Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

East Asian Languages & Civilizations

First Advisor

Paul R. Goldin


The question I address in my dissertation relates to the conundrum of the prediction of fate in early China. How did the early Chinese people predict the future, and to what degree did they believe that the predicted future is inevitable? I examine the history of divination from the Shang to the Han dynasties to show that the belief in the power of anthropomorphic spirits weakened, and the universe was gradually conceived of as working in regular cycles. The decreasing reliance on the power of spirits during the Shang period is reflected in changes in bone divination. And divination texts from the Warring States period come to describe the movements of spirits as being completely regulated by cosmic cycles. This changed conception of the universe contributed to the formation of the idea of a predetermined fate. My analysis of various philosophical literature of the Warring States period shows how the meaning of the term ming changed from unpredictable events caused by superior powers to a predictable yet unalterable course of life. As a consequence of this changed meaning, Han dynasty scholars needed to address the problem of personal freedom. I show that while philosophers like Wang Chong argued for what is probably the most extreme case of fatalism in early China, many other thinkers of the time chose to believe that while there is a predetermined course of life for everyone, the course is always subject to change depending on circumstances.

The conclusion I draw from these analyses is that the idea of a completely predetermined fate did not gain wide acceptance in early China because strong fatalism conflicted with popular divination practices. Even though many acknowledged that people are born with a predetermined fate, they opted to believe that their fates could still change. Thus, various divination techniques available at the time could help them evade predicted misfortune.