that 'the Venerable Sovereign Shall Rule, and Li Hong Shall Emerge'. The 'Rumour of Peachtree Li' fabricated by Tang dynasty Daoists on behalf of Li Yuan, was also based such types of Esoteric Speculations.