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Mysticism and Prophecy in “Tui bei tu” 推背圖 (Back-pushing Pictures)

(The following post is by Yuwu Song, Reference Specialist for the Chinese Collection, Asian Division)

Tui bei tu” 推背圖 (Back-pushing Pictures), or “Tui bei quan tu” 推背全圖 (A Complete Collection of Back-pushing Pictures), is a compilation of prophetic revelations allegedly created by Yuan Tiangang (573-645) and Li Chunfeng (602-670), two prominent astronomer-astrologers active in the Sui (581-618) and Tang dynasties (618-907). The legend goes that Li focused so much on predicting the future that he simply could not stop. Trying to persuade Li into taking a rest, Yuan pushed his back and said, “We cannot afford to reveal more of Heaven’s secrets. Let’s go to sleep.” And thus came the title, “Back-pushing Pictures.” The book has been considered for centuries as one of the most renowned works of Chinese mysticism, the closest Western equivalent of which would be “Les Prophéties,” or “The Prophecies,” by the 16th-century French prognosticator Nostradamus.

These two images from two different editions of the text depict the creation of the universe by the Chinese mythological figure Pan Gu, who is holding the sun in one hand and the moon in the other. On the left is image 1 of juan 1 in “Dui pei quan tu: bu fen juan” 推背全圖 (A Complete Collection of Back-pushing Pictures), 1900. Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection, Asian Division. On the right is image 2 of juan 1 in “Tui bei tu: bu fen juan,” 推背圖 (Back-pushing Pictures), [date of publication not identified]. Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection, Asian Division.

Prophesizing in China appeared before the 3rd century B.C., prevailed in the Qin (221-206 B.C.) and Han dynasties (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), and declined following the end of the Tang dynasty. However, the practice of prophecy remains part of Chinese culture today. As a representative work on the foreknowledge of future events, “Tui bei tu” contains 60 or more symbolic images, accompanied by prophetic annotations and poems. These pictures and texts seem to be riddles, more or less. Some have been interpreted to predict the rise and fall of dynasties in China, including the ascendance to power of the first female ruler, Wu Zetian (624-705) of the Tang dynasty, while others were thought to predict important historical events such as the tragic death of Yang Yuhuan (719-756), the imperial concubine of Tang dynasty emperor Xuanzong (685-762).

Because of the politically sensitive nature of a book that seemingly could forecast the birth and demise of dynasties, Chinese rulers tried hard to ban “Tui bei tu.” But like forbidden fruit, the book kept circulating underground for hundreds of years. As a matter of fact, government censorship resulted in an increase of hand-made editions of the book.

“Tui bei tu” had always been an open-ended piece of work, constantly under revision by a myriad of authors and illustrators. As a result, there are many variations in images, annotations as well as poems in different editions, especially manuscript editions. Given all of these changes over the centuries, it is impossible to ascertain what the original text looked like.

These two images show Wu Zeitan, the first empress in China, hitting a drum with a drum stick. On the left is image 13 of juan 1 in “Dui pei quan tu: bu fen juan” 推背全圖 (A Complete Collection of Back-pushing Pictures), 1900. Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection, Asian Division. On the right is image 4 of juan 1 in “Tui bei tu: bu fen juan,” 推背圖 (Back-pushing Pictures), [date of publication not identified]. Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection, Asian Division.

It is worth noting that the major theme and structure of the book had a great impact on numerous Chinese authors. For example, scholars believed that “Tui bei tu” influenced Cao Xueqin (c. 1715-1763) in the artistic conception of “Dream of the Red Chamber,” one of the most famous classic novels in China. In his book, Cao drew heavily from “Tui bei tu” in describing the future fate of each main literary character with images, poems, and verses. One of pictures of prediction described in Cao’s novel is a woman reading in a Buddhist temple. This turns out to be a prediction of the fate of one of the girls in the aristocratic family in the Red Chamber, as she becomes a Buddhist nun later in the novel.

Over the centuries, Chinese officials, scholars and literati considered “Tui bei tu” a book of superstitions and absurdity. They argued that many prophecies in the book that appeared to have come true may have been written after the historical events predicted. They also pointed out that the images and texts appeared to be ambiguous or catch-all, enabling the supporters of these revelations to force details into the predictions and highlight the hits while omitting the misses. In their view, it was likely that these predictions had been changed after the events to accommodate the facts as they happened.

Even though “Tui bei tu” was distained by many in the Chinese government and academia, it was still influential. As a matter of fact, it had been reported for a long time that some officials might have dismissed “Tui bei tu” openly but then consulted it for themselves in private.

These two images depict the death of Yang Yuhuan, the imperial concubine of the Tang dynasty emperor Xuanzong. On the left is image 11 of juan 1 in “Dui pei quan tu: bu fen juan” 推背全圖 (A Complete Collection of Back-pushing Pictures), 1900. Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection, Asian Division. On the right is image 6 of juan 1 in “Tui bei tu: bu fen juan,” 推背圖 (Back-pushing Pictures), [date of publication not identified]. Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection, Asian Division.

At any rate, “Tui bei tu” helps bring a perspective needed for better understanding Chinese history and culture. It also serves as an invaluable source for comparative studies of Western and Eastern mysticism.

The Asian Division’s Chinese collection holds two manuscript editions of “Tui bei tu,” both handcrafted by unknown authors and illustrators. Both have been digitized and made freely available through the Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection. One edition is entitled “Tui bei quan tu,” which was probably created around 1900 and modeled after an edition from 1633. There are unidentified red seals on the pages, which might be those of collectors. The other edition is “Tui bei tu,” whose date of creation is impossible to determine.

Further Readings:

Li Chunfeng and Yuan Tienkang. Charles L. Lee, translator. “The Great Prophecies of China.” New York: Franklin Co., [1950].

Qinbin Xu. “Jie du Tui bei tu” 解读《推背图》.Beijing: She hui ke xue wen xian chu ban she, 2011.

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One Comment

  1. ZHILING ZHOU
    April 19, 2021 at 8:51 am

    tui bei is a skill of making body relaxing.

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